At 10:30 p.m. last night, Sleigh Bells arrived onstage at Bonnaroo – the epic four-day musical festival in Manchester, Tennessee that kicked off yesterday – to the blaring riff of “Iron Man” in front of a wall of Marshall amps. Frontwoman Alexis Krauss extended her arms to the crowd while strobe lights flashed, and the band kicked into “Crown on the Ground,” with its thudding, hand-clapping beat, fuzzed-out guitar and a synth that sounds like a siren. It was clear: Bonnaroo has officially begun.
The Brooklyn duo –Krauss and guitarist Derek Miller – were a perfect group to help launch the festival, whose 10th anniversary is this year. Thousands of festivalgoers who had just endured long drives and tent setups were eager to let loose, dancing as Miller unleashed earsplitting guitar riffs and Krauss wailed intensely in a Sleigh Bells basketball jersey. Their hit song “Tell ‘Em” was a raucous, machine gun blaze of rhythm while “Infinity Guitars” lived up to its title (even though there was only one). “Rill Rill” was a huge crowd sing-along, and the set ended with Krauss diving into the crowd. “See you in 2012!” she said as she left the stage.
In years past, Thursday at Bonnaroo has been the calm before the storm, as no act performs on the largest main stage until Friday (though Eminem did soundcheck yesterday on the stage for his Saturday set, and it was a clue of the madness to come).
But yesterday had plenty of its own musical highlights. Wavves played a charged-up afternoon set perfect for the humid weather, full of power chord fury and sunny melodies. The set began with singer Nathan Williams launching himself into the crowd – “Let’s hear it for the guys up here for not being dickheads!” he said later. “We’ve played with some real piece-of-shit security guards.” They rocked heavily on “Idiot,” a snarling nod to classic Green Day, with a snare-pounding instrumental breakdown that sounded more like the Who.
Williams doesn’t attribute the band’s tight sound to practice. “I think maybe, in total, Wavves has probably practiced 10 times in my whole career,” he told Rolling Stone before the band’s set. During the same interview, Williams sang an impromptu version of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which Rolling Stone suggested he reprise during the set – and he did.
Over at the Other Tent, Karen Elson was backed by a tight four-piece band that included Raconteurs/Greenhornes rhythm unit Patrick Keeler (drums) and Jack Lawrence (bass). Elson’s set included a swaggering version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch;” her own tender lullaby “The Last Laugh,” which she dedicated to her daughter backstage; and a fun, uptempo cover of Lou Reed’s “Vicious,” which had a Nashville twist. Some crowdmembers were undoubtedly curious if her husband Jack White would show up and join her on a song. But they only got a glimpse of him, watching sidestage, rocking out in a flat wide-brimmed hat and black t-shirt. He kept a low profile, especially after Elson’s set ended, when dozens of kids ran behind the stage, peered over the dividing fence and began shouting his name. (The couple announced this morning that they are getting divorced, and are “celebrating” the occasion with a divorce party tonight.)
Hayes Carll and his band were the first to plug in on the Other Stage, kicking things off wonderfully with a rollicking country set full of hilarious one-liners (one of his best: “I’m like James Brown, only white and taller”). The Austin songwriter’s biggest crowdpleaser was the solo acoustic “Another Like You,” written as a hilarious back-and-forth between a couple with opposite political views.
“I was the last guy on the billing, so I had prepared myself for 20 people,” Carll told Rolling Stone after his set. “To walk out there and see a sea of people out there singing along was cooler than I expected by far.”