There are a few hallmarks of summer music fests: the smell of thick mud baking in the sun, the sound of three different bands colliding and the sight of Wayne Coyne in a giant plastic bubble. That vision arrived at the start of a set that was ambitious, even by Flaming Lips standards, last night at Bonnaroo.
An enormous orange arch took up the entire rear of the stage, and in its center a digital screen projected a series of bizarre, multicolor images — most of them involving naked women. Enormous cannons fired huge clouds of confetti into the sky during the rousing "Do You Realize???" and Coyne donned massive prosthetic hands and used them to shoot green lasers up at a pair of planet-sized disco balls, which reflected the beams out above the crowd. During "See the Leaves," the stage went blood red, Coyne twirling around in the center like a maniacal sorcerer. But special effects aside, the band worked hard to to incorporate the bleak psych numbers from their last record, Embryonic, alongside the sunnier material for which they're known. Opening with the throbbing "The Ego's Last Stand," the group resisted the impulse to soften the tone, and the newer songs stood out like grim, magnificent ogres.
The Lips were pulling double duty at Bonnaroo: In addition to performing their own material, they were also enlisted to play Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety, assisted by fellow Oklahomans Stardeath and the White Dwarfs. The setup was tricky: a 15-minute intermission after the Lips' proper set almost derailed momentum, but by the time the group hit the grinding center of their aggressive reimagining of "Breathe," the audience was enraptured. "The Flaming Lips play for the best fans in the world, because you guys, you give us love," Coyne cooed.
Kings of Leon were similarly appreciative earlier in the evening. While past festival performances have showcased the group's arena-rock tendencies, the songs in Friday's set showed a different side: snarling, stubborn and aching. "Molley's Chambers" was a sustained howl, Caleb Followill's voice matching the ragged, slashing guitars. On "Closer," the repeated mantra "And it's coming closer" sounded sweaty and threatening.
Performing in front of what looked like a tangle of oversized Christmas lights, KOL stayed mostly on their respective sections of the stage. Followill elects to lead with his voice, a gruff, pained instrument that scrapes against silvery filaments of guitar. They lightened up for a long stretch in the center, which included a clear-eyed run through the galloping "Bucket" and a note-perfect cover of the Pixies' "Where is My Mind?" after which Followill joked, "That was one of our new songs." When they finally did get around to one of those new songs, it was gentle and warm, splitting the difference between the group's Southern rock past and their anthemic present. "This is one of the first songs we've ever written about the pride we feel about where we're from," Followill announced. The song played out like a long farewell, with Followill concluding in its final verses, "I’m going back down South now."
The National have also figured out a way to operate between two worlds. Their records may be small, tense and quivering, but their set at Bonnaroo was explosive, a snapshot of a band on the brink of new success. Wisely abandoning their customary suits in deference to the Tennessee sun — vocalist Matt Berninger donned a vest only to remove it one song in — the National swelled up to stadium size, every song a lit fuse that smoldered slowly and then fully detonated. "Mistaken for Strangers" gained velocity, Bryce and Aaron Dessner peeling off sharp, splintered riffs as the song soared toward its conclusion. They transformed "Bloodbuzz Ohio" into their own "Where the Streets Have No Name," injecting it with drive and grandeur propelled by a pair of horn players until its steady boil became full crescendo. The crowd responded like it was one of the summer's biggest songs.
Berninger jokingly chastised the crowd for its rowdiness, explaining, "We're supposed to be quiet and intimate," and poured out a glass of white wine for an audience member who had handed him a plastic cup. But the set's best moments were its most volcanic. They reached back to 2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers for the vitriolic "Available," Berninger doubling over as he sang the song's closing chastisement. During "Abel," he abandoned the stage entirely, leaping into the crowd where fans eagerly yelled his lyrics right back at him. (Watch footage from the National's set below.)
LCD Soundsystem inspired that same level of hysteria, even though they took the stage at 2:30 in the morning. Like the National, James Murphy seems detached on album, but onstage in the early morning, he was invested and electric. His voice is alarmingly soulful live, and he poured himself into each note, singing "Time to Get Away" as if it was a lost disco single and working up to a fevered scream in a full-throttle run through "Drunk Girls." The lateness of the hour seemed irrelevant to the audience, who hollered back "there's advantages to both!" on cue during "Pow Pow" and bellowed the "oh! oh! oh!"s in "Drunk Girls." Murphy repeatedly improvised lyrics to songs, changing references in "I'm Losing My Edge" and rushing through key passages of "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House." His songs deftly hybridize rock's pummel with the slippery groove of dance music, and his music was puffed out and enormous at 3 a.m., as revitalizing as an adrenaline shot to the heart.
Twelve hours earlier on that same stage, The Gossip delivered their own cross-wiring of rock and dance music. Beth Ditto is the rare vocalist still capable of raising chills. She plowed from rich, black-cherry lows to roaring shrieks in opener "Yr Mangled Heart," a song whose jittery, steel-cable guitar lines seem to imagine what might happen if the xx grew more confrontational. For all the passion in her songs, Ditto is a smiling, sarcastic frontwoman, delivering coy asides in her rich, Southern drawl. "I was worried y'all were gonna be those God Hates Fags people," she told the crowd, sounding relieved. "Finally: the Fags Hate God crowd!"
She dedicated the searing "8th Wonder" to Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail and used a few verses of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" in the rocketing "Listen Up!" She moved almost constantly, at times playfully running in place, at times getting lost in the groove. "We'll do what comes naturally," she sang in "Pop Goes the World," "Approach it casually, with no apology." Over the course of their set, they did just that.
New Jersey's Gaslight Anthem also have a thing for acting naturally. They deliver bruising bar rock with the ruthless minimalism of punk, singing heart-on-sleeve songs about well-meaning romantics who always come up too short. Frontman Brian Fallon, in a porkpie hat and black T-Shirt, looked the part of the poet who moonlights as a barback, exhorting the crowd repeatedly to watch the National's set later in the day and playfully rattling off lyrics to the Bouncing Soul's "Ole." The group played a majority of their excellent new record American Slang (hear it here now!), which finds them spiking their gruff blue collar rock with flecks of soul and rhythm and blues.
Fallon sounded like Otis Redding pleading "Wait a minute, wait a minute," on "Bring it On," and introduced the gospel-tinged "The Diamond Street Church Choir" by telling the crowd, "This is a song for you to dance with the lady that's standing next to you." From the look of the crowd moments later, it looked like more than a few people followed his advice.