The Roots of Bonnaroo 2017 Saturday Recap: Joseph, Superjam, and Chance the Rapper
The third day of the 2017 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is in the books and it was the true definition of a full day of music. My musical Saturday at Bonnaroo began at Noon and ended at 3:00 Sunday morning with barely a moment of downtime. They say Bonnaroo is a marathon, not a sprint and for me on this day, that was certainly the case. Here were the highlights.
The Headliner: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Friday featured arguably the biggest name of the ’80s in U2 and Saturday turned the clock forward a decade by featuring one of the biggest rock acts of the ’90s, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Unlike U2, The Peppers aren’t celebrating any milestone anniversaries, so there were no complete albums. Instead, the band focused on what they do best, showcasing their array of hits in a 90 minute set heavy on funky finger gymnastics from bassist Flea. While RHCP was never my musical cup of tea, as a bass player it’s hard not to be impressed by Flea’s skill and, as someone who went to college in the ’90s, also nearly impossible to not know enough of “Californication” and “Give It Away” to sing along.
Roots Performances of the Day: Joseph
That’s not a typo. While Portland-based sister trio Joseph are taking this prize alone, they are doing it for multiple performances. Joseph was busy on Saturday. It began in the press area where the sisters performed a short set of stripped down songs for the assembled media. Later that afternoon they and their band plugged in for a full set at a packed That Tent. Even later, they performed at the Superjam. Joseph features the kind of tight vocal harmonies you only find in sibling groups and songs like “S.O.S. (Overboard)” made great use of the sisters’ perfectly interlocking vocals. But what truly makes Joseph special is that anytime you see them there’s a vibe of absolute joy that can’t be faked. These ladies truly love their jobs and it shows.
Non-Roots Performance of the Day: Soul Shakedown Superjam
“Wait”, some of you who have followed my dispatches all weekend may cry. “How does the Preservation Hall Jazz Band turn in the roots performance of the day on Friday, but the non-roots performance of the day on Saturday? Honestly, I debated putting the Superjam under the “roots” category until the moment I fired up my computer. With names like Margo Price, Joseph, and Lukas Nelson involved, it certainly cleared the bar. Even some of the songs, by names like Al Green and The Rolling Stones, would work. But then there’s the rest of the set.
For those unfamiliar, The Superjam is a once in a lifetime collaboration between artists and is the signature event of Bonnaroo. While always highly anticipated by Bonnaroovians, the last couple of years’ Superjams got a lot of criticism for being too structured, feeling more like celebrity karaoke than a “jam.” Any concerns about that from this Superjam were alleviated as soon as the show began when Preservation Hall’s Ben Jaffe led his band, with The Meters’ George Porter and bandleader Jon Batiste rounding out the house, through that highly traditional New Orleans jazz staple “Everybody Dance Now” by C&C Music Factory. Ever heard an ’80s novelty dance hit remixed with a horn section and live bass by one of the masters of that instrument? If you were at Bonnaroo’s Superjam, you have now.
The choices got no less interesting from there. Whether it was Joseph and Nicole Atkins providing backing vocals on Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”, a burlesque troupe doing a routine to a jazzy mashup of “Superfreak” and “Can’t Touch This”, or Jason Huber of Cherub blasting through Bruno Mars’ “24k Magic”, it became apparent that this Superjam would be one for the ages.
While the various iterations of people coming and leaving the stage are impossible to list out here, there were some highlights. For any roots music fan, getting to watch Lukas Nelson and Margo Price duet on Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” was a treat. Later, Joseph put a unique spin on TLC’s “Waterfalls” with their rendition.
But the true highlight came at the end of the night when pre-headliner Chance the Rapper joined the Superjam. Chance has been to Bonnaroo the past four years in a row, whether he’s booked to play or not, so this kind of instant collaboration is right up his alley. The show closed with a Chance-led all-star sing of Outkast’s hit “Hey Ya” that got the overflow crowd pumped. I’ve been to a lot of Superjams in my years of covering Bonnaroo, but there’s just nothing that prepares you as a writer for trying to describe Chance the Rapper, George Porter, Joseph, Nicole Atkins, Ben Jaffe, and a burlesque performer all singing a ’90s hip hop tune. Suffice it to say, however odd (and spectacular) it sounds in print, you can triple it for those who were there.
Best of the Rest
I usually take the remainder of my Bonnaroo day in chronological order, but this time I’m going to start with the man who made his star shine brightest. Chance the Rapper is already headlining festivals just below Bonnaroo’s size and, in his set on Saturday, he made his case to be Bonnaroo’s next headliner as well. While technically the sub-headliner for RHCP, Chance drew a bigger audience, had production values nearly as strong, and put in the kind of “see it to believe it” show you want from a festival anchor. Even if you don’t like hip hop, it’s nearly impossible not to like Chance. He’s not the first rapper to try and meld black gospel chorus music into his songs, but he’s easily the most successful. But, like Joseph earlier in tonight’s recap, what makes Chance so ultimately watchable is his unadulterated happiness at being on stage. Already possessed of boyish features, Chance lights up like a child at Christmas anytime he sets foot on a Bonnaroo stage and you can’t help but root for him.
River Whyless will get their opportunity to impress on the big stage Sunday, but they warmed up on Saturday with a short performance and interview on Bonnaroo’s Solar Stage. Sponsored by Rock the Earth, the interview touched on their musical history and also their political and social activism, especially toward the National Resources Defense Council and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Reuben Bidez, who I chatted with on Friday, finally got his chance to impress at the Who Stage and impress he did. With his full band in tow, the show was more electric than many who only know his solo work might find surprising. The Beatles’-loving Bidez also got in a cover of “I Want You” that was well received.
Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real should know a thing or two about putting on a great show by now, with Lukas’ father Willie Nelson and recent tourmate Neil Young as mentors. They definitely do. The Southern rockers fended off the blistering sun with some blistering guitar work that at times channeled both of their legendary mentors. British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka offered a very different, if no less entertaining, option. Kiwanuka’s slowly wailing guitar and almost unearthly vocals were a perfect counterpoint to the raw aggression of Promise of the Real.
Only at Bonnaroo Moment of the Day: The Bonnaroo Beacon
In a time when newspapers are struggling to maintain readership in a digital age and are constantly under fire for being “fake news,” it’s nice to know there’s a daily newspaper that has been thriving for over a decade now. Of course, it helps when said newspaper only publishes four days a year (and doesn’t cover the political beat). But since 2003, The Bonnaroo Beacon has been there for Bonnaroovians each morning. With seven stages and dozens of activities, it’s impossible to see everything, so The Beacon provides a chance to catch up on what happened at the other stages, as well as learn more about the lineup through interviews and features.
Sunday brings the final day of Bonnaroo 2017, with a headlining set by The Weeknd and enough roots music to fill the remainder of the day, including Ed Helms’ Bluegrass Situation stage and Superjam, rising New Orleans act Tank & the Bangas, and the brightest star in Americana today, Miss Margo Price.