MANCHESTER, TN—Taking on more than 150 acts on six stages over the course of four days in Manchester, Tennessee—about an hour’s plus drive from Nashville—this year’s Bonnaroo provided the soundtrack to 80,000 strong who took to the fields for an eclectic lineup of acts while camping under the stars. Food vendors that circled the perimeter of the grounds dished out tasty homemade goods while beer drinkers quenched the crowds’ thirst. Hippie merchants sold their hemp clothes, tie dyes and crystals. There was even a “build your own drum” vendor on site.
Comedy and movie tents provided a well needed respite from the sun and dust. Reggie Watts, Nick Thune and a late night showing of the Sean Penn stoner flick Fast Times At Ridgemont High tickled funny bones. Ferris wheels, silent discos, and the Bonnaroo fountain tended to the ADD in us all but what ultimately prevailed was the music, albeit a weaker one than years past.
This year’s headliners—Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Phish (sorry there are no photos of Radiohead or the Peppers since this paper, for some unexplainable reason, was not invited to the photo pit and by the time Phish played, I was Eight Miles High)—took things back to the ROCK as opposed to the past few years where rappers like Eminem and Jay-Z ruled the Friday and Saturday headliners spot.
The rest of the fest took on a cornucopia of musical styles and tastes that moved in waves throughout the day from daytime strumming to the grinding distortion and howling eclectic guitars at prime time to the pulsing electronica that blasted till the wee hours of the morning.
Frontman Thom Yorke of Radiohead (who played at Bonnarro in 2006) declared midway through his band’s two-hour set, “Where are you guys sleeping tonight?” “In a field, face down in the mud? That’s what we do in Britain, it’s a British tradition!” before they hit the crowd with another blood curdling barrage of the psychedelic order.
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ set was an overplayed mash-up of bungled funk that collided with the cosmos on Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Bassist Flea’s playing took over the melodic will of Wonder’s version as singer Anthony Kiedis nervously paced back and forth onstage wearing a baseball cap with the words “off” emblazoned on it scatted in mid-tones on “Californication.” They both wore one tube sock apiece this time around on their legs and thankfully not on their hot dogs like the old days.
Rapper Ludicris, who played on a smaller stage than he should have, commanded for his hour and a half set. Bad Brains twisted its hardcore, reggae-driven punk at the audience while leader H.R. stood center stage in a white outfit and hat, coy, mischievous and preening like a proud papa as the crowd bodysurfed towards the stage. Scottish band Mogwai’s wallop added some artfully done, noisy guitar rock.
Punch Brothers, Sam Bush and The Avett Brothers played to their barnyard roots, picking, clawing and fiddling their way through Americana’s roots. The Punch Brothers, with Chris Thile at the helm on mandolin, looked like a band of suited gents straight out of the Grand Ole Opry for their conservative take on the genre. Sam Bush’s bluegrass was a jazzy inflected one as the maestro funneled the spirit of Jimi Hendrix and Bill Monroe through his electric mandolin into a twangy mix. The Avett Brothers added a foot stomping, honky-tonk jive to their set.
Rodrigo Y Gabriela and C.U.B.A mixed a virtuosic command of guitars, combining flamenco and rock to C.U.B.A.’s Latin inspired, afro-Cuban rhythms that tastefully molded it all into a spicy mix that pushed and pulled at world beat. Guy Clark Jr.’s blues channeled Hendrix and Stevie Ray in a way that went beyond clichéd blues and sounded fresh. Led by mountain man Justin Vernon, Bon Iver played an impressive set as a full-piece band that turned their earthy numbers into densely packed folksy psychedelia.
SuperJam, Spectrum Road (with Jack Bruce from Cream, Vernon Reid from Living Color and Cindy Blackman) and Alice Cooper all competed for the same Saturday midnight slot that were luckily located beer sips away from each. At SuperJam, ?uestlove from The Roots (who played earlier in the eve) played bandleader to Roots alumni Cap’n Kirk, percussionist Frank Knuckles and bassist Pino Palladino (The Who, John Mayer) amongst others with special guest D’Angelo on keyboards and vocals for a whirlwind set that included Hendrix’s “(Have You Ever Been To) Electric Ladyland” and Led Zeppelin’s “What Is And What Should Never Be.”
Spectrum Road’s guitar-driven, jazz-instro rock was held steady by the melodic foundation of Jack Bruce’s fretless bass that grounded Reid’s sonic deliverances to the midnight hour and drummer Blackman’s (Carlos Santana’s wife) syncopated fusion. Alice Cooper, however, OWNED wolfman hour as he sang from atop a one story podium looking like an ghoulish insect as his six arms sucked in the air and then descended a stairwell to deliver the hits, whip and in hand and with the demonic snicker and sneer of a prankster.
The Beach Boys’ golden harmonies took everyone back to a simpler time when muscle cars, surfin’ and good vibrations ruled the land. Combining their greatest hits with some new tunes from their latest album, they were incredible. The remote controlled Mike Love of recent years gave way to a man and band on a mission to breathe life into a 50-year-old legacy. They succeeded on all counts, as their harmonies melted into one unified voice and spirit.
On “God Only Knows,” Brian Wilson’s voice was ethereal as he paid homage to brother Carl’s (who originally sang the song on Pet Sounds) memory. Their new track, “That’s Why God Made The Radio,” took us back to a time when AM radio mattered and 45 RPMs played on stacked turntables, like pancakes at the local IHOP. “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Kokomo”ended their set as Wilson stood stone-faced, staring at the crowd on bass to the clamorous applause and shout outs of “Love you Brian, love you Brian!”