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From The Bonnaroo Beacon: Tomorrow’s Headliners Today

Futurebirds – photo by Dean Budnick

Bonnaroo first hosted Thursday night performances in 2003 and it didn’t take long for the festival’s opening day to develop into a showcase for the live music world’s most buzzed about bands. Before Bonnaroo’s main Which and What Stages officially open for business each year, Thursday offers early arrivals a chance to check out groups they may never have heard of or—thanks to the increasing power of the internet—bands they have heard of but never seen. From indie buzz acts to road warrior jambands to conscious hip-hop MCs to introspective and sonically expansive singer/songwriters, it’s the night when Ray LaMontagne, Vampire Weekend, Lotus, The Wood Brothers, MGMT, Battles and Felice Brothers all staked their ground as “Bonnaroo bands” for the first time.

But, as much as Bonnaroo’s opening day is a peek at tomorrow’s future headliners, Thursday’s performances were also a celebration of the festival’s past and enduring legacy. Freelance Whales drummer Jacob Hyman attended Bonnaroo as wide-eyed music fan straight out of college in 2007 and triumphantly returned last night as a performer, while psychedelic guitar-ace Benjamin Curtis originally blew minds with Secret Machines in 2005 and made his way back to Manchester, TN this spring to do the same with the latest incarnation of his current indie group School of Seven Bells. Bonnaroo regulars Joe Russo (The Duo) and Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) lent a hand to their longtime friend Chris Harford and his Band of Changes; Bonnaroo attendee-turned-sponsorship coordinator-turned performer Taylor Gabriels played to fist-pumping crowds in the manic rock band MiniBoone; veteran festival comedian Lewis Black wore his Bonnaroo 2009 t-shirt as a badge of honor; and one of Bonnaroo’ signature artists, Jack White, shifted his role from performer to fan as he cheered on his wife Karen Elson side stage (he’s learned at least one trick during his multiple visits to Manchester—wear white, not black).

Of course, there were also first-time performers like newgrass act Greensky Bluegrass and world fusion electronic group Beats Antique that have amassed national following thanks to the increasing electric festival circuit that’s emerged in Bonnaroo’s wake—and groups like loose, indie-leaning Americana rockers Futurebirds who sound as if they formed a band simply to play Bonnaroo. In fact, Futurebirds guitarist Thomas Johnson made his first pilgrimage to Bonnaroo in 2003 when he was only 15 and that formative experience no doubt helped shape his style of guitar playing, if not his desire to grow his long, trademark beard.

Though Bonnaroo has never been an especially nostalgic festival, there is an inherent sense of history tied to the event’s overall feeling of community. As festivalgoers wandered through Centeroo for the first time this year, the site started to feel like the first day of summer camp with campers re-familiarizing themselves with the site and exploring its latest offerings. Even one of Bonnaroo’s new artist exhibits—a series of painting depicting the festival’s past marquee acts—felt like Color War plaques commemorating past festival adventures. Veteran attendees also had some new areas of the site to explore, including an amusement park-size waterslide and a fully stocked Food Truck Oasis (perhaps the lot scene of the future).

Fans paid tribute to Bonnaroo’s roots in other ways, too: A careful scan of the crowd revealed well-worn Bonnaroo shirts from as far back as 2002, new festival merchandise that repurposes classic ‘roo designs, Steal Your Face Grateful Dead tattoos which nod to the festival’s improvisational roots and even one fan with the Bonnaroo logo shaved into his fresh buzz cut.

Yet, when it came to the music created onstage, even groups rooted in old time sounds like the modern string band River City Extension had their eyes firmly planted on the future. From the moment the eleven-person collective Uncle Skelton officially kicked off the weekend’s music with a high energy set to swelling crowds in the On Tap Lounge, all four stages were consistently filled.

Bonnaroo’s early evening offerings had something for everyone: Wavves offered a gnarly punk tease of Diane Warren’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” Freelance Whales fleshed out their indie folk songs with baroque instrumentation and singer/songwriter Karen Elson led a roots-y band that boasted The Raconteurs’ Jack Lawrence. Likewise, fans moved between the lo-fi surf pop of Best Coast, the hip-hop beats of J. Cole, the bluesy rock-and-roll of Band of Skulls, the infectious indie hooks of The Drums and the poignant words of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., like levels in a video game. Meanwhile, keyboardist Ivan Neville, Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s Terence Higgins and Kirk Joseph and guitarist Jamie McLean anchored a New Orleans super jam in the festival’s VIP area.

As the sun set, dance, hip-hop, indie and other modern sounds took over. Perhaps the night’s biggest success story was Sleigh Bells, who drew capacity crowds to The Other Tent thanks to their hardcore dance-punk. California producer Dâm-Funk, Hollywood-focused rapper Childish Gambino and ambient punk rockers Deerhunter all also drew sizable numbers of eager new fans. The Burning Man-approved Beats Antique closed The Other tent, drawing an appreciative audience of younger women, who treated the group a bit like Disney Princesses for the tweaker set.

Perhaps in the next few years a handful of these bands will graduate to larger stages or maybe even a headlining slot somewhere down the line—or maybe tomorrow’s headliner is still somewhere in the audience today.

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