The music kept coming on Saturday at Bonnaroo — the third day of the four-day Manchester, Tenn. Music festival. Among the sea of tents, stages and sideshow attractions, these were the acts that made a powerful impression.
As far as we know, Midland played the second cover of Allman Brothers Band’s Midnight Rider at Bonnaroo 2018 (the first was by Sheryl Crow on Friday.) That was on top of a vamp on ZZ Top’s La Grange and a set-closing cover of Tom Petty’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance.
But at Bonnaroo, the Texas county group was truly free to be themselves. The sizable crowd was intimately familiar with the tongue-twisting lyrics of Make a Little, and even more so with their hit Drinking Problem. In between sips of a Miller Lite longneck, frontman Mark Wystrach expresses their gratitude.
“Somebody once said, I think it was Willie Nelson: ‘We get paid to travel and do all the other (stuff). We play the music for free.’ This is what we live to do. So God bless each and every one of you guys.”.
“I won’t turn around.”.
We’re not sure four more powerful words will be spoken this weekend at Bonnaroo, and they were stated and restated, again and again, by soul legend Mavis Staples.
She was singing Freedom Highway, a 56-year-old song written by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples in the thick of the civil rights movement.
“He wrote it for the big march, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.”.
“I was there. I was there. I was there, and I’m still here!”.
It was a potent history lesson for the 78-year-old vocalist to give to this audience — at a time when young people are more involved in demonstrations than they’ve been in decades. Of course, when Staples delivered purely emotional fare, like the Jeff Tweedy penned You Are Not Alone, it was no less powerful.
We’re not sure any performer captivated, commanded and impressed the Bonnaroo audience as much as Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals did on the main stage, just ahead of Eminem’s headlining set.
“We don’t got a lot of time to mess around,” he told the crowd, with the same distinct rasp that lit up Dr. Dre’s Animals, A Tribe Called Quest’s Movin Backwards and his own breakthrough album, Malibu.
When the 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist was behind a drum kit and spitting a sinewy verse, it was clear there wasn’t a cooler guy on site in Manchester. He even compelled one fan to successfully pop the question in the front pit.
“We are called Chic, and you are called the most beautiful crowd I have ever seen,” Nile Rodgers said soon after he and his band took the What Stage. The disco hit-maker and his party-ready crowd certainly got off on the right foot, and the relationship deepened quickly from there, as Rodgers and crew delved into all of the pop classics he’s had a hand in, from We Are Family to David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Like A Virgin and most recently Daft Punk’s 2013 smash Get Lucky.
That last hit overlapped with Rodgers’ battle with cancer, as he told his audience.
“During my first year of recovery, I get a call from two French guys called Daft Punk, and a brother named Pharrell Williams. We wrote a few songs, and one of them was called Get Lucky. And I feel like the luckiest man in the world, because tonight, I am standing here before you at Bonnaroo, and I am cancer-free!”.
With two separate sets — pre- and post-Eminem — experimental indie star Justin Vernon held a presence at like few acts have ever been able to do at Bonnaroo.
He and his Bon Iver compatriots burrowed into the Which Stage, transforming it into more of a spacious studio setup that put the focus on sound, not sights. The second set featured special guests heavily, including Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
Removing the comedy tent and spreading stand-ups throughout the rest of the festival grounds has certainly been a mixed bag. But if that’s what it took to finally get Reggie Watts on one of Bonnaroo’s music stages, it was all worth it.
Watts — who millions now see as James Corden’s bandleader on TV’s Late Late Show — is a singular, otherworldly talent, a cross between Bobby McFerrin and Andy Kaufman. He builds up improvised songs using only his voice (and the occasional keyboard) with a looping device that allows him to layer the sounds he makes on top of one another. He’ll mimic any instrument, any vocal style and any genre with stunning precision, and then throws in absurdist comic relief after reaching a crescendo.
“I was here at Bonnaroo in 2006, and I never would have imagined 2014 looking like this. It looks good, right?”.
Yes, he said “2014,” and he also name-dropped all of the musical acts he was planning to catch this weekend: My Chemical Romance, Belinda Carlisle and Alice In Chains.
But he also had sincere words for bands that were actually playing Bonnaroo, like Paramore.
“I’m just looking for real musicians inspiring kids,” he said. “Now I know there are some bands out there that love your computers on stage. But pressing (the) space bar, that’s your last resort, OK?”.
More:Bonnaroo 2018: Here’s what we saw on Day 1.
Also:Bonnaroo: Paramore (finally) plays festival; pays tribute to Anthony Bourdain.