Bonnaroo Recap: Pearl Jam, Clutch, Lightning Storms Make Saturday Unforgettable

The skies may be clear at any given time at Bonnaroo, but that doesn’t mean the weather isn’t bound to change on a whim and wreak havoc on performance schedules. That’s just what happened on Saturday as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ set was interrupted by a rapidly oncoming storm, forcing a full-venue evacuation as lightning did its jagged dance in the Tennessee summer sky before headliners Pearl Jam took the stage. The break only lasted a half hour or so, but provided a bit of spontaneous excitement (not to mention frustration) on the farm before all returned to normal. 

The brief downpour gave a misguided streak of hope to one of the crawfish cookout escapees (there were many) crawling through the guest camping area:

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Prior to the evening weather blitz, Saturday was a blazing burner of humidity one could only escape through the showers or shade of the campsite, and as we mentioned yesterday, the nature immersion of guest camping made all the difference. Feelgood folk popper Jason Mraz was added to the daytime lineup as a surprise guest, but the pull of cool air and shade made it impossible to break into performance mode at 2pm.

We did, however, make sure to stake out early positioning along the South wall of the main stage, where Pearl Jam fans were lining up as early as 8am for front-row access to the headlining performance by a band known for delivering spectacular live shows. The tricky factor was the fact that the front barricade section is emptied after each performance, resulting in quite a bit of hand-wringing between sets as people vied for positioning while scowling down those who dared wander off to catch another band’s set in the day. The What stage – the main Bonnaroo stage – is an island of interest unto itself, and those in line all day were insulated from all performances – even those on the actual stage they were lining up for. As a result, 150+ people stood motionless in the blazing sun for 12 hours… and the results were a double-edged sword at best. But we’ll get back to that.

Chris Stapleton Bonnaroo by Firecloud copy

I broke off from the PJ line to catch Chris Stapleton, who may just be the best damn hope country music has of pulling itself from the cheap venereal rubble of its current state. “It smells good out there,” he said before he and his band played the fitting, “Might as Well Get Stoned”. The man was pure soul, bringing his wife out to accompany and introducing his band in a singing, hilarious patchwork of jokes and sincere accolades. Example: when introducing guitar player J.T. Cure, he teased with a phone number drop: “His telephone number’s 615-8 — no? No? All right,” Stapleton sang. “Anyway he’s from Elkhorn City, Kentucky.” Stapleton called Dave Cobb, who co-produced his album Traveller, “about the best producer in the entire world, if you ask me. Making records like this one, Jason Isbell’s, Sturgill Simpson, all kinds of other great stuff.”

Then he earned some serious points with the better half when he slid into falsetto to introduce his “lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely wife” Morgane Hayes-Stapleton, who sings background vocals with his band. “People, she’s the love of my life,” he added.

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Catching Clutch on a festival bill is a mandatory experience, other bands’ schedules be damned. Their ability to hone a set to a razor-sharp edge of pure rock fury is unparalleled, and they once again tore the stage apart in the Other Tent with a maniacally fun run through “X-Ray Visions,” “Firebirds,” “Son of Virginia” and the ever-crushing “A Quick Death in Texas” from their latest album Psychic Warfare. As Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe looked on with wild enthusiasm, Neil Fallon & crew dug deeper for the diehards and touched on old favorites “Pulaski Skyway,” “The Regulator” and set closer “One Eye Dollar,” complete with Fallon’s wide-eyed, Baptist-minister-on-speed delivery.

We returned to the Pearl Jam line to find mayhem afoot. The Macklemore pit crowd had been let in, and thus the all-day masses had shifted into final positioning, squeezing in tight to ensure their ability to grab some rail steel and hold on for dear life once the go-ahead was given by security. Tempers were rising high by this point, and more than a few confrontational moments took place as people rejoined friends after catching another performance, getting food or other such indulgences. 

Like most people, I’ve enjoyed Macklemore & Ryan Lewis from an arms’ length, granting him the inevitable goofiness that comes with pop-hop indulgences like “Thrift Shop” and “Downtown”. But listening from the side of the stage, unable to see the visuals on display, put the music in a far different context. Shit is corny. Like, “whoa, how the hell is dude on the main stage” corny. Bringing out Chance the Rapper for the downtempo highlight “Need to Know” buoyed the vibe to a point, but the general sense of ridiculousness made tracks like “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” and “Dance Off” downright unlistenable. 

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We’ve seen rain in the past, but with lightning making the sky a wild lightshow, Centeroo shut down and the entire venue was closed. Macklemore’s set was interrupted and a sea of festival goers returned to their tents and their vehicles. There was an urgent request in the evacuation orders to take shelter in their cars and not their tents, and fans heeded the warnings after some hesitation, offering shelter in their vehicles to folks whose setups were too far away. The rain came, but it was minor, and once the lightning passed the gates reopened and Bonnaroo was back in action.

Macklemore delivered another half hour of radio bait, and we were all clear for Pearl Jam. We’ll discuss their terrible fans a bit later, once I’m airborne on return. But it was pertinent information for attendees to understand that Pearl Jam were also celebrating the 25th anniversary of their first record, Ten at this performance. As a result, the band played the majority of that first record, save or “Deep,” “Garden,” “Release” and “Once”. Which happen to be the best songs on the record.

That was a sign, only I didn’t see it. I was too excited to finally be seeing Pearl Jam, my favorite band of 24 years, at the best festival in America. I was no less excited in my 55th time seeing the band than I was for the first, a point I note with pride as well as a disclaimer, because what I’m about to say is something I hadn’t ever anticipated reporting about PJ. 

It was pretty damned disappointing. 

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I love this band. Their music has accompanied every major milestone in my life for two and a half decades. But when your singer, the legendary Eddie fucking Vedder, completely forgets the cues and words to the first two songs, entirely giving up on the second one (the third verse of “Save You” became a guitar solo), something’s gotta give. When that band is the most anticipated headliner of the entire festival, and they’re known for astoundingly great performances? That’s just flat-out unacceptable.

The guy hit the wrong cue on “Comfortably Numb”. Come on.

Straightening out with ever-present live staple “Corduroy,” Vedder gave a nod to previous acts: “Let’s hear it for Macklemore and LCD Soundsystem,” who the band caught the night before.

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“I’d like to think this next song had nothing to do with the clouds that were here earlier,” he said of the prior storm before leading into “Lightning Bolt,” the title track to their most recent album. Speaking of which, we’re heading toward year four of Pearl Jam having the exact same stage setup, props and lighting. The lack of new material is forgivable, but the refusal to update the stage setup is an interesting stick-in-the-mud approach to an ever-competitive live music culture.

Nevertheless, the band certainly killed at what they do best, with electrifying rendition of “Better Man” that segued into a reworked “Save it For Later” tag and an incredible take on “Black,” the gutpunch Ten highlight. It was given new life with a searing guitar solo, and a deeply intensified second half. Vedder even added an emotionally supercharged “we belong together” tag at the end, deepening the poignance of a song that’s been a wrecking ball to the hearts of many over the years. 

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Later in the show, Ed asked the ‘Roo crowd to do him a favor for someone who means the world to him. “See, I got a birthday cake for a girl but I didn’t get any candles. If you light up your phones you could be the candles, and when she blows them out you could turn them off,” he implored. The birthday girl turned out to be Eddie’s daughter Olivia, who turned 12 on the same day. As we sang her Happy Birthday and acted as her candles with our technology, the proud papa danced with a mildly embarrassed recipient along with her little sister.

Rumors of Jack White making a cameo turned out to be unfounded, but that disappointment didn’t come within screaming range of the deflation that came from experiencing a setlist that could’ve been pulled from 1992, with very limited exception. Sure, the Strummer cover of “Arms Aloft” was rad, but where are any deep cuts, rarities, B-sides or any of the other gems the band is so prone to unleashing? This setlist seemed to have been written by the guy at the office who tells you how much he was into Pearl Jam back in the day because “Jeremy” was so badass. But I digress. The final-encore arrival of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” after a lukewarm “Alive,” was accompanied by a fireworks display that surprised even the band, but didn’t stop the tambourine throwdown that now takes place at nearly every PJ show.

Vedder Tambourine Bonnaroo by Firecloud copy

Was it a good show? Hell yes it was. Pearl Jam has rarely, if ever, played a bad show. But for a band so widely known and revered for their tremendous performances and career-spanning setlists, it was a surprising downturn of exhilaration to witness a show with such color-by-numbers song selections and forgotten lyrics. Add to that a hardcore PJ fanbase at Bonnaroo who went from familial enthusiasm to gnashing anger and bitter entitlement up front, and you’ve got a bad formula.

Tomorrow I’ll publish a full examination of why being a Pearl Jam fan in 2016 is more challenging than ever – but it has nothing to do with the music. Their music will always be a direct frequency to the heart, as its been for two and a half decades.



Photos: Johnny Firecloud