Videos by American Songwriter
It was only last year that Bonnaroo introduced a suggested mandate of festival ethics, the Bonnaroovian Code. Its pillars are as follows: Be In Here, Play as a Team, Don’t Be That Guy / Gal, Radiate Positivity, Build It, Leave No Trace, Keep It Alive and Spread the Word.
For the most part, Bonnaroo’s regular attendees (the so-called Bonnaroovians) abide by the creed without thinking about it: taking care to recycle, sharing resources, decorating the walls with elaborate graffiti murals and generally spreading good vibes no matter what the circumstances or weather (which, by the way, has been superbly sunny and not-too-hot this year).
Whether the occurrences were conscious or not, many of Saturday’s top performers seemed eager to exemplify their own involvement in this unique festival fellowship.
During her early evening main stage set, Bjork poignantly attached herself to the “Be In Here” (be in the moment) concept. Case in point: the message displayed onscreen prior to her show asking Bonnaroovians to refrain from taking any photo or video in order to “enjoy being part of the performance and not preoccupied with recording it.”
Makes sense, and certainly the Icelandic singer’s otherworldly intonation worked like a vocal tractor beam, entrancing the crowd from the get-go with “Cosmogony” and “Hunter,” and helped them forget about the lack of video feed throughout set highlights like “Declare Independence” and “Hyperballad,” the latter playfully cut with bits of LFO’s “Freak.”
Equally spellbinding was the chorus of voices – often replacing the need for instruments or electronics with uncannily precise pitches and harmonies – generated by a choir of 14 youthful female singers, who also likewise enhanced hip-hop-oriented numbers like “Crystaline” and “Bachelorette” with waves of freewheeling dancing that only appeared to inspire Bjork’s own bouncy moves.
Yet despite those elements and some transfixing visuals displayed on the jumbotrons, it seemed a crime that no one beyond the first few rows could actually see the singer – who wore an impressive head-enshrouding mask covered in what looked like crystal spikes – or her saucy dance moves. To the fans relegated to the crowd’s outermost ranks then, Bjork’s show might’ve felt a bit 2D if her voice wasn’t doing the trick.
The Lumineers – another group like Mumford and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros (who perform today) who have embraced the neo-folk sound – took a more direct and slightly more successful approach to the “Be In Here” idea.
After warming up their audience with fun-to-sing tunes like their cover of Samwill Joe’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Problem,” the particularly Ed Sharpe-esque “Ho Hey” and a spot on cover of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the Denver-based outfit’s members hopped down into the audience to perform “Darlene” and “Elouise.”
With that, the Lumineers literally entered into a sort of kinship with the Bonnaroovians surrounding them. And to sweeten the resulting elation, they debuted an unreleased tune and threw in a rousing cover of the Violent Femmes “American Music.”
Although Jack Johnson’s crowd wasn’t nearly as packed as Paul McCartney’s and likely wouldn’t have come close to what Mumford & Sons’ draw (it appeared that many fans chose to stay at their campsites in protest of the headliner’s absence), the Hawaiian singer-songwriter fill-in delivered a memorable set by adopting Bonnaroovian Code’s “Radiate Positivity” clause genuinely and enthusiastically.
“I wanna dedicate this whole set to Ted Dwane,” he said at the outset, wasting no time in honoring the Mumford bassist. “Hopefully they can play next year.”
Later on, he paid further tribute – and visibly won over a few people still on the fence about his last-second succession to headliner – by covering one of the British quartet’s hit songs, “The Cave.”
And despite minimal time to rehearse before this gig, Johnson only forgot the words to one cut – ironically, the final song in the main set, “At or With Me” – and otherwise handily fleshed out the two hour slot with cool covers of Sublime’s Badfish” and Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker,” plus unforgettable staples such as “Bubble Toes,” “Banana Pancakes,” and the encore-closing “Mudfootball,” which was bolstered by the bold sound of Bonnaroo mainstay the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Surprisingly, R. Kelly – an artist that stuck out as an odd bird in the weekend’s mix – turned in a performance that ultimately trumped Johnson’s. Not in terms of sheer substance, but assuredly in the way he embodied the Bonnaroovian’s code’s most important value, “Spread the Word.”
His 90-minute set began as pure spectacle, with the singer launching into the opening track, “Ignition (Remix),” atop the Which Stage with an enormous gospel choir belting out the hook below. He then invoked some of the day’s most spirited sing-alongs with soulfully sexy tracks including “Fiesta,” “Move Your Body Like a Snake” and “Bump ‘n Grind.”
But then, just before unifying thousands of voices into one final, epic chorus on his super-hit, “I Believe I Can Fly,” R. Kelly took a serious tone.
“You and I, we are the same! We all love music,” he declared. “If you love music, make some noise! If music has inspired you to change your life for the better, make some noise! If you have witnessed music … bring mankind together, make some noise!”
The response as he commenced that final, uplifting tune – launching a swarm of paper birds to soar over the audience as it peaked – was deafening. Just goes to show: it’s often the most unlikely artists, those who may be shunned as the fest’s misfits by many, that best embody the convivial spirit of Bonnaroo.
All photos: David Brendan Hall
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