Bonnaroo 2012 will boast Radiohead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Skrillex and more as main stage headliners in the coming days, but on Thursday in Manchester, Tennesee, the festival kicked off with a day full of up-and-comers. Leading the charge were Southern rockers Alabama Shakes, who in less than a year have gone from virtual unknowns to the festival’s de facto Day One headliners, making them one of rock & roll’s biggest breakthrough stories of the year. As a thousands-upon-thousands-strong crowd spilled out from under This Tent and well into Centeroo, singing along to the band’s single “Hold On” as if it were a long-known classic, it was clear that a new player had arrived on the festival circuit.
Gutsily placed second in their set, “Hold On” was just one of the Shakes’ many modernized Muscle Shoals throwbacks embraced by fans. Led by their charismatic lead singer-guitarist Brittany Howard, the band landed the coveted 11:30 p.m. time slot the day before the festival’s massive main stages open for business. That’s no small feat for a group that played its first road gig less than a year-and-a-half ago. Unintimidated, Howard looked at times possessed as she channeled raspy-voiced forbearers like Otis Redding and Janis Joplin. Her band’s dynamics, meanwhile, hinted at Nineties alternative rock — soft verses, loud choruses and half-time breakdowns.
It took a little while for the Bonnaroo crowd to warm up. “Are you fucking sweating out there?” EMA asked the audience a few songs into her festival-opening set at the Other Tent. The answer was no, actually. With temperatures in the breezy mid-to-low 80s and dipping down into the 50s at night, a festival that’s usually known for its oppressive Tennessee heat and humidity was uncharacteristically mild, and perhaps a little too idyllic for the South Dakota singer’s austere, ambient vocal pop. Clad in a black pork-pie hat and oversized Mickey Mouse shirt, EMA did her best to work the crowd with big gestures to match her spacious, shoegaze-influenced post-rock, which seemed to underwhelm an audience that was ready for something a little less cerebral. Meanwhile, a smaller collection of festivalgoers were a little more enthused over at the club-sized Solar Stage, where eclectic Brooklyn party band Rubblebucket revved up like an indie-rock Miami Sound Machine, dancers, horns and all.
Detroit’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. treated an impressively large horde at the Other Tent to an early-evening set of pitch-perfectly harmonized, percussion-driven baroque pop. “This isn’t our show; it’s your show,” singer Daniel Zott said before introducing a synth-adapted cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” in a bit of festive foreshadowing (the reunited band will play on Sunday) that handily won over the crowd.
The vibe was markedly less earnest over at This Tent, where eccentric Motor City rapper Danny Brown led off a hip-hop triple shot that would also feature Eminem protege Yelawolf and Kendrick Lamar. Donning yacht-appropriate white pants, gold-rimmed sunglasses and Skrillex-like hair, Brown triumphed in his attempts to warm up the still-tame Bonnaroo hordes, imploring that they “make some noise for everybody gettin’ nasty in the tents tonight.” Brown laid down his lecherous fow with confidence for much of the set — the 2 Live Crew-worthy “I Will” was a particular crowd favorite – but at other points he seemed a bit lost, pacing the stage aimlessly and jumbling his rhymes.
Yelawolf made many shout outs to his label boss Eminem and momentarily psyched out the crowd, who thought that a guest appearance from last year’s Bonnaroo headliner might on the horizon. (It wasn’t.) But the lanky, tattoo-covered Alabamian didn’t need Em’s help in enrapturing crowd. His was the first show of the festival to truly go off — the call-and-response interplay on Dirty South tracks like “No Hands” and “Trunk Muzik” echoed to Bonnaroo’s farthest reaching campsites.
Though it was an obvious crowd-pleasing portion of the set, Yelawolf’s stranglehold loosened a bit with a mid-set karaoke break that featured the rapper speak-singing over snippets of Johnny Cash, Beastie Boys, Metallica and NWA hits. It was a gimmick that the rapper, who was already killing it, didn’t need. Luckily, he would get back to serious business, closing his set with a grimy “Pop the Trunk” that rattled the farm something’ fierce. Closing out the hip-hop block was self-proclaimed World’s Best Rapper Kendrick Lamar, spirited and furiously charged in his own right but playing to a crowd sapped of all its energy.
Bonnaroo continues on Friday with sets from Radiohead, Foster the People, the Avett Brothers and more.