Words and Photos by Stephen Taylor
As is always the case in Manchester, TN in June, Mother Nature is a main point of focus leading up to and during Bonnaroo. On opening day, the weather on the farm started hot and turned out perfect after a short rain in the afternoon. This is my 6th time to Bonnaroo and the number of Thursday attendees has grown every year along with the number of artists on the lineup. Thursday also tends to be a particularly rowdy night with people’s energy levels yet-to-be tempered and tamed by the sun.
The big story at Bonnaroo on Thursday was the cancellation by headliner Mumford and Sons due to their bassist’s ongoing recovery from an emergency brain treatment this week. Immediately, rumors were flying on their replacement for the Saturday night slot. My favorite rumors were Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, and My Morning Jacket. Bonnaroo ultimately went with Jack Johnson, who was already on the farm to support his friends in ALO during their Thursday night set. An interesting choice, but Johnson will undoubtedly reveal songs from his recently announced sixth album From Here to Now to You, which is out Sept. 17.
See below for my highlights and a few phone snaps from Thursday:
The Athens outfit rolled in Friday afternoon only to have their van get stuck in the mud that had accumulated in the maze of backstage roads. After spending an hour pushing it out, they hustled immediately to This Tent and impressively carried out their usual high energy set as though they had been sippin’ lemonades. Their set marked the end of a cross-country tour and the band sounded great as they blazed through a set of favorites off their two albums (Hampton’s Lullaby and 2013’s critically-acclaimed Baba Yaga) and EP.
As an enormous fan of Josh Tillman’s 2012 debut solo album, Fear Fun, I must say that I approached my first live experience with some trepidation based on mixed reviews I have heard. Josh Tillman and his band grabbed the crowd and never let go throughout his hour-long set. Sporting a Jagger-esque stage presence, Tillman’s voice sounded better than on record at times as he riffed and improvised through nearly every song on the band’s lone LP. He also displayed his usual witty stage banter when introducing a new song, which he declared was written by “me and Ecstacy” and invited to crowd to be inspired to “take off your jester hat, get off your unicycle, go back to your Subaru, and write a song right now!” The new song, “I Love You, Honey Bear” sounds like a Bond theme, so it’s a good one. Perhaps the most surprising thing was Tillman’s guitarist whose astonished and upstaged with his Telecaster, fully embracing a raw Tennessee sound that transformed every song into a honky-tonk number.
The English indie rock quartet easily drew the largest Thursday night crowd I’ve seen at Bonnaroo, with people spilling out of This Tent, past the fountain, into the vendor area. Judging by the demographic of the crowd at this set, and their ability to sing every song off the band’s oft-cryptic debut, An Awesome Wave, I now have a theory (dream) that Alt-J may have created a genre that will serve as the bridge for our nation’s young people out of the dregs of Brostep. Alt-J’s four members execute tribal, bass heavy, electro-pop arrangements, with church voices, even singing in the round on several songs. Songs were precisely executed in close form with their album, which I look forward to revisiting.
Happy Bonnaroo 2013!