Bonnaroo has a special healing power that somehow allows you to stay up into the early morning hours to squeeze in every possible show and then jump out of your cot with only a few hours of sleep, hungry for more music. After celebrating the music of Tom Petty until well past 3:30 in the morning and following a glowing, oversized Beetle to the Kaliope stage just to check out what all the hype was about, I was thankful that The Farm has that mysterious rejuvenating effect.
After already lending their talents leading and supporting several songs at the SuperJam!, I was happy to find that Americana psychedelic folk rockers Larkin Poe had also fully recharged and were ready to breathe some life into an early afternoon Who Stage Crowd. Whether employing electric guitar, mandolin, or lap steel, the sisters put a rocking twist on songs with an Americana core. Making sure that the crowd was immersed in the music and energy, the duo took turns coming to the edge of the stage to the frequent cheers of the audience. It was the kind of high-energy show that gets a festival day on the right track.
Sometimes it’s hard to exactly describe an artist—it’s just something that you have to hear for yourself. With anthemic pop hooks meeting with roots rock influences, Matt Maeson is one of those artists. Boasting a sound too big to be contained by the confines of the New Music Lounge, I watched as the crowd quickly thickened with passersby literally running towards the beckoning performance, some jumping, spinning, and dancing along the way. Impressively, Maeson’s lyrics had a reflective and delightfully depressive depth to his usual pop-rich rock sound and he added a bluesy edge to the slower parts to accent the mood.
More than just a stellar R&B and gospel singer, more than just a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mavis Staples poignantly proclaims her history as a witness to the origins of the American civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Having not lost a step and with a voice that remains as strong as ever, Staples took command of Bonnaroo’s Which Stage—a stage with a bit of a reputation for swallowing up often quieter classic artists in the din of surrounding tents and stages. Having seen Staples in concert before, I was impressed by how the Bonnaroo spotlight seemed to inspire a fresh energy in her show right down to the dance-worthy bass groove accompanying her performance.
Having (mostly) shed his early hip-hop and rap roots, no one can deny that Rag’n’Bone Man has blazed into the music scene. With his distinct baritone voice and direct vocal delivery, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man has a natural sadness in his sound that pairs well with his modern blues and soul style. In his own words, “I don’t have that many happy songs because I am a miserable person.” Thanking the crowd for coming to see him over so many other choices, he humbly observed that people in the United States do not know who he is as well as his following in the United Kingdom. However, the roar from the audience when he started an extended version of his viral-famous hit “Human” proved that he is a household name to many people no matter where he goes.
Whether fact or legend or somewhere in between, Old Crow Medicine Show takes credit as being the first band to play at the very first Bonnaroo. With bold personalities, dynamic stage presence, and some good ol’ fashioned stringband Americana, the veteran festival performers put on one of the liveliest sets of the year. Playing to the expectant crowd, the band, of course, included their famous “original” version of “Wagon Wheel” and the Tennessee favorite “Rocky Top.” As a fellow festival goer observed the next day, “Old Crow made us feel like family.”
My Saturday at Bonnaroo ended with the most polar opposite artists that I could imagine. First up was First Aid Kit. Making up for one of my regrets from the 2014 Bonnaroo where I only caught the last three songs from the Swedish folk duo, I made sure to have a prime viewing location for their entire 2018 set. Over the last couple of years, the band has taken on a rockier edge, featuring more electric guitar and intense vocal pairings. Following their 2014 set, I filed their music in the country-folk genre. Now I would say the duo has evolved into a more dynamic and wider influenced Americana sound where country, rock, blues, and folk join together. This change was clearest in the vastness of their current live take on of one of my favorites from the group, “The Lion’s Roar,” which added an almost spacey quality to the song’s driving rhythm. Also more prominent was their message supporting women’s rights which is anchored by their seething scorcher, “You Are The Problem Here.” First Aid Kit has developed into a band with a distinctive identity both in their music and their cause.
Normally, rap music is outside of what we cover at East of 8th, but this year’s Eminem headliner set created the most controversy both before and after his actual performance. Returning headliners are always met with some skepticism. I was at Eminem’s 2011 Bonnaroo set and at the time was saddened by what remained of one of my favorite college-years artists. I will also admit that his most recent album Revival never found its place in my musical heart. However, in 2018, Eminem had a fiery energy, powerful vocal clarity (instead of a pre-recorded backing track like last time), and an amazing Detroit-inspired stage set. Overall, he was bold and fun, filling the field with people dancing and rapping along.
However, the set was not without some question marks. As was widely discussed on social media, he ended several songs with a gunshot sound effect and there were other gunshot effects during the set. Some said that they were frightened by the effects based on tragic events that have happened around the world (Bonnaroo did a great job of adding security to the festival without being too intrusive). I cannot speak for the people that were frightened and how they feel. Where I was standing, it was clearly a sound effect. Also, I have found the gunshot sound effect to be a common way for rappers to end a song when they are just performing one verse of what is a collaboration on the album version and the last time I saw Eminem, he had a graphic of a gun firing over the crowd. I guess more than anything, I was surprised that other people did not expect the gunshot effects at an Eminem concert—they just seemed like a normal part of the experience.
A bigger internal conflict came from Eminem’s choice to include a song that has some of his classic lyrics regarding women and sexual identity that caused many to gasp when he actually sang them in 2018. While Eminem later mentioned he was “joking earlier,” I was personally torn between my own love for an artist’s free speech and the glaring conflict between the song’s message and the message I had just heard at First Aid Kit. I was happy to see Eminem back in his old form but starkly reminded that some of his lyrics simply did not age well even if he always meant them in jest or for shock value. Bonnaroo is magical not only because of the music and the festival experience, but because it frequently causes you to evaluate the feelings the music elicits inside your soul. As I headed off to check out some of the electronic late-night offerings, I found myself pondering how Eminem’s lyrics on that one song fit within the global understanding and awareness Bonnaroo has fostered in me.