Sunday, August 18, 2013

Top 10 sets from Bonaroo 2013

10. Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

Nicki Bluhm was kickass. She’s got an old school country/southern rock vibe with plenty of heart and soul. Many of her lyrical themes take their cues from this era – a lot of “my man ain’t no good” vibes. It’s been done many times, but Nicki presents it with so much passion and authenticity that she will make you believe in it all over again. She’s got an incredible set of pipes and a kickass guitarist to boot.

 9. Of Monsters & Men

Another of my must sees, and they proved my reasoning to be solid. I love their onstage demeanor, so carefree, laid back, and humble. The setlist was a bit by the numbers, but with only one album that’s to be expected. They were really good at interacting with the crowd; once or twice Nanna or the other guitarist would walk out on a platform jutting into the crowd and everyone would just soak it all in. One unexpected moment came when they did a cover of “Skeletons” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The original is really electo/new wavey, but OMAM folked it out, added in their harmony arrangements and really made it their own.

8. Alt-J 

Alt-J has been a tough nut for me to crack. I couldn’t get into the album much from what I listened to it and had considered skipping the set entirely, but decided to give them one more shot to change my mind live. I was up pretty close to the front, which seems to be a great accomplishment as this show was totally fucking packed from what I’m told. That said, I certainly have obtained a new appreciation for the band. It’s tough to think of any band to directly compare them to.

Many people have said there’s not much energy which is true, but this set was really sort of hypnotic in a way. The drummer is really talented; he moves around the kit with some really spastic, offbeat patterns I don’t hear often. And songs like “Tesselate,” along with most of their set really, just have this really chilled out vibe like you’re drifting through space and becoming one with the stars or something.  Still don’t think this band is a good as most people try to make them out as, but I’ve gained a new willingness to open up to them.

7. Tom Petty

Making my way toward the What Stage for this one was bittersweet,  knowing it was the final act but also getting excited for the awesomeness of Petty. After all I had seen and experienced over the past four days, I couldn't think of a more fitting way to wrap it all up than a Tom Petty concert.  I hope they continue to stick with the classic/vintage rocker act for the closing spot in coming years. I couldn't imagine some shitty jam band closing it out. 

Anyhow, I was on the field for the first 45 minutes or so of his set. The plan was to meet up with the rest of my group and we would sit on top of our cars and watch the end of the show, since our campgrounds were so close to the What Stage field. The weather ruined those plans, though it was pretty gratifying singing "Free Falling" in the rain with tens of thousands of other people. I really liked his demeanor and manner of speaking on stage. "I predict we're going to have an incredible time tonight," he declared, before announcing, "I don't have anywhere to be for hours!"

I didn't know many of the songs he played while I was out there, but I liked "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," a song he did with the Traveling Wilburys about a guy trying to escape from an undercover cop. It provided a nice flavoring for the evening. I headed back to camp and heard his final songs, "You Wreck Me" and "American Girl" as I was making a call home.

6. Animal Collective

I don’t buy it when people say you need to be on drugs for this set; this set is drugs.  You can be straight sober and still feel in a slightly different state of mind when these guys play. They had some big pointy acid colored blowup balloons that filled half the stage, along with blowup teeth balloons protruding from gums. The well water ran out before Wilco so I arrived in a state of increasing dehydration but otherwise stone sober.

As they said before the release of Centipede Hz, the set was structured a continual running stream of music. In between songs they would keep playing/jamming/dicking around, so it was like listening to a late night radio broadcast and there would be a bunch of fuzz for awhile and then suddenly you would hear something familiar and get back into it. I give them props for the idea, but it tends to make their set feel disheveled and unorganized at times. There are sections where nothing much is going on for awhile, but the set was scheduled for two hours and I’m guessing is longer than they normally play, so that might have had something to do with it.

As a tribute to the band in front of me, I’m trying my best to imagine I’m on hallucinogens, a task which is made complicated seeing as I’ve never done them. I find myself staring at images projected onto one of the teeth. It’s flipping back and forth between a yellow alarm clock waving his arm and a big pile of purple jello oozing around. Avey gazes into the lights and seems to get lost for a moment, then stares blankly at the crowd and then goes back to what he’s doing on his keyboard. He seemed a bit out of it for most of the show, but was still able to perform well.

The setlist was great, “Purple Bottle” was very catchy and fantastic, and “What Would I Want? Sky” was a great surprise. From Merriweather and Centipede Hz we got pretty much the usual. Avey was all herky jerky when he got up to sing “Peacebone,” but it totally rocked.  Deakin also had some great moments; he did Monkey Riches and a couple other songs that frankly I don’t know what they were. The set was a bit long and I got bored at some points, but after the fact all I really tend to remember is the awesome.

 5. Weird Al

I was utterly conflicted over whether to catch this set or the Superjam. The Superjam felt like the set that I should see, but Weird Al was the set I wanted to see. I headed over shortly after PHJB to get a good spot, and waited at least an hour before At this point that my feet were horribly hurting, to the point I was getting seriously irritated. The long wait was not helping, but did prove to be worth it. He got off to a great start by busting out the accordion for a medley parodying current pop songs. Justin Beiber, Lady Gaga, and even Ke$ha found themselves victims of his satirical barbs.

His costume changes were excellent, and an easy highlight of the night. He dazzled in his half red, half white maple leaf jacket for "Canadian Idiot," while donning a thick black rimmed hat and fake beard for "Amish Paradise." But he went all out in his blonde mop and early 90s grunge getup for "Smells Like Nirvana." He even brought out the cheerleaders. The videos that played during his costume changes were also a riot, taking aim at everyone from Edward Cullen, Megan Fox, and Johnny Cash documentaries. But he was equally engaging while preforming deep album tracks without the help of any visual aid. He captured the crowd's attention with his humorous rendtion of the Spiderman saga on "Ode to a Superhero," while describing the joy (and horror) of selling products online on "eBay." Al undoubtedly endeared himself to the crowd and proved to be one of the best performers on the farm this year.

4. David Byrne & St. Vincent

Spectacular! Very funky, jazzy, and brassy sound presented by two of the more oddball personalities in popular music these days. Coming into this I knew virtually nothing about the material from either artist, but now I will certainly be on the lookout to hear more. It was a delight to see how well they interacted with one another, excitedly exchanging hand gestures and fist pump. And their themes were always delightfully wacky. Byrne did a song about how he used to think that TV was a good thing, but then realized it wasn't.

Annie was even more about there, doing a song about bone connecting to the marrow and weird stuff like that. They even let their band step into the spotlight, doing a song where the entire backing band formed a single file line and each came up to the microphone in turn and sang a single line. It was phenomenal, and everyone looked like they were having a wonderful time.

3. Preservation Hall Jazz Band

To continue Saturday's theme of mistakes, I missed the beginning of this set. I was busy eating a veggie burrito with sweet potatoes and various kinds of foliage. This set was fantastic though; the band members were dressed up in finely pressed suits, ties, and vests, overpowering you with the sheer sound of brass. Trumpets, trombones, horns, and blaring tubas led the charge; I'm pretty sure there was even a clarinet or two. They majored in traditional New Orleans jazz, the type made famous by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. But almost as engaging as the performers was the crowd itself. All around there were guys dressed as cool cats from the 20s, losing themselves to dance.

Right in front of me was a couple dressed up in white swan feathers, covered in all sorts of white material and fabric along with plenty of beads and colorful stuff. Suddenly, there were squeals and everybody started pushing closer to the stage. The man himself Jim James was making a guest appearance. I hadn't planned on catching either of his scheduled performances, but now it's easy to see Bonnaroo wouldn't have been complete without seeing him in some capacity. They did a mournful dirge called "St. James Infirmary" that blew my mind; it's about a guy who searches for his love and then finds out she's dead. If they haven't already, I demand that they record it so I can download it on MP3 and play it endlessly.

2. Bjork

It's a safe bet that Bjork made loads of new fans with this set. Throughout her career she's always been a fringe artist, but a very well respected one who know what she's doing. The first part of the set felt more akin to performance art than a music concert. She comes out backed by about 10 or 15 choir girls clad in blue and gold outfits. With their extravagant dress, they look like a retinue that Bjork purchased from a caravan off The Silk Road or something. As for Bjork herself, her face and head are covered in long white pointy ice spikes, while the bottom half out her outfit is like a dress made out of weird squids squished together. The setlist was more balanced than what she's been doing lately; most of her shows since 2011 focused on playing most if not all of her latest album, Biophillia, but she got most of those songs out of the way early. During "Crystalline," her drummer beat on a strange dark black semicircle shaped pad that he sat between his knees, and it sounded like a marimba when he hit it. Along the way we got most of the classics from her back catalog, including the silky synths of "Hunter" and "Joga," followed by curt little thank yous following every song. Otherwise, she wasn't very vocal. Occasionally she'd come over toward my side of the stage and attempt a little funky dance, but stayed focused on her game.

As the sun began to set, she approached the mic and announced, "It's getting darker." Then shit got real. The beats, which had generally been elegant and reserved suddenly became abrasive and visceral. These are my favorite kind of beats, because it's so easy to totally lose yourself while dancing to them. The choir girls, meanwhile, who had been pretty restrained, cut loose in some amped up dancing as well. It was also refreshing to see a wholly different side of Bjork. She moved into a stunning rendition of "Hyperballad," which was a great surprise because I figured we would get either "Isobel" or "Possibly Maybe" as our Post contribution. At the end she did an awesome raging extended jam session which I later learned was "Freak" by LFO merged into the end of "Hyperballad." The next cut, "Pluto," is easily one of the most visceral songs in her catalog. I was curious to see how well she could pull off the ultra high pitched screams near the end of the song. She couldn't quite get up there, but compensated by slamming the mic stand down and bolting off the stage.

She closed the main set with fist pumping anthem "Declare Independence" before ending with the frantic "Nattura" as her encore song. Flames lit up the back of the stage, bringing back memories of the devastating  pyro show that closed out Paul's set the night before. Although Bjork couldn't come close to topping him in that department, it still resonated powerfully as a finisher to an experience that was no less unique.

1. Paul McCartney

10/10… what else? It was been supremely satisfying to witness the mass reaction to this set, both in person and with regard to what’s been posted online in the following week. There’s not much that tops seeing everyone react like hysterical squealing fangirls, which was more or less my reaction when I first saw Paul in the fall of 2010. Naturally, I don’t feel like anything can compare to my first time seeing McCartney – not even this set – but there are more than a few merits to this show that more than justify the hearty applause it’s gotten.

Not a ton has changed from the show he played at Bridgestone Arena in 2010. This time around I found myself much quicker to pick up on the stories he tells. He’s talking about writing a song to give hope to the civil rights fighters – it’s time for “Blackbird.” Now he’s talking about a guitar he wrote a song on a long time ago – here comes “Paperback Writer.” Oh, now it’s the first verse of “Live and Let Die”? Oh snap, grab your camera – and try not to have your face melted if you’re up close. But knowing how the story ends beforehand doesn’t take an ounce of enjoyment away.  A Paul concert is like watching your favorite classic film. You can watch it over and over and rewind it and play it again and it never gets old. These are top notch performances of some of the best songs ever written, and done so by a man who knows a thing or two about showmanship.

There were, of course, many great moments worth going over here as well. “Lovely Rita,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and “Your Mother Should Know” are all great mid/late period Beatles tunes that haven’t seen the light of day in some time. Also impeccable were his accents of Russian government officials that he met when he played a concert there, which served as the lead in to his free Pussy Riot declaration.  And to cap it all off, a fan threw a plush walrus on stage, which Paul took and put on top of his piano while he played “Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End.” It provided a fitting finale for Bonnaroo’s definitive set.

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