The freaky side of Bonnaroo 2012 came out on Saturday, in the music if not in the relatively well-scrubbed day-tripper crowd. Skrillex and the Red Hot Chili Peppers attracted a young, fresh-faced, and often fresh-smelling bunch that filled the festival’s two biggest stages to capacity at night. But the real hijinks actually occurred in the late afternoon. As The Punch Brothers reprised Radiohead’s “Kid A” and floored the audience at Which Stage with their indefinable sounds, things began to run a bit late at That Tent, where Puscifer was in the process of setting up.
Far be it from Maynard James Keenan to do anything simply; the Puscifer stage show involves a complex set of video screens framed like portraits, through two of which a magnified image of the singer is projected. The effect is at once surreal, disturbing, and humorous, particularly since the entire band was dressed as an airplane crew. Keenan sported a mustache and Flintstones tie, while his vocal partner Carina Round played sexy stewardess. They threw “Vagina Airlines” peanuts to the crowd and Maynard implored the “hippies” to pass them back to the far reaches of the crowd (side note: there weren’t a lot of hippies at this show, but Maynard will be Maynard). As wild as the production was, the music was more interesting. Touching only momentarily on the hard rock sound associated with Tool and A Perfect Circle, the sounds stayed mostly in the realm of sexy, self-aware, markedly rhythmic pieces that reflected the personalities of their varied inspiration – the voices in Maynard’s head. There must be plenty of them, because this set was as enthralling as any I’ve seen in eight editions of Bonnaroo.
As I made my way to The Roots’ main stage set, I marveled at the sound of Childish Gambino. It seems that Donald Glover has become more than a novelty act at this point. Next to The legendary Roots crew, however, Glover is kind of a joke. It’s tough to think of another band that delivers smashing, unforgettable shows as often as the Philadelphia group, and there was no doubt that this one would be monstrous. They kicked off the set with a dual tribute to Chuck Brown and MCA – a go-go version of “Paul Revere” that also happened to contain a few choice licks from Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean.” Lyricist Black Thought, bassist Mark Kelley, and Tuba Gooding Jr., aka Damon Bryson, brought a frenetic style to every move, with Bryson taking his tuba for a spin through the crowd and Black Thought pacing carefully but swiftly from side-to-side. Sure, there were songs – “The Next Movement,” “Proceed 2,” and “Here I Come” among the crowd-pleasers – but the real joy of this set was in the non-stop instrumental mastery, relentless musicianship, and perfect blend of danceability and detail. “You Got Me” was a perfect example; a sprawling soul journey that managed to incorporate jams and riffs on “Bad to the Bone,” “Love to Love You Baby,” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” There’s simply nothing The Roots can’t do. (Turns out Glenn Danzig still thinks he’s as relevant – some time during The Roots’ set, which roughly coincided with his scary performance, he flipped out on a photographer and stopped the show.)
The crowd in the main field swelled to capacity in anticipation of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the veteran group delivered a standard but colorful and catalog-searching show that peaked in the run-up to the encore. The Bloodsugarsexmagic gem “If You Have to Ask” kicked off a final sprint that included “Higher Ground,” which the band still attacks with youthful vigor, and other staples “Under The Bridge,” “Californication,” and personal highlight “By the Way.” Flea and the rest of the players were given plenty of room to jam, resulting in bass solos aplenty and a loose encore that included the last hits standing – “Suck My Kiss” and “Give It Away.”
One of the most anticipated Superjams ever awaited the crowd exiting the headliner. Curated by Roots drummer and all-around music geek apostle Questlove, this jam had plenty of options to speculate about. With plenty of MCs on the farm, a hip-hop showcase seemed inevitable. But Questlove went the extra mile bringing in luminaries like bassist Pino Palladino (The Who), guitarist Jesse Johnson (The Time), and none other than enigmatic soul superstar D’Angelo to create homage to classic rock, funk, and soul. Quest began the set alone, explaining his reasoning behind choosing each player as he introduced them. James Poyser, Captain Kirk, and F. Knuckles of The Roots provided the backbone as the featured players were allowed to run wild over canonical tunes from Hendrix (“Electric Ladyland,” “Power Of Soul”), Zeppelin (“What Is And What Should Never Be”), Funkadelic (“Hit It And Quit It”), Sly and the Family Stone (“Babies Makin’ Babies”) and The Beatles (“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”). The presence of D’Angelo, with whom Questlove has worked for years and is currently assisting with a new album, put the entire shindig over the top. The easy manner in which he massaged the keys and belted out vocals reminded many of what a powerful performer he can be, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he single-handedly made the Superjam special.
As an unintentional exclamation point on the day, I happened to walk by shock schlocker Alice Cooper’s show just as the guillotine dropped and the band broke into “School’s Out.” From the truly odd (Puscifer) to the frightening (Danzig, Alice Cooper) and fascinating (Superjam), Bonnaroo 2012’s stupendous Saturday carnival had it all.