MANCHESTER, TN—It was an eclectic mix at this year’s Bonnaroo where free hugs and high fives were the rule of the day that left you with “nothing to do but smile, smile, smile!” to quote a Jerry Garcia-ism. The weather happily cooperated with four days of glorious sunshine for the crowd of 65,000.
U2 and Red Hot Chili Peppers headlined, but noticeably absent were the jambands that were this fest’s bread and butter all those beers ago. Rappers, electronica and pop acts ruled the two main stages on Friday and Saturday. Sunday was more traditional Bonnaroo style with a bluegrass tent supplying the finger pickin good tunes as well as jamsters Umphrey’s McGee, singer-songwriter Margo Price and Greensky Bluegrass.
U2 played the Joshua Tree album in its entirety on its 30th anniversary as their performance took on a retro piece of work that’s aged well. They added a muscular edge to the album’s moody soundscapes that are awash in the atmospheric Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois production values of the times on their headlining Friday night slot. It was also their debut appearance at a North American festival. Bono and the boys added a rawness that was in your face and edgy as the pulsating rhythms, crunchy reverb and soulful vocals rocked and roared from beyond the mix and into one Unforgettable Fire.
They opened up with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” from War, then took on Joshua Tree redux with a blistering version of “Where the Streets Have No Name” as Anton Corbijn’s iconic desert images flickered onscreen. “Bullet the Blue Sky” was turned into a psychedelic dirge as Bono stalked The Edge onstage with a strobe light amidst the howling guitars that ended with Corbijn’s images of barren landscapes and a callout “into the arms of America.”
On the first encore, “Beautiful Day,” Edge, who was also given the Les Paul award earlier in the day, laced into a guitar howling solo from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge,” who were Saturday night’s headliners. “Elevation” and “Vertigo” teased at the controlled and twisted power pop that this band does so well. “One” was the closer that took us back to the womb as everyone held up a Bic lighter, an illuminated iPhone or a peace sign in reverence to the greatest Irish rock band of all time.
Bono delivered it as a sanctimonious shoutout to the planet and a reminder that we’re all in this together. He ended the set on a light note jokingly telling the crowd, “What an extraordinary thing Bonnaroo is,” and, “Thank you for naming it after me!”
Red Hot Chilli Peppers were a wham-bam, thank you ma’am slamout of California rock. Singer Anthony Kiedis, Flea and company kept the train a-rollin’ as they barreled through the hits and then some as guitarist Josh Klinghoffer’s contorted leads swelled through the rhythm section’s jumpy bump and grind.
Keidis was a mustached presence as he rapped, scatted and held the mic close at hand, occasionally joining bandmates Flea and Klinghoffer in a tribal dance around drummer Chad Smith’s syncopated and heavy pounding snap. “We’ve played a million feats and this one is my favorite,” Flea added onstage as he traded one of the many basses he played for one with the Los Angeles Lakers team logo on it.
They played a greatest hits set along with some numbers from their last one, The Getaway, that included “Dark Necessities,” “Suck My Kiss,” “Californication” and Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” for a woofing grand finale.
Cage the Elephant combined the frenzied chops of Iggy Pop, the melodic flair of Syd Barrett and the Flaming Lips into a stew of trippy primal rock. Dark and moody one moment, frantic the next, singer Matt Shultz’s contorted and writhed at Johnny Rotten’s spirit as the Elephants let loose on a stampeding troll of cosmic debris. Shultz declared from the stage, “We were at the second Bonnaroo in the campgrounds and somebody said we should be doing this!”
Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real proved they were more than Neil Young’s backup band. Saucy Swedish vixen Tove Lo sang “Under the Influence” and teased the crowd like a performer at a burlesque show. Greensky Bluegrass’ mandolins, guitars and four-part harmonies that took us back to the farm and the gentleness of Tennessee’s lush rolling hills as one of Sunday’s closers and the fest’s 16th anniversary. How sweet it is!