Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival (Manchester, TN)
Part carnival, part treasure hunt and part endurance test, Bonnaroo 2007 was hot, dusty, and a little hard to get a handle on.
The standard line on the sixth edition of the supersize mid-Tennessee music fest was that it marked Bonnaroo’s evolution from hippie jam spree to diffuse cultural grab-bag. On the surface, that seemed true: Two of the three headliners were Tool and the Police, and new additions included a Blue Note-sponsored jazz tent and a series of lectures by filmmakers (including D.A. Pennebaker and Jim Jarmusch).
But for one thing, Bonnaroo was never quite as tie-dyed in the wool as its reputation suggests. Even its first, hippie-heavy year included non-jam acts such as Amon Tobin, Dottie Peoples and the Blind Boys Of Alabama. Furthermore, it’s not like this year’s event abandoned the festival’s core following. The third closing-night headliner was southern groove standby Widespread Panic, making their fourth Bonnaroo appearance. With jam-band favorites Galactic, String Cheese Incident, Bob Weir & Ratdog, Keller Williams and Sound Tribe Sector 9 (among others) scattered through the festival’s four days and nights, the neo-Aquarians who make up a good chunk of the 80,000 attendees could hardly feel underserved.
Rather than distancing itself from its jammy roots, Bonnaroo seems to be building on them, giving the faithful plenty to rally around while expanding the idea of what a modern music festival can do and be. And it seems to be succeeding, so far. The festival has sold out most years, including this one, using only its own online ticketing service. Shepherded by co-founders Superfly Productions of New Orleans and A.C. Entertainment of Knoxville, Bonnaroo took the step earlier this year of buying the farmland in Manchester that it has rented each summer since 2002. Whatever else it is, Bonnaroo looks to be in for the long haul.
So, given all of that, how was it? Mostly, a lot of fun. Yes, the days were bakingly hot, in the upper 90s, and Tennessee’s freakishly dry spring had left Manchester looking and feeling like a tropical savanna. In the afternoons, people clustered around any available shade, whether under the canopies of the large performance tents or in the lee of a corn-dog cart. But some degree of physical discomfort is de rigueur at music festivals, and Bonnaroo seems relatively moderate on that count. (Coachella is in the desert, for God’s sake.)
The bigger challenge each day than staying hydrated and sunscreened was plotting out who to see and when to see them. The staggered schedule had artists playing on five main stages, plus the jazz tent and an assortment of smaller spotlight stages, from about noon until well after midnight on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. (On Thursday, things got going at 7 p.m.) Choices sometimes had as much to do with proximity as personal preference: I found myself more likely to check out whoever was playing at the next tent over than to hoof it all the way across the grounds, say, to the daunting main lawn. (Which is why I ended up skipping the Roots, Wilco and Kings Of Leon.)
And there were bands I missed out of simple exhaustion. I was napping during the National’s set, so that I’d have the energy for Rodrigo Y Gabriela later on. Speaking of whom, the acoustic Mexican duo was the highlight of opening night. Their marriage of manic flamenco strumming and big rock gestures (they cover Led Zeppelin and Metallica) finds its full effect in their live show. The mix accentuated Gabriela’s freight-train rhythm playing, a wise choice for a crowd primed for dancing.
Other highlights included Manu Chao’s raucous, endearing performance with Radio Bemba Sound System; Lily Allen’s surprisingly tight set of London ska-pop, complete with a well-crafted sassy-lassie stage persona; Richard Thompson looking and sounding great in front of an enthusiastic crowd at one of the smaller stages (he joked that it was “the tent for obscure has-beens,” but he can’t have felt too bad — he was followed by Gillian Welch); Mavis Staples getting Sunday off to a rolling start with an effervescent “I’ll Take You There” and then moistening eyes with a Father’s Day dedication of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” to her own Pops, who taught the song to her; and Gogol Bordello, whose flailing Eastern European gypsy-Pogues act is one part shtick and three parts sheer musical momentum.
Beyond that were names old and new, like T Bone Burnett (doing a passable Dylan impersonation on a cover of “Isis”), Charlie Louvin (good-humored and tuneful), the Hold Steady (getting ardent fans to pump their fists at all the Springsteenish fist-pumping moments) and Paolo Nutini, whose affected Scottish pop seemed undercooked in concert but whose dreamy bangs were visible even from the back of the tent. (“I just want to see his face,” one girl pleaded with her male companion as she dragged him into the crowd.) There was also Friday night’s Superjam, which had John Paul Jones playing heavy blues-rock (and a lot of Zeppelin songs) with Ben Harper on guitar and vocals and ?uestlove of the Roots on drums. They were entertaining, but rarely sounded like much more than a really good Zeppelin cover band.
The jazz tent, a full-fledged jazz club transported into the middle of a Tennessee field, had air-conditioning, dim lighting, seats, table service and a solid roster of Blue Note artists. The line was usually intimidatingly long (possibly a credit to the air-conditioning), but I made it in to see a good set by David Murray’s Black Saint Quartet. Maybe they should have booked Ornette Coleman there; in the festival’s most alarming moment, he collapsed of heat exhaustion Sunday evening while playing on one of the main stages, though he was apparently fine after treatment. There was also a cabaret tent, featuring the spirited Yard Dogs Road Show.
And then there were the headliners. Of the three, Tool made the best use of Bonnaroo’s enormous center stage, turning it into a three-dimensional special effect. Their rumbling art-metal was a little angsty and self-involved for Bonnaroo tastes, but their massive video projections and unapologetic, unironic laser show made it all OK. The next night was the Police, who were entertaining even when the tempos dragged and Sting blew the occasional line. And on the final night, despite swearing all weekend that I wouldn’t, I allowed some hippie-jam friends to cajole me down to the Widespread Panic show. Where, I admit, I had fun. I may have even danced.
Which gets to Bonnaroo’s real strength. By building on a subculture that respects both groove and improvisation, the festival gives itself room to grow in varied directions. And if that subculture has sometimes seemed a bit too easy to please, well, so much the better. International pop, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, country, hip-hop — as long as it has a beat, the Bonnaroo massive will give it a chance. As the Pittsburgh DJ Girl Talk observed with approval, introducing his wide-ranging, madly energetic set Saturday night, “I’ve been walking around watching the bands today, and you people will dance to anything, as long as it’s fucking loud!”