It seemed as if it took about a century to get to Bonnaroo, I’d been waiting since February. It came and went leaving me in a daze, almost like it didn’t happen at all. Bonnaroo 2013 was another fantastic event, after a three-year absence I felt the time was right to go back. The lineup when I first laid eyes on it sounded too good to be true. With headliners like Mumford & Sons, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and Sir Paul McCartney, plus an astonishingly strong under-card, I couldn’t possibly pass this up. Besides being a massive fan of Tom Petty and being on the Mumford & Sons bandwagon from the very beginning, Paul McCartney was one of the last legendary icons I wanted to check off my list of seeing live. There are less than a handful of artists that are on this list that McCartney was on, with the two most prominent being The Rolling Stones and U2. Their ticket prices are far too exorbitant though to see just one artist. I still love both of those bands but paying several hundred dollars just for one act? No way guys (The most I’ve paid for one act is around $125 for Bruce Springsteen and he’s better live than The Stones or U2 could ever be). Sorry for that tangent there, anyway, I thought this was the best opportunity to see Macca, so the trigger I pulled way back in February ended up being a big dividend.
We arrived around 5am Thursday morning. I was in good company again, the same as the 2010 Bonnaroo trip. I have to commend Eric for driving all the way down there. Eastern Iowa to Manchester, TN is quite the haul. We still had to wait in line about three hours I think (I was dozing in and out of consciousness), way better than the 12 hours we waited in line last time. Once we got our campsite set up the imbibing commenced. Maybe we got out of the gates a little too fast, but I will say that Eric is one of the funniest people in that circumstance, first class entertainment on two legs, I had forgotten that. We wondered into the heart of Centeroo (The festival grounds) later on and first caught The Futurebirds. A really good country-rock act that kicked off their set with the sublime “Serial Bowls” which radiated with a southern-fried R.E.M. jangle. Next was the femme fatale duo known as Deap Vally. These ladies really impressed me and they busted through the boys club of rifftastic rock with unbridled ferocity. All hell broke loose when Japandroids came on though. I had been wanting to see them since their breakthrough record Celebration Rock came out last year. I caught them at Bonnaroo 2010 when I didn’t know much about them. If you’ve been around me the past year you know how much I’ve raved about Celebration Rock, one of my favorite records in the past few years, maybe ever. One more time, if you don’t have it… GET IT! Eric and I were thrown into the maelstrom and the savagery of the crowd. I knew they had mosh pits at their shows, but I thought we were far back enough to avoid that. I was wrong. We were thrashed about like a beat up boat on unforgiving waters. Japandroids tore through Celebration Rock scorchers like “Adrenaline Nightshift,” “Fire’s Highway,” “Evil’s Sway,” “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” and of course “The House That Heaven Built”. They also threw in a few older cuts such as “Young Hearts Spark Fire” before closing it out with the blistering Gun Club cover “For The Love Of Ivy.” After that show my body was exhausted due to minimal sleep from the previous 36 hours and I more or less crashed.
Day two I took it a little easier. The line to get into the festival was ridiculous, not a fan of them adopting the wristband scanning policy of Lollapalooza, too much of a hassle and bottleneck creator. We got in to see the last part of the Local Natives set before heading over to Of Monsters Of Men. Here’s a band that has really taken off in the past year, backed by Arcade Fire-esque anthems from their dynamite debut record My Head is an Animal such as “Dirty Paws,” “King and Lionheart,” “Mountain Sound,” “Six Weeks,” and their hit single “Little Talks.” They played to a massive swell of an audience at such a small stage. A bright future is in store for this Icelandic group for sure.
After that I settled in for the sure-fire excellency of Wilco. I believe this was the seventh time I’ve seen Wilco and they delivered again with a 19-song set that included “Art of Almost,” “Kamera,” “California Stars,” “Handshake Drugs,” “Impossible Germany,” “Jesus Etc.,” “Via Chicago,” “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “I’m The Man Who Love You,” and “A Shot in the Arm.”
Then came time for the main event… Macca, Sir Paul McCartney. I don’t know if you could say he stole the show because he was a Beatle but McCartney blew everyone else out of the water up until that point. There were conflicting reports on how long he played but he went on shortly after 9pm and played till about 11:50pm. Nearly three hours at 70-years-old (He turned 71 four days after this). This man’s songbook, the sheer depth of classics he has at his disposal is near unfathomable for one artist. It’s a set list that’s been reported to be 36 songs long (Unless you count the medley at the end as multiple songs, then it’s 38). He played Wings and solo hits like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Junior’s Farm,” “Let Me Roll It,” and “Listen to What the Man Said.” The bulk of the show however was his timeless Beatles catalog. And rightfully so, they were delivered dynamically and impeccably, near-perfection. Paul and his backing band sounded phenomenal. Just when you thought he might be losing some steam he kicked the show into a stratospheric gear beginning with an 80,000-strong sing-a-long of “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.” It was an onslaught, a murderers’ row of diamonds from then on. There was the epic “Band on the Run,” the jet-setting “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” soaring versions of “Let it Be” and “Hey Jude” and a pyrotechnics display not of this world for “Live and Let Die.” I thought the show might’ve ended there but he came back out for three encores. The first included Rubber Soul-era smash “Day Tripper,” the rollicking “Hi Hi Hi,” and a personal favorite of mine the propulsive Let It Be stomper “Get Back.” He came back on again armed with just an acoustic guitar for a stop-the-clocks rendition of “Yesterday” before the rest of the band rejoined him for the caustic pile-driver “Helter Skelter.” Again, I thought this had to be it. He returned yet again closing out the brilliant set with the Abbey Road medley of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End”. McCartney was in a dapper mood and didn’t even appear to break a sweat. There was a large sign that in the crowd that said “Maccaroo” and I couldn’t have put it any better than that. He owned the festival that night, reigning supreme. I can now check McCartney off my concert bucket list, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something.
I still had two days of music after that show, I couldn’t believe it. Saturday started with the shimmering beauty of Lord Huron’s set. Then I had to fuel up for the white-knuckle ride of Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls. Turner is a fantastic live act and proved to be that again. A blue-collared poet of the people Turner had us in the palm of his hand, a roller coaster on edge as he tore the pages out of his punk playbook with rallying cries like “Four Simple Words”, “Reasons Not To Be An Idiot,” “Glory Hallelujah,” “I Am Disappeared,” “Plain Sailing Weather,” “The Road,” “Recovery,” “Photosynthesis,” and “I Still Believe.” I caught the end of Portugal. The Man’s set after that. They’re a band I definitely want to see an entire live show of at some point, they sounded great and they always put out good records, but Frank Turner took precedence. There was another large swath of people to see The Lumineers. Similar to Of Monsters and Men, they saw a meteoric rise to fame off the strength of a mega hit, in this case, “Ho Hey.” The band was very cordial and appreciative of the large fan base they had accrued in such a short time frame.
Sunday was a much needed recovery day. Out in the Tennessee heat for four days without the usual amenities you take for granted (in-door plumbing, air conditioning, a comfortable bed) really takes its toll. After getting rested up at the campgrounds, it was time to head in for The National. The National are an interesting dichotomy of technical proficiency and high-stakes theater. The latter of course, comes solely from front man Matt Berninger. Berninger guzzled glasses of wine (Or some concoction) with impunity as he howled through National cuts with booze-fueled tenacity. Once again Berninger wondered through the crowd singing and causing total chaos during their defiant cut “Mr. November.” The National seem like sad sacks on record and maybe at first glance too, but they’re so much more than that. I’ve seen them throw more passion and dangerous sonics into their sets than a lot of punk and metal bands.
The time then came for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (Cue “When The Time Comes”) to close out the festival. If you know me at all you know of my great affinity for Tom Petty. He’s on my Mt. Rushmore of Rock & Roll singer/songwriters along with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young. Petty & The Heartbreakers delivered a powerhouse set that mixed in massive hits, deep cuts, and covers kicking off with a thunderous rendition of The Byrds’ classic “So You Want To Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star.” Petty then delivered a couple cuts from Full Moon Fever “Love is a Long Road” and “I Won’t Back Down” which Petty introduced saying, “Let’s do one everyone can sing-a-long with.” Petty was in great spirits stating, “I don’t have to be anywhere for hours!” and “I predict we’re going to have an incredible time tonight.” He was right. Petty sounded marvelous with his vintage nasally croon and the band was all aces playing tight and also loose whenever the situation warranted it. They followed Petty wherever he needed them to go flawlessly. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell’s virtuosic chops in particular were on display (Whom Petty has anointed as his Co-Captain over the years) on stellar moments during the blues standard “Baby Please Don’t Go” (Which included a great rambling narrative by Petty saying goodbye to his “Bipolar” woman), the absolutely incendiary, blistering “Good Enough” and the roasting outro of the colossal “I Should Have Known It” where you swore Campbell’s guitar was going to leave a smoldering pile of rubble where the stage once was. His interplay with Petty also seemed effortless on lengthier jams like the Grateful Dead cover “Friend of the Devil” and “It’s Good To Be King.” Tom dusted off a gem from the Traveling Wilburys first record “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” that he co-wrote with Dylan. Petty mentioned his roots beginning in the South and then played a stripped-down version of “Rebels” from Southern Accents. As if that wasn’t enough the treasures seemed endless with staples like “Here Comes My Girl,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Free Fallin’,” “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” “Listen To Her Heart,” “Learning to Fly,” and “Yer So Bad.” Petty closed out the initial set with the one-two punch of clarion-call march “Refugee” and the open-road endearment of “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” With the crowd still completely enamored, Petty and the boys returned to the stage for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and the hard-charging “You Wreck Me” before ending with the song that put them on the map, “American Girl.” An excellent way to send the crowd home with one of the greatest songwriters ever and one of the greatest bands ever.
Of course with four days of music you’ll inevitably have some regrets. So many great acts and you go in with such big ambitions but it’s tough to get to everyone and for everything to go perfectly. I guess the biggest disappointment would be Mumford & Sons being forced to cancel their set. This was something that was completely out of their control though. Bassist Ted Dwane was recovering from brain surgery after a blood clot was found there. Luckily he’s already on the mend and is doing fine. I’d be more upset if I weren’t seeing them in less than two months at Lollapalooza. It should be a hell of a show. The next was missing out on the “Superjam” with Jim James and special guests. I wish I had a better excuse than being completely tired, but that’s basically the reason. James has been known to steal the show at Bonnaroo. He did so at the festival in 2008 with My Morning Jacket when they played a monumental four hour set into the wee hours of the night. I heard nothing but positive reviews from the Superjam show. Again there is a bit of consolation for me in the fact that I will be seeing James perform with My Morning Jacket at the AmericanaramA festival next month along with Wilco and Bob Dylan.
In the grand scheme of things those setbacks seemed minor mainly because of such unbelievable headlining sets by McCartney and Petty and a strong supporting cast. Bonnaroo was once again an unbelievable experience. So many elements combine for such a surreal and unforgettable time. It’s time I cherished greatly because it was four days but it was gone seemingly in the blink of an eye. If you ever get the chance to get down south to Bonnaroo I strongly recommend it. There’s no other place like it… on this planet anyway.