Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival – (Manchester, TN)
Woodstock ’99, marked by cynical cost-cutting, a poorly-conceived infrastructure, several reported rapes and a near-riot, should have quashed any future plans for European-style rock festivals in the States. Surprisingly, instead, the upstate New York debacle served as a case study with promoters retooling the concept to compensate for past failings. In so doing, they’ve created something of a cottage industry (and a rare consumer value), sparking a mini-boom in an otherwise faltering summer concert market. Perhaps second only to Coachella in prestige and notoriety, middle Tennessee’s Bonnaroo (approximately 65 miles southeast of Nashville) has established itself in only four years as an institution among the jam-band faithful.
With attendance down roughly 10,000 from last year, the 2005 edition was deemed something of a disappointment; never mind that 80,000 music lovers enjoyed three days of mostly excellent shows in a relatively safe and comfortable environment. Perhaps more troubling, Bonnaroo reduced “tent” stages from four to three and offered a somewhat less broad and eclectic program — though as partial compensation, the fest featured its strongest hip-hop lineup to date.
Understandably, promoters ceded headlining duties to proven brand names. The Dave Matthews Band delighted with a warm, crowd-pleasing Friday evening set, and Widespread Panic was distinguished with two main stage slots. Whatever their respective merits, Matthews and Panic paid the bills and provided critical mass, allowing many deserving artists much needed exposure.
Despite an uncooperative harp and intrusions from Joss Stone’s enormous voice, Joanna Newsom managed to create an intimate oasis of careful listening. Her unorthodox delivery, recalling Victoria Williams with a crucial hint of old world gravity, proved captivating; she effortlessly negotiated her compositions’ intricate meter to create a music of strange, uncommon beauty.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ozomatli transformed the sometimes forbidding main stage into a fist-pounding playground. Something of an East L.A. P-Funk, the loose but accomplished collective wove a distinctive groove from seemingly disparate sources: salsa, hip-hop, ska, and various pan-Arabic borrowings. As their set ended, the Ozos cemented their party-band rep by forming an impromptu jam circle in the audience.
With its carefully crafted songwriting and worked-over arrangements, Rilo Kiley’s critically lauded More Adventurous seems a decidedly studio-bound creation, so their Saturday afternoon tour de force registered as a revelation — a performance more than worthy of former showbiz kids. Onstage, the band exudes an intoxicating sense of possibility and play grounded in unassuming confidence. A typical stroke: their mid-set segue from the campfire-intimating “With Arms Outstretched” to a ukulele-backed, sing-along retooling of the Pete Townshend kitsch classic “Let My Love Open The Door”. For the most part, the audience was transfixed, erupting whenever Jenny Lewis stretched the upper limits of her range or the band executed an especially deft turn.
With less at stake, Bonnaroo’s older guard seemed just as comfortable revisiting familiar territory. Other than several well-chosen covers, notably “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad”, the Allman Brothers’ set didn’t differ appreciably from last year’s live disc, though guitar phenom Derek Trucks remains a marvel. If only because fusion is a side trip rather than his main calling, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters seemed more vital and engaging. Fronting an all-star unit, the legendary keyboardist was at his best trading increasingly mind-bending lines with John Mayer over bassist Marcus Miller’s deep rhythms.
Ostensibly, John Prine’s performance, featuring a well-worn playlist, was a far more conservative outing. But the singer-songwriter’s good cheer was infectious, and selections from his recent album Fair & Square, especially tributes to his wife (“She Is My Everything”) and our president (“Some Humans Ain’t Human”), provided a welcome change-up.
As for the next generation, last year’s left-field breakthrough Modest Mouse seems to have weathered the freak hype storm. The “what, me worry?” ethos of their MTV staple “Float On” is a Bonnaroo natural, but the crowd proved just as a receptive to their back catalogue of herky-jerk abrasions and depressive rants. And though the Kings Of Leon hardly qualify as rock ‘n’ roll saviors, their zero-frills, four-speed variant certainly improves on the Black Crowes model (available for comparison on the main stage). In concert, the Kings are at their best when Matthew Followill’s guitar roil overwhelms cousin Caleb’s cocksman yowl.
By contrast, whether it was due to the noon start or Ken Bethea’s uncharacteristically restrained guitarwork, the Old 97’s Bonnaroo appearance felt somewhat flat. Even so, a middling set by a first-rate live band has its merits, and Rhett Miller was uncommonly loose and engaged.
No such caveats for the hard-touring Drive-by Truckers; their wildly ferocious Friday afternoon set was an unmitigated triumph. Mike Cooley proved especially sharp, following a muscular “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” with a “Cottonwood” milked for every last ounce of drama. Throughout, the band unleashed a three-guitar torrent as if itching for a showdown with the Allmans; Patterson Hood’s signature scorched-earth intro to “Lookout Mountain” recalled Neil Young at his most savage and elemental. Given their torturous backstory, the Truckers boasted the grit and tenacity of a battle-tested family, all the stronger for past trials.
Early in the Old 97’s set, Miller made a free love reference only to be checked by bassist Murry Hammond, noting that Bonnaroo is a family event. Though delivered tongue-in-cheek, the good-natured riposte inadvertently underscored a festival strength. If not exactly family-friendly, the weekend was redolent in fellow feeling and a sense of community. Prine brought his sons and their friends onstage for his encore, and more than a few acts made particular note of the audience’s crucial role in the proceedings. Old school rap mainstay De La Soul invited upwards of 100 women onstage for their set-closing “Baby Phat”, and the Ozos took a moment to encourage a meet-and-greet with the stranger at your side.
Can a maturing institution be lovably human as well? With an interactive Sonic Forest evoking late-night crickets and fireflies and a Silent Disco dedicated to the headphone boogie, Bonnaroo at the very least had its scruffy heart in the right place.