After a long, exhausting, and unbeatable Friday at Bonnaroo, Saturday paled in comparison. Even before attending, it was clear that Saturday had the weakest lineup of any of the days, and this held true when the day finally came. Seeing nothing enticing on the lineup until 3:30 PM with Isis, I showed up at 12:30 PM to get in line to see Conan O’Brien. Unfortunately, due to a poorly communicated (read: not communicated at all) ticket system made me get in the stand-by line, only to see them let about fifty people in, and I get fifteen people from the front of the line. So, unable to see O’Brien, I had two and a half hours to kill before seeing Isis.
I spent most of my time at the Troo Music Lounge, a small stage for lesser known groups, mostly because of the misting fans, seats, and shaded areas. While I was there, I heard the last song of Elmwood, a jam band that offered nothing new to the palette in terms of sound and structure, but their solos were some of the most proficient, impressive jam band solos I’ve heard. The drummer only had a few tricks up his sleeve, mainly Danny Carey-inspired tom fills, but the bassist, guitarist, and saxophonist all turned in long, impressive solos that kept the audience interested despite their length. Following them was Truth and Salvage Co., a fairly boring country band that started promising with great vocal harmonies, but hardly progressed from there. It was, however, a good intimation as to the excellence I would see later at Mumford & Sons.
First, though, I met up with our favorite Texan writer Lewis Parry and saw Isis. They performed at This Tent, a tent that would become the heaviest tent of the festival on Saturday and Sunday, with shows from not only Isis, but also Circa Survive, The Melvins, Dropkick Murphys, and Rise Against. The crowd turnout was less than spectacular, as metal hardly goes over with the typical Bonnaroo audience, and the fans there seemed to hardly know Isis’ music. The group generally progressed backwards through their music, beginning with two songs from their last album, Wavering Radiant, and finishing with two songs from 2004’s Panopticon, playing nothing from Oceanic. As one of the band’s very final shows, it was exciting to see a band that not many will be able to see again, but Isis seemed more solemn than necessary. They said nothing to audience until the very end, announcing that The Melvins would be next at the tent, and hardly interacted with each other as they played. Their dense sound on record did not translate completely to the live show, but that hardly seems possible considering the massive amounts of layers on every Isis album. The show was decent, but hardly up to the standards of the best shows at Bonnaroo. A lack of chemistry and layers made Isis’ show just another sludge metal show.
Luckily, Saturday would drastically improve almost immediately, as I headed to That Tent for the British folk quartet Mumford & Sons, hot off of their 2009 release Sigh No More. The show consisted mostly of that material, but a 75 minute set took longer than their entire album. To fill up the time, the quartet had a few new tricks up their sleeve. In the middle of the set, they played some new material, material that saw the band experimenting with new ensemble formats. Most of their Sigh No More material consisted of keyboard, acoustic guitar, banjo, and upright bass. The new material brought in electric banjo with distortion, a full drumset, and other experimentations in terms of harmony and melody. Thus, while Sigh No More certainly had a formula in many of its songs, they do not seem to plan on continuing this style of composition. Their next release should be something to look forward to. Finally, at the end of the show, they pulled the biggest surprise of the festival by bringing out Old Crow Medicine Show for two final songs, including “Wagon Wheel.” It was cheesy, yet somehow glorious, seeing the large crowd up on stage singing the classic with no preference as to whose vocals actually hit the microphone. It hardly mattered; the whole crowd overpowered the vocals anyway.
I spent more time at the Troo Music Lounge to see the blogosphere dark horse The Middle East, who crammed its eight members onto the little stage with surprising ease, and as they began with a quiet folk number, it looked to be an impressive, beautiful set that no one would see, isolated from the main events like Jeff Beck and Weezer. Unfortunately, neither the sound equipment nor the sound man working the lounge was ready for The Middle East’s powerful, louder moments, and it became distorted to the point where everything became incomprehensible. Feedback screamed through the speakers, and even the band had to share a grimace as they fiddled with their knobs to make the noise go away. Unfortunately, technical difficulties killed what could have been a surprising, unheard set from the large indie collective.
The highlight of the night came last, much like Friday, with Stevie Wonder headlining Saturday at the What Stage. The audience filled up quickly, but I had a great spot in front of the sound booth, where the sound was perfect and the view not so bad. Starting over twenty minutes late, Stevie came out in an unexpected manner. What seemed like a DJ’s sample of a guitar riff, chopped and screwed, actually ended up being Stevie playing a keytar offstage, and he walked in (with two guides) playing the same keytar riff to perfection. For much of the show, Stevie went through a collection of his greatest hits: “Higher Ground”, “Superstition”, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, “Sir Duke,” and plenty more. His final songs included an expansive drumline with instruments and percussionists from the around the world–djembe, tabla, taiko drums, and more unrecognizable instruments. The drumline best encapsulated Stevie’s message of unity and peace; as hackneyed as it comes across these days, Stevie was the inspiration for most of the artists who try to put it out today. His performance, while shorter than scheduled, was nothing short of inspiring in terms of his ability to bring a crowd together and get them behind his message. He believes fully in the power of music and uses his abilities to harness it better than anyone else before or after his time.
With tired feet and tired friends, I skipped Jay-Z and decided to rest up for what promised to be a more eventful Sunday, despite being a shorter day and a headlining Dave Matthews that I couldn’t care less about seeing. There was no way Saturday could live up to Friday, and I never expected it to, but Mumford & Sons and Stevie Wonder easily stole the day as the top highlights.