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Bonnaroo Saturday: Don't stand so close to the Flaming Lips

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Lips_lSaturday seemed to be the peak of activity here at Bonnaroo, pocket people, and as I upped my previous day’s time-in-field to a whopping 14 hours, the people around me got loopier (why would you wear rollerskates to spend the day traversing dry, sandy grass?) and, worse, smellier. I cannot describe to you the scent of the crowd at the midnight Flaming Lips show (pictured)– some ungodly combination of gyros, pot, stale beer, and an assortment of unmentionable bodily fluids– but I can tell you that smell propelled me far, far away, to the top of a cargo van parked just behind the second-stage fence. From there I could take in all of the spectacle but none of the stench, and lo, it was good.

Yesterday was all over the map: My post-lunch follies started with the alluring Regina Spektor, followed by the Hold Steady (who will get their own post which will feature a Q&A and me trying to conceal my excitement behind “professionalism”), Spoon, Franz Ferdinand, the Police reunion, and an unexpected jam that might have made me the happiest of all. Everything is recorded on Flickr for your pointing-and-clicking pleasure, and after the jump, I’ll break it down for everyone still keeping up with this madness. Oddly, I’m more awake today than I’ve been all week. I think that’s a sign of acceptance.

addCredit(“Wayne Coyne: Debbie Smyth/WireImage.com”)

I was talking to B’roo co-founder Ashley Capps on Day 1, and he described the concept of this festival as “an iPod on shuffle.” I can think of no better description for yesterday, which was a whirlwind of mandolins and keyboards and Led Zeppelin covers, with a light dusting of 80’s nostalgia blowing in on a storm of experimentation. Where else could you walk from Regina Spektor’s enigmatic pleas straight into the spastic arms of Craig Finn? How often are you drawn away from Ben Harper’s slide guitar because Franz Ferdinand wants you to take them out? And is there anything cooler than finishing up belting “So Lonely” 50 yards away from Sting, then sprinting down a back road because the Flaming Lips are playing the entirety of “War Pigs” for soundcheck, and then walking smack into the middle of a bluegrass circle featuring John Paul Jones on mandolin?

I want to do this chronologically, but let’s talk about that improv session first: Somewhere towards the back of artist catering, I found the girls from Uncle Earl strumming away on fiddle, guitar, and standup bass, trading lyrics and licks… and hunched down next to them, so small and happy he could barely be seen, JPJ. Guy’s been making the rounds at this fest (and Wayne Coyne was strangely obsessed with him last night), but a little light googling revealed this particular appearance to be quite logical: He produced their latest album, Waterloo, TN. I stood there wishing I had an instrument to join in– I think there was an Old Crow in the mix, and Joe Walsh of Joy Kills Sorrow– but just as I came up with a plan, some dude materialized to my left with a pair of spoons. Damn you, spoon guy. You killed my dream.

Not killing my dream, however– oh Whittlz how your segues get better and better every single day!– were the aforementioned Ms. Spektor and Mr. Britt Daniel. Regina appeared during the hot hour in a cool green swing dress, immediately seducing the baking crowd with her current opener of “Ain’t No Cover” a capella, her fingers lightly tapping the mic as her only accompaniment. Her first words to the rapt crowd? “You’re so beautiful! F—!” Anyone not already in love with her swooned in that moment, and got even more excited when “Summer in the City”‘s great line about attending a protest just to rub against strangers rang frighteningly true to our environs. (I personally have started to think many of my Bonnaroo friends and neighbors are here just to use their combination fan/water bottle to squirt water on me and my glasses and my notebook and my laptop, but that’s a different sentiment.)

Spoon chose a different method of hypnotism, using their steady beats and Britt’s machine gun guitar to drum us into thrilled submission, as we scuffed our feet and kicked up a seriously rock n’ roll dust cloud. It’s mostly true that if you’ve seen one Spoon show, you’ve kind of seen them all– your frontman is not much for the chatting, or the visible emotions (though I think I caught a smile)– but there’s always something reassuring about his passion, which transmits through an assortment of flailings and moments during which he crashes to his skinny knees, points his guitar at its amp, and battles himself for sonic supremacy. As my ongoing personal policy about leaks is water-tight, I am most likely the last person on the planet who hasn’t heard their upcoming ga-ga album, but what I can only assume was the new stuff blended in great with favorites like “Beast and Dragon Adored.” Disappointingly, the set did not feature David Cross performing an interpretive dance. Which sucks, because I know he’s here somewhere, and I had hopes.

But is this what you want to hear about, PopWatchers? No. No it is not. You want to hear about the Police, and how the Police looked and what the Police played and if the Police ruled. Well: They looked like the Police, but older. Sting’s body is one hot piece of sinew, and I had more conversations about tantric sex yesterday than I’ve ever had in my life. They played some stuff (yay, “Next to You”!), but not others (hello? would “Murder By Numbers” really be so hard?), and ended almost an hour early. Parts of the Police very much ruled, yes; other parts, not so much. They didn’t suck as bad as they did at the Grammys. Pareles liked it way more than I did. It is true that Andy came out of his shell on the solos, though sometimes he would have done better to stay in. I can heap nothing but glowing praise on the gong-shattering, timpani-pounding gray head of Stewart Copeland. General consensus around the joint seems to be, Wow, awesome, we all saw the Police and we are not complaining… but maybe that show was a little geriatric? And maybe the audience– with a median age that looks about 22– wasn’t as into it as they should have been, leading to the band’s decision to cut the set hella short and immediately zip away from the premises in a van escorted by 22 policemen?

Who knows what went down there. I can only tell you that my biggest problem was, while I’m all about experimentation, there are maybe some places where the original version is perfect. Here are two contrasting examples. The new version of “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is a smoky basement heartbreaker illuminated by sparkles of windchimes from Stewart. But the bridge of “King of Pain”– what a glorious transition!– sunk down into a soft, slow sketch of its former self, leaving an aching gap in the song. Sting’s continued insistence that we all sing along to countless nonsense combinations of “ee-oh-ah” also did not do them any favors. I did love “Synchronicity II”– regular readers of Chart Flashback will recall my fondness for the Loch Ness monster– and spent a lot of time reveling in lyrics like “they’re only checks I’ve left unsigned/from the banks of chaos in my mind”– no one writes like that anymore, PopWatchers. I worried about everyone waaaaay back in the back of the field, for from my up-front vantage point, I felt people’s energy was a little low, but the nice couple who run my bed and breakfast say it was a wonderful concert, even from a half-mile away. And now, because I am sitting at Elvis Perkins and I’m trying to finish this post so I can pay attention, I leave you with a far better written review of what appears to be almost exactly the same show, courtesy of my colleague Chris Willman. I will, however, say this: When I was down in the photo pit and the trio walked out and “Message in a Bottle” started, I turned to the photographer next to me and screamed, “I HAVE THE GREATEST JOB IN THE WHOLE WORLD.” It was, at least in that moment, completely true.

[One note of interest: I don’t think Fiction Plane, the band containing Sting’s son, made it in last night. When last I’d heard, they were stranded in Houston due to what my parents say have been insane thunderstorms. Sorry to those who’d asked me to check the band out. I’ll try and track them down elsewhere.]

But there are moments when I worry about myself and what the hell I’m doing: Like when I know I’ve got to be back out here in 10 hours and I’ve got at least 4 hours of work to do but I stay for all of the nutso, meandering, completely devoid-of-rhyme-or-reason performance of the Flaming Lips, just because I can’t stop cracking jokes with the dude sitting next to me on top of the van about what the hell is going on. What’s with the giant balloons, and why do they all stay in the same place on the field? Is that bird Wayne is holding real? Did he really spend the last two years building that spaceship in his backyard? (Yes.) Is anyone out there sober enough to understand or care about this 3 minute and 37 second speech about the evils of George W. Bush? Is there going to be a song, like, ever? Perhaps the Police should have taken a tip from Wayne Coyne and his dancing Santas: If you need to stretch your set, just ramble for upwards of 2 minutes between every long, dissolving song. Hit Stewart’s gong repeatedly while dispensing confetti from what looks like a leaf blower. Hand out laser pointers to everyone in the crowd, then instruct them to point them at you. (Okay, that was actually cool: At one point WC held up a mirror, refracting the lasers back on the crowd; all the stage lights were turned off and all you could see was his silhouette, cast in a mess of red dots.) (But I do not want to be a band playing after dark today, because there will be laser pointers everywhere.) Mostly, in order to perform a successful festival show, you need to give these tired, huddled masses who are basically living in Calcutta beyond the Centeroo fence something to live for. Wayne Coyne knows that racket, and he is a pro. What songs did he play?… Does it matter?

Now it is 4:10 pm, and I am about to enter the nastiness of that Decemberists/Wilco/Feist/Ornette Coleman/White Stripes gauntlet. I suspect the only way to properly handle it is to forget about the concept of photo pits and just go hear the damn bands, like normal people do. We’ll see what happens. Pray for me.