What is there to say about the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival that hasn’t already been said? Every year the hippies (and now hipsters) flock to the middle of nowhere Tennessee to bask in four days of drugs, dancing and debauchery. As the festival has evolved from its early years, it has grown more eclectic in its musical tastes, bringing in a wider group of music fans to encompass the same space that used to be reserved for the Jam band titans.
It seems as the festival progresses and takes on more of a life as a corporate entity (mind you, Bonnaroo is the highest grossing festival in the world), the fans come less for the music and more for the atmosphere. That’s why when this year’s lineup was announced, it was a pleasant surprise to see that the top 10 or so acts on the lineup could have very easily played Lollapalooza … in 1998. With the exception of Wilco, all of the other acts at the top of the Bonnaroo bill have been live giants for many years, and thus, this lineup was all about the music from the start.
A rain-soaked Thursday couldn’t stop the masses from rolling in and pitching camp. While the tents may have been a little dreary and damp, the music was hot and energized, as up and coming acts took the stage in an attempt to turn the legions of Bonnaroo faithful onto their brand of musical madness. White Rabbits were the first standout from Thursday, with their Reggae-tinged sound Spoon-like melodies. Britt Daniel, lead singer of Spoon, produced their latest record, and his fingerprints are indelibly all over White Rabbits sound and live show. I was thoroughly impressed with the way they carried the crowd over their 50-minute set, playing the majority of their new album and a few off of their debut record, Fort Nightly.
With the rain beginning to come down even harder, Passion Pit took the stage to close out the day. Clearly the most hyped-up hipster act of 2009, the Pit brought their brand of Electro Pop to new heights in front of what was arguably the largest crowd they have ever played to (somewhere around 5,000). Over the course of the set, I could see the band growing up and growing into the new space they now hold in the Indie universe. They are clearly ready for the stage and thrived with a passion (pardon the pun) unmatched on the first day of the festival.
After a night of torrential downpours, Friday began muddy and tattered, as the David Byrne-curated tent took center stage. All-female, Swedish gypsy rockers Katzenjammer played to a surprisingly large dancing crowd and really commanded the stage for the hour they were allotted. The Dirty Projectors were next on the stage and rollicked through a wondrously diverse set of new and old numbers alike. David Byrne himself joined them on stage for a closing rendition of their Dark Was The Night contribution, “Knotty Pine” and I found myself thinking that that was a band destined for much larger stages and audiences in the near future.
I trekked over to the second stage for one of the most hotly anticipated sets of the weekend, both personally and from the entire Bonnaroo collective. Animal Collective took the stage in front of an absolutely massive crowd. I fully expected the Bonnaroo masses to hate the set and judging by the amount of people walking away from the stage, I was right. AC is known to completely change the sonic landscapes they construct on record for the live setting, and at a festival this does not necessarily go over well. While I very much enjoyed the set, particularly the mellow version of the normally banging “My Girls,” the soundscapes and droning in between songs became a little monotonous and I found myself wanting to dance. Thank goodness I moved over to see my first performance on the main stage.
Galactic is a band that knows Bonnaroo, knows the crowd they play to and knows how to rock a festival set. So it was no surprise that upon walking in on the middle of their set, I immediately found myself in the middle of one of the better performances of the entire weekend. With the addition of Trombone Shorty, Galactic added more firepower to an already loaded arsenal and completely melted the sweaty masses down to a pulp with their bass-heavy instrumental jams. This set was a set for the Bonnaroo holdovers from years ago and the faithful resounded with thunderous applause.
After a raucous Galactic set, I was ready to mellow out with some atmospherics from Grizzly Bear. Their latest release, Veckatimest, is absolutely mind-blowing, with gorgeous harmony vocals, layered string sections, and beautiful song structures. Though the set didn’t speed above mid-tempo until the very end, Grizzly Bear showed that they too belong on a much larger stage than they inhabited this day. Clearly these four men learned a lot from their time opening for Radiohead last summer, as the vocals soared out of the tent, drawing in more fans passing by for a listen.
Al Green provided a lovely start to the evening with his unmistakable, sing-along Soul. The Reverend preached to the masses, even throwing in a Motown medley for good measure. Green’s set gave way to TV on the Radio, who, despite massive sound problems at the beginning of their set, blazed through a soulful, groove-heavy romp. Clearly this was a band showing the chops of festival veterans, as they definitively knew the songs that would get the crowd moving. They were a fitting second stage closer to an Indie Rock heavy Friday.
Then came the main attraction of the first day of the festival. The Beastie Boys played a loud and boisterous, hour and a half main stage set, closing with a rocking version of “Sabotage”. They invited fellow old-school Hip Hop icon Nas to the stage to join them as an unannounced guest, which gave the crowd a peak into the magic that Bonnaroo can bring.
The real magic, however, came late night on the main stage, when a newly reunited Phish played the festival they were born to play. Some would argue that without Phish, a festival like Bonnaroo simply would not exist. As early as 1996, Phish was playing their own festivals full of Ferris wheels, fireworks, arches and fun, much in the same way Bonnaroo, now the king of the American festival scene, has. Clearly, much is owed to the Phab Phour, and Bonnaroo promoters from the very start have attempted to get them to play the fest.
Phish certainly didn’t disappoint as they ripped through a three-hour set of crowd favorites and carefully-placed covers. “Highway to Hell” was a facetiously-placed cover, and the set-closing “You Enjoy Myself” was as epic a combination as they could have provided. As they finished up with a cover of The Beatles “A Day In The Life,” I found myself reveling in the fact that Bonnaroo was indeed all about the music this year and not one act in the first two days had disappointed. I was only more excited to keep the music coming.