Bonnaroo 2011 – Saturday report

By Jon Stone

I’ve been thinking about late-night sets all day. Bonnaroo is famous for them, but seriously, I don’t see how people manage. Like tonight, there’s some really cool stuff going on at, like, two and three in the morning. I’m convinced that only the very young, the completely wasted, and those who can sleep somewhere with air conditioning stay out all night. Which is really too bad. I would have loved to see Ratatat last night but they went on at three. On the other hand, Weezy had us all up that late anyway. Even all the way out in the campground.

So, by now, fatigue. It was in the nineties most of the day here in Tennessee, so today was about taking it easy. I did so by checking out some of the best acoustic acts in the business. Yes, folks, it was a grass|roots kind of day. Here’s a short rundown:

Abigail Washburn played a short set on the Solar stage and made me wish again that I’d seen her play the day before. Claw-hammer banjo is making a comeback, kids. Wait and see. Old Crow Medicine Show played directly afterwards on the large, uncovered Which stage. They threw down some of their best tunes – “Cocaine Habit”, the hilarious “Humdinger” and their updated Dylan classic, “Wagon Wheel” among them. Old Crow played at the same time as The Low Anthem, so I stole over for their last two songs, the beautiful “To The Ghosts Who Write History Books” and their lovely cover,  “Cage the Songbird”. I love Old Crow, but wow, I think I made the wrong choice on whom to favor this time.

Later, also on the Which stage, I was fortunate to have a place front-and-center for your mom’s favorite band, Alison Krauss and Union Station.  I can’t resist, though. There’s a reason that AKUS has achieved so much success. Alison Krauss plays with some of the top acoustic musicians in the world. Jerry Douglas is famous enough to be billed as “featured” in the group and his dobro playing is THE reason I started exploring bluegrass music. But multi-instrumentalist Dan Tyminski has one of the best voices in bluegrass (at least, George Clooney thinks so). I loved every minute. They played  a favorite of mine, “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” (which features, surprise, Douglas and Tyminski). And I thought about my mom a lot during the set.

Mumford & Sons – I managed to miss most of their set, but Bonnaroo didn’t. The British invasion is back, folks — and this time they have banjos. Bonnaroo’s love for Mumford has grown at least 20 fold since we saw them last year on the front row at That tent. They should have had this set over at the main stage – there was a flood of people there to see them. I caught the band right as the ending hootenanny began: I saw members of Old Crow, David Mayfield Parade, and maybe even Jerry Douglas on stage for a ten-minute “Amazing Grace” gut-buster

From there it was dinner and The Black Keys. The bluesy Ohioan duo are fantastic (as you know) but had the misfortune of a bad night at last year’s fest. They were back in a big way this year as a headliner on the main What stage filling out a headliner position quite nicely. They were ON making it clear, Arcade Fire, that two dudes can do it up (almost) as well as seven. Their set is light on spectacle (once you get over the fact that it’s only Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney making all that noise) making it easy to sit back and let the dirty blues wash on over me while I ate a gyro.

Directly following the Black Keys and in the way back of the What field under the often-overlooked Café Where? canopy, a band from Baltimore called J. Roddy Walston & the Business blew my mind. They didn’t mean to one-up the Black Keys, but they did. They didn’t have any control over being in direct conflict time-wise with Buffalo Springfield, but they were. They also drew one of the most enthusiastic crowds I saw the whole weekend. Not just random folks hoping to get good seats for Eminem either. These people were fans who, from the way they were singing along to every word of every song, knew something that the rest of us didn’t. J Roddy Walston & the Business bring a riff-heavy piano rock back to a place that it hasn’t been for years. If you check out one new band this week, make it this one. Start with “Don’t Break The Needle”.

Finally, a few words about Buffalo Springfield. I pulled myself away from J. Roddy and worked my way over and up close to see the reunited 60s legends just as a light rain began to come down. With thunder and lightning striking to the south east, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay played one of their first shows back together and for a bunch of aging men put on one hell of a rock show. They stayed mostly with the hits, playing “Go and Say Goodbye”, “Bluebird”, “Broken Arrow”, and of course “For What it’s Worth”. Neil Young, though, people. Neil Young! It was my first time ever seeing him in the flesh and I was charmed by his wit and banter (“Hi, we’re Buffalo Springfield. We’re from the past.”) and floored by the precision of his talent. The man is 65 years old and he bounced around in the jam like he was 30. They closed with his “Rockin’ in the Free World”. I’m going to write that one more time. They closed with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”. Wow.

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