Today was a day for camping out at the Which Stage for an unbeatable three-peat of acts: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Gogol Bordello, and Ben Folds. As I headed over, however, the sharp indie punk of Two Gallants caught my ear. Like folk songs played through a distortion pedal, this was a guitar-drum duo less jarring than the White Stripes, a full-band eminating from only two guys. Singer Adam Stephen’s lyrics were particularly interesting, reflecting on common themes like lost love with weird twists (sample: “I’m gay as a choirboy for you.”) Definitely music to investigate further.
After that brief detour, it was out into the heat for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. The Dap-Kings are now famous for their work backing Amy Winehouse, but Sharon is where their heart truly lies. They looked straight out of Pulp Fiction in their suits, mutton chops and pencil mustaches, as suave as Samuel L. Jackson could ever hope to be. The music fit the part as the Kings opened the show with a few songs alone, smooth and supple, oozing charm through the horn tweets and guitar runs. Their sleekness would have gotten old eventually without some aid, but when Sharon came out all pretensions of reserved class were gone. Wailing and dancing in her fringy black dress, she seemed determined to get the overheated crowd moving. A mix of originals like “100 Days, 100 Nights” and “Nobody’s Baby” and covers like “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” kept things moving as she performed a type of music no one knew was even being made anymore.
Up next was my most anticipated act of the weekend: Gogol Bordello, one of only a couple bands returning from ’07 (read about that show here). I had wandered by the final ten minutes of their set last year and couldn’t believe my eyes. Since then I’ve picked up every album in preparation for another sighting. Time well spent. The gypsy punks came out in full swing, Eugene Hütz wearing bright purple and blue with scarves, bandanas, and ties swishing all over the place. Opening with “Ultimate,” they ran through one chant-along song after another, running all over the stage and joking around with each other throughout. Several songs in the backup singers/dancers came out – two girls dressed wildly enough to make Hütz look downright conservative who spent most of the rest of the show gallivanting all over the stage needling band members and crying out “ai ai ai”s. The group's main hit “Start Wearing Purple” got the crowd fired up, but the band showed newer material like “American Wedding” and “Your Country” to be even stronger. The audience demanded an encore, and Hütz obliged, coming out to start a solo “Alcohol” while one band member after another joined in. And if that wasn’t enough, he and one of the girls tossed a bass drum into the audience, then climbed atop it to continue singing as Hütz poured red wine on himself. Something you don’t see every day, and certainly helped him redeem himself after yesterday’s subpar Superjam.
It’s hard to be a college student without listening to a lot of Ben Folds, and he’s a live staple on the university circuit. However, I hadn’t managed to catch him live yet, so I knew even with the conflicts this wasn’t one to miss. And the man certainly has earned his reputation as a stage performer. For new song “Free Coffee” he put various items inside his piano, Altoids tin and maracas among them, to turn it literally into a percussion instrument when he hit certain keys. Ben Folds doesn’t need fancy keyboard effects; he makes them the old-school way. The highlights of the show weren’t even the real songs though, but the little things he improvised along the way, one song about Bonnaroo (where he’s a returning favorite) and another about breaking a piano string. True to tradition, he photoed the audience flicking him off – he pulled this trick here in ’02, and it became the Ben Folds Live album cover. Also of note, he retired his cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” with a final singalong performance that dripped pain far beyond the novelty of the cover choice. Only downside: all this was predictable, since for God-knows-what-reason the sound guy felt the need to read the setlist aloud during the soundcheck. Idiot.
Unfortunately, I had to leave early to check out another anticipated set. And, amazing though I heard the rest of Ben was, Levon Helm’s Ramble on the Road was worth it. The former drummer for The Band has been holding these Rambles up at his barn in Woodstock for years, but this summer is the first time those of us without the money and transportation to go up to the upstate boonies can see the act in a touring form. The mix of Band classics, old Appalachian covers, and tunes off his 2007 album made the wait worth it. Larry Campbell, one of my favorite guitarists around, performed in the ragtag crew and rocked out on everything from mandolin to violin. Though Helm’s name is on the marquee, it truly was a collaborative effort, with leading parts taken by everyone from Larry to Helm’s daughter Amy, and special guest bluesman Sammy Davis. It was Band songs like “Rag, Mama, Rag” and “Long Black Veil” that made the crowd go crazy, but lesser-known gems like “Anna Lee” were performed just as splendidly, the group coalescing like a back porch jam band. The audience went crazy for each and every word and solo (did I mention the full horn section?) and closer “The Weight” moved some to tears. The set of the weekend, for sure.
After Levon’s set ended (no encore, despite the crowd’s pleas), I wandered through Jack Johnson and sat down for a minute. My expectations were incredibly low, and he exceeded them. A little. His music was well-performed, and it was perfect for relaxing the back and chatting. However, there was so little to focus on other than Eddie Vedder’s guest appearance that I can’t imagine what people closer to the front were actually doing. Singing along, pumping their fists, rocking out, crying? Can’t imagine him inspiring that dedication from anyone. Good background music, but not much else.
With Pearl Jam, however, there’s a lot to focus on. A set that featured rarities like “WMA” (first time performed in thirteen years) and “All Night” (first time performed ever), the hits were what really got the crowd going, a “Better Man” singalong in particular erupting throughout the grounds. My only disappointment was only one song performed off of their most recent album. Along with “Life Wasted” I would have liked to hear “World Wide Suicide,” “Big Wave,” or several others. The crowd was packed though, many having waited in line all day for a good spot, and incredibly enthusiastic for every Eddie Vedder vocal or Mike McCready guitar solo.
Tonight’s late-night was the most conflict-ridden section of the festival, with acts I wanted to check out like Phil Lesh and Friends, Chromeo, The Coup, and Ghostland Observatory forced to fall by the wayside for what I knew would be a festival highlight: Sigur Rós. The group from Iceland gives only the rarest stateside performances, but anyone who’s seen their film Heima – one of the greatest music films of all time – knows what an unreal experience they are live. They’re often described as the music of angels, and live they proved that the ethereal sounds coming from your speakers aren’t just computer wizardry, but four guys winding their spacey, echoey instruments around each other in a magestic tapestry. Corny phrases like that are completely appropriate once you hear them, and seeing the number of people in tears at the concert shows just how moving this music can be. The string quartet of Amina joined them onstage along with a mariachi horn section, as they ran through better-known songs like “Hoppípolla” and “Vaka” and new stuff from their upcoming album. Five glowing orbs illuminated the stage behind them as lead singer bowed his guitar for a concert experience that can’t be compared to any other. It’s so hard to describe, in fact, I’d recommend just checking out these videos.
And then…Kanye West. If you haven’t heard about Kanye West at Bonnaroo, you haven’t been reading many music blogs lately. Or the Associated Press. Or Rolling Stone. Or the New York Times. You get the picture…it was a big deal. I’ll get the preliminaries out of the way in a one-sentence summary: after having rescheduled his show at the last minute, he was almost two hours late when he wanted to be the only one performing and as a result infuriated everyone watching, which is hard to do with hippies. When he finally did come on for his much-acclaimed Glow in the Dark show at 4:30am, was it worth the wait? Hell no. The theme was some spaceship crash-landing which, of course, has absolutely no correlation to any of his songs. He might as well have been a caveman inventing fire for all the logic it made. Although in that scenario, you wouldn’t have the lovely scene of him trying to convince his spaceship to have sex with him. Yes, really. The music was just as bad, featuring him on stage alone unable to do anything interesting enough to draw attention. Oh, and the whole point of him postponing the show in the first place was to have it glow in the dark, but did I mention he started so late the sun came up a few songs in? So he ended up cutting the set short, but by that time I, and the vast majority of the crowd, was long gone. Easily the biggest disaster in Bonnaroo history, “Kanye sucks” became the theme for the rest of the weekend, and the go-to topic of conversation ever since.