Bonnaroo faithful who entered the Manchester, Tennessee, festival around sundown yesterday evening arrived to some disappointing news and a pinch-self pleasant surprise. The former: Mumford & Sons canceled their high-profile Saturday night headlining slot in the wake of bassist Ted Dwane’s emergency brain surgery, to remove a blood clot. The latter: Paul McCartney performed a 60-plus minute soundcheck for fans lucky enough to pass through the entry arch.
Even before that, eager fans of all ages were cueing up to ask security when the What Stage gates will open tonight, so they can stake out prime spots for Sir Paul. They got a hell of a spoiler when the former Beatle appeared on screens flanking the stage and started jamming with his band behind a line of stone-faced police officers on horseback, in case Beatle-mania pandemonium ensued.
“Bonnaroo, Bonnaroo, wha’chu want me to do,” McCartney started singing over a breezy blues vamp. By the time he was singing Beatles classics like “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Eight Days a Week,” a hundreds-strong throng of festival-goers were cheering and singing along. Right place, right time.
But the first day of Bonnaroo isn’t about superstars. And yesterday, despite Macca’s early arrival and inspired improvisations, the once jam-centric festival wasn’t much about, well, jam bands either. California’s Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO), who closed out the night at That Tent with a two-hour set starting at 1:30 a.m., were the only marquee granola-rock troupe of the day, and they too had a surprise up their sleeves for a thin but enthused crowd of dancing hippie holdovers, who went ape shit when, well past 2 a.m., the band brought out unannounced special guest Jack Johnson.
“I’ve been a fan of these guys since I was 18 years old,” a shaggy-haired Johnson said, before leading the ensemble on “Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down.” Johnson then called up renowned rock photographer Danny Clinch to play harmonica on Johnson’s 2006 single “Better Together,” before drummer (and Bonnaroo birthday boy) Dave Brogan started a Bo Diddley beat into Johnson’s airy ditty “Mudfootball,” the last song of the set to feature the singer. (Johnson returns Saturday, when he will fill in for Mumford & Sons.)
Still, the first day of Bonnaroo catered more to hipster tastes than hippie hoards, with messy garage punkers, indie-pop up-and-comers, blues-grunge duos, underground rappers and art rockers ruling the roost.
No-frills Canadian lo-fi duo Japandroids had kids crowd surfing – one even dressed head-to-toe like one of the Teletubbies – during their speed-addled 10 p.m. This Tent set of hook-y punk shout-alongs. The rockers dripped with sweat and ripped with fury as they inspired feverish fist pumps and loud victory chants on anthems like “The House That Heaven Built” and “Evil’s Sway.” And though the reference may have been over most fresh-faced festival-goers’ heads, a set-closing cover of the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy” (which included a brief snippet of the Cramps’ “Garbageman”) had heads banging tent-wide as frontman Brian King pounded out guitar chords while standing atop the kick drum.
“If I don’t hear feedback in my vocals, it’s not loud enough,” veteran L.A. underground freak-folkie Ariel Pink said before leading his backing band through a set of warped noise pop. The sound man obliged, obfuscating the famously mercurial frontman’s arhythmic, abrasive crooning in a wave of airy synths, mangled, maniacal melodies and smooth, psychedelic riffs. With the singer decked out in semi-drag and dollar shades – looking like a cross between Nineties Drew Barrymore and Kurt Cobain – the crowd didn’t quite know what to make of the singer and his deconstructionist yacht rock, but they seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.
Early in the afternoon, a quick cloud burst cooled off the hot and humid festival, held an hour east of Nashville. Ratcheting up the cool factor later in the evening was spellcheck-challenged L.A. guitar-drums two-piece Deap Vally, who evoke White Stripes and “female Black Keys” references with their scuzz-blues sound and savage presentation, though singer-guitarist Lindsey Troy can turn in a mean fretboard-strangling solo – like on menacing, purposefully-sloppy, gut-rumbling set-closer “End of the World.” Bonnaroovians were warm toward the newcomers, but not overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the pair, beaming, bowed like rock stars after bringing the song to its shambling conclusion.
But the real (soon-to-be) rockstars of the day were fellow L.A. up-and-comers Haim (pronounced hi-um), who played an hour earlier at That Tent, delivering the breakout set of the day. Effortlessly slip sliding across smooth, Reagan-era radio pop, and riff-replete power rock, the band could’ve won the crowd over on the strength of songs like the infectious “The Wire” or the retro-industrial “Send Me Down,” but stage presence including monitor stands, encouraging crowd-wide clap-alongs and pitch-perfect vocals pushed their set to the stratosphere.
Bonnaroo’s reigning day one champion, though, was Killer Mike. “We’re gonna set this motherfucker off tonight,” proclaimed the larger-than-life Atlanta rapper, appearing with a DJ as he took the Other Tent stage shortly after midnight. Indeed they did. Out of the gate, on an opening “Big Beast,” the rapper was determined and aggressive, with the crowd responding in kind. Boasting the line “I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P.,” “Big Beast” rang across the field like a warning shot, a statement of defiance in the face of all the EDM and trap that will mark many a late-night Bonnaroo set throughout the weekend. The rapper also got political, ranting and joking about the recent government surveillance controversy before leading the crowd in deafening repeated chants of “Fuck Ronald Reagan!”
Perhaps unintentionally, Mike nodded to another Bonnaroo 2013 performer with a jocular run through his Big Boi-Little Dragon collaboration, “Thom Pettie.” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers close the festival on Sunday.) Killer Mike also made good on a mid-show promise to deliver the best-ever live performance of his Bone Crusher and T.I. collab “Never Scared.” “Nothing like doing a show in the motherfuckin’ dirty South,” he said from the stage.
On a softer note, down-beat indie sensation Alt-J drew one of the biggest crowds of the day at This Tent, turning in a spirited performance of their cerebral dream pop with spot-on harmonies, shimmering vibes and glockenspiel and jingle-jangling percussion. Songs like the space-y, layered “Breezeblocks” and the drifting, moody set-closer “Taro” might move at the same tempo as the Ferris wheel off in the distance, but during last night’s set, they entranced the crowd, who nodded along under a debris field of waving flags, airborne light-up hula hoops and other rave-like novelties. “Congratulations on being pretty much the best crowd we’ve ever played to,” singer Joe Newman said before “Taro.”