MANCHESTER, Tennessee — Short of seeing dark clouds and thinking it’s going to rain, things are rarely what they appear to be when it comes to the Bonnaroo Music Festival.
Now in its fourth year, the three-day camping event, held this past weekend on a 700-acre farm, looked like it was going to have some problems. The event sold fewer tickets (by almost 10,000) than last year. The lineup — which featured Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic as headliners, with former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio’s new band, Bob Weir’s Ratdog and the Black Crowes in supporting roles — didn’t read as strongly as it had in years past: There were no Bob Dylans, Neil Youngs or David Byrnes. And in the end there was a very dark moment, when the body of a 32-year-old fan was discovered on Saturday morning (see “Man Found Dead At Bonnaroo Festival; Police Await Autopsy Results” ).
Eighty-thousand tickets did get sold, however, and with more than 80 acts in a wide variety of genres — bluegrass, Southern rock, indie rock, pop, reggae, hip-hop, electronica and comedy — performing on 11 stages, plus plenty of other diversions like movie screenings, video games and a wireless headphone-driven “Silent Disco,” this year’s attendees never could have been at a loss for something to do.
The festival wasted no time in getting the entertainment started, enjoying its strongest opening night ever on Thursday. While Nashville rootsabilly band the Legendary Shack Shakers rocked one stage, another hosted the off-kilter, cutesy Gabby La La — an Asian pixie of a performer decked out in a huge blue wig and equipped with a sitar, accordion and Primus’ Les Claypool on bass. Yet another held Steel Train, a hybrid Grateful Dead/ Santana-influenced band with enough indie cred to attract a contract from pop-punk/emo-oriented Drive-Thru Records. All the while, in the comedy tent, Eddie’s big bro Charlie Murphy (of “Chappelle’s Show” fame) entertained.
On Friday afternoon the choices became even more complex, with Alison Krauss and Union Station pitted against sultry young soul belter Joss Stone, then against hip-hop collective Jurassic 5, who likewise competed with folk legend John Prine, alt-country ’bama slammers Drive-By Truckers and vocalist Madeleine Peyroux.
It’s the same story every year: too many options, too many acts up against one another on the schedule. So the decision, many times, comes down to deciding whether you’re in the mood for the tried-and-true or something new.
Does one give up the obvious choice of seeing a fiery performance on the main stage by the Allman Brothers Band — thereby missing standards like “Melissa,” “Midnight Rider” and “Whipping Post,” a guest appearance by bluegrass legend Jerry Douglas on “Good Morning Little School Girl” and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower”? The alternatives were two scene mainstays — banjo mastery with the Bela Fleck Acoustic Trio and a drums/keys combo by the Benevento/Russo Duo featuring former Phish bassist Mike Gordon — or the truly alternative alternative, jazz legend Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters.
Those who went for Hancock were treated to a relentlessly energetic set of instrumental jazz funk, featuring an unabashedly ecstatic John Mayer on guitar. And if fans were surprised by this, just “wait till you see what I’m about to do next,” Mayer said to reporters. “I’ve got a lot of time,” he said. “I’m just experimenting with patience.”
Onstage with Hancock, Mayer was part of a collective sound, at times breaking ahead with a rousing solo, but more often backing up while Hancock took the lead on the keys or bassist Marcus Miller busted out, as on an ultra-funky “Frankenstein.”
“He can honestly, really play the guitar,” Hancock remarked to reporters.
With no musical competition at all, the headlining Dave Matthews Band were truly the obvious choice. The audience piled into the mainstage grounds and as DMB began to play, a barrage of light and sound struck, beginning with the apropos lyrics of the opening song, “One Sweet World.” “Let us be outside tonight,” Matthews sang, commenting on the “nice cool evening, just right enough for everybody.” Eliciting the festival’s first glow-stick war, DMB’s set included covers of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and a few guest appearances: Gov’t Mule/ Allman Brothers/ Dead member Warren Haynes joined the group during “Jim Thing” and slide guitarist Robert Randolph came out for “Louisiana Bayou” and “All Along the Watchtower.”
Continuing the road less traveled late on Friday, while jam-funk outfit Galactic hosted a four-hour “Krewe de Carnivale” — which included an appearance by “American Idol” runner-up Bo Bice on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” — political rapper Saul Williams offered 45 minutes of mind-altering activism and the Brazilian Girls won audiences over with an hour of multilingual, multicultural, multigenre seduction.
But the adventurous choice (and enough people made it to pack the tent) was clearly neo-prog garage rockers Mars Volta. Playing at eardrum-shattering volume, the band delivered an electrical storm of a performance that featured merciless body flailing, percussion banging, sax blowing and spastic body jerking.
Saturday presented equally complicated choices.
While the Yonder Mountain String Band performed an acoustic rendition of “Dear Prudence” on the second stage, followed by poppy singer/songwriter Jack Johnson’s set, a resurrected Black Crowes took the main stage. Surrounded by electrical candelabras and lingering Nag Champa incense, the group proved its comeback was worth the wait for such heartfelt “Freak ’n’ Roll” as “Thorn in My Pride,” “Remedy” and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace.”
After that, Widespread Panic had the crowd’s undivided attention. The group performed two sets and invited Warren Haynes up onstage. Haynes came out for “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and “Doreatha,” while Mule drummer Matt Abts contributed percussion to the “Drums” interlude and Haynes and Mule keyboardist Danny Louis came out for Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.”
As the final notes faded from the main stage, over on the second stage, former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio launched into a set with his new band. One highlight was a guest appearance by Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu.
At 2:30 a.m., the choices were narrowed to hip-hop eclecticists De La Soul — who brought “all the ladies” (and a couple gender-confused men) onto the stage for several songs — and Japanese turntable master DJ Krush.
Coming into Bonnaroo with no preconceptions, Modest Mouse simply got onstage and rocked it the best way they knew how on Sunday. Within two songs, one of which was their radio hit “Float On,” Modest Mouse had attracted perhaps the biggest crowd of any act on the second stage, driving more than one fan up into a nearby tree.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports .