The Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tennessee is a blend of emotional extremes. You have your highs: bands bringing their “A-game” to every performance, constant high quality music from noon until 5 AM every day, phenomenal food and beer if you choose to partake (and can afford it) and a level of organization that Woodstock couldn’t have remotely dreamt of. You also have your lows: having to make a choice that (I imagine…) is like picking between children when favorite artists play simultaneously, the incredible ability of people to make porta-potties 20 times more disgusting than they already were, consistent 95 degree temperatures and a serious lack of hygiene. Honestly, it’s a lot like being a fan of a sports team. You have your Championship years (Band of Skulls coming out of nowhere on the first day to bring down the house) and your 2-14 seasons (literally being blinded by the rotting stench of the plastic sweat dome of terror your just bared your goods in). It is a give and take kind of thing, but by the end those highs out weigh the lows substantially.
For the next few days I’ll post my top 4 Bonnaroo X performances (plus a couple of honorable mentions) roughly 1 at a time. In addition I’ll list my favorite song of theirs and a corresponding (think: “major stretch”…) analogy from the sports world. I also apologize for the delay. I was moving my girlfriend up to Boston this past weekend and between that and Bonnaroo it’s been a little insane (we caught a game at Fenway too, a first for both of us…a post on it is in the works).
But enough about that (just kiddin Sar, kisses), here are a couple of honorable mentions and my number 4 pick from Bonnaroo:
Honorable Mentions: Bassnectar as the Arizona Diamondbacks circa 2001 and STS9 as the VMI Keydets men’s basketball team since roughly 2006
While I admittedly didn’t stick around for the entire set of either group I felt I had to mention both. Bassnectar does some truly incredible things with a relatively limited set of musical accoutrements on stage, literally making your heart feel like it will beat right out of your chest the second the music starts. Even as I walked away exhausted through the massive throng of dancing bonnaroo revelers and out into the relatively open air of Centeroo I could feel the sub woofer vibrations knocking around my…insides. Bassnectar’s a one man version of the 2001 Diamondbacks because he does so much with so little. Arizona won the World Series with a two man rotation that year and made the Yankee’s vaunted and financially blessed juggernaut look relatively meek in the path of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. It was more with less, much like Bassnectar, and like Bassnectar those guys literally thundered through the Yank’s lineup relatively un-encumbered (the Yanks didn’t score more than 2 runs in any of their starts). Plus there was that whole blown save by Mariano which, while it was only a bloop single, shook me right to the core. Now excuse me while I go throw up in a porta potty.
I actually caught more of STS9 (they wound up being my last show of the whole epic weekend) and got to get a full live taste of what I had sometimes listened to while studying for 3 years in college (my roommate turned me onto them late in my freshman year). I always knew they were unique because of a couple of distinct things. The first distinction is their electronically infused dreamy yet energetic sound, which is described by the band as “post-rock dance music,” whatever that means. The second distinction is that they use a lot of real instruments (i.e. guitars, drum kits, bongos, bass guitar in addition to multiple key boards) to produce their sound. This is why STS9 so embodies the mindset and style of play of the Keydets over the past several years. VMI runs a high powered ridiculously fast paced up and down brand of basketball that essentially operates under a “five seconds and shoot” mantra. This results in some wildly entertaining and high scoring games, with both teams usually breaking the 100 point threshold easily (the Keydets have led the nation in three pointers and scoring the last five years). In a 40 minute (college) basketball game those kinds of averages are pretty remarkable. It’s also completely unique. No team in division I plays quite the same brand of ball, and while some times they lose it seems like it’s always a hell of a ride no matter what. I get the same impression about the unique style of STS9.
4. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (My girlfriend’s choice: “Ooh La La”) as the University of Vermont Catamounts from 2001 to Now
This is a somewhat more literal analogy. Both the band and basketball team (obviously) are from Vermont but they also can trace the success of their career arcs to a pretty parallel time frame. Potter was discovered at St. Lawrence University singing on campus in 2002 by a fellow band member and left school relatively soon thereafter to form the band. Their major successes came in 2006 and 2007 with songs like “apologies” and “falling or flying” before gaining notoriety recently for “Paris (Ooh la la),” which they closed with at Bonnaroo. Likewise, the Catamounts basketball team first burst onto the NCAA tournament scene in 2003 as winners of the America East conference before beating #3 seeded Syracuse in the first round of the NCAAs in 2005 (Vermont’s third straight appearance). Vermont also made the NCAAs last year as conference champs and won the regular season handily this year before being upset in the conference tourney. Needless to say the parallels are uncanny.
What isn’t is the dynamic end to their major 2011 performances. The Catamounts faltered, but Potter and the Nocturnals most certainly did not. In front of a great (and massive) day crowd on the main stage Potter pulled off her best Janis Joplin impersonation with a cleaner (read: not as raspy) musical sound and truly came off like a rock star. I’d never even heard of herbefore my girlfriend circled her as a must see prior to the festival, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t miss out. In a gorgeous white dress that accented her long straight blond hair Grace embodied all that is in her name, sweeping across the stage with thunderous vocals while alternating between a guitar and a piano easily. Like the Catamounts in ’05, this little group from Vermont made some thunderous noise on the biggest stage. Bravo.