words by Andy Pareti
photos by Randy Cremean
Thursdays at Bonnaroo are typically an unexplosive affair. A light schedule comprised of up-and-comers, it’s more the spark that starts a 3-day musical fire (which may not be the best analogy since Bonnaroo’s grounds are literally on fire watch most of the time). 2009’s Bonnaroo began with much the same whisper of anticipation, although the whisper took with it strobes, fog, neon lights, synths and a string bass. Here are two of the highlights:
The Low Anthem:
The cigarette tar voice of Low Anthem singer Ben Knox Miller drove this country-folk buzz band through a thorough set of John Deere sensibilities and whiskey imagery. Playing a sort of Fleet Foxes rustic music with a harder country-blues edge, the Low Anthem tested the Bonnaroo waters with a strong performance that metamorphosed from M. Wardian folk to down-and-dirty delta blues to genuine Tennessee country. Miller’s voice followed the transition appropriately – sometimes he had a voice like Arlo Guthrie’s and sometimes it was a more subdued Scott McMicken (Dr. Dog). Meanwhile, the band played musical chairs as the three main members (Miller, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Adams) switched on and off between clarinets, drums, guitars, pump organs, and string bass. In fact, Prystowsky did his best Victor Wooten on the upright instrument, drawing roars from the crowd with his bass-playing while his strained face turned his curled mustache down until it wrapped towards itself like a horseshoe. The standout performance was a seething romp through “Cigarettes, Whiskey & Wild, Wild Women”, during which Miller’s voice, quite simply, ascended to such a sincere blues rasp that it hit you like a punch in the gut. The Low Anthem closed things out with a charming ode to a former roommate in “This Goddamn House”, which saw Miller bring the set to an appropriately mysterious close, whistling into a pair of cell phones in front of the microphone so the sound came out as a tweeting garble.
In keeping with the Low Anthem’s theme of musical transitions, Passion Pit took its audience on an expedition through decades of dance music evolution. With music inspired by Electric Light Orchestra, Prince and LCD Soundsystem, no disco ball remained unspun. Passion Pit’s music doesn’t necessarily offer anything new, but they are good at reminding people of the old (even if “old” means six months ago). And sometimes, their songs are great enough to reinvent the dance groove, as standout performance “Little Secrets”, off their Manners album, proved. Passion Pit could have been alright if they accepted their role as a primer for MGMT or Phoenix, but they opted instead to brand the night with their own feverish stargaze electronica and Bee Gees-inspired vocals. In other words, they created a passion pit. With performances like these, it won’t be long before they are back here again, only on a larger stage with another young dance troupe priming the audience for them.