June 16, 2013


Inside R. Kelly's Baffling, Absurdist, Frustrating, Brilliant Bonnaroo Set

Erika Goldring/WireImage
Erika Goldring/WireImage

There he was, perched 50 feet in the air and using a small crane platform as a makeshift stage, hovering over the Bonnaroo 2013 crowd like some leather hat-wearing God. R. Kelly. He is towering above the giant question mark signifying the Which Stage, which will, for 90 minutes, unwittingly double as a harbinger of Robert Kelly's absurd, baffling and brilliant set.

"It's the remix to Ignition," sings Kellz and the crowd, of course, loses its mind. After a minute, the music stops, and, either by design or mistake, no music is played while thousands of people awkwardly, silently, watch Kelly's crane make its tortoise-slow descent towards the stage. It's like seeing a clown perform at a circus, then watching him remove his makeup in full view. By the end of the set, it will be the first in a series of "Best intentions" moments—grand ideas, flawed executions—that mark one of Bonnaroo's most bizarre sets.

The line between earnestness and absurdity has never been blurrier than at a R. Kelly concert.

Kelly eventually makes it to the stage to finish "Ignition (Remix)." He is wearing a shiny, white pleather jacket, so from a distance, it looks like a new couch is skulking back and forth across the stage. For the first 30 minutes, it appears that the prolific singer will try to run through every single song, appearance and remix he's recorded in the past 20 years. Compiling a setlist is a fool's errand, as some tracks last 10 seconds before segueing into something else. Forget any sort of ebb and flow or "set dynamics." This is a R&B hammer, a master of his craft, unrelentingly bashing your skull as club tracks ("Thoia Thoing," "Fiesta") flirt with the bedroom ("You Remind Me of Something," "Your Body's Callin'") in a tempo-shifting, unpredictable orgy.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

His stage banter is epic. "They told me backstage no cursing," Kelly tells the crowd. "I just laughed at the motherf-cker." Tonight, R. Kelly will sing-talk the phrase, "Can I get a towel to wipe my face 'cause the sweat is running down?" and it is mesmerizing. This man, this self-aware (maybe) parody, this R&B legend, imploring to a girl in the first few rows, "I wish you could take this towel and wipe my face," because "tonight, I'm full of fire, so let me whisper sweet nothings in your ear." The couple next to me kiss, an uncertain level of irony on their lips.

The line between earnestness and absurdity has never been blurrier than at a R. Kelly concert. He uses a glittering mic that damn near blinds the first two rows. Diamonds? Cubic zirconia? Both seem oddly appropriate here. A mic is placed near one of the smoke machines, so you can hear its inner rumblings and hiccups like a Bar Mitzvah on a budget. Hundreds of dove-shaped balloons are released during "I Believe I Can Fly" and you don't know whether to embrace the idealistic utopian vibe of Bonnaroo or marvel that R. Kelly just released hundreds of dove-shaped balloons out in the world. Had he done "Heaven I Need a Hug," it's not implausible he would've tried to embrace God.

Jason Newman
Jason Newman

During "Happy People" midway through the set, Bonnaroo staff unleash hundreds of balloons into the crowd. Almost. On one side, there is a malfunction, and two or three bored Bonnaroo workers have to disentangle each balloon and swat them out into the crowd one by one before presumably going, "Screw it. This is basically a summer job" and releasing them in sad bunches.

With all the theatrics and grandiose gestures, it's easy to forget that Kelly possesses one of the strongest, most fluid vocal ranges in R&B. On "When a Woman Loves," Kellz stands in the middle of the stage, arms outstretched, mic on stand, performing a vocal workout while sweeping, orchestral flourishes back him at the end. The MJ comparisons, for a second, aren't crazy. On "Bump N' Grind," the word "confess" becomes "connnnnnnnfessssssssssss" and you wish he incorporated an acoustic section to his set.

After saying "Good night" and exiting following "I Believe I Can Fly," presumably to rush over to Superjam to sing with Jim James and Billy Idol, there were still 15 minutes left on the singer's scheduled set. A few minutes of silence ensued before the irony-drenched sound of a dripping faucet played over the PA. The crowd rushed, en masse, to hear a live version of "Trapped in the Closet." As the vocals started, with no sign of the singer in sight, the bemused crowd waited patiently for Kelly to appear. When the tech guys came out to dismantle the instruments, and the crowd realized that, inexplicably, the PA was playing a recording of R. Kelly's most famous song during his set, they left in droves.

Said one guy behind me to no one in particular: "What the f-ck was that?"