Friday morning at Bonnaroo 2013 broke with the news that Jack Johnson, already on the farm because of his appearance with ALO, would be filling the freshly-vacated Saturday night headlining spot for Mumford and Sons. Attendees reacted with wildly varying levels of excitement and disappointment, but generally took the news in stride. After all, a massive Friday loomed ahead, full of legendary performers from multiple genres of music.
One of the fastest-rising stars on Friday, Jason Isbell, brought his brand of Muscle Shoals-bred, unflinchingly honest southern-style rock to Which Stage in the early afternoon, and It’s hard to imagine a better fit for the spectacular setting. Under the impossibly clear skies of a breezy 82-degree day, Isbell offered plenty of songs from his amazing new album Southeastern and a handful of older favorites. His voice is a genuine as they come, and his every enunciation hit home in the minds and hearts of those paying attention.
DIIV have changed quite a bit since their entrancing album Oshiin was released last year, which band principal Cole Smith fully admitted in a pre-Bonnaroo press conference. Gone are the dreamy melodies and atmosphere; they’ve been replaced in favor of a sound that is difficult to differentiate from many of their contemporaries, and in the live setting even the Oshiin songs lacked the qualities that made them so enjoyable on record.
Oxford, England’s Foals have traveled an opposite trajectory, their triumphantly catchy dance-rock growing ever more appealing year after year. While their sound isn’t exactly unique, singer Yannis Phillippakis has a voice inimitable enough to make the band instantly recognizable. At This Tent, that voice soared through the sun-soaked air and helped make for one of the most memorable sets so far. Tearing through festival-ready gems like the snarling “Inhaler”, the jubilant “My Number”, and “Animal” – a song destined to become a festival rage classic – the band culled a perfect procession of songs from their ever-growing catalog and left the audience gasping for air and buzzing with excitement afterwards.
John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension would have been right at home at most iterations of Bonnaroo, but this year they were one of the only jazz/fusion acts on the bill. Their sparsely attended set was, nonetheless, one of the most musically intense moments the farm has ever hosted. McLaughlin led bassist Etienne Mbappe, drummer Mark Mondesir, and keyboardist Gary Husband through a whirlwind of dizzying instrumental creations, his liquid solos splashing between an aray of complex time signatures. Mbappe and Mondesir were enthralling to watch, and they took the concept of “rhythm section” to extraterrestrial heights.
One of the most anticipated evenings in the festival’s history kicked off with a wild Wu Tang Clan set at Which Stage. Originally slated for a late night set, the show was moved to accommodate a new funk and hip-hop Superjam (more on that in a bit). In the golden glow of the setting sun, the Clan doled out one classic hip-hop track after another – “Bring Da Ruckus”, “C.R.E.A.M.”, “Shame on a Nigga”, “Clan in Da Front”, and “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ to F*** With” were just the beginning of the show. With a slightly menacing energy and a clear case of not giving a damn, they continued through touchstones like “Tearz”, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo”, and “4th Chamber”, the audience absolutely gobbling up every second of it.
Wu Tang was a great time, but the majority of the focus was squarely on the only Beatle to ever visit the farm – Paul McCartney. Sir Paul treated the campers to a sound check as epic as sound checks get on Thursday night, so anticipation was out of control for the actual show. On the very day that McCartney wrote “Yesterday” in 1965, the world’s greatest living pop songwriter took the stage and tore through an unforgettable setlist with a vigor that confuted his age. Perennially charismatic and comfortable on stage, the living legend graced the Bonnaroo grounds and delivered what might one day go down as the most significant performance in the event’s history. It was more than a show – it was an examination of his unfathomable songwriting history and an overview of one of pop music’s timeless catalogs. Through it all, McCartney shouted out to Bonnaroo, added interesting stories between songs, playfully made weed jokes and teased fans holding signs, and generally maintained his status as the funniest and most talented guy in the room at any given moment.
It will take a while to process the combination of music and emotional images that covered the stage during “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Something”; to fathom the majesty of “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Helter Skelter” coming alive with the kind of psychedelic visuals only modern lighting technology can provide; and to measure the impact of songs like “Let it Be”, “We Can Work It Out”, “Hey Jude” and “All Together Now” being performed in a place that often strives to recreate the same loving vibe that McCartney helped to pioneer half a century ago. It was all good and loud and completely life-changing in the most cliché manner imaginable. Thrilling highlights like “Paperback Writer”, “Blackbird”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Band on the Run”, along with a firework-filled “Live and Let Die” set a new standard by which all future Bonnaroo headliners will, for better or worse, be measured. And yes, “Yesterday” made an appearance on its birthday. The impossibly grand final encore featured the iconic “Golden Slumbers > Carry That Weight > The End” combo from Abbey Road, giving the show a perfect ending. It was one monumental moment after another for nearly three hours.
As midnight struck, DJ jazzy Jeff and funk powerhouse band Lettuce led a star-studded cast of artists through a hip-hop superjam that saw most of Wu Tang join in. Solange Knowles also made an appearance for a version of “Killing Me Softly”, and Redman showed up as well. Only a band of funk Jedi like Lettuce could keep this thing together, and they wound up as the MVPs by the time the massive party wound down around 2:30 AM – especially drummer Adam Deitch, who took on the rhythmic challenge of this set with the fortitude of a colossus. The musical variations of the day may have seemed incompatible at first glance, but by the wee hours of Saturday morning Bonnaroo had once again proven that we can enjoy all kinds of people, artists, and songs, “All Together Now”.