MANCHESTER, TN—Bigger bands collided with smaller ones, leaving musical nuggets in its wake. Comedians tossed off one-liners at the air-conditioned comedy tent to fest-goers seeking shelter from the hot and dusty grounds. Vendors sold their hippie clothes and trinkets, activists handed out pamphlets as the grinning, mostly 20-something crowd hoola-hooped, drank beer and made happy, galloping, bobbing and weaving between the six stages at the former farm. There was even a build-your-own drum booth.
The stages that ringed the grounds offered an eclectic mix of rock, country, rap and electronica into a sideshow of crunchy riffs, twangs, yo’s and numbing techno rhythms. If you stood at the right spot near the cultural apex at Centeroo and the mushroom-shaped fountain that lies at the center of the grounds, you just might have a Bonnaroo moment as the sounds molt into one cacophonous mix.
Checking out that unknown band and getting lost to the beat with corn dog in hand is what this festival’s all about. With 121 acts to choose from over four days on a 530-acre field, there’s plenty to see. Ferris wheels, silent discos, comedy tents and a movie theater round out the possibilities, and offered a cool respite to the hot temps.
Jack Johnson filled in for Mumford & Sons, who cancelled last minute due to bassist Ted Dwane’s brain clot surgery. Johnson offered up a fine set of crowd pleasers at his Saturday night set. Of Monsters And Men and Delta Rae offered up sweet harmonies. Glen Hansard played up his cathartic folk rock as well. The Lumineers helped fill the void left by Mumford’s with a set that combined jug band with the Americana roots of The Band.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy looked like a grizzled Bonnaroo vet up there, as the band blended its mid-American folk rock, tempered and steered through the avant-garde vice of guitarist Nels Cline. He countered Tweedy’s growl with spiced up, ragged, terse jabs of well-placed feedback and sonic smite.
My Morning Jacket’s Jim James put on a riveting set of pulsating funky soul with rock trimmings at the smaller “This” tent. Dressed in a white shirt and tie, he worked the stage in herky-jerky motions as he offered up his visionary new album, Regions Of Light And Sound Of God, that took the crowd on a Holy Roller coaster ride, bridging the divide between the psychedelic thunder of My Morning Jacket and the divine. He even played sax on a few numbers.
Gov’t Mule ripped through the blues as the rhythm section lunged forward, clearing the way for Warren Haynes’ sparking fretwork. Billy Idol scowled through a greatest hits set, pacing the stage in black leather. Cat Power’s moody take on “The Greatest” started off slowly before building into a booming grand finale, as her minimalist band and the crowd cheered the temperamental one through her challenging set that featured songs off her latest release, Sun. Mahavishnu Orchestra founder John McLaughlin’s spooky jazz added an ethereal vibe just before dusk.
Comedian David Cross bitched about the world order and Jesse “The Body” Ventura laid out his conspiracy theories on 9/11 that would make even Oliver Stone cringe, or better yet, laugh out loud.
The mega-headliner at this year’s fest was undoubtedly Paul McCartney’s, who joked from the stage, “I smell some really good weed out there!” during his incredible two and a half hour set that commanded Friday night’s main stage. Arriving in a motorcade to the site, the 70-year-old ex-Beatle looked dapper in a full-length black coat straight out of the Help movie. Playing an even mix of Beatles and Wings numbers, McCartney resurrected his post-Beatles catalog from the dustbins of time and injected his punchy bass, snappy guitar and honky tonk piano playing to his backup band’s incredible reproductions as he moved effortlessly from instrument to instrument.
At Bonnaroo, the tunes roared and rambled throughout the fields as the sold-out, 80,000-plus crowd sang in tune and on time to Macca’s mid-‘70s arena rockers. Hidden cuts from big albums like “Let Me Roll It” that ended with a “Foxy Lady” Hendrix outro, “1984” and “Mrs. Vanderbilt” from Band On The Run and “Juniors Farm” were heavy reminders of the big, bombastic sounds that ruled rock radio at the time.
Acoustified poppy ones like “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Another Day” and “And I Love Her” segued into the heaviness of “Maybe I’m Amazed” and an acoustic mini-set of “Blackbird” and “Here Today,” McCartney’s open letter to John Lennon that he sang from a riser that perched over the crowd.
“Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite,” a song that McCartney never played out live before this tour, was one of the highlights of the night. On it, the band gloriously recreated all the carnival sounds, swirls and whistles into a stew that was psychedelically delicious. “Helter Skelter” ended the second set of encores, paving the way for the slam-dunk of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” that ended this Magical Mystery Tour.