We're about a week away from the eleventh annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival held each year in Manchester, Tennessee. There are going to be two representatives of the Baeble Team at the festival. Our fearless leader Joe will be there in an official press capacity while I attempt to capture the feel of the ground-level and more day-to-day aspects of the biggest summer party this side of the Mason-Dixon line. Ever since the final schedule was posted a couple weeks ago, I've been diving head-first into almost every single act playing to try and come up with the optimum way to spend my four days baking in the Tennessee sun. Enough words have been (and will be) written about some of the bigger bands playing this year (Radiohead, Beach Boys, Bon Iver, the Shins, etc) that we thought instead we'd look at the weekend's undercard to bring you a list of our top 10 Bonnaroo acts that don't populate the usual sphere of music blog conversation (but definitely should). The list is in no particular order because it was difficult enough to narrow this year's truly excellent line-up (I listened to at least four songs of nearly every band that's playing) down to ten groups let alone put those ten groups in any meaningful order.
1. Big Gigantic
- Thursday: That Tent (11:30 PM - 12:45 AM)
I'm not a dubstep fan. At all. Outside of artists like Burial (who I must admit is a genius), it's just not my cup of tea. Especially "bro-step" acts like Skrillex (I'll be seeing GZA performing Liquid Swords
during Skrillex's set). So, when I say that I find myself more excited for Colorado electronic act Big Gigantic than some of the more traditional bands I'm seeing, it should mean something. Combining livetronica, jazz, hip-hop, and dub-step, Big Gigantic is a sonic breath of fresh air in a modern electronic market that cares more about the "wub wub wub" and bass drops than instrumental experimentation. I'm not normally the type to break out some glow sticks and party hard, but Big Gigantic has the potential to bring that side out of me.
2. Mariachi El Bronx
- Thursday: That Tent (5:30 PM - 6:30 PM)
The Bronx are a hardcore punk band from L.A. They also have a side project called Mariachi El Bronx which fuses traditional Mexican mariachi music with the rawness of punk. It's like Flogging Molly but Mexico instead of Ireland. You'd be forgiven for thinking this was just a gimmicky schtick, but if you like world music at all or even more experimental punk, it's something entirely different. If you're wanting something to break the norm of this year's Bonnaroo themes (which are jam bands and alt-country/bluegrass groups in terms of many of the smaller acts), Mariachi El Bronx is your act.
3. Trampled by Turtles
- Friday: The Other Tent (5:45 PM - 7:00 PM)
The first two bands I mentioned might appeal to more of a niche and bizarre market, but this next band is on the verge of becoming the next breakthrough roots rock band. Minnesota bluegrass act Trampled by Turtles might have one of the roughest places in the schedule (they compete against Feist, Ludacris, and Aziz Ansari), but this band could be the next Mumford and Sons. They gained some buzz in our offices after a stellar showing at one of the many SXSW showcases in Austin, and we haven't been able to get enough of them since then. So, if baroque pop and hip-hop aren't your thing, head on over to The Other Tent to check out this prog-bluegrass band (prog-grass? I can dig it) to remind you that you've stepped into the deep south for the weekend.
4. Jukebox The Ghost
- Saturday: Cafe Where (6:30 PM - 7:30 PM)
If you sit down and listen to most of the acts playing (and have a generally eclectic taste in music), you're going to have to make some truly heartbreaking decisions about which bands to see and which bands you'll have to miss. Jukebox the Ghost was one of the most difficult bands to pass over (my inner Community
fan couldn't pass up the chance to see Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino). Blending the brainy and quirky pop/rock of They Might Be Giants with the gorgeous piano-playing of Ben Folds with the occasional vocal phrasing of Modest Mouse, Jukebox the Ghost is a smart and refreshing blend of some of my favorite scenes in indie rock. So, if you're one of the many people that doesn't understand the hype around Childish Gambino (and aren't in the mood for the moody post-rock of Mogwai), Jukebox The Ghost could be the most fun set occurring at the beginning of Saturday evening. Not to mention we've seen them before
5. Moon Taxi
- Thursday: That Tent (8:30 PM - 9:30 PM)
Tennessee locals and prog-jam band Moon Taxi seem like the perfect fit for the psychedelic nature of Bonnaroo (if I hear any announcements at the festival to "not eat the brown acid," my inner music nerd will die). Still, they've got the psych-rock creds, but they also have a wonderful ear for hooks. Their single "Mercury" has become one of my most-played tracks of the last week or so as I prep for the bands I'll be seeing. It's so damn catchy. Their most recent album, Cabaret
, is just generally excellent, and if they can translate the looseness and excitement of their records to the stage, they should make for a great rock and roll break in between Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar.
6. Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds
- Cafe Where (4:00 PM - 5:00 PM)
For this particular time slot, there were three bands that I flagged as being candidates for this list, and I didn't wind up choosing any of them to see. Unfortunately for those three acts, they were up against Flogging Molly and Battles (I went with Battles). Still, if Celtic folk-punk or the blip-bloops of Battles aren't your thing, perhaps you'll enjoy the neo-soul and earthy bluesiness of Brooklyn band Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. They even incorporate some very light ska into their performances. Sister Sparrow also has a shorter half-hour set Sunday at noon at the Sonic Stage. So, even if you can't catch their first set, if you aren't too worn out from partying with GZA and Skrillex til 4 AM, you can get your jazzy soul on with Sister Sparrow first thing Sunday.
7. Michael Kiwanuka
- Friday: That Tent (12:15 PM - 1:15 PM)
Here's an artist that wouldn't be a mid-card player in his native U.K. Michael Kiwanuka has been getting favorable comparisons to Otis Redding, Bill Withers, and Van Morrison ever since his first couple of singles started appearing, and the excitement threatened to burst over with the release of his debut LP, Home Again
, which still isn't available in the States. This is old school soul and R&B at its best. Michael Kiwanuka might sound like he was plucked right out of the late 60s and early 70s but his sincerity is impossible to deny. I've listened to his first album (thanks Spotify), and if it isn't one of the most instantly endearing albums of the year, I don't know what is. This is the kind of album you could play for your parents and they'd enjoy it nearly as much as you (possibly even more if you've never been exposed to Otis Redding and Moondance
-era Van Morrison yourself).
- Thursday: The Solar Stage (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM)
You know what's weird? That dance-rock is dominated almost entirely by male-fronted acts. Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, Liars, The Rapture, etc. The only other one I can think of that even comes close is Yeah Yeah Yeahs but that's sort of stretching the definition there. So, thank the heavens for Brooklyn dance-punk act Rubblebucket fronted by female vocalist Kalmia Traver. It's got all of the danciness and exuberance of the best of the DFA label bands (even if they aren't on DFA) with some of the more outre quirkiness that I associate with Animal Collective. Also, they have a dedicated live trumpet player. That probably earns you about 20 points of good will. Depending on how long it takes for me to get through the infamous traffic to the festival grounds and to set up my tents, this could be the first band I catch at this year's Bonnaroo, and I can't wait.
- Saturday: That Tent (12:15 PM - 1:15 PM)
Chi-town post-metal band Pelican is one of the opening acts for Saturday's main tents, and if an entirely instrumental, sonically heavy tour-de-force seems like the perfect way to shake you awake after an evening of partying away, Pelican will certainly do the trick. Post-metal (and by proxy post-rock or post-"any genre) is a sort of meaningless signifier outside of metal circles so for any who are curious, Pelican are the artsy response to metal heads. Their music is certainly heavy, but it features an experimental side with adventurous chord progressions and none of the screaming that characterizes so much of the subgenre. It's art-metal at its finest, and that's coming from someone who doesn't really listen to any metal, regardless of subniche.
10. Hey Rosetta!
- Friday: The Great Taste Lounge (5:20 PM - 6:10 PM)
Whoever was the person in Canadian rock band Hey Rosetta! that thought it would be a great idea to marry baroque pop instruments with a garage rock ferocity and production should get a medal. You've got the anthemic sonic uplift of Arcade Fire or the Lonely Forest with plenty of reverb-drenched guitars (not to mention a decent classical string section). Hey Rosetta! are playing a couple sets at some of the Roo's smaller tents but I have a feeling that every person that walks out of one of their shows will have a new band to put on endless repeat for their car ride home. I've made this point before but I'll make it again. There are dozens and dozens of truly wonderful acts playing, and Hey Rosetta! is a perfect example of a band that could blow away your expectations if you take a risk on a more unknown act.