Bonnaroo Day 1: MGMT, The Weather Underground, Back Door Slam


photos by Mark C. Austin

Day One: First Impressions

Thursday, June 12
Back Door Slam
The Weather Underground

I’m a believer. The skepticism I worried about in my last post has faltered in the face of thousands of music fans, great live music, and what is turning out to be a fantastic festival experience. Considering how enormous it is, Bonnaroo runs pretty smoothly. Catering to 80,000 drug-addled festival-goers is no small feat, but the staff here seems to have it down to a science. Sound systems at most of the stages are better than many of the small clubs I’ve been to. The atmosphere is a cross between a carnival and New York Noise, with a bunch of friendly hippies thrown in for good measure.

Due to a delayed flight and general incompetence in the rental-car-navigation department on my part, we arrived at the ‘Roo a bit later than expected. We eventually walked onto the festival grounds to catch the last half of a set by the UK’s unfortunately named Back Door Slam. The band’s debut release, Roll Away, recently reached #7 on Billboard’s Blues chart, and for good reason. Davy Knowles, the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, is talented like very few bluesmen these days. He shreds like a young Robert Cray and wails like the love of his life was just hit by a truck. Live, Back Door Slam reminds me of the Black Keys but with simple, straightforward backbeats in place of Patrick Carney’s complex breaks. Highly recommended.

Back Door Slam

Next on the lineup was MGMT, which released their debut album, Oracular Spectacular, to rave reviews last year. The Brooklyn-based band attracted one of the larger crowds of the evening, though the fact that Battles and Vampire Weekend were playing on the same stage a bit later may have had some effect on crowd size. MGMT played their hits (“Time to Pretend”, “Electric Feel,”) straight through, in what sounded like a note-for-note, riff-for-riff recreation of their album. This is not necessarily a good thing. That said, the band’s special brand of psychedelic electro-pop is custom-made for a festival like Bonnaroo, where the crowd is large, of various ages and looking for any reason to dance, or at least jump up and down.

After MGMT, we crowded into a smaller tent to catch the last few songs of a set by CA-based band The Weather Underground, who boast a lead singer with a badass name (Harley Prechtel-Cortez) and a voice to match. The group favors 50s and early-60s hooks and changes, but the whole retro façade is blown apart by Prechtel-Cortez’s howl, which is decidedly modern. Catchy and earnest, this is a band to watch.

Half an hour later, we were packed into the third row of a screaming crowd in a small tent waiting for the Somalian rapper K’naan to come onstage. K’naan is a puzzling guy, in my opinion, largely because he doesn’t quite fit into any predetermined genre in the US. Before moving to Toronto in his ‘teens, he was an armed combatant in Somalia’s chaotic and never ending turf wars, and he mines his conflict experience for material. His 2005 debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, is loaded with ambition and scathing asides (“I make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit”), but has an undeniable positive bent, which he chose to emphasize at the show. Many of K’naan’s best rhymes come out fast and with a sense of urgency that is understandable, considering his background, but he occasionally slips into a cheesy mode that is not particularly suited to hip hop. He played with a DJ/vocalist, a guitarist and a big dude that played the djembe (a djembeist?), but the main attraction was obviously K’naan himself, who rapped a few tracks with only audience hand claps as backing. Largely ignored by much of the American music scene, K’naan certainly had a following here at Bonnaroo.

More to come later, including: Jose Gonzalez, The Fiery Furnaces, The Swell Season, M.I.A. (though there are rumors she might cancel), and Rilo Kiley.