MANCHESTER, Tennessee — By rational standards, the 90,000 Bonnaroo Music Festival attendees should have been miserable this past weekend. If the 99-degree heat didn’t get to them, then two days of torrential rainstorms — which turned the 700-acre farmland festival site into a foul-smelling swamp — should have.
But Mother Nature had no idea who, or what, she was messing with. Now in its third year, the three-day music and camping festival, held from June 11-13, has rapidly become a cultural force to be reckoned with. Even Perry Farrell, the grand poo-bah of Lollapallooza, has embraced the diverse scene upon which Bonnaroo is based by adding a second day — not to mention ‘Roo alums the String Cheese Incident — to his festival this year.
“They’re not copying us,” said promoter Jonathan Mayers of Superfly Productions. “We’re not the first to have two stages with creative lineups. But if they took some cues from us, I see that as a compliment.”
This third Bonnaroo boasted more than 80 bands performing on six stages, along with comedy and movie tents, extensive vendors and countless other diversions. Although there were two deaths over the weekend, both from yet-undetermined causes (see “Two Fans Die At Bonnaroo Music Festival” ), most concertgoers enjoyed a safe, albeit sopping wet, weekend.
The stages opened each day at noon and kept rocking until 4 or 5 a.m., forcing listeners to make almost impossible choices about what to attend — and what to miss. Did it make sense, one had to ask, to skip Wilco for Patti Smith? Or maybe to leave one or the other early to get a good spot for Ani DiFranco’s set? Was it worth missing String Cheese Incident, the Mike Doughty Band or Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson’s New Earth Mud to see Bob Dylan on the main stage?
The schedule also pitted British rockers Gomez against Brit-like rockers Grandaddy; Doc Watson against Damien Rice. A superjam comprised of Galactic’s drummer Stanton Moore, Funky Meters bassist George Porter and master sax player Maceo Parker was slotted up against Bill Laswell’s experimental act Material and jazz-jammers Medeski, Martin & Wood — not to mention David Byrne, who performed a combination of Talking Heads tunes and solo numbers backed by a string section and a rock band.
The level of diversity was at times mind-boggling: styles ranged from Femi Kuti’s Afrobeat to bluegrass by Sam Bush and Del McCoury; from twang-tinged indie-rockers Kings of Leon and My Morning Jacket to the jam band moe., who performed three sets: one during another band’s set break, an acoustic performance on the tiny Sonic Stage and a full set on the main stage.
The recently reunited Primus welcomed guitarist Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads) to the stage during a late-night performance, and ’80s alt-rockers Camper Van Beethoven brought a bit of punk with covers of the Clash and Black Flag before performing a set as their more mainstream alter ego, Cracker.
Similarly, the festival’s headliners made sure their sets were special, if not unique. A funky Friday set from Dave Matthews “and Friends” (featuring Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio) kept the crowd hot with acoustic strumming and popular DMB songs (“Dancing Nancies”), Phish favorites (“Bathtub Gin,” “Waste”) and tons of fun covers like the Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
On Saturday, fans waded and waited through a two-hour rain delay for the Dead to take the main stage. The revamped group sprawled two sets over four hours, complete with Dead classics “St. Stephen,” “Dark Star” and the long jam known as “Drumz/Space.”
And although some fans packed up their mud-caked tents and left the grounds before Trey Anastasio’s Sunday night set, the Phish frontman rewarded the faithful Bonnaroovians — who suffered through yet another rain delay — with two dramatically different sets, the first accompanied by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra and the second with his horned-up backing band, culminating with an intense fireworks display.
It’s one thing to hear artists, fans, promoters and publicists pay lip service to Bonnaroo’s vibe, its sense of musical community and the likeminded attitude that its seemingly disparate acts share. But it’s quite another thing to feel them firsthand. One subtly defining moment could be found early on Sunday afternoon, while standing in the entertainment hub known as Centeroo, where the festival’s second stage — upon which the Tokyo Paradise Ska Orchestra was performing — and a smaller tent stage, which featured Colorado’s self-dubbed “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass” band Leftover Salmon, were situated. For a brief time, an oddly perfect melding of two entirely different art forms occurred, as if the two bands were performing together, in stereo, ending entirely different songs simultaneously as one, and eliciting cheers at precisely the same moment.
If Bonnaroo’s success could be condensed into one aspect, it might be that no matter what the style of music, as long as it’s good, the audience is willing and able to dig it. Rain or shine.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.