By Bill Foster and Kent Oglesby
All photos by Bill Foster
As Rusty Odom, BLANK’s publisher and a veteran of almost every Bonnaroo, likes to say, “Bonnaroo is a marathon, not a sprint.”
In that spirit, the third day of cloudless, scorching sun was a day to just wander around and see a little bit of everything while trying not to die. Today was a day where we all enjoyed the camaraderie of the campground and saw a lot of acts for shorter periods of time. Some highlights included catching the end of Chic featuring Nile Rodgers as they blasted through “Freak Out” and “We Are Family” and hearing Old Crow Medicine Show start their set with “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35,” followed shortly thereafter by discovering that I still can’t bear to hear “Wagon Wheel” – even when it is sung by the originators. Earlier in the day, breakout Canadian star Jessie Reyez, who when asked what genre she plays will reply “Tarantino,” delivered a knockout, singer-songwriter/hip-hop/dance, profane, hilarious set. In the Miller tent, newcomer and YouTube star Jaira Burns delivered a strong pop performance in spite of being on a scooter with a broken foot. Billie Eilish delivered a strong debut set on the Which Stage, a remarkable achievement for such a new star. Reggie Watts, STS9 and a legendary set by Mavis Staples were all part of another day on the Farm. – Bill Foster
Midland is the kind of band that is necessary. In the ecosystem of music, there is always going to be a band that writes drinking songs for girls to line dance to at the local, urban cowboy club while the menfolk chug Coors Light. That said, if that band has to exist, it helps if they are charming and engaging on stage and care as much as Midland seems to care. It also helps if they can spin a line as good as, “I’ve been lonesome and on the kind of benders that will put you in Folsom” and sing it without a trace of irony. On Saturday afternoon, Midland turned That Tent into, well, if not an authentic Texas honky-tonk, a really fun, gentrified version of one. Midland already are on Big Machine, and their new record was produced by Dan Huff with ringers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne helping in the writing. This was a thoroughly entertaining show, and I’m glad I saw them here when I did because all the signs are there that this band is going to be playing Thompson-Boling Arena within a couple of years, and we all are going to be really, really sick of them by that point. – BF
The best feeling that can ever happen at Bonnaroo for me is to just blindly stumble into a show by someone I have never heard of and leave feeling like I discovered a new religion. My heart leaped into my throat, and my gut exploded about 30 seconds into seeing South Central Los Angeles native and San Francisco art school student DUCKWRTH take the stage at the Miller tent Saturday night. Knowing our dislike of profanity in print here at BLANK, this may be the most difficult review I will ever write because, really, I just want to yell, “Holy S***” over and over again. Backed by a DJ and a bass player, Duckwrth flew around the stage in constant motion, leaving buckets of sweat on the floor and dreadlocks flying as he alternated between dancing like MJ and jumping across the stage like a member of Flatbush Zombies. Songs like “Tamagotchi” had me chanting along instantly, and I woke up singing it this morning. His stage banter is engaging and fun, and his lyrics are, well, here you go: “I just want an art school chick that really like foreign flicks/Boyfriend jeans and Vans for the kicks, that’s still dumb thick.” Every song has a hook. Every song is interesting. Check this guy out. I can’t recommend him highly enough. – BF
Rebecca and Megan Lovell are sisters from Atlanta who perform as part of a four-piece band. On the Who Stage during the hottest part of the day, the sisters were the essence of cool as they rocked the large crowd. Larkin Poe has worked with T-Bone Burnett, Conor Oberst and Elvis Costello, among others. On their own, however, they demonstrate why they are in such demand. Megan Lovell’s lap steel is fierce and uncompromising, and she channels Delta blues with every note. Rebecca Lovell alternates between strong rhythm and gritty blues. The combination of a surprising amount of nasty snarl and sisterly harmonies was fresh, and it brought a new twist to the sometimes staid conventions of Southern rock. – BF
Pond, from Perth, Australia, were one of the buzz bands going into Bonnaroo. Well, we think they were, but the truth is that we were all in a Pond frenzy because our illustrious publisher was fortunate enough to catch their Shaky Knees set and proclaimed them the “best live act I’ve seen in years” and spent the next few weeks telling everyone about them. He even spent the first day of Bonnaroo grabbing every stranger he passed and saying, “Hey, go see Pond.” After all that effort, we had to see them. The thing is, though, if anything, he undersold them.
Pond are amazing.
Founded by former Tame Impala bassist Nick Allbrook and featuring Tame Impala guitarist Jay Watson along with Shiny Joe Ryan, James Ireland and Jamie Terry, Pond have released seven albums at this point. However, they aren’t as well known stateside, as the first four albums were released only in Australia, where Pond is as well known as Tame Impala is here. Pond make classic rock filtered through a punk lens. Think of Muse on a three-day drunk recording an album of Nirvana covers in Steve Albini’s basement. Onstage, Allbrook is fascinating, an even more demented Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant with Nels Cline’s chops. His guitar playing – and he picks up the guitar only to solo – is angular, spiky and just plain weird in the best way possible. Allbrook dances, crowd surfs, poses, preens and sings with every ounce of power his 100-pound frame can produce while the supple, muscular rhythm section thunders along with a lot more skill than one would suspect upon first hearing them. If this had been a 2 a.m. show, it might have attained legendary status, but even at 2:30 on a blazing hot Friday, it was one of the craziest shows I have ever seen, and it marks Pond as a band that is right on the verge of greatness. – BF
Live rap concerts can be difficult to pull off, especially on larger stages. In my four decades of listening to the genre, I can count the number of great rap shows I have seen on one hand. However, I am going to have to count on another middle finger after Eminem’s career-spanning, electrifying performance in front of a huge crowd on the What Stage Saturday evening. Many of the usual problems were there. Eminem didn’t perform a single song in totality, instead electing to perform one or two verses from each before moving on. (Even a virtuoso like Mr. Mathers cannot keep up with every line in songs as fast-moving as his are.) However, those quibbles could be set aside by watching Em prowl the stage like a panther with longtime partner Mr. Porter in front of a set made to resemble post-industrial Detroit. Eminem and Porter have been at this a while and thus are able to effortlessly drop in and out of rhymes to the point where it is sometimes difficult to tell who is rapping on any given syllable. The highlight of the production was the incredible orchestra featuring a five-piece string section and background singer Skylar Grey along with the usual DJ, keys, guitar, bass, drums, etc. The addition of live instrumentation let the songs breathe and find new life, especially when the band was allowed to stretch a bit as they did on a set-closing, blazing turn through “Lose Yourself.” Highlights included a lovely medley of “Stan” and “Love the Way You Lie,” allowing Grey to shine. Earlier hits like “Just Don’t Give a F***,” “Criminal” and “Kill You” were well received. “Rap God” showed that no one has ever had a faster, more clearly articulated spitfire flow. “White America” and “The Way I Am” were as heavy as Eminem gets and allowed the band to demonstrate its power. Royce da 5’9″ came out for “Fast Lane.” The main set ended with a Slim Shady medley of “My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady” and “Without Me.” Even if lines about Britney Spears, Carson Daly and Pamela Anderson haven’t aged well, the young kids who don’t know those names still bounced to the energy and the indelible hooks that mark Eminem as a prime headliner at the top of his game. – BF
It takes a lot to make a hip-hop show memorable. Because most rap is performed to backing tracks, something is inherently lost in the arrangement. There are ways to make up for it and keep the show exciting, like commissioning a live band to play along to or replace the tracks, bringing on special guests or having crazy pyrotechnics. In Eminem’s case for Saturday’s headlining set at Bonnaroo, he chose all three.
One thing for which Em deserves a lot of credit is mixing up his set to please the masses, going back and forth between his older fan favorites and his newer radio-charting hits. His introduction of special guests went the same way. He brought out Skylar Grey for fans that know his more recent stuff, and for the older hip-hop heads (I’m talking about myself here), it was really cool to see Royce da 5’9″ come out and perform “Fast Lane,” as well as a little bit of their song “Lighters.” – Kent Oglesby
This is going to be a review of Sylvan Esso that isn’t really about Sylvan Esso at all. No disrespect to the group, though; they’re a great act with an amazing live show, but this is more about a specific moment during their set, so bear with me here. There was a special time midway through the show in which a few of the different groups of people I had met since Thursday all converged on the same spot in the crowd through complete happenstance. These were people I knew from home, people I see only once a year at ‘Roo and people we had just met and befriended that day all meeting one another, chatting, hugging and welcoming each other.
“Friends are the headliner every year” is something I’ve heard a few times from a few different people, and it really rings true. This was one of those moments in which I had to take a deep breath and take it all in. It was a bunch of people, mostly strangers , radiating positivity (to borrow the tagline), making human connections and sharing a beautiful moment. That to me is what this festival is all about, and it speaks to the culture that has been cultivated here. Sylvan Esso, who really was amazing, being the backdrop to all of this was a pretty dang cool bonus. Blank publisher Rusty Odom had a bold claim after the show, as well. “They’ll headline Forecastle next year and this place in three,” he said. Time will tell, but if the attendance of their “That Tent” show was any indication (the crowd went all the way to the merch tent, which is probably 50 yards from the end of the tent), they have a chance to do just that.– KO
The phrase “2 unique sets” on the festival lineup next to Bon Iver’s name drove me crazy before Bonnaroo as I tried to guess what that possibly could have meant. However, from the first note of the opening song, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” I no longer cared about trying to figure out what each set would be. Justin Vernon’s voice had me entranced, and I was excited to go on this journey, wherever it would lead. The first set featured a lot of songs from his most recent record “22, A Million,” and each one sounded rich and grand. It was exactly how I’d hoped the songs from that record would translate to a live show.
I’ve been reviewing live music for several years, but never before have I been able to use the phrase “trombone quintet.” Having such an arrangement of horns really set things off, though. The combination of Vernon’s smooth voice and all of the lush sounds coming from everywhere on stage really hit its peak in the song “8 (circle).” Another unexpected highlight was a modified, louder and more rocking rendition of “Blood Bank” that really rounded things out. The closer was “33 ‘God'” – the perfect way to round out set one.
The second set was even better. It featured songs that we’d never heard before and at times became a bit of a Superjam in its own right. Multiple guests joined Vernon on stage, along with dancers and Aalayah Eastmond, a survivor of the Parkland shooting. Her touching presence and incredible stage-presence was greeted with extended applause.
This show would fit just as well as the headlining piece at a future installment of BIG EARS as it did as a late night at Bonnaroo and it’s one we won’t soon forget.
With Brockhampton having to cancel their set a few weeks before ‘Roo, STS9 pretty much had a monopoly on the raucous, late-night-party show on Saturday. This set was similar to last year’s Umphrey’s McGee show in that having seen them before live cannot at all prepare you for what it’s going to be like at a big festival. The crowd was undeterred by a long, hot Saturday on the Farm, and it seemed like everyone was actually starting to pick up steam as Sound Tribe took the stage.
Like so many memorable late-night Bonnaroo sets, the crowd was part of the show. However many light-up poles, funky signs, costumes and glowing hula hoops could be seen throughout the day, it seemed as though they all made their way to STS9. And there were bubbles coming from the crowd! So. Many. Bubbles. Their funky livetronica sound filled This Tent and emanated throughout the festival grounds. It was one heck of an end to a full day of music and fun. – KO