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Bonnaroo: Peace, Love and Profits

Anastasio, Jones, Harper jam in Tennessee

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.”

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