The eighth annual Bonnaroo Festival finished on Sunday, June 14th, with a one-of-a-kind moment: Bruce Springsteen joining a reunited Phish for raucous takes on “Mustang Sally” and “Bobby Jean,” plus an epic version of “Glory Days” that peaked with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Springsteen trading scorching solos. “He’s my boyhood hero,” Anastasio told the crowd, many of whom waved glow sticks and tossed beach balls above their heads. “He’s still my hero today.”
It was exactly the kind of musical thrill that the festival – which drew a near-sellout crowd of almost 80,000 to a 700-acre site 60 miles south of Nashville – has become famous for delivering. This year’s lineup was the most eclectic yet: The Beastie Boys, Wilco, Al Green, Merle Haggard, Nine Inch Nails, MGMT, David Byrne, Band of Horses, Erykah Badu and Jimmy Buffett were among the 140-plus acts that played over the four days. Bands who make the trek to Manchester, Tennessee, often stay for the whole weekend, hanging out with their fellow musicians and checking out new music. Even Springsteen was spotted – his face hidden underneath an army-green hat – bobbing along to MGMT’s standout set of hooky psych pop at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, only a few hours after the E Street Band left the stage. “I’d like to thank Bruce Springsteen for opening for us,” said MGMT’s singer-guitarist, Andrew VanWyngarden. “We wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.”
Collaborations are a festival hallmark. New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint and Jenny Lewis jumped onstage during Elvis Costello‘s acoustic set; David Byrne helped out art rockers Dirty Projectors on one tune; Erykah Badu joined Snoop Dogg for “Lodi Dodi”; and the Beastie Boys invited Nas to perform a new cut, “Too Many Rappers.” “What an experience to rock with them,” says Nas. “I couldn’t believe they did ‘Paul Revere.’ Whether I’m performing or not, Bonnaroo is a place I want to be every year from now on.”
“I’ve always wanted to come down here,” Buffett says, sitting in his trailer after an unannounced noontime set. Barefoot and wearing frayed shorts, Buffett led a massive singalong on “Margaritaville” and busted out covers of “Scarlet Begonias” and “Brown Eyed Girl” for a joyous sun-drenched crowd (which included at least one actual parrot). My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan, who wasn’t performing this year, found the lineup overwhelming, saying, “You wake up, circle the list of shows you want to see and hope that you make it to half of them.”
The only festival appearance this summer by Phish brought the tie-dye set back in full force to Tennessee. Though all of the band members have played separately at Bonnaroo – and the group’s pioneering late-Nineties megashows like the Clifford Ball provided much inspiration for the festival – this year was Phish’s debut Bonnaroo appearance. The Vermont crew headlined Friday and Sunday nights, playing three-hour sets that were dotted with classics, new tracks (“Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan”) and cool covers (“Highway to Hell”).
Springsteen headlined on Saturday, wading into the crowd again and again, and winning the audience over with a 28-song set that featured nearly an hour of encores. Taking requests, as he’s been doing nightly, Springsteen grabbed a life-size Santa Claus poster and led the E Street Band through an amped-up version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” “It’s 259 days to Christmas – is everyone being good out there?” he asked from the stage. “You’re not taking any brown acid?”
Later that night, Nine Inch Nails’ intense, retina-searing set included the surprise announcement that Bonnaroo would be NIN’s “last show ever in the United States.” “Don’t be sad,” frontman Trent Reznor said, before inviting prog-metal act Dillinger Escape Plan onstage for a brutal rendition of “Wish.”
While jam bands once dominated the schedule, indie-rock buzz acts have come close to taking over. Friday’s schedule featured soulful Bowie-style art rock from TV on the Radio, the skittering guitars of Dirty Projectors, the burbling electronic sound-scapes of Animal Collective, the knotty compositions of St. Vincent and the synthdriven dance tunes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “I don’t even know what reality is anymore,” says Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. “I can’t think clearly because of my contact high.”
This story is from the July 9th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.