Two songs into their sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour set on the final night of Bonnaroo, Dave Matthews Band played "You Might Die Trying" and Matthews leaned into the microphone and sang what could be Bonnaroo's motto: "If you give, you begin to live." Sunday marked Matthews' third appearance at the fest that's grown up much like the singer himself. But Matthews was ready to return to his roots, stretching nearly every track into an epic jam, the songs' structures abandoned in favor of endless boogie.
The ferocious — and, regrettably, topical — "Don't Drink the Water" opened a set that found Matthews tending toward his darker material. "Seven," which Matthews introduced as "a dance song that's hard to dance to," twitched and kicked, and "Lying in the Hands of God" culminated in a long, snakelike alto sax solo. "Time Bomb" built to a stormy conclusion as Matthews shrieked "Hammer in the final nail/I want to believe in Jesus" and the band stormed forward behind him.
Much of the set felt like a showcase for longtime Matthews sideman Tim Reynolds. He threaded long, searing solos through the end of "Tripping Billies" and "I Can't Stop." The show concluded with a pair of covers: a solo reading by Matthews of Neil Young's "Needle and the Damage Done," and a full band run through "All Along the Watchtower" that opened as an eerie plaint and slowly built to a roiling, vitriolic jam.
Matthews' set came at the end of a day that seemed designed to showcase Bonnaroo's eclecticism. Earlier in the evening, world-beating country group the Zac Brown Band turned escapism into group singalongs, returning repeatedly in their songs to images of vacation — they're a band that owes as much to Jimmy Buffet as Willie Nelson. Like Matthews, Brown favors musicianship. "It's Not OK" crested with a long, ambling guitar solo and their cover of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" was lit up with fleet-fingered playing by the group's violin player, Jimmy DiMartini.
The band is a bit of a curiosity: they hail from Atlanta, but most of their songs seemed set either in the Caribbean or South of the Border. "Toes" found Brown bragging, "All the muchachas will call me Big Poppa/when I throw some pesos their way" and "Who Knows" featured steel drum and a light reggae lilt. But the set's strongest moment came not during one of their own songs, but a cover of the Band's "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down," sung in an aching tenor by guitarist Clay Cook. The group wisely held back on instrumental flourishes, focusing instead on nailing the song's gorgeous harmonies.
Brown and his band are in the midst of assembling a new record, and the set was sprinkled liberally with recent compositions. The strongest was a moody ballad that opened with Brown lamenting the stack of bills and housework waiting for him before concluding, "Let the world go on without me/'Cause I'm in no hurry today."
If Brown tends toward grand sentiments, Phoenix play it small and idiosyncratic. Aside from a few reliable bodymovers, like "Lisztomania" and "1901," the latter of which was received with rapturous applause, most of their songs are tiny and whisker-thin. Their early evening set was an exercise in restraint, their songs dotted with tiny apostrophes of guitar and big blocks of synth. "Girlfriend" was more space than song, a series of clean lines that were focused and controlled. "Love Like a Sunset" was eerie and expansive, gliding along slowly like a cool evening breeze, not too pronounced, not too forceful. "Countdown" was carried along by gently ascending guitars, a small plane disappearing into the evening sky. (Watch our interview with Phoenix below.)
There was nothing subtle about the searing mid-afternoon set from Florida's Against Me! The group, which now features former Hold Steady member Franz Nicolay on keyboards, was astonishing in their brute force and raw power. They rocketed out of the gate with the blistering "High Pressure Low," Tom Gabel chewing through the verses with fierce determination. On record, Gabel's tendency toward didacticism can feel heavy, but it's astonishing the way those same lyrics — like "With the instant availability of information/and content so easily obtainable/is the culture now a product that’s disposable?" — sound fantastic shouted by a large, sweaty group. Nicolay's presence is an asset: his organ lines fill out what little white space there is in the songs, and his harmonies sharpen the choruses' attack. "Rapid Decompression" operated at warp speed, snarling and spiteful and "White People for Peace" dive-bombed precariously, over and over, clocking in at twice its normal speed.
Against Me! are also a band that's learning to embrace contradiction. One of the set's best songs was the roaring "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," in which Gabel repudiates his past dogma (he introduced it by saying, "This is a song about thinking for yourself"). The afternoon's second best song? The barnstorming, set-closing "Baby I'm an Anarchist," which found Gabel singing, "Baby, I'm an anarchist/You're a spineless liberal" as the band hard-charged behind him. By the time it ended, he had sweat through his black T-Shirt, his hair a sopping, sticky mess, the band spent from 45 minutes of bug-eyed, relentless attack. It felt like they were auditioning for the role of Best Live Band in America, and handily nailing the part.