The first night at Bonnaroo is often thought of as a ‘sleeper.’ The big names may still be on another continent and the main stages aren’t even open yet. Sure, you won’t hear ‘Let It Happen’ or ‘All My Friends’ until late Friday, but there are plenty of reasons to stay up into the wee hours of the morning on Bonnaroo’s first night. Here are some highlights from WQFS’ first day at Roo.
Quaildogs perform at the New Music on Tap Lounge on the first day of Bonnaroo 2016. Gabe Pollak/WQFS
The best part of big festivals like Bonnaroo isn’t the headliners, but the names in tiny print at the bottom of the bill. There’s no greater feeling than discovering a new band to love. For the Bonnaroovians at the Miller Lite New Music on Tap Lounge on Thursday afternoon, that new love might be Quaildogs, a rock’n’roll band from Atlanta.
With a high-energy performance, Quaildogs lead fans over the inertial hump of the bean bags at the back of the tent to line the metal barrier at the front of the stage. Heads bobbed to the music, and Unicorn balloons swayed in the Manchester breeze, as Quaildogs played music from their new album, The Getting Old Factory. Fiddle player Graham Terban’s mop of curly orange hair flew around as he jumped into the air, bouncing up and down for what seemed like the entire set. Though multi-instrumentalist Michael Barnhart dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a fedora, his performance was anything but mellow. He kicked, stomped, and swiveled around his mic stand as he shredded on guitar and mandolin, jumping up to the mic at the last minute to fill out the band’s powerful three-part harmonies.
The urgency of the performance matched the longing of the lyrics. With songs about disillusionment with the American dream and desperation to get out of a small town, singer/guitarist Rob Josephs conjured the great American rock hero, Bruce Springsteen. Frequently hoisting his acoustic with one hand above his head like Springsteen’s iconic yellow telecaster, he almost looked like the Boss himself. It’s an image fans may remember in years to come, when I predict the Quaildogs will leave the small rigging of the Miller Lite stage in the Tennessee dust and head for the main stage. Wait and see, the Quaildogs are headed up.
Antwuan Stanley joins Vulfpeck onstage. Courtesy of Jeff Kravitz and FilmMagic via Mason Jar Media.
As soon as Gainseville band Hundred Waters finished their set in the Other Tent at 8:00, fans pressed forward to the front of the stage filing the vacated spots. The band they were so eager to see? Michigan’s favorite soul/funk band, Vulfpeck. Any hopes of carving out a large enough space to really get down to Vulfpeck’s sound quickly evaporated as more and more people arrived, pushing the limits of the tent’s capacity. Even the Partysaurus, a home-made creation combining a T-Rex stuffed animal with a giant, bedazzled stick, showed up, perhaps blocking the view of some attendees further back. Once Vulfpeck started playing though, it quickly became clear that it didn’t matter where your spot was, Vulfpeck was going to reach the whole crowd.
Guitarist/drummer Theo Katzman started the night with what seemed like an easy question: “What is today’s date?” The crowd murmured many things, only of a few of which may have been June 9. “That’s correct,” Katzman proceeded from behind the drum set, like a teacher addressing a class. He continued deadpan: “For one night only, we invite you to take a journey through storytelling and narrative.” Keyboardist/drummer Jack Stratton joked from somewhere offstage, shouting “This American Life!” Katzman kept up the shtick. “Tonight, we invite you to celebrate Christmas.” The crowd cheered in recognition and the band broke into ‘Christmas in July’ from 2015’s Thrill of the Arts.
Immediately after getting the crowd laughing, Katzman and company got the crowd singing along, getting a call and response of the song’s chorus going. “All the ladies and all the little babies, they were singing in the room,” sang Katzman in his famous falsetto. “In LA!” the crowd replied in the best bass voice they could muster.
Two special guests got the fans even more riled up. Electro-pop hitmaker BØRNS joined Vulfpeck onstage for ‘Backpocket,’ eliciting a roar from the crowd (BØRNS’ set at the Other Stage later that night pulled one of the day’s biggest crowds). After that, Vulfpeck invited Antwuan Stanley onstage for two of the band’s best known songs, “Funky Duck,”-it’s about what you think it’s about-and “1612,” a song about using ridiculous words to remember the lyrics. While both songs demonstrate Vulfpeck’s hilarious side, they also show off the group’s musicianship, as each instrument locks into a tight, irrestible groove together. They’re serious musicians, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. Picture Flight of the Conchords meets Snarky Puppy (Michael League bass face included). Yes, it’s that good. Between the humor, excellent songwriting, and fun showmanship, even on the first day of Roo, some Bonaroovians may enjoyed their favorite set of this year’s festival.
A Late-Night Surprise
The famed Bonnaroo welcome arch lights up as the sun goes down. Courtesy of Andrew Jorgenson via Mason Jar Media
After Cashmere Cat played his last song at 1:45am, all events shut down for the night. Or at least the ones on the schedule. There was one more set in store to keep the party going. As tweets spread of a surprise set, fans streamed to the grass in front of the Kalliope, a raised DJ platform covered in fluorescent lights at the corner of the festival grounds. A mix of club hits and old-school jams blasted all the way from the Kalliope out through the Guest Camping grounds. Who was the DJ atop Kalliope, commanding the masses from his decks?
GRiZ, a funkstep DJ from Detroit is slated to play the Which Stage at 6:00 tonight, but decided to showed up early and throw down a surprise set. GRiZ paid homage to some of his influences, mixing to-be-expected club hits from Rihanna and Drake 90s hip hop from Outkast (GRiZ slowed things down with ‘Spottieottiedopaliscious,’ and played almost the entirety of ‘Roses.’), as well as funk staples like Rick James’ ‘Brick House,’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop.’ 20-foot tall flames and bubble dispensers only added to the excitement. GRiZ’s set, like a shot of Red Bull, kept the late-night thrill seekers up and dancing.
If you call Thursday night at Bonnaroo a sleeper, you must have been wearing earplugs. The music didn’t stop until well after four in the morning. And that’s only the first day.