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From The Bonnaroo Beacon: First Impressions

by Mike Greenhaus on June 13, 2014

Photo by John Patrick Gatta

“I had no idea what to expect at my first Bonnaroo, and that was the best part!” Cherub’s Jason Huber said when polled about his expectations going into his first Bonnaroo back in 2006. “But the first time we played the festival, I had been waiting over six years to yell, ‘What's up Bonnaroo?!?!’”

Huber’s thoughts summed up the spirit of Bonnaroo’s opening day. In certain ways, Bonnaroo’s Thursday night party has always felt somewhere between the first night of summer camp and Thanksgiving Eve. There is a palpable energy in the air as old friends reconnect, new festival patrons figure out the nooks and crannies of their temporary home and everyone’s Bonnaroo ADD somehow always seems to kick in at the same time. With the fest’s massive What and Which Stages still dark for another night, fans and musicians alike are free to wander between tents, searching for the next “it band” or summer festival star.

During the past few years, Bonnaroo’s opening night has blossomed into not only a place to catch emerging and blog-ready buzz bands before they graduate to more visible performance spots, but also a time when musicians who came of age attending Bonnaroo are finally able to return as fans. In certain ways, Huber’s story brings the Bonnaroo experience full circle: He jammed in the campgrounds as a fan and volunteer during his first few visits, scored a chance to play a café stage in 2012 and, last night, drew perhaps the evening’s largest crowd as half of Cherub.

As the sun set and revealed an almost full moon—an eerie Friday the 13th reminder—Bonnaroo plugged in right before the electro-charged, indie-dance act took the stage. Playing before a sprawling, rage-stick-clad crowd that stretched to Centeroo, they offered their own signature number “Doses & Mimosas,” and hooked their crowd with a take on David Guetta’s massive “You Make Me Feel Like.”Like marquee act Vampire Weekend, who had a similar trajectory from fan to Thursday performer, it felt as if Cherub had fully moved to the other side of the Bonnaroo rail.

Perhaps more than other festival of its size and scope, Bonnaroo’s open-eared ethos, famously passionate audience and overall post-hippie vibe serve as something of a rallying point for bands looking to make The Farm a unique stop of their summer tour. Sometimes it is as subtle as a more sincere level of comfort between fans and performers. Other times it is a more direct nod to the festival’s heady roots.

Both were on display last night. Bully, a punky, guitar-rock band from nearby Nashville, Tenn. officially opened the weekend’s musical festivities with a 60-minute set in the New Music on Tap Lounge. Fronted by Alicia Bognanno, who is still in her mid-20s, the quartet immediately drew a sizable crowd filled mostly with new listeners eager to hear some live music after their long treks to The Farm. Both the band and the audience embraced the Bonnaroo spirit from the start—to the point where Bognanno thanked the audience for being “so nice” and even introduced the crowd to her younger sister, who was in attendance.

Across Centeroo, The Preatures, who are currently one of Australia’s top pop-rock bands, opened That Tent while another Nashville act, the rock/country/folk/blues hybrid band The Wild Feathers, kicked off the action in The Other Tent. Their decidedly Tennessee mix of styles—not to mention a few cowboy hats—served as a fitting welcome to the state that harbors Music City.

For the early part of the day, This Tent paid homage to Bonnaroo’s trademark Venn diagram indie/jam/Americana meeting place. North Carolina-bred and Los Angeles-based guitarist Jonathan Wilson, the stage’s first act, filtered his folky Laurel Canyon sound through the lens of Jerry Garcia’s guitar solos, CSN’s harmonies and Jackson Browne’s weighty songs on numbers like “Gentle Spirit” and “Valley of the Silver Moon.” Domino Records singer/songwriter-turned-post-jam-bandleader Cass McCombs offered a fleshed out and groovy take catalog numbers like “Love Thine Enemy” characteristic of his recent work. Furthur drummer and five-time Bonnaroo veteran Joe Russo, who first connected with McCombs during a jam session at Bob Weir’s studio, drove the band through their psychedelic-folk tunes with a balance of patience and power.

New Jersey indie rockers Real Estate embraced the festival’s jamband roots more directly. They took the stage to a version of the Grateful Dead’s geographically appropriate classic “Tennessee Jed”—they waited a minute to pick up their instruments to sing-along at the start of the show—and teased a bit of the Dead-adopted blues gem “Turn on Your Lovelight.” Shortly after bassist Alex Bleeker asked the vocal crowd if they still brought glowsticks to the festival, another hallmark of Bonnaroo’s early years, they closed with a loose, extended version of their song “All the Same.”

Over the years, Bonnaroo has also spearheaded the fusion of electronic dance music and live performance, and the fruits of those labors were on full display last night. Robert DeLong served as an early highlight and dug into a New Wave groove by sampling Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” (He also did an encore set in the Silent Disco.) Break Science, whose members have rubbed elbows with Bonnaroo’s hip-hop, electronica and jamband factions over the years, brought things back to festival co-promoters Superfly’s New Orleans roots by inviting out trumpeter Maurice Brown and trombonist Big Sam for this year’s first sit-in (Big Sam, who likely holds the record for most performances in a weekend thanks to his 2010 marathon run was onsite to play a show for VIP ticketholders with his band Funky Nation.) Showing off their diversity, they also nodded to Kendrick Lamar.

Some of the day’s best musicals offerings took place outside of the festival’s traditional tent spaces, too. Longtime Bonnaroo favorites, Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog played a stealth show in the campgrounds on the Teva Stage. A seated, but engaged crowd sang along to a smattering of originals including “County Line.” Shortly before midnight, an illuminated parade led by the lit-up Big Red Beetle snaked around Bonnaroo’s mushroom fountain as High & Mighty Brass Band played. Communion Records, a label co-founded by Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons— one of Bonnaroo’s biggest success stories—took over the intimate Sonic Stage for a day-long showcase. Mississippi indie group The Weeks and Welsh indie crew Catfish and the Bottlemen, who have only played a handful of US shows, were two highlights. A diverse cast that included STAX singer William Bell and rapper Al Kapone celebrated the film Take Me to the River with a revue in the Cinema Tent. Meanwhile, fans dashed in and out of the Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Barn while Tiki Disco played and the popular Brooklyn, N.Y. restaurant Roberta’s slung pizza.

As Thursday segued into Friday, several unofficial evening headliners nodded to the fest’s roots in their own way. Backed only by a keyboardist, a prerecorded loop and his own hand claps, Syrian singer Omar Souleyman offered a series of infectious, Middle Eastern-inspired songs that recalled the fest’s world music-themed tents in years past. Capping off a day of music where almost every band seemed used psychedelic as a descriptor no matter what genre of music they played, Ty Segall charged through a set of punishing hard-rock jams that owed a debt to both heavy metal and acid rock. He also opened up his stage to some friends who used the opportunity to crowd dive into the rowdy audience.

But perhaps Austin’s White Denim, making their second pilgrimage to the ‘Roo this year, truly summed up the festival’s spirit while barely uttering a word. An indie rock group raised on both garage rock and Widespread Panic, the quartet glided between complex jazzy passages, prog-rock scales and tight rock hooks with the ease of a Bonnaroo fan bouncing between stages. They could have played before or after almost any band on Thursday’s bill and, perhaps most important, proved that, above all else, Bonnaroo is still a festival that values musicianship.

Sometimes, the appetizer is the best part of the meal.

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