Saturday’s Bonnaroo bands faced a daunting task: To somehow follow up the already legendary Paul McCartney performance from the previous night. But with a new day comes new opportunity, and it ultimately proved to be the wildest day of the festival in more ways than one. Friday night, McCartney managed to overwhelm the audience on his own; on Saturday, the whole of Bonnaroo came to overwhelming life as only it can, with a procession of artists participating in a mind-boggling array of remarkable happenings.
At the What Stage, the afternoon arrived with a deceptively normal Gov’t Mule set. Warren Haynes and Co. presented their muscular blues rock with little fanfare, dashing through typical early-set selections like “Steppin’ Lightly” and “Broke Down on the Brazos” before getting around to their reggae-tinged version of Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker”. A blistering jam on The Grateful Dead’s “The Other One” occupied the middle of Bill Withers’ “Hope She’ll Be Happier”, making for an interesting contrast. That combo and the signature Mule track “Thorazine Shuffle” were as hot as the weather, though Haynes himself made sure to point out that it has been much, much hotter at Bonnaroo.
Around 4:30 PM, things started to get progressively more wonderful and strange at the farm. Wandering the grounds, one could hear Portugal. The Man playing their own “So American” with Weird Al Yankovic and offering a fine version of “Helter Skelter” (an appropriate, if very brave, nod to the McCartney show), as well as Tallest Man On Earth playing to the locals with Paul Simon’s “Graceland”. Patrick Watson, playing his second set of the day at the tiny Sonic Stage, couldn’t quite get in on the impending mayhem. His quartet had only 30 minutes to play, and 10 minutes of sound problems made for a set that never really got started.
There were no problems of any kind at The Other Tent when ebullient duo Matt and Kim stormed the stage. Well, maybe a few wayward crowd surfers, but that’s about it. The band is known as much for their onstage histrionics as they are for their cloyingly catchy songs, and this short performance was a concentrated serving of both elements. Kim Schifino treats her drumset like a jungle gym, and she climbed, jumped, straddled, and generally mishandled her kit with irrepressible joy. Without good songs, though, none of her ass-smacking or gesticulating would mean a thing, and Matt Johnson kept the show moving forward and focused. Together, they crammed all their best tunes into one sweaty, confetti-covered hour, with highlights including opener “Block After Block”, the ubiquitous “Cameras”, and their oldest hit, “Lessons Learned”.
Back at the What Stage, a rare U.S. appearance by Bjork enveloped the farm in oddity as the sun slowly sank. Dressed as what can only be described as a fabulous Pinhead (kids, see Hellraiser) and accompanied by a constantly moving troupe of robed singers and dancers, the Icelandic singer played maniacal chanteuse to Bonnaroo’s demented party. She certainly made this once-in-a-lifetime show a memorable one for the audience, offering everything from booming dance tracks to her calling card style of ethereal near-pop. Impossible to pigeonhole and always weird to a fault, Bjork delighted the fans who had been waiting for the chance to see her and made sure that no newcomer to her music would forget her presence in Manchester.
As The Lumineers merrily worked their way through Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and their own touchstones “Ho Hey” and “Stubborn Love”, the majority of the fans gathered for the biggest replacement act in Bonnaroo’s twelve-year history. Jack Johnson was called into action after Mumford and Sons were forced to cancel, since he was in town to perform with ALO and do a bit of promotion for his new album. It was an unenviable position for the admittedly out-of-practice Hawaiian singer, who managed to cobble together a few decent moments throughout a mostly unremarkable set. An amalgam of his own “Go On” and Mumford’s “The Cave” drew smiles and tears alike from many in the audience, another take of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” was just fine, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined in for the final song, “Mudfootball”. His old hits have not aged well, though, and it’s tough to think of a less interesting Saturday night headliner from Bonnaroo’s back story.
For those not interested in Johnson’s set, William Tyler did an admirable job at translating his atmospheric guitar creations to a less than favorable setting – a tiny band shell sponsored by a beer company, during a headliner on Saturday night. His often reverb-laden, pastoral songs like “Country of Illusion” and “Tears of Saints” enthralled those willing to shut up and pay attention. It lacked spectacle – an increasingly ballyhooed element of Bonnaroo – but musically it was one of the finest sets of the weekend. If that wasn’t enough headliner antidote, Preservation Hall also played their own show for most of Johnson’s set before rushing over to join him for “Mudfootball.
Falling temperatures and rising musical drama were the rule of the next several hours. Just before midnight, the late night shows turned up the intensity. The “Rock and Soul Dance Party Superjam” led by Jim James and John Oates is sure to join the McCartney set in any list of top shows from the weekend. To help bring to life the incredible setlist of Prince, Beatles, and Sly Stone tunes, among others, it featured the unfathomable rhythm section of Zigaboo Modeliste and Larry Graham, horns from Preservation Hall, vocalist Bilal, and guest vocal appearances from Billy Idol (“Bang A Gong”) R. Kelly (“A Change Is Gonna Come”) and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes (“Satisfaction”). The audience showed their appreciation for this unlikely collaboration by keeping alive the chorus of “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” well after the musicians left the stage.
At the same time as the Superjam, Bonnaroo lineup announcer Weird Al Yankovic held a party of his own at The Other Tent. Replete with costume changes, old-school “Al TV” videos, and bizarre imagery, the show was both a time capsule and a revelation as to just how many songs the man has spoofed. Opening with his “Polka Face” medley, Al dished out some rapid-fire satire at the expense of Lady Gaga, Pink, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, and many more. Dour cheerleaders joined in to add to the alt-rock aesthetic as Al donned a Kurt Cobain getup to deliver the highlight of the set, “Smells Like Nirvana”. No one was safe – not Green Day (“Canadian idiot”), not Coolio (“Amish Paradise”), and certainly not Michael Jackson. “Eat It” wrapped up a huge mid-set medley that also included Al’s signature jabs at Dire Straits, T.I., B.O.B., and Huey Lewis, and “Fat”, of course, was the song everyone wanted to hear. Perhaps more appropriate was “Amish Paradise” – any good Bonnaroo fan knows that after the music, the Amish doughnuts available near the Which Stage are the greatest nightcap of all. It took a village, but the music on Saturday somehow managed to live up to Friday’s precedent.