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Published: 2014/06/14
by Rob Slater

From The Saturday Bonnaroo Beacon: "The Good Life"

Photo by Dean Budnick

“Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it,
I guess every superhero needs his theme music,
No one man should have all that POWER.”

And yet, there he stood. One man with complete power over a farm’s worth of people—many of whom were salivating at the opportunity to express their distaste. Music’s greatest villain returning to the scene of his most egregious misstep. With the events of his disastrous 2008 set still fresh to some, Kanye West took to the What Stage for a face-to-face encounter with some of his most vocal critics under a full moon on Friday the 13th at the 13th Bonnaroo.

“Follow the path to Yeezus!” one fan exclaimed as droves of Bonnaroovians flocked to the What Stage around 10 p.m. That walk to the stage carried a certain amount of irony as the infamous tagline “Fuck Kanye” spray-painted on the facade was impossible to miss as you stepped into the soon-to-be Church of Yeezus.

With anticipation and some measure of angst filling the field in front of the What Stage, the lights dimmed at 10:07 PM, or, roughly six hours earlier than West’s last appearance at Bonnaroo. Decked out in a bejeweled mask hiding his face from the masses, he tore into the Yeezus track “Black Skinhead” with a ferocity that made this show feel therapeutic not just for the crowd, but for the rapper as well.

West brilliantly juxtaposed an antagonistic stage persona with the mega-hits that comprise his catalog. One minute the crowd would be vocally pleading with him to stop name-checking Howard Hughes, Walt Disney and former NBA commissioner David Stern and the next they’d be rabidly jumping up and down at the MC’s command as “Mercy,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Jesus Walks” and “Touch the Sky” filled the Bonnaroo air. West actually restarted “Touch the Sky” because he wanted to “move the Earth” with everyone’s energy.

“I’m the biggest rock star on the planet. This is real rock and roll for those of you who grew up on real music,” West snapped at the crowd during one of his several rants. He also wasn’t shy about the 2008 incident, referencing the “Fuck Kanye” messages on the port-a-potties. “Tonight, we’re going to piss all over them,” he said to a mix of cheers and boos.

In the end, the cheers would far outweigh the sporadic boos as West pounded the crowd with “All of the Lights,” “Good Life” and “Bound 2” before exiting the stage to something he hadn’t experienced at his previous Bonnaroo appearance—mass approval. An encore of “Blood on the Leaves” was all that was necessary to officially make 2008 a very distant memory.

The day began on the Which Stage with music from the Michigan-based bluegrass quintet Greensky Bluegrass. Shortly afterwards, across the Farm at The Other Tent, St. Paul and The Broken Bones trotted out their horn-filled collective while vocalist Paul Janeway, who previously had worked security at the festival, thanked the crowd for joining him as he fulfilled a dream. The energy of their show was matched at the Which Stage as Vintage Trouble blasted into action with their brand of high-octane showmanship. Dynamic performances with an international feel were par for the course at That Tent over the course of the day, with notable sets from Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, The Master Musicians of Jajouka and A Tribe Called Red.

“This is like being in the woods with your friends—you can be as loud as you want,” The Head and the Heart’s guitarist Jonathan Russell said to a packed house at the Which Stage in the late afternoon. The Seattle folk-rockers were just one of the many acts to ease the tension of the impending Kanye landing as well as the standard ominous feel that comes with a Friday the 13th. Supporting their new album Let’s Be Still, the band seemed to thoroughly enjoy acquainting themselves with their new Bonnaroo friends as Russell and Josiah Johnson spent adequate time running through the crowd.

The Wood Brothers also did their best to loosen everyone up with their particular brand of feel-good music that referenced the global unifier—alcohol. Whiskey, wine and gin were all given warm responses at the This Tent as Oliver Wood also reminisced about the band’s first time at the festival in 2006 before a sing-along on “Luckiest Man.”

Friday afternoon was filled with some of the best and brightest in just about every genre. Sam Smith (who also joined pals Disclosure for their late night performance) boasted one of the largest tent crowds of the early day as the singer/songwriter filled his set with energetic takes on tunes from his latest release In the Lonely Hour along with a cover of fellow Brit-rockers Arctic Monkeys’ “Do I Wanna Know?” Meanwhile, Dr. Dog was busy on the Which Stage with their indie-darling status blossoming into a full-on love affair with a set that included an appearance from the band’s tour manager on guitar. Bonnaroo heavyweight Umphrey’s McGee could also be found making their What Stage debut previewing tracks from their new release Similar Skin. Opening with the title-track where drummer Kris Myers plays with four drumsticks, they delivered a crash course in their sixteen-year catalog—mixing old with new seamlessly.

As the crowd prepared for their pre-Kanye offerings, Vampire Weekend, Neutral Milk Hotel and Phoenix were all throwing parties of their own. The latter of those three seemed to win out, as thousands stumbled to the Which Stage for a French dance party and singalong. Phoenix wasted no time incorporating tunes like “Lisztomania,” “Too Young,” “Girlfriend” and more much to the delight of the crowd before everyone shuffled off to see what awaited them at the What Stage.

The SuperJam saw the Tedeschi Trucks Band joined by Chaka Khan, Taj Mahal, David Hidalgo, Willie Weeks, Eric Krasno and many, many others for a set that drew on some choice soul selections as well as a bonus Led Zeppelin cover with Khan on vocals (“What Is and What Should Never Be”). At the same time, Ice Cube commanded attention on the Which Stage, and Mastodon throbbed in This Tent while Disclosure had The Other Tent pulsing.

So all in all, despite some early anxiety that the realm of positivity established on Thursday might abate, the true spirit of Bonnaroo shone through in the end. This is, after all, in the words of Mr. West, “the good life.”

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