Bonnaroo 2014 opened under cloudy humid skies Thursday afternoon. A line of vehicles several miles long stretched along Interstate 24 just outside Manchester, Tenn., waiting to file into the campgrounds.
It seems many campers waited until Thursday to make their way to Bonnaroo this year, no doubt due to the torrential rains earlier in the week that threatened to turn the campgrounds into a muddy mess. Festival organizers worked feverishly, using wood, sawdust and sand, to shore up roadways and walkways throughout the festival. Consequently, the only fallout from the storms earlier in the week was a massive, humid cloud cover. Temperatures were actually moderate for this time of year in Tennessee, but the humidity made it feel hotter than it was.
Many of the early birds to the festival spent Thursday afternoon cooling off in the Centeroo fountain, on water slides and even in small baby pools filled with water. A large crowd gathered to watch the World Cup soccer tournament play out on a giant inflatable screen. Crowds seemed lighter this first day of the festival than last year, also most likely due to the early wet forecast.
But by early evening, Centerroo began to fill up with excited concert goers. Although the giant MainStage area, which is as big as all the rest of the festival grounds and the second outdoor stage, do not open on the first day of the festival, there are still no fewer than seven music stages, an air-conditioned cinema tent and the iconic air-conditioned comedy tent open for business.
The tiny New Music on Tap stage may have had some of the most lively music of the day, with several new acts playing aggressive rock sets in the sweltering humidity. A few of the standouts included Texas rockers The Unlikely Candidates. The band members, Kyle Morris (vocals), Cole Male (guitar), Kevin Goddard (drums), Brenton Carney (lead guitar) and Jared Hornbeek (bass), play their own version of classic rock, influenced heavily by bands like The Beatles and Rolling Stones. Lead singer Morris looked like a drowned rat towards the end of his set, drenched in sweat from the humidity and the intensity of his performance.
Another classic rock-influenced new band also turned in an aggressive heavy rock set later in the evening — Ontario-based Monster Truck. The foursome, consisting of Jon Harvey (bass and lead vocals), Jeremy Widerman (guitar and vocals), Brandon Bliss (organ and vocals) and Steve Kiely (drums and vocals), vacillated between a hard Southern rock sound like that of Lynyrd Skynyrd and a re-emergence of what was best in early Detroit rockers, much like a young Ted Nugent.
More eclectic sounds could be heard across the festival grounds at the other stages. Nashville's own The Wild Feathers played crisp, clean Americana rock in the early afternoon. Jonathan Wilson and his band also turned in an early afternoon harmonic set. This Los Angeles transplant, originally form North Carolina, can really sing. Another California band, Allah-Las, had one of the first big audiences of the afternoon. Robert Delong, well known as an EDM DJ, played a solo show on a variety of electronic synthesizers and percussions, creating his own new uniques sound.
Darlings of NPR radio, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down delighted a late afternoon crowd with their own brand of bluegrass influenced rock. Cleveland-based Cloud Nothings was one o the first bands of the day to bring crowd surfing full throttle to the audience with their aggressive punk-tinged rock.
In the early evening, Nashville-based duo Cherub brought EDM lights and sound to a large crowd, sounding a bit like the well known Chromeo, who will also be playing the festival. World music was represented by Ogya (Afrobeat) in a fun early set and late in the evening by the traditional Syrian Shaabi singer Omar Souleyman. Most of the audience had no idea what he was singing about, but the infectious beat captured their attention.
One of the largest crowds of the evening was reserved for the emotive English singer banks. Backed by an electronic duo, her music harkened back to the hey day of ambient music, with a vibe much like the English trip hop band Massive Attack. Minneapolis-based Policia, led by charismatic singer Channy Leanagh, turned in one of the most engaging sets of the night with their own ethereal brand of electronic and R&B fusion music.
The first real jam session of the festival took place in the cinema tent following the showing of the new documentary film Take Me to the River, about the early roots of blues music found in Memphis. The film was followed by a Q&A and live performance by some of the most influential musicians in the movie. A handful of pleasantly surprised blues music livers sat in the air-conditioned theater listening to a large group of young up and coming Memphis musicians, joined by music legends Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads fame, rapper Al Kapone and elder statesman of the blues William Bell, Bobby Rush, Frayser Boy and Ben Cauley.
As a full moon cracked though the high cloud cover, many in the Centeroo turned back to the outdoor big screen to watch NBA final Game 4 while others ate and drank themselves into a stupor with a plethora of choices across the grounds.
It was a muggy mellow and eclectic start to this year's Bonnaroo.
— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributing writer. The opinions expressed are his own.