With the 8th Bonnaroo Music Festival on the horizon, I thought it would be interesting to gather my personal 10 best moments from my experiences at the festival. I have only attended 4 of the 7 iterations of the event (2002 and 2006 – 2008), but I have a lifetime of memories to show for it. Plus, i missed all the rainy years! Here are the ten musical moments that define the festival for me, in no particular order, and based not on performance alone, but a coalescence of many factors which are hopefully explained within. I’ve even provided links to the shows when possible so you can hear them for yourself! You may have to register to view some of the sites.
Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade (2002) – Les Claypool and his band, featuring Skerik on sax, were the first band to grace the main stage (it didn’t have a name at the time) at the first Bonnaroo. At this show, Claypool – having found new popularity among music lovers of the jam ilk in 2002 – first invoked the now-familiar howl heard millions of times since – “Bonnaroooooo!” The excitement of having all of these bands and all of these people in the same spot at once was tangible as fans marveled at the hugeness of the venue. Little did they know that every inch of that seemingly endless space would be needed in the coming years.
Umphrey’s McGee (2002) – Performing in front of their largest audience up to that point, Umphrey’s McGee simply sizzled on this relentlessly hot day. With only one small southern tour under their belts at the time, the 2002 ‘roo show served as a de-flowering for over 10,000 fans who got their first look at a band that has now risen to the top of the live music scene in America. The handful of longtime fans present found themselves frequently overwhelmed with emotion throughout the show, overcome with joy for the band. The memories of the deafening cheers and palpable energy of thousands of people having a group realization still send shivers down my spine to this day.
Trey Anastasio Band (2002) – 20 months after Phish went on hiatus, a sizable portion of their legion of fans gathered underneath a full moon for this cathartic, hotly anticipated show. While the much-rumored Phish reunion never happened, that didn’t dull the impact of this searing, exploratory show. For those few hours on a Sunday night in June, after one of the most important weekends of music in modern music history, everything was right with the world. This show was an extended finale of fireworks that capped off the inaugural version of an event that would soon become legendary.
Radiohead (2006) – While the festival grew exponentially in size and genre between the jam-tastic 2002 event and 2005’s smorgasbord of styles, no single show signaled the changing tide of Bonnaroo like Radiohead’s 2006 visit. This was one of the first headlining shows that proved divisive among the audience. Hard-hitting headliners like Tool, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, and Pearl Jam might be commonplace now, but in 2006, this show was a huge deal, and it ushered in a completely new era for the event. Compounding the schism was Radiohead’s lengthy, indulgent, often mellow set, which delighted some and sent others racing for the exits.
My Morning Jacket (2006) – Like some sort of scruffy, reverb-drenched Energizer bunny, My Morning Jacket just kept going and going during their first late-night Bonnaroo performance. The two-year stretch of 2005 and 2006 proved to be a huge turning point for the band, and this exhaustive set was the fulcrum that helped them leap into superstardom. Since this performance, they have headlined Madison Square Garden and hosted another late-night smorgasbord at Bonnaroo in 2008.
The Police (2007) – This was the most people I have ever seen in one spot. I have never seen the main field so full, and I doubt I ever will again. While one can argue the merits of the performance itself, there’s no denying that The Police were the most anticipated Bonnaroo performance up to that point. Tens of thousands of people, most of whom will count the show as their first and last Police show, gathered before the trio like worshipers at the altar of rock.
Ghostland Observatory (2008)- While tens of thousands of attendees waited at the main stage for a Kanye West performance that eventually became infamous, a couple thousand lucky folks witnessed the audiovisual spectacle of Ghostland Observatory. This was one of the most intimate tent shows ever held at the festival, and it had the feel of a genuine late-night party. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them invited again in 2009, because an awful lot of people who would have loved Ghostland Observatory missed out on their hyper-technicolor performance while waiting for Kanye.
Metallica (2008)- I had been waiting my whole life for this show, or at least it seemed like it. I was too young to go to a Metallica show when they were at their peak (1988), and had lost interest by the time I was 16. After years of nostalgic listening, I was amazed to see their name pop up on Bonnaroo’s lineup, and this show delivered everything I could have wanted. Metallica’s inclusion as headliner has also been blamed for sluggish ticket sales among the Bonnaroo faithful in 2008, making it another galvanizing moment in the festivals history.
The Sword (2008)- Bonnaroo is all about unexpected personal epiphanies, and so far there’s been no bigger one for me than The Sword’s set on Thursday night in 2008. Caught in limbo with nothing concrete to do, I wandered around the grounds a bit and came upon some of the most ungodly sounds I have ever heard. I am very picky about what metal I listen to, and was incredibly surprised to find myself sucked in to The Sword’s churning sound. Before I knew it, I was moving closer and closer, reveling in the chaotic abandon of their blistering, wholly unpretentious headbanging sound.
Phish (2009) – The show hasn’t even happened yet, but the inclusion of Phish on the 2009 lineup is already one of the most noteworthy moments in the event’s considerable history. For one thing, the inaugural festival was conceived and constructed around their fans’ ravenous appetite for live music and gathering, and all four members have performed at the festival with separate musical incarnations. Also, while it isn’t a bonafide Phish festival in the vein of IT or Lemonwheel, there’s little doubt that Bonnaroo 2009 is going to be Phish’s weekend.
I’m continuing my ever-expanding coverage of the festival this year with live text and photo updates on this blog and at facebook.com, along with my normal 5000-or-so-word review! See you on the farm!