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The xx, Blitzen Trapper Launch Bonnaroo 2010

Mayer Hawthorne covers ELO, Manchester Orchestra turn heartache into hooks

June 11, 2010 8:54 AM ET

If there is one thing that remains, eight years on, from Bonnaroo's neo-hippie roots it is a sense of community. There's an area called "The Beach" where festival-goers engage in impromptu games of volleyball and cruise down a nearby communal Slip 'n' Slide. In early evening of the 2010 fest's first day, a circle of attendees sketched a live model after a brief art workshop, and anyone weary of walking the campground's 700 acres could sit in on a yoga class.

But the centerpiece of the 'Roo has always been music, and Day One ended with a killer set from the xx. On their debut, the British trio whittle back R&B and post-punk to nothing but whisper and filament, leaving bare skeletons over which Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim murmur pillow-talk lyrics about ache, longing and endless romantic setbacks. But they quickly proved their small songs could scale festival-size within the opening seconds of "Intro" as their melting-icicle guitars and fluttering percussion seemed suddenly enormous and imposing. (Check out a bit of the band's set in the video below.)

Check out photos of Bonnaroo's hottest sets.

Like their music, the xx's setup was minimal: Occasionally, the stage would be drenched in a single-color light, but mostly it was monochromatic, as stark and severe as the sound. Croft and Sim trade verses like a couple worn down from arguing — their lyrics are pleas and protests, but they're delivered in an empty, forlorn tone. But if the songs weren't designed to be anthems, the crowd was determined to treat them like big moments. They clapped along to invisible beats on "VCR" and sought out opportunities to cheer anything: a wisp of guitar, the heartbeat drum machine — at one point even cheering for a moment of dead silence. "Would you like to spend the night? The whole night?" Croft and Sim cooed in their quietly aching cover of Kyla's "Do You Mind?" The answer was apparent.

For the bulk of their set, the Oregon group Blitzen Trapper engaged in a spirited conversation with the past. With their ambling acoustic guitars, warm harmonies and vocalist Eric Earley's ragged growl, they seem to imagine a fusion of Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Occasionally, their debt to the past was a bit too obvious — like when Earley nicked a lyric from "Masters of War" to sing over and over, "When the fire falls/and the fast bullets fly" — but their harmonies were crystalline and soaring, gleaming against the music's ragged backdrop. While classic American music is their source material, the band is devoted to radically rearranging it, scuffing it up and refitting it to serve their own purposes.

Mayer Hawthorne & the County channeled the past, too. His set played like an old Motown Revue, all smooth moves, percolating bass lines and cottony falsetto. Like the soul singers he emulates, Hawthorne's primary conversation was with the audience. He slipped whip-crack asides between verses (In "I Wish It Would Rain," he lamented, "I wished it would rain earlier today — it was hot as fuck out here") and cajoled the crowd repeatedly into following his dance moves. He also gently chided the festival organizers, lamenting, "There's a shortage of hip-hop at Bonnaroo this year," before playing a verse of Biz Markie's "Just a Friend."

But the best moment of Hawthorne's set was his sudden transition from his own speeding soul number "One Track Mind" into a dizzying and unexpected cover of ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky," complete with noodling guitar solo and sci-fi vocoder on the bridge. As befits Hawthorne's M.O., it was a note-perfect replica of the original. Why tamper with perfection?

Keep up with all of Rolling Stone's 2010 Bonnaroo coverage here.

Manchester Orchestra practiced a kind of churning post-grunge, where wide-open verses suddenly gave way to walloping choruses. Frontman Andy Hull, with his trucker's cap, robust beard and healthy frame, looked like the kind of guy who would be more at home fronting a country band than navigating the shadowy streets of the heart. But over the course of their set, Hull's agony became the hook: his voice went from pinched Neil Young croon to tortured screech, and his dialogue remained largely directed at the sky. During "In My Teeth," he seethed, "Jesus don't come 'round/unless we pray each day for 500 days," the band rushing in to follow that sentiment with the appropriate crescendo.

Earlier in the day, Georgia metal band Baroness' two guitar players, Peter Adams and frontman John Baizely, spent the majority of the group's blistering set standing inches away from one another, perfectly mirroring each other's movements. Those exchanges got higher in pitch on the thundering "The Birthing," a song that requires Adams and Baizely to steadily work their way up the fretboard until their notes become a series of quick, jabbing squawks.

What makes Baroness so special is their ability to combine metal's fury with a surgeon's precision. Baizely and Adams construct a complicated latticework of guitars, every sixteenth note carefully placed and perfectly executed. On the marauding "Jake Leg," they answered each others' phrasing note-for-note, broad smiles breaking out across both of their faces with each fevered, flawless run. It felt like a particularly heated exchange in a Mamet play — long, rambling chatterbox leads that gained in determination and intensity as they went on, setting the stage for a day of dramatic, giddy musical conversations.

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