MANCHESTER, Tennessee - By the time Eminem strode onstage Saturday night at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, 80,000 sun-stroked fans had already witnessed workmanlike sets by everyone from Mumford & Sons and the Black Keys to Bootsy Collins and Buffalo Springfield. So it was no surprise that, when it came time for Em to do his thing, he decided to follow in that same model, eschewing flash and dash in favor of good old-fashioned sweat.
And sure, his headlining set did feature booming pyro, a massive (and frequently skull-filled) video screen, and some actual fireworks, but, in keeping with Bonnaroo tradition, what stood out the most about Em's performance was the sheer tenacity with which he attacked it. This wasn't so much a performance as it was an exercise in determination; a focused, fierce 90-odd minutes of grit and guile.
It's the same renewed vigor Eminem has displayed on his most-recent efforts, not only his massive Recovery album, but also the upcoming, back-to-basics Bad Meets Evil team-up with Royce Da 5'9." Much like Friday night's headliner, Lil Wayne, the man simply knows how to work. And that was evident from the get-go on Saturday night. Dressed in a black hoodie, Bad Meets Evil T-shirt and camo shorts, Em wasted no time ripping into his catalog, kicking off with "Won't Back Down" and following it up with "3 a.m.," both of which hit hard thanks to his machine-gun cadence and the addition of a positively whomping live band. The impact wasn't lessened when his mic cut out during the next song, "White Trash Party," as Em powered through the mishap and earned the cheers of the tens of thousands who packed in to see him.
Flanked by D12 member (and hype man) Mr. Porter (a.k.a. Kon Artis), Eminem stalked the stage and didn't come up for air, tearing through songs like "Kill You," "So Bad" and "Cleanin' Out My Closet" before finally disappearing backstage for a moment while Porter introduced the masses to "the newest member of Shady Records," the aforementioned Royce Da 5'9." Em was back before the crowd could stop cheering, and the pair gave them a taste of what they can expect on the upcoming Hell: The Sequel EP: the muscular "Fast Lane" and the Bruno-Mars assisted "Lighters," which, not surprisingly, had everyone thrusting theirs skyward.
Then Em shifted the focus back to his solo hits ("Stan," "Toy Soldiers") and some of his high-profile guest spots ("Airplanes, Part II" and, thankfully, "Forever"), crouching low and delivering his verses with ferocity. He got deep on "Love the Way You Lie" and downright celebratory on "Crack a Bottle." Then, in a nod to his past, shot through three of his earliest hits ("My Name Is," "The Real Slim Shady" and "Without Me") in rapid-fire succession. The crowd, which, for the majority of his set, had been firmly poised on the brink, positively lost their collective minds at the inclusion of those classics, and seizing the momentum, Eminem closed his set with a rattling version of "Not Afraid."
After a brief rest (and several minutes of the crowd chanting his name), Em reappeared to cap the night off with "Lose Yourself," which seemed even more anthemic given the magnitude of his set. And then, as the crowd screamed their approval, he thanked them and thrust his hand in the air, looking understandably exhausted but also unbelievably happy. And, in apparent appreciation to his efforts, the Bonnaroo folks kicked off a massive fireworks display, one that boomed in the distance and was a pretty fitting tribute to what we had all just witnessed. Only Eminem's musical fireworks were better.
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