Live Review: Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, June 11 – 14, 2009

It’s hard to convey everything that happens at Bonnaroo. So much is missed, and so many different experiences occur that it’s futile to try and capture it all. At the same time, so much is seen and so many experiences had. For me, Bonnaroo has been all about the music since the very first year, so that’s what I tend to focus on. Fortunately, that aspect of the festival has only gotten better over the years. In fact, Bonnaroo’s music has transcended what I thought was possible in terms of quality and quantity. That’s why it takes me a week to sort it all out and put my thoughts on screen.

Since 2002, the music community has watched the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival grow from a large jam-oriented event into one of the world’s finest spectacles of entertainment overload. The 2009 edition of the festival added yet another dimension. Bonnaroo is now more than a microcosm of the music world. It’s a concentrated American experience, capturing our nation’s musical history and diverse cultural makeup within the space of a 700-acre farm in rural Tennessee.

Bonnaroo FountainReturning to the Bonnaroo site is always a homecoming of sorts. Everything tends to be in the same location, right down to the food vendors and decor. This year featured a number of subtle changes for the better that I took note of on Thursday. The tent stages (That, This, and The Other) all boasted fresh new neon signs designating their names, the Silent Disco was larger and aesthetically improved, and the Troo Music Lounge sported a newer, loungier look complete with lit seating areas and industrial-size fans in the middle – though it was still impossible to see the band unless you wormed your way to the first few rows.

The theme of the Bonnaroo Schedule this year seemed to be “Spread ‘Em Out!” For the first time, the large festival tents hosted themed daylong mini-festivals that kept fans of one particular style of music glued to the same stage for hours on end. On Thursday, The Other Tent featured hip-hop with a reggae nightcap – not the biggest stretch for a theme. The same tent hosted “Africa Calling” – a string of African-influenced acts – on Friday and bluegrass and acoustic acts all day on Saturday. David Byrne curated That Tent on Friday, and if any solitary man is a theme of his own, it’s Byrne. There were plenty of stages without official “themes” that seemed scheduled to keep attendees focused in that area, such as Thursday’s dance-electro-pop vibe at This Tent (Hockey, Chairlift, Passion Pit, etc) and Sunday’s hard-hitting, metal-tinged That Tent lineup (Shadows Fall, High On Fire, Dillinger Escape Plan, etc.).

Pollock PrintsAlso different was the overall atmosphere. While Widespread Panic, Grateful Dead, and Dave Matthews Band fans have certainly taken over the farm in the past, those invasions were nothing like the influx of Phish fans and fandom this year. Friday and Sunday featured perfect day-starting radio shows courtesy of Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro, which were a staple of past Phish festivals and something I never thought I’d hear again. Artist Jim Pollock, a longtime Phish collaborator, presided over an exhibit featuring his newer work – including a Bonnaroo 2009 poster – and rare treasures like pencil sketches and obscure non-Phish work. Fans even got to see the man in action as he printed posters commemorating his upcoming exhibit in Miami and hung them to dry in the booth. Even Nectar’s - the funky restaurant in Burlington, Vermont where the band played many of its formative shows – represented with a food vending booth where they hawked their famous gravy fries.

Many of the biggest acts at Bonnaroo 2009 – like Phish, Springsteen, Nine Inch Nails, and the Beastie Boys – were making music long before the 20-year-olds in attendance were even born. Conversely, many of Bonnaroo’s more life-advanced fans have cars older than bands like Hockey, Passion Pit, and Pretty Lights. The event has grown to be so inclusive and important to artists young and old that it has become its own nirvana, where fans of all tastes go to bask in the glow of their favorites and learn about other musical species they wouldn’t normally encounter.

This year more than ever, attendees had to pick their battles when it came to scheduling. The tried-and-true method of stage-hopping at Bonnaroo was not going to work, at least for me – there were too many things on the schedule that demanded more than 15 minutes of my attention. One way to judge the user experience at large festivals is to add up the regrets, and I sacrificed some incredible moments to devote more time to the bands I love and had never seen in concert.

All of this musical splendor adds up to four days of revelation, learning, and drama. It’s safe to say that no two people have the exact same Bonnaroo experience. People trying to see all the music they want to see, along with hundreds of other distractions, means there’s always a unique tale to hear, or a person who had a horrible time at a show you enjoyed. After five trips to Manchester, I feel that while I saw less bands than usual, the performances were above average across the board and for the most part stellar – with only a couple of exceptions.

THURSDAY JUNE 11

Each year, it seems like the first band I see turns out to be one of my favorites of the weekend, and this year was no different. From That Tent, Alberta Cross provided an invigorating backdrop to my first visit to the Pollock exhibit. Their sound is reminiscent of My Morning Jacket – grand, sweeping, reverberating rock with emotive vocals. There’s a touch of Brit-rock in there as well, which lends a great deal of dynamics to their sound.

I was looking forward to Delta Spirit, having heard one of their tracks on a sampler CD during the drive to Manchester. Unfortunately, it was no to be – the band hit a travel snag and arrived very late, finally performing 6 hours after their original 7 PM time slot. I never knew of the rescheduling, and thus began a night with mixed results all around.

The hip-hop lineup at The Other Tent was consistently disappointing. Actually, live hip-hop in general is consistently disappointing. I should know this by now, having witnessed only a handful of memorable hip-hop shows in my lifetime, but I always get my hopes up. The sound is never right, the shows are almost always incredibly short, and there’s a canned quality I can’t quite get over. People Under the Stairs, who I was looking forward to the most out of the trio of hip-hop acts, never gave me much reason to stick around, offering a bland, repetitive show that I had no trouble leaving.

HockeyAnother band I was extremely curious about, Hockey, threatened to deliver a memorable set at This Tent and the crowd was certainly ready for one. I can’t even remember why I was so interested in seeing them, but my interest waned quickly after four songs that sounded essentially the same. Hockey turned out to be yet another band mining the now-barren synth-dance-pop fields so beloved by the folks that missed out on the real 80′s resurgence earlier this decade. Despite the comeback of plastic neon-framed sunglasses, I think the 80′s revival thing has just about had it.

After more wandering and visits to The Other Tent, I settled in at This Tent with some friends for Passion Pit. They’re another band with more buzz than they know what to do with, and they seem (from my brief experience) to be handling the spotlight quite well. Considering they just recently delivered their first proper full-length cache of songs, I wasn’t expecting much. But the band performed with fire and their namesake passion, making an impact on my weekend even though the music left a lot to be desired. Not that you could really hear it – the sound during that show was as jumbled as the tent city that was growing on the horizon.

Of all the typical Thursday night up-and-comers at Bonnaroo, no act is more ready for the spoils of music business victory than Zac Brown Band. Most people of a musical persuasion similar to mine would find Brown’s sound a bit too polished, even overtly poppy. But the guy has got it figured out as far as connecting with his fans, pleasing a crowd comprised of diverse people, and delivering on a performance. Brown’s outfit is a true crossover act, laying a foundation of country and rock upon which they pile chunks of reggae, funk, and pop and cover it with Parrothead-style party tunes, dramatic rock ballads, and good old-fashioned acoustic jam roots-rock music.

Nodding to everyone from Bob Marley (“One Love”) to The Band (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) to Charlie Daniels (“Devil Went Down to Georgia”), Brown and his band also managed to make their originals shine, and their music – which features a typical rock formation along with organ and violin – sounded just perfect ahead of an approaching thunderstorm that put an end to my evening.

FRIDAY JUNE 12

Friday began one of the most anticipated weekends in Bonnaroo’s formidable history, and it lived up to the hype. From my arrival on Friday afternoon until my final departure late Sunday night (Monday morning), the music I was able to see was of the highest quality. As I mentioned, stage-hopping just wasn’t the way to go this year. I would have been in a constant state of motion all day if I had tried to see everything that piqued my curiosity.

Not that I didn’t move around – Friday actually turned out to be a day of wild stage-blending and frequent transitional cohesion. To start, I got a taste of the always-entertaining Grace Potter and the Nocturnals before catching just a snippet of Galactic with Trombone Shorty and Corey Henry. As I made my way through the area near the main stage, the sound was unearthly. It sounded as if Galactic drummer Stanton Moore was single-handedly trying to destroy the massive What Stage, using his drumkit and the overwhelming wall of funk provided by Shorty, Henry, and Ben Ellman.

Another trip by the Pollock tent and I was treated to Santigold‘s last few songs, including the thudding show-stopper “Creator.” Trying to ease into the weekend slowly, I admired the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ giant eyeball stage prop from afar as I focused on the act that would follw Karen O – TV on the Radio. This inexplicable Brooklyn-based quintet is one of the most singular groups of this decade, and they were exactly the whirling dervish I expected them to be.

TV on the RadioAided by Antibalas sax player Martin Perna, the band created a spectacular sonic mess to rival the hodgepodge fabric collage that serves as their stage backdrop. Perna’s sax amped up the jazzy tones in TVOTR’s demented sound, adding extra pleasure to songs like “The Wrong Way,” “Dirtywhirl,” “Wolf Like Me,” “Staring at the Sun, and “Red Dress.”

The 3 hours following TVOTR’s dizzying performance comprised one of the most sublimely pleasurable evenings I have ever enjoyed at Bonnaroo. Unable to decide which band to see – David Byrne or the Beastie Boys - I positioned myself between the two adjacent stages. With only a few steps to either side, i could “turn up” either show. Since the Beasties’ huge sound was bleeding into Byrne’s house mix anyway, I figured I may as well hear a little of both.

The Beastie Boys discarded their usual setlist of late, treating the audience to a wild mix of instrumental funk classics (“Sabrosa”), raucous punk (“Egg Raid On Mojo”), and hip-hop hits (“Sure Shot,” “So Watcha Want”). Byrne stuck firmly to his recent rotation and dished out glorious versions of Talking Heads essentials like “Life During Wartime,” “Houses In Motion,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Heaven” along with latter-day material.

There was a point sometime during the Beastie’s encore and Byrne’s steadily electrifying set that I may have been drooling like a voracious Homer Simpson. I think it may have been when the Beasties were doing “So Watcha Want” at the same time Byrne was playing “Heaven.” I can’t express the feeling my brain was giving me, but is was amazing. It was the elusive “Bonnaroo,” a moment of fun synthesis so explosive that reality ceases to exist and there is only the glorious sound of quirky, wistful pop blending with aggressive bass from opposite directions. I could barely comprehend that there was still an entire Phish show to come.

Flavor Flav and TriumphI had a once-in-a-lifetime encounter in the press area just before the Phish show. A large crowd had gathered around a television crew, and in the center of the circle of onlookers stood Flavor Flav and Robert Smigel. Well, Smigel was kneeling with his hand up a dog’s rump, but thankfully it was a puppet – Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Triumph was essentially giving an interview to Flav, but the “interview” quickly devolved into verbal jousting. Bridgette Neilsen, New York, and burned scarecrows were all mentioned.

Much like Metallica in 2008, Phish relished the chance to perform in front of a different audience. While there were tons of devoted Phish fans in attendance, there were scores of people who had never seen the band or had never endeavored to see them. The band saved their esoteric song selections for another show, choosing to attack a group of well-known songs that they play with precision and gusto. Nowhere was this strategy more obvious than in the early-set performances of “Possum” and the perennial set-starter “Chalkdust Torture.”

“Chalkdust” charged along with typical fervor, and the brand-new “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” seems to be fitting in to setlists more comfortably than some of their other new songs. It’s a dark little ditty, with worrisome lyrics and a dense melody that allows for some fine soloing from guitarist Trey Anastasio. Stopping briefly to thank the people, Anastasio moved the show into the cruising gear by starting “Divided Sky.” The climactic “Divided Sky” jam featured some classic Phish jamming – Mike Gordon finding bass notes in every nook and cranny of Anastasio’s triumphant soloing, Page McConnell subtly leading the melodic charge with perfect piano playing, and Jon Fishman balancing easily on the song’s rhythmic tightrope.

Phish“Possum” was next, and it ambled along a familiar progression full of frenetic group interplay. However, the weekend’s first big leap into the deep end of improvisation came with the familiar opening bass gurgle of “Down With Disease.” Phish has been stretching this jubilantly constructed song in different ways for much of their history, and the Bonnaroo version was appropriately exploratory. Fishman’s gliding rhythm propelled the other band members well into a spirited jam that crossed boundaries between psychedelic rock, funk, and inspired improvisation.

“Down With Disease” reached such heights that the subsequent “Alaska” and it’s sing-songy vocals seemed quaint, and it was an obvious break from the madness for the band. They quickly offered up more adventurous playing with “Stash,” however. “Stash” has a tendency to get very dark these days, and this version took a similar direction. It was about this time that I began to prepare for my move to This Tent for Public Enemy’s set. As I made my way to the outskirts of the crowd the unconvinced among us could be seen vacating the field in large numbers, with the noisy, foreboding “Stash” jam as their exit music.

The band settled into familiar territory, following a standard “Golgi Apparatus” with a muscular, grooving “Wolfman’s Brother” and the bluegrass rave-up of “Poor Heart.” The new song “Kill Devil Falls” received an unexpectedly lengthy treatment, and the song’s second life as a jam vehicle suits it well. This version featured a jam very similar to the one that materializes in “Birds of a Feather.” I lingered as long as I could, taking in the chaotic, ever-changing jam before splitting to catch some of Public Enemy.

There were plenty of bands at Bonnaroo that I have been listening to for decades, and the chance to see Public Enemy could not be passed up. Their 1988 album It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back kick-started my musical evolution and interest, and I had heard that the band had recently been performing the masterpiece in its entirety. Much to my delight, I came into audio range during the ferocious “She Watch Channel Zero,” and I knew it was happening.

Flavor Flav and Chuck DThe next 30 minutes were like a religious experience, and I bowed in the presence of legendary songs like “Night of the Living Baseheads,” “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” and “Rebel Without a Pause.” Just seeing the giant PE crosshair logo with Flavor Flav doing his court jester thing while Chuck D piled his aggressive wisdom on top was unforgettable. After Nation of Millions was done, the rest of the show was equally amazing, with selections like “911 is a Joke,” “Shut ‘em Down” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” completing a set that was a rich in hip-hop history as any in Bonnaroo’s backlog.

I got back within earshot of Phish just as they were finishing up a spiraling “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” only to find out that I had missed a bustout cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” during my visit with Public Enemy. I did, however, witness one of the most spontaneous moments since Phish’s return – an indulgent “You Enjoy Myself” with a funk jam section that sneakily gave way to “Wilson” before returning to the ending portion of “You Enjoy Myself.” It was an increasingly rare glimpse into the musical madness that Phish is truly capable of and trying to revisit.

The Beatles’ “A Day In the Life” has been a utilitarian encore for the band so far in 2009, but the Bonnaroo version felt especially appropriate. McConnell and Anastasio may as well have been speaking directly to the Phish newcomers when they sang “I’d love to turn you on.” The first Phish show in Bonnaroo history stands as one of the most focused, well-performed sets I have seen them play since the year 2000. With a little Paul Oakenfold trance overload in the background, we called it a night, and Bonnaroo was already halfway done.

SATURDAY JUNE 13

Few Saturdays at Bonnaroo have begun as auspiciously as this one. When Jimmy Buffett plays a (slightly unannounced) set of hits at lunchtime and the music doesn’t stop until 4 AM, you know it’s going to be an eventful day. By the time Nine Inch Nails ended at 3 AM on Sunday morning, I had missed Elvis Perkins‘ band sitting in with Bon Iver, Jon Fishman Sitting in with Del McCoury Band, and a full-fledged Jimmy Buffet show – and that was just Saturday’s pre-dinner happenings, and beyond that, only the ones I eventually heard about.

I did not give in to the lure of circling the site, because I had a plan. Four bands that I love but had never seen were playing in succession – Wilco, Russian Circles, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and Nine Inch Nails. I devoted my day to seeing and/or hearing as much of their performances as possible. But first, Gov’t Mule was playing the Which Stage.

Gov't Mule and Grace PotterThe Mule have phoned in their share of festival sets over the years, and when their Bonnaroo slot was over, many considered this show to be yet another in a long line of paint-by-numbers showcase sets. While it wasn’t full of the band’s most overwhelming work, it was a fun, perfectly played set that featured a litany of cover songs. Radiohead’s “Creep,” The Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen,” The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” U2′s “One,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years” and Neil Young’s “Southern Man” all showed up over the course of the 90-minute set.

“Southern Man” even featured Grace Potter on vocals, the latest episode of many Mule/Potter collaborations. It wasn’t all covers, however. The Mule managed to slip some of their best songs into the setlist, most notably the hemp-friendly anthem “Don’t Step On the Grass, Sam” and the always-welcome “Banks of the Deep End.”

What Stage CrowdWilco on the What Stage sounded nice and moody for a cool, gorgeous evening. This was my first time seeing them, and I am now hooked. Everything about the show was just perfect, and the band blended loud moments with introspective ones, making this set one of the highlights of my weekend. I especially enjoyed hearing some of the band’s touchstone songs during my first show. Tunes like “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “Handshake Drugs,” “Jesus Etc.,” “California Stars,” and “Impossible Germany” guided my experience while I absorbed their deeper material, and I thought the opening combo of “Wilco (The Song)” and the underground anthem “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” was an exhilarating way to start the show.

There’s just something so inoffensive and likable about Wilco’s sound, and I can’t believe I’ve been just a casual fan for so long. The divergent dynamics of songs like “Bull Black Nova” and “You Are My Face,” when witnessed back-to-back, are enough to turn anyone into a fan. Jeff Tweedy’s rich songs, stage presence and effortless performance style have secured him as an icon, and I now understand why. Coupled with Nels Cline’s elegantly explosive guitar and the emotive range of the rhythm section, Tweedy and Wilco make a truly superb live act.

After Wilco, I headed in the opposite direction – both physically and musically. I was overjoyed to finally see Russian Circles, a Chicago instrumental rock trio that mixes headbanging moments of metal with pastoral ambiance, prog-rock hi jinks, and road-ready rhythmic grooves. As I suspected, there was a large group of people at the Troo Music Lounge looking for anything to keep them occupied as the festival-at-large geared up for Springsteen. The mysterious band did not disappoint, pummeling the audience with thundering riffs and blistering guitar work. Russian Circles’ show was entirely too short, and judging from the crowd reaction, this best-kept Bonnaroo secret probably won’t be under the radar for much longer.

I was ready for Nine Inch Nails right then and there, but there was the little matter of an uncontested headliner to deal with. While I love Bruce Springsteen‘s music, there’s an inevitability to his shows that made me apprehensive about my first time seeing him live. I knew there would be constant egging on of the crowd, many trips by Bruce down the center-stage walkway, and a barrage of hits to end the thing. What I wasn’t expecting was for the journey to be so arduous.

Bruce SpringsteenFull disclosure: I am not a fan of Springsteen’s latest album Working on a Dream, and this show – while it featured all the energy and histrionics that people have come to expect from Bruce – was lined too heavily with songs from the album. The show reminded me a bit of Tom Petty’s set in 2006, in which the band kicks ass, the material is classic, and there’s a legend on stage, but the effect is less than I’d hoped for. It was an uneven venture, because for every classic cut like “Promised Land” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” there was a forgettable new song like “Outlaw Pete” or “Working On A Dream.” I’ll remember this three-hour show for the hour’s worth of timeless music that was made during songs like “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Rosalita,” and for the fact that The Boss is The Boss.

When Bruce was over, it hit me like a ton of bricks that there was only one day of Bonnaroo to go. With that in mind, I went to see another band for the first time, also knowing that it would be my last. Trent Reznor announced a while back that Nine Inch Nails would be put to rest very soon, so I’m not sure why his announcement that Bonnaroo would be the band’s last U.S. show was received as such a bombshell.

The band’s stage setup was as sparse as their previous tour’s was huge, and the smaller scope allowed for a better dynamic between the band members. The gigantic production of the last NIN tour would have been a sight to behold, but there was something primal about the relatively modest light show that added a menacing edge to each song. It was a show full of churning, oddly danceable industrialized electro-metal that started with frightening intensity through well-known songs like “Terrible Lie,” “March of the Pigs,” and “Piggy,” along with the wickedly rhythmic “Discipline.”

Nine Inch NailsThe band ebbed and flowed with the requirements of each song. The were delightfully nasty on ragers like “Burn,” maddeningly machine-like on the sludgy “Reptile,” and unsettlingly creepy for twisted tracks like their raw cover of Gary Numan’s “Metal.” The first hour of the show saw a fantastic setlist progression through animalistic favorites like “The Becoming,” the suitable-for-Flag-Day “I’m Afraid of Americans,” and “Gave Up.” Visually, digitized colors made staunch electronic patterns through a blast of white light and smoke, lending a chaotically computerized visual feel to the proceedings.

The show changed moods dramatically after “Gave Up,” and many onlookers began to make for the campground. It was getting late, and Saturday had been huge, but I wasn’t about to “give up” on this show. There was a transitional period in the performance that included the cinematic, piano-centric “La Mer,” the slow-burning “The Fragile,” the plodding “Banged and Blown Through,” and the droning “Non-Entity.” “I don’t know about this starting at 1 o’clock in the morning shit” quipped Reznor during the lull, which continued with the gentle piano oddity “Gone, Still.” Apparently even industrial music icons tire of the wee hours after they’ve passed their 40th birthday.

The spine-shaking first strains of “Mr. Self Destruct” finally snapped the band and audience out of their daze, and the stretch run of the show was a hell of a way for Reznor to leave U.S. soil. The band left behind a flaming crater of a show that will forever be remembered by those in attendance and NIN fans across the country. “Survivalism” started a torrent of torrid tunes that carried some of the band’s biggest hits – “Head Like A Hole,” “The Hand That Feeds,” “Hurt,” and “Wish” among them. Nine Inch Nails was a big-bang style ending to a day that saw its share of monumental events.

SUNDAY JUNE 14

Sunday tends to be a day of winding down at Bonnaroo, and the scheduling is usually geared toward that. But this year’s final day was probably the most impressive out of the 5 times I have attended, with multiple stages that had to be visited. A Phish nightcap followed a day of incredibly diverse music that thoroughly covered the stylistic spectrum.

I started slowly with just a taste of Robert Earl Keen at This Tent before I headed to one of my most anticipated shows of the year - Okkervil River. The Austin-based band, fronted by the charismatic Will Sheff, performed the final set of the weekend at The Other Tent, and the show quickly rose into my top 5 moments of the festival. Sheff’s wry, well-read lyrics came across in the live setting better than I could have imagined, and the band was dialed in to a comfortable spot between polished and rollicking.

Okkervil RiverThe song selection couldn’t have been better, and the band gave the audience of mostly new fans a large dose of songs from their critically-acclaimed albums The Stage Names and The Stand Ins. “John Allyn Smith Sails,” with its boisterous traditional ending, proved to be a crowd favorite, and I was overjoyed to hear lots of my personal favorites, such as the lush ballad “A Girl In Port” and the lyrically engaging “Plus Ones.” There were also older treats for those in the know, like the sing-along anthem “A Stone” and the relative oldie “Westfall.”

It’s a crime that Okkervil River aren’t better known in the music world, but shows like this one will change that trend. Their stimulating lyrics and friendly music have enough unique elements that fans of folk, indie rock, and great American music won’t be able to ignore them for long. They have an appeal much like Wilco and The Hold Steady in that their sound is accessible enough for casual listeners yet markedly weird enough to attract hardcore music fans.

After Okkervil’s emotionally triumphant set, darkness fell over my pizza. I always manage to catch at least a little metal at Bonnaroo, having been transfixed by The Sword’s performance last year, so I had a snack in range of Shadows Fall playing at That Tent. Their sound was pretty much what I’d expected – throttling metal riffs, cathartic moments of distorted release, and thundering drums and bass. The stage security guards got an unexpected Sunday afternoon workout after the band challenged the modestly-sized crowd to “set a Bonnaroo record for crowd surfing.” I bemusedly watched some of this lunacy before moving again, this time to see Merle Haggard.

By the time I arrived, Merle and his seasoned band – including sax and violin along with the normal live band formation – were well into a set jammed with classic material. I felt “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” was an appropriate way to be greeted, however, given how much of my time spent at Bonnaroo was at night. The final 30 minutes of the show was pure American Flag Day country gold, with the geographically appropriate “Jackson, TN” and the tongue-in-cheek “Rainbow Stew,” which simply had to be played at Bonnaroo:

When they find out how to burn water,
And the gasoline car is gone.
When an airplane flies without any fuel,
And the satellite heats our home.
One of these days when the air clears up,
And the sun comes shinin’ through.
We’ll all be drinkin’ free bubble-ubb,
An’ eatin’ that rainbow stew.

Merle HaggardThe climactic moment of the show included a nonstop run through three of Haggard’s most representative songs: “Fightin’ Side Of Me,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “Okie From Muskogee.” The crowd joyfully sung along to the unforgettable “Okie” lyrics, and Haggard exited the stage like the legend he is, to the accompaniment of a galloping country groove and steel guitar.

If Okkervil River, Shadows Fall, and Merle Haggard stood as an unlikely sequence, it was taken to another level when I made my way to the What Stage for Snoop Dogg. It was probably one of the ten least musically sophisticated shows at the festival this year, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable times I have ever had in that field. Everyone was smiling as Snoop breezily worked and lurked his way through mega-hits from all eras of his career.

We came into earshot as Snoop and Kurupt were weaving the delightfully nasty tale of “Ain’t No Fun,” and it wasn’t long after the song’s end before Snoop was calling out to the ladies. If it hadn’t been Snoop, I might have groaned, but I just flat-out enjoy listening to the guy talk. He’s one of the most distinctive hip-hop voices of my lifetime.

Other highlights of my time with Snoop included the recent track “Sensual Seduction” and an indulgent, unforgettable version of Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di.” “La Di Da Di” was, of course, done in Snoop’s own style as heard on the Doggystle album. But at Bonnaroo the female vocals were provided by none other than Erykah Badu, who had performed earlier in the day and hung around for Snoop. While there was a bigger burst of star power still to come on this Sunday evening, Erykah and Snoop together served as a huge moment of the weekend and will likely go down as a landmark moment in Bonnaroo history.

Snoop Dogg with Special Guest Erykah Badu, “Lodi Dodi” Live at Bonnaroo 2009 from Paul Farber on Vimeo.

I must disclose that I had forgotten about “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” but was absolutely floored by the song’s sublime beats and crowd-controlling ability at this show. Snoop closed out the set with his biggest hit ever, “What’s My Name,” and I had witnessed another once-in-a-lifetime show. This show was probably the pleasant surprise of my weekend, as I underestimated the subliminal mating call of the music’s intoxicating beats.

The final music of the weekend drew near as I caught three Band of Horses songs during a brief walk. “Is There A Ghost” and “The Great Salt Lake” were two of the songs, and I was floored by how similar the band still sounds and that they’re still plugging along with the same songs. I’d say its time for another Band of Horses album to help refresh their catalog and breathe some new life into their shows.

Sunday night has always had an interesting effect on the final headliner. Most people who aren’t fans of that particular band start packing up and leaving during the evening, and left in the massive main field during the climactic show are the band’s true fans. Thus, the Sunday night Phish show had a much more casual, lighthearted atmosphere than Friday’s frenetic rock fest. Still, it was the most exciting closing show since Trey Anastasio’s Band pulled the curtain down in 2002.

“Still here, huh?” Anastasio asked of the crowd before the band got the show on the road with the funky first chords of “AC/DC Bag.” The tick-tocking “Bag” jam ushered in an effervescent setlist that was not at all daring but full of fine playing. Danceable, mass-appeal material like “NICU” and the lyrically vapid “Gotta Jibboo” set the tone for a free-spirited first set that showcased a band with no pressure on their shoulders.

Glowstick Phish LogoIt was clear that they weren’t going to go out of their way to try and end this thing in epic fashion, and they kept the relaxed, party-time theme intact all night. “Phish 3.0,” as the fans have dubbed this new phase of the band’s career, tend to keep things much simpler. There was never any threat of super-rare material, newbie-confusing narrations or hyperextended improvisations on this night. In fact, most of the first set was Phish in cruise control, with the ecstatic “Sparkle” followed by a mildly bubbly “Bathtub Gin” and the all-too-common rocker “Character Zero.”

“Tweezer,” one of the band’s most porous jam vehicles, also fits the mold of such a set. It’s extremely light on meaning and heavy on the funk factor. Only when the spacious “Tweezer” jam melted into a gorgeous rendition of “The Horse” – accompanied by its lifelong partner song “Silent in the Morning” – did the show take on any note of emotion other than “hooray.” “Hooray” hardly does the rest of the first set justice, though.

After a skyrocketing version of “Run Like an Antelope,” Anastasio giddily introduced his “boyhood idol,” and welcomed Bruce Springsteen to the stage. For a band that has experienced a little bit of everything when it comes to hosting guests onstage, this was without a doubt a highlight for all involved, including the fans. The audience was going insane before the band had even begun “Mustang Sally,” which was a huge bustout for Phish, having not been performed live since June of 1988. Springsteen is, of course, and old hand at classics like “Mustang Sally,” and he wrung the vocals out with feverish howling and growling. He and Anastasio also faced off on guitar, egging each other on with solos that gained momentum as the jams wound along.

The way Anastasio was grinning, you’d think he was responsible for the next song choice, “Bobby Jean,” a real keeper from the Born In the USA album. I’m no Boss expert, but this performance seemed to be particularly inspired, and it stands as one of the finest of the weekend. The song’s chord progression was right in Anastasio’s wheelhouse, and he homered with a wonderful solo. After the magnificent “Bobby Jean,” I just knew they were going to break out a rollicking set closer, and they obliged with “Glory Days.” Before he knew it, Springsteen found himself in the middle of a Phish jam that threatened to spin out of control, making for the best version of “Glory Days” I have ever heard.

Trey Anastasio and Bruce SpringsteenAs different as the fan bases of Phish and Bruce Springsteen are from one another, they are similar in regard to the level of their devotion and obsession with the music. For Phish fans, and maybe the band themselves, the performance of “Glory Days” was more than just a star-studded moment at a star-studded festival. Phish, like Bruce, embody a DIY ethic and relentless dedication to their craft and have most likely seen their best days already. The chorus of “Glory Days” felt and sounded like they meant every word, and for the youth-challenged in attendance, the moment held deep meaning.

After that monumental occasion, what better way to start the second set than with a song that expresses awe at the power of rock and roll? Since they first performed it at their Halloween show in 1998, Phish has taken The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” to fantastic heights and jaw-dropping lengths. The Bonnaroo version was relatively concise but still reached for deep space, winding up in a spiraling ambient jam that segued into the new song “Light.” “Light” pierced the darkness of the “Rock and Roll” improvisation and the band quickly got back to business, making the rest of the set a rollercoaster ride of emotion and sound. Regrettably, a large portion of the ride was spent in the valley instead of climbing the peaks.

The restless “Light” jam was somewhat enjoyable but fairly standard practice for Phish, and the subsequent song selections left much to be desired. “Light” gradually reached a “blank canvas” state that could have borne any number of songs, and just as I was starting to enjoy the direction of the jam, the band wiggled into “46 Days.” It’s not a favorite of mine, but “46 Days” did have brevity and a rather interesting jam section where Anastasio reached for the sky and McConnell followed along in support on piano.

The lyrically-obtuse but obviously joyous “Limb By Limb” was next, and the set had taken a bit of a turn for the mundane. A slow-moving duo of “Farmhouse” and “Backwards Down the Number Line” was followed by another sit-down song, “Prince Caspian.” Phish frequently swims into show-closing holes such as this, but they changed gears and quickly ended the show with three exclamation points in the form of the juiced-up instrumental “First Tube,” a ferociously funky “Suzy Greenberg,” and the requisite show-stopper “Tweezer Reprise.”

Like most Phish shows, the two Bonnaroo performances were incredibly different. Friday night was all about keeping the energy up for three hours with explosive songs and intense playing. Sunday was a standard show with a very legendary 20-minute segment and some literal and figurative fireworks at the end to send everyone home with a bang.

MONDAY JUNE 15

I wanted to go back for more. But even Bonnaroo isn’t immune to the wrath of Monday. I’ll tell you straight up – after four days of nonstop enjoyment, Monday flat-out sucked. I can’t believe how quickly those four days went by. They hardly seem like enough time to contain all of the music I saw and all of the fine times I had on the farm.

After years of growing, and all of the subtle and intense pains that come with it, Bonnaroo has reached a point where it can be molded and perfected. 2009 was the most user-friendly and well-run Bonnaroo yet, and they’ve found a way to cram more top-notch music into a weekend that was already bursting at the seams with sound (well-done sound at that – only a couple of the shows I saw had any sound problems). It’s nearly unimaginable that the festival could get any more extravagant and pleasurable, but I believe Bonnaroo can do it and I’ll be chomping at the bit to experience it.

Words by B. Rodgers

PHOTO CREDITS: Okkervil River,  Bonnaroo Fountain, Hockey, Pollock prints, and TV on the Radio by B. Rodgers. Glowing Phish Logo and Flavor Flav and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog by Esther Rodgers. FlavorFlav/Chuck D by Jason Kaczorowski. All others courtesy Big Hassle/Bonnaroo: What Stage Crowd, Phish, and Trey Anastasio and Bruce Springsteen by Jeff Kravitz. Bruce Springsteen by C. Taylor Crothers. Nine Inch Nails by Michael Loccisano. Merle Haggard by Jason Merritt. Gov’t Mule and Grace Potter by Unknown.

-Check out more of Jason K’s Bonnaroo photos here.

-One of the coolest things I have ever seen – 2500 rapid-fire photos create a fantastic collage of the whole weekend:

-Check out Large Hearted Boy’s constantly updated list of Bonnaroo downloads. I recommend Phish, Wilco, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Gov’t Mule, Beastie Boys, and David Byrne.

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2 thoughts on “Live Review: Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, June 11 – 14, 2009

  1. Pingback: News Fragments: End of the Road Festival, Poorly Planned Stevie Wonder Show, Trent Reznor Eats My Soul « The Wounded Messenger

  2. Pingback: Wounded Messenger’s Best of 2009 Week Begins! « The Wounded Messenger

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