Best Way to Celebrate 15 Years of Bonnaroo: Dead & Company
In the 15 years since its inception, Bonnaroo has seen its audience change, its musical tastes expand, its culinary choices improve, its behind-the-scenes operations get better and its drug availability get tougher. It's almost unrecognizable from its 2002 origin, when bands like Widespread Panic would headline two nights, but the festival has always stayed true to its jam-band roots, and that was on full display Sunday night.
A year ago, Dead & Company didn't exist. Sunday, they headlined Bonnaroo. This festival is a strange place. The band, lit from the embers of the "final" Fare Thee Well shows, consists mainly of the Dead's Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann alongside guitarist John Mayer, who steps into the hole left by Jerry Garcia. At first, it is a bit jarring to hear Mayer's voice, just as it was hearing Trey Anastasio's voice, where Garcia's used to be, but that alien feeling dissipates after a few songs, and then you can enjoy the music for what it is: A group of elite musicians, three formerly of the Dead, playing the band's timeless tunes with precise and delicate care.
And perhaps no song encapsulates the spirt of Bonnaroo more than "Tennessee Jed," with Weir shouting into the humid June night, "Tennessee, Tennessee, ain't no place I'd rather be" along with tens of thousands of temporary residents of the state.
"Shakedown Street," another highlight, literally shook the bleachers with a funky undertone — courtesy of longtime Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge — that's sorely absent from the disco-plundering original version. Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann act as each jam's incalculably accurate timekeepers, always in step and syncopated no matter where Weir and Mayer bring them. Weir and Mayer's partnership, while still fresh, was also in correct alignment, with each knowing when exactly to lead or follow, when to explore a song or when to form the segue.
The remaining glowsticks were thrown, the last cannabis of the weekend was smoked and shared, the spirit of Bonnaroo pulsated and the kids in the audience — many of whom never shared the earth with Garcia — soaked it all in, knowing this is probably the closest they'll ever get to seeing the Grateful Dead.