Bonnaroo 2012 kicked off its first day in usual fashion, with a conflux of traffic jams, southern humidity and 80,000 festival goers pouring their way into central Tennessee. Apart from a few changes — the large, Facebook-branded pillars that now flank the entrance to every stage; the eradication of the sulphury, egg-like smell that used to permeate the water — things pretty much felt the same, and the day proceeded as most Bonnaroo Thursdays do. Music kicked off at 4 p.m., and there were no headliners in the evening, since the promoters prefer to save their big-name acts for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Don’t tell that to the Alabama Shakes, who played a brawny 60-minute set to a crowd that spilled outward in all directions, dwarfing the audiences that had flocked to other areas to see Mimosa or Big Gigantic. Glow sticks flew through the air and laser pointers drewdancing patterns on the rafters, but this was no modern-day rave. It was more like a juke-joint revival, with a setlist that swaggered its way between old-school rock & roll, vintage southern soul, classic blues and R&B. Steering the band through every Motown melody and shuffled backbeat was singer Brittany Howard, a bespectacled tour de force who sang like Janis Joplin and played guitar like Chuck Berry.
Few words were spoken. Howard dedicated one of the slower songs to a childhood friend and, as the show wound its way towards the end, she thanked the audience for being so attentive. The Shakes are a band that communicates through music, though, and they let their instruments do the talking. Zac Cockrell’s bass was pushed to the front of the mix, anchoring each song in weighty whole notes and funky fills, and Ben Tanner’s B3 swirled in the background. The conversation lagged during the slower moments, particularly around midnight, when the band’s retro rave-ups gave way to a string of swooning, mid-tempo blues ballads that threatened to sap the energy from the crowd. The group finished strong, though, picking up the pace with a new song — another muscular pop/rocker that would’ve felt equally at home during a mid-century sock hop or a 1960s Stax studio session — and leaving the stage to the brassy sounds of the Soul Rebels, who played a three-minute drum-and-horn cadence while the audience dispersed.
Not many people seemed to recognize the Soul Rebels, who were scheduled to play an early-afternoon set the following day. Howard was clearly a fan, though, clapping her hands during their song and running ran back to the microphone after it was done to reiterate her thanks. It was a gracious move, an attempt to graft some of the Alabama Shakes’ buzz-worthy popularity onto a less famous group.
And it was exactly the sort of thing a headliner would do.