A little past midnight during his headlining set at Bonnaroo on Saturday, Eminem took a rare breather to address the crowd. “Everybody here tonight,” he said, “I just wanna say thank you for sticking by me and not giving up on me.”
His fans got their reward: From the moment he took the stage to a heavy dramatic symphony – wearing a black hoodie, a Bad Meets Evil t-shirt and army-print pants while spitting the rhymes to “Won’t Back Down” – Eminem’s hour-and-a-half set was a triumph, with the rapper constantly bouncing across the stage, performing hit after hit with the energy of a prizefighter.
Backed up by an eight-piece band and his hype man Mr. Porter, Eminem performed amid a set of crushed-up used cars while snippets from his biggest videos were projected on a massive screen along to each hit. And there were a lot of hits. “Can I take you back a little?” he said at one point towards the end, launching into a quick shot of “My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady” and “Without Me.” He performed “The Way I Am” with fury, and “Stan” was a haunting audience-wide sing-along.
It was his first show of the year. He took great care in his set, flying in for a special soundcheck on Thursday – but he also let loose. At one point, he told the ladies in the crowd to put their middle fingers up, “grab a titty,” turn to the guy next to them and say “‘Fuck you, asshole!”
Earlier in the night, Buffalo Springfield were at the end of their set when Neil Young looked out at the many thousands in the crowd. “This is the biggest gig we’ve ever done,” he said. “This is about ten times as many people as we’ve ever seen as a group before.”
Despite having just eight shows under their belt since reuniting in October for the first time since 1968, Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay sounded like they had never stopped, playing seasoned, jammed-out takes that sounded far groovier than their Sixties studio recordings. They opened with the gorgeous harmonies of “On the Way Home,” with highlights including a scorching, Stonesy, “Mr. Soul,” and Young’s heartwrenching “Broken Arrow.”
As on Springfield’s albums, Furay sang lead on most songs, but they all traded off. Young sang ”I Am a Child,” playing impassioned harmonica. Stills took the lead for a grizzled version of “”Hot Dusty Roads,” with the three standing in a circle jamming, riding on the tight groove. Furay’s best moment came with the soulful “Kind Woman,” which he told the crowd he wrote for his wife of more than forty years. He performed it almost entirely with his eyes closed.
But the unquestionable peak was an extended, plugged-in “Bluebird,” slowed down and funky. Young and Stills traded licks face-to-face, taking turns playing grungy rhythm and soaring lead. They jammed intensely as Neil moved back and forth with each screeching string-stab. It lasted several minutes until coming to a crashing end with Neil squeezing out the last notes on his whammy bar. “Man,” Furay said afterward. “That was some pickin!”
Early in the night, the Black Keys brought their heavy sound to the main stage – a step up in size from last year, when they played a sweaty set on the far-smaller That Tent. Along with Brothers tracks, their set included their short-but-stunning cover of the Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle” with Dan Auerbach playing country licks over Patrick Carney’s swaying, thudding rhythm. It was the perfect soundtrack as the sun was setting. Once it got dark, they played “Everlasting Light,” and a disco ball fell, their backup musicians entered at the song’s end and it gloriously spiraled out of control.
Just before the Keys, a living legend played. “Lady Gaga’s got nothing on this woman right here,” said one of Loretta Lynn’s musicians during her set. The comparison was a little weird, but there’s no overstating how great Lynn is – and her set was a wonderful trip back in time. The 79-year old wore a black suit covered in blue sequins, performing a setlist that included her hits, Patsy Cline songs, duets she sang with Conway Twitty and a gospel set.
She struggled at times – at one point she ended a song saying “That’s it boys – I’m through with that one” – but her voice is still vulnerable, yearning, and full of heartbreak, the same one heard on her classic recordings. The Cline set included gorgeous versions of “I Fall to Pieces,” “She’s Got You,” and “Crazy,” where she played with the phrasing, shifting her vocals above and below the beat. She appeared to get emotional during 1966’s “Dear Uncle Sam,” which she wrote imagining her husband Doo going to war in Vietnam. She nailed the pedal on steel-laced “Honky Tonk Girl” and exited the stage blowing kisses.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, the Strokes and SuperJam featuring Dan Auerbach and Dr. John.
Watch Bonnaroo day three performances from Eminem and the Black Keys:
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