Roots of Bonnaroo 2017: Thursday Recap
The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival opened their 2017 edition on June 8 at a crossroads. After a disastrous 2016 that saw headliners Pearl Jam, Dead & Company, and LCD Soundsystem draw 45,000 fans, only slightly more than half the festival’s peak attendance, this year, Bonnaroo has doubled down on the popular EDM and pop genres, but also scored arguably the biggest band in the world, U2, for their first ever American festival appearance.
But all of that is in the future. Bonnaroo’s first day is always about rising stars, with the marquee names coming later in the weekend. So how did Bonnaroo do for roots offerings on Thursday? Not too bad. While there was no Hayes Carll, Alabama Shakes, or Sarah Jarosz, all past Bonnaroo Thursday artists, there was interesting new music to be had for those who took the time to look.
The Headliner: 2017 Stanley Cup Finals
Thursdays at Bonnaroo don’t technically have a headliner. The two main stages, What and Which, remain dark for the abbreviated day, allowing the young acts to get full attention. But this year required special accommodations as, for the first time in the franchise’s history, the hometown Nashville Predators are in the Stanley Cup finals. Bonnaroo’s solution was to open its second biggest stage, Which, and show the game on the large video screens. It might seem like an odd choice for a music festival, but it proved a popular one at least in the beginning as the Predators drew a crowd bigger than most of the stages at the game’s outset. Unfortunately, The Predators got drubbed 6-0 by the rival Pittsburgh Penguins and by the end of the game, only a few thousand hardcore fans remained.
Roots Artists of the Day: Walden
Athens, Georgia’s Walden came to Bonnaroo via the Georgia version of the Road to Bonnaroo competition. While they don’t display the flash and theatrics often required to win those “battle of the bands” style competitions, they make up for it in energy and stage presence. Given the enthusiastic overflow crowd at Bonnaroo’s Miller Lite On Tap club stage, their fans also travel well.
The band’s 45 minute set was pure no frills guitar rock. Like many bands regionally near Bonnaroo, they had history with the festival, having come in 2013 as fans. Vocalist Richard Becker told of seeing that year’s headliner, Paul McCartney, and being in awe at getting to play the same festival he did. The band honored McCartney with a show closing medley of Beatles, McCartney, and John Lennon songs that included “Let It Be”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Imagine”, “Maybe I’m Amazed”, and a closing sing-along of “Hey Jude.”
While you will hear a lot of complaining about the new direction Bonnaroo has taken with an increased focus on EDM and pop, some of it likely from me, the upside of having less “name” roots options on the main stages is being able to discover bands like Walden on the smaller ones. They’ve already begun to cultivate a wider following with tours opening for Moon Taxi and Twiddle.
Non-Roots Performance of the Day: Turkuaz
The beauty of a festival like Bonnaroo is its diversity, allowing a fan to sample a wide range of genres. And on Thursday, the highlight performance in any genre came from Turkuaz. The 9 piece act from Brooklyn refer to themselves as “power funk” and they bring plenty of both to the stage. While taking place late in the day, the infectious grooves laid down by Turkuaz’s wall of guitars and horns kept the audience dancing throughout.
The secret to Turkuaz’s success is their ability to walk the tightrope of taking the craft of having fun very seriously. The current trend among funk artists is a hipster ironic stance, a winking smirk that can sometimes cross the line from self-awareness to playing down to your audience. Turkuaz never goes there. Like all great funk acts, even the most over the top ones like Parliament, Turkuaz brings the party without looking down on the party goers.
Best of the Rest
If you needed any proof of the changing landscape of Bonnaroo, look no further than the artist who kicked off the day, Luke Combs. More suited to the nearby CMA Festival than Bonnaroo’s past (and a recent CMA Award nominee), Combs’ brand of pop country was well received and he scored a large audience for an early afternoon show.
Arkansas native Welles brought a psychedelic garage rock to the Bonnaroo stage. Pulling influence from both The Beatles and Nirvana, Welles pulled off the dreamy fuzzed tones of a ’60s psychedelic rocker with the back to basics ethos of a child of the grunge era.
Punk rockers The Orwells know a thing or two about drawing a Bonnaroo audience, having played an overflowing Cafe Stage in 2014. Vocalist Mario Cuomo is a master at the character he plays, a mischief loving cross between Joey Ramone and Dennis the Menace. In addition to their own works, The Orwells also pulled out a cover of The Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes” that showed Cumo can do a mean Jack White vocal take when the mood strikes him.
Closing out the night were Vermont jammers Twiddle. One of the few jam acts on the 2017 lineup, the band was recently moved to a 90 minute Late Night set after complaints from some fans about the lack of non-EDM options on the Late Night calendar. Twiddle took advantage of the time change and lengthened set, showing off the extended solos and genre-bending mid-song shifts that have gained them a cult following on the jam circuit.
Only at Bonnaroo Moment of the Day: The Other
New to Bonnaroo in 2017 is The Other. Occupying the space where The Other Tent once stood, The Other is a dedicated EDM and hip hop stage, with full light show and production. It’s the most glaring example of the direction Bonnaroo is moving so, in the interest of science, I went where no roots-publication writer has gone before and braved the belly of the beast.
The Other is easy to find. The thing is lit up like the Las Vegas Strip and can likely be seen from the International Space Station. As I approached the stage, DJ G Jones started his set and my internal organs began to quiver. To put it in perspective, I have been front row speaker side at numerous death metal shows and none of them ever threatened to liquefy my spleen like the bass emanating from The Other.
Random images of eyeballs flashed on the screens. Lasers shot over the crowd. People danced. I was not one of them. This was because I could not find the beat. While I attempted to work out whether we stomped on the 1 and the 3 or the 2 and the 4 (the White Boy Godzilla being the only dance I know), the remainder of the audience appeared to be on the 6, or the 27, or the 79. I beat a hasty retreat, my organs safe for now. I have never felt so old.
Friday at Bonnaroo brings sets from the likes of U2, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Angelique Kidjo’s Remain in Light, as well as an interview with Nashville singer Reuben Bidez. Check in here tomorrow and all weekend for the latest.