Thursday night is always a slow night for Bonnaroo, opening the four-day festival quietly to save the biggest acts for Friday late-comers. For a packed weekend though, the low-key, big-stage-free, no-late-night evening proved the perfect beginning. Opening up the festival proper was What Made Milwaukee Famous. Where The Little Ones killed that opening slot last year (read that review here), Milwaukee proved far less memorable. Talented but generic, their set proved as bland as the city itself for anyone unfamiliar with the songs. The occasional pretty harmony could not compensate for the singer's whiny vocal and disinterested attitude.
Grand Ole Party, however, was a perfect festival-starter. Like a female-fronted Franz Ferdinand, their lively alt-pop was fun and danceable whether you were familiar with them or not. With songs were punchy and to-the-point, the three-piece for the crowd moving throughout the tight run. My only criticism lies in Kristen Gundred’s vocal-drumming combo. The singing drummer is certainly a fun novelty, but only a few can do it justice (see Levon Helm on Saturday) and Gundred suffers from the obvious critique: by concentrating on hitting her vocals, her drumming was simple and sloppy. Music this fun should have lively funky drumming to match, not just a rhythm thud that pulls it back from the edge of excellence.
I heard so little of Back Door Slam I normally wouldn’t even bother mentioning them, but the few minutes I heard were so memorable I had to throw it in. The first thing everyone mentions about this band is always Davy Knowles’ guitar heroism, and he certainly is a rising star. What impressed me more, however, was just how tight this group is. They presented a thick and unified sound, taking risks and experimenting without ever veering off-track. Like a full-band Black Keys, this is blues-rock at its finest.
Current blogosphere hit MGMT’s set came with high expectations. And, as is often the case with bands built on buzz, they fell drastically short. The songs were tight live, every note orchestrated and concise, but for a festival setting that was not enough. The crowd quickly lost focus, the energy onstage not enough to reverberate through the thousands watching and applause was sparse. Though the occasional extended solo or guitar-freakout outro held forth a glimmer of hope, this was clearly music meant for small, sweaty clubs, not a large distraction-ridden festival.
The beauty of the festival scene is that there’s always something else going on though, and without leaving halfway through MGMT I would not have discovered Grupo Fantasma. This 11-piece latin-funk group was clearly the dance party of the night, the small crowd grooving and jumping to song after song of conga solos, horn blasts, and smooth Spanish vocals. Though an unexpected discovery for me, Grupo Fantasma have a much bigger fan: Prince, who used them as his backing band in the Super Bowl. Good choice.
The description “math rock” doesn’t mean a lot by itself, but from the first few notes of a Battles song you understand. They replicated their dense and polyrhythmic sound well live, pounding drums forming the backbone of tightly coordinated noises, distortion, and programming with nary a recognizable word or riff. Even the vocals were just another warped instrument to add to the mix, as the singer’s warbled wails weaved around the other instruments. And for a four-piece, there were a lot of instruments at work, several members doing a feat I would have thought impossible: playing a guitar and a keyboard/synth/laptop at the same time. Strange music indeed for the crowd that didn’t seem quite sure what they were hearing, but wonderfully performed.
Most stayed around that tent to wait for another blog-favorite, Vampire Weekend. Featuring a singer who looks like he has yet to hit puberty, these guys fit their Ivy League (Columbia) pedigree perfectly as a set of fellows you could take home to meet your mother. Their light afro-pop matched the personas in a set filled with two-minute singalongs off their only record. Yelping along with every “oh ah oh,” the crowd rocked out to indie hits like “A-Punk” while I saw more promise in the new song they debuted which sounded like the soundtrack to the monkey cage at your local zoo. Sure, this buzz band will probably be forgotten by this time next year, but they’ve got a live show that’s fun enough to keep an eye on.
A drastic shift in store as I wandered over to Dark Star Orchestra, a well-respected Grateful Dead tribute that bases their show on a Dead setlist from the past, but improvises enough to make it their own. The jury’s still out on what show they were replicating late Thursday night, but whatever they picked it was the right choice, including “Tennessee Jed,” for which the relaxing crowd came to life. The jams were jammey, the guitar lines meandering, and the vocals slow and spacey – just about what you’d expect from a better-than-most cover band. Like many others, I used the opportunity for a little napping before heading back the tent, because Friday is when the real fun begins.