We soon discovered that being part of the media contingent at Bonnaroo has its perks. For starters, we got to enjoy a special unplugged performance by the Punch Brothers in the media tent. Standing in a circle, the bluegrass bunch played a rousing set, with leader Chris Thile yelling "Rotate!" prior to each new tune. The players promptly obeyed, giving their onlookers a 380-degree view.
"Thanks for bearing with us despite our extreme technical difficulties," Thile told those in attendance. "Actually, we have a lack of anything technical at all. Unlike Radiohead, we're more like Stringhead."
With that bit of homespun humor to inspire us, we headed over to the comedy tent to catch a bit of showbiz shtick. A juggler named Marcus Monroe started the show off and got us giggling. A fast-talking Mike O'Connell seemed even more manic and even more decidedly deranged. The two women who make up the musical comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates are, by contrast, cute and charming, although a sly little ditty about the art of giving a hand job to a guy suggested they are far from the innocent babes they appear.
Sadly, then, their set was all too short, but it was a pleasure to see headliner Colin Hay again, having seen him last on a Cayamo Cruise. Hay did his standard set, with little concession to the comedic format, but he tossed in the obligatory Men at Work standards -- "Down Under," "Who Can It Be Now," and "Overkill" specifically -- as well as some of his solo selections, with "Goodnight Romeo" adding a poignant note to an otherwise lighthearted set. "The thing that's really fucking funny about all this is the fact that I'm still doing this after 30 years," he reflected somewhat sardonically.
Speaking of comedians, we ran across Judah Friedlander, the comedian who plays Frank, the guy with all the crazy hats, on the sitcom 30 Rock. He was a major attraction in the media area, all brightly outfitted with his trademark big bushy hair and beard. The proclamation on his hat on this particular day was in Braille, but who would know unless he explained? Sadly, we missed his gig at the comedy tent, but he did mention that he'd be presiding over a couple's wedding tomorrow. Queried about the fact that he wasn't really a preacher or a justice of the peace, he responded assertively. "I'm superior," he insists. "That outranks them all." Well OK... if you say so Frank/Judah...
This being Bonnaroo, it seemed only right that we continue to immerse ourselves in more music and to explore acts we weren't all that familiar with. With an adventurous attitude to guide us, we opted for an afternoon set from Portland Oregon's Blind Pilot. Their sound is exceedingly melodic, all the better to accompany the giddy vibes that encircle the surroundings. Despite some acts' reticence to rock ferociously, the crowd received them well, and like most of the bands we encountered, the band members themselves really seemed to be enjoying themselves. Likewise, they were effusive in their praise of the entire experience. "I'm not sure what it is," their singer insisted. "But we're having so much more fun at this festival than at any other festival."
Still, no outfit inspires enthusiasm like Flogging Molly, a rowdy Celtic punk ensemble fronted by Dave King, a native Irishman whose rugged accent and irascible attitude ensures their insurgency remains intact. They're a genuinely unruly bunch and they goad the crowd, the guitarist doing double splits, the bassist mounting the monitors, and King himself breaking out into a series of silly jigs. I managed to secure a place in the photo pit but the safety crew encouraged me to move to the outer flanks, and no wonder. Within moments of their opening assault, people were crowd surfing, pushed forward to the barricades where the safety guards helped them alight and sent them scurrying back into the crowd to surf once more.
After all that overwhelming intensity, it seemed an apt time to relax so it was off to the comedy tent for the second time that day to see Steven Wright toss out a non-ending string of idle observations that sound silly but somehow seem to make sense in Wright's unlikely universe. He paced the stage constantly, save a futile attempt to play guitar, tossing out joke after joke without pausing to see if the audience caught on. "Only one company makes Monopoly," he drolly observed, passing along the irony of it all. "I hate it when my foot falls asleep during the day. That means it will be up all night." And this: "I can levitate birds, but no one seems to care." And so on and so on. You get the point.
Alisa was off to catch the score of the Heat/Celtics game in the cinema tent -- an obsession that even a festival can't dissuade -- so I wandered over the comfy Miller tent to see a young singer-songwriter named Robert Ellis. Ellis looks like a young, long-haired James Taylor and sounds like one too. Accompanied by his guitar and a guy playing dobro, he sang mostly forlorn ballads with a genuine country inflection. Sadly, his intimate musings were no match for the rumble coming from the Which Stage and Ellis ended his set abruptly a couple of minutes early, his tender trappings giving way to arena-sized escapades.
By that time, evening was upon us, and the two performances we'd chosen to occupy ourselves with promised to provide a powerful double header. For starters, there was the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the sprawling expanse of the What Stage area, the space reserved for Bonnaroo's certified headliners. I'd already missed the Avett Brothers, intimidated as I was by the size of the crowd and the impossible expanse that separated me from the stage. This time I vowed to attempt to get as close as I could, even if it meant being in the midst of the masses and jostled about by the band's adoring admirers.
Sure enough, it proved a difficult trek to find my way to a vantage point that would actually allow me to distinguish the musicians on stage, and that included an occasional stumble and an interminable struggle to make my way through the thousand of bodies that seemingly stood in my way. The VIP area was already overloaded and not even my media pass provided access, so I bravely stood in the crowd, taking in all as the Chili Peppers went through their paces.
They get my nod as the funkiest band of the fest, at least among those I witnessed, and their kinetic energy is truly electrifying. Yet, after awhile, I started to feel claustrophobic, and aware that it would take another half hour to work my way out of the crowd, I begin to precariously liberate myself from the environs. It wasn't easy. At one point I got caught behind a girl whose frenetic dancing entrapped me in a rough bit of bump and grind. Not that it was unpleasant, but she seems oblivious to the fact that I was on the receiving end of her backwards thrust.
It seemed prudent at that point to make my way back to the Miller tent where I could bide my time prior to midnight when Alice Cooper's set was due to start. Fortunately though, even in these mellow environs we were able to amp up our energy level courtesy of We Are Augustines, a three (occasionally four) man outfit who made the most of their resources before an adoring crowd. Theirs is an anthemic sound, all rousing, riveting guitars with the occasional keyboard interlude. "We're playing Jay Leno Thursday," they proudly proclaim to the enthusiastic reaction of the tightly-packed audience.
Sufficiently stoked, we headed to the distant That Tent to see Alice Cooper. We made a conscious decision to opt for the superfluous over the cerebral, that being Jack Bruce's new band Spectrum Road who was performing one tent over. It was a tough choice -- Spectrum Road's jazzier inclinations would mean a set full of extraordinary improvisation, not to mention a showcase for the man who was a lynchpin for the band Cream -- but Alice's promise of entertainment is too much to resist.
Alisa's a bit shy about being in the pit to take photos as Alice announced in an earlier interview that the first three rows would likely get splattered with blood. As it turns out, there was no blood-letting at all, although Alice's usual bag of tricks keept the audience entertained. Oversized puppets, billowing smoke effects, various changes of garb and, of course, Alice's ageless accoutrements -- an especially animated boa constrictor and a turn at the guillotine -- keept the visuals front and center.
Indeed, little seems to have changed in Alice's 40-year lifespan, but the shtick still works. At 65, Alice's take on "18" seemed a bit of a stretch, but he and his metal-laced backing band draw all the drama from it and his other signature anthems like "Billion Dollar Babies," "No More Mister Nice Guy," "School's Out," and "Only Women Bleed," the show's only mellower respite. Inevitably, the Cooper set was all about spectacle, and though Alice could go over the top -- at one point he wore a shirt with the warning emblazoned "I'll eat your face off," an all-too ominous reference to real life via the Miami zombie -- mostly everything's for fun. When the band launched into "Elected" as one of its two encore songs, it gave the impression it might not be such a bad idea to do as the song suggests.
After all, could an Alice Cooper presidency be much worse than those we have selected from the two major parties?
And with that thought on our mind, day three of Bonnaroo came to a crashing crescendo.
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