On a gorgeous solstice weekend, 70,000 jam-band devotees gathered on a 530-acre farm sixty miles south of Nashville for Bonnaroo, the most ambitious festival this summer. Usual suspects such as Phil Lesh and Trey Anastasio appeared, but the more-than-fifty-band bill also included acts as far-reaching as soul-folkie Ben Harper and hip-hop group Jurassic 5. The three-day event (which began Friday, June 21st), sold out in eleven days without any advertising. It may have shown the moribund music industry that kids will still flock to hear music, so long as it is live and spontaneous.
The college-age fans could choose from a dizzying musical menu more or less continuously from noon on Friday until one o'clock Monday morning. At a single moment on Sunday afternoon, it was possible to stand in one spot and hear strains from all four stages: a jazz ballad sung by Norah Jones; gospel harmonies courtesy of the Blind Boys of Alabama; a Bela Fleck-led, balls-out "SuperJam"; and the Grateful Dead epic "The Other One," performed by Phil Lesh and Friends accompanied by Bob Weir. "This is the first festival that was really focused on the jam-band scene," Lesh told Rolling Stone. But is Ween or Norah Jones a jam band? "I don't know, but that goes to show how broad the category is."
"The whole thing brought me back," said Anastasio, whose original band, Phish, helped pioneer the Bonnaroo style of festival. "If you're not making decisions based on money -- if you're just thinking about throwing a party -- then people will enjoy it."
The crowd, thanks in part to the large quantities of marijuana and mushrooms easily available, danced to Ween's hard-edged pop, was mesmerized by bluegrass legend Del McCoury and did the hippie shuffle to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Some fans charted a knowing course among the stages, debating the merits of the bands as if they were sports teams. Others were like Karl from Wyoming, whose friends dragged him to see the Disco Biscuits. "I hated the name, but that was totally killer," he said as he hustled, still flushed from the early-evening set, to a tent set up by Gateway Computers where he could download music from all the Bonnaroo bands. And still others made random discoveries, such as Jack, a twenty-year-old from Cincinnati, who fell asleep in an empty music tent after Moe's late-night set ended early on Sunday morning, woke up at the beginning of an afternoon of gospel music and liked it so much that he stayed for the duration.
Musicians seemed inspired to take chances by the crowd's willingness to listen to the unfamiliar. Anastasio, who ended his four-hour show-closing set by conducting the crowd and band in an entirely improvised call-and-response that culminated in a loud, ecstatic scream, seemed overwhelmed as he thanked the crowd for being so attentive to his new project, a ten-piece big band that bears little resemblance to Phish. Danny Louis, who played keyboards with Gov't Mule, compared the crowd's devotion to music to earlier days in rock & roll: "They listen so hard. As a musician, that's the best thing."
Musicians were also inspired to collaborate. DJ Logic seemed ubiquitous. Robert Randolph, a gospel pedal-steel guitarist who has recently been making the jam-band rounds, sat in with Moe and Galactic. Ben Harper joined surfer-turned-folkie-bluesman Jack Johnson. Gospel singer Dottie Peoples sat in with Widespread Panic. Steve Winwood showed up to play "I'm a Man" with String Cheese Incident and "Glad" and "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" with Widespread Panic. Despite the gnarly traffic jams, overflowing toilets and some vastly inebriated partiers, it was hard to argue with organizer Ashley Capps when he said that the festival was exactly what he had hoped for: "We wanted to create an event for the people who love the live-concert experience, not the one that is canned or preproduced."