Maybe it’s the lush greenery and relaxed atmosphere. Or maybe it’s the insane collaborations (Phish and Bruce Springsteen, The Beastie Boys and Nas, Jenny Lewis and Elvis Costello, The Dirty Projectors and David Byrne) and late night sets (both Girl Talk and mgmt played past 4 a.m.).
Whatever “it” is, Bonnaroo’s got it.
For the past eight years, tens of thousands of music enthusiasts have flocked to a 700-acre farm in middle-of-nowhere Manchester, Tenn. to brave summertime heat, fight through massive crowds and endure seemingly endless days.
And what for?
Bonnaroo is known for its once-in-a-lifetime moments — Saturday night headliners Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in 80-degree weather while Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor announced that it would be his last time performing in the U.S. with his band.
Newsworthy (or should I say blogworthy) occasions may dominate the headlines, but the festival is also chock-full of subtle, personal occurrences.
These fleeting memories are what I’ll remember Bonnaroo 2009 by: A kneepad-wearing Asian cameraman getting hit in the head with a soapy bubble floating from the crowd. The rooster-like neck motion David Byrne made backstage through the entirety of TV on the Radio’s set. A glossy-eyed girl looking through me saying “This is the first time I’ve ever been on ecstasy.” Waking up to the sounds of Jimmy Buffet’s surprise appearance as “Margaritaville” traveled from the mainstage to the campground. Singing “Happy Birthday” with 500 of my new best friends while sitting on the sandy ground and then celebrating with them during the mind-blowing dance marathon that was Phoenix, Crystal Castles and Girl Talk.
But enough nostalgia for now. There are 107 acts to be discussed (or at least the small fraction of those that I saw).
Animal Collective kicked off Friday afternoon in an unnecessarily early time slot, which prevented its standard otherworldly light show. Still, the bombastic beats pulsating in an open-air environment made for an interesting adventure — that is, if your eardrums didn’t get blown out. It would have been naïve to not think of permanent hearing loss as a possible end result. Throughout the set, it felt like someone kept stepping on my shoe. Turns out the booming subwoofers were the culprit of the assault on my flimsy Pumas.
As a giant, blow-up eyeball was placed amid a sequenced backdrop and confetti machines in preparation for New York rockers Yeah Yeah Yeahs, one thing was certain: Despite the venue, Karen O and Co. were not messing around. O’s colorful costume and equally vibrant stage presence conveyed contagious energy culminating in a sing-a-long of “Maps,” YYY’s most popular song. The tune was played in stripped-down acoustic style because guitarist Nick Zinner’s electric was out of tune. Missing out on his signature solo didn’t make Mr. Zinner a very happy camper, and after their final song, he smashed the living daylights out of his instrument. “We usually don’t break shit after a show, but what the hell,” O said, beaming as she joined in on the fun, striking her microphone onto Zinner’s already obliterated guitar.
Known for taking risks with their music, TV on the Radio took a chance by making mid-tempo ballad “Love Dog” their first offering, sharply contrasting YYY’s utter insanity. But the move was not a mistake, as a tactfully crafted collection of songs crescendoed its way into back-to-back flawless renditions of “Shout Me Out” and “Dancing Choose.”
Friday night had a lot at stake: Phoenix and Girl Talk, the blogosphere’s band-of-the-moment and live-act-of-the-moment, were both given timeslots after nightfall. Instead of another buzz band falling short of the hype, Phoenix proved itself as a band coming into its own by pounding out synth-induced pop tunes so infectious I thought I’d caught a cold.
Mash-up master Girl Talk claims he’s “not a DJ.” This statement is false. He is a DJ, and quite possibly the best one the world has ever seen. The man behind the laptop pumped out a playlist for what seemed like a never-ending party.
Up-and-coming folk singer Joe Pug kicked off Saturday by channeling ’64 Dylan with a harmonica-laden set touching on topics ranging from religion to politics to the meaning of life. Beads of sweat dripped onto Pug’s acoustic and his intensity grew as he was forced to compete with the sonic domination of a nearby mainstage.
From one singer-songwriter to another, Justin Vernon (a.k.a. Bon Iver) attracted a curiously large crowd, considering his contained melodies and delicate harmonies. It’s amazing what a few months in the backwoods of Wisconsin and a thirteen-song catalogue can do for you. Performing with a full band (including a four-piece wind section for a Yo La Tengo cover) allowed for many spine-chilling moments, including a commanding performance of “The Wolves (Act I and II),” especially when the audience participated in the “What might have been lost” portion of the tune. The tent was busting at its seams.
Drew Barrymore and Justin Long (the “I’m a Mac” guy) were on hand for Of Montreal’s over-the-top stage show consisting of flamboyant fashions, ridiculous props and side-story antics. Leadsinger Kevin Barnes’s fusion of David Bowie’s style and Prince’s attitude was endlessly endearing, and spontaneous crowd surfing from guitarist Bryan Poole kept an already alive crowd on their toes.
A stunning sunset ushered in the Tennessee twilight — the perfect backdrop for a Wilco performance. Although the band has built a reputation on being one of the best live acts around, they were merely setting the stage for The Boss himself.
So much has been said and written about Springsteen and the legendary E Street Band that it’s hard to anticipate their live show without the highest expectations imaginable. Three hours and 28 songs later, I was overwhelmingly won over — it was everything I expected and more. Springsteen’s uncompromising endurance and the E Street Band’s impeccable precision and expert efficiency in performing timeless classics (with some rarities, newer offerings and cover songs sprinkled in) is unmatched in modern music.
As the crowd dispersed after the mammoth set, I found myself thinking about the purpose of live music in the first place. It’s meant to bring people together who share a similar understanding of what is happening on stage and through the speakers. If this is what Bonnaroo set out to achieve — to help music lovers, no matter what their genre of choice is, collectively share in a common experience — than it undoubtedly succeeded.