There is nothing quite like Bonnaroo. Now in its third year, the Tennessee festival – held June 10th through 14th in Manchester – once again fused the close-quarters overload of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the dazzling chaos of Phish’s summer camp-outs with a musical breadth rivaled only by Coachella.
Organizers at Superfly Productions relied on their jam-band roots for the sold-out 90,000-person draw (up 20,000 from the inaugural 2002 edition). The three nights were headlined by Dave Matthews and Friends, the Dead, and Trey Anastasio, respectively. More than eighty acts, ranging from bluegrass veteran Doc Watson to controversial-DJ Danger Mouse, headed south to perform on the six stages.
“I think it’s really the first festival in America in a really long time to be this successful, if for no other reason than celebrating music,” said Matthews, who closed out Friday night playing an acoustic encore with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, a member of his Friends ensemble. “People come and hang out in the middle of nowhere to smell each other’s funk and listen to great, eclectic music from all corners of the industry.”
Apocalyptic Saturday and Sunday evening storms turned the 700-acre site into a wasteland of abandoned sandals and blankets. Revelers endured a two-hour delay before the Dead’s two-set performance in fairly good humor. Some mud-wrestled goofily on the concert field. Those selling pot-laced goo-balls and chocolate covered psilocybic mushrooms did a brisk business.
Ultimately, the music prevailed. Most complaints with the performances were limited to gentle kvetching about having to choose between favored acts playing simultaneously (Ani DiFranco vs. Patti Smith vs. Wilco on Friday, Ween vs. Primus vs. the Dead on Saturday). As Bob Dylan (performing Friday on the Vaudevillian-dubbed main “What Stage”) unveiled a pedal-s! teel laced cover of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” lite-grass jammers String Cheese Incident (performing on “Which Stage”) threatened to overpower him. Old-tyme revivalist Gillian Welch (performing in “This Tent”) quipped that “it sounded like the Mothership just landed.”
Many acts pushed themselves for the jam-band crowd. Indie rock mainstays Yo La Tengo endeared themselves to new listeners with dryly humorous choreography, extended improvisations, and several tongue-in-cheek question-and-answer sessions with the crowd. “‘Yo La Tengo’ is a Spanish phrase, loosely translated as ‘China Cat Sunflower,'” joked guitarist Ira Kaplan in response to a query. Wilco, with new touring guitarist Nels Cline, turned in a magisterial afternoon set drawn from their soon-to-be-released A Ghost Is Born.
Young acts also worked to distinguish themselves. Midwest prog-freaks Umphrey’s McGee impressed during their late-night show that lasted past four in the morning, with three-year Bonnaroo veterans moe. taking the stage in the middle for a! mini-set of their own. Australian folkie Xavier Rudd made such an impression that his independently released Solace CD was the weekend’s runaway bestseller – outpacing even Warren Haynes’ Live at Bonnaroo, recorded at last year’s festival – according to Scott Perkins of Cat’s Music, a regional chain selling CDs in the Centeroo village.
By the end of the third day, conditions were miserable. Taking the stage to relieved applause from a wet and weary crowd, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio closed the weekend with a pair of sets. During the first, he led the Nashville Chamber Orchestra through a set of compositions from his Seis De Mayo album, including a fully realized orchestration of Phish’s “Pebbles and Marbles.” At the end of the second, as his band pulsed through “First Tube,” a massive fireworks display lit up the finally clear Tennessee night.
“I’ve been here for three years,” said guitarist Al Schnier of moe. “I don’t need a map anymore. ! It just seems like this place is always here.” But, even as tens of thousands of attendees dispersed onto the highways, dreaming of warm showers, techies were already converting the festival grounds back to its normal existence, as a hayfield.