I was disappointed to be half an hour late for Mavis Staples, but the half I did see was one of the most energetic shows I saw, and this from a senior citizen. The crowd, though few in numbers, made up for it by being more into the show than any other set I saw the whole weekend. And for good reason. She's not a classic gospel belter, but instead has a loud low rumble that occasionally rasps more than you might expect, but just adds to the passion. Backed by a tight three-piece band, she also had just as many back-up singers, including here sister Yvonne. Lots of great songs, but a highlight was her first encore song, a cover of Will the Circle Be Unbroken that redefined the classic.
The next few hours were slow, so we headed over to the Blue Room Cafe behind the What Stage to wait for Ratdog. While we sat in the shade, we enjoyed a little group called Christabel and the Jons. They were pretty strictly bluegrass, but with a slightly poppier element that would sometimes come through. After about half an hour they left and Bob Weir & Ratdog came on the main stage as we watched from the rear on the big screen. My first impression was how small the crowd was for a main stage show. I thought this was one of the leading jam bands - it's fronted by a member of the Grateful Dead for goodness sakes - but apparently they're not as popular as I thought. I didn't really have a second impression as I quickly fell asleep, but when I woke I realized I hadn't missed much. I simply don't do jam bands.
So I just left to get a good spot for an obscure act I was really excited about, Junior Brown. I saw him open for Dylan twice last summer and his brand of humorous country twang is awesome. He plays a custom-made two-necked instrument called the guit-steel, have electric guitar and half pedal steel, switching back and forth often mid-song at lightning speeds. He is good at both, but I'd forgotten how truly excellent a guitar player he is. Having a longer set than he did opening for Dylan, maybe he took more solos. At any rate, the small crowd there was quickly blown away by him and his two-man rhythm section (all in thin-tied suits). His deep bass voice makes every song sound cooler, and is augmented nicely by his solos where he just hits the low E string and tunes it down--it almost becomes a race who can go lower, his voice of the guitar. He opened with my favorite, Broke Down South of Dallas, went into Party Lights, and played others like Long Walk Back to San Antone and My Wife Thinks You're Dead before I left, well after I had planned too.
Eventually though I hurried over to another exciting group, The Decemberists. Stephen Colbert called them "hyper literate prog rock," and with their songs about mariners, barrow boys, and The Tain, that's about right. The first thing I'll say about the set is my main lasting impression: how disappointed I was with the setlist. Other than the first song (which I missed), they did not do anything from their next-to-latest album Picaresque. Instead, most of their set came from their most recent album (and, in my opinion, worst) The Crane Wife. They also did all of The Tain, which was impressive--it's over twenty minutes long--but that's the only album I don't have, so eh. As far as shows go though, they put on a good one. Most of the five seemed to be multi-instrumentalists, involving thing like steel guitar and lute where needed, as well as some weird mini-keyboard you blow into to sound as you play. One thing I'll say for them: the definitely win for Best Banter and Crowd Interaction of the weekend. Frontman Collin Melloy had the whole crowd pushing the sun below the horizon (unsuccessfully) and doing some weird shakey-hands dance moves during The Perfect Crime 2. Near the end of the set, Collin announced a special guest and who should walk on the stage but Mavis Staples herself! I could have predicted her to guest in a lot of Bonnaroo sets, but not this one. The proceeded to nail The Band's The Weight. Mavis was, not surprisingly, awesome and Collin's vocals looked pretty pathetic next to hers. An unexpected highlight of the weekend for sure.
The weekend was winding down but first, two of my favorite bands, Wilco and the Stripes. I wasn't sure what to expect with Wilco. I loved their live '05 album, but was really disappointed with their new release Sky Blue Sky. I shouldn't have worried. They were in peak form, subdued and subtle aided by new guitarist Nels Cline who was as important as singer Jeff Tweedy in the overall sound. The quiet songs would turn into mind-melts and then suddenly go back again. Perhaps the greatest shock was how happy Tweedy seemed. Awkward and uncomfortable--he made accurate jokes about how he never went to frontman school--but happy. He even said, "I usually don't enjoy these things, but I'm having fun." And they went all out, dramatically changing old songs like War on War and Shot in the Arm which I didn't even recognize for a while. They played all my favorites, and even the new songs were given an extra kick live so they weren't quite so boring. Then again, they only played my few not-hated tracks off the new album, so that helps.
Near the end, though, I was getting antsy, so I scurried over to get a good spot for my most-looked-forward-to band of the weekend: The White Stripes. Even an hour early, it was packed, and I couldn't get very near the stage. No worries. They came out and immediately kicked it into high gear with Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground before going into a personal favorite (a long category) When I Hear My Name. I was really excited to hear Jolene later on, and enjoyed Blue Orchid as I always do. Meg even got to sing a little (and play some organ!) on In the Cold Cold Night. As I didn't download the new album before its release date, this was my first time hearing the new songs live. I'm Slowly Turning Into You was ok, but A Martyr For My Love For You was breathtaking, aided by solid red lighting. It was prefaced by something even more special: Jack White announcing that a man in the audience was about to propose and getting us to cheer him on. Hope she said yes.
They left after only 45 minutes, but soon came back for another full set. The whole thing was much more bare-bones than when I saw them in '05. No more xylophone, mandolin, marimbas, fancy costumes and stage, etc. Too bad, I king of liked Jack's Zorro look, and the other instruments added nice variety. I was also exhausted by this point, so frankly may not have enjoyed the set as much as I otherwise would have (though I was stoked to hear I Think I Smell a Rat for the first time).