Ninth Annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival Rocks Fans in High Summer

By Peter Rizzo

Forty years ago this summer, music and culture collided in the grassy fields of Bethel, N.Y., where roughly half a million Americans gathered for three days of “peace and music.” The result was the zenith of the summer of love, the now infamous Woodstock Music and Art Fair, where bands were transformed into musical icons, where our nation’s theme was channeled through a distorted amplifier, and where rock ‘n’ roll itself became permanently intertwined with the American counterculture movement of the 1960s. In short, Woodstock’s legacy has become a hard act to follow, as its numerous reincarnations proved with disastrous fires and disappointing lineups.  

However, it is in this spirit that music festivals carry on, rising to prominence over the last decade. There is, perhaps, no better example of this feat than the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. The annual event, held over the last nine years in Manchester, Tenn., has become one of the premier destinations for music enthusiasts, offering diverse lineups that have included everything from modern-day rock titans Pearl Jam and Radiohead, to hip-hop staples Kanye West and The Roots, to more recent lineups integrating comedians like Chris Rock, Jimmy Fallon and even Woodstock alums like The Band’s Levon Helm.

The 2009 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival promised a revival of this ancient connection, channeling the spirit of the past while providing amenities akin to our current iPod age. Its overall effort stepped up this year with an even more diverse collection, which sought to expand the festival’s musical palette while returning it to its jam band roots. The centerpiece of this was a heaping portion of the festival’s headliners Phish spread over two nights and nearly six hours of music. While the newly reunited band proved the festival’s biggest draw, they were not to be outdone by fellow headliners Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Nine Inch Nails and the Beastie Boys.

Despite the anticipation for these acts, the biggest news as the festival commenced came with the announcement that the annual Superjam had been canceled, opening speculation that this would end the festival’s popular presentation of once-in-a-lifetime musical collaborations. Though rather than uniting a few legends for a single show, Bonnaroo upped the cross-generational collaborations, a process that found Elvis Costello dueting with Rilo Kiley vixen Jenny Lewis, Snoop Dogg sharing the stage with Erykah Badu, and David Byrne accompanying newcomers, The Dirty Projectors.

If the first day was highlighted mostly by sporadic weather, Thursday night’s attractions were met with even more varied results. The prediction ranged from bands that generated the high voltage of the day’s lightning storms, to acts that were greeted with the same disdain as the evening’s passing showers. Hip-hop artists opened the festival in full force with high-energy shows from newcomers, MURS and People Under the Stairs, who packed fans into a maze of bodies fighting to reach the oasis of the tents’ rain-soaked awnings.

The night was uneven for the festival’s young rock acts, with the biggest pressure falling on the shoulders of Massachusetts natives, Passion Pit. The group generated a heavy buzz throughout the scattered campground benefitting from word-of-mouth advertisement that found them playing to the biggest crowd of the night. The young band seemed calm at the outset, with lead singer Michael Angelakos stirring up chants in his button-down shirt like a ring leader under a big top. Draped by their lighting personnel in the soothing pastels of pink and purple, the group’s sound was similarly limited by a bland musical palette and seemed a bit outmatched by a crowd eager to get its money’s worth.

Despite Thursday’s uneven events, Friday brought much-needed relief in the form of bright skies, high temperatures and titillating rumors. Big Hassle Media, however, would neither confirm nor deny the biggest conjecture: that the living members of the Grateful Dead were present amongst the never-ending sea of tents, cars and overpriced vending options planning a surprise appearance. In response to the queries from the press, Big Hassle Media spokesman Ken Weinstein answered with coy statements like “the Dead are with us always.”

Before the rumors could be digested, the meat of the festival’s lineup had already commenced, leading off with a surprise appearance by Jimmy Buffet, who “made it through customs and immigrations” to join Ilo and the Coral Reefer Allstars for a mid-afternoon set on the red satin-dripped stage.

Animal Collective followed, running through “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” off their latest album, “Merriweather Post Pavillion.” Mixing the art of the turntable into the traditional band format, Animal Collective’s heavy electro sound fell victim to the heat, wilting under the burden of the sun.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were greeted by tumultuous applause, particularly for their eccentrically clad singer Karen O, who dominated the stage with her wild persona. Armed with an even mix of old favorites and newer tunes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs kept things tight and upbeat, the new material benefitting from the atmosphere and energy of the afternoon affair. Wearing her signature K.O. studded jacket, the singer proved adept at turning violent screams into soothing “la la las” with whirlwind force, eventually demonstrating her ability to grasp a microphone without hands. The group later covered “Gold Lion” and “Maps,” the latter morphing into an all-out acoustic sing-a-long.

The evening offered an overstuffed lineup that one needed a time-turner to navigate as soul-legend Al Green laid it down on the main stage, while rising acts Santigold and Grizzly Bear fought for fans against old hands like Ani DiFranco and Lucinda Williams. The dizzying atmosphere was perhaps summed up best by Bonnaroo veteran, Williams.

“I always love how there’s so many great bands,” Williams said. “I used to get frustrated when I couldn’t see the other bands at the festival, now I sort of just hang out and save my energy for the show. So I can really admire anyone who can come here and stick it out.”

Night began with festival-goers flocking to an evening set by Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio. Fresh off their latest album, “Dear Science,” the group led off with slow jam “Love Dog” before segueing into more up-tempo material, such as “Crying,” and a primal rendition of their staple, “Wolf Like Me.”

Hip-hop legends the Beastie Boys followed suit, coming out swinging while wielding classics tracks, “No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn” and “Sabotage” like assault weapons on the sleepy evening crowd. On the later tracks, the emcees even trotted out fellow hip-hop legend Nas; however, both acts were left proving their live prowess for a crowd that was merely fighting for prime location for the first of Phish’s shows. Despite working against the crowd, the Beastie Boys played a diverse set that featured the trio jamming through tunes from their recent album “The Mix-Up,” while dipping into punk tunes from the group’s earliest days.

Elsewhere, the alternative to the Beastie Boys was a career-spanning solo set from former Talking Heads frontman, David Byrne. Byrne placated the festival crowd with the set’s second half dedicated to his former band. Clad in a pure white wardrobe, the singer was flanked by a group of matching gymnasts who provided the song’s visuals, their bodies even forming human waves during the Talking Heads classic, “Once in a Lifetime.”

By Saturday afternoon, the Tennessee sun had begun to spill its unforgiving heat upon the masses, the extreme temperatures causing set difficulties and delays for highly anticipated sets like Of Montreal, as even those seeking shelter underneath the tents found little relief. However, like the bands, they had little choice but to press on.

Opening with fan favorite “Skinny Love,” Bon Iver provided a strong show that found lead singer Justin Vernon hulked over his guitar, bellowing out notes with pinpoint accuracy, while his band provided a steady dose of rippling accents. Speaking about the festival, Vernon’s approach differed from that of his peers in presentation but not sentiment.

“Sweatiness is what I’m going for, I just need to look as wet as possible on stage,” Vernon joked. “But the festival thing, it’s a different energy. There’s less pressure because people aren’t there necessarily to see you, and we can get away with playing our nine songs over and over.”

Playing under a bright blue afternoon sky, Wilco led with material off its latest effort, “Wilco, The Album.” Jeff Tweedy spanned the range of his career, integrating newer material with older tracks, with a particular emphasis on “A Ghost is Born”-era tracks, while guitarist Nels Cline brought the spark, riffling off solos from his chipped black Fender. Hardly stopping to banter with the crowd, Tweedy, clad in all black, offered up, “It’s good to be back,” as the group’s lone sentiments to the gathered fans.

While musically the festival was living up to the glory days of old, it wasn’t until Robert Kennedy, Jr., graced the stage that the event was given a proper political edge. Despite his “great faith in President Obama,” the younger Kennedy raged against everything from deforestation in the Appalachians to pollution by America’s coal industries.

“My children have been coming [to Bonnaroo] for six years, so this was a way for me to earn their respect,” Kennedy said. “It is also an opportunity to avoid the worse environmental catastrophe in American history. If a foreign country did what these coal companies were doing, it would be viewed as an act of war.”

Kennedy was greeted with a strong ovation for his sentiments and larger cheers when he invited all environmentalists to join him in civil disobedience over the government’s lack of action. A lacking that thankfully did not translate to the rest of the day’s acts.

Coming out to a distorted spaghetti-western soundtrack, the Mars Volta descended onstage with the outright intentions of baffling the crowd. After stumbling through “Goliath,” the group powered through the opening guff, settling down into a psychedelic set marked prominently by Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s unique guitar showmanship, which dominated the band’s mammoth sound.

If two hours of Mars Volta seemed overbearing, The Decemberists were close by, providing a soothing distraction to those not enamored by Mars Volta’s spiraling insanity. Despite their melodic leanings, the Oregon outfit proved capable of stadium-sized rock, with tracks that found lead singer Colin Meloy and guitarist Chris Funk trading shrieking Black Sabbath-sized riffs.

Headliners Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band played unopposed to a capacity crowd at night dusting off classics like “Born to Run,” alongside odd requests from fans like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Bruce addressed the crowd often, thanking Bonnaroo for the invite to what he dubbed their “second festival appearance.” On stage, the band performed without drummer Max Weinburg, but came complete with a slew of guitarists, backing singers, and brass instruments, thickening the sound for the football-sized arena. The Boss was loose and loud, playing songs with a stamina that would put most musicians to shame. Grooving his way through “10th Avenue Freeze Out,” the Boss kept the audience involved with quick song transitions, leaving fans screaming for more even after the finale, “Dancing in the Dark,” brought their set to its three-and-a-half-hour limit.

The marquee act was far from the last item on the festival’s Saturday menu, as Nine Inch Nails and MGMT provided the crowd with reasons to extend their bedtime into the wee hours. In what lead singer Trent Reznor dubbed Nine Inch Nail’s “last U.S. show ever,” the 20-year old industrial act pounded away over cascading smoke, layers of lasers and raining glow sticks, while showcasing their off-kilter rhythms and shrieking guitars. The set was far from a greatest hits occasion, featuring cuts from their recent all-instrumental release, “Ghosts (I-IV),” as well as a startlingly bleak cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.”

Across the way at a smaller tent, MGMT’s second appearance in two years was a significant departure for the young act, which showed willingness to break away from their traditional keyboard heavy sound. MGMT brought fresh material from their latest recording sessions, which was met with mixed reactions, but big singles “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” still proved the band’s ability to rile a crowd. 

By Sunday, the throngs of sleepy music fans needed a bit of an extra kick, something that was provided by the slew of hardcore and metal acts like Shadows Fall, Coheed & Cambria and Dillinger Escape Plan on the day’s bill. The latter band inspired early afternoon mosh pits, as their singer imparted useful knowledge like “it’s never too early to rock and roll.”

Elsewhere, while Todd Snider was entertaining the crowd with stories of his own psychedelic transformation and missed football practices, Citizen Cope kept a large audience rapt with his simple R&B-influenced brand of rock. The afternoon also provided non-musical entertainment in the form of comedy shows from The Daily Show All-Stars and the traveling “Lebowski Fest,” which found the movie’s fans adorned as bowling pins and lovable side characters, all of whom fought their way into the festival’s film tent.

However, the festival still provided a decent dose of rock and roll from acts like Band of Horses, Andrew Bird and Okkervil River. Opening up with “Plus Ones,” Okkervil River’s frontman Will Shef showed his penchant for slow songs and straining his vocal chords. Across the fields and shopping stalls was Andrew Bird, whistling his way through a tight set with his clear singing and violin virtuoso-ship. Backed by swirling gramophones, Bird was determined to provide an old-fashioned feeling to his set, which was capable of both breathtaking quiet and mounting musical drones.

On the main stage, Snoop Dogg seemed at ease, if a few minutes late to his main stage evening set. Snoop proved adept at working the crowd at times using anything to get a reaction. This included numerous shout outs to the ladies as well as a tribute to deceased rapper Tupac Shukur, which came complete with a mini East Coast, West-Coast chant battle.

Even after almost four days, of music it seemed as though few attendees had left by Sunday night, most intent on seeing the reunited Phish for their triumphant closing of the festival. Armed with their signature light show and wild crowd, which brought everything from beach balls to inflatable octopuses, Phish jammed out for an extended time on classic songs like “Tweezer” and “Gotta Jibboo.”

Phish proved a satisfying live act, with all four members showcasing their instrumental abilities, even welcoming Bruce Springsteen onstage to showcase his own. The Boss fronted Phish through a series of songs including “Mustang Sally” and “Glory Days,” the band successfully proving that their personal glory days have not yet passed them by. And while the 2009 incarnation of the Bonnaroo festival might not have lived up to satisfying the ultimate wishes of the assembled Phish fans and deadheads, the festival had no shortage of surprises. And if nothing else, fans can take comfort that there’s always next year.