For one weekend each year, Manchester, Tennessee becomes the musical capital of America thanks to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Before the music royalty moved in, a warm-up like no other took place on Thursday night. Bonnaroo’s 2013 headliners include greats from rock music history, but Thursday was a celebration of artists – not necessarily new ones – making their mark in the present. Every band was allotted one hour for their set, making for a frenetic schedule of non-stop stage-hopping. It did serve to bring the festival to dizzying life, however, and created a level playing field for a showdown between acts longing to prove themselves.
Just minutes before music began pumping from the tents, it was announced that Earl Sweatshirt would not be performing on Friday. Therefore DIIV, scheduled to play at 4 PM Thursday, was moved to the vacant 4 PM slot on Friday, leaving This Tent empty for the start of Bonnaroo. Bands performing at the rest of the venues, such as Milo Greene at That Tent, saw slightly larger crowds as a result. The L.A. band gained favor with the masses by brushing off a couple of cool covers – Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” and Wilco’s “A Shot in the Arm”. Next up was J.D. McPherson, and his set was righteously engaging. Doling out his enthusiastic soul and blues boogie with intensity equal to the crackling atmosphere, McPherson offered breakneck guitar licks. His band oozed personality via thumping upright bass and brought a much-needed old-school aesthetic to the afternoon.
Back at This Tent, Futurebirds moved energetically through a list of crowd-pleasing, country-tinged songs before the enigmatic Ariel Pink took the stage in front of a teeming crowd of curiosity seekers (along with some rail-riders waiting for Alt-J’s set). “Thanks for coming to see the only band worth seeing here” said Pink, pausing for effect before adding “That’s not a diss, just a fact”. The audience seemed to take this quip as a joke, but it’s hard to discern Ariel’s intention. He’s either unrelentingly genuine, or intentionally odd to the point of self-mockery; either way, his music strives to please none but those who perform it. After hearing Pink’s albums, it might be hard to imagine such sounds in a festival setting, but delightfully creepy instrumental bits and challenging yet wonderful songs made this show a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
2013 has been a dramatic year as far as the Bonnaroo schedule is concerned, and the drama didn’t stop when the gates opened. Around 8 PM, word got out that Saturday night headliner Mumford and Sons had canceled their set amid the continued recovery of bassist Ted Dwayne from brain surgery. The announcement sent a wave of intrigue throughout the grounds, and as of this writing, there has been no word from Bonnaroo about what will happen Saturday.
Father John Misty (nee Joshua Tillman, once of Fleet Foxes) kept the weird going full-speed ahead during his indulgent, lavishly decorated set. As Tillman gesticulated about during expressive songs like “Funtimes in Babylon” and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”, his band kept the psychedelic folk backing intact, allowing him absolute freedom to be himself. Keeping the audience fully engaged with his inimitable personality, Tillman repeated referred to the event as “Bananaroo” and actually seemed to think that the festival had been going for several days already. He half-jokingly admitted “I have no idea what to say to an audience this large. I’m being a psychopath.” With one new song (Honey Bear? Huggy Bear?) offered among the well-analyzed album tracks, the entrancing music, colorful production, and Tillman’s psychosis helped create the most memorable hour of the day.
It was a shame to see Maps and Atlases relegated to a tiny “lounge” stage. Their exposure certainly wasn’t helped by their time slot, which had them playing directly opposite of Thursday’s biggest draw – Alt-J. Maps and Atlases offer more in the way of instrumental alchemy than most of the Thursday acts, thanks in large part to Dave Davison’s intricate and unique guitar style. Unfortunately, the nuances of their music and the endearing pitch of Davison’s voice were lost in terrible sound quality. Compounding this disappointment was the sound overlap from nearby This Tent, where the vast majority of Bonnaroo attendees were freaking out to Alt-J. With Maps and Atlases chalked up as a loss, Alt-J on everyone’s lips, and ALO welcoming Jack Johnson and Danny Clinch to the stage in the wee hours, Thursday at Bonnaroo 2013 drew to a bizarre conclusion – a fitting introduction to a weekend that is shaping up to be extra long and extra strange.