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Bonnaroo – Sunday morning.

It’s inevitable.  After a weekend of a constant barrage of music, people start leaving. Some of had enough of the heat, the sleeplessness, the mud or just had enough of having enough. The campsites start clearing out, giving the holdouts a little more elbow room.The crowds and lines at the stages and vendors dissipate a bit and there exists a camaraderie among those who soldier on through the last day to the finish line. Marathon runners describe a runner’s high, when they get to a certain point, and well, we all know that Bonnaroo is not a sprint.

This year, there were many aural rewards for those floating on a Bonnaroovian High Sunday afternoon with the finish line in sight. Country legends, indie rock mavens and hip-hop icons, and oh yeah, that band Phish again all made sticking around worthwhile.  And there was Grace Potter, yet again—strutting her stuff and rocking her newest tunes on the Solar Stage mere hours after she’d commandeered moe.’s late night set.

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In This Tent, there was a cavalcade of country stars starting with the witticism of Todd Snider, who amused the crowd with his song, “America’s Favorite Pastime,” a retelling of the legend of baseball pitcher Dock Ellis, who once pitched a perfect game while tripping on LSD. Later in the same tent, the illustrious Merle Haggard provided ample substantiation of his legendary status.

Over on the Which Stage, Andrew Bird, replete with the best whistling performance in eight years of Bonnaroo, was the highlight in an afternoon full of them. (Wisely, the festival schedulers went a little easy on us by not scheduling any shows until after midday, what with the late-late nights and all.) Band of Horses and Citizen Cope were also among them.

snoop.jpgErykah Badu turned in a bass-heavy, beat-laden, butt-gyrating performance before later joining Snoop Dogg for a trip down hip-hop memory lane a medley that included a take on “Lodi Dodi”  with the refrain “we like to party.” Indeed. Snoop managed to find numerous creative ways for the still-strong crowd to chant his name in just about every song.

Then Phish returned for a festival closing slot, surprising if not everybody then most when Bruce Springsteen joined them to close out their first of two sets.

phish-2-1.jpgTrey Anastasio introduced the Boss by way of calling him a “childhood hero and still a hero” to the New Jersey-bred leader of Phish. Springsteen joined them for a romp through “Mustang Sally,” an old staple that was a part of Phish’s early repertoire like it was for most bands. The statisticians who are part of Phish’s fanatical fiefdom tell us that the last time the band played it was in June of 1988, almost exactly 21 years prior. They then closed with the Bruce tunes “Bobby Jean” and “Glory Days”, which had also been a closing number for the E Street Band the night before.

That ended what was a fun exploratory set, featuring old workhorses like “Bathtub Gin,” “Tweezer” and “Run Like An Antelope.” The Bruce appearance was fun, but seemed to take the wind out of the sails a bit, as the band’s second set developed a light and airy fluffiness, avoiding any more anchoring pieces and focusing on lighter fare like “Prince Caspian” and “Farmhouse.”  The encore of “Suzy Greenberg” and “Tweezer Reprise” seemed a hurried cast off.

phish-2-2.jpgBut, no matter. Even picking apart the setlist is fun again with Phish as they have truly returned to form in every way, and having them close the 2009 Bonnaroo was an appropriate way to end it.

But they were done and then just like that, abracadabra, poof! It was over. Some celebratory high jinks ensued and the next morning some goodbyes and exchanging of information, promising to write, to call, to come back next year. Camp was over.

Of course no one can do it all. I only saw one or two shows at The Other Tent. With 140 bands, I missed more than I took in. There was a Comedy Tent and a Cinema Tent that I never made it to. There was the Ferris wheel and the silent disco and the MLB batting cages and the fire-breathers. I never even made it to the microbrew tent or the learn-to-DJ booth.  

Oh well.

There’s always next year.

Click the thumbnail to open the Bonnaroo 2009 Photo Gallery – photos by Brad Kuntz

Click Next for Saturday’s coverage{mospagebreak}

Saturday

scene1.jpgGuest appearances have always been a mainstay of the Bonnaroo experience. On the DVD from the 2003 edition of the festival Warren Haynes  can be seen being shuttled by frantic stage crew between the What Stage where he was playing with Les Claypool over to the Which Stage where he was deposited just in time to slip on his guitar and begin Gov’t Mule’s set.

There are more than 130 musical acts scheduled to perform over a typical weekend, all cozy and comfy in close confines. Spontaneous and calculated, planned and unplanned…musicians jamming together is a way for them to have a blast and for the audience to enjoy a one of a kind performance. The tradition of the Superjam has fueled this mentality as well.

On a day that began with an unscheduled performance by Jimmy Buffett and closed with a mammoth set by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, the most Bonnarooian moments came during a late night set by Bonnaroo veterans moe.  After a full two hours of mind bending improvisations, the band members one by one yielded the stage to Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, who turned in a mini set of their own before relinquishing the reins back to moe. Potter has been everywhere this weekend, performing two sets with the Nocturnals on Friday, stepping on stage to sing with Gov’t Mule on Saturday, and then twelve hours later commandeering the This Tent for the moe. mini-set.

buffet.jpgThe rumors of Jimmy Buffet’s first Bonnaroo appearance had been making the rounds, and indeed the schedule listed “ILO and the Coral Reefer Allstars,” for a noontime set on the Which Stage. But not until the band took the stage and started working their way through Buffet chestnuts like “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” and “Changes In Latitudes” did the people of Bonnaroo know for certain that they were being transported to Margaritaville.

A particular highlight of the short set was a solo acoustic take on “A Pirate Looks at 40.”  Then, in what was perhaps a nod to jam legends the Grateful Dead, Buffet performed a spot-on rendition of “Scarlet Begonias.” The set effectively served as the starting gun for the biggest day of the weekend, a day that saw clear skies and a swelling crowd. Buffet’s good-time party vibe is a natural fit for the festive Bonnaroo folksand the smattering of Parrotheads seemed right at home with the Bonnaroovian multitudes. With the festivals’ recent trend of featuring at least one aging legend each year (think: Neil Young, Tom Petty andBruce Springsteen), Buffet might be a welcome addition as a headliner in future years.

alejandroesco.jpgIndeed, the day featured many legends – folks like Buffet, Springsteen, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello and Alejandro Escovedo. But some of the biggest crowds of the day were reserved for a cavalcade of indie rock mainstay and up and comers.

This Tent played host to overflowing crowds for Bon Iver, The Decemberists and a visually exotic set by Of Montreal, who trotted out a procession of costumed dancers, including those wearing gas masks, dressed as priests, angels, demons, Bigfoot, a bearded hippie in tie dye and other oddities. There might have even been a partridge in a pear tree.

During the late night slot, while Bonnaroo vets moe. were launching their marathon set at a full but not packed This Tent, throngs of hipsters and scenesters mobbed That Tentfor a set by buzz band MGMT, the crowd extended far beyond the capabilities of the sound system, but it didn’t not deter those who insisted on being seen. And when Nine Inch Nails concluded their abbreviated set on the Which Stage the crowds burst.

heartbas.jpgElsewhere, Bonnaroo regulars held down the Which Stage. Heartless Bastards followed Buffett. Booker T and the DBTs (Booker T Jones backed by the Drive-By Truckers) turned in a powerful set that saw the band alternate between classic soul hits by Booker T & The MGs, selections from their collaborative album Potato Hole, and Truckers staples like “Let There By Rock” and “Lookout Mountain.”

Gov’t Mule followed and delivered a set highlighted by a sampling of their common cover selections—“Helter Skelter” and “Norweigen Wood” by the Beatles and Radiohead’s “Creep” among them. The aforementioned lovely and talented Grace Potter joined them for a pair of tunes latein the set.

But for all of the swarming activity, many in the crowd were on hand to see The Boss—Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, scheduled for a three and a half hour set on the What Stage. Not bad for a band that’s been playing together for 40 years.

For the duration, Springsteen lived up to his hard earned reputation as a marathon performer, starting his show of with newer numbers like “Outlaw Peter” and “The Rising” before venturing out into the crowd on a specially constructed walkway to high-five the pit dwellers who waited in line throughout the preceding Wilco set for a chance to be up close. Springsteen collected requests, hand drawn on cardboard and the backs of beer boxes, then took them to the stage and started working his way through them, even “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” Chestnuts like “Born To Run” and “The River” were scattered throughout.

springsteen.jpgNever one to shy away from politics or the plight of the down and out, Springsteen gave a brief rap about the economic conditions as means of introducing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” which he pointed out was more than a hundred years old. “Great songs stay written,” he said.

The last hour of his set consisted of The Boss preaching the power of rock and roll, presenting a cavalcade of hits with religious fervor. Old hits like “Glory Days” and “Dancing In The Dark” lose whatever pop sheen preconceptions that might have been formed 20 years ago when enjoyed in the context of a mass of swaying, ecstatic bodies.

Old legends, new stars, one of a kind collaborations, manic dancing, an elevated tone of weirdness and the power of rock and roll redemption. In other words, a typical day at Bonnaroo.

Click NEXT for Friday’s coverage{mospagebreak}

FRIDAY

Eight years into this now, the annual pilgrimage to Bonnaroo feels more and more like summer camp.

Familiar faces, recognizable surroundings and a feeling of an unrestricted emphasis on having fun characterize the first day back. You remember trees you’ve dozed under, shortcuts to get from one place to another and other tricks of the trade. Handshakes and hugs are exchanged. There’s lots of high-fiving and fist-bumping. Stage names like What and Which and tents named This, That and The Other not only aren’t funny anymore, they aren’t even confusing. It’s a family reunion each year with a chance to reconnect with friends you haven’t seen in exactly one year.

scene2.jpgBut for all of the familiarity, each year brings something new and exhilarating. New vendors, new improvements to the infrastructure. I’m still holding out for bunk beds and a canoe, but logistics seem to be fine-tuned and tweaked each year, and that makes it easier to revel in the three-day aural orgy.

The big news of the 2009 edition of Bonnaroo is, of course, the first-ever appearance by Phish, who was slated to perform two shows on the main (What) stage on Friday and Sunday. The only other band to record two headlining performances on the mainstage in one weekend? Widespread Panic, in 2002 and 2005.

Every member of Phish has performed at Bonnaroo over the years in various incarnations and other bands. But a years-long “retirement”(among other things) has kept the band proper from making an appearance. The festival has long since outgrown its jamband roots, but Phish made a powerful statement Friday that their brand of improvisational rock and roll heroics was the spark that fanned the raging blaze that is now Bonnaroo. With their popularity throughtout the Southeast, Widespread Panic often gets the credit for helping to build Bonnaroo’s stature and draw, but in just one show Phish made a claim to share that crown, if not snatch it right off Panic’s head. And it fits.

Phish’s Trey Anastasio made a bold and goofy claim in a press conference at the 2003 Bonnaroo that his band’s multi-day camping festivals like Clifford Ball and Big Cypress paved the way for Bonnaroo because they were the first ones to do it. While it seems inconceivable that Anastasio has never heard of Woodstock, there is some merit to his claim and in fact, festival organizers turned to some of the same artists and designers that Phish used to create the enchanting atmosphere that makes the Roo feel like a grown up version of Never Never Land.

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From the stage, Anastasio only said “It’s really great to be here,” and you could tell he meant it. For three full hours (without a setbreak,) Phish tore through a powerful set that touched on cornerstones of the band’s canon while also mixed in a few brand spanking new tunes. An early sequence of “Divided Sky” >“Possum” > “Down With Disease” found the band exploring their many facets—delicately composed constructions, groove-based rockers and full on funky numbers. Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon could barely contain their grins (Mike did a little better job, natch) during the silent segment of “Divided Sky” where the band remains motionless as the crowd hoots in anticipation.

phish-1-2.jpgOf the new tunes, “Kill Devil Falls” showed the most promise, and enjoyed a healthy deconstruction. Two of their landmark tunes closed the set. “You Enjoy Myself” melted into “Wilson” and returned, with the band leaving the stage for an encore break. There were other highlights too. “Stash” was phenomenal.“Golgi Apparatus” and “Highway To Hell” were fist-pumping fun. And so on.

But if the return of Phish from their so-called retirement signals that they feel they have something to prove to cement their legacy, they proved it on Friday night.

Meanwhile, the rest of the day’s ear canal cornucopia represented the wild diversity that has come to be expected at Bonnaroo. Two ofthe more intriguing developments were the introduction of themed stages. All day long, the lineup on That Tent was curated by Talking Heads’ David Byrne, who chose an eclectic lineup of musicians to perform throughout the day. Of the group, only Ani DiFranco could be considered a household name. One of the most impressive of Byrne’s picks was Dirty Projectors, whose quirky stop-startrhythms conjured some of the Heads’ early recordings. Over at The Other Tent, African music was featured all afternoon, including a rousing set by Vieux Farka Touré, son of legendary Ali Farka Touré.

tvontheradio.jpgA string of women rockers graced This Tent, including Tift Merritt, Kaki King and Grace Potter and her band The Nocturnals, who brought the crowd to a frenzy when the entire band crawled on under and around the drum kit for a collaborative drum session.

TV on The Radio’s set on the Which Stage was clunky at times but well received nonetheless. Galactic was joined on What Stage by Trombone Shorty and the Rebirth Brass Band’s Corey Henry. Henry roused the crowd by taking his trombone into the heart of it, often crowd surfing as a means of locomotion.

The Beastie Boys joked in the festival guide handed out to each Bonnaroovian when they enter that they may just jam out for their set, and they did. Sort of. In the midst of delivering their greatest hits, they often strapped on guitars for extending instrumental jams, showing their deft dexterity at switching styles. The rapper Nas guested with them for a stretch too.

scene3.jpgWith more than 100 acts at the festival, missing some great acts is unavoidable. Thus I can only assume that soul legend Al Green turned in a good show and that Animal Collective made some people blissfully uncomfortable.

Weather is always an issue when you have 75,000 of your closest friends sleeping in close confines in tents and RVs. Friday’s weather was beautiful featuring clear skies, temps in the 80s and a slight breeze. The only problem was Thursday’s downpour which left many areas of Centeroo muddy. Crews in bobcats shoveled fresh sand and dirt into the tents, resembling rock-em-sock-em robots in the process as they nearly collided on several occasions. Some Bonnaroovians made the best of it by plopping lawn chairs on top of the dirt mounds before workers had a chance to spread it.

Forecast for Saturday: Rock.

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