Bonnaroo: Day 3 (Saturday)

Saturday night brought on many exciting and respectable acts. From the much-anticipated headliner Jack White, to excellent sets from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The Flaming Lips, an argument could be made that it was the best block of performances of the entire festival. However, in the interest of honesty, I have to say that there is only one artist that I feel compelled to specifically address: Ms. Lauryn Hill. Late as ever, she descended upon an audience filled with questions: Would she even show? If so, will she even properly finish her set? Why the “Ms.?” These questions aren’t exactly unmerited. Hill is known for her distaste for the music industry and erratic live performances. Her thirty-minute tardiness wasn’t some egomaniacal antic, though. Rather, the set before her played ten minutes over, giving her a paltry twenty-minutes for set up

In contrast to the countless shows half-squandered by lackluster, time-crunched sound checks, Lauryn Hill’s band adhered to their own meticulous methods. Nearly half an hour was devoted to the band jamming, working the audience, and testing levels. Next, the three back-up singers came out and made sure their blend was properly honored by the right balance. Finally, the magic Ms. came out and demonstrated the critical value of a thorough soundcheck. Tearing into virtuosic rap-laden reggae/funk versions of old songs, her sound was unique and unparalleled. Her selections were mostly re-envisioned versions of songs from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, with some Fugees songs to spare (rapping Wyclef and Pras’ verses, naturally). Hill’s use of good old-fashioned back up singers, devoid of any vocal backing tracks, made me wonder why we accept anything less– why we often praise people for singing or rapping most of their set, leaving the rest to a pre-recorded track as a safety net.

At a festival where EDM often served as the new jam-band (that’s no slight to most acts; dark-electronica duo Darkside offered an innovative late-night set), a woman delivering all of her words from her mouth and her mouth only was a welcome display. It’s also safe to say that Lauryn Hill put on the best rap performance at Bonnaroo: not only did she spit rapid-fire flow right through the center of a live band, halfway through she performed a self-played acoustic set alternating between spoken word-influenced rap and her signature neo-soul riffs. She also managed to blow Pharrell’s hat game out of the water in one fell swoop.

At a festival with no female headliners and only three females gracing the mainstage (shoutout to Janelle Monae, Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens, and Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Susan Tedeschi) in afternoon slots, it was hard not to feel a little disappointed in the lineup’s lack of female artists (of which there are many to choose from). But there was solace to be found in the fact that Lauryn Hill made better than good on her performance. By taking the time she needed to get her sound right and delivering some of the most precise vocals I’ve ever heard live, the one-time Fugees member showed how to do a festival act right. Hill is one of the best female vocalists we’ve got today. Hopefully her performance made people think twice about the level of quality we mosh, bob, and sing along to at these kinds of shindigs. On her 2002 recording of “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0,” Hill mused on the idea that “fantasy is what people want, but reality is what we need.” Sure enough, she demonstrated that the real thing is not only necessary, but worth more than any backing track.

Camper Van Beethoven: El Camino Real

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Camper Van Beethoven: El Camino RealCamper Van Beethoven‘s bassist Victor Krummenacher previously told Pop Matters “Young Camper is very different from old Camper,” and he’s certainly right. Mixing elements from styles ranging from pop to alternative country to ska, Camper has perpetually played with the boundaries between genres. Now, this year’s El Camino Real even differs from its thematically similar sister album, last year’s La Costa Perdida. Both reflect on the band’s home of California yet while La Costa Perdida celebrated the Northern part with a relatively upbeat, relaxed sound, El Camino Real focuses on the Southern part of the state with a significantly darker tone and tighter arrangements. Lead singer David Lowery’s recollections of shifting states between admiration and disillusionment for his old stomping grounds illustrate even further that Camper is a band looking at time through a looking glass, making their aesthetic alterations between albums understandable. As the men of Camper look back on the past, it’s only normal that their perspectives on events and places would change and this tonally and lyrically darker release marks another successful one for the band.

A sample of a Japanese  airline announcement introduces the album’s opener ‘The Ultimate Solution’ before Jonathan Segel’s violin cascades alongside Jonathan Lisher’s slide guitar. Singing of “violins and violence”, Lowery’s mannered and recently choice style of vocals recalls a Blur-era Damon Albarn and which can also be heard on the mischievous sounding ‘It Was Like That When We Got Here’. While violin weighs down a springing bass, Lowery sings in an unattached tone screaming of messiness and longing like a petulant child. Camper has previously paired disparate lyrics and music and this up-tempo track is another strong example of it for the group.

Though the more upbeat songs in the beginning of the album are definitely worth a listen, Camper seems most comfortable on more melancholy tracks like the dark dance number ‘Camp Pendleton’, where a downtrodden guitar moves slowly with sharp bass plucks and Michael Urbano’s steady drum rhythm. Here, the lamenting lyrics match the gloomier sound of Lowery’s calmed down vocals before a catchy lo-fi guitar introduces the ominous yet danceable chorus repeatedly chanting “Pump up the violence/Bring the lights on down.” And on the eeriest track ‘Out like a Lion’ where a baritone Lowery’s slow spoken lyrics about a baby born into it’s dead mother’s blood roll along soft and heavy drum thumps. The song is littered with Segel’s fiddle haunting the background and accents of bluesy guitar fluctuating in and out but the screaming battle between the two at the end of the track make this a praise-worthy piece of production on the album.

Faster songs on the album are equally satisfying like ‘Dockweiler Beach’ whose punk beat shadows over rushing instrumentals and Lowery’s serial-killer style vocals and when he stutters on lines like “they are never c-coming back” you almost shiver to the rhythm of the spookily low bass set against the ska-paced drums. ‘I Live in L.A.’ similarly pumps up the energy and although Lowery sings, or more appropriately yells, roughly out of range, the bluesy guitar, faint harmonica, and catchy chorus about the good-time that is L.A. nightlife save the song from its less impressive vocals.

Camper plays with its folk side on the ballad ‘Sugartown’ where Segel’s violin slow dances with the country twang of Lisher’s guitar but Lowery’s vocals sound far too guttural set against the smooth romanticism of the song. Also disappointing on the countrified ‘Darken Your Door’, Lowery’s sometimes rewarding stoicism turns into a uncaring drawl and although the song’s high and low pitched strings make one feel like they’re on a gondola in Louisiana, a lack of any climax makes this a forgettable moment on El Camino Real. The album’s end ‘Grasshopper’ keeps up the pleasantries with a slow rolling beat alongside Lowery’s most connected sounding vocals. The stream of harmony make this track a serene ending to a pretty frantic album. On El Camino Real, Camper plays with all (or most) of its favorite toys: punk, rock, alt-country, folk, and instrumental. And although Lowery may need to find a balance between his punky-dissaffectedness and a sense of connection with the listener in his vocals, the album is still a quality representation of the band’s technical and creative abilities and any longtime Camper fans should find it a good listen…7/10

Bonnaroo: Day 2 (Friday)

The second day kicked off for me with a beautiful display of torch passing. I was pulled into the saxophone wielding rapture of Seun Kuti (son of afrobeat pioneer and activist Fela Kuti) backed by his late father’s band Egypt 80. Seeing Fela’s vision and sound carried on into the 21st century by his immensely talented son and his original band mates was a true gift. Diving in and out of saxophone, vocal, keyboard and trumpet solos (to name a few) highlighting each band member, their ensemble work was on another level. Their kind of looseness obtained only by seasoned musicians, they easily communicated with each other to create a captivating and breathable live experience.

I then dove into the abyss of the maniacally loveable Danny Brown. His backdrop consisted of a troll-doll version of himself next to his name in cartoonish letters. Off to a good start. He played mostly from his most recent album, Old, but rapped few beloveds from 2011’s XXX. A highlight was watching him annihilate the hilariously rant-tastic “Monopoly” I swear I heard a few festival babies begin to cry over at the Ben Howard show. The bass on “Blunt After Blunt” was downright disrespectful. Brown’s mix of EDM and trap with his signature screech infused the crowd with high energy for the rest of the night.

I needed all the energy I had for The Orwells. If the hype hasn’t hit yet, they’re a fresh out of high school garage-punk band with new drivers licenses to kill. They’ve already played on Letterman (with an on the spot encore, props to Dave), but were placed on one of the most intimate stages of the show, The Miller Lite Tent. Sponsored by some local beer company I think. As they entered to an already packed crowd abuzz with anticipation, antic-addicted lead singer Mario Cuomo deep throated the mic saying, “I’ve sucked bigger dicks than this stage.” Making good on the Armageddon Cuomo egged on, the entire audience was awakened into full beast mode. Moshing was in full swing, kids were breaking the metal barrier, running onstage and climbing up on the temporary metal rafters. The Orwells’ created a demonic playground out of Miller Lite’s light offering. Eventually too many kids thought they were Spiderman, (I’m pretty sure there’s only one) testing the strength of built-in-a-day metal rafters and the sound guys shut off the sound. Finally all the Peter Parkers came crawling down, by that time their set was nearing its end. But regardless of the crazy activities and shortened time, The Orwells killed it. Enter their live shows an escape route, but make sure to catch them if you can.

As the night fell upon the farm, the lineup became kid-in-the-candy-store-level daunting. There was the return of long-awaited legends like Ice Cube and Jeff Magnum of Neutral Milk Hotel, fresh and exciting acts like Deafheaven and CHVRCHES, and intimate stage offerings from Speedy Ortiz and Diarrhea Planet. Oh, and some rapper, er, I mean rock star named Kayne, I mean Kanye, West.

All of the aforementioned gave solid performances, with especially powerful performances from Ice Cube, Deafheaven, and yes, Kanye West. Hate him, love him or never heard of him (anyone?), when he was actually performing his songs and not auditioning for commencement speaker spots, he was pretty good. He offered up a solid mix of new and old, conjuring memories of sweeter days past with songs like “The Good Life” and “Stronger.” Persona aside, he put on a solid show and I see no point in denying that.
The night bookended with another torch passing of sorts. Fellow Chicago rapper Chance the Rapper took the stage complete with a live band to deliver heart-felt verses and crowd hyping. Like Kanye’s first two major releases, College Dropout and Late Registration, Chance’s debut Acid Rap is deeply rooted in his love and despair for his hometown. Kanye has since departed from many wordly groundings, but Chance is carrying on an important legacy of Chitown rappers with stories to tell. From infusing the audience with a “this is my show” chant to breaking into spirited dancing, Chance the Rapper brought a much-needed luminosity to Friday night.

Bonnaroo: Day 1 (Thursday)

People were still single-filing their RV’s, Volkswagen vans, and pickups onto the farm on Thursday afternoon when the festivities began. While acts like The Preatures and The Wild Feathers played early on in the day, most people were still attempting to assemble their tents and figure out what kind of starry night they’d be painting onto their faces. This was the day with the least amount of turn out, and neither the What or the Which stage (the two biggest stages) open. So people were going to come, or they weren’t. Some acts took a come hither approach, others took a look at me right now approach, and others didn’t seem to give a damn either way (which of course resulted in higher turnout).

The come-closely-my-child-tactic was utilized best by indie singer/songwriter stalwart Cass McCombs. He offset the biggest stage of the day with a thoroughly intimate, shy-guy performance. His ambiguous folk/Americana/blues/pop sound (the amount of slashes I just insisted upon are proof enough), came through with a sweet fuzziness. There was a glow around his sound, which both drew me in and kept me at a distance. His full and very capable band surrounded his mellow vocals with a sturdy jam-band effect, completing McComb’s synthesis of various American music traditions. The experience didn’t grab me fully, but turning my head to see my boyfriend’s eyes closing and mouth gliding into a dreamy smile was fair indication of McComb’s intelligent sad-boy appeal. While not my exact cup of tea, he went down with proficient and impressive ease. An appealing show from a modern day indie folk enigma for those who took interest.

Following in McComb’s easygoing footsteps, the atmospheric sounds of Real Estate drifted past me early evening. A healthy crowd already formed past the tent lines, I watched at a distance. Their easygoing west coast vibe via New Jersey suburbs was a delightful early evening treat. Melancholic enough to inspire daydreaming, but ethereal enough to gently uplift, Real Estate acted as a lovely sunset soundscape for the first day of the festival.

I then found myself caught up in the twilight storm that was Cloud Nothings. Following behind two friends trying to hide the foam dripping from their mouths, I was engulfed by a playfully rowdy crowd. Cloud Nothings came out with little introduction and tore through their opening song. Their tattered nerd-punk sound created a force field of fun ferocity through and around the stage. While their sound was incredibly tight, I wasn’t quite held at attention by their stage presence. They played their instruments well, but for someone who doesn’t listen to them frequently it wasn’t as fulfilling as it probably was for the two mouth-foamers rejoicing within the mosh pit.

As the sun officially took a break from all the crazy sights and sounds of Bonnaroo, the moon brought out a different energy. Bigger acts were starting to go up, and anticipation laced the air. A change of pace was hoped for as I headed to Pusha T. This was just the beginning of a long list of rappers I was gathering some foam for. Now it must be addressed at this time that proximity placement can play a large part in each set-going experience. If I could magically pitch a tent at the front of each stage with my name on it, I would. Sometimes being on the outskirts can be nice, but I will say especially for hip-hop/rap shows, being up front became an important goal. Unfortunately festival sound can be faulty for numerous reasons, from being outdoors, to the lack of sound check time between acts. That being said, my placement on the packed outskirts of Pusha T made my experience very different for ones inside the tent. Unfortunately the suspense will be forever held, because I could hear the basic skeleton of the beat and the reverb off of Pusha T’s mic. And that is pretty much it. I heard he was really good though, so.

If the Pusha T experience left a little too much to the imagination, Ty Segall made up for it. Easily the best act of Thursday, West Coast garage-rock darling Ty Segall took the stage with his band (including excellent drummer Emily Rose Epstein) and ruined my life in the best way possible for about two hours. Both wailing and laying down scuzz-lined guitar riffs and solos to turn the audience into a foam pit, Ty lit the match we were all waiting for. His onstage persona was like a cooler, crazier older brother of the Rocket Power siblings. Ty Segall had nothing to lose and thus won it all. Never having listened to his music thoroughly (that has since changed), I found myself entranced, dancing, and thirsty for more. His delivery was laden with a heavy dose of self-aware absurdist humor, at a few points making a shout out to his boy “Sean Paul.” Riding that incredible line between not giving a fuck and having the talent to back it up, Segall encapsulated fury and apathy all in one. Ty Segall has been one to watch, and only continues to be. His rise is imminent, he’s coming for you, and it’s going to be really really great once he gets you. Fly, Segall, fly.

Cold Cave: Full Cold Moon

Cold Cave: Full Cold Moon - As Cold Cave, Wesley Eisold’s sophomore effort, Cherish the Light Years, was a surprising direction for the coldwave standout–the synth-driven noise experimentations seemed to be completely left behind in favor of a straight 80′s synthpop/dance aesthetic. The debut Love Comes Close certainly had that strain of pop within it, but mingled between tracks full of love-hate tensions, muttered violences like “I will pity you til you’re pretty / What’s a love without some struggle / You’re a slut / I’ll stitch your knuckles up.” Not that Cherish the Light Years is unlikeable–it’s got an insane pop to it, a Franz Ferdinand kind of freneticism, but it seemed to spurn all my favorite characteristics of Cold Cave. Well, Eisold apparently agreed, calling it the “Cold Cave I can’t even stand to hear.” After being dropped by his then-label Matador, he went on to release a string of singles throughout 2013, tracks that solidified his stake on trademark territories, but also saw him adding new districts to his sound.

That Full Cold Moon is a collection of singles rarely detracts from its efficacy. In fact, I came to like the demo roughness, and the uneven production values just add to the album’s status as a reflection of  Eisold’s vagrant year, like we’re looking at a snapshot of his growth. The slight haphazardness also heightens the impact of his more experimental, ambient pieces, which really comprise some of the record’s best tracks.

“Tristan Corbiere,” for example, shocks even more than Cherish the Light Years did, and for entirely different (and undeniably more intriguing) reasons. It’s a three-minute instrumental piece full of slight, wet, tapping beats, overlaid with a flute-like melody and touches of keyboard, altogether like being in the foggy upper-strata of a rainforest. While the sophomore album can incite parties and dance floors on its own, it also leaves you thinking about Cold Cave’s limitations, with the unshakeable feeling that the more digestible direction might signal a dearth of ideas. ‘Tristan Corbiere’ instead explodes your conception of what Cold Cave might be capable of.

Similarly, ‘Meaningful Life’ is a slow, organ-driven piece unlike much of what Eisold’s attempted before. Tenderly and solemnly, he muses on what precisely makes for a meaningful life while interjecting with tangential thoughts about a lover’s memory, the simple image of a tree in her yard. It reminds me a lot of my favorite Brian Eno track, “Golden Hours,” in the lovely agony of sluggish time and the richness of expression. If there’s one time I disliked Full Cold Moon‘s haphazard selection, it’s the placement of skittish dancer ‘God Made the World’ right after ‘Meaningful Life’–excuse me, but you’re dancing all over my brooding space.

Even the throwbacks to straight 80′s pop feel more lively than the somewhat forced drama of Cherish, as in the 90-second taste we get in ‘Young Prisoner Dreams of Romance’, that encapsulates everything great about groups like New Order, from the pounding drum machine, to the intoxicatingly fuzzy synth, to anthemic lyrics like “I could change / Break the Chains / and I will / at night I will think of you still.” ‘Nausea, the Earth and Me’ is a more ambitious take on Cold Cave’s poppier moments, as a six-and-a-half minute epic through seas of choppy percussion and staccato synths that harrow the listener a bit more than it inspires dance moves.

If there is a lull in the album’s energy, it’d be the tracks that feel closer to Cold Cave’s oeuvre, like opener ‘A Little Death to Laugh’, ‘People are Poison’, and ‘Oceans with No End’, but only because they lack the strangeness of the standouts–they’re still incredibly strong, synthy headbangers in their own right, and it bodes very well for the record if these muscular cuts are the weak underbelly. Full Cold Moon might lack the cohesive punch of an album recorded as an album, but it’s still packed with hits, though not in a cheesy best-of kind of way. It covers a very good breadth of textures and moods, and repositions Cold Cave as an act without clear-cut limits… 8.0/10

‘Meaningful Life’

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