Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I Touched Nick Cave, Or Bonnaroo 2014

I'm currently sitting in my apartment, having taken a sick day from work after waking up with a sore throat. I take solace in the fact that the genesis of this illness lies in the four days of abuse I put my body through every June in the name of rock and roll and Spicy Pie pizza, the wonderful weekend known as Bonnaroo. 2014 was my fourth Bonnaroo, and it never fails to be a highlight of my year. This past weekend, while not boasting my favorite lineup compared to Bonnaroos of yore, was still about as much fun as I've ever had at a music festival. Maybe it was the basically perfect weather (no mud pits this year!), or that we had our biggest and best camping group yet, or the fact that I had just endured three months of work hell; whatever the reason, I felt particularly glad to spend the weekend under the Tennessee sun this year.

                                  Our sweet hangout area next to our RV which 
                                  I had absolutely nothing to do with setting up

Due to my preference for, you know, watching the performers on stage rather than staring at a cell phone or camera screen, I didn't really take any concert pictures. But I do have words to share! Below are my ten favorite performances of the festival. Note that I only included bands whose full sets I saw (with two exceptions I'll explain). Honorable mentions go to Jack White, who I thought sounded pretty damn good for the hour I watched him, and Phosphorescent, who sounded great. Definitely will be checking them out the next time they come to play a (non-Lollapalooza) Chicago show. Anyway, on to the list:

10. Cloud Nothings
I was really excited to see these guys given that 2012's Attack on Memory is one of my favorite albums of the past few years, and I thought that this year's followup, Here and Nowhere Else, was almost as good. Last time I saw them, it was at a tiny venue in Chicago (Schubas) and I was about two feet from the stage, so it is hard to compare the experiences. The band subtracted a guitarist since that show, and I felt like they had a little more "oomph" at the Schubas show. But again, this time I was halfway back in a tent rather than right next to the band, so who knows if that is accurate. Their songs still hit hard (particularly the longer, intense songs like "Wasted Days" and "Pattern Walks") and I left satisfied, just not blown away like last time. Nonetheless, this was the first full set I saw at Bonnaroo and it was a great way to kick off the weekend.

9. Warpaint
I'd listened to these ladies a bit back in 2010 when The Fool came out but had kind of forgotten about them, only spurred to re-listen when I realized that there was nothing else remotely appealing going on the Sunday afternoon of the festival. Turns out Warpaint released a solid album earlier this year, but their live show impressed me significantly more than anything I'd heard on record. Their atmospheric art rock songs took on a new level of intensity in concert, culminating in an epic version of "Elephants" which lasted close to ten minutes. Really glad I caught their set.

8. Cut Copy
This was my fifth time seeing Cut Copy over the last 6 years, and I always have a blast at their shows. Though 2014's Free Your Mind was a bit of a step backwards, in my book they're still the best synth pop/electronic band to come about since New Order. I thought the new songs, particularly Let Me Show You Love, sounded better live. And hearing all the old In Ghost Colours songs brought back waves of college nostalgia (crap, senior year was 6 years ago already?). I was a little danced-out at the start of the set, having seen Chromeo immediately beforehand (see below), but they managed to supply me with a new burst of energy rather quickly. I did miss the second half of Lionel Richie's set to see them, which pained me a bit when I saw his setlist (he closed with "We Are the Word"!!), but whatever, I had fun.

7. Darkside
                A terribly filmed video (turn your phone horizontally, bro!) by someone 
               who was probably on acid. But you can hear what the band sounded like.

One of the special things about Bonnaroo is you get to see awesome musicians play at ungodly hours. Darkside's album Psychic was one of my favorites from last year, and I'd already caught them this past January at Metro - a show that I enjoyed but didn't blow me away like the record did. However, seeing as few albums fit my mood better when listened to in the twilight hours, there was no way I could resist a 2:30 AM Saturday night set from these guys. Darkside's live approach is quite unique for an "electronic" group, choosing to recreate each song from scratch rather than relying on pre-recorded samples. The result is that most of their songs start out in an ambient haze, with recognizable components slowly emerging in ways that often only slightly resemble what is on record. Now, most people still out and about at Bonnaroo at 2:30 AM are looking for a dance party (hence why the competition was EDM acts Kaskade and The Glitch Mob), but anyone who saw this set got something subtler, but also more complex and rewarding. Because their songs took time to build and coalesce, when they reached their peak it was all the more satisfying. This time, with my expectations adjusted to reflect the fact that they would not be recreating the songs as they sound on the album, I "got" what the band was trying to do with their live show and found myself mesmerized for the first hour of their set. Sadly, I was so exhausted after 14 straight hours of music that I had to cut out a few songs early. On the plus side, on my walk back to our RV a (male) pizza vendor who was probably (definitely) hitting on me gave me three slices of pizza for the price of one, so my Saturday night still ended swimmingly. Yes, I devoured all three slices. Don't judge.

6. Chromeo
Despite many of my friends loving this band and frequently putting them on at parties, I never really got into them other than enjoying a few songs off of Fancy Footwork. But, seeing as literally all eight other people in my group were going to this set, I decided to check them out (forcing me to leave the aforementioned impressive Phosphorescent performance early). I'm glad I bowed to peer pressure on this one. Now, Chromeo won't win any awards for originality or innovation, but shit do they know how to make a crowd dance. We managed to get into the front pit area for this show, which was LOUD but also filled to the brim with energy. The band's approach was the antithesis of Darkside's - no subtlety here. But Chromeo doesn't make mindless music either - these guys are clever in their approach, taking a formula that Prince essentially perfected in 1984 and making it sound fresh. I, along with the rest of the crowd, could not resist song after song of infectious drum machine beats and synthesizer riffs. Great fun.

5. Kanye West
                                                      Where the press at??

This was bound to be the most controversial performance of the weekend no matter what Kanye did on stage Friday evening. "Fuck Kanye" graffiti has been a permanent fixture of the festival over the past several years. Obviously there is a lot of anti-Kanye sentiment out there in the world, but Bonnaroo has a particularly contentious history with Mr. West (click that link if you want to know why the backlash against his 2008 performance made him "type so fucking hard I might break my fucking Mac book Air!!!!!!!!"). Indeed, walking around the festival grounds, I saw countless examples of the aforementioned graffiti as well as many people with signs proclaiming Kanye to be a "gay fish" (a reference to a 2009 South Park episode). Though I'll join the masses in not being particularly impressed with Kanye West the human being, there are few recent musicians who have achieved a greater degree of both popularity and critical acclaim. Even for a non-hip hop listener such as myself, I always enjoy his albums. So, after reading some rave reviews of the Yeezus tour, I was excited to see him. Now, "see" ended up not really being accurate given that Kanye performed most of the set masked and in silhouette, with the video screens turned off. But what I heard was intense. The man clearly had something to prove here, starting the set with some of his angrier songs, culminating in several rants as shown in the video above ("Where the press at? Fuck the press!"and "I ain't going after nobody on the radio. I'm goin' after Shakespeare. Walt Disney. Mozart. Henry Ford. Howard Hughes. David Stern. Elon Musk. You can only achieve as high as your dreams." were some of his gems). These rants elicited an extremely negative reaction from those near me in the back of the crowd, with people booing and leaving in droves in a way I've never seen before at a headlining set. Did he deserve this reaction? Yes and no. Kanye's ego truly is a sight to behold. But for me, his rants actually increased my enjoyment - it felt like a more comprehensive Kanye West experience. It'd be like seeing Stooges-era Iggy Pop and have him NOT smear peanut butter on his chest or whatever. Kanye is never going to be a likable person. He just isn't. For me, this performance was satisfying and memorable because he did what he does best: perform some of the most iconic songs of the past decade with ferocious energy, and being a total asshole while doing it. It was fun to watch.

4. Diarrhea Planet (yes, mom, that is a real band name)
Alright, now we're getting to the really good stuff here. I was thrilled when Diarrhea Planet (or DP, as they are affectionately known) were named as a late addition to the lineup, but less thrilled when I saw they were slotted at the tiny "New Music on Tap Lounge brewed by Miller Light" stage for a late night set conflicting with notable electronic act Disclosure, whom I really wanted to see. But after consulting with my friend Bob, who raved about DP's live show and ridiculous four-lead-guitarist lineup, I knew what I had to do. I chose the rawk. And my god did DP deliver the rawk. Playing a stage better suited to entertaining random passerbys in between sips of beer, DP attracted an overflow crowd likely due in part to their local Nashville credentials. And as soon as those four guitars gloriously began playing together, the crowd went nuts. Like, everyone jumping up and down, pumping their fists, screaming at the top of their lungs, nuts. And this energy level never relented over the course of 45 minutes. I'm not sure I've ever seen so many crowd surfers. In a musical age where hip hop and electronic music dominate, there are all-too-few acts who play no-holds-barred, good time, rock and roll. These guys do that about as well as anyone out there right now, and any self-respecting rock fan needs to see their live show. To further illustrate this, the show ended as follows: all four guitarists soloing simultaneously, at which point two of them proceeded to stage dive while continuing to solo as they crowd surfed. Then, one of the guitarists traveled to the middle of the crowd and hooked his feet from a metal rafter overhead and began playing the guitar upside down and with his teeth. Rock and roll is alive and well, folks. You just have to be willing to tolerate bands with gross, feces-referencing names to find it.

3. Ty Segall tells me Ty Segall is my second most listened-to band over the past year, so suffice to say I was really excited to finally see him live. Inexplicably (but awesomely) provided a headlining, largely unopposed 1 AM Thursday time slot, I was amped to hear Mr. Segall's scuzzed-out garage rock numbers with a rowdy late night Bonnaroo audience. My excitement grew when I noticed one Mikal Cronin, creator of my favorite album of 2013, sound checking his bass beforehand. I had no idea Cronin, who has achieved plenty of notoriety on his own, still played in Segall's band on occasion. Once I finished geeking out over this, the band took the stage and proceeded to absolutely destroy their hour-long set. Though not possessing the guitar theatrics of Diarrhea Planet, Segall's performance slightly surpassed theirs in my memory due to the fact that Segall possesses a remarkably large and high-quality set of songs for a 27-year-old (ugh, I've wasted my life) and as a result was able to pepper his set with songs that already sound like classics to me - all the while playing with boundless intensity. The crowd responded in kind, crowd surfing and moshing throughout. Segall also played several impressive new songs from his upcoming album (when does this guy NOT have a new album on the horizon?), with my favorite one, I was delighted to learn just now, already seeing release as a single. It was a joy to see two of the best up-and-coming rock musicians (if you can even call Segall "up-and-coming" at this point, he has like ten albums already!) making a beautiful racket on stage together. Outside of the two rock gods discussed below, no one impressed me more at Bonnaroo this year.

2. Elton John
Another special thing about Bonnaroo is the opportunity to see absolute legends who you would not necessarily make an effort to see otherwise, and also from a distance that would cost you hundreds of dollars if you were to see them at the United Center or wherever. Elton John is someone who I almost like enough to go see at his own concert, and it nearly happened circa 2005 but I never ended up springing for tickets. I really only know his singles and only gave Goodbye Yellow Brick Road a spin for the first time a few months ago, but I've always enjoyed his music quite a bit. So I was pretty happy that Bonnaroo afforded me an opportunity to sing "Tiny Dancer" along with 80,000 other people. Thanks to an inspired, somewhat last-minute decision to get in the line for the front pit area and an empathetic security guard who snuck in the second half of our group (after originally cutting off the line after only four of us got in), we also had the pleasure of seeing Elton from about twenty rows back. And the experience was exactly what I was hoping for. Elton and his kickass backing band played a slew of iconic songs. You know, the kind of songs you don't realize you know all the words to until the band starts playing them. I mean, look at this setlist. I was very appreciative of the opportunity to see him play those songs while his vocals and piano playing ability remain in fine working order. The only problems were as follows: 1. Elton really needs to fire whoever made the visuals for this tour (I tried and failed to find a representative example on youtube, but trust me, they were pretty lame) and 2. We missed the last six songs to ensure we got our RV back to Chicago in time. But alas, sometimes one has to make difficult decisions at Bonnaroo. What I saw was wonderful enough to be the top highlight of most (non-Nick Cave featuring) musical festivals. Oh, and I actually took a picture during his set, though my crappy camera phone does not do justice to how gloriously sparkly his jacket was.

                                I guess you can sort of see the tacky visuals here

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Anyone who knows me well knows that I really, really like Nick Cave. I mean, a picture of him even greets guests to my apartment (Fun fact! This will confuse your plumber).
                                      Creeping out apartment guests since 2011

Suffice to say that his presence on the lineup was basically reason enough for me to make the trek to Manchester this year. The man is simply one of the best ever to make rock music. He's as good as any of the legends who are enshrined in the rock and roll canon, and yet, perhaps due to the dark nature of his songs or the fact that he does not exactly make "catchy" songs ripe for consumption by the masses, he remains a cult figure; revered by those who know his music and totally obscure to almost everyone else (though Harry Potter fans have unwittingly heard O Children, and Red Right Hand made appearances on the X Files and Scream soundtracks). Previous to Bonnaroo, I'd seen him three times - twice with the Bad Seeds, and once with his side project Grinderman (essentially a shrunken-down, more raucous version of his main band). Each of these, particularly the two Bad Seeds shows, were among the best concerts I have ever seen. I've seen a lot of good frontmen in my concert going career, but there is something truly special and exhilarating about the way Nick Cave commands the stage. He conjures the spirit of a deranged animal, stalking back and forth the front of the stage, pointing at individual audience members and shouting lyrics at them - engaging with the crowd with an intensity I've never seen anyone else replicate. Basically, Nick Cave would have to literally defecate for 90 minutes for him not to have my favorite performance of the weekend (and let's be honest, even that would make my top ten). So with that background, I was insanely excited to see him in a festival setting for the first time - feeling particularly curious what he would do when engaging with (what I thought would be) a larger crowd.

Alas, the scheduling gods had other plans. Mr. Cave was handed a 12:30 AM set time Saturday night (which in and of itself is fantastic), but against some very stiff competition: The Flaming Lips, Frank Ocean, and a Skrillex-led superjam. Indeed, when my friends and I arrived at his tent a half hour early, the awaiting crowd was pitifully small and only grew slightly by the time the band took the stage. Cave commented on this after the first song, saying "There's not many people here. Well, we've got the cream of the crop...We're going to do this quickly so we can go see Skrillex." Some artists, especially someone with a 35+ year career, would be dejected to play to a crowd far smaller than they deserve. If Cave gave a shit, he didn't show it - with him and the rest of the Bad Seeds tearing through their set with the same ferocity I'd witnessed in previous performances. Setlist-wise, there wasn't much different from the show I caught at The Chicago Theatre last year, save for the much-welcome inclusion of "Into My Arms" which I regard as one of the most beautiful songs ever written (and have long earmarked as a potential "walk down the aisle" song if I marry someone cool enough to let us use that at our wedding). However, this show stood out in that I've never been closer to the man, standing about two feet from the stage and in the precise spot where Cave spent most of the show engaging with the audience. In one moment I will never, ever forget, Cave stood directly in front of me during "Stagger Lee" - prompting myself and those around me to raise out our arms toward him. To my surprise, he leaned toward the crowd and grasped onto my hand, hovering over the audience with our fingers interlocked for what felt like at least thirty seconds. Totally wonderful and surreal. Side note: Nick Cave has surprisingly soft hands. Anyway, this show was also especially enjoyable because I was accompanied by several people from my group who had either never seen him before or barely knew his music; everyone walked out converted. It saddened me that the poor scheduling prevented many others from having a similar experience, but there's no doubt in my mind that even with my (admittedly huge) Nick Cave bias removed from the equation, no one gave a better performance at Bonnaroo that weekend.

                   My awesome fellow group members right before we left the festival 
                                  grounds on Sunday evening. Is it June 2015 yet?

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