When Radiohead first played Bonnaroo in 2006, they did it with a set full of back-catalog staples and a handful of new songs. Never ones to repeat themselves, the band flipped that script on Friday night when they returned to headline the Manchester, Tennessee festival, turning in an epic 25-song set that slanted heavily towards new material.
While Thom Yorke and Co. weeded out a few thousand hit chasers in the crowd by eschewing well-known favorites like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “No Surprises,” they held tens of thousands more spellbound with a textured tableau of intertwining rhythmic arrangements — augmented by the addition of auxiliary drummer Clive Deamer – and nuanced sonics, with some latter-day catalog cuts emerging as concert anthems. When Yorke howled out the chorus of In Rainbows standout “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” he cued an en masse singalong that sounded like a tidal wave ripping across a human sea of 80,000.
Complimenting the band’s case for its post-major-label forays into art-rock craftsmanship was a stunning stage production that was a work of art in and of itself. With band members backlit by two towering video walls, a dozen tile-like screens shifted shape overhead and changed color with thrilling results. Wild-card set list selections included “I Might Be Wrong,” “House of Cards,” and “Kid A”; while live staples like “Idioteque,” “Karma Police” and fevered-pitch show-closer “Paranoid Android” were among the oldies represented. Yorke also dedicated “Supercollider,” a new song the band is currently road-testing, to Jack White, hinting at a very recent collaboration. Perhaps a Radiohead release on White’s Third Man Records is on the horizon?
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings took to the What Stage earlier in the afternoon, whipping a still-filling field of festivalgoers into a frenzy with their idiomatic R&B pastiche. Hearkening soul icons from Aretha Franklin to Sam Cooke and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Jones and her dapper 10-piece backing band transformed the sprawling venue into a sweaty sock hop. The moves on display throughout the crowd were no match for the fire-and-brimstone footwork of the 56-year-old Jones, who sported a sparkly blue romper and danced as though she were walking over imaginary hot coals. Whether she was delivering elongated band introductions, setting off audience-wide clap-alongs in double time or simply just belting out woozy, broken-hearted ballads and uplifting party jams from the gut, Jones put on a thorough masterclass in showmanship.
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The Avett Brothers followed with a set of crowd-pleasers that included “I and Love and You,” “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” “Murder in the City” and “Kick Drum Heart.” But it wasn’t all about them – they also covered a pair of Doc Watson tunes (“Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” and “Down in the Valley to Pray”) in a fitting tribute to the late guitar pioneer. “Before we go onstage, we remind each other to let the game come to us, let the show be what it’s going to be,” Scott Avett told Rolling Stone after the set. “And I felt like it was solid to the bone, man.”
“This is the earliest we’ve ever played,” Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus told a zealous early-afternoon crowd at This Tent. “Pretend this is Hawaii.” It wasn’t hard to do, given the whimsical freak-folk chanteuse’s tropical sonics, junk-yard percussion, chiming guitars and looping vocals. With an adept three-piece band in tow, Garbus’s compositions had a more organic feel live than they do on her 2011 LP, Whokill. It may have been early in the day, relatively speaking, but the Tune-Yards’ disjointed-by-design amalgam of world, soul and electro-pop was a perfect fit for Bonnaroo, often competing in volume with the crowd. When Garbus yelped and screamed, the crowd yelped and screamed back louder.
“We came up from Atlanta this morning on two buses! We’re going to put on a crazy show for you Bonnaroo, something you’ve never seen before!” announced Ludacris, who rocked Bonnaroo’s This tent so hard that festivalgoers were climbing the surrounding chainlink fence to just to catch a glimpse of the Atlanta rapper’s set. “Talk about being on everyone’s Number Ones! I’ve got my own fuckin’ Number One!” he taunted, launching into ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ while his dancers greased up a 15-foot pole with some Cirque du Soleil-worthy grinding. The hour-and-a-half-long set neatly recapped the last 12 years in radio rap, complete with mash-ups of Luda’s best features, from Usher and Lil Jon’s ‘Yeah!’ to Fergie’s ‘Glamourous.’
Late-night at That tent, Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli resurrected Blackstar and brought along Hi-Tek for a Reflection Eternal reunion. Clad in white pants and a white oxford button-up, Bey displayed some nimble moves onstage and kept the crowd at ease with his buttery flow well past 1 a.m. The highlight came when both rappers led the crowd in a singalong to Biggie’s “Juicy,” then paid tribute to J. Dilla and Whitney Houston as Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” played in the background.
Umphrey’s McGee brought Bonnaroo back to its roots with a four-hour affair that blew through their scheduled 4 a.m. stop time by a full two hours. In addition to ripping through their originals, which stacked interlocking jams on top of heavy rock, the band offered a dub version of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and a rocked-out rendition of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” and brought out Big Gigantic for a surprise, 25-minute “friendly takeover” in between sets. “We figured that, playing from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., if we didn’t stop, there would’ve been a weird moment where we’d have to do a drum solo piss break,” Umphrey’s Brendan Bayliss told Rolling Stone.
Armed with a set-list that stretched from their disco-leaning 2007 LP to last year’s heavier Ritual Union, Swedish electro-funkers Little Dragon breezed through their premiere Bonnaroo gig, keeping fans on their toes while furiously improvising on drum kits and synths. After dashing over to This Tent just in time to catch the end of the group’s set, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse boogied in the backstage VIP area.
As moody as it was electrifying, one of Friday’s most impressive sets came courtesy of New York indie auteur St. Vincent at That Tent. Singer-guitarist Annie Clark’s finely crafted tunes sound like Roxy Music molesting ABBA, as officiated by Kate Bush and David Byrne. Clark’s inventive command of wide-screen soundscapes, and her killer lighting show to match, made for perfect the lead-in to Radiohead as the sun set over Manchester.
Bonnaroo continues Saturday with sets from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice Cooper, Skrillex and more.
Additional reporting by Benjy Eisen and Marielle Anas