Bonnaroo 2011 kicked off its tenth anniversary Thursday afternoon, and reached its first climax with three massive headliners Friday night, including My Morning Jacket (8pm) followed by Arcade Fire (11pm) on the stadium-sized main stage (known as the “What Stage”) and then Lil Wayne at 2am on a large side stage (the “Which Stage”). Sure, there were dozens of solid shows (and some comedians) leading up to this amazing musical trifecta. But with more than 80,000 people — mostly kids braving extreme heat and humidity without being able to shower — camping out on festival grounds that stretch out over a 700-acre expanse under a vast sky, Bonnaroo was made for big moments. Plus, the smaller tents, if you can squeeze in, don’t always provide enough room for the hippie–ish contingent to properly dance and twirl glow sticks.
My Morning Jacket opened its two-hour set with with an extended, trumpet and voice only intro of “Victory Dance,” the first song off their new album Circuital. Much has been made about MMJ’s so-called return to their roots by recording the new album direct to analog tape in a gym in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky as opposed to the NYC studio that served as headquarters for their last album (Evil Urges). By opening with the first track from Circuital, MMJ may have been announcing a homecoming of sorts to the mostly Southern audience. Regardless, “Victory Dance” was an apt choice to celebrate with the friendly Bonnaroo crowd how far the band has come. Having played the fest four times in the past, but never on the main stage, frontman Jim James noted, “it’s such an honor.”
In a powerful, two-hour set featuring Jim’s heavy guitar solos and big falsetto voice — plus backup by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans and the Nashville Horn Association — MMJ ran through a large chunk of Circuital as well as songs from Evil Urges (“Highly Suspicious”), Z (“Gideon,” “Anytime”), and It Still Moves (“Golden,” “One Big Morning”). Interestingly, MMJ’s large repertory and wide range of styles (southern, indie, jam and even funk) makes them widely appealing at Bonnaroo, but it also makes it difficult for them to please everyone. Longtime fans seemed especially disappointed that the band chose not to perform the most popular songs from their earliest albums. In fact, MMJ hardly played anything at all off of The Tennessee Fire or At Dawn. And different factions of the audience seemed to react more (or less) enthusiastically to the band’s various musical styles and eras.
Indie act Arcade Fire, which topped the night’s bill, didn’t have that problem. At first, the band’s heavy playing of relatively delicate instruments (violin, tambourine, accordion, mandolin) felt somewhat light compared to MMJ. But the band’s extra-tight performance seemed to grow stronger and more intense with every single song. Unlike MMJ, Arcade Fire chose to focus on a small number of crowd favorites (we counted 17), and deliver those gems faithfully, without much in the way of improvisation, which may be a good or bad thing depending on your taste.
Their set was bookended with songs from their Grammy-winning The Suburbs, opening with “Ready to Start” and closing in a frenzy with “Empty Room.” At one point during the show, Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler said: “Any festival where you can see My Morning Jacket and Lil Wayne is OK with me.” But at the end of the night, Arcade Fire drew the biggest audience (we have no idea how many tens of thousands), played with the most consistent intensity, and seemed to make the most people sing along and dance. They earned their spot at the top of Friday’s lineup.
To be fair, we saw only a few minutes of Lil Wayne‘s set — and he seemed to be on point and more than handling his own. But his show started late, after 1:30am, and we were exhausted from battling the sun all day. You’ll have to hit up our younger colleagues at MTV to read about Lil Wayne wowing Bonnaroo. Check out photos and video from this year’s fest: