Bonnaroo, Take Seven: Shall We Go?

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For seven years now, Bonnaroo has been an annual gathering of tens of  thousands of your closest live music compatriots.  Over the years, it has grown from its roots as a nearly strictly jam band gathering, to a nationwide and worldwide phenomenon. A wide diversity of acts are added every year, improvements are made in the form of new activities and stages, and fine-tuning is an ongoing practice.

This year was different, but familiar, with many improvements to the festival atmosphere yet the safe and comfortable aspects intact. Although there was a somewhat head-scratching inclusion of more mainstream acts, most of them were well received by the crowd.

Each year, Bonnaroo feels more and more like a holiday than an event. Just like other musical holidays like New Year’s Eve, Halloween and Jazz Fest, it comes every year. It’s reliable. Like other holidays, you see the same family members every year, even some you’re not so happy to see. It has become part of the fabric of our community, a fact of life.

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

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MGMT: Brad Hodge

A couple of years back, Bonnaroo started adding a few unannounced Thursday night shows for early arrivers to the festival, which officially began on Friday. Now in its seventh year, it’s safe to say the festival starts on Thursday. A full slate of performers drew large crowds to a number of tents on Thursday night. This was no warm-up schedule.

By Thursday at sunset, Bonnaroo Take Seven was on. Shows started just as the sun began its descent over the sweaty Tennessee landscape that was once again transferred into the city of Bonnaroo. What Made Milwaukee Famous sounded the starting gun at This Tent at 5:45 pm.

Three hours later, MGMT brought their synth-fueled, freak-rock soundscapes to the same stage. Their performance washed over the crowd with a multi-textured aural sway, building danceable grooves punctuated by ever-heightening tension. Lead singer Andrew VanWyngarden, swathed in headscarf and floral print pants, fronted the wide-ranging performance with understated authority. They leaned heavily on selections from their breakout debut CD, Oracular Spectacular – particularly the crowd-pleasing, electrified lean of “Time To Pretend.”

Over on the Other Stage, The Felice Brothers kicked the party into high gear, with accordion-playing Felice proclaiming “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!” as he lit a cig and took a pull on a whiskey bottle before breaking into the rip-roaring opener that used the refrain “Where’d You Get Your Liquor From” to rowdy up the crowd.

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Felice Brothers: B. Hodge

The Felice’s gutbucket romp is a highly energetic blend of panoply of roots styles. The most obvious comparisons are to The Band, who they willingly cop to being influenced by. But their youthful vigor infuses their sound and performance with that most elemental aspect of rock ‘n roll—danger. The drumming Felice leapt from his kit at one point, landing mid-stage. The washboard player pantomimed a dramatic interpretation of an amphetamine –paced murder ballad, “stabbing” the accordion player, who promptly fell to the floor. Guitar and fiddle intertwined to produce a high-octane roots rock hoedown that frothed the crowd into a dancing, swelling organism. Yes, Bonnaroo was on.

That Stage was home to Bonnaroo’s headbangers, with Austin Texas’ The Sword pummeling the crowd with their Sabbath-esque thump. Following The Sword was the all female Zeppelin tribute band—Lez Zeppelin. Their thundering performance could be heard throughout the grounds.

A new stage this year was the New Orleans-themed Something Else stage. An air-conditioned re-creation of New Orleans clubs like the famed Maple Leaf bar, replete with tin ceiling, Abita on tap, jambalaya and New Orleans bartenders, the Something Else Tent will play host to a cavalcade of new Orleans musicians throughout the weekend. On Thursday, PBS (George Porter, Russell Batiste, Brian Stoltz) was slated for a midnight until 4:00am slot. Throughout the weekend, Anders Osborne, Henry Butler, Morning 40 Federation, Soul Rebels, Dumpstaphunk, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and other Crescent City legends will make Something Else something else. It costs five bucks to enter the Something Else tent, which stings in light of the already high-dollar ticket prices, six-dollar beers, and various “incidentals.” But the sting is eased by the fact that the proceeds go to New Orleans charities that are dedicated to rebuilding and retaining the unique culture of New Orleans.

With the Drive-By Truckers starting things off on the Which Stage at noon on Friday, there’s no doubt that this year’s edition of Bonnaroo has hit the ground running. {mospagebreak}

Hit It, Don’t Quit It

The overarching theme of Bonnaroo has increasingly become diversity. That point was expressed more strongly than ever this year when it was announced that Metallica would hold down the Friday night headlining slot on the What Stage. While that may have been shocking considering the first couple of jam-band heavy lineups, these days, it seems to just fit.

Metallica’s Lars Ulrich said Bonnaroo was a “no-brainer.” On Friday night James Hetfield reiterated the point to a drenched crowd, telling the appreciative crowd that his band supported live music, and that’s why they came to Bonnaroo. The lead singer asked for a show of hands to see how many people were seeing Metallica for the first time, and seemingly half of the crowd raised their hands, and they kept them in the air for most of the night.

But although Metallica was nominally the headliner, Bonnaroo is all about diversity, and the heavy metal legends were only one of many, many stellar acts who performed on Friday.

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Drive-By Truckers: William McBride

Seeing the The Drive-By Truckers in the daylight hours is a bit disconcerting. It’s even stranger seeing them at noon after struggling through a morning after. There’s a certain cognitive dissonance at work when there’s a part of you that wants to pump your fists and take a slug of Jack Daniel’s but your internal clock keeps reminding you that, "hey, it’s noon!" But that didn’t matter, because this particular performance was at Bonnaroo, where it’s best to ignore that voice in your head.

The Truckers kick-started the day with a muscular performance on the Which Stage that spanned their entire catalog. Joined by Spooner Oldham, they surveyed tunes from their opus Southern Rock Opera (“Ronnie and Neil), their latest album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark with “Home Field Advantage” and back to old classics like the set-ending double punch of “18 Wheels of Love” (featuring an extended narrative) and
“Lookout Mountain.” By the time they left the stage, it felt more like midnight.

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Les Claypool: B. Hodge

When Les Claypool brought out his theatrical sonic weirdness, time was completely irrelevant, if it existed at all. A few songs into his set, he yowled his now famous incantation, “Bonnaroooooo! Bonnaroooooo!” like a foghorn signaling the official commencement of the craziness. Backed by drums, cello and guitar, Claypool’s lineup this day was stellar. Claypool donned several of his disguises to the delight of the crowd—he came out in the pig mask for “Long In The Tooth,” walked on and off stage with an ape-gait while wearing a monkey mask when he performed “Whamola,” and slipped on his Elvis hat while his guitarist played the electric saw. Yes, it was a saw with some time of pickup on it, played with a bow. Claypool’s unique brand of dramatic oddity is the perfect accompaniment to an already surreal experience.

Willie Nelson performed on the Which Stage too, but unfortunately mailed in a relatively lackluster set, consisting essentially of an hour and half medley of his best-known tunes. Still, his repertoire, voice and persona are enough to be crowd-pleasing when he’s not at his best.

Over on the What Stage, The Raconteurs held court, and their hard-charging retro-rock set the bar high for the rest of the weekend. Brendan Benson and Jack White traded turns on the mic, underscoring the fact that this is a band and not just a side-project for White.

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Raconteurs: B. Hodge

Ripping through material from each of their albums, The Raconteurs crunched and churned, dispersing multi-layered rock anthems. “Many Shades of Black” took on an operatic sway reminiscent of the best work of Queen. A true class act, The Raconteurs took a gentle group bow after blowing up Bonnaroo. Jack White ended their set with a simple statement, and introduction: “Up next is Chris Rock and I like him very much. Hope y’all have a great time. We love y’all.” The feeling was mutual.

This year, a comedian graced the Bonnaroo’s largest stage – the What Stage – for the first time. While the much smaller (and air-conditioned) Comedy Tent has been a mainstay for years, the daunting task of a comedian performing to tens of thousands of concertgoers was ambitious to say the least. But Chris Rock pulled it off with a piss-yourself hilarious performance that provided an exhilarating change of pace. Rock riffed on race, sex and terrorism and had fun chiding the crowd: “I know some of y’all are on Xanax. That’s sad, taking an anti-depressant to see a comedian. I am an anti-depressant!” Indeed.

Rock was vocally psyched about Metallica too, and provided the introduction to the band over an epic PA entrance music: “Ladies and gentlemen of Bonnaroo, you are about to see the baddest motherfucking band in the world, Metallica!” Metallica came out blazing and rarely let off the gas for their two-and a half hour set.

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My Morning Jacket: B. Hodge

But while Metallica was the nominal headliner, the night belonged to My Morning Jacket. In what was an instant Bonnaroo classic, MMJ’s late night set on The Which Stage spanned four hours (with only a twenty minute set break) and touched on every nook and cranny of their catalog, injected by an array of soul covers. Flanked by a dozen glowing orbs, MMJ took the stage and opened with the title track from their new CD, Evil Urges.

Even this early on, it was clear the band had something up their sleeve. There was an aura and anticipation that portended something special. After faithful rendition of “Off The Record” and “Gideon,” the first of the covers came—Sly & The Family Stone’s “Hot Fun In The Summertime.” It was after midnight, so it wasn’t hot anymore. But it was certainly fun. For this, and several subsequent tunes, the band was joined by what Jim James referred to as “The Louisville-Nashville-Area Horns.” Guitarist Carl Broemel sat down for beautiful pedal steel guitar swaths on “Sec Walkin” and “Golden” and James switched to bass guitar for “Two Halves.” For Funkadelic’s “Hit It And Quit It” James mesmerized the audience with a glowing, seemingly electro-magnetic device he wore on his finger like an e-bow ring, allowing him to manipulate sounds coming from the strings of his guitar without even touching it. James was in command of the band, and audience, all night. Next was a soulful and earnest take on Eryka Badu’s “Call Tyrone.” The choice and selection of these soul songs from every era lends some perspective to the R&B leanings of Evil Urges and the falsetto that James employs to such unique effect.

By now, the rains had come. Sheets of water were pouring off the stage and as a precaution, stagehands came out to protect the equipment and attempt to dry it. James and Broemel left the stage while this work took place, so bassist Two Tone Tommy, drummer Patrick Hallahan and keyboardist Bo Koster took the opportunity to engage in an ambient jam. The crowd didn’t mind the rain, but when James returned, he reassured them, “It feels beautiful to be bathed in golden rains from the heavens! Electronics and rain are not friends but we are trying to make them friendly.” In an earlier edition of the Bonnaroo Beacon, the daily newspaper of Bonnaroo, Jim James was asked who he would want to collaborate with if he could collaborate with anyone he wanted. His answer was Kirk Hammett of Metallica. He got his wish, as Hammett came out for the set-closing “One Big Holiday,” full of rock bombast and blistering solos from both guitarists.

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My Morning Jacket: W. McBride

A short break followed, but MMJ came back ready to dance. Jim James wore a wide straw hat and a black cape as they opened the set with James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” followed immediately by Kool & The Gang’s “Get Down On It.” The soul hits kept coming with “Across 155th Street” by Bobby Womack. After this session of soul hits, they returned to their own repertoire with a marathon set that included “Wordless Chorus,” “Mahgeeta,” “Sweet Nothing,” “Librarian” and a compelling “Dondante.”

My Morning Jacket was slated for a slot from midnight until three a.m. but they just wouldn’t quit. By the time they closed out the show with an arm-swaying, lighter lifting take on Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home,” replete with the zaniness of Zach Galifianakis, who roamed the stage dressed up as Little Orphan Annie and flashed his green briefs. By this point the crowd was in a state of delirium, and so was the band. It was past four. “Thank you for filling us with love and making our chest cavities structurally sound,” James proclaimed.

In many ways, My Morning Jacket epitomizes the spirit and diversity of Bonnaroo. They’ve been hailed by the jamband, indie and mainstream rock press. They are a fantastic live act that has performed many memorable shows at Bonnaroo. Every year, there seems to be (at least) one show that you know will go down as a classic. This was it.{mospagebreak}

Glow In The Sunrise

Less than a week before Bonnaroo, Kayne West announced that he would be moving his performance time at the festival. Rather than performing an earlier set on the The Which Stage, West would host a special late-night performance at 2:45 AM on the festival’s biggest stage, The What Stage, in order to fully take advantage of his “Glow In The Dark” stage show.

It was such late notice, in fact, that there was no time to correct the tens of thousands of festival guides that had been printed to be handed out to festivalgoers. So signs were erected at entrances all around the venue announcing the “Festival Alert” of the changed show time. Because it left a large gap in the performance schedule, other acts were asked to alter their set times. Some bands were asked to move their performances to different stages to accommodate Mr. West’s request.

2:45 came and went.

Phil Lesh cut short his allotted four-hour slot and still no Kanye. The folks gathered around the What Stage grew tired and irate and began to throw glow sticks and boo. It was close to five am when he finally took the stage, close to daylight, rendering the “glow in the dark” aspect of his show moot. And he only played for less than an hour. “Kanye Sucks” chants began then and didn’t die down for the remainder of the festival, spontaneously erupting at Robert Randolph’s set the next day, before Widespread Panic took the What Stage, and who knows where else? Home made t-shirts and signs proclaiming Kanye’s suckness could be seen everywhere.

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Sharon Jones: B. Hodge

It’s too bad that Kanye got so much attention for keeping the crowd waiting and pulling such an egomaniacal stunt (the first and let’s hope, only, such bullshit to be pulled in seven years of The Roo), because there was plenty of fantastic music on Saturday.

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings played on the Which Stage after The Soul Rebels Brass Band (who were moved from the What Stage, in part to accommodate the absence of Kanye on the Which Stage later in the day). A consummate performer, Jones and the dapper Dap Kings wound their way through a stellar set of dance grooves, Jones working the crowd as the self-styled “female James Brown” and referring to her “Tina Turner dress” on more than one occasion.

Gogol Bordello and their hyper-kinetic gypsy rock followed. Meanwhile on the What Stage, Ozomatli preceded the legendary B.B. King.

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Ozomatli: B. Hodge

At This Tent, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall featured a smattering of cover songs, not all of them from her recent cover record, Jukebox. It is the second of her covers records, and works well due in large part to her skill at deconstructing well-known songs and casting them anew in her own style. She kicked off her show with typical down-tempo takes on “Dark End of The Street” and “Fortunate Son,” stalking the stage with slinky and slithering posturing. Her soul-infused punked-up version of “Tracks of My Tears” was a highlight too. But she also included original tunes, like the title track from The Greatest and a stellar version of “Lived In Bars.” She maintained a commanding presence throughout her mid-day set, ably backed by a crack band.

Levon Helm and Ramble On The Road played a loose-limbed and thoroughly pleasing set over at the Other Tent, and if you even have to ask, of COURSE they played “Ophelia” and it was almost right out of the gate (about three songs in). It was good ‘ol fashioned rock ‘n roll, punctuated by horns and organ and Levon’s throaty vocals bathed in a swell of background voices. They ended the tune with a little horn flourish of “Dixie” that I found a bit amusing. Their set was a good ‘ol fashioned good time—true Americana music, a mish-mash of blues and soul and country, all mixed up together so that’s its none of those things, just something called rock ‘n roll.

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Bonnaroo: B. Hodge

Pearl Jam was the night’s “headliner” and turned in an epic performance, though Eddie Vedder got a little too preachy for my tastes at times (as usual). Early on he seemed humbled and gracious though, proclaiming “I’ve never thought we would play at anything like this after past experiences,” he said referencing the a tragic event in Denmark’s Roskilde Festival where eight fans were trampled to death in 2000. “ But after seeing B.B. King and Jack Johnson and Cat Power, we see it can work and we have a beautiful night on top of it, so we are taking nothing for granted.” They didn’t either, except for the patience of folks to sit through political diatribes.

They blasted through a flood of classic tunes, including lively takes on “Animal,” “Evenflow” and The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” The inclusion of this cover song underscored the fact that Pearl Jam has become, through years of consistent artistic dignity, fully shed any label or genre that they once supposedly embodied. They’re not a “grunge” band nor a nostalgia act from the 1990s. They were, and are, a great rock band and will forever be remembered as such.

Pearl Jam also scored with a stirring version of “Black” but by the time Vedder’s diatribe’s began to take up too much space in between songs, and I could hear the faint siren call of Phil Lesh and Friend’s opening their late-night set with “One More Saturday Night,” it was time for me to move on. I respect Mr. Vedder’s political opinions, but as someone who has the rare talent for presenting his point of view in one of the most meaningful and impactful ways possible, through song, he seems to contradict his earlier statement by taking such a gift for granted by simply preaching about subjects he cares deeply about instead of putting them in song. Anybody can sit in front of somebody and espouse their political beliefs by talking about them. Not everybody can write and sing a kick-ass rock song and make you feel it. But most of the crowd didn’t seem to mind. The masses gave back just as tirelessly as Pearl Jam was giving, and the band kept coming back for repeated encores, eventually closing with “All Along The Watchtower.”

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Kanye West: W. McBride

Kanye would later blame Pearl Jam’s going an hour over their allotted time for his extended delay, but that’s yet another bullshit excuse. Kanye originally agreed to perform on the Which Stage, just one hour after Ben Folds. Pearl Jam left the stage at just after 1 am, and Kanye still didn’t show up (some would question if he ever really “showed up” at all) until more than three hours later. Bullshit, Kanye. As the t-shirts everywhere said, you suck. Kanye West had the opportunity to perform for tens of thousands of ecstatic music fans, ad maybe earn a few admirers in the process. Instead, he blew it, and managed to piss off an entire temporary city—fans, musicians, even security guards were dissing him all the next day.

Oh well, much like the night before, the late night performance on the Which Stage proved to be meatier and more satisfying than the more high-profile headlining slot on the What Stage.

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Phil Lesh: Jeff Kravitz

Phil Lesh & Friends returned to Bonnaroo, but for the first time with his lineup featuring Steve Molitz (keyboards), Jackie Greene (guitar, vocals) and Larry Campbell (guitars) along with mainstay John Molo on drums. They were slotted for the longest set of the weekend: 12:15 am until 4:15 am, though they cut it a little bit short, wrapping it up at just after three, reportedly due to “scheduling conflicts” that were rumored to have something to do with some egomaniacal rapper not wanting anyone else to be performing while he was. Four hours was no doubt designed for a two-set show, but instead they turned in one monster set. No matter.

Mr. Lesh and company brought the heat, and laid on the psychedelia like no one else. Here’s a hint: when Phil Lesh asks “Shall We Go, You And I While We Can?” the answer is always “yes.”

It was my first time seeing this lineup, and I was more impressed than I expected to be. Jackie Greene is a welcome addition, particularly in the vocal department. He nailed his lines on the closer “Sugaree,” for example. He’s not a bad guitarist by any stretch, but Campbell handled most of the heavy lifting.

The cornerstone of the single set was certainly the sequence of “Dark Star > Unbroken Chain > Stella Blue (performed instrumentally, with Campbell expertly rendering the delicate vocal lines on pedal steel) > Dark Star.” The improvisation and interaction within the band was spirited, the composed portions of tricky tunes like “Unbroken Chain” and “Born Cross-Eyed” was tight, and on the whole they turned in a great set.{mospagebreak}

‘Til The Morning Comes

Sundays at Bonnaroo are a true test of endurance. You can go into a four-day musical orgy like this with the best of intentions—sleeping enough, eating right, pacing yourself. But even if you do those things, Sunday sometimes comes as something of a relief. Any extra energy you summon usually is a result of knowing the end is near, and so is a proper shower and a bed. You can circle your schedule and make your plans, but eventually, biology catches up with you and the realization once again creeps over you that you just can’t do it all.

Somewhat in keeping with the quasi-tradition of Sunday Gospel shows, That Tent hosted a one-two punch of the sacred steel of The Lee Boys, followed by Robert Randolph’s Revival. Solomon Burke and the Trucks/Tedeschi Soul Stew Revival followed. I had the best intentions of getting my soul right over there at That Tent, but following Lesh’s late-night exploits, I started the day spent, but still wanting Lesh.

Luckily, an acoustic set was scheduled for This Tent featuring Phil Lesh, Jackie Greene, Larry Campbell and his wife Theresa Williams. In other words, more Phil & Friends. Not surprisingly, the set was filled with acoustic Dead tunes that leaned heavily on the American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead era. They opened with a fun take on “Friend of The Devil” and played a healthy set that included “Deal,” “’Til The Morning Comes” and “Brokedown Palace.” It was a great way to finally start a Sunday.

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Allison Krauss & Robert Plant: J. Kravitz

A key feature at this year’s festival was the implementation of a “European-style” pit area arrangement on the What (biggest) Stage. It included a barricade system formed lines at each side of the front of the field that allowed a new set of fans to be upfront and personal for each performance. After each set, the pit is cleared and ample room is made for those fans waiting patiently in the queue. It’s a great system and seemed to work well. It prevents fans from “camping out” all day in front of the stage and trying to reserve space with tarps, chairs and other territorial object. It’s no doubt a safer system as it allows security staff to monitor the amount of people crushed upfront too. An added bonus is that while waiting in the queue, you’re right up front (albeit to the side) of the act playing at that time. It was here in this queue that I took in most of Allison Krauss and Robert Plant’s set as I was waiting for pit access to Widespread Panic’s festival-closing performance.

Accompanied by a seasoned band that included T-Bone Burnett (producer of their collaborative album, Raising Sand) and guitarist Buddy Miller, the group performed a sublime set of material from that album, and more. They even included a spine-tingling take on Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore.”

About 30 minutes before Widespread Panic was to take the stage, they opened the pit and I made my way to a great spot just a few feet from the very front barricade. Widespread Panic has more or less been the house band for Bonnaroo since its inception, anchoring the first year with two headlining performances and playing every year but two. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to credit the draw of Panic (especially given that Bonnaroo takes place in Tennessee, smack-dab in the middle of Panic’s Deep South stronghold) with at least some of the festival’s early success. With the ever-expanding diversity of the lineup, and the more mainstream acts scheduled for the main stage as the jam-bands become less of a factor, it’s nice to see Panic rightfully honored with such a plum spot.

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John Bell: J. Kravitz

After all these years, Widespread Panic seemed perfectly comfortable and at home on the What Stage as they kicked off their set with the rockin’ “Give” and “Imitation Leather Shoes.” They worked their way through new material from their latest, Free Somehow, and classic grooves alike.

Of the new material, the delicate “Three Candles” and “Dark Day Program” stood out the most, while the most high-energy selections come from their back catalog. They brought up their old friend Robert Randolph to guest on a blistering sequence of “Protein Drink/Sewing Machine > Ride Me High > Impossible Song > Love Tractor” with Randolph and guitarist Jimmy Herring egging each other on and pushing the energy higher all along the way.

Panic also threw in a couple of choice covers with Warren Zevon’s “Lawyer’s Guns & Money” and The Band’s “Chest Fever,” and generally held court doing what they do. At this point, Widespread Panic has nothing to prove to the Bonnaroo crowd, and anchored the closing set with confidence and class.

The seventh edition of Bonnaroo was yet another year of widely diverging musical acts, wild times and good fun in the Tennessee sun. Mainstays like My Morning Jacket, Widespread Panic and Phil Lesh & Friends turned in the most memorable performance, while newcomer mainstream acts like Pearl Jam and Metallica were welcomed to the fold. While most everyone found a way to have fun, it’s probably safe to say Kanye West won’t be invited back. Though attendance figures haven’t been released, the crowds seemed a little thin this year. You can blame that on a lot of factors—gas prices, the plethora of other up and coming mega-festivals or other conditions.

Howver, you can’t blame it on the festival itself, which once again proved to be an expertly organized and efficiently run temporary city that played host to a healthy and exhilarating expression of the very best music has to offer us as humans (and just a little tiny bit of the worst).

CLICK THE THUMBNAIL TO SEE MORE of brad hodge ‘s PHOTOS FROM BONNAROO 2008 

 

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