The National stood on the Which Stage with foreshadowing of The Flaming Lips’ fluorescent orange set standing like a monolith behind them, a constant reminder that The National wasn’t the only reason I came to Bonnaroo, wasn’t the only reason why the thousands standing and listening to them kill their set found their way to little Manchester, Tennessee. The mud on my shoes. The dryness in my throat. The aching of my feet. Everything hinted that after the final melodies–no, primal screams–of “Terrible Love”, I would simply move onto the next show, as if that ninety minute set did not quench my thirst for great live music. And perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to The National’s incredible set is that, despite all of these hints at two and a half more days of Bonnaroo, I never once thought about what came before and after them. I simply remained transfixed by what took place on that stage (and, in the more incredible moments, in the crowd when Matt Berninger turned the show into what a friend of mine brilliantly termed “a punk show with wine”).
Yet, the biggest compliment I can give Bonnaroo 2010 is that despite the transcendent set of The National late Friday afternoon, Friday would get even better. Friday was easily the longest, most grueling day of Bonnaroo, seeing a total of eight different groups from 12 PM to 2 AM. Not to mention the 100°F heat index destroying the crowd for most of the afternoon. But the heat and exhaustion were worth it, as the day’s festivities got better and better throughout the day.
That’s not to say that it did not start well, however, as I went to the first show of the day at Which Stage, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. One of two major New Orleans-based groups on Friday (the other being Galactic), Trombone Shorty recently released Backatown, an album exploring a style he terms “supafunkrock”, which sounds like the lamest thing I’ve ever heard, but it is actually pretty great in a live setting. Shorty plays the trombone as well as your favorite jazz trombonist and has equal talent on the trumpet, making his solos versatile and impressive throughout the show. The highlight of the show, however, was a solo from his bassist, demanded by the crowd, which ended up with the bassist soloing while laying on the ground with the rest of the group standing around him in a circle like some crazy jazz ritual. It was a demonstration of the incredible spontaneous performances the group can put out.
The Which Stage was easily the strongest venue of the day, a place where I would see half of the shows I attended, and immediately after Trombone Shorty came The Gaslight Anthem. Only days before American Slang would see its official release (despite its depressingly early leak), the band played a set heavy in material from their latest, but just as eavy in material from The ‘59 Sound. Singer/guitarist Brian Fallon dressed his part, fully tattooed and wearing a bowler hat, only to reveal slicked back, greasy hair when he took it off, and so did the crowd, buying into his image-heavy lyrics and working class hero shtick. The crowd sang along unabashedly to the songs not even officially released yet, and Fallon gave noticeable smirks every time this happened. Yet, the band seemed sloppy and unprepared for such a high-profile performance. Many noticeable mistakes ran throughout the set, including one particularly bad point in “Great Expectations”, where Fallon fell a full beat behind heading into the final chorus. It took him half of the chorus to recuperate. In a festival with such a high standard of excellence, The Gaslight Anthem fell short due to silly musical mistakes.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the festival was Nas and Damian Marley’s choice of hype man and introduction. The man who came out hardly represents their image of “back to Africa.” Instead, Conan O’Brien came out to introduce them, because “when you think of reggae and hip-hop, the first name you think of is Conan O’Brien.” Still, he made the best of the awkward introduction, and brought the duo out in style. The ensuing performance was a 90 minute set despite the fact that Nas and Damian Marley only have one album together. They filled in the remaining time with each performer doing short solo sets in between sets of songs from the album Distant Relatives. Both solo sets were well-performed, and many of the duo’s originals worked well in a live setting, but what killed the performance was Nas’ need to outdo Damian in every respect. On Damian’s (better) verses, Nas would echo every word he said, stumbling over Damian’s flow and lyrics. Meanwhile, Damian allowed Nas to speak, proving the more respectful and ultimately more talented performer. Nas expected the audience to know some of his more obscure numbers and obscure verses, making for some awkward audience/performer interaction. Damian did it all himself, and the crowd bought all of it.
Following a short stint at She & Him, which seemed more like She and Her Band, I went to the aforementioned The National concert. I cannot say enough about this performance, easily one of the best shows I’ve seen in my life, let alone at Bonnaroo. More than The Gaslight Anthem earlier that day, The National connected with the audience on a level unexpected and unrivaled. You don’t really get how powerful the lyrics, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains/Cause I’m evil” in “Conversation 16″ are before you hear Berninger rip them out over an audience singing with just as much conviction. And you might not think “crowdsurfing” when you listen to “Squalor Victoria” on record, but once again, Berninger made it all work, and the imagery of him rising out of his audience screaming and kicking was certainly striking. The music was loud and performed to perfection, making a simple trumpet and trombone sound like a full brass band and somehow making two guitars sound like a full string orchestra. Around the time of Bonnaroo, Bryce Dessler revealed that the band has been working with Sufjan Stevens on his new album, after this show, I cannot contain my excitement for what should be an incredible collaboration.
Where The National wowed the audience with blue-collar connection, Les Claypool impressed with complete alienation and technicality. His ensemble donned in bizarre costumes, including distorted face masks, they hardly noticed the audience and instead focused on their intense, technical music that left the audience both dancing and standing in awe. Claypool did interact with the audience, telling bizarre stories of interactions with Bootsy Collins and his emotions in his last performance with his current ensemble, but for the most part, it was as if the Fourth Wall was fully in place, and we were an audience examining a different, Animal Farm-inspired world. The highlight of the show was easily the percussion break between the vibraphonist/percussionist and drummer, a ten-minute odyssey into complex polyrhythms and blistering fills. Claypool continually switched instruments, performing on a number of bizarre looking basses, but the performer who stole the show in the group’s normal songs was the cellist. The electric cello was hooked to a various number of different effects that made the cello sound more like a MIDI guitar than anything else, but the virtuosity of the cellist made him sound like a top-notch shredder. His solos were unbelievable, and the riffs he put over Claypool’s funky slap basslines were mesmerizing. After The National, I could not imagine a better performance with enough contrast to make me appreciate it equally.
The headliner of Friday was surprise headliner Kings of Leon, who played side tents just two years earlier at the festival. Their performance may have been the worst I saw at the festival, as the quartet seemed nervous and unable to convey any sense of energy to the huge crowd at the What Stage. They hardly moved, only casually walking from place to place, despite their high-octane, energetic brand of rock music. The highlight of their set (that I saw) was easily a surprise cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” They nailed the song musically, and their adoration of The Pixies emanated through the music, making for the most energetic performance of the night. I decided to leave early, however, to get a place for the best performance I saw of the night.
When I arrived at the Which Stage a full 90 minutes before The Flaming Lips went on, I was surprised to see a large group of people already waiting to see the show. Still, fighting through massive puddles of mud, I managed to get to a great spot along the barrier splitting the standing room in half. The fluorescent orange set stood before us imposingly, setting the expectations high for The Flaming Lips before we saw any of them onstage. Yet, no one expected what came next, a mesmerizing show of bright lights, giant hands with lasers, projected naked women, and the musical excellence the world has come to expect from The Flaming Lips. They performed a short set of their own music, including “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”, “Do You Realize?”, and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Wayne Coyne imbued his typical sense of politics into the show, despite acknowledging that he was preaching to the choir by calling Bonnaroo “the greatest audience ever.” The show was uplifting and inspiring, beautiful and spiritual.
Their performance of Dark Side of the Moon was, if possible, even better. Let’s get something straight: I don’t even like Dark Side of the Moon. I think the riffs go on for far too long, and it offers no climactic moments, no high points. I don’t get it. Yet, The Flaming Lips managed to make a Dark Side hater love the performance because of their direct engagement with the topics discussed on the album. During “Money”, they threw out giant balloons with money inside of them, and one could see the crowd completely distracted by the balloons, hoping to score some extra cash for some more beer for the show. The song’s point was proven by the audience. During “The Great Gig in the Sky”, the laser light show made an image of the sky just above the audience as they projected the lyrics in the sky as if the introduction of a Star Wars movie. Musically, The Flaming Lips added their typical eccentricity to the jams of Pink Floyd’s originals and made the music more than enjoyable, even brilliant. Purists may not like their interpretation, but from someone who couldn’t care less about the originals, The Flaming Lips put on an incredible show.
Exhausted and unable to fathom a show better than The Flaming Lips, Friday ended right there for me. I cannot imagine a day better at Bonnaroo in the past or in the future, and Saturday and Sunday would seem like afterthoughts after such a long, excellent day.