With a little over a month to go, the 2013 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is quickly drawing near. With a line-up that possibly surpasses last year's excellent showing, the annual trip down to Manchester, Tennessee is looking to be as exciting as ever. With top-card players ranging from Sir Paul McCartney to Bjork to Mumford & Sons to Wilco to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, there's no doubt that there's a little something for everyone at this year's festival. But, everybody's going to be talking about this year's biggest acts so we thought we'd shine a light on some of the under-appreciated and lesser known names filling out the tents. Because true Bonnaroovians know that many of the best sets of the festival don't occur under the bright lights of the main What Stage but instead in the This, That, or the Other Tent. In 2010, Mumford & Sons were playing a Saturday show in the That Tent and now they're headliners. Who might be the next band to do that?
So, let's take a look at some groups playing on Thursday this year that you may have over-looked. This list is in no particular order as it was hard enough to cull down the acts that had us the most excited, let alone put them in an order. And stay tuned, because we'll be revealing a new list of 10 every Friday leading up to Roo.
Out of all of the bands playing on Thursday that people may not have turned themselves on to yet, Los Angeles girl pop group Haim has the most promise of becoming a massive cross-over success. With an ear for infectious pop melodies and hooks paired with 90s R&B sensibilities, Haim sounds unlike any other indie pop act out there. Though the trio only has an EP and a handful of singles to their name, it's enough to have many people salivating at the thought of their debut LP which is scheduled to be released this year. Though a band without a full LP seems like a big risk for your time at Bonnaroo, if the idea of Fleetwood Mac filtered through 90s alt-pop seems remotely compelling to you, you should give these girls a listen. They're going to be big. It's just a shame that they're playing against Walk the Moon which will draw a sizable chunk of the Thursday crowd.
A "newgrass" band with a lead singer whose voice sounds like a non-falsetto Justin Vernon? Count me in. Texas alt-country/bluegrass act Sons of Fathers aren't even playing on one of this year's main tents and instead are making an appearance at the smaller Miller Lite presented New Music on Tap Lounge. And a recurring theme for Thursday was just how good many of the acts playing in this lounge are. Sons of Fathers often blur the line between the blues and bluegrass to wonderful effect. Out of all of the bands I'm seeing Thursday (which includes indie pop favorites Walk the Moon and underground hip-hop star Killer Mike), Sons of Fathers is one that I find myself most excited for.
3. Capital Cities Thursday: New Music on Tap Lounge (1:00 AM - 2:00 AM)
One of the great cruelties of Bonnaroo is that barring the ingestion of a Tony Montana level of cocaine or MDMA, the festival takes such a toll on you physically that some of us don't have the energy to make it to many of the late night sets. Hopefully, I'll still have the energy to make it to 1:00 AM on Thursday to see synth-pop act Capital Cities. This L.A. duo only has an E.P., but with songs as great as "Safe and Sound," "Love Away," and "I Sold My Bed, but Not My Stereo," they instantly earned my attention. Their debut album is due for release in the weeks leading up to Bonnaroo, and you can rest assured that I'll be devouring their new music to prepare for this set (if my body is willing to stay up that late). They should make for the perfect way to close out my Thursday night.
One of last year's most hyped Thursday sets was a riveting performance from Alabama Shakes ("Come on, Brittany!"). And, to continue the trend of a Thursday female-fronted blues revivalist act, we bring you Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. Although Nicki Bluhm has made a bit of a name for herself as a solo artist, she's now emerging with a full-fledged band, and the single "Little Too Late," (the only officially released bit of music of the band as a whole) has us foaming at the mouth for new music. The B-side of the "Little Too Late" single is even better with its Stevie Nicks/Lindsey Buckingham vibes. As the first official Tent act of Bonnaroo, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers will certainly help set the mood for the rest of the festival.
5. The Stepkids Thursday: The Other Tent (3:15 PM - 4:15 PM)
Were it not for Phish's status as Vermont's most famous export, New England would seem like the last place for a psychedelic soul band to form, but Connecticut psych-rockers The Stepkids fit that mold to a tee. Considering Bonnaroo's reputation as the home of jam bands and drugs that flow like water (which is 100% true), the Stepkids are a natural fit for the Manchester farm and as one of the first acts to play on Thursday, their acid-tinged R&B/soul should put you in the right frame of mind to experience the Roo. Don't eat the brown acid, Bonnaroovians. Don't eat the brown acid.
I'm possibly revealing my predilection towards hippie music here, but psych-folk act Milo Greene became a relatively easy choice for their particular time slot on Thursday. With a sound similar to Of Monsters and Men, Milo Greene are steeped in the post-Arcade Fire school of communal, expansive pop. With swirling guitars, soaring harmonies, and tranquil melodies, Milo Greene radiate the positive vibes that a summer music festival is all about. Their self-titled debut album from 2012 is an excellent fusion of psychedelia and baroque aspirations and is worth a look from any Arcade Fire or Of Monsters and Men fans.
7. Maps & Atlases Thursday: New Music on Tap Lounge (8:30 PM - 9:30 PM)
Where did all of the great math rock bands go? Battles waves that flag high and for all to see, but otherwise, math rock has disappeared off many people's radar in a world where Slint hasn't released a new album in nearly 20 years. Well, if you find yourself jonesing for some irregular time signatures and genuinely unique rock music, head over to the Miller Lite lounge for a set from Chicago rockers (and excellent beard aficionados) Maps & Atlases. Their 2012 album, Beware and Be Grateful, finds the band continuing to hone their sound and should make for a lively set of material for an intimate show in the smaller lounge.
Animal Liberation Orchestra, usually shortened to ALO, are another Bonnaroo act competing with the valuable resource of sleep for your time and energy. One of the only real complaints that I've heard about this year's line-up (besides a lack of Vampire Weekend) is the dearth of jam bands playing at a festival that got its reputation from the Widespread Panics and My Morning Jackets of the world. The most high-profile jam band this year is Warren Haynes's Government Mule, so if you're looking for another great jam act, California's ALO should fill that void in your Roo heart.
In the late winter of 2012, I covered a Frankie Rose concert where Brooklyn dream pop/shoegaze act DIIV (then known as Dive) were one of the two openers. DIIV's performance blew Frankie Rose out of the water and immediately marked frontman Zachary Cole Smith as a force to watch. In the interim, the band released the excellent LP, Oshin, and have been slowly building a name for themselves. If you're into bands like Beach Fossils or Real Estate, the sun-spackled slick pop of DIIV should be just for you.
Although the festival may not have as many jam bands as the past, it should start to become clear that the Roo still hasn't strayed very far from its psychedelic roots. British neo-psych band Django Django join the Stepkids as one of the most eclectic acts of the day and would have made an easy case for a band to catch were their set not so perilously close to Japandroids in terms of time (Django Django ends just as soon as Japandroids begins). So, if the lo-fi punk intensity of Japandroids isn't a priority for your Bonnaroo experience, be sure to head over to the That Tent to catch some spacey art rock from these talented Brits.