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Bonnaroo 2014 Friday update: What Stage goes jam with Umphreys, Big Sam

Bonnaroo favorites Umphrey's McGee play a jam-filled What Stage on Friday.
Bonnaroo favorites Umphrey's McGee play a jam-filled What Stage on Friday.
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The first full day of Bonnaroo 2014 begins today, bringing with it a host of larger name artists and the first of the year’s three headliners, Kanye West. In addition to West, performers for Friday include Neutral Milk Hotel, Phoenix, and Vampire Weekend.

But our day’s journey didn’t begin at a concert but in the tent-only camping section for the annual Inforoo Brunch. Organized by the Bonnaroo superfans at the Inforoo message board, the brunch has grown in the last few years from a couple dozen attendees to over a hundred fans. The spread and the party is so big, it was even featured on an episode of Adam Richman’s Fandemonium last year.

After brunch, it was off to What Stage, where Bonnaroo organizers programmed the first part of the day to cater to fans of jam oriented music. The day kicked off at Noon sharp with Greensky Bluegrass. These roots music troubadours from Michigan have become popular attractions on the festival scene with their high energy live shows and improvisational inspirational prowess. Member Dave Bruzza described the band from the stage in this way; “There are things you can do with a banjo and mandolin on a stage. These aren’t those things!” Despite the early hour, the crowd was very responsive to the band, who played a mix of favorites and previews of their upcoming album. They closed out with one of their signature cover songs, this time giving a bluegrass makeover to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”

Next up on the What Stage lineup was Big Sam’s Funky Nation. When the band played Bonnaroo last in 2010, they surprised a lot of people and appeared on several “best of” lists. Four years later, Big Sam’s Funky Nation likely isn’t going to surprise anyone, but they just might show up on another year’s “best of Bonnaroo” list. The band ran through a blistering hour-long set of hits that included songs from his older material and several from his newest release, “Evolution.” The band so seamlessly blends funk, New Orleans brass, rock, and even some elements of bounce that it ends up sounding like nothing but Big Sam’s Funky Nation. The highlight of the show was the band’s extended rendition of “Funky Donkey.” The song not only included some bounce-inspired call and response, but a Sam led dance-off that could have served as a second Bonnaroo’s Funkiest Dancer competition. The song ended with a rocking rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

The third band on What Stage was Umphrey’s McGee. If Bonnaroo has a “house band”, there’s a strong argument that it is Umphrey’s McGee. Playing the festival almost every other year since the beginning, Umphrey’s McGee has remained on of the links to Bonnaroo’s jam roots that has resonated with modern audiences. 2014 marks the band’s first time taking Bonnaroo’s main stage and, judging by the size of the crowd that braved the threat of rain to come see them, it was a good call on the organizer’s part. Umphrey’s always brings it hard at Bonnaroo and this show was no exception. Their extended improvisations and highly technical progressive rock instrumentals had the audience on their feet for much of the show. While the daytime set prevented Umphrey’s McGee from employing much of their usual impressive light show, they’ve always been a band for whom the lights were a bonus, but the music was the star. That star just got to shine a bit brighter in this setting.

From there, it was off to Café Where, where British band Skinny Lister played to a packed house. If you’d watched them load in, you’d probably get the idea you were about to see a Mumford & Sons style folk rock group, with the squeeze box, mandolin, and upright bass on stage. Anyone who might have thought that was quickly corrected as soon as the band took the stage. Skinny Lister, who has toured with the likes of Flogging Molly, are a band that defy genre description. With 5 of the band’s 6 members sharing vocal duties, their songs are most similar to the kind of boozy sing-alongs you might hear in a UK pub. Skinny Lister’s stage antics certainly do nothing to dissuade that comparison, with members rallying fans to sing, crowd surfing, sometimes with instrument in tow, and turning their show into an all-out party. The normally seated Café Where quickly saw the seats shoved to the back as fans crowded the stage to sing and cheer along.

There’s still even more to come on Bonnaroo’s Friday lineup. Headliner Kanye West will perform before a Late Night lineup that includes a metal tent, Derek Trucks leading a Superjam, and Skrillex bringing his spaceship to the Which Stage.

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