MANCHESTER, TN—At the 10th annual Bonnaroo Festival 85,000 music fans took on 9 stages in the sweltering heat for an orgy of sights and sounds, great food, no cops and a funky aroma that permeated the air like the sweet smell of an old friend. Waterslides, volleyball nets, games, comedy, cinema tents and even a silent disco added a respite to the scorching sun and dusty air that enveloped the site into a warm and fuzzy abode of smiling faces and great vibes.
Wandering to the muse is what Bonito’s is all about whether you’re hoteling it, VIPing it in an RV or just plain camping out with the rest of the crew where everybody gets down, dirty and rocks together. Getting lost might lead to something interesting like catching a new band. Close encounters of the cosmic kind are also possible and, to be frank, encouraged. Such is life at Bonnarro.
Straddling the north/south divide and its east/west counterpart, the 750-acre land stands at the crossroads of this great country like a cross-pollinating beehive to the land’s eclectic order. Standing between zones as each stage blares its wares and bleeds onto the other can have a trancelike effect even on the most jaded wannabee rock critic out there. Discovering a new band amidst the heat, chaos, clatter and dust can also be a beautiful thing.
Ultimately the music is what matters and every form was represented at this year’s fest from rockers to rappers, pickers, grinners like Lewis Black and Cheech Marin and legends Robert Plant, Gregg Allman and Neil Young, who started a fest-first called the ‘Bonnaroo wave’ in his set with the reunited Buffalo Springfield that was one of the highlights of the weekend.
Buffalo Springfield, who broke up in 1967, reunited for an incredible hour and a half set with members Neil Young, Steve Stills and Richie Furay sharing the spotlight and shedding light on a legacy that many rock historians cite jumpstarted the folk-rock movement, paving the way for bands like the Eagles and many of those on the bill at this year’s fest. After three albums they disbanded. Neil Young took on Planet Earth, Steve Stills went on to form CSN and Richie Furay’s attempted solo flight took him to Poco and the ministry.
At Bonnaroo, Furay’s country pop stood out in contrast to Stills and Young’s sonic roar. The opener “On the Way Home” and Young’s B-sider “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” were lighthearted fluffers to the bands innocence. On “Bluebird” they ripped it up with the pompous scowl of a pimpled teen as Stills and Young faced off against each other like two old dogs. Countering Young’s chaotic ragged glory was Stills’ finesse that Young punched and bobbed his way around with fistfuls of metallic distortion and squelchy vibrato to Stills’ graceful shuffles that ended in a double knockout blow-out performance with the fans victorious.
On “Mr. Soul” Young offered up a pumped-up version that got the crowd back on its feet after the Furay number “Kind Woman.” One of the most interesting songs of the night was Young’s “Broken Arrow” from the third Springfield album, Last Time Around.
The original studio version was actually a combination of several song ideas pulled together into one. Onstage the band pulled it off magnificently as bassist Rick Rosas, who was been playing on Young’s last few tours, and drummer extraordinaire Jim Vitale, who made his name playing in Joe Walsh and Stills’ solo bands, changed time signatures and dynamics for the opus, adding some stellar studio chops to the act’s garage band roots. The unmistakable opening riff of “For What It’s Worth” ended the regular set. The encore was Young’s own “Rockin’ In The Free World” that tore the proverbial house down.
Robert Plant added some countrified muscle to Led Zep classics “Ramble On,” “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Gallows Pole” as guitarist supreme Buddy Miller and Patty Griffith beamed nearby. Daniel Lanois’ textured sonic stew molted and warped itself through his vision of Americana with Trixie Whitley and drummer Brian Blade. Their psychedelic molt of larger than life soundscapes was countered by the gospel-laced, cathartic wail of Whitley’s that was strangely ethereal, dark and majestic and as rootsy as a pint of Jack.
Gregg Alllman’s set was steeped in the South. In place of the dueling guitars of the Allman Brothers was a horn section that added depth and jazzy undertones to “I’m No Angel,” “One Way Out” and an incredibly moody and meandering “Dreams” from the first Brothers album. An acoustic rendering of “Melissa” with Allman on guitar was gorgeous.
Justin Earle, son of rabble-rouser Steve, looked like a traveling snake oil salesman in his poindextor duds and straw hat. His songs shone through with the seasoned wit of a barroom vet. His backup band kept it straight and to the point as he accentuated his takes on heartbreak from the Hank Williams songbook and kicked them through the smelly gutters of the Lower East Side of Manhattan that Earle now calls home.
Grace Potter, who recently retired her hippie duds, was magnificent as she combined the straight-ahead rattle of Janis Joplin with the sexy cowl of Stevie Nicks in her Fleetwood Mac heyday. Her backup band looked like the fabulous freak brothers in ‘40s style vests, bowler hats and beards. She was on fire for the band’s all too brief set switching from guitars to piano and looking like a fired-up rock goddess. “Last Nighttime Kiss” had a reggae flow to it and the Airplanes’ “White Rabbit” took the band back to the garden and its psychedelic jamband roots.
Gov’t Mule frontman and Bonnaroo alumni Warren Haynes’ set was a full-tilt boogie-woogie blowout that combined the blues with some saucy New Orleans gumbo jive. Ray Lamontague left the ladies teary eyed on “I Want To Hold You” as his husky yet smooth baritone, plaintive lyrics and three-chord strumming kept it real and raw. His backup band colored the songs, adding folksy, woodsy embers in their wake.
My Morning Jacket’s Jim James’ performance turned into a cathartic blowout for their fifth appearance at the Roo. The Kentucky native purged the crowd with his spirited wildass rock looking a lot like a younger version of hippie godfather David Crosby, in his bushy hair, beard, cape and white fur boots. He started the set with an electronic gizmo hanging around his neck playing tunes from the new one, Circuital, then strapped on a six-string for the rest of the set as the band blasted its muscular, melodic loud rock at the crowd.
Arcade Fire was an incredible fusion of words, rhymes and musicianship, held together by the chanting force of crowd and band united in a voice that was an incredible sight to witness, see, feel and hear in the heat. Chiming in with perfect time, they took anthem rock to the fields, adding some artsyness to their overblown music, straddling a motley mix between The Who and the Talking Heads.
Eighties mechanized rock, a harp player and the confessional undertones of Kate Bush and Tori Amos combined forces for one of the best sets by a new group, Florence And The Machine. Pale-faced, redheaded and dressed in black, her grandiose gothic gestures were delivered with the loving scowl of a good witch.
Smoking gun Lil Wayne was a commanding presence up there as he bolted across the stage taking on hoes, bitches and anyone else in-between for his full-blown hour and a half set. He made sure to thank his fans graciously for sticking behind him through his recent bout with the law. Eminem was Saturday’s headliner and he delivered a killer set on suburban angst to Little Wayne’s gritty gangsta rap.
Legends Wanda Jackson, whose latest was produced by Jack White and Loretta Lynn, added stamps of Nashville authenticity to the grounds as they graced the place with the seasoned charm of a pair of southern belles. Jackson’s take was steeped in ‘50s rockabilly with a retro rockers edge while Ms. Lynn’s was pure country. Their hairdos, twinkling eyes and beaming smiles took us back to the musty lounges of another era, where velvet Elvis tapestries, TV dinners and cheesy variety shows ruled the airwaves.
Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford And Sons represented where alt-country is headed. Faithful to the cause, both bands kept it real, playing fiddles, guitars, banjoes and mandolins, and wisely avoiding the mainstream drivel country has become. Theirs was a stomping mix that played off the acoustified virtues of bluegrass music.
The Strokes played almost everything off their debut album. Lead singer Julian Casablancas stood motionless at the mic singing sideways as the sunset over the hazy, dusty, farm enveloped the crowd and the band rattled away like EMS techies trying to resurrect this two-hit wonder goliath of downtown poseurs.
Bonnaroo wouldn’t be complete without the annual Super Jam. Dr. John, Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach some gospel backup singers and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band combined it all into a stew of terse rock licks to the gumbo jumbo jive of Dr. John and the Preservations’ horny tip of the hat to old-time Dixieland jazz. Festive faves Widespread Panic, who showcased the first Bonnaroo, were the closers as they took the barnyard back to the faithful.