Story by Bill Foster and Kent Oglesby • photos by Bill Foster
The final day of Bonnaroo got off to an inauspicious start, as the threatening weather finally broke in the form of two early morning storms that knocked out power and turned the grounds into the kind of mud that exists only at Bonnaroo: somehow simultaneously so slippery that one can’t walk and yet so sticky that it threatens to pull one’s shoes from his/her feet with every step. Still, the storm finished before the music began, and except for some delays, the rest of the day was cool and breezy (if a bit muggy). Your BLANK team found it a day for exploring some jazz and world music, from the desert blues of Noura Mint Seymali to the indescribable bass of Thundercat.
New York’s Ikebe Shakedown wasted no time getting the sleepy crowd moving and even ended with “Good Name” by William Onyeabor in the same tent that hosted the legendary Atomic Bomb set in 2015. Immediately after, Amadou & Mariam made their triumphant return to the Farm. The Malian duo made it feel like the Bonnaroo of yesteryear with sprawling African music accompanied by the occasional, “Are we OK?” from Amadou Bagayoko. We saw St. Paul crowd surf on a carpet from the stage to the soundboard and discovered the Texas Gentlemen, a group of studio ringers from Dallas who hearken closer to Muscle Shoals than to the Bob Willis music their name might suggest. We heard Sir Sly’s post-punk agit-pop, Jungle’s funky grooves and a simply perfect, masterful set from Broken Social Scene. Unfortunately, Bonnaroo sometimes involves making difficult choices, and our collective love for Alt-J meant missing the Grand Ole Opry, but one can’t have everything. Nevertheless, Bonnaroo remains the closest thing to fulfilling that hoary old proverb one can find. We didn’t have everything, but for four days we came damn close. -Bill Foster
Noura Mint Seymali
Noura Mint Seymali hails from the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, in Northwestern Africa. She is the daughter of famous musicians, her dad the composer of the country’s national anthem and her mother a famous singer known as “The Diva of the Desert.” In Mauritania, she is considered a griot: a combination of storyteller, poet, oral historian and singer. In front of a small crowd just recovering from the morning storms, Seymali put on a hypnotic, trance-like extravaganza of a show. Her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, plays guitar like a cross between Son House and Steve Vai. With a reverb-heavy, trebly tone, he plays blues open-position licks at mind-boggling speed until everything sounds like “Baby Please Don’t Go” played in triplets at three times normal speed, occasionally hitting a bent note in perfect intonation with his wife’s strong singing. Don’t miss them should you have the opportunity, and in the meantime, we highly recommend listening to their album “Tzenni.” -BF
Amadou & Mariam
Some googling was required for this review. Amadou & Mariam are a couple from West Africa who were nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary World Music Album for their 2008 record Welcome to Mali. Their show was literally world-class.
Everyone should try to check out at least one world-music set each year attending Bonnaroo. Here’s a pro tip: If you see percussion like bongos and djimbes being set up before a show, you’re likely in the right place.
Festivalgoers who happened upon That Tent on Sunday afternoon for Amadou & Mariam were in for a real treat. It was funky and had a danceable beat that was impossible to resist grooving to while beach balls flew overhead. There wasn’t a booty in attendance that wasn’t shaking. This was one of those wild-card Bonnaroo sets, one of the shows that really make this festival a one-of-a-kind experience. -KO
The Who Stage got a wild one on Sunday afternoon for anyone experiencing the Bonnaroo fog and in search of an energy boost. It was almost as though *repeat repeat’s goal was to be the loudest band on the festival grounds from the Who Stage. They got the crowd into it as well. (We’ll clean up the language a bit.) “I want every [person] in this [lovely] place to scream as [darn] loud as they [surely] can,” hollered Jared from the stage, leading the very willing crowd at the Who Stage. There were likely some folks at the merch tent or at That Tent who could hear the commotion and wish they were seeing *repeat repeat.
As an unexpected surprise late into their show, they brought up special guest R.LUM.R to play some guitar. It was super cool because R.LUM.R, a classically trained guitarist who is best known as an R&B / pop singer, was brought up to grab an electric guitar and bounce around on stage and play some fast-paced surf rock licks.
Jared and Kristyn are stars in the making, and it may not be long until *repeat repeat is a household name. They absolutely owned the Who Stage at Bonnaroo. They mentioned that they have another big tour coming up, and if they’re coming to a city near you get ready to mark your calendars and get your tickets. -KO
Since their formation in 2006, Nashville-based (with, it must be noted, Knoxville native Wes Bailey on keys) band Moon Taxi slowly has been growing from playing Preservation Pub and headlining our own BLANKFest in Market Square to making four previous Bonnaroo appearances. In their biggest show yet, Moon Taxi took to the Which Stage at 7:15 p.m. in front of tens of thousands of rabid fans in what was one of the two or three finest shows of the weekend. With a fascinating stage setup consisting of a circle of lights surrounding the band and the usual Which Stage lights, the band came out on fire from the first moments, frontman Trevor Terndrup twirling his hair and jumping off everything he could find and bassist Tommy Putnam coming to the front of the stage and engaging the camera operator. Playing songs from all five of their albums with an emphasis on their most recent album “Let the Record Play,” Moon Taxi veered from reggae to indie-pop, classic rock to metal without ever sounding like anything but themselves – except when, in one of the cheekiest moments in festival history, they covered both Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Muse’s “Uprising,” nodding to the folks above them on the bill. With another album as good as “Let the Record Play” and a couple more shows like this, Moon Taxi won’t have to worry about anyone being ahead of them on a bill. -BF
Slated all festival long on The Other Stage were all of Bonnaroo’s electronic acts, with the exception of Bassnectar who was on the Which Stage on Friday. If someone wanted to treat Bonnaroo as an EDM fest, he or she could theoretically spend all their time at The Other and dance to their hearts’ content. On the other hand, it could be really easy to miss if you’re not making a conscious effort to get over there. And boy, was I glad to have made the trip over to The Other to see Big Wild.
Big Wild’s performance was a lot of fun and packed with infectious energy. There was live percussion along with tracks and live mixing. He also bounced around all over the stage going back and forth between a small drum kit and a cajon. It was an EDM set for eclectic music lovers. He used samples from Bon Iver, Kanye West, Sylvan Esso, and Cream just to name a few as well as a full remix of arguably the best hip-hop one-hit-wonder from the 2000s, “Throw Some D’s” by Rich Boy. His song “Aftergold” was a real highlight with its super funky beat and pop hook. -KO
Alt-J closed down the Which Stage on Sunday with a big production and awesome lighting. Each band member was separated on stage by a row of vertical light stacks that would flash and illuminate in concert with the music, accentuating some of the bigger moments in their songs. Frontman Joe Newman spent much of the set with light behind him and either no light directly on him or washed in color giving the effect of seeing his silhouette on the big screens on either side of the stage. It made for a pretty cool air of mystery and put a bigger emphasis on the band’s massive lighting package.
In a big festival like Bonnaroo timing can be very important. Alt-J has a pretty chill set, and that was the last bit of relaxation before everyone rushed over to jockey for position for The Killers’ closing set. Before they wrapped up, Gus Unger-Hamilton took a moment to talk about how much he and his band mates love Bonnaroo. “We first came and played here in 2013 and fell in love with the place. It’s like the American Glastonbury and that’s really the highest compliment we can pay you,” said Unger-Hamilton. Alt-J closed with their 2012 hit “Breezeblocks” and it was quite a finale and a good way to send the crowd at the Which Stage charging over to What for the Sunday headliner.
Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat, burst into prominence as Kendrick Lamar’s main foil. However, the son of Motown musicians has been a prominent bassist for decades, having provided the low end for Suicidal Tendencies and Flying Lotus and collaborating with everyone from Erykah Badu, Childish Gambino and Snoop Dog to Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. Sunday night in This Tent, with a trio consisting of keys, drums and his signature six-string hollow-body bass, the dreadlocked Bruner put on a masterclass in musicianship that would not have been out of place at the avant-garde Big Ears Festival and demonstrated just how broad the breadth of talent at Bonnaroo can be when it is at its best. A show that was both fascinating and powerful.
What to say about The Killers fine, hit-filled set to close out Bonnaroo Sunday night on the Farm? Well, it was … fine. It’s not going to be on very many people’s top-ten headliners list, but it certainly won’t be on the worst, either. There were confetti cannons, lasers, video screens and beautiful production. In a gold lamé suit, frontman Brandon Flowers roamed the stage from side to side, danced, played guitar and keyboards and jumped off platforms. He spoke to the crowd often, but his words roused little enthusiasm. A sample of the stage banner: “Tennessee, we came a long way to be here and sacrificed a lot, and you know we wouldn’t come here without playing this special song here in Tennessee.” The band then kicked into “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” a song with no discernible connection to Tennessee. Still, the band was tight, professional and skilled, the hits were undeniable and – perhaps most importantly – they went over their allotted time, a rare occurrence in the festival landscape today. They hit the stage strong with “Mr. Brightside,” “Spaceman” and “Somebody Told Me,” and they finished up with “When You Were Young.” In between, we were treated to a cover of “American Girl” (Flowers visibly flinched when the now-customary side-of-the-field fireworks were launched) with an outro of “Free Falling.” “All These Things I’ve Done” and “Human” also were standouts. All in all, it was a pleasant, professional show. It was fine.