With nothing planned for the first few hours of the music, I wandered into This Tent to check out Dr. Dog, a band the Cold War Kids lead singer had recommended. I'm glad I listened to him. Their sound was very Beatles-esq, like side two of Abbey Road. Their sound would occasionally get experimental without ever getting too far from the main melody. Didn't know one song they did, but I'll have to change that. An unexpected highlight.
The exact opposite was the case with Regina Spektor, an artist I was quite excited for and made some effort to get close to the stage for. She did her first few songs solo on piano or (shudder) on guitar. When an artist jokes about not being good at an instrument, they usually aren't serious. Otherwise, why would they be playing it? Ask Regina about the guitar - she was truly terrible. More to the point though, she was high as a kite, spending half her set giggling inanely and the other half forgetting the words to her songs. After four or five songs the band showed up and things improved slightly. The first song they did was On the Radio, my favorite, but it was pretty half-assed. A few songs later, after she played Fidelity, I couldn't take it anymore and left.
Wandering back into This Tent to get a good spot for Fountains of Wayne, I stopped short at the site on stage. Gogol Bordello was going wild on stage, dressed in elaborate costumes and running and leaping around. One girl played only cymbals, one only a bass drum, and they were augmented by accordion and violin in their brand of "gypsy punk". My biggest regret of the weekend was not seeing more of their set. The wild Salvador Dali meets Frank Zappa frontman contorted around the stage, finally taking the girl's drum, putting it on top of the crowd, and leaping on and singing from there as the crowd held his makeshift platform aloft. A performance I couldn't even believe, and I only saw five minutes of it.
Fountains of Wayne got a lot of crap from the Bonnaroo crowd for not being "sophisticated" enough. If they'd never had that Stacey's Mom hit, they would have had a much easier time. Sure, they're a pop band, but they're absurdly catchy and a fun act live. Although my first impression when they came out was quite different: they're old! After I got over that fact, I had a good time. I was right near the front and, though everyone else seemed to be waiting for Ween who was up next, I sang along to every word and had a blast doing it. They didn't change their songs up much, with an occasional longer solo, but they're such perfect pop gems it didn't matter. Many songs they played I'd forgotten even existed, but I liked them all. I did not stay for the whole set due to the biggest conflict of the weekend (with the Hold Steady and Damien Rice), but I loved hearing Denise, Hey Julie, and the song I'd really hoped they'd play: Mexican Wine. A good time.
I practically sprinted across the grounds to catch the second half of The Hold Steady and the tent was packed. For good reason too; that lead singer is something. He would go to the front of the stage multiple times during a song yelling stuff to the people within hearing distance or periodically throwing his arms back and grinning, as if bathing in the adulation. A very charismatic frontman, but I was a little disappointed that I did not recognize any of the songs. Being moderately familiar with their most recent CD that was a surprise and if they played my two favorites, Chips Ahoy and Chillout Tent it must have been earlier in the set.
After stopping by to catch a bit of Keller Williams, his set didn't start for the fifteen minutes I was there so I scurried over to grab a good spot for Franz Ferdinand. They seem much less likely to be a Bonanroo band than Fountains, but I was psyched. Turns out I was right, as their show is simply not made for festivals. Introduced as the "greatest dance band in the world," it would need to be tight and coordinated with lights and visuals. Instead it was plagued with technical difficulties. The keyboard, key (no pun intended) to many of their songs was nonfunctional most of the show and they seemed a little frustrated. It was still a blast, I just got the sense it could have been even more in a different settings. Nevertheless, it was full of catchy songs that every audience member knew, coupled with an absurd amount of foot stomping by the guitarists, one of whom was in a three-piece bright red suit. I got most of the songs I was hoping for, including opener Jacqueline, Michael, This Fire, and 40', but the highlight was the drummer being joined by the guitarist and a couple stagehands for a drumming frenzy on his kit during one of the songs (This Fire maybe?). It was so tight and coordinated, and they could barely even fit on the drum riser. An extra bonus was glimpsing Regina and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips grooving backstage.
I was amazed at the great spot I got for The Police. Nowhere near the stage by objective standards, but way closer than most people. Not only was this the headliner I was most excited for, this was the only headliner I was excited for. And boy did they deliver. Drummer Stewart Copeland had said beforehand that he was going to try to get the other two to do something a little different for Bonnaroo, and he succeeded a little with a bit of jamming. They opened with Message in a Bottle, which was good, but not spectacular. After that though they were warmed up and went into an awesome Synchronicity II, which I hadn't even thought of to think if they'd play live. From there on out, every little thing they did was magic. Copeland is a beast on drums, pounding em in an appropriately 80's way, while occasionally switching to bells, xylophone, or gong and guitarist Andy Summers, though he looks his age, proved far better than I'd expected. And Sting, of course, was Sting. They nailed how to do a reunion tour, reinterpreting some songs, extending all of them, but never taking them far enough from the roots so that the crowd couldn't sing along. Every Little Thing got a calypso intro, Truth Hits Everybody was slowed down, and Can't Stand Losing You refused to end. They kicked off their encore with King of Pain, another favorite that I had forgotten even existed (having been introduced to it by Weird Al's parody King of Suede) and went into my favorite Police song that I wasn't sure if they would play, So Lonely. It wasn't as epic as the Live! (disc 1) version, but it was close. By the time it was over my voice was gone and as they left their stage I thought they'd probably come back as they hadn't played Every Breath You Take, but sort of hoped they wouldn't. Not playing it would be a ballsy move, plus everyone's heard it too many times. But when they did came back to play it, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time as I was reminded what a great and beautiful (though creepy) song it was. They closed it all off with another great choice, their super-early Next To You, and I headed out happy.
As we walked over to grab a spot for The Flaming Lips, we realized they'd already begun, an hour early. Turns out it was just a soundcheck of Black Sabbath's War Pigs, and they didn't come back until midnight. There are few ways to describe a Flaming Lips show. By far the best performance band of the weekend, perhaps in existence. Every audience
member got a laser pointer to use at will, a couple dozen of the biggest balloons I'd ever seen were bouncing over the crowd, there were confetti shooters covering the crowd, streamers being fired off, random people in weird costumes dancing on each side of the stage. The entrance, of course, is stuff of legend. An enormous UFO descends from the ceiling and they all exit, lead singer Wayne in a giant plastic ball that he rolls over the audience in, the bassist dressed as a skeleton. And then there was some music too, which was good, but I think this one we'll just describe with pictures:
After all that we stopped off at Gov't Mule. Now THAT is what a jam band should sound like, not too bland like String Cheese, not too one-man-soloing like the Superjam. The solos were each incredible, having a purpose beyond random noodling. I wish I could have stayed to see more, but I was cold and exhausted by that point, so after fifteen minutes we left.