Bonnaroo: A Decade of Musical Decadence

 

 

btd_3111.jpgAs the mercury rises on summer’s thermostat, so does the anticipation for one of the most eclectic, outrageous and vetted music festivals around. As of June, 2011, Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival has called the quiet community of Manchester, Tennessee home for a solid decade, and music lovers nationwide couldn’t be happier. Once again, 80,000+ patrons swarmed to the sweltering southern farmland to experience the ultimate party that has been ten years in the making.

While many of the thousands were new to the ‘roo commune, thousands more were back with a heightened sense of excitement to help blow out the birthday candles. Bonnaroo has evolved from a strictly grassroots jam fest, growing to include every type of music imaginable. Just as the jam scene on the whole has interjected the likes of hip-hop, reggae, and electronica, Bonnaroo has opened its mind and arms to include a multitude of musical influences.

For Bonnaroo’s tenth birthday to be the over-the-top musical decadence everyone was craving, a few more friends were invited to the party without abandoning its roots – even including a set that paid tribute to the festival’s name origin, a Meters and Dr. John performance of Desitively Bonnaroo.

Yes, in 2011, the festival subscribed to the old adage, “make new friends and keep the old, for one is silver and the other is gold.”

 

THURSDAY

 

The festivities commenced on Thursday as droves of attendees flooded the grounds to set up the sea of tents for their weekend home away from home before trekking into Centeroo for the first taste of ‘roo ’11.

beatsantique.jpgGreensky Bluegrass was one of the first acts to catch, playing to an upbeat, jumping crowd at the cozy On Tap Lounge stage. Fans came from all around as the group’s energetic musical set snowballed with intensity. Futurebirds, a band on the rise from the notorious city of Athens, GA, performed under the saving grace of “That Tent” in full view of the iconic Ferris wheel. Though the crowd seemed mostly curious at first, it is safe to say that many left as fans, marching to the drums kicked proudly behind the band’s thick guitar lines and stacked vocal harmonies.

When asking the popular question, “Who are you excited to see?” one name that kept emerging was Beats Antique. The up-and-coming trio blasted their audience with a shocking stage show full of electronic grooves, world percussion, and belly dancing…quite the combination.

Sleeping in after the uber late night sets is nearly impossible at this fest. The relentless sun roasts weary eyes and bodies awake as soon as it shines on the horizon. But overall, it is a nice thing to be aroused earlier than one may have hoped, because more musical goodness waits on the other side of the fancy hat-wearing silver Bonnaroo arch.

 

FRIDAY

 

annabelnolaallstars.jpgFriday got cranking early with a hot set from New Orleans Allstars, featuring some of New Orleans’ brightest, who took Manchester for on a brief foray into the Big Easy via the Sonic Stage. The super group jammed intently, playing well off of each other’s technical prowess. The boys covered classics ranging from The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition;” trading solos and riffs with a faint nod of the head.

Who needs a bass guitar when you can triple tongue any bass line on the sousaphone?  That answer, my friends, is no one. Ben Sollee got the memo, strapped his cello onto his bike, rode down from his Kentucky home and brought a new flavor of political and environmental awareness to a well-receiving crowd. His performances, though full of nuance and gentle gestures, as evident in “How to See the Sun Rise,” moved his audiences at both the Other Tent and the Sonic stage.

Some heavy hitters took to the stage under Friday’s scorching sun. Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, boasted its original 1992 line up and admitted to have been touring feverishly in preparation for this Bonnaroo performance. While playing a live setting of this magnitude is certainly different than strumming in a studio, Fleck and his fellows blew the audience away with both technical perfection and imaginative and emotional heart, continuing to impress the masses of Bonnaroo just as they did in Bonnaroo’s 2002 infancy.

btd_3310.jpgGrace Potter & The Nocturnals have been experiencing the “roo-phoria” of headlining the Bonnaroo Buzz Tour for weeks, and completed the circle of the tour on the most grand of all of the stages, the “What” stage. The group achieved a cool vibe despite the relentless heat, creating an oasis-like respite. Grace and her band, all full of smiles, seemed to be enjoying the shared experience with the large crowd as they rocked all of their most popular hits including “Paris (Ooh La La)” and “Goodbye Kiss.” Grace was clearly taken aback by the experience, at one point commenting to the effect of her disbelief that a “little band from Vermont” has come this far.

Warren Haynes is a Bonnaroo staple, performing in the past with Gov’t Mule, the Allman Brothers, as a solo act and sitting in with many over the years. This year, he brought his most recent creation, the Warren Haynes Band. The group, with a soulful sound that draws musical inspirationi from the likes of Wilson Pickett and James Brown, had those in attendance crooning in sync with Haynes’ gems of old (Soulshine) and new flavors (“Man in Motion,” the title track from the band’s new album).

Ray LaMontagne drew a huge and anxious throng, but the performance fell a little flat in spite of the high anticipation surrounding the set. Herein lies one of the toughest things an artist at Bonnaroo faces…how to transmit its sound and vibe to a vastly larger audience than is par for other tour dates. As LaMontagne stood btd_3599.jpgperched in an odd corner of the stage, he sang from his heart, but offered the crowd little more. Conversely, Florence + The Machinepermeated the grossly overcrowded “This” Tent with pure magnetism that sent shockwaves through the thousands of onlookers.  If you could handle the mass of people, you were pulled into one of the greatest shows of the weekend. The Grammy-nominated group was the talk of the fest with one enigmatic hit after another, including “Dog Days Are Over.”

My Morning Jacket approached the title of Friday’s headliner with utmost seriousness and produced an epic two-hour rock set from the word go. The band opened with (the now standard) “Victory Dance” and didn’t look back, bombarding the ocean of fans at the main stage with gems from its vast repertoire. Though front man Jim James still claims to have the Jim Morrison-esque stage fright, it was anything but evident (save for when he cloaked himself with a cape) as his trance-induced fury percolated and spilled into the loving arms of the tens of thousands that bore witness. After MMJ’s “Off the Record,” “Magheetah” and “Steam Engine” (that came complete with a glowstick war – seriously), if the jury was still out on this group, consider the case closed.

Primus, along with a few giant inflatable astronauts, did what only they do best for their raging group of convinced fans. Frontman and unapologetic weirdo, Les Claypool, is a veteran of the festival world (See Quest for Festeroo), but through the years with various ensembles (Oysterhead, Flying Frog Birigade, etc.) many just btd_3958.jpgwanted to see the love of their adolescent years, Primus. So, in the evolving world of Bonnaroo’s artists, Claypool and the boys of brought that nugget of nostalgia (“Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers,” “Tommy the Cat”) that the patrons were craving but also injected new tunes from the forthcoming Green Naugahyde (“Jilly’s On Smack“).

After a foray into the Grammy-winning world of Arcade Fire, who provided a solid, albeit predictable, performance that was the source of mixed reviews, it was time to delve into the late night electronic/dubstep world.

Pretty Lights (singularly Derek Vincent Smith – Adam Deitch will no longer perform alongside Smith) produced a true-to-title set, with a mixture of his down-tempo electronica beats and an illusory LED light show. As is standard, the audience who was present lapped it up dub, step, and sinker.

Along the same vein but with an even further heightened attack on the senses, Shpongle Presents the Shpongletron Experience projected a euphoric, psychedelic, and intoxicating trip onto an animated face-like structure towering on the stage. Nothing less can be expected from a musician who prides himself on the dubbing of “Hallucinogenic.”

 

SATURDAY

 

btd_4545.jpgSaturday started much like the previous day, with overheated and overtired patrons coming back to life in the cool spray of the Splash-A-Roo fountain. Proud Tennessee natives Old Crow Medicine Show got going early on the “Which” Stage. Though the group had mic and amp issues, it didn’t shake their jovial mood. They entertained the crowd with friendly banter as they brought their own brand of foot-stomping bluegrass with confidence and power. OCMS, never one to shy away from crowd pleasers, did not let the large mass down, ripping through “I Hear Them All” and “Wagon Wheel.”

Mumford & Sons was a name on everyone’s lips on Saturday. The group played to yet another over-packed crowd, proudly boasting that they have now sweated through two Bonnaroo performances. Each note the British folksters sang was echoed tenfold by their adoring crowd who knew the catalog like their back of their hand (not quite the impressive feat that it hopefully will soon be). The magnitude of “Below my Feet,” “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” was only surpassed by a traditional rendition of “Amazing Grace” where friends from Union Station and Old Crow Medicine Show joined in.

sci.jpg The String Cheese Incident, along with a dedicated following of their dramatic fans, provided what was possibly the most unforgettable show of the fest. Cheese has partaken in multiple Bonnaroo experiences, including the premiere fest, and did not plan to let its 2011 hula-hooping enthusiasts down. Ever the businessman, SCI ivory-tickler Kyle Hollingsworth made his way to the tents earlier in the day promoting his newly crafted festival beer. Performance-wise, the tour-lightly ensemble opened accordingly with The Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” that segued into “Rollover.” Later in the set, the always cheeky guys executed some b-boy dance moves in matching orange and white suits to “Joyful Sound” before performing their traditional “Colorado Bluebird Sky” and a cover of the George Michael guilty pleasure “Careless Whisper.”  The crowd mirrored the performance with some campy par-for-the friends-of-Cheese stunners of their own. Dozens of gigantic inflatable beach balls bounced through the lawn, a colossal t-rex hovered overhead, and a human bug-guy flew above it all, suspended by a mass of balloons, creating an epic show indeed.

STS9 and Gogol Bordello completed the night with a large following for each. Whether it was jam-tronica or gypsy punk you were after, you could find it all night long.

 

SUNDAY

 

btd_4950.jpgThanks to a passing night storm that cooled things down slightly, Sunday’s bands brought out an early mellow crowd. Railroad Earth played to a compliant group as they melded traditional bluegrass with classic licks from Gershwin and Copland. G. Love & Special Sauce flowed seamlessly in and out of originals and covers with Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Cold Beverage,” and Peter Tosh’s well covered “Legalize It.”

Sunday also brought out the certified legends. Mavis Staples took everyone to church with her rumbling contralto vocals and her powerful message. She was proud to return to the Bonnaroo stage and fill us with love on a sunny Sunday morning.

Bruce Hornsby performed his newly learned craft of the dulcimer to a small crowd at the Sonic Stage, trying “not to suck.” Hornsby was later joined by The Noisemakers and smoked the piano, taking requests from the crowd at “That” Tent. Bruce talked of “hedgehog” Ron Jeremy sightings while belting out the likes of “End of the Innocence” and many others.

It was at this point in the weekend that diversity was most evident. From NOLA, it was off to see a Southern rock founding father, and from there, it was off to a punk-rock revival.

btd_5475.jpgGalactic’s New Orleans flavor filled the “What” stage, augmented by Living Colour’s Corey Glover, as has been the case for the recent tour. Glover’s virtually limitless vocal range shined while he rapped, riffed, and paraded in the crowd.

Gregg Allman performed his Southern blues brand to swarms of avid fans under the confining “That” Tent, intertwining well-played Allman Brothers classics with tunes from his most recent (and first in 13 years) studio offering, Low Country Blues. It was all the expectant crowd could have hoped for.

The Strokes made a rare stage appearance for a buzzing audience, and front man Julian Casablancas led the raging crowd down an audible memory lane. The guys oozed rock star machismo as they sauntered around the stage and sang songs of old, including “Is This It” and “New York City Cops” and those from their 2011 release, Angles, like “Life is Simple in the Moonlight.” The indie vets performed each with their patented signature sound distinctly and more importantly, soberly in place.

The Superjam Featuring Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) and Dr. John was a highly anticipated set that exceeded all expectations.  The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and My Morning Jacket’s drummer Patrick Hallahan helped craft the tribute to New Orleans style jazz; ripping through standards like Dr. John’s “Walk on Guilded Splinters” and the NOLA classic, “Iko Iko.”

wp3.jpgWidespread Panic held down their usual spot as the last hurrah of the entire festival. In a year that has seen much public praise for Panic, the city of Manchester did their part and recognized the importance and dedication of the band by awarding the group with the keys to the city. Panic delivered a strong performance to a tired yet satisfied full crowd. The group that helped put both Manchester and Bonnaroo on the map continued to perpetuate the significance of both.

From the first beads of sweat that trickled down the brows of the thousands in attendance on Thursday, the familiar feeling of Bonnaroo was in the air, but with a decidedly heightened expectancy. Over the course of four music-filled, euphoria-inducing, heat-exhausted days and nights, all expectations were overwhelmingly fulfilled.  As the proverbial house lights rose on that late Sunday evening, Bonnaroo blew out the candles on a ten-year celebration well spent. Here’s to another ten years of music, magic, and memories. Happy birthday, Bonnaroo!

 

 

Click the thumbnail to view more images from the fest by Brad Hodge & Brian DeGaetano

 

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