Bonnaroo 2016 has officially begun and I’m on site all weekend to bring you the best roots music and other non-roots artists who bring this goods. I will also be bringing you interviews backstage with various artists.
The Arrival and Setup
Arrival at Bonnaroo is always a challenge. You take a small off the interstate town and turn it into the seventh biggest city in Tennessee for four days. That means gridlock, or at least it did. This year, there was none of that. Rumors abounded about attendance being down in 2016 though no official figures have been released. Whether it was that or the fact that the campgrounds have been letting fan in a day early the last couple of years, there was virtually no gridlock and the hour and a half it usually takes us to get from Manchester city limits to campgrounds took 25 minutes this year.
Another upgrade came from the controversial “pay for camping” fee Live Nation implemented this year. While no one likes paying $60 for something that’s been free in the past, the fact that it’s now a rented space means that Bonnaroo has marked out the real estate, ensuring everyone gets their fair space where in the past, your space depended on how wide your parking attendant would allow you to swing.
But on to the music. Bonnaroo’s first day is an abbreviated one, with the two main stages shut down and the focus placed on the smaller artists. This is usually a good day for roots music as acts like Hayes Carll, Sarah Jarosz, and Karen Ellson have graced the Thursday stage before going on to bigger things. But this year, despite there being tons of conflicting roots acts throughout the rest of the weekend, this year’s crop of roots acts on Thursday was limited.
Roots Performance of the Day: The Quaildogs
Where a vacuum exists, a fill opportunity arises. With no roots acts playing the main tents, that opportunity was grabbed by Atlanta’s The Quaildogs. The winners of Georgia’s Road to Bonnaroo competition, the band played the Miller Lite Lounge to a small crowd that grew significantly as the set went on. Possessed of a Southern rock root and a harmonic dual guitar sound reminiscent of the Dickey Betts-era Allman Brothers. But while the songs were good, what made The Quaildogs own the day was their energy. All band members, but especially the acoustic guitarist and mandolin player, who bounded around the stage playing to the crowd and making sure everyone was having a great time. Their 45 minute set included two covers, a sped up rendition of “Come Together” and a surprising but effective reworking of The Cranberries “Zombie.”
Non-Roots Show of the Day- Bully
In an era where genre lines have blurred, it seems like every band now has a hyphenated label attached to them. Even punk rock, the most contrary of all genres, has succumbed as now you can find pop-punk, power-punk, post-punk, and even the seemingly oxymoronic dance punk on your Itunes genres list. But sometimes you just want a pure rendition of a genre played well. Enter Bully. The rising stars on the Nashville club scene toss out all of the labels to dish out good old fashioned primal screaming, guitar crunching, hyper-fast pure punk rock. And they’re really good at it. Singer Alicia Bognanno, sporting a serious case of bed head, because what’s more punk in the era of the selfie than not caring what your hair looks like, hit the stage with all the swagger and bravado of a young Joey Ramone and their packed set never relented. Bully is going places and, if there’s any room for un-hyphenated punk rock in the world any more, the band should be leading that charge.
Best of the Rest
Thursday may have been a down day for Americana, but it was a good day to be a fan of funk. The festival opened with a set by San Francisco’s Con Brio. The term con brio is most scene in classical music and translates to “play vigorously.” If you’re going to name your band that, you’d better be ready to bring the goods and Con Brio delivers. Existing in the James Brown funk mold, the group strutted through a 45 minute set full of callbacks, crowd banter, and lots and lots of yelled “Ow’s” for good measure. It’s music to dance to and plenty in the Bonnaroo audience did just that.
Later in the night came a set from Vulfpeck. More grounded in the ‘70s falsetto-laced groove, Vulfpeck drew one of the biggest crowds of the night for every song. But they’re not a band for everyone. There’s a strong element of hipster self-awareness to Vulfpeck’s minimalist recreations and that can rub some the wrong way. Musically, they’re extremely tight, but there’s a fine line between self-aware and self-parody. Vulfpeck never crossed that line for me, but they tightrope walked it all set.
Rounding out the day was Brooklyn’s Mail the Horse. The band was in an interesting position because their midnight straddling timeslot meant their new EP Magnolia hits stores literally in the middle of their set. The band’s website calls them a “Grunge Gospel/Country Blues Rock Band”, which is a lot of genre pegs to hang your hat on. Predictably, Mail the Horse hits some of those tropes better than others, sounding much more “Dylan goes electric” than “Pearl Jam.” But they were a perfect closer to the night. Fat and fuzzed guitar licks interweave through the organ and pedal steel wall of sound to produce a dream-like effect that worked to end the day.
Only at Bonnaroo Moment of the Day:
Every festival has its people who dress up, although most content themselves with hippie flower crowns and culturally appropriated cornrows and headdresses. But at Bonnaroo, there’s a costuming community that would be the envy of most comic conventions. Over the course of Thursday, I saw a Green Power Ranger, a “Roonicorn”, an eerily accurate Oompa Loompa, and a Transformer. Considering the 90 degree heat these folks have to endure, that’s dedication!
I’ll be back tomorrow with another daily recap, as well as an interview with Australian folk rocker Henry Wagons.