A line from "Young Forever," one of Jay-Z’s biggest recent hits, nicely summed up Saturday at Bonnaroo 2010 – "Just a picture perfect day that lasts a whole lifetime." Just about everything went right as I walked my path through Centeroo, taking in more sounds, sights, and smells than I could ever recount, cementing yet another unforgettable day at Bonnaroo in my brain. Though much sweat was flung upon the Tennessee sod, the crowds were spared from a major thunderstorm that could have upended a wildly diverse day, and everything turned out great from a musical standpoint.
Unusually, the day’s best moments came from the two biggest acts, Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z, but the appetizers were still fantastic in their own right. The audience melted in the sun but stood transfixed as Norah Jones performed at the festival for the first time since 2002. Taking that first performance, which occurred when Jones was still a rapidly rising phenom, and comparing it to the 2010 version illuminates a particular period of musical change for both Jones and Bonnaroo? Incorporating more of her own guitar playing into the show and even covering Neil Young, Jones mostly shied away from her circa-2002 touchstones, offering only a few oldies like "Sunrise," "Come Away With Me," and "Don’t Know Why."
The Avett Brothers make a hell of a lot of noise for guys armed with mostly acoustic gear, but their set of literary punk-folk was gentle compared to the din of The Dead Weather. The quartet cast its imposing musical glare across the huge main field while Alison Mosshart stalked the stage like a hunting tiger and Jack White splashed buckets of sweat on the drums. With their impossibly black hair and psuedo-gothic vibe, the band’s sound meshed well with a huge storm cloud that blotted out the sun and cooled the crowd a bit. With a recently released new album and a greatly increased repertoire, the band is able to mix things up a little more these days, but the songs from the debut album Horehound still hit the hardest in the live setting.
I showed up on time for Weezer, a band I’ve loved for a very long time but had never seen. Their well-attended set was nothing if not entertaining, as enigmatic front man Rivers Cuomo offered his unique performing style while the band charged through mega-hits like "Beverly Hills," "Say it Ain’t So," "Hash Pipe," and "My Name is Jonas." Cuomo is a stagehand’s nightmare – climbing the stage support and leaning on the top of the monitor booth, slamming his fist into his microphone when it wouldn’t adhere to the stand properly, wantonly throwing water and water bottles and, perhaps most quizzically, hopping on top of a road case and pushing the giant hanging speakers until they swayed from the rafters. I was more than prepared to witness an accident, but he apparently managed not to harm anyone. Karma is smug too – the band attempted to have Julia Nunes sit in on a new tune called "Trippin’ Down the Freeway," but they never did get her ukulele to work so she simply added vocals.
When Weezer paused after 45 minutes, I hopped over to catch a bit of Jeff Beck, but not even his burning version of “I Want to Take You Higher” could reel me in. I was too amped to get a good view for one of the true legends of music, Stevie Wonder. Heading back across the grounds, I heard Weezer doing MGMT’s “Kids” interspersed with a bit of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”
Wonder’s set was eons better than I expected, and I learned never to second-guess a master just because of age. Wonder impressed from the first second, entering the stage with a keytar strapped around his chest, playing a distorted solo that was a musical education in itself.
Even a legend is only as good as his band, and Stevie Wonder’s ensemble displayed an invigorating ability to combine studio-perfect playing with loose, funky interludes. The backup singers were personable and talented, and the bass and drums airtight. Wonder himself was awe inspiring, both vocally and musically, and he gave far too many lines to the crowd. “Living for the City,” for instance, was sung completely by the audience with Stevie reciting lyrical cues, and “My Cherie Amor” featured the crowd awkwardly forgetting the words after being put on the spot.
Besides those moments – and the omission of “Boogie on Reggae Woman” from the set – the show was splendid. Of course, a cavalcade of hits boomed through the night. “Master Blaster( Jammin)’” and “Higher Ground” got things moving early on, and I was subsequently blown away by how many gigantic musical milestones the guy has in his arsenal. “I Wish,” “Superstition,” “Sir Duke,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Do I Do,” and others unfurled in majestic, funky fashion. To think that the show didn’t even include the aforementioned “Boogie On,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Golden Lady,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin,” or “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is as impressive as the set itself. There’s ammo to spare in the Wonder live show.
Wonder took a little time to rap about politics, and that’s OK. It wasn’t like Eddie Vedder ranting for 7 unaccompanied minutes at a Pearl Jam show, just a music-backed wish for peace, understanding, and solidarity. Percussionists from many nations joined the band and led a pre-encore drum outro that highlighted some fine tabla playing.
Bonnaroo’s diversity often reveals similarities in artists that might not have been otherwise apparent. When Stevie Wonder executed his grand finale, the applause slowly subsided and I expected a mass exodus that would allow me to creep closer to the stage for Jay-Z. That didn’t happen, and that’s when the similarities between the two started to show. Firstly, both artists are gargantuan hit makers that appeal to a broad demographic. Secondly, they’re both impressive live performers that can make 90 minutes fly by so fast as to make your head spin. Finally, both worship at the church of audience participation, but with slightly different outcomes. Wonder could have taken back some of the spotlight from the audience and his epic show would have only benefited. Conversely, Jay-Z rode the energy of the audience, letting their enthusiasm do the work between frequent appeals for them to bounce and throw their hands/diamonds up. He even invited an awestruck fan onstage for a birthday shout out, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone’s eyes grow as large as hers did.
I’ve often attended shows after having seen the production on DVD or other video, and I had seen Jay-Z’s charity event Live from MSG on Fuse. I was curious as to how that would affect my enjoyment of the show, and it didn’t in the least. The NYC skyline backdrop, upon which innumerable lighting looks and imagery were displayed, was much more stunning in person. Though the Bonnaroo show didn’t have the cavalcade of guests that the MSG show did, it was no less spectacular. A sizable band immaculately reproduced a laundry list of hit singles, crucial hooks and top-notch production.
Drawing the majority of song selections from the last decade of his career, Jay exhibited incomprehensible stamina and accuracy when rhyming alongside Memphis Bleek, who frequently accompanies him on stage. The audience virtually drowned in massive, unforgettable hooks that came one after another, rolling over the crowd’s outstretched arms. The frenetic "Run This Town" started the show, and there’s a bit of unintentional irony there, since the song has a Kanye West-produced beat and the show started right on time.
Concentrated with new material at the start, the show eventually expanded to include a litany of hits from Jay’s most ballyhooed albums, and a quartet of tunes from The Black Album anchored the set – "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "99 Problems," "PSA," and the show-closing "Encore." But The Black Album, essential as it may be, is pushing 10 years old. The giant crowd reaction to newer songs like "Young Forever" and "Empire State of Mind" and the sheer number of people who didn’t move after Stevie Wonder’s set prove that Jay’s long, fruitful career has cemented him at the top of the hip-hop heap, maybe forever.