By 1:30 a.m., there was nothing that could convince me my voice wouldn’t be M.I.A. the next morning. For the past hour, I harmonized to and wailed songs with falsettos I had no business attempting with the other dusty bodies packed into Bonnaroo’s That Tent.
I almost didn’t have time to properly adjust my camera neck strap and brace myself in the pit before Miguel and all his electricity launched from behind his four-man band into center stage. “Do you like druuugs? Do you like druuugs?” he sang out to us feverishly, his crew matching every jump, jolt, James Brown dip and quick spin he threw out both musically and physically. The crowd, thrilled by the energy and pristine vocals, serenaded the man of the hour right back.
The first and last time I’d seen the Wildheart singer live was two summers ago, early on the lineup for Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam at MetLife Stadium. He had a smoother face then, with a modest, low-cut beard and his hair sculpted into a neat pompadour atop his head. The threads he donned were all black and ripped, a more relaxed version of his sartorial preferences before he dropped the “Jontel” from his professional moniker.
With seats that stretch far up and away from the stage, the Rutherford, N.J. locale is built for hugeness; larger than life moments from larger than life artists. Although the Angeleno snagged a Grammy in 2013 for Kaleidoscope Dream‘s “Adorn” as well as BET and Soul Train Music awards, the stadium had a swallowing effect. While his dance moves and energy were on 100 and his performance was blessed by an appearance from Mariah Carey, there was room for a little more oomph. Maybe it was caused by the still trickling-in crowd. Maybe not. Miguel was undoubtedly good, but it was hard to pick out his personality and trade energies from so far away.
Bonnaroo was where his star qualities truly shone. There was a different air about him. For one, he was more casual this time around. More himself. Like his band, he wore a crisp white tee and jeans, paired with a simple denim jacket, camel boots and a rope chain. His beard was neat but full, and slick bouffants were swapped out for loose curls neatly tussled atop his head. Nothing looked or felt like a gimmick. It was just Miguel shining for who he was, and his personality radiating into the crowd ten fold. To see him command that smaller (but packed to the brim) stage the way he did was an experience all itself. It’s different when you can see the faces of the ones who are itching to sing along to your every word, soak up your presence and bounce it right back to you.
In lieu of a rigid setlist, his hour on stage was a sweet-voiced whirlwind of medleys tying together certified jams from his discography. There were barely any “breaks” in between his songs, just key changes signaling the next jam for us to karaoke conquer. He bounced between gems from All I Want Is You (“Sure Thing,” “Quickie”), Kaleidoscope cuts (“Adorn,” “Arch & Point,” “Do You…”), newer Wildheart selects (“Hollywood Dreams,” “A Beautiful Exit,” “Hollywood Dreams,” “Waves”) and everything in between.
Miguel’s delivery of “Quickie” brought us to the islands and back, coolly sliding into a cover of Bob Marley’s 1973 hit “Stir It Up” before returning to his own material. In a thrilling and pleasantly surprising “feelin’ myself” moment, Miguel put on his rapper hat for a little freestyle at the tail end of “Coffee” (the crowd wasn’t mad at it). And as a treat, he brought out unofficial Bonnaroo Mayor Chance the Rapper for an appreciation of the East Coast a la Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy,” then followed up with an ode to the West with Tupac’s “I Get Around.”
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Miguel defied gravity and speed limits as he flitted across the stage, mouth in full grin the whole time. During transitional moments, he relapsed into a more casual state of being, dabbing and chopping his arms the same way mobs move to Future’s Dirty Sprite 2 cuts. His eyes were locked on the hundreds watching him, smiling and smizing at the entertained. It was an intimate affair and his comfort was palpable, his excitement for his first ever Bonnaroo set visible.
I’ve always had a gut feeling that Miguel had all the makings of a rock star, but it was well worth the late-night stay to see it manifest before my eyes.