“There is no tape. There is no iPod. This is live music, y’all,” said Ad-Rock after an instrument breakdown caused the Beastie Boys’ climactic rendition of “Sabotage” to come crashing down on night two of Bonnaroo, and it’s an apt enough phrase to describe a day that showcased the best of all possible sonic worlds. Slogging through the mud bogs of Manchester — where the rain held off yesterday, though just barely — I marveled at the diversity on display. There were avant-garde horn solos, there was modern dance, there were hip-hop legends preserved in amber. There was Al Green (pictured), whose church service in the dinner hour left no doubt about the good reverend’s God-certified mission to entertain. And there was the return of Phish, who emerged to a grateful roar from the crowd and took full advantage of their home field advantage, while still leaving something in the tank for Sunday night’s festival-closing set.
After the jump, pictures and words about St. Vincent, Grace Potter, Galactic, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Al Green, TV on the Radio, Beastie Boys, David Byrne, Phish, and — Flay-vor Flaaaaav! — Public Enemy.
The abstract twiddlings of Animal Collective were echoing over a packed second-stage crowd as I walked onto the field Friday, but having just taken in (and barely digested) their clatter at Sasquatch last month, I walked right by and headed for St. Vincent, who opened with a serene “Marry Me,” then cranked up her band of boys for the old-timey lilt of “The Strangers,” which took on an almost Rogers & Hammerstein-esque romantic sweep in person — if Carousel were undercut by the promise of savage electric guitar. Across the field, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals had festooned their stage with roses, and the gregarious Ms. Potter was making a strong case for why she should slide into the retro slot that’s been all but forsaken by Amy Winehouse: she’s got a whisky voice and a warm delivery, though she skews more towards blue-eyed soul than nightclub terrors (when she’s not veering dangerously into adult contemporary land). T Bone Burnett is producing her upcoming record, and what was introduced as the title track — “She Got the Medicine”? — I found addictively catchy.
Took a lunch break (at 4 p.m.) over with Galactic, who’d transported the mainstage to their hometown of New Orleans, thanks to a brass-band assist from Trombone Shorty and Corey Henry. The horn men were front and center while I was there, their instruments literally screaming across the field; the jumbotron cameras caught one woman in the audience mouthing “Oh, s—!” after an especially fierce run, and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore behind his kit, grinning like a fool. The sound morphed from NOLA street jazz into an ominously royal serenade, engines at a NASCAR race, the score to an epic movie. At some point I realized that like 8,000 people had just stood in the sun for ten minutes listening to an unaccompanied brass trio improvise. Then, with four smacks of the crash cymbal, the funk was back again.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have yet to recapture the set-list perfection of their Coachella appearance earlier this year; yesterday’s performance started with the lonesome ache of “Runaway,” and then it got sloppy. “Cheated Hearts” was high-pitched and scratchy, the opening rhythms of “Pin” almost collapsed before they got off the ground, and Karen O ended it by deep-throating the mic, just for old times’ sake. (“I wanna go see her up close,” said a drunk guy to my right.) They seemed loose, closer to their chaotic history, but then came the thudding beat of “Gold Lion,” the thrilled screams of teenage girls, and their recent confident maturity settled back in at last. “Skeletons” was its usual tingly, hypnotic self, “Zero” had confetti cannons, and yes, they did “Maps.” Speaking of Brooklyn bands from 2001 that initially seemed to be all hype no cattle but have since grown into the most innovative artists of their generation, TV On the Radio were excellent, and to stand under a gray, gathering sky as Tunde Adebimpe whispers “Family Tree” is to know exactly why these festivals are worth it.
Set of the Day&trade goes to the Reverend Al Green, who absolutely owned the mainstage, and only disappointed me by leaving before he could do “Take Me to the River” with David Byrne later. When we got to the photo pit, there was a pile of long-stemmed roses sitting on a road case next to Green’s mic stand, and the first thing he did upon emerging, classily besuited despite the heat, was start flinging them out to the ladies. (Later, he would also toss his clip-on tie into the crowd.) “Y’all too far away!” he lamented, in what would become something of a refrain: Al Green really wanted to get off the stage and come hang out with us, he wanted the yellow-shirted security men to go away so we could be together, we ain’t here to hurt nobody, God means we don’t need security, etc. Everyone was pretty much wetting themselves from the word go here, shrieking through “Let’s Get Married,” humbly singing along during “Amazing Grace,” popping an excitement gasket when he slowly slid into “Let’s Stay Together.” And the Reverend, too, was having a blast — I especially loved watching him break it down alongside his two interpretive dancers during “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” then crack himself up. His voice, for the record, has not lost a note.
“I’m gonna do some songs that’ll tell you where I come from,” Green said to kick off a medley of hits from a time “when the music was good, the lovin’ was good, and everything was good.” Thus did we get to hear snippets of “I Can’t Help Myself,” “My Girl,” “Bring It On Home to Me,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” and “You Are Everything.” (That last one was “for the ladies,” said Al.) Each and every Motown hit was greeted by euphoria in the crowd, and by the time he closed with “Love and Happiness,” if you weren’t dancing, there was something wrong with you. “I love you I love you I love you I love you I gotta go!” Green apologized, then took one last lap around the stage while his backup singer informed us that “The man is a legend, and he has sold more than 150 million albums!” There aren’t too many modern artists who could get away with being played both on and off the stage while someone recites extravagant stats. Actually, I’d like to see Janelle Monae bring that back.
I am not going to judge the Beastie Boys too harshly for their set last night, which was neither disappointing nor awesome, but someplace in between. I had never seen them live before (I know, I know; it’s a long story) and I do wonder if maybe I’ve now missed the prime window; there’s just something awkward about watching three dudes in their 40s do the weave, no matter how energetically they do it, and MCA is not helping matters by dressing like an I-banker at happy hour. For the majority of the set, something was missing in the energy — I was standing right up front, and there was nothing flowing off the stage. Meanwhile, the jumbotrons were experiencing some technical difficulties, so I wonder what it looked like from the back. Sure, they played hits like “Sure Shot” and “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” and “Root Down” and “Body Movin'”; they even brought out Nas to guest on a track off their upcoming Hot Sauce Committee. But with lyrics like “I been MC-in’ since before you were born,” shout-outs to Wolf Blitzer, Splenda, Coldplay, and sandwiches, and the beat’s oddly syrupy tempo, the new song was kind of an inadvertent reminder that none of us are in our 20s anymore. (To be fair, the Beasties were apparently kidding around with Triumph the Insulting Dog Puppet after the show, cracking “Check Your Head? More like Check Your Prostate!” jokes all by themselves.)
After a Nas-requested “Paul Revere,” the trio left Mixmaster Mike alone on stage for a while, perhaps to take a breather. When they returned, they ripped into “Intergalactic” with all the fury it deserved, and the crowd was finally pogoing like I’d expected. They went after “Heart Attack Man” with a vengeance, Ad-Rock put an Al Green rose in his shirt placket, and everyone bore down for “Sabotage” to send us out wired. Sadly, the aforementioned instrument breakdown happened twice — at the top, and, most horribly, right before what should have been a triumphant group catharsis on “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” — which diluted things a bit. I shall simply consider this a warmup for their Lollapalooza headlining set, and move on. I got to yell “I think I’m losing my mind this time this time I’m losing my mind” and “I got mad hits like I was Rod Carew” and “whiffle-ball bat” at the top of my lungs; I can’t complain, really.
David Byrne and his white-clad modern dance troupe were doing “Once in a Lifetime” just as the Beasties were wrapping up; the back half of that set also contained “Burning Down the House” and “Life During Wartime.” I highly recommend seeing Byrne if he comes to a highbrow indoor venue near you, but since I couldn’t get close enough at that late moment to really understand what the modern dancers were doing, it was pleasant, but not mindblowing. Also, oddly quiet. Perhaps this was the calm before the Phish storm, perhaps Byrne just likes to cultivate a certain chamber aesthetic.
Phish? Not so much with the chamber aesthetic. I am pretty sure Phish likes you to get together with 80,000 of your closest friends, take a substance that may or may not be what the dude who sold it to you said it was, and bliss out to their light show while they see how many tempo variations they can get into a 15 minute song. I can honestly say I feel like I’ve had the full Bonnaroo experience now, standing in the pit to see the smile on Trey Anastasio’s face as his people rapturously welcomed him back — and make no mistake, Mixers, that field was 99.9 percent pro-Phish last night — and enjoying the chance to be noodle-danced upon while attempting to parse the abstractions taking place on stage. I know they opened with “Chalkdust Torture” because a nice lady told me. I know that watching fistfuls of glowsticks soar through the blackened sky overhead is still one of the coolest sights I’ve seen. I know that there are moments of great beauty in the music Phish plays, whether Anastasio’s thin-fingered licks or the strangely soothing piano work of Page McConnell, who was visible to me last night as nothing but a happy head hovering over a giant keyboard rig. (Question, though. The drummer. He wears a dress?) But then there was this moment where the whole band froze, and the crowd went absolutely nuts, and I didn’t get it, and I realized that because I didn’t grow up with this band, never got high in a field in college on the weekends and blissed out to Hoist, the whole thing sort of felt like a giant inside joke, and I was on the outside. I didn’t mind being on the outside. I just was.
So I walked away from Phish — reportedly missing covers of both AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and the Beatles’ “Day in the Life” — and headed for the only place I belonged less: Public Enemy’s late-night show, where Flavor Flav came out and informed us that they would indeed be performing It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in its entirety, and asked the crowd to raise their fists to welcome Chuck D to the stage. (I turned around. Let’s just say there were a lot of white fists out there.) Mr. Flav also reminded us that, underneath all the celebreality pooping fiascos, he was — and is — a very skilled rapper, not to mention a master entertainer. The dude shook hands with nearly everyone in the photo pit, just for the fun of it; meanwhile, Chuck D continues to be as intimidating and on-message as ever. (One imagines their backstage conversations. Flav: “Hey Chuck! You wanna do the whole album? Huh? Huh? Do ya? Do ya?” Chuck: “Eh.”) Ultimately, the effect here was similar to the Beasties’ show: I knew all the words, I enjoyed the spectacle, but I wasn’t so much feeling the power, and I called it a night.
And yet, as I walked to my car, I thought: Only at Bonnaroo could someone travel from a massive hippie reunion show to the revival of a classic hardcore hip-hop album under a tent within the space of a quarter-mile walk, and find the same folks getting off on both. Like the Beastie Man said: this is live music, y’all. Or, as a friend of mine called it last night, “human awesomeness.” Speaking of, who’s pumped for Sprinsteen tonight?
Photo Credit: Whitney Pastorek/EW.com