Ten minutes before Jay-Z took the stage Saturday night at Bonnaroo, the P.A. played Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” Tupac Shakur’s “Hail Mary” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” back to back. Intentionally or not, the playlist underscored a particular point: all of those artists were Jay-Z’s contemporaries in the ’90s, and none of them are with us in 2010. It cast Rolling Stone‘s current cover star in a role that suits him: as not just a survivor, but a victor.
So consider his blazing 90-minute set the spoils of battle. In front of a digital backdrop that displayed the New York skyline, Wall Street ticker and the red bars that adorn the cover of his 2009 album The Blueprint 3, Jay delivered one hit after another, leaning hard into the verses, scrunching his body up tight some moments and opening up wide in others. It was a master class in showmanship, and the weekend’s best performance so far. (Watch footage from Jay-Z’s set below.)
Jay tore speedily through “On to the Next One,” rattling off verses over slashes of guitar and volcanic percussion. He fiddled with classics, turning the second verse of “99 Problems” into something approaching thrash metal, percussion and guitar hammering in double-time. “Ain’t No Love” was rebuilt completely, its Bobby “Blue” Bland sample scrapped entirely for a chilling loop of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
Taking full advantage of the big stage, Jay brought up an audience member so the crowd could sing “Happy Birthday” to her and called Bonnaroo his “second home” before launching into a song about his first: “Empire State of Mind.” His delivery was clipped and rapid-fire on “Can I Get A…,” tiny balls of sound that ricocheted up into the night sky. The set peaked with a bright, buoyant run through “H.O.V.A.,” the band perfectly matching the Jackson 5 song it nicks while Jay, grinning, delivered the verses. His set was full of moments like this, reminders that, unlike the artists played at the top of his set, Jay-Z stuck around long enough to build a deep and bankable catalog of hits — the kind of songs that sound great sung by 80,000 people in a hot field in the middle of the night.
Jay’s set came at the end of a day that seemed dedicated to the notion of overcoming adversity to attain a legacy. He took the stage shortly after a thrilling two-hour set by Stevie Wonder that divided cleanly into three categories: catalog survey, social activism and music lesson. Wonder is a performer of the old school, the kind that places a premium on audience involvement. He dubbed the audience “The Wonder School of Voice,” and repeatedly stopped his performance to teach call-and-response parts.
But when he wasn’t playing the role of benevolent teacher, Wonder was a firebrand. His voice has lost none of its clean tone or versatility — if anything, it sounds more limber now, broken in by decades of playing. He soared across a scorching version of “Uptight” and darted up and down the octave in “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” as his band — abetted by not one, not two, but three percussionists — percolated behind him. Wonder didn’t tamper much with the originals: some songs got a light Caribbean lilt, but most didn’t stray too far from their recorded counterparts. “Superstition” was all squawk and strut, “Sir Duke” twitchy and electric. Wonder sounded particularly gorgeous on “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” craning up to effortlessly hit the chorus’s keening high note.
But Wonder had more on his mind than just crowd-pleasing. The rousing middle section of his set stacked his politically minded songs side-by-side, drawing out their themes of struggle and hope. “We can never let no group of people set us back to a place like this again,” he announced before a searing version of “Living for the City,” adding, “I don’t care which group it is — no Tea Party, nobody. You want to be a supremacist? Be supreme about bringing people together.” During the final bars of “A Time to Love,” the title track to his 2005 album, he asked, “What if we only have until 2012 to get it right? What if it’s true?” before declaring, angrily, “How can you say you kill in the name of God? Or in the name of Allah? Unacceptable!”
Earlier in the day, Jimmy Cliff, recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and a performer with a rich musical legacy of his own, was similarly agitated. He rewrote his 1969 hit “Vietnam” entirely, rechristening it “Afghanistan” and concluding by singing “Remember Vietnam, Vietnam.” Like both Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder, Cliff’s best songs are those that consider the notion of triumph over strong social adversity. Opening number “You Can Get it If You Really Want” serves as a kind of summary statement: “You must try, and try, and try — you’ll succeed at last.”
Cliff, arguably overdressed in a bright yellow jacket, seemed to have bottomless reserves of energy despite the blazing heat. He arched his body back to execute a series of high kicks, twirled around on one leg and jogged gamely from one end of the stage to the other. His band kept the songs appropriately dank: “Rub-A-Dub Partner” rolled along on a simple, bobbing bassline, punctuated by low bursts of brass. Curiously absent from the set was Cliff’s signature song, “The Harder They Come,” though he did perform its sister song, “Many Rivers to Cross.” Like others in his repertoire, it’s a song of perseverance, and delivered in Cliff’s aching voice under the afternoon sun, it sounded like nothing so much as a heartfelt prayer.
If it was going to rain at any point during the day, it was appropriate that it happened when the Dead Weather were onstage. The group hung like a black cloud in the center of a festival dedicated to the notion of joy and community, their music as ferocious as it was grim and nihilistic. As Jack White himself said, after a brief introduction by Conan O’Brien (watch it below), “I don’t want you to forget which band brought the rain to you tonight. I called in three weeks ahead for that.”
The Dead Weather don’t have a legacy of their own to trumpet, so they set about distorting other peoples’. Their set was a nasty reconfiguration of classic blues, ripping out everything but the floorboards and rebuilding a rickety, menacing house on top of them. Frontwoman Allison Mosshart was riveting, flinging herself around the stage, perching up on the monitors and delivering lyrics with an accusatory glare. “60 Feet Tall” boasted a bleak, creeping riff, one that ground forward slowly and steadily, while “Hang From the Heavens” was manic and herky-jerk, fat dollops of organ splattering against serrated guitars. White mostly remained behind the drum kit, but the few moments he ventured forward were breathtaking. He joined Mosshart at the microphone for a chilling rendition of “Will There Be Enough Water?” The two of them stared deeply into each other’s eyes, Mosshart looking terrified and pleading, White seeming detached and resigned — two lost souls determined to go down together.
Jeff Beck took a more traditional approach to the blues, applying a glossy sheen to its rudimentary roots. Beck is an adroit, flashy guitarist, and his mid-afternoon set found him executing a series of deft, liquid runs. He was just as nimble on the slower numbers. His version of “People Get Ready” was almost elegiac, Beck coaxing the notes out slowly as the song progressed. He took a similarly restrained approach to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” each tone as liquid and glimmering as a teardrop. His backing musicians, wisely, stay out of his way, supplying only a series of gauzy keyboards and letting Beck run wild on top. That, after all, is how you operate when you have a legend in your band.