Wednesday, June 17, 2009

NYT Times wrap up of Bonnaroo

Soo... it has taken me a full two days to recover from our Bonnaroo weekend. I apologize for my delay in posting. I don't think I'll ever be able to describe in words that festival experience. A recap of the weekend and the amazing bands we saw is in the works, hopefully with some (appropriate) pictures. In the meantime... The New York Times coverage of the weekend...

Generations Mingle at This Year’s Bonnaroo

MANCHESTER, Tenn — There’s nothing hip about the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, where tie-dye is still in fashion and white hair doesn’t disqualify a headliner.

The eighth annual Bonnaroo drew about 75,000 people to 700 acres of farmland here in Manchester, 60 miles from Nashville, for a lineup headlined by a jam band (the reunited Phish, playing three-hour shows on Friday and Sunday), rockers whose careers are measured in decades (Bruce Springsteen, Nine Inch Nails and David Byrne) and rappers who now qualify as old school (the Beastie Boys).

Next Saturday the cable channel Fuse will broadcast excerpts from the festival, which ended Sunday.

At Bonnaroo, sweaty temperatures and muddy ground work against any preening, and while the more than 100 acts this year included their share of first-rate indie bands beloved by bloggers — St. Vincent, Yeasayer, Bon Iver, Of Montreal — they also featured bluegrass, soul, African rock and comedy (including Jimmy Fallon of “Late Night”). The festival depends on the entire mix; it may be the only gathering to include Public Enemy, Merle Haggard, Wilco, Girl Talk and King Sunny Adé in the same weekend.

Bonnaroo also relies on an audience, mostly camping on the grounds for the weekend, that has envisioned a smiley, benevolent version of hippie hedonism four decades after the fact.

Instead of the civil-rights and antiwar furor of the 1960s, Bonnaroo features environmentalism; at the center of the festival, on the way between stages, is a cluster of booths, exhibits and a small solar-powered stage dedicated to ecological activism. (How that squares with the Art of Such n Such, a nightly show of huge, choreographed flames, is unclear.) Among the speakers this year was Robert Kennedy Jr.

Phish, which changed its mind after playing what it said were its final concerts in 2004, had never performed at Bonnaroo as a group, though all its members have appeared in various jam configurations.

Trey Anastasio, the band’s guitarist and main singer and songwriter, announced on Friday night that he was “incredibly happy,” and so was the set: three hours of Phish at its most euphoric and airborne, zooming through elaborately composed songs like “Stash” and “Free” and jamming through roots-rock-flavored older songs, like “Wolfman’s Brother,” and a new one, “Kill Devil Falls.” Riffling through idioms like funk, salsa, country-rock and quasi-classical counterpoint — as well as a jovial version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” — Phish demonstrated the jam-band eclecticism that Bonnaroo has turned into a booking policy.

“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” Mr. Springsteen hollered on Saturday night in “Badlands,” the foundational text for his current tour, which calls for love, faith and hope in hard times. (For an encore, his band harmonized fervently on Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.”)

Playing Bonnaroo, Mr. Springsteen wasn’t facing an arena full of longtime fans singing along on every word, but a younger crowd eager to clap and shout la-la’s, and as usual, he was far more showman than politician. Mr. Springsteen’s three-hour set was sprinkled with tales of economic woe, like the bitter “Youngstown” and a version of “Johnny 99” turned into a full-tilt Chuck Berry-style romp.

But he also took requests, including the out-of-season “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” from a whimsical audience member who had brought a man-size Santa Claus poster. Bonnaroo’s magnificent main-stage sound system revealed details in the E Street Band’s chiming-steamroller arrangements that are lost in arenas, and Mr. Springsteen’s set barreled through nearly an hour of encores that were purposeful and jubilant.

Less than 40 minutes later, Mr. Springsteen’s affirmation gave way to Nine Inch Nails’ animosity and self-laceration. Trent Reznor’s songs place fury, angst and just enough melody at the convergence of disparate kinds of impact: dance beats, electronic jolts, hard-rock guitar and every shade of distortion. The band’s live versions of the songs were stark and strategic, ricocheting among genres from verse to verse; at Bonnaroo, they had people dancing. Desolate, minimal meditations gave way to some final blasts, including one of the unexpected collaborations that are part of Bonnaroo: a hard-rock band, the Dillinger Escape Plan, came onstage to add even more crunch. Partway through the set, Mr. Reznor announced that Bonnaroo would be “our last show ever in the United States,” suggesting that he intended to retire from touring, though not from making music. “I’ll keep going,” he said.

Friday’s lineup was dominated by music from, of all places, New York. It harked back to the 1970s and ’80s with overlapping sets by the Beastie Boys — equally hearty in their early, insolent raps and their more responsible later ones — and by Mr. Byrne, performing songs he wrote with Brian Eno, last year and decades ago, in musically emaciated new arrangements and surrounded by Broadwayish dancers.

The afternoon lineup preceding them was stronger. TV on the Radio leaned on the funk, gospel and hard-rock underpinnings of its art-rock; Dirty Projectors (joined for one song by Mr. Byrne) turned African guitar filigrees, zigzag melodies and pinpoint staccato vocals into cerebral but effervescent songs.

Animal Collective’s songs bubbled up out of primordial electronic noise, creating dizzying layers of samples and voices. Grizzly Bear’s songs were gorgeous, hovering apparitions, with ethereal vocal harmonies facing upheavals of guitar noise. Meanwhile, Al Green was unleashing his falsetto on his 1970s Memphis soul hits; Lucinda Williams was exulting in some of her newer, happier songs; and an entire stage was devoted to African bands — Mr. Adé from Nigeria, Amadou & Mariam and Vieux Farka Touré from Mali — kicking up electrified traditional grooves.

Tradition matters at Bonnaroo: not as something to be kept pure by simple preservation but as an ingredient worth drawing on. On Saturday afternoon the Africans were replaced in the Other Tent — Bonnaroo’s big stages are What, Which, This, That and the Other — by Tennessee pickers with bluegrass roots like the Tony Rice Unit (led by Mr. Rice on guitar), who can play in deeply traditional style or fuse it with jazz and other possibilities.

Allen Toussaint, the New Orleans pianist and songwriter, paid partial tribute to Tennessee — with a boogie-woogie “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” recorded in Memphis by the Louisiana pianist Jerry Lee Lewis — before heading back to New Orleans for a Professor Longhair medley. Raphael Saadiq led a band reminiscent of Motown soul — and for an unexpected bit of Detroit, also belted a protopunk song from Iggy Pop and the Stooges, “Search and Destroy.”

In the jam-band spirit, Bonnaroo spurs collaborations. Mr. Toussaint joined Elvis Costello during what had been billed as a solo set, but ended with Mr. Costello leading a full band and singing with the folk-rock songwriter Jenny Lewis. (He appeared during her set, too.) Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and the MG’s, the Memphis soul studio band, collaborated at Bonnaroo (and on a recent album) with the Drive-By Truckers, fusing soul organ and Southern rock.

Wilco, from Chicago, played one of Bonnaroo’s most extraordinary sets. Many of Jeff Tweedy’s songs, suffused with depression and estrangement, could have been straightforward 1960s and ’70s rock, glancing back at the Beatles and Neil Young. But Wilco doesn’t play them that way. Strange tangents arise midsong — faraway keyboard dissonances, streaking and scrabbling guitar crescendos — and envelop the whole band, only to disappear moments later as if nothing had happened.

Bonnaroo itself is something like that in the context of the music business, where youthful glamour, hip novelty and studio-perfect disposable hits are still the priorities. For four days, Bonnaroo looms out of the Tennessee mud, jamming gleefully, then it vanishes until next year.