As we reached the halfway point of the festival, I took a step back and reflected a bit. I was dirty, sweaty and sleep-deprived; and yet I could not have been more excited for what was to come. Phish had whet my appetite for their festival-closing performance on Sunday, and who could forget that one of the greatest live acts in the history of music (maybe a little hyperbole), Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, would be rocking the stage this very night. There was a sense that truly magical musical moments were on the horizon and little did I know what those inclinations would bring.
Saturday started off with a drink or two, as the late addition of Jimmy Buffett brought his Coral Reefer AllStars to the second stage. There’s nothing like starting the day off with a beer listening to “Fins” among the dirty, sweaty masses and Buffett’s laidback, upbeat attitude fit in surprisingly well. It was hands down the largest crowd I’ve ever seen that early in the day at Bonnaroo, so hat’s off to Buffett for bringing the fun.
Hometown favorites Heartless Bastards graced the second stage after Buffett and, I must say, they looked a little uncomfortable with that large of a venue to tackle. Still used to the backroom bars and clearly still getting acquainted with the addition of a fourth member (lead guitarist), the Bastards stormed through a mostly mid-tempo bluesy set. One place where they most definitely did not struggle was in Erika Wennerstrom’s howling vocals, which filled the massive second stage space with ease, precision and raw power. All told, a strong set, but the Bastards still clearly have a little room to grow.
One act that has grown immensely over the last year, judging both by the reviews he has received and the massive crowd at his tent Saturday afternoon, was Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver. This set was a personal highlight, as I had exceptionally high expectations and they were most definitely met by the now fleshed out, four-member crew. “Skinny Love” became a rollicking foot-stomper and one of my favorite tracks of the year, “Blood Bank,” was brilliant. Closing the set with “Wolves,” I found myself thinking that with a few more albums of material, this guy and his band will be playing to much larger crowds and on much bigger stages in the near future.
After a short food/nap break, I was sure not to miss the highlights of my evening. I was disappointed to miss Wilco’s performance back here in Cincinnati, but seeing them on the main stage at Bonnaroo, playing in a field that holds near 90,000 certainly didn’t disappoint. Nels Cline’s guitar work and Jeff Tweedy’s stage banter were more than enough to keep me satisfied, as the new material off of their upcoming Wilco (The Album) was already in tight live form on just their second date of the current tour. Tweedy joked that if the crowd was booing their performance, they would just consider it chants of “Bruce!” as in Bruce Springsteen, the act they were opening for. Certainly there were no boos coming from my direction, or anyone around me, as many left the show converted or reaffirmed Wilco fans for years to come.
Then came the main attraction of the evening. Much was made of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s set on Saturday night, as they are not necessarily known to play festivals and were arguably the biggest grab that the promoters of Bonnaroo have ever landed. Every Bruce set is full of energy and emotion, and this three and half hour marathon was no exception. However, where Bruce did the Bonnaroo audience right was in understanding the communal spirit that a festival can bring (we would see just how much he believed in this later).
He had long banter on stage toward the beginning of the set explaining that we were going to build a house in the field in front of him and that house was going to be built on positivity, love, peace and music. Corny? Yes. Heartfelt? Certainly. Springsteen has never been short on the cheese, but on this Saturday night at the world’s biggest festival, in the midst of one of the worst economic crises this country has ever seen, it was not only warranted but seemingly wanted from the crowd. If there is one act going that can preach the redeeming power of Rock & Roll, it is the 58-year-old Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band, and he showed it on Saturday night.
With an overwhelming positive spirit flowing from Springsteen’s set the night before, I rolled into Sunday feeling good about life and ready for a relaxed end to my festival. What better way to start it off than with a self-proclaimed Springsteen disciple? A.A. Bondy’s American Hearts was a criminally under-the-radar release from 2007 that was re-released in 2008 on Fat Possum (home to Andrew Bird and Heartless Bastards), and his Sunday-opening tent set was not to be missed. Playing both acoustic and electric selections from Hearts, and even throwing in a few new numbers, Bondy showed that there is still a place for the solo singer/songwriter set at Bonnaroo.
Then came the surprise of the weekend for me. As I was moseying over to the media tent to grab a bottled water (got to stay hydrated), I happened upon Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue on the second stage. Farris took on the role of Sunday morning preacher, as his rollicking set of Memphis Blues was undoubtedly a true highlight of any of the sets of the weekend. He brought in a Gospel backing band and played the largest stage he and his band have ever played outside of a revival tent. I was converted. After Farris’ wondrous set, I was looking for some more brass to wake me up. Luckily, The 6th Ward Treme Allstars Brass Band were rocking the main stage and their brand of New Orleans Funk/Jazz did just the trick.
I took a break until Andrew Bird’s set and found myself a little bored with the material. Maybe it was the slower pace, but it might also have been the fact that I’ve now seen Bird half a dozen times and pretty much know what to expect. So instead of staying, I hobbled over to see Okkervil River and I must say I was certainly not disappointed I did. Their brand of hyper-literate Indie Folk was just what I needed to get a little dancing in but not feel so overwhelmed that I wasn’t able to function afterward.
I heard Snoop Dogg from far off in the distance while I was waiting for Band of Horses to come out and it sounded like Snoop Dogg. Make your own conclusions there. Band of Horses’ set was a fantastic close to the second stage at Bonnaroo. Ben Bridwell’s vocals soared through the air and their brand of down-home Rock & Roll was just the right accompaniment to the setting sun. “The Funeral” was perhaps the best song of the weekend -- when the guitars rang in after the intro, everyone knew they were witnessing an epic ballad from a band destined for even larger stages in the future.
As I sat and waited for Phish to come out to close the festival, I realized just how amazing the weekend’s music had been. Save a highly scrutinized Heartless Bastards set, I wasn’t disappointed with anything I saw. Bonnaroo really was all about the music for me and many others there this weekend and the conversations I had with folks before Phish proved it. No one seemed unhappy with any of their decisions. And the anticipation was palpable waiting to see how Phish would attack the exceptionally high (pardon the pun) expectations they set on Friday night.
Trey stepped on stage and facetiously smirked, “Still here, huh?” 60,000 strong responded with thunderous yelping and Phish busted into funky set opener “AC/DC Bag”. The crowd approved, as if there was any doubt. Near the end of another crowd-favorite filled first set, Trey began to tell a story about his first concert in Princeton, N.J., at the age of 12. As soon as New Jersey was mentioned, the crowd knew what was coming, and with the words “my boyhood idol,” Bruce was once again onstage, this time with the backing PhE Street Band. They ripped through a rollicking 11-minute version of traditional Blues cover “Mustang Sally,” where Springsteen sang in a gravelly falsetto, and two Springsteen favorites, “Bobby Jean” and “Glory Days.” It was a magical moment of collaboration and experimentation from two of the greatest live acts going. Everyone knew they had just witnessed history.
The second set from Phish noodled slightly, but nothing could bring the crowd down from the terrific first set they had been a part of. Closing with “First Tube” was the right choice as the fireworks rained down. Truly the weekend was about collaboration, community and the redemptive power of music, and nothing said it better than Phish and Springsteen, two of the more disparate acts on the lineup, coming together to close the festival out with a bang. As we drove off, while ready to be home, showered, clean and in my bed, I couldn’t have been happier to have witnessed the awesome power I did. Truly the music reigned supreme.