The first day of Bonnaroo is mostly a “giant clothing-optional housewarming party,” as SPIN’s David Marchese writes in his blog. “It’s the getting-acquainted calm before the real-shindig storm.”
True, that. Still, even on opening Thursday there were a number of strong shows to be seen. Here are our Top 5:
5. J. COLE AT THIS TENT
J. Cole, the self-proclaimed “fine young man with the old-man mind,” had little reason to be humble during his Bonnaroo debut. A hyped throng waved cell phones, raised lighters, and shouted lyrics whenever prompted; but the Fayetteville, NC, native still paused early on to formally introduce himself with a quick striver bio (plus Jay-Z namedrop and Roc-A-Fella huzzah) — perhaps to maintain the illusion that he’s hip-hop’s next chosen one, a rare, ready-to-blow talent who’ll ascend to superstardom with this year’s much-awaited “official” album debut on Roc Nation. Of course, Cole has already released three LP-quality mixtapes since 2007, with no shortage of radio-quality singles (“Who Dat,” “Before I’m Gone,” “Higher,” “Blow Up,” etc.), and the Bonnaroo crowd was well-versed. Backed by a DJ and two keyboardists,Cole balanced his ’90s East Coast preference for jaunty or slightly mournful piano-based tracks with dazzlingly athletic feats of breath control and flow. But one always had the sense that he ached for the mass adulation that his beloved ’90s heroes received (he covered Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” and “Who Dat” drifted into Biggie’s “Big Poppa”). That desire, while impractical, gives Cole the fiery demeanor of a phenom on a mission. — CHARLES AARON
4. KAREN ELSON AT THE OTHER TENT
Supermodels adding “musician” to their resume are often treated with a raised-eyebrow — hey, Kate Moss’ solo career didn’t exactly take off. And perhaps Karen Elson even more so because she’s an Englishwoman married to Mr. Rock’N’Roll Jack White. But as she once again proved with her mid-afternoon set, popular suspicions do not apply to this 32-year-old: She’s been onstage longer than she’s been strutting the catwalk. At 16, before leaving her home in Manchester, she fronted a salsa band, and later, in New York City’s East Village, established the political cabaret group the Citizens Band. And as we’ve previously noted, The Ghost Who Walks, her debut solo album produced by White, is no vanity project. Thursday, she played with the Third Man Records Family Band, featuring members who perform with White in one project or another, including drummer Patrick Keeler (Raconteurs, Greenhornes) and bassist Jack Lawrence (Raconeturs, Greenhornes, Dead Weather). Another extended family member, Jackson Smith, son of punk artist Patti Smith and the husband of Meg White, joined on guitar. Elegant and gothic, Elsen’s shadowy country-pop tableau was complemented by her look – flowing Victorian dress, alabaster skin, and scarlet red hair – and sweet pipes. But she’s just teasing us: On a cover of Donavan’s “Season of the Witch” that sashayed with jazz bass and flute sounds, Elsen danced with two maracas over her head and opened up her voice wider than before, swapping womanly composure for bewitching intensity. — WILLIAM GOODMAN
3. WAVVES AT THIS TENT
It seemed all too appropriate that Wavves warmed up to the Doobie Brothers. While there isn’t a lick of Americana in the Los Angeles band’s punky scuzz-pop, there’s plenty of pot in the mix. Kids in the crowd lit up while singer Nathan Williams hopped down into their midst, possibly partook, then climbed back onto the stage, cracked a beer and tore into his set. Highlights, ahem, included King of the Beach ripper “Idiot,” a 10-second cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing,” a slowed-down, prettied-up version of Wavves oldie “To the Dregs,” and the unreleased surfabilly freakout “Head in the Sand.” It was thrashy, trashy, and brilliant, and Williams worked his trademark whine — an even split of ennui and agony — throughout. When the set wrapped, the audience made an immediate exodus to the next tent over where Williams’ girlfriend Bethany Cosentino would continue the theme of SoCal slackerdom with her band Best Coast. “This next one is about summer,” she declared at one point. Weren’t they all? CHRIS MARTINS
2. CHILDISH GAMBINO AT THIS TENT
Donald Glover, a.k.a. rapper Childish Gambino, is a potentially dangerous man. After observing the affable 27-year-old excel at not only comedy (stand-up, sketches, YouTube clips) and acting (NBC’s Community), but also music (several mixtapes and an EP), it’s easy to imagine that he could outclass all of us at our jobs tomorrow, if he just put his mind to it. Instead, there’s probably not another performer at Bonnaroo who is harder to root against. Backed by a five-piece funk-rock band, Glover pogo’d around the stage in his Garth Brooks t-shirt and skinny black shorts (the next level after skinny black jeans?) with joyous abandon, climbing atop a speaker cabinet and leaping off, hurling himself into the crowd, rapping with a remarkably giddy intensity, and occasionally crooning with a vulnerable bleat. The highlight of his set came when his bandmates ditched their instruments, rushed to the front of the stage, and joined Glover in egging on the crowd with the zeal of camp counselors, as his remix of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” reverberated (the crowd eventually broke into spontaneous chants of “Gam-bi-no”!). Glover finally essayed the remix’s witty, earnest rhyme about the romantic travails of his Gambino character, but it didn’t matter. We were already wowed. C.A.
1. TWIN SHADOW AT THIS TENT
If Morrissey, Peter Gabriel, and Prince could make babies together, their progeny would almost certainly form a band and call themselves Twin Shadow. Heartfelt, heady and totally funky, the group’s live show transformed George Lewis Jr.’s intimate debut Forget — where the Twin Shadow main brain played all of the instruments — into a freewheeling full-band boogie fest. The tracks grew exponentially at every turn. Canned kits became crushing drums, bass burbles became serious bumps, sound effects became walls of synth, and Lewis transformed into a dance-driven taskmaster. Between songs, he pointed at the cameraman in front of him and addressed the fans: “If this guy doesn’t shake his ass, I want you to break down the barricade and make him.” Even spare, mellow album moments like “Tyrant Destroyed” could’ve cracked a disco ball by dint of their sheer dynamism, and on the heartbroken “Slow,” Lewis shattered a few hearts in the audience by shredding his voice on the clutch lyric, “I don’t wanna believe, or be, in love.” He followed with an arena-sized guitar solo that inspired the kind of frothing cheer usually saved for soccer matches, not chilly ’80s-inspired indie pop dreamed up in a Brooklyn bedroom. C.M.