Thursday, June 9th
River City Extension – This Tent – 4:00 p.m.
It was only fitting that after an 18+ hour drive from Boston, the first song I heard approaching my first set of the festival was Too Tired To Drink. It must be daunting to be the first act to open the tents, but River City Extension did a more than admirable job. Frontman Joe Michelinis energy was matched only by backup vocalist Sam Tacon – the pair stomped the stage and beckoned the crowd to join them at every opportunity, including clapping along to album standout New Intelligence. Dan Melius clearly loved every moment of the gig, blowing his trumpet to bits when he wasnt thumping his chest and belting out vocal parts that werent even his. It took some effort at times to get the audience totally hooked, like the lackluster sing-along during Something Salty, Something Sweet, but the band never stopped giving it their all. To their great credit, they certainly had some new fans by the end. -Ben Kaye
Greensky Bluegrass – On Tap Lounge – 4:00 p.m.
After pulling an all-nighter waiting in line to get onto the campgrounds, Michigan’s bluegrass quintet Greensky Bluegrass‘ soaring harmonies, rapidly-picked banjo and sweet melodies were the perfect start to Bonnaroo 2011. As the set progressed through highlights such as “Into the Rafters”, typical bluegrass fare extended jam sessions, and an appearance from a Pee-wee Herman doll on a stick, the modest crowd swelled into a sweaty mess of dancing that far exceeded the small set-up for the On Tap Lounge and surely guaranteed them an audience at their sets later in the weekend. -Caitlin Meyer
Hayes Carll – The Other Tent, 4:15 p.m.
Opening a tent on Thursday is not an easy task. Most years the crowds are small because the people just aren’t there – Thursday is a travel and setup day for many. But since Bonnaroo opened the gates early this year – Wednesday afternoon instead of early Thursday morning – the farm was already hopping by the time the tents were open for business. Playing to a decent sized audience, Hayes Carll and his five-piece band played a strong set of the good kind of country – no gloss, no fake pop – just a down to earth set of old style country songs. The crowd was really into it – Carll had them howling and cheering over the hilarious “Another Like You”. He played mostly songs from latest effort KMAG YOYO, with a few from earlier albums, including a personal favorite – his cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”. -Carson O’Shoney
Band of Skulls – That Tent – 8:30 p.m.
If theres one thing this band proved during their early evening set, its that rock and roll is alive and well, and it breathes in England. Everything Band of Skulls did, every crashing crescendo, every tasty lick, every How you doin, Bonnaroo?!”, was met with raucous approval from the front rails to beyond the edges of the lawns outside the tent. Whether it was hits like Light of the Morning or Death by Diamonds and Pearls or new tracks they didnt even know yet, the crowd devoured every moment, including the pick tossed by Russell Marsden into their hungry hands as the band slammed into I Know What I Am. The track Impossible was transformed into an impressive closer with a monstrously extended breakdown, making it a standout in a Thursday night highlight. -Ben Kaye
Wavves – This Tent – 5:30 p.m.
Wavves‘ packed set at This Tent didn’t truly start until it was almost over. Although Nathan Williams’ sloppy, loud sound matched the energy of the records, it just wasn’t suited for an outdoor, sandy festival setting. The show began with a run of newer and really old tracks, both of which were lost upon the casual listener expecting solely “Post Acid” and “King of the Beach”. A reprimanded crowd surfer resulted in Williams (in typical anti-establishment fashion) demanding that the crowd do whatever they want to have fun and completely ignore security. Following this spiel, Williams launched into a run of songs off last year’s King of the Beach – finally engaging the crowd. “Linus Spacehead” was especially well-received, with Williams’ screams of “I’m stuck in the sky/I’m never coming down” resonating particularly well in the suspended smoke above the crowd. -Caitlin Meyer
Freelance Whales – That Tent – 5:30 p.m.
The strange appeal of Freelance Whales baffled me, for the most part — here is an act with enough of a pop lean to tweak some lyrical structure for easy radio airplay, whose vocalist isn’t even a stone’s throw away, and this band has chosen an ethereal indie route that you can take or leave. Bonnaroo heated up brutally fast, and following the more country-centric vibe of Futurebirds with cheerful positivity was a sorely-needed departure in helping the crowd forget the sun temporarily. Sure, it was a tent with shade, but let’s get real…humidity knows no bounds, so we take what we can get. This includes happy indie pop like the phenomenal Freelance Whales. Now, excuse me while the hippie who spilled his beer on my shoe buys me a brew. Cheers! -David Buchanan
Karen Elson – The Other Tent – 5:45 p.m.
A night before her divorce party, Karen Elson put on her own kind of fiesta on the farm. Bringing along 3/4ths of the Greenhornes (or 1/2 of the Raconteurs, if you prefer) – Elson and her band tore through selections from The Ghost Who Walks along with a couple of covers – including a fantastic take on Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” and her Lou Reed cover and Record Store Day single “Vicious”. The band sounded better than ever – they’ve come a long way since she first started playing shows last year. Elson was in total control of the crowd. They were simply enthralled by her and it showed, in both their reactions and her performance. -Carson O’Shoney
Best Coast – The Other Tent – 7:15 p.m.
Photo by Mark C. Austin
Besides Sleigh Bells, Best Coast had the biggest crowd of any Thursday act. Inexplicably, they were both in the smallest main tent at the festival. Bethany & co. took the stage to huge applause, then proceeded to play mostly selections from their latest effort, Crazy for You. Unfortunately, the band didn’t impress on stage. Most of the songs just bled together and it led to a pretty boring set. The crowd still went crazy for “Boyfriend”, and many didn’t seem to care that everything sounded the same – but for those of us hoping for more from a band that has written some solid songs, this was a big disappointment. -Carson O’Shoney
J. Cole – This Tent – 8:30 p.m.
Photo by Max Blau
Bonnaroo’s Thursday night lineup is notorious for nabbing acts on their way up. Acts like MGMT, Vampire Weekend and the xx have graced the farm on past Thursdays. This year, J. Cole was the obvious choice for Thursday’s about-to-blow-up act. He was the first act signed on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, and he’s poised to release his debut album later this year. For fans who caught his show, it was a great chance to see him before he starts playing main stages – and he proved his worth with a high energy set. He got the crowd jumping, and they followed his every move, from throwing diamonds in the sky to a legit lighter salute – something rare in today’s concert scene. Look out for J. Cole – he’ll be all over the radio in due time. -Carson O’Shoney
The Drums – The Other Tent – 8:45 p.m.
Since it was mid-June in Tennessee, The Drums‘ vibe couldn’t be more suited to the temperatures, even excluding chilly coastlines elsewhere. There truly is little to be said for an act whose first big LP release has been repeatedly hailed by independent blogs, so we’ll stick to the current events.
You really had to be there to sink your teeth into a bite of something so surfer-oriented that you could imagine water coming down. It wasn’t a Centeroo fountain, but nobody complained — the sun had already been down for quite a bit. Songs like “Let’s Go Surfing” or “Best Friend” created a bubbly dance party that even frontman Jonathan Pierce took part of – without sweating too much, either.
With Thursday being the second worst afternoon to be billed on this week, we accept that The Drums could have half-assed their way through a whole short set. We’re happy they did not. -David Buchanan
Twin Shadow – This Tent – 10:00 p.m.
With the pain of having to choose between The Walkmen, Sleigh Bells, and Twin Shadow still fresh, George Lewis did his best to swoon the crowd in his favor. Although he may have lost in numbers, he won in performance – the dazzling blue and yellow lights, lush synthesizers, and low, tender voice in top-notch shape as he rolled through Forget‘s finest. Limited crowd interaction usually seems standoffish, but Lewis’ almost non-presence lent itself to an entrancing, rich set that matched the vibe and depth of the recordings perfectly. “I Can’t Wait” and “When We’re Dancing” proved to be show highlights, as the crowd swayed back and forth in pure ecstasy. – Caitlin Meyer
Sleigh Bells – The Other Tent – 10:15 p.m.
The full effect of the new Wednesday gate openings could be seen and felt by anyone who attended the Sleigh Bells set. In my four Roos, I have never seen a crowd like this one on a Thursday, nor ever at the Other Tent in general. As the Brooklyn duo burst into Crown On The Ground and the crowd surged forward, the first thought was this shouldve been at a bigger tent. When Alexis Krauss called out, This one goes out to the back before fan-favorite Rill Rill, she was talking to the people pressed against the fences to the right, up towards the water slide on the left, and beyond the trees in back. It was rowdy, almost scary, but behind a battering ram of bass and a wall of light and color turned solid by dust kicked into the air by dancing hordes, it was proof that these are two people totally at home throwing a party for upwards of 20,000 people, and rocking each and every one of them breathless. -Ben Kaye
Childish Gambino – This Tent – 11:30 p.m.
Photo by Mark C. Austin
Donald Glovers rapper side-persona is starting to become a more recognizable name than his real one. While in ways thats always been part of the Childish Gambino experiment, this was his first real test in front of a festival-sized crowd. He entered hard with the Youngbloodz sampling Let Me Dope You, but recent smash Freaks and Geeks had a strange mix and caught Gambino out of breath, slow on just his second song. Though he mumbled through most of his crowd interactions, his confidence grew with his energy as he bounded about stage, climbing atop a speaker to begin Yes. The crowd was with him the whole way, chanting his name during no fewer than five interims, and rushing the stage as he mounted the rails for I Be On That. In short-shorts and a Garth Brooks The Cat in the Hat t-shirt, he certainly didnt cut the typical rapper image, but the speed showcased on the Kanye sampling Break (All of the Lights), the vocal versatility of My Shine (he can sing!), and the gruffness closing out Lights Turned On show hes actually got the chops to be a recognizable force in hip-hop. -Ben Kaye
Beats Antique – The Other Tent – 11:45 p.m.
Classifying Beats Antique‘s unique blend of every genre imaginable is immensely difficult – and the same applies to their live show. The bass was heavy, but not enough to warrant dub step dancing; the percussion reeked afro-beat, but the grooves weren’t long enough to really get into. For a stoner-friendly world fusion jamming show, the set was plagued by prematurely ending songs and an abnormal amount of talking. That being said, though, the audience packed into the tent without complaint and spilled onto the surrounding grass, enjoying the musicianship as the band frequently switched around instruments and laughing at the attempt to organize the ‘world’s largest simultaneous clap’. -Caitlin Meyer