Leave it to The Head and The Heart, Seattle’s newest indie-folk export, to bring an oversized crowd to the first show of the day. Kicking things off at noon – which, after four days at Bonnaroo, is the real-world equivalent of 6 a.m. – the band sounded confident and genuinely grateful, thanking the crowd multiple times between their harmonized ballads and up-tempo numbers. They also showed up Nicole Atkins, whose crowd had dwindled to half the size by the time she took the stage.
Even with a smaller audience, Atkins proved that her transition from retro pop crooner to Stevie Nicks-styled rocker was no half-baked idea. She’s roughened up her sound and slimmed down her lineup since the Neptune City days, and her set favored the bluesy psych-rockers from this past year’s Mondo Amore over her early material. Ben Sollee showed up halfway through the show for his umpteenth cameo, making him the unsung hero of Bonnaroo 2011, while lead guitarist Irina Yalkowsky played dark, sweeping solos like an indie rock Ennie Morricone, making her the unsung guitar hero of the weekend. By the end of the set, the crowd had grown back to near capacity.
Heading back to the campsite after Atkins’ finale, I passed by the Neon Trees’ set at the exact moment the power cut out. Sound issues were plaguing the festival all weekend, but this was the worst problem I’d seen, with everything except the monitors going dead. The band kept playing, albeit semi-inaudibly, the frontman Tyler Glenn shouted along with the audience until electricity was restored 60 seconds later. The crowd went nuts.
Iron & Wine played a lengthy set later that day. Now backed by a large band – including three horn players, two percussionists, and the Swell Season’s Marketa Irglova on backup vocals – Sam Beam has transformed himself from a bedroom folksinger into a soft rock Dave Matthews, and he stretched several of the songs into long, laidback jams. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. I kept hoping for a pared-down encore featuring nothing more than Beam, an acoustic guitar, and perhaps a heart-wrenchingly beautiful version of “The Trapeze Singer,” but Iron & Wine stayed offstage after wrapping up their initial set at 6:00.
One hour later, the Strokes strolled onto the stage – late, as usual – and played a quick set that ended early (as usual) and didn’t include any encores (as usual). It felt like an appetizer for an entrée that never arrived, but the crowd ate it up regardless, singing along to Julian Casablancas’ boozy croon and showing their approval by crowd-surfing with abandon. This was the final show on the Which Stage, leaving Widespread Panic to close out the entire festival on the nearby What Stage. We packed up the car while the band jammed in the background and hit the road until 10:00, driven by a desire for home-cooked food and hot showers.