Photographs courtesy of Michael Hurcomb.
This past weekend for four days close to 100,000 people descended upon Manchester, Tennessee a city just outside Nashville, for the 13th annual . What ensued was my witnessing of a staggering 26 bands playing across the two stages and three tents seeing performances ranging from the sublime to the weird to the mind blowing.
Before I get underway I am going to list my favourite performances of the weekend since it is already the question I am being asked a million times. In no particular order here are the five best shows I caught.
Capital Cities– They have been touring constantly over the last year (this being my third time seeing them) and they just killed the set while wearing their trade mark matching jackets. The whole crowd was jumping around to the happy hooks and killer horn solos from “Safe and Sound” and “Farrah Fawcett Hair”. It was very good shit.
Cut Copy– The four piece electronic band recreated every one of their synth beats live with amazing accuracy. With trippy visuals and fantastic stage presence from lead singer Dan Whitford it made for a perfect reason to stay up late. Hearing “Need You Now” helped make my weekend complete.
Omar Souleyman– Wait who? Souleyman is a Syrian dabke musician who plays what would be best described as traditional middle eastern dance music with a trance like twist that us Westerners will fall in love with at first glimpse. It was a little funny seeing 10,000 (mostly) white people going bonkers for a man who spoke no English and other than encouraging us to clap more didn’t have much of a stage presence. I am glad I was front row for that insanity though!
Sam Smith- Smith mostly known as the singer of Disclosure’s “Latch” is about to blow up in a really big way. Playing his first festival he raced through most of his soon to be released debut album. His sweet demeanor and powerful voice make this kid a must see. It is always a joy seeing artists be overwhelmed by the crowd’s intensity like he was.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones– While listening to this band in advance I was positively shocked to find out lead singer Paul Janeway was white! He sounds like the reincarnation of Sam Cooke and James Brown, with an oversized persona to match. The band killed it with their old school soul making me very thankful that this genre is having a mini resurgence.
Best way to win over new fans- Whether you got dragged to a set by friends or you were passing by and an act that sounded interesting, the best way to get people interested in you is to play a cover song, and there were plenty this week. With a double whammy of MS MR and Sam Smith both playing the Arctic Monkeys sexy downer “Do I Wanna Know” which was a highlight. St. Paul and the Broken Bones ended their set with a killer rendition of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”. Others include Cherub playing “Feel So Close”, Jake Bugg playing “Hey Hey, My My”, Fitz and the Tantrums playing “Sweet Dreams”, First Aid Kit played “America” and Capital Cities playing “Lucky Star” and “Stayin’ Alive”. That I witnessed of course!
Best way to turn the crowd up to 11- I didn’t see a bad set all weekend. That is the beauty of these festivals is there are so many amazing bands, you actually miss out on some great acts. The crowds were always into the sets, but to take it to the next level some bands brought out some guests. Disclosure played after midnight on Friday and ended their set with “Latch” and brought out Sam Smith who played way back at 2PM to sing for them. Fitz and the Tantrums at one point dragged out Spencer Ludwig from Capital Cities to have an impromptu horn-off of epic proportions. Elton John had Ben Folds come out for “Grey Seal” for a lovely piano ballad midway through his closing night set.
Funkiest Dancers– While there may have been an actually contest to find Bonnaroo’s Funkiest Dancer, some of the performers offer some stiff competition. MS MR lead singer Lizzy Plapinger kicked around the stage like she was Tina Turner and Janelle Monae jumped around the stage while trying to escape being confined to a straight jacket like she was going to be imprisoned for life! Grouplove’s Hannah Hooper and Christian Zucconi played the part of happy-go-lucky rock stars who just want to party, even it they played at one of the hottest times of the weekend.
Best artists who put others to shame- Other bands, you are officially on notice after I saw Robert Delong play with an impressive set of percussions and synths on his very large kit. When he wasn’t using joysticks or Wiimotes to drop the beat he was playing the drums. All the while several GoPro’s were affixed to his gear to get his best bass dropping face. Front man of J Roddy Walston and the Business (J Roddy Walson of course) showed that you could totally head bang on a piano and not miss a note.
The headliners are worth the price of admission alone- Seeing Elton John, Kanye West and Jack White for under $300 was worth it alone. While there were plenty of haters for Kanye, up front against the barricade where I was situated there was nothing but people losing their minds over his talents. Old Elton proved that even though he can’t hit the high notes anymore he can still play any one of 50+ songs that are some of rocks greatest ever. Ending with a killer sing along to “Crocodile Rock” was glourious. White shredded through hits from The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and his solo material to prove he doesn’t need a band to make the crowd scream. His neuvo-Nashville tinge just added to the intensity.
Best of all is the people you meet- Bonnaroo’s catch phrase is Radiate Positivity and I didn’t encounter a sour person all weekend. From my campsite neighbors who travelled from Chicago, Maryland and Florida who made the days start out right, to the guy who told me about a crazy encounter he had with a man in a banana suit while waiting for Cut Copy to start, everyone was friendly and passionate about music. Come for the live music, stay for the friendliest people on earth, even if they don’t all like the same music as you!