The sun wakes you up every morning by eight, so it's a little ridiculous that the first shows don't start until one, but Cold War Kids were worth the wait. They build a very unusual sounds with dissonance, unexpected rhythms and unlikely tunes without ever straying too far from a standard rock format, making the interesting while still accessible. Live they looked like they just rolled out of their mom's Kentucky basement, adding instruments like glass bottles to their arsenal. The leader switched back and forth from guitar to keys to simply vocals while the drummer kept things interesting by never quite hitting the beat you'd expect. As I mentally took notes I thought they sounded like a slightly more mainstream version of Tom Waits, and apparently I was dead on as they proceeded to play a Waits cover, Dirt in the Ground, segueing into Hospital Beds. They later also covered A Change Is Gonna Come, rocking it out without losing its soul roots, before the audience went nuts for their sort-of-hit Hand Me Up to Dry. A highlight of the day.
As I was wandering over to see the Brazilian Girls, I got sidetracked by the sonic stage when I heard Uncle Earl. There are no uncle no, given that it's five girls, are any of them named Earl. I had heard of them because John Paul Jones (more on him later) produced their album, but they stood on their own with a very nice Dixie Chicks sound accompanied by mandolin, ukulele, banjo, guitar, and violin. Just when I thought I had them figured out though, they mixed it up by doing an acappella number where they did a more rhythmic version of patti-cake to provide the backing. Then, to close it off, the did a cover in honor of a Bonnaroo headliner: the Police's Canary in a Cave. I haven't heard the original, but I can't imagine it sounds like that bluegrass stomp. A fun surprise.
I was especially glad I'd stopped there when I saw Brazilian Girls. I didn't have any expectation for them, which was good as they certainly would not have been met. It seemed to be just loud, nondescript beats being thrown out as a girl wearing a huge circle behind her and a guy with "Don't Stop" decoratively painted on his chest wandered around on stage. I left pretty quick.
Having nothing better to do, I wandered over the the main stage (the What Stage - there was also the Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent, The Other Tent, Another Tent...you get the idea) to get a good spot for Kings of Leon. I'd seen them opening for Dylan last fall and thought they were good, but not worth the hype. I came away with my opinion unchanged. Their Southern rock is sometimes catchy, sometimes clever, but many of the songs sound too similar.
They're good at the whole Lynyrd Skynyrd Redux thing, but that seems to be about it. I was pleased to hear more songs than I'd expected from their previous release, the only one I have, but they were very similar to the album, with occasionally an extended solo here or there. I left after half an hour for...
The Nightwatchman. A solo protest album from Rage Against the Machine's guitarist Tom Morello sounds unpromising. When he doesn't even use his real name, but called himself the Nightwatchman, it's even worse. Somehow, though, Morello managed to have a very impressive album and concert despite that. He occasionally comes off as a little too earnest, and his habit of referring the himself in the third person gets old fast ("The Nightwatchman wrote this song...", "The Nightwatchman welcomes you", etc), but the crowd, fists in the air, was more than ready to follow him wherever he felt like leading in his many calls to arms. His rich, percussive playing and deep bass voice gave authority to the songs of anger and pain. I thought it might be downhill after he opened with my favorite track, One Man Revolution, but he kept the energy high all the way through ending with a furious version of This Land Is Your Land, complete with the verses you never heard in elementary school. Stops along the way at Rage's Guerilla Radio and The Road I Must Travel kept the crowd jumping, and he even played his new song from Michael Moore's Sicko, Alone Without You, twice in order to film a video for it. That sort of unbridled enthusiasm for the Roo crowd was a trend throughout the weekend, Morello even going far enough to publicly declare that "if Bonnaroo wants the Nightwatchman back next year, he will serve! This crowd is awesome!"
As I'm not a huge reggae fan, I hadn't planned to check out Michael Franti & Spearhead, but when the Nightwatchman got out early, I wandered past and, hearing the only song I knew (Yell Fire), stopped in for a few minutes. The three songs I saw incorporated a lot besides reggae, rock not least, and were surprisingly enjoyable. Plus he has the added benefit of being funny to watch as a 6'6" guy with dreads almost as long and muscles everywhere jumping around as his band cowers beneath him.
I'd heard great things about The Black Keys live, so I got a good spot to check them out. Their two-piece blues-rock group is obviously reminiscent of the Stripes, but with a much more Dave Grohl-esq drummer. The guitarist was far more bluesey, though just as heavy on the distortion. The difference was, where the Stripes mix it up with a piano song here, a mandolin song there, every single loud, wild song the Keys did sounded pretty much the same, some raspy yelling followed by frantic soloing. After four songs I'd had enough.
I saw The Roots at Dartmouth in the fall (even was their personal driver for the day) and wasn't hugely impressed, so I hadn't even been planning on checking them out. With the free time I now had having left the Keys, I headed back to the What Stage. And boy am I glad I did, being able to see half of what gets my vote as set of the weekend. I don't know if they were way off at Dartmouth or way on here, but I was absolutely blown away every minute of the show. For one, they had a full horn section rocking along with them that gave the whole show an element of tuneful funk. One song in from when I arrived, I was floored with the greatest song I saw the whole weekend, a cover of Dylan's Masters of War. The Roots are about the last group you'd expect to do a Dylan cover, so when they did they really mixed it up. Consisting for guitar, drums, and sousaphone, the first verse was sung to the tune of the national anthem. From there it got an army snare roll and some great stop/start breaks--not to mention guitar and drum solos that had vocalist Kirk sprinting through the crowd with the sousaphone in tow--that took it past the fifteen minute mark. From then on the show stayed hoppin, the rest of the band coming back out, bouncing around in sync, playing each off each other whether it was Black Thought rapping, Kirk singing, of ?uestlove doing something in between. They really had the fun, improvisational festival feel down. They busted out another cover, of the Police's Roxanne with some girl on bass. Most of the band wasn't playing for this one, so they spent their time jumping around, hyping up the crowd, and clearly loving it. The normal bassist Hub, with nothing better to do, started bashing away on ?uestlove's second drum kit. From there they went into my favorite song, The Seed 2.0 which transitioned into ten minutes of funky repeat-after-me greatness. Periodically the band would stop dead still in an action-shot freeze frame as BT wandered around getting the crowd riled up which made for a very cool effect before they came crashing back in. Like I said, set of the weekend.
Nothing else before the first headliner of the weekend, Tool. That meant there was nothing else happening when they played, which was a shame. No amount of fancy lights and lasers could make up for the terribleness of their "music". A truly terrible choice for a headliner.
We left after ten minutes, which meant we could snag some good spots for a set I was pretty excited about, the Superjam. There is one every Bonnaroo, with different musicians coming together in a band of covers, jamming, and general awesomeness. Except this one was greatly lacking in the latter. The line-up should have been enough, with ?uestlove on drums, Ben Harper on guitar and vocals and surprise guest Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones on bass, but it wasn't. First off, Harper and Jones were sitting down, so except from the first row they couldn't be seen. And other than Harper, neither of the other instruments was doing anything too interesting. Plus I don't like Zeppelin, which is all the songs they played, so there you go. We left pretty quick.
Decided to check out our first classic jam band of the weekend, String Cheese Incident. This was a big show as their lst Bonnaroo (they're breaking up soon), so it got a lot of hype. It was nice music, very textured, but there was not enough to keep attention, nothing really to focus on. It would be great background music, but I quickly got bored during the concert. And with lyrics like "My brain is just a jellyfish in the ocean of my head"...yeah.
Back to Superjam. I was glad to see Kirk (from the Roots) in there playing and singing, definitely adding a lot to the mix, but it was still nearly impossible to see.
Then to a set I was excited about, DJ Mike Relm in the arcade/disco tent. I knew he was going to be at Bonnaroo, but he was nowhere in the program, so I only found out a few hours earlier when I saw a flier. I had seen him at Dartmouth a few times and he is great, remixing not just music, but DVD's on a custom-made turntable. A lot of people had come to the set to dance/rave, but it was more for sitting back and watching as he spun discs including the Peanuts theme song and the classic O-Face bit from Office Space (a huge hit with the crowd). The Sound of Silence and My Doorbell also got the Relm remix treatment. Low-key, inside, and fun to watch.
With nothing better to see, I headed back to String Cheese to cap off the night. They were singing, which helped the focus a lot, and the instrumental parts were a tad more lively as well. Still a little too laid-back to focus on at 3am though.