Friday started off right with a Grupo Fantasma reprise performance on the tiny Sonic Stage. Though lower energy in the heat, they still played their hearts out for the small but appreciative crowd. The show loses something when the sun is too scorching to dance though – if you’re going to see them, see them in the evening.
After a break, I headed to my first What [Main] Stage show of the fest: The Raconteurs. Anyone who has just heard their two albums is missing a lot. Sure, the songs are pretty good, but it’s the live performance that makes these guys spectacular. Jack White is a showman who could blow your mind working with anyone, but the fabulous rhythm section of Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence really gives him the power to go crazy (Brendan Benson, incidentally, doesn’t do much for me). Jack used his on-stage gadgets to their fullest potential, rocking out his distortion microphone and wailing on an on-off guitar pedal that made his solos wild and jerky. Songs from the new album dominated the set, capped with an intense “Consolers of the Lonely,” while older songs had been reinvented. “Blue Veins,” for instance, featured an instrumental version of The Doors’ “The End” by way of intro before destroying a guitar-rave-up rendition that eclipsed the mediocre album take. Even crowd pleasers like "Steady, As She Goes" and “Store-Bought Bones” were reinvented, the former extended, the latter sporting a new soft-loud arrangement like a harmonizing Nirvana track.
A couple quick jumps between conflicts saw me catching a bit of Willie Nelson, Rilo Kiley, and M.I.A. Willie was exactly how you’d expect: fun country goodness. Rilo Kiley was a bit more of a surprise, far more charismatic live than I would have anticipated. Everyone knows Jenny Lewis is cute and all, but I had no idea she had that good of a voice, belting it out like an old gospel singer. M.I.A. was ridiculously wild, as might be expected. By the time I got there, the stage was so packed with people I never even saw her at all. Her bouncy world rhythms, though interesting, always sort of rubbed me the wrong way though, and live the music annoyed me just as much. Though I’ll take the more mellow Eastern sounds of Beirut over this seizure-inducement any day, I was happy to catch what she claimed was her last plive performance.
Though not a musician, Chris Rock commanded an unopposed slot the What Stage billed as the largest stand-up comic performance ever. And anyone who doubted a comedian could work a crowd that size ate their words when Rock's jokes had the tens of thousands watching in tears from laughter, riffing on everything from Obama (“The only name blacker than that is Dikembe Mutombo.”) to increasing gas prices (“If I invade IHOP, pancakes gonna be cheap in my house”). The only slight regret is that he did very little Bonnaroo-themed material. For such an important show, I expected him to have a little fun on the obvious topics of hippies, drugs, and crazy musicians, but instead he just went through his normal spiel.
At this point I went back to my tent. I’d already seen Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett introducing Rock, and that was enough Metallica for me. So I thought at least. From their first song, you could tell they were playing their damndest to win over a crowd pissed at their presence. They did such a phenomenal job I ended up listening to every note in my tent. The anger in the music was definitely there, but the fun they were having playing it was just as apparent. The band took care to verbally acknowledge themselves as an unpopular choice and talked about why they had come, clearly understanding the spirit of musical development and band-fan respect that Bonnaroo has become known for. The desire to show why they belonged with all the jam bands and indie rockers seeped through every riff and growl. It’s a stretch to call a Metallica show beautiful, but they way they performed was as close as metal can get.
Another annual Bonnaroo first is the first late-night set. Few other festivals can have acts go past midnight or 1 due to noise ordinances, but Bonnaroo rocks the crowd til dawn. The honor of opening the late night scene this year went to My Morning Jacket, one of my most anticipated acts of the festival. Though pouring rain prevented me from seeing the whole thing, the two hours I caught showed why they were the Bonnaroo band to beat this weekend, their aggressive riffs countering their soaring vocals in a mix of songs new and old, well-known and obscure, with covers of everyone from James Brown to Motley Crüe thrown in. Before the show, many worried about how they’d live up their three-hour ’06 set. Thirty-five songs later, they had their answer.
Also competing for attention at this time was the annual Superjam. Though officially unannounced, it had leaked a few weeks prior that it would consist of Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett (who also guested with My Morning Jacket), and Les Claypool doing a set of Tom Waits covers. The rumor was right, if you add in three more members of Gogol Bordello and a dancer that turned out to be Hütz’s girlfriend. As Gogol Bordello was my most anticipated act, and Tom Waits is an artist I’m currently traveling over a thousand miles to see live, this should have been a match made in heaven. It wasn’t, for a few reasons. First and foremost, Gogol Bordello is not a jam band. They do not improvise well, and so any section without someone singing was just dead air, the chords played repeatedly with not much else happening. They seemed lost onstage; Hütz got more and more plastered as Claypool tried to ease the awkward nothingness with lame jokes. The second reason was that the rearranged songs were all bland. Kudos to them for rehearsing the songs weeks in advance, but the renditions just made them sound like Gogol Bordello songs without the flair. The crowd started out double the tent’s capacity, and when I returned an hour later there were only a few hundred left. A disappointing resolution to what could have been a legendary combination.