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Live: Bamboozle Stimulates Every Sense (And Then Some)

So much to see, everywhere.
So much to see, everywhere.

The Bamboozle Meadowlands Friday, April 29-Sunday, May 1

Better than: Watching scene reports scroll by on Twitter.

In a lot of ways, the Bamboozle is a festival tailor-made for the current moment of constant distraction. The festival's running time over three days totals approximately 27 hours. There are eight stages of music, plus a stage for spoken-word and comedy bits. The 100-plus acts run the gamut, from critically approved hip-hop to critically reviled screamo to nostalgia-pricking acts from rock eras past. There's a wrestling ring where luchadores--led by the not very subtly named Dirty Sanchez--fling each other around; if that doesn't satiate your urge to watch competition, there's a breakdancing stage. There are carnival rides. There are tons of merch booths, some of which host autograph signings that attract long, snaking lines of eager fans. There's a psychic, an inflatable structure where one can procure free Trojans, and a place to charge your phone so you can keep up with the tweeting that details all the things you're missing. If you play your cards right and bring enough friends, it's quite possible to get a "full" Bamboozle experience without consciously hearing a single song in its entirety.

Which is not to say that the music wasn't worth hearing. There are few things more thrilling, for example, than hearing Lil Wayne completely body a track, even if his festival-closing set got a bit bogged-down by his worst rock impulses at times. Das Racist had me dancing and laughing and kicking myself for having never seen them before. (I know, I know.) The diptych set by the Wichita MC XV and the Philly duo Chiddy Bang that topped off Saturday's stint at the Spitters Stage was consistently entertaining, Sufjan sample and all. Machine Gun Kelly proved himself to be a restless dynamo, scaling the risers while showing off his rapidfire flow. Mötley Crüe's hour, despite Vince Neil sometimes going off the rails as far as enunciating all his lyrics, proved that the Bob Rock-produced Dr. Feelgood remains a rumbling beast, top to bottom. Eisley's cheery indiepop was incredibly catchy, and something I wished I'd heard more of over the weekend. And Wiz Khalifa revealed himself to be a bit of a sap, although his poppiest songs did pair well with the carnival rides. ("He has a song called 'Roll Up'--I figured that was about joints," one person who was unfamiliar with his ode to an already-attached lady lamented.)

Saturday night's one-two punch of Big K.R.I.T. and the Gaslight Anthem was my personal musical highlight, though. Big K.R.I.T. powered through his set like a man on a mission, flinging rhymes so absurdly precise that when he asked the crowd if it liked to get fucked up and subsequently agreed with their frenzied response, it was hard to believe that he wasn't sorta kidding. He seemed absolutely lucid and businesslike, and his utter professionalism thrilled me. I bailed near the tail end--the goings-on at Bamboozle overlap in such a way that any band planning out its set list should probably save its biggest hit for, say, third from the end, because the audience members all have to get a head start for the long walk across the parking lot--to catch the Gaslight Anthem, who were incredibly gracious and who motored through their Replacements-meets-Springsteen rock as if they, too, had some sort of greater purpose. The crowd sang along with the Bruce-endorsed "The '59 Sound," and the combination of that song and the carnival rides' lights whirring around the edges of my field of vision felt transformative. Immediately following them was Lil B, who, throughout his ragged set, added to the haze of positivity by spouting motivational slogans; he closed out the proceedings by telling the assembled that he loved them. He did this approximately 40 times. (Maybe 50.)

And speaking of love: The piano-fronted emo act Jack's Mannequin was the surprise guest on Sunday after the rumor mill expectorated the notions that Nicki Minaj or Fall Out Boy, but fronted by Hayley Williams (?), would take the evening's "TBD" slot. The treat--much more than their overwrought pop, which seems tailor-made for some sort of eventual Glee treatment--was the way the news of their set made its way out to the crowd. Young women dazedly loped over, mouthing the words to "Dark Blue" with their eyes alight, as if they'd been plucked from a dream. It was probably the festival's most heartwarming spectacle, if only because it showed how in this overheated moment where every movement by a musician gets eight blog posts and two press releases, the element of surprise can still jolt a crowd into action.

 

There were lots of dudes who seemed disappointed by Jack's Mannequin being the surprise guest, though, which was yet another example of Bamboozle's sorta-complicated relationship with gender. (As someone whose first taste of punk was the Kill Rock Stars riot-grrrl axis--and who had come from the explicitly woman-forward Ellen Willis conference, during which Bikini Kill/Le Tigre founder referred to herself as a "feminist Barney," on Saturday--I'm gonna notice these sorts of things.) Well, maybe "complicated" isn't quite the right word; maybe "regressive" is. Sure, there's the condom tent, which is great for getting people to be responsible about their sexuality. But the acts onstage are overwhelmingly male despite the audience's gender balance being more evenly split, and so was the rhetoric emanating from them; there were more than a few female fans who walked away from stages with disgusted looks once the paeans to womanhood, not all of which were all that positive, started flying. (One shining exception came during the set by the glossed-out, glammy Mike Del Rio, who I caught while walking from Mötley's set to Wayne's; he brought a woman onstage and the two traded off kicky exhortations about fucking like animals. It was nice to have that little bit of female sexual agency up there, if only for a few minutes.)

Transgression and Bamboozle, though, have a complicated relationship. The festival's roots are in punk and emo, but the presence of those sorts of bands has waned. The T-shirts say things like "Gaga has a weiner" and "Fuck Justin Bieber" and "Fuck Rebecca Black" (seriously?), but acts with chart-topping hits (Wiz Khalifa, Bruno Mars) play the main stages while 92.3 Now assists in sponsoring the dance tent. And then there's the dependence on mass-culture nostalgia to prick the senses and unite potential fans behind some sort of common cause--one band had a shirt that was basically the Ghostbusters 2 poster with the faces swapped out.

In a way, the entire money-printing career of the Insane Clown Posse, whose Faygo-drenched set caused quite a few people to somewhat abashedly shimmy despite lyrics about having fingernails (other peoples') stuck in their teeth, is based upon the perfect straddling of this line--they are so profitable that they are their own mainstream. If anything, it proved to me that next year someone should set up a booth and hawk shirts that just say "Fuck 'Fuck.'" I'm sure it would do gangbusters business, even as it would confuse people.

Critical bias: I was freezing for much of Friday and Sunday even though I had brought gloves and a scarf as fortification. Next year, I'm thinking that maybe I should forego the whole "journalism" thing and sell leggings and other outerwear.

Overheard: "I just want to see Mötley Crüe so I can tell my friends I saw Mötley Crüe. I don't, like, know any of their songs or anything, though."

Random notebook dump: Sunday afternoon I met a super-sweet Juggalette, in full facepaint and incredibly lush false eyelashes, from the Philly 'burbs who was excited by the prospect of seeing ICP for the first time. We're both Ke$ha sympathizers, as it turned out, so we bonded over how disappointed we were by the sound totally sucking during the gutter-pop star's set at last year's festival.

Final tally of acts by whom I saw at least one full song, in rough order: Audio Insight; Big Heed and Alien; Wiz Khalifa; New Found Glory with Marky Ramone; Thrice; Sleeping With Sirens; Six Stories Tall; The Movielife; Alkaline Trio; Hoodie Allen; Das Racist; Big K.R.I.T.; Gaslight Anthem; Lil B; XV; Chiddy Bang; Freddie Gibbs; Machine Gun Kelly; Fuel; Jack's Mannequin; Eisley; Pusha T; Bruno Mars; Insane Clown Posse; Mötley Crüe; Mike Del Rio; Lil Wayne. (I also caught most of the extremely hilarious set by Hannibal Burress, a few minutes of a pretty groanworthy hypnotist (paraphrased: "for my next trick, I'll make you think I have a big dick"), and a couple of songs spun by a DJ who goes by the name of Wait What, which was definitely my favorite nom de Bamboozle.)


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