MANCHESTER, TN—The annual Bonnaroo fest turned the corner on its jamband history and offered up its most eclectic lineup ever in southeastern Tennessee, a little more than an hour plus ride from the state’s capital of Nashville. This year’s model offered an outstanding take on Americana, bringing older acts together that bridged the generational divide as well as newer acts at the cusp of greatnesses that added an edgy vibe to the mellowed hippieness that pervaded the area like the aroma of a dear smelly friend. Almost everyone camped out as well, adding to the sense of camaraderie amongst the 80,000 who came from all over to attend what has now become the premier festival in this country.
Whereas Coachella seemingly catered to every trendy Britpop band out there, Bonnaroo’s roots lie in its take on homegrown experimentalism, one of the founding ethos of the fest origins. Arena giants of the ’80s and ’90s shared the bill with honkytonk pickers, ’60s dinosaurs, alt rockers and jazz legends. There was a comedy tent where David Cross dissed hippies and even a screening tent where indie-director Jim Jarmush took on a Q&A after a screening of some of his films.
A carnival atmosphere prevailed as big smiles and flashing peace signs took over for the four-day fest. Baseball batting cages, art displays and the merch tents were there for the musically challenged. Great food and drizzle tents kept everyone fed and moist in the dry arid grounds that took on the dustbowl haze of a moon landing.
The music however is what ultimately prevailed as the soundtrack to party central where the performers and the crowd became one, each feeding off the other’s manic frenzy into a vibe that was infectiously delicious. A mutual admiration society of performers, party people, drinkers, tokers, dorks, fashionistas, hicks and hippies, all for one and one for all.
Artist collaborations, the cornerstone of past Bonnaroos also had their place as Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones sat in on sets by Ben Harper, Gov’t Mule, and Uncle Earl, whose second album he recently produced. Hot Tuna/Jefferson Airplane founders Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady also played with Gov’t Mule. Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine joined Tool for a number.
Headliners, The Police, Tool, Flaming Lips and The White Stripes did not disappoint. The reunited Police were on fire for their set as the band added muscular depth to their hits with hints of minimalist improv and some changed arrangements of their greatest hits. Sting, Summers and drummer Copeland played with the ferocity of a band that had something to prove. Opening with “Message In A Bottle” they took the crowd on a a trip through their catalog, interspersing the chunky reggae of their early hits like “Roxanne” and “Walking On The Moon” with the tribal thump of Synchronicity’s “Walking In Your Footsteps.” “Driven To Tears” combined all into a cosmic funk that took on Sting’s bumpy bass, Copeland’s snappy rhythms and guitarist Summers’ terse minimalist chops. Their twisted arrangements of the original versions turned into muscular workouts that teased the crowd with the familiar at first, then snuck in a slightly slowed down or vamped up midsection, keeping their set fresh and exciting.
Tool were like a machine driven behemoth that turned Friday night’s big stage into a light show complete with lasers, lights and fog machines straight out of a mid-’70s Pink Floyd show. Singer Maynard James Keenan stood at the back of the stage, silhouetted and faceless as he belted out the band’s angst over the crunchy guitars and a prog-rock style that thrashed one second, then glided to the stratos another.
The Flaming Lips were a fuzzy unit of cosmic warriors whose set was a surreal blend of Syd Barrett and Alice In Wonderland. Lips leader Wayne Coyne played Captain Kangaroo for adults as he worked the crowd like a court jester at planet trips. Co-captains Stephen Drozd and Michael Ivins grounded out the ear candy as tightly warped doses of coated pop, demented goodies for the enlightened. Entering from a bubble that rolled down the ramp from atop a space saucer onstage, Coyne rolled over the crowd like a gerbil encased in plastic, eventually making his way back to the orgasmic opener of “Race For The Prize” from The Soft Bulletin.
The White Stripes fired from the hip, opening up with “Icky Thump” from their latest, grinding their Led Zep power riffage over the alt-rock emo wailing of Jack White’s sonic pleas.
The rest of the fest was a mash-up of brilliance where newer acts played off the child-like vibe at the fest. Lilly Allen plied the crowd with her brashy barroom banter, adding a saucy sense of downtown fun. Gogol Bordello were a manic panic of punk polkas twisted through the vice of gypsy folk and a cheesy 1920s vaudevillian mix.
Popsters Franz Ferdinand kept the cuties in line with their three-minute sing alongs. The Decemberists’ unique combo of pop and traditional instruments bridged the fest’s divide magnificently. The Night Watchman, a.k.a. Tom Morello, was a one-man army on acoustic guitar as he took on human rights, unions and the Bush administration’s wicked ways.
For the super jam, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones joined Ben Harper and Roots drummer Questlove from the Roots for a cosmic blowout that included a half hour version of “Dazed And Confused” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Ben Harper’s pedal steel laid down the sonic wails to Jones and Questlove’s chunky rhythmic punch that morphed into a chromatic unit of oneness that was heavenly.
Michael Franti, Manu Chao and Ziggy Marley added elements of roots rock and reggae to their sets. Franti’s was a poppy hybrid while Chao’s was a worldly stew of salsa, afro and samba. Ziggy Marley was a strictly roots rock affair as he sang his father’s “Lively Up Yourself” and “Be Free” from his last one.
Wilco’s set was a straightahead rocked out affair with leader Jeff Tweedy adding urgency and an edgy rocked out feel to the band’s alt-country sounds. T-Bone Burnett looked like a Quaker churchman as he ripped into Bush on his opening number, backed by downtown guitarist Marc Ribot and session drummer legend Jim Keltner. His angry ode to the war combined alt country with avant garde minimalism into a crackling attack.
Free form jazz maestro Ornette Coleman played a short set after he collapsed onstage from heat stroke during his abbreviated set. There was also a stage set up in a tent as a smoky jazz club that offered a reprieve from the brilliant sun and dust in which saxophone virtuoso David Murray played two sets.
Hot Tuna played off the finger picking virtuosity of Jorma Kaukonen’s acoustic guitar, then ripped into a fiery version of “Sea Child” from the 1973 album Burgers. Ex-Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir’s Ratdog started out searching for a groove that slowly morphed into “Help On The Way” and a strong set of funky grooves that centered around Weir’s well honed vocals and playing that’s aged like fine wine over the years.
Widespread Panic closed the circle on this year’s fest which brought jambands back to the main stage, ending four days of music and the most eclectic Bonnaroo yet.