The Roots of Bonnaroo: Day 3 Recap
Day 3 of the 2016 edition of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is in the books and fans are now 75% of the way through the four day lineup. It was a Saturday that was marked both by oppressive heat in the afternoon and the threat of a lightning storm in the evening hours that caused an unheard of evacuation of Centeroo for 45 minutes. There was also a lot of music to choose from on Saturday. Here’s how the day went down.
The Headliners: Pearl Jam
‘90s grunge rock titans Pearl Jam served as the anchor not only for Saturday, but also for the entire festival, being the #1 act on the card. Always more politically and socially aware in their lyrics than fellow grunge pioneers Nirvana, but more accessible than the harder edged Soundgarden, it’s no surprise that Pearl Jam is the only of the big three of grunge to survive uninterrupted. In their two hour set, singer Eddie Vedder and crew showed why they have become the new Grateful Dead, with fans following them on each tour stop, as their ever evolving setlists and out of nowhere covers have made each show unique. Of course, being Pearl Jam and being an election year, there were a couple of Eddie Vedder rants peppered into the crowd interaction, with this year’s targets being Donald Trump and the Tennessee State Representative who sponsored Bonnaroo’s home state’s transgendered bathroom bill. But politics aside, Pearl Jam remains as musically tight and cohesive as their heyday and their Bonnaroo performance was another feather in their already full caps.
Roots Performance of the Day: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
This was the closest race for roots performance of the day so far. Both Rateliff and Anderson East delivered opposite sides of the roots soul coin to great success. While East’s soul is more of the blue-eyed variety, Rateliff and band offer up a more heaven and hell variety, pulling from African American gospel traditions but filtering through the booze-soaked walls of a local watering hole. With their self-titled debut album a year old this month, Rateliff and company had enough buzz to draw an impressive crowd to This Tent for his hour long set. The songs were even heavier and more hard edged live, with the band cranking the amps to near hard rock levels and causing their guitars to scream in a way not seen among Southern rockers since the heyday of the Charlie Daniels Band. The final song, Rateliff’s hit “S.O.B.” saw him joined by Friday’s roots artist of the day Leon Bridges and that last shot is what separates him just enough to claim the title.
Non-Roots Performance of the Day: The Claypool Lennon Delirium
After a weekend filled with artists who are in large part building on the musical landscapes of their father or trying to hearken back to it, it’s easy to begin to think there’s nothing new under the sun. Then you see The Claypool Lennon Delirium. The collaboration between Primus frontman Les Claypool and Sean Lennon eludes genre description, unless “weird” is a genre. There’s some comparison to be drawn with The Beatles because Sean Lennon looks and sings enough like his father to be eerie, but even The Beatles at their most psychedelic never approached this level of strange. While I personally have never partaken of psychedelic drugs, I can only imagine that if you took a handful of magic mushrooms and played your copy of Sgt. Pepper with a Les Claypool bassline pasted in, you’d approximate the band’s sound. If that sounds like a train wreck it is, but it’s a beautiful train wreck, with a refreshing improvisational depth and an absolute conviction by the band’s primaries that makes it near impossible not to get caught up in.
Best of the Rest
I walked out of Anderson East’s early afternoon set convinced I’d be featuring him as the roots performance of the day. While he didn’t quite keep that title, it was a close thing. East’s boyish looks hide an artist steeped in the blue eyed soul of James Taylor and Paul Simon mixed with heavy doses of Americana twang. East’s 2014 album Delilah caused many to predict he’d become the next Americana “it” artist, following in the footsteps of recent tourmates Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. East certainly did nothing in his hour set to give the impression that’s not still the case. This kid is going places and I have a feeling the next time he plays Bonnaroo, it will be on one of the festival’s two main stages.
No one came into Bonnaroo with more buzz than Chris Stapleton. The former Steeldrivers vocalist has done the near impossible by becoming an artist embraced both by country music’s mainstream and by its Americana wing. Stapleton’s packed crowd at Bonnaroo’s biggest stage, What Stage, was an indication of how far his reach currently is. While a Centeroo rumor of a surprise Justin Timberlake appearance at Stapleton’s set did not materialize, Stapleton did bring along a couple of guests in his wife and songwriting partner Morgane and producer Dave Cobb on guitar. Not surprisingly, the set closer was Stapleton’s hit “Tennessee Whiskey” and the crowd sang along like it was already a standard.
One of the things unique to Bonnaroo is its annual Superjam, a two hour themed concert that promises once in a lifetime collaborations between diverse artists. In celebration of its 15th birthday, Bonnaroo dedicated this year’s Superjam to the diverse musical heritage of its home state. The Superjam, curated by jazz artist Kamasi Washington, was shorter on country than one would expect from a Tennesee themed show, but with a Bluegrass Situation Superjam left to come on Sunday, it’s hardly surprising. The real draw of a Superjam is seeing which artists work and which don’t when playing outside their comfort zone. The 2016 Superjam included some strong points, such as Washington’s spot on arrangement of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Fantasy” and Allen Stone’s extended jam session on B.B. King’s “Thrill is Gone”, but also produced some flat spots as well, such as Third Eye Blind’s cringe worthy attempt to cover Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and a vocal rendition of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” that was limp enough to be in need of a dose of Viagra.
Only at Bonnaroo Moment of the Day:
Since it’s the 15th anniversary, Bonnaroo has brought out a bunch of the set pieces that have decorated The Farm in years past. These include the metal firefly art, the cuckoo clock that one topped the fire tower and, most celebrated by longtime fans, the bobbleheads that graced Centeroo for the first decade of the festival. But one Bobble didn’t make it. Out in campground Pod 2, one bobble head sits alone, but only the head on a large pole, not the body portion. This not only rendered the sole function of a bobblehead non-functional, but also looked a bit like a call back to Game of Thrones. Whatever that bobble did to get beheaded, I hope he’s at peace.
Sunday is the last day of Bonnaroo and by far the most roots-heavy of the lot, with Ed Helms and The Bluegrass Situation taking over That Tent all day and performances elsewhere by Jason Isbell, Cymande, and Charles Bradley. Stay tuned.