MANCHESTER, Tennessee — There was mud, rain, oppressive heat, a set by a world-beating rap superstar ([artist id="1269"]Jay-Z[/artist]), a classic soul icon ([artist id="19226"]Stevie Wonder[/artist]), a former “Tonight Show” host (Conan O’Brien) and a jam-band legend ([artist id="814"]Dave Matthews Band[/artist]). In other words, just another action-packed weekend at the ninth-annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival .
From Thursday through Sunday, more than 75,000 fans tried to escape triple-digit temperatures by tuning in to ferocious sets from Jay, a midnight mindfunk from the Flaming Lips, anthemic rock from kind-of hometown boys Kings of Leon and just about every flavor in between.
Thursday night eased travelers in with a main stage set from British trio the xx, whose trippy lighting and haunting, minimalist tunes soothed some nerves of attendees who might have sat in eight to 10 hours of traffic to make their way into the grounds. Following earlier sets by Oregon neo-folkies Blitzen Trapper, Motown-esque singer Mayer Hawthorne and hard-charging Manchester Orchestra, a festival favorite, instrumental dance jammers Lotus played late into the night.
For Friday night’s headliners, Nashville-bred Kings of Leon , the gig was somewhat of a homecoming. Their latest tour is both a victory lap for their 2008 breakthrough album, Only by the Night, and a preview of their next album. They were preceded by the moody rock of the National and the ‘Roo debut of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who perked up plenty of ears with their bluegrass twang and harmonies.
For a complete change of pace, the Gossip fired up a short time later, drawing a big crowd that got pumped up by Beth Ditto’s punk-disco-diva vocal style and boundless energy during tunes including “8th Wonder” and “Listen Up!” On a bill that was somewhat short on female artists, a solo Tori Amos needed nothing more than her soaring voice and dramatic piano skills to draw attention, as she sat on the stage alone, alternating between piano and electric keyboard.
A major hit of the day was the due of Damian Marley and Nas, who were introduced by this year’s festival host, Conan O’Brien. The crowd was chock-full of some of the best dreads around, all dancing and groovin’ to the power duo, who closed with a Bob Marley shout-out and song.
Following Damian and Nas were Tenacious D, whom many had been waiting to see all day. The crowd was animated throughout the set, though they seemed to be trying to decide between wanting to sing along and trying not to laugh out loud.
For anyone trying to keep their energy level up, Michael Franti and Spearhead’s show was the place to be. The band cranked out some seriously groovy vibes, as people waved anything that glowed and twisted around in their hula-hoops.
One of the most highly anticipated acts of the festival, the Flaming Lips, didn’t disappoint as they played one of their usual confetti and prop-filled sets and then covered Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with Stardeath and the White Dwarfs. The intermission allowed some fans to wander over to check out some of grungy blues from duo the Black Keys.
Following his arrest earlier in the day in New York on charges of criminal mischief and possession of a controlled substance, Kid Cudi made it to the stage around 2 a.m. And wrapping up a full day of performances, LCD Soundsystem kicked everyone back into high gear shortly after 2 a.m. with a high-energy run through “Time to Get Away,” current hit “Drunk Girls” and “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House.” The Crystal Method spun into the daylight as many festival-goers’ heads hit their air mattresses.
Beginning a Saturday filled with tough decisions as to which show to run to, Dawes took over one of the more intimate stages and were introduced as a band to keep a serious eye on. The Mexican Institute of Sound got their entire crowd dancing just as hard as they would be for techno superstar Deadmau5 about 12 hours later.
The entire day was jammed packed with must-see performances that all had similar time slots, including Norah Jones, folk icon John Prine and Rock Hall of Fame guitarist Jeff Beck. After two days of sweltering heat, a light rain glossed the crowd giving everyone a must needed cool-down at during the Avett Brothers’ show. Elsewhere, Weezer threw down such hits as “Hash Pipe” and “My Name Is Jonas.” The day had also featured performances from reggae icon Jimmy Cliff.
A huge draw to the festival on Saturday night was the can’t-miss double headlining bill of Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z. After entering the stage wielding a white keytar, Wonder set up a two-hour string of hits including “Higher Ground,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Superstition” and “My Cherie Amour,” before dipping into a cover of Marvin Gay’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” during which he busted out a vocoder to add an extra dose of funk.
Just hours later, the same crowd witnessed Jay-Z at his finest, rising to the stage after a 10-minute countdown on the video screens and then throwing down a 90-minute set that cemented his status as a certified festival headliner. Aside from a brief pause to wish a female festivalgoer happy birthday, Jay was all business, throwing out anthem after anthem to a sea of fans throwing up the Roc sign for “On to the Next One,” “99 Problems,” “Empire State of Mind” and “Can I Get A …” as his full band blazed away behind him.
Jigga gave a shout-out to the White Stripes’ Jack White, whose other other band, the Dead Weather, played a snarling distorted blues set on the same stage earlier, and even spilled that he couldn’t wait to tell his mother that, “Stevie Wonder stuck around for my set.”
Even though the Thievery Corporation faced tough competition, sharing a timeslot with Jay-Z, a large, dedicated crowd danced away to the veteran group’s world-music-influenced techno.
After Saturday’s hectic schedule, Sunday provided a mellow closing to the festival. Blues Traveler and Medeski, Martin and Wood played jam-tastic shows that could only be described as “so Bonnaroo.” Regina Spektor was a major draw, as were main stage headliners the Zac Brown Band, who just last year were playing at one of the smaller tents at Bonnaroo. They played while French techno popsters Phoenix cranked things up on the other big stage. Another difficult Sunday choice had to be made between the twee pop of They Might Be Giants and country legend Kris Kristofferson, Creedence Clearwater Revival founder John Fogerty as well as Guinness-soaked punkers Dropkick Murphys.
Closing the festival were the Bonnaroo veterans the Dave Matthews Band whose set was filled with ear-candy. As soon as the first notes of “Don’t Drink the Water” were played, glow sticks and bubbles were launched into the air and all were treated with a beautiful view of Chinese lanterns floating in the sky above the crowd.
Ending with poignant Neil Young cover of of “Needle and the Damage Done” and then their signature searing take on Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” for their encore, DMB made their fans grateful they’d braved the weekend’s sometimes harsh conditions to stay until the final notes rang out.
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