Even though Bonnaroo has broadened its base over the years, the festival – which wrapped up last night in Manchester, Tennessee – has maintained a tradition of slotting jam-band headliners to close things out on the main-stage. Not last night, though, when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — masters of the three-minute pop song — reprised their role as ‘Roo headliners, having first played the festival in 2006 on a Friday night.
On the heels of their recent set of theater residencies in L.A. and New York, the band eschewed tried-and-true hits like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Free Fallin'” in favor of deep cuts and covers from the furthest reaches of their vast catalog. At first, it seemed that the band may have jumped on Bonnaroo as Sunday night headliners so they could stretch out and jam for the masses – or at least, it did until Petty said, “I predict we’re going to have an incredible time tonight. I don’t have to be anywhere for hours!” before kicking into “Free Fallin.'”
That blockbuster single joined other obligatory live staples like “Learning to Fly,” “Refugee” and “Running Down a Dream” that were still highlighted throughout the show. However, the band did match ’em with unexpected album cuts (“Rebels,” “Good Enough”) and covers (“Baby, Please Don’t Go,” “Friend of the Devil”), appearing far more engaged in the process.
The Bonnaroo jam crowd (i.e. the festivalgoers with little concern for leaving early to beat traffic, open-minded music lovers who routinely abide Phish’s AC/DC and Ween covers) would’ve let Petty and co. get away with omitting “Free Fallin'” and a few other overplayed workhorses. The crowd actually seemed to respond best to things like Mike Campbell’s guitar fireworks during an extended, blues jam mega-climax on the otherwise drowsy Wildflowers single “It’s Good to be King,” a centerpiece highlight of last night’s show.
Perhaps in indication that the festival’s demographic is skewing evermore younger, hip-hop heatseekers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and Kendrick Lamar — who appeared back-to-back on the What Stage hours before Petty — garnered the biggest crowd reactions of all yesterday.
For Macklemore, the What Stage — where, impressively, the rapper made his Bonnaroo debut — was a proving ground, not just to establish he’s more than a flash-in-the-pan with a novelty hit (the ubiquitous, awesome “Thrift Shop”) but that he has the makings of a genuine superstar. He did it, taking the massive crowd in the palm of his hand and communicating directly with them.
“Of all the festivals, the people of Bonnaroo have incredible style,” the rapper said, asking a fan to crowd-surf their fur coat to the stage. “I have always wanted to try on a Tennessee bobcat!” Relentlessly and effectively, the rapper got the crowd under his every command. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are nothing if not original, writing their quirky hip-hop free of machismo, and no moment was more poignant than the group’s performance of its soulful anthem in support of same-sex marriage, “Same Love.”
“I believe we are in the biggest civil rights fight of our generation,” Macklemore said while introducing the song. The crowd made their agreement abundantly clear when the rapper implored them to point a single index finger up in the air if they supported equality. “That’s the most ones we’ve ever seen at one of our shows and that’s a beautiful thing,” he concluded.
The crowd reaction to Macklemore was trumped by their response to the increasingly dominant West Coast throwback rapper Kendrick Lamar, who went from a Thursday, late-night sidestage slot to prime-time on the What Stage in a mere year. For an hour straight, the at-capacity massive field swayed and bobbed as Lamar called on them to spit along with raw, collective aggression to slammers like “Backseat Freestyle,” “A.D.H.D.” (played for “day-one” fans) and “P&P.” More than once, the rapper appeared in awe of the crowd losing its shit, stunned and basking in the ovation. Later, at the Other Tent, hyperactive rapper A$AP Rocky drew numbers that totally overwhelmed the relatively small confines of the Other Tent. Onstage, A$AP openly boasted about what truly brought him to Bonnaroo: “drugs and bitches.”
Given the Macklemore-Lamar double shot, and A$AP being the lone MC of the evening, scheduling conflicts were null for hip-hop lovers. Indie-rock fans didn’t have it so easy, as overlapping sets from Tame Impala, the National, Divine Fits and David Byrne and St. Vincent left many with agonizing choices to make. Like A$AP Rocky, the Australian bedroom-psych troupe Tame Impala could have easily played one of the bigger stages, but instead packed the Other Tent with thousands of fans pouring out onto the grass, screaming every word. For their first-ever show in Tennessee, frontman Kevin Parker and his bandmates created a psychedelic wall of sound even more dynamic live than on their last LP, Lonerism, nailing the spooky groove of “Keep on Lying,” extending the power-chord stomp “Elephant” and leading a huge sing-along on “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.”
Simultaneously, it’s a shame more people weren’t in the tent to check out Divine Fits. Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner played with the commitment of a young band on a small stage, the Spoon frontman Daniel bouncing across the stage, slaying his Telecaster and screaming the New Wave hook of “Baby Get Worse” and the ragged, charming “Would That Not Be Nice.”
Meanwhile, the National were across the farm on the What Stage, playing for a crowd that — while not empty — was noticeably thin for a main-stage artist playing lead-in to a headliner. The brainy band may actually have drawn more people when they appeared on the Which Stage in 2010, but that didn’t hamper their excitement over their time slot. “We can’t believe we’re playing just before Tom Petty,” drummer Bryan Devendorf told the crowd. Fans in the pit hung on each note and reacted feverishly when black-clad singer Matt Berninger made multiple trips from the stage to the field. Still, the stacked scheduling prevented St. Vincent from joining the band on their recent collaboration “This Is the Last Time,” as she was taking the Which Stage alongside Talking Heads frontman Byrne about the same time Berninger was introducing the song and apologizing for her absence. Nevertheless, it was a rocking rendition. Was it worth missing that to hear Byrne sing Heads classics like “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” and “Road to Nowhere” with healthy doses of hilarious interpretive dancing? That’s a tough call.
Speaking of hilarious: David Cross admitted to being massively hung over as he took the stage at the comedy tent, but still delivered a solid set. He blasted headliner Paul McCartney’s underwhelming fireworks display: “He makes a million dollars every 80 seconds – what a cheap motherfucker,” Cross said. (It should be noted that Cross was spotted watching Macca’s set from the front barricade, smiling ear-to-ear throughout the entire performance.) He ranted against everything from texting teens – “I hate your generation” – to homophobes who argue about what the founding fathers would have thought of gay marriage. “It was 245 fucking years ago,” Cross said. “These people would literally be freaked out by cotton candy.” He also covered gun control: “How many more innocent children need to die?’ he said. “I did the math: it’s 1,142.”
Speaking of which, the kids really loved the sounds of Nashville’s minimalist, melodic stoner-punk duo JEFF the Brotherhood, who blasted riffs from under This Tent as fresh-faced crowd-surfers hurled over the stage barricade into the arms of security. The guards were probably seeing a circle pit at Bonnaroo for the first time since Metallica headlined in 2008 – quite a jam in its own right.