Bonnaroo Recap: Friday
Friday began with a trip to the press area for “media orientation”–which mainly focused on the rules and regulations for access to the various media pits at the front of the stage, and also made very clear that certain acts (Beastie Boys, Bruce, etc) would not be open to all of the credentialed photographers. Again, I felt displaced, as the attendees of this orientation were mostly typing away on their laptops, checking their PDA’s, and doing this all in the midst of an air conditioned tent in the overnight city of Bonnaroo. The press area is markedly different from the rest of Bonnaroo, with the glass-walled radio station, wireless internet, “media cafe”, massage tables, mulched ground (instead of mud), and perhaps most importantly its own set of portapotties (portapotty’s? port-a-potty? port-o-paw-tee?).
And so, quickly enough, it became very clear that in order to truly cover Bonnaroo, it would be necessary to spend all of your time in the press area, checking your email feverishly for last minute updates, attending all the press conferences and exclusive interviews possible, charging your camera while eating your gourmet salmon wrap and sipping on a mocha latte, with whipped cream and cinnamon…
…Maybe next year.
But, being unprepared for this, I headed back out of the press area to join Paige Smith and the rest of Bonnaroo in order to arrive early for a good position to see Gomez, Animal Collective, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, and TV On the Radio–all at Which Stage. Of those bands, I was only familiar with Yeah Yeah Yeah’s and TV On the Radio, but Gomez seemed promising, and of course the presence of Animal Collective would put me at the center of the hip universe for a few hours, an invitation I could not decline.
Gomez, an English band from Southport, has been touring extensively through the U.S. for the last few years, and recently released their sixth album ” A New Tide” on March 30th, 2009.
Falling in the “indie/rock/folk” genre, the sound of Gomez may be familiar, but is so in a comfortable way: While I wouldn’t choose them first if I wanted “totally new and breathtaking” music, I would happily listen to them while driving. The tempo of their set picked up dramatically with their cover of the Led Zeppelin song Bron-Yr-Aur–while Gomez lead singer Ben Ottewell’s voice is a too deep to truly imitate Robert Plant, their cover was fun, and for me was the high point of their performance.
And then came the Animals…
I apologize in advance, for in all honesty I have almost no experience with Animal Collective, and so any kind of review I may give of their performance would be uneducated and misguided. From a performance standpoint, however, it was obvious that they would have greatly benefitted from a night performance and an accompanying light show. For, like most other electronic groups or DJ’s, the music making itself might not always be the most enrapturing spectacle. Contuining the drum-machine trend of Chairlift and Hockey from Thursday night, Animal Collective made heavy use of their subwoofer, which from my position drowned out almost all other sound. If I had been better positioned rather than right in front of the subwoofers, and if I had been more familiar with their material, I would have likely enjoyed their show much more. Instead, I attempted to salvage my hearing by plugging my ears, and looked around in order to play Hipster Bingo (yes, I won multiple times). As you can see from the video, the security team at the front of the stage was also perhaps overwhelmed by the Animal Collective.
Following Animal Collective was Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, a band I was excited to see due to their new album “It’s Blitz”, which is a noticeable departure from their usual raw-guitar and vocal style, instead utilizing a more synth-heavy dance feel, especially with the single “Zero” and it’s B-side “Heads Will Roll” (both of which have been extensively remixed). Lead singer and front woman Karen O
arrived in full form–drinking beer, an unknown substance, and using water to wash out her mouth between drinks, spraying it everywhere like a whale. And how did the crowd react? Well, it went nuts. Her energy alone was enough to make it a fun performance, even as the bands unfamiliarity with live performances showed as they miscued on their old hit “Maps” and struggled at times to stay together eary in the set. Moving between new and old material, the set was well constructed, but the transitions were sometimes rough or particularly raw, generally looping the end of the previous song into a wall-of-sound which would chisel its way into the next song.
Despite their miscues, the performance Yeah Yeah Yeah’s put on made their show well worth waiting for, and the breadth of songs they played left both the casual-fan and long-time-diehard satisfied.
After their show, having stood in the same spot for six hours of the hottest day of Bonnaroo, Paige Smith and I wandered away from our front-row spots for food, and also to check out Asheville-based poetry group “The Poetix Vanguard”, which includes founder Graham Hackett and my friend Tim Cook, who recently received his MFA from the Warren Wilson graduate program. While their crowd may have been a bit thinner than that for Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, it served as a much needed break from the music.
…But it was not a long break, as we then headed over to the main stage to hear the Beastie Boys, who had been preceeded by Al Green. Unfortunately, it seems that the balance and EQ never was quite properly adjusted for the Beastie Boys, as they lacked both volume and balance. Regardless, Mix Master Mike’s intro using Led Zeppelin’s Trampled Underfoot, which he then beat juggled masterfully, was an incredible start to their show (which you can download a full mp3 of here ). Due to the sound problems though we abandoned the Beastie’s about 20 minutes in, and went even further back in time to see Talking Heads front-man David Byrne, who thrilled his audience by giving in and playing the Talking Heads hits which he had distanced himself from for so many years.
In his performance, as in Bruce Springsteen’s the next day (we’ll get to that..), the professionalism and experience of the performer immediately stands out, and makes the less-sure, angsty bands seem almost chilidish in comparison. As anyone who has attended a show can attest, simply having energy does not necessarily make a performance stand out. Rather, being able to capture that energy and use it to produce a show that goes along with the music, or that is the music itself, is much more effective.
And, energy would be the subject of the rest of the night, with Phoenix, Crystal Castles, and Girl Talk all playing at That Tent.
The French band Phoenix recently exploded with their album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”, which was released May 25th, 2009. An alternative-rock-pop band, Phoenix’s songs may show some signs of having been constructed with a formula, but it is impossible to deny the catchiness and success of singles “Lisztomania” and “1901“. The show itself was great fun, not tremendously over the top, but a strong mistake-free performance.
As fun as Phoenix is, theyclearly benefitted from a night performance slot, as the heat of the day makes it easy to become impatient with a band (atleast for me). At night, in the cooler air, with all the lights, it becomes much more tempting to dance, to soak in the sound, and to really allow the performance to dominate your attention rather than thinking of sunburn, dehydration, heat, heat, heat. Maybe I’m not hardcore enough for this. The drummer for Phoenix is certainly hardcore enough though, as he repeatedly would stand up in order to, well, snack the bejezus out of the snare.
Phoenix is taking off, or continuing to take off, and their performance at Bonnaroo and the success of their show did much to validate their success and growing popularity.
With Crystal Castles scheduled to come on next, the set began to change, equipment moved, mics taken off and brought back on,
and then, all the lights went off.
For five minutes, the entire tent was pitch black aside from camera flashes and glow sticks, and was progressively filled with fog, while some digital pattern repeated itself from the obscured stage.
And then, there was Crystal Castles.
I had known nothing about Crystal Castles, but their bass-induced frenzy led to an explosion from the crowd. Composed of a drummer, synth-player, and female-vocalist, Crystal Castles is some kind of insane dark disco. After being completely blown away for their hour-set, I couldn’t help but feel that I had sold my soul, or done something wrong, in order to dance to them. Moving past the music and light show itself, the lead singer was made-up to look as if she were …dead, and floated above the first few rows of the audience, body held limp as if completely taken over by the spirit of the music. Or electronic. Or whatever it was.
A Canadian group, Crystal Castles has been around since 2002, though only with one full length release “Crystal Castles”, which came out in 2006. Listening to their album does not accurately portray the sound they give off in their live performance, as no CD could capture the amount of bass and frenzy they create. Again, the energy is what matters. Recently Crystal Castles cancelled a performance on-site the night of the performance because there weren’t enough sub’s, and while that may seem trivial, after attending their show it seems understandable that they would be so determined to have the right ingredients to create a true “Crystal Castles” experience. I would like to point out that I was entirely sober for this show, perhaps the only such person there, and that on any kind of drug it would have been either life-altering (if it wasn’t anyway), or the most terrifying experience of my life.
But the frenzy would only seem to increase after they finished, as a whole new wave of fans seemed to arrive, eager to push as far forward as possible in order to “better enjoy” Girl Talk, the finale of the night. Perhaps I should have taken this as a sign of things to come, but instead I let myself be pushed forward to, wondering how in the world Mr. Talk could top Crystal Castles. But, in terms of party madness, top them he did.
Almost immediately he got as many people as would hit on stage, crowding him, grabbing him, unplugging his computers (twice in the first 30 minutes the music came to a dead stop due to members of the audience dancing on the table), and generally creating a scene of absolute havoc. The Rolling Stone and New York Times both described this as one of the best shows of Bonnaroo, if not the best, but I’m curious as to whether or not their reporters were standing in the midst of it, having crowd-surfers in giant inflattable chairs (provided by Mr. Talk) fall on them, having thrown glow-sticks hit them in the eye, and on and on. Most interesting to me, the visualizer he used stated plainly “I’m not a DJ”, having the words twist around, grow smaller and larger, and generally become the center of attention. I’m not sure whether this statement is mocking those who degrade him by saying he’s not a DJ, or is hoping to ward of such criticism by removing himself from that genre.
What Girl Talk is, among other things, is a party–there’s no way to deny that his ability to mash-up and mix together snippets of immensely popular songs creates a mayhem not otherwise seen before. In many cases, DJ’s use more and more “DJ music”, obscure remixes, bassed-out-songs, and tailor their style and song choice to the venue and what they believe their audience may or may not be familiar with. Part of the genius of Girl Talk is that rather than fall into these various obscure or unknown tracks, he simply uses the most familiar songs possible, regardless of genre, to create the worlds ultimate club anthem. With every lyric widely known, every beat well rehearsed, Girl Talk plays the fastest hitlist there is. While this may seem too fast or too difficult to some, the truth is that his music has captured an audience who never before payed attention to DJ’s of any variety–because even if you just listen to your local pop radio station, you can get into Girl Talk and his samples. And so maybe his most recent album title, “Feed the Animals”, is a cynical name for the world as he sees it. I can’t help but wonder, though, to what extent he’s in control, or if he has created an animal too large to be fed…a DJ? a new genre? Whatever Mr. Talk may or may not be, he has found his niche, and it is coming to encompass the whole world.
But no, I didn’t make it through all of Girl Talk, as someone fell on my ankle and it began to immediately swell, and my frustration was only increasing–but it’s Bonnaroo! And Paul Oakenfeld and Pretty Liights were playing at the same time. After a brief visit to Mr. Oakenfeld, who seemed to be doing mini-10 to 15 minute mixes, I hobbled back to the tent, feeling grateful to have survived the most live performances in one day of my life.