Bonnaroo X | 6.2011

It may take some hard work, but at some point over the weekend there is a defining moment for everyone.



Bonnaroo’s Dapper Entrance

As a journalist, some situations require a certain level of integration with the rest of the world to get a true sense of the event. There is also however a fine line to draw between trying to be Hunter S. Thompson and actually completing the assignment you were scheduled. Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is one of those events, some of this review is personal, but I shall do my best to stick to the review of this four day gathering of 80,000 music fans on a farm in Manchester, Tennessee. 

Bonnaroo kicked off with a new type of bang in it’s 10th edition, opening gates on Wednesday night, allowing many more to be in the festival and ready to go in full swing by the time bands started Thursday afternoon. Bands, such as River City Extension or the Futurebirds, which may have in past years had a crowd of only a few hundred now came out to the stage in front of several thousand.
Karen Elson, soon to be ex-wife of Jack White, brought out her set of dark, country-tinged tunes that White seems to bring out of  every female singer he comes near, including other Bonnaroo artists, Loretta Lynn, and Wanda Jackson. Thursday would be full of up-and-coming acts, some already pop culture darlings, Sleigh Bells, Twin Shadow, Best Coast, Wavves, J. Cole, and Childish Gambino.
A full schedule would await festival goers Friday morning, starting at 12:15, though they were all mostly awake and ready for bands to start playing at 8:00 a.m. due to the intense sunshine beating down upon their tents. Midday trips to the comedy tent are an essential part of making it through 16 hours of music, and nothing could have fit the Bonnaroo mood better than a set by popular culture icon Cheech Marin. Marin was joined by Ralphie May, SNL cast member Jay Pharoah, and Comedy Central’s Workaholics, all would get huge laughs, though some of Marin’s seemed aimed at an older crowd that simply wasn’t in attendance, the crowd laughed regardless.
Friday was packed with female lead singers that kicked off with a stellar set by Jessica Lea Mayfield supporting her new album Tell Me. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals took on Florence & the Machine in a battle of rising female stars with both delivering jaw dropping sets that showed off their incredible singing abilities, as well as the power of a good band backing you. Ray Lamontagne on the other hand took to the Which Stage and delivered quite the opposite volume wise but showed the same amount of soul and passion nonetheless. 
Ray Lamontagne – Which Stage
As Friday’s headliners and late-night acts kicked off, the sold out crowd could not have had a better band to start it than My Morning Jacket. Known for their legendary live skills, and past Bonnaroo performances, the band seemed almost surprised at the amount of people that showed up for their set, or as lead-singer Jim James called it,  the “ocean of humanity”.
Does Les Claypool have a home? Between touring behind his many solo projects, and Primus, it seems there is hardly a time he is not on the road. With a new Primus album coming in just a few months it seems unlikely to slow down. The band used the crowd as (as Claypool called them), “guinea pigs” and tested several new tunes off the album, all of which went over swimmingly, mostly due to the gems of older tracks like, “Over the Falls”, “Tommy the Cat”, and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver”. 
Primus – Which Stage
While many took in Arcade Fire, many others (myself included) relaxed on the abandoned grounds that would soon be teeming with life once late-night acts, Big Boi, Lil Wayne, Bassnectar, and Pretty Lights debuting his new stage setup got started. Big Boi brought out a set filled with Outkast songs that got the crowd singing and dancing along with his on stage dancers, while Lil Wayne drew a huge crowd, but ultimately failed to impress.
With Friday in the books a feeling of urgency to do as much as possible set in as only two days remained. Donald Glover and British comic Bill Bailey led the comedy tent, with Bailey showing off his musical abilities with an all bike horn version of Gary Numan’s “Car” while Glover showed enthusiasm for being at his first Bonnaroo, and stories of Reggie Bush stealing his sunglasses in New Orleans. 
Possibly the largest crowd to ever attend a show at the Which Stage showed up for Mumford & Sons, with an estimated 45,000 in attendance. The group did not disappoint, promising new songs soon, as well as Jerry Douglas joining them for a set-closing rendition of “Amazing Grace”. The Black Keys shortly followed on the What Stage with a no frills, hour short set which featured the same back drop as last years set in the much smaller That Tent. The groups two added players have become so incredibly efficient that is lead singer Dan Auerbach hadn’t mentioned them you’d think there had simply been backing bass/keyboard tracks.
Mumford & Sons – Which Stage
Reunited Buffalo Springfield played to a crowd, “at least 10 times bigger than we have ever played to as a group.” They also brought out Neil Young’s classic “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World” which the band mentioned is part of a “re-imagining” of what the group could have done had they continued together. Saturday’s headliner was Eminem…meh. In all seriousness the rapper simply brought an emotion to the festival grounds that was simply, not very Bonnaroo. Gunshots, skulls, and songs shortened to a single chorus are just not what the festival that was built on community, peace and improvisation needed.
Luckily, Saturday’s late-night sets would immediately get right back to what it is about. New Orleans legend, Dr. John teamed up with the Original Meters, and Allen Toussaint to perform, Desitively Bonnaroo, which was the inspiration for the festivals name, as you may have guessed. Syria’s biggest dance act, Omar Souleyman, brought a party to the smallest of the main tent’s, The Other Tent. Souleyman may have sang along to the same beat for over half an hour, but no one in the crowd seemed to mind, and responded loudly to his subtle clapping and pacing of the stage.
Sunday’s beautiful weather brought those remaining out early to see G. Love, Mavis Staples, The Head and the Heart, and Smith Westerns. Many begin to depart the fest however, which was seemingly a blessing for those who had stuck around, providing short lines, plenty of dancing space, and a much more laid back experience. 
Sweden’s Robyn brought an afternoon dance party featuring songs off of last year’s Body Talk series of releases. Empowering “Dancing on my Own” and “Don’t F*cking Tell Me What To Do” brought chills despite the heat. Greg Allman got a very different crowd dancing only a few hundred feet away, with Allman Brothers staples like “Melissa”. 
While there were many way’s to end the four day experience, few were once in a lifetime experiences. The renewed Superjam featuring Dr. John and Dan Auerbach playing old New Orleans tunes as well as Dr. John hits was a perfect exit soundtrack. Though the set mostly consisted of fun songs that Auerbach repeatedly told the crowd they had a blast putting together, the highlight undoubtedly came when everyone cleared off the stage allowing the good Doctor to perform “Such a Night”. The song was originally about stealing your best friend’s girl on a beautiful night, but in this situation it took on an entirely new and wonderful feeling.
Dr. John at the Superjam
Another year at Bonnaroo was through, and though several moments throughout the weekend may have seemed a struggle, some moments seemed entirely unworth the whole thing. Those hard moments however in the end helped add to the overwhelming sadness building inside as you head home. This gathering in a small Tennessee city is more than a concert, festival, or vacation, it’s a life-experience. 
It may take some hard work, but at some point over the weekend there is a defining moment for everyone. It might be sky-diver’s dropping lights that seemingly make the sky sparkle during Primus, it could be singing along with Mumford and Sons and 50,000 other music lovers, or it could be walking over to your neighbor who you’ve never met before needing sunscreen and being handed sunscreen and a beer, but that moment will leave you wanting to return every June. | Bruce Matlock



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