Way to fuck with everybody’s already-terrible grammar
Friday, June 12
Jose Gonzalez, Fiery Furnaces,
M.I.A., Raconteurs, Rilo Kiley,
The Swell Season, Metallica
all photos by Mark C. Austin
Jose Gonzalez kicked off our day with a dose of serious emotional investment and a hint of tragedy. González, a Swedish folk singer of Argentine descent, crafts rhythmic, heartrending songs for classical guitar and voice, and he was in fine form at Bonnaroo, where he played in one of the larger tents to a packed house. This seems like a good time to go over what is probably the most deliberately confusing part of this festival: the five main stages at Bonnaroo are named What Stage, Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent, The Other Tent. This results in conversations like, “Metallica is playing at which stage?” “No no—What Stage.” I imagine the festival organizers are sitting in their tent chuckling to themselves about making it damn near impossible for kids, the majority of which are already confused due to the copious amounts of pot they’ve been smoking, to find anything at all.
Back to the shows. After Gonzalez (who played, incidentally, in This Tent) we wandered over to the Sonic Stage (one of the smallest outdoor venues at Bonnaroo) to catch a short set by Brooklyn-based The Fiery Furnaces, who had played That Tent (see how confusing this is?) earlier in the day. Eleanor Friedberger, the group’s lead vocalist, was in a bad mood for some reason, and the set suffered from mic problems early on, but turned into one of my favorite shows so far. The FF’s perform rhythmically and lyrically complex music, switching time signatures and tempos effortlessly in the middle of songs. At times it seemed like they were phoning it in—they were obviously beat from the previous show—but by the end even Eleanor was smiling.
Next was The Swell Season (at This Tent), comprised of the Irish musician Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, a Czech pianist and vocalist. The duo first came into prominence with the movie Once, which portrays the beginning of their musical relationship (and, based one what I read on the all-knowing internet, in real life, it was the beginning of their romantic relationship as well). They were joined on stage by members of the Irish rock group The Frames, which Hansard also fronts. The group sang through all the tunes from Once, to the crowd’s delight, in addition to a few new tunes. At one point they started up a rhythmic instrumental vamp and Hansard invited “any poets in the audience” to the stage. A kid in a Threadless T-shirt made his way to the front of the tent, climbed onstage, and delivered a short, moving poem over the vamp, in broken rhythm. The crowd exploded, and Hansard gave him a hug. It was touchy-feely in the best sort of way.
The Raconteurs played the What Stage, the largest venue at Bonnaroo, which is appropriate considering how absolutely epic this supergroup is live. Brendan Benson and Jack White shared vocal duties and traded ripping guitar solos. I tend to file bands into two categories—those that write killer tunes and those that play the shit out of their instruments. In my experience, few bands can do both. The Raconteurs are one of those bands.
Next we saw Rilo Kiley, an LA-based indie band that released their fifth album, Under the Blacklight, late last year. RK makes west coast pop with an edge, full of eminently sing-able hooks and tight harmonies. Jenny Lewis led the group (in This Tent) in front of a medium-sized but enthusiastic crowd (RK had to compete with M.I.A., who played at the same time at That Tent). They played a lot of old songs and I spent a lot of time listening to the girl next to me shout out the lyrics with energy and enthusiasm but no, you know, talent.
We cut out of Rilo Kiley early to catch the last 45 minutes of M.I.A., and thank god we did—the British-born rapper of Sri Lankan descent put on one of the most exciting shows of the festival so far. M.I.A.’s charisma lies in her blatant disregard for lots of the bullshit that permeates professional music. Most of her best tracks are full of noises that sound cheap, like they came from dollar-store instruments, and this gives her music a sense of impermanency, but also of immediacy. During the show she occasionally wielded a bullhorn, which she mostly yelled through. At one point she invited girls onto the stage dance with her, followed by “Boyz.” For an encore she performed “Hussel,” a standout track from Kala, her most recent album, and Afrikan Boy, a Nigerian rapper that is featured on the album, but in a rare US appearance.
When we left That Tent, the sky had darkened and a light drizzle had started, so we hung out in the Karaoke tent until it was time for Metallica at the What Stage. I’m not a metalhead and I can’t claim to listen to Metallica regularly, but I can safely say that they put on a hell of a show. This was arena rock at its best, with well-timed fireworks shooting up from both sides of the stage at dramatic moments and what looked to be a dangerous mosh/mud pit. They played for 2.5 hours, and I think my attention wandered only once or twice, and that was when we were running low on beer.
More to come, including: Mason Jennings, B.B. King, Ben Folds, Cat Power, Kanye West, Chromeo and Lupe Fiasco.