“It’s Thursday, what are you all doing here?” Local Natives singer Taylor Rice asked an ecstatic early bird crowd at Bonnaroo midway through the band’s 7 p.m. performance. Cars were still backed up down the Tennessee highway, but with sets from the Natives, the Dodos and Neon Indian, Thursday was anything but a calm before the storm. Opening night traditionally gives fans a peek at who might be rocking more prominent slots next year — in ’09, Zac Brown Band played “Chicken Fried” Thursday night. This year the country rockers will take the headlining stage on the fest’s closing night.
Local Natives drew a massive audience for their gorgeous three-part harmonies and fuzzed-out instrumental outbursts. The joyous “Camera Talk” off last year’s Gorilla Manor proved an early highlight with its explosive Afro-pop chorus. The L.A. group certainly emphasized rhythm, busting into the alarming dance beat of the Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign.” On “Sun Hands” bassist Andy Hamm grabbed a pair of sticks and began thrashing away on the drum kit. (Check out a bit of the band’s set in the video below).
Neon Indian’s epic 9 p.m. set felt like a spaceship dance party. (Watch our video interview with frontman Alan Palomo above.) Palomo sporting uncontrollably curly hair and leather jacket, hunched over his laptop and keyboard rig, tinkering with psychedelic wah-wah sounds and busting tripped-out glo-fi jams from Psychic Chasms, like their LSD-laced jam groove “Should Have Taken Acid With You.” Palomo said he had been at the festival a year ago, and smiled while he proclaimed, “Now we’re playing in front of you.”
On the cheerful groove “Terminally Chill,” a glowstick bonanza ensued as Palomo grabbed the mike and busted out jerky soul moves and stunning keyboardist Leanne Macomber rocked out in fishnets and a short skirt. The crowd grooved, and as beach balls flew overhead, lasers cut through the air, giving the orbs a radioactive glow. Toward the end of Neon Indian’s set, the band broke into their irresistible summer jam “Deadbeat Summer,” with its distorted guitar topping a slamming dance beat. Four bodypainted young girls took the stage during the first verse, wearing nothing but underwear and Indian headdresses. They grinded and did their best hand-on-mouth Indian impressions, making the stunt feel like an unnecessary Girls Gone Wild cameo.
Festivals are a great place to check out what a stadium-worthy sound rig can do for club acts, and the Dodos took full advantage of Bonnaroo’s soundsystem during their set, a thrilling combination of blues and indie rock. On tracks like the delta stomp “Paint the Rust” off last year’s excellent The Visitor, frontman Meric Long played explosive finger-picked solos on a vintage hollow body guitar that looked like could have come from Jack White’s garage. With some tracks featuring two drummers, the set felt thunderous, but the Dodos also took it down a notch for the mellow pop of “Fables” off newest disc Time to Die. But the band’s indie hooks felt like they were going to collapse into White Stripes-style fuzz freakout, and they often did, to glorious effect.