Bonnaroo 2010 – Friday Recap – Conan O’Brien, The Flaming Lips, Umphrey’s McGee, Kings of Leon, Tori Amos, The National, Michael Franti, Tenacious D

Friday at Bonnaroo 2010 was one of those special days when you felt the collective electricity of bands and audience surge through your body as soon as your feet hit the ground on site. Just up the road waited a top-shelf open bar of music with enough spirits to create a limitless array of personalized audio-visual cocktails, and no two people concoct the same blend.

Every act I saw was above average or excellent. There was no “phoning it in,” though Tenacious D’s Jack Black did field a phone call on stage that eventually led to the firing of his partner Kyle Gass. First, though, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue confronted the high noon sun with their supercharged blend of funk, rock, jazz and soul. Crowd favorites everywhere they go, the band crammed as much “Superfunkrock” into one hour as they could and challenged the crowd to keep up.

Pacing is always a key to making it through the weekend and actually enjoying the music instead of just standing in a field and sweating. While I knew Friday’s buffet of music would affect the way I attacked Saturday, I viewed Friday and Sunday as the more action-packed days. As soon as Trombone Shorty ended, we headed out into the relentless sun to watch the simulcast of Conan O’Brien’s Comedy tent set.

Conan had apparently presented the majority of his own material before we arrived, but there were still plenty of shenanigans. CoCo homies Andy Richter and Deon Cole were introduced by O’Brien and offered short but hilarious stand up sets. There was some funny interaction between O’Brien and Richter followed by a redux of their popular “Walker: Texas Ranger Lever” bit, which was the most laughed-at moment of my time there. But perhaps the most memorable moment was Conan leading a very talented house band through a send-up of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” with Conan-specific lyrics – “My own show again,” he sang. “I just can’t wait to have my own show again. I’ll even take a prime time show that’s on at ten.” Any dig at Jay Leno is fine by me.

It was then time for a double dip of Umphrey’s McGee a band that has become synonymous with Bonnaroo due to their above-average number of appearances. The band brought out all of their newer, bigger guns for this set before an estimated audience of 10,000. The ultimate Umphrey’s classic “All in Time” featured a lengthy instrumental exploration and bookended a nearly nonstop segment that included “The Floor,” which arose out of the opening jam. A dubby reworking of the otherwise rocking “Turn and Run” bled into “Booth Love,” a vaguely silly song I’m not yet sold on, and finally into the fluid “Cemetery Walk.” Business picked up with a thrilling version of the alternately pounding and soaring “1348” before another relatively new song, “Conduit,” birthed the jam that ultimately led back into “All in Time.”

Perhaps after such a thorough exploration of Umphrey’s McGee’s newer, proggier sound, a representative cover like The Who’s “Eminence Front” was needed for the many new audience members. I think that this song helped the new fans understand a little more about UM’s musical background, as did the unique closing salvo, which saw the band’s majestic instrumental “Glory” sandwiched into the many moving parts of the prog-rock opus “Mantis.”

The hot and sweaty band and their equally moist fans – all of whom knew there was no way the next set would start on time – still hustled quickly to the Sonic Stage for another short showcase set. Scheduled to begin just 45 minutes after the previous set ended, the set started late and ran short, but I personally found it equally as entertaining as the Which Stage set. Two of my favorite UM songs, “Walletsworth” and “Higgins,” comprised most of the set and fit nicely into the stripped-down format. The final song was a total bonus, as unexpected guest Brock Butler appeared to lend lap steel to a location-appropriate cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”

Bits and pieces of The National performing on the Which Stage accompanied my walk to see Tenacious D’s rare appearance at the humongous What Stage. This show quickly rose into the rarified air alongside legendary Bonnaroo performances such as Radiohead in 2006 and My Morning Jacket in 2008. A perfect blend of shockingly well-written music, over the top offensive comedy, and theatrics, Tenacious D’s show was as epic as one would expect. Of course “Kyle Quit” the band, there was a battle against the devil himself, and “The metal,” personified, made an appearance to assert the genre’s dominance over all other musical styles. By the time Jack Black and Kyle Gass were done with their hilarious, sweat-soaked set, I was wondering if any of the music that remained could come close to its brilliance.

Almost on cue, I entered This Tent and promptly had my mindset and expectations altered by Tori Amos. I last saw Tori in a full band setup as she toured behind the 2002 album Scarlet’s Walk. I was not prepared for how mesmerizing Amos’ solo show would be, and I soon found myself riveted to the spot and having no thoughts of leaving the tent. I suppose I should have expected no less, since Amos was her usual enchanting self, between a piano and keyboards, fairly vibrating with energy both musical and sensual. I arrived during “A Sorta Fairytale” and was utterly swept away by subsequent classics like “Silent All These Years,” “Hey Jupiter,” and her spine-tingling version of The Cure’s “Love Song.”

I headed toward the rumbling bass of Michael Franti and Spearhead, already thoroughly satisfied and having an unbelievable day. Peppered liberally with songs from their forthcoming album, the Spearhead set lacked some of the familiarity that makes their shows so engaging. But all Franti has done is introduce another batch of songs that will soon have “everybody jumping” and feeling just fine, thanks for asking. I’m partial to the yell Fire album and everything that came before it, as well as many of the songs from the All Rebel Rockers album, so those were my highlights – “Say Hey (I Love You),” “Yell Fire,” “Everyone Deserves Music,” and “Yes I Will,” among others.

Kings of Leon took the What Stage as the weekend’s first headliner, and I personally couldn’t have been more underwhelmed by their set. Nothing about their shows has changed in the last couple of years, and I think I’m just tired of hearing the same songs I’ve heard a hundred times, performed in the same manner. “Use Somebody,” “Sex on Fire,” and the rest of the selections were predictable. Their cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” was a solid moment, though.

One of the most anticipated shows in Bonnaroo history occurred just after midnight as The Flaming Lips unveiled a revamped stage show and planned a performance of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The Which Stage field was crammed with glowing, gyrating revelers for the duration of the 2-plus hour show, which included a highly entertaining set of Lips material before an intermission. I think “The W.A.N.D.” is one of the greatest live moments in any band’s repertoire, and the band’s flashier stage setup turned the song’s intensity up even further. It was a nice mix of a few songs from Embryonic plus staples like ‘She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” but the crowd was breathless for the Dark Side set.

I don’t think words can convey the visual spectacle of this show. I’ll let the photos do that talking for the most part. But “Us and Them,” in particular, warrants mentioning on the basis of extreme smoke usage and a chilling use of selected lyrics on the band’s giant LED screen, with strong lasers that channeled the prism on the album’s cover. With the songs boiled down to a distorted, ultimately Lips-like froth, I think the thing that hit me the most was just how appropriate and sad of an album Dark Side is, even decades after its release.

“On the Run” is interpreted as a maddening techno number, “Money” is drenched in surreal venom, and “Time” sounds as profoundly desperate as possible in Wayne Coyne’s hands. The performance isn’t earth-shattering, and I don’t think the project was ever intended to reinvent or over-conceptualize the album. But touches like putting real money in balloons to toss into the crowd did give the affair a weighty tone. Watching people do exactly what the song rails against – strive for money regardless of the situation or circumstance – was somewhat surreal.

After that day, I couldn’t risk having another late-night hip-hop act send me home with a bad taste in my mouth, so I hit pause for the evening. Now it’s on to a night of even bigger crowds and bigger stars.

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