Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival – (Manchester, TN)
Grace Potter hurled her black rain boot into the audience, leaving a large, muddy footprint across a mans T-shirt. Are you hot out there? Potter said, laughing as she sprinkled the crowd with a water bottle.
Potter and her band, the Nocturnals, were among the abundance of up-and-coming acts, many of them playing early in the day, that gave audiences at the fifth annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival a chance to discover something outside the big-name headliners.
A soulful group from Vermont with ties to the jam-band circuit, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals are led by 22-year-old Potter, who plays both Hammond B-3 organ and guitar. She got the crowd moving with the distinct, guitar-driven Every Mile, a newer song the band has been road-testing. Her sultry voice soared on the a cappella introduction to Nothing But The Water (the title track to the bands latest disc) as the song erupted into a jam propelled by Scott Tournets slide guitar and Potters wailing Hammond.
Emerging indie artists were greeted by large groups of sun-kissed music lovers. Andrew Birds impeccable whistling and variety of instruments (including glockenspiel, violin and guitar) brought forth a myriad of curious and devoted fans singing along to A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left.
For four days in early June, Manchester, Tennessee a town of roughly 10,000 about an hour southeast of Nashville becomes an intricate village catering to the Bonnaroo faithful. Vendors set up lemonade stands and pitch tents, selling homemade organic quesadillas and oatmeal cookies along the gravel roads. A long line of cars traverses the green valleys and dusty dirt paths; arriving festivalgoers crank up their car stereos and throw Frisbees with friends in the highway ditches, some waiting three to four hours till they reach the entrance.
After arriving at their camping spot, they head to Centeroo, the festivals hub, with its mushroom waterfall and a towering neon-lit Ferris wheel overlooking the 700-acre farm where the festival has been held since its inception in 2002.
This years Bonnaroo drew a sold-out crowd of 80,000, down from last years perhaps overpopulated 90,000. Organizers decreased the number of tickets and returned to the size they attracted in 2003 to have a more comfortable environment for everyone, they explained.
This years lineup included a increased indie-rock presence, from emerging artists Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to songwriter Conor Obersts outfit Bright Eyes and the Seattle band Death Cab For Cutie.
Bonnaroo also tipped its hat to New Orleans, presenting jazz pianist Dr. John (decked out in headdress), legendary songwriter Allen Toussaint (performing with Elvis Costello & the Imposters), and Ivan Nevilles Dumpstaphunk.
This years major headliners included Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Radiohead, and Phil Lesh & Friends. Among the usual surfeit of jam bands were late-night crowd favorites Umphreys McGee and the Disco Biscuits, the gospel-infused Robert Randolph & the Family Band, and moe., a New York band known for jams lasting longer than 15 minutes.
Thursday evenings opening acts included South Carolina band I-Nine, highlighted by Carmen Keigans powerful pipes. A blaring, high-pitched trumpet solo soared over a six-piece ensemble during Australian band Cat Empires Latin-infused set.
Tennessee native Robinella brought local flavor and charmed audiences with her southern accent at a Friday noontime performance at This Tent. Fiddler Billy Contreras bowed in harmony with sliding guitar and mandolin picking over the sultry, slinking drumbeat on the country, jazz-influenced Solace For The Lonely. Robinellas honest lyrics and homegrown, Billie Holiday-inspired voice was a welcome wake-up for the sleepy, starry-eyed fans who had stayed up late on Thursday night.
Bonnaroo remains one of the most organized and high-tech music festivals around. Attendees can relax and get away from the hot sun in the air-conditioned movie or comedy tents. There is internet access on-site, as well as a CD-burning tent full with live music downloads.
But there is much the festival can do to improve. Overheated festivalgoers were frequently frustrated by the limited number of water areas. Thirsty attendees stood in long lines to fill up water bottles and camelbacks, while some opted to purchase $5 watered-down lemonade to avoid the wait.
Audience size, while smaller than last year, was still problematic at times. Fans arrived at stages an hour early to catch their favorite bands perform, and crammed into the smaller tents in search of a spot up front and in the shade.
Friday evening, contemporary bluegrassers Nickel Creek took the stage at That Tent to play a two-hour set. They kicked off with the upbeat When In Rome from their latest album Why Should The Fire Die? Virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile strummed away and crooned in falsetto on a tongue-in-cheek yet catchy rendition of Britney Spears Toxic. Fan favorites including the upbeat bluegrass jam The Fox concluded the set.
After a Friday night full of hip-hop, jam bands, and a near three-hour set by indie-rockers My Morning Jacket, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell took the stage at The Other Tent on Saturday afternoon, delighting the crowd with cool, smooth licks that made worries dissolve into the blue sky. Backed by a bassist and drummer, Frisell opened with a sweet, slow piece that melodically resembled the classic folk song Shenandoah. His calm, looping guitar melodies, the perfect soundtrack for an afternoon nap, lulled some to sleep in the shade of an oak tree.
A little later, U.K. group Gomez geared up at That Tent, playing songs from their new album How We Operate as well as older favorites. Lead singer Ben Ottewells gritty vocals softened on the acoustic Notice, but his signature gravelly pipes returned with a burst of chaotic energy on Shot Shot.
The swerving bass line of Guero soon drove people to the What Stage for Becks humorous yet captivating two-and-a-half-hour spectacle. Throughout the set, marionettes dangled on strings on the video screens, mouthing the words to the songs. At one point, Beck sat down to a dinner table full of dishes which became the centerpiece for the percussion that led into The Golden Age.
Hordes of fans began claiming spots on the lawn in anticipation for Radiohead as the crowd pulsated to the beat of Becks 90s anthem Loser. The video screens on the side of the stage shut off more than once during Radioheads set; the band played dull, uninspiring versions of Kid A and Paranoid Android that failed to carry to the back of the lawn.
But another day of music and dancing remained for shower-deprived Bonnarooers. Sundays lineup featured everything from reggae to country, including impressive beatbox stylings from Hassidic reggae-rapper Matisyahu, the incredible musicianship of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, and soulful Bonnie Raitt.