Ever June since 2002, something strange happens in the rural town of Manchester, Tennessee: for one long weekend, its population grows tenfold, with over 80,000 people of all ages flocking there from all over the country. The reason behind this phenomenon is the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
While Bonnaroo began as a jamband festival, it has evolved over the years into a diverse platter of musical stylings, to the point where a single label cannot be placed on the festival’s genre. For a taste of Bonnaroo’s variety, one needs look no further than the lineup of headliners – Bruce Springsteen, Phish and the Beastie Boys. The Beasties put on a playful show littered with classics such as “Sabotage” and “Intergalactic,” and while the set was enjoyable, it was definitely lacking in certain areas. The standout hip-hop act of the weekend was, without a doubt, Snoop Dogg, who instilled a little oomph in a crowd made sluggish by the Tennessee humidity. While a decent amount of the crowd was mainly at his show to score prime real estate for the Phish show that was to follow, Snoop proved that his energy and charisma, not to mention the smooth beats backing him, could even get the neo-hippie crowd going. Snoop Dogg also wins my award for most surreal moment of the festival, when he ended off his set asking us if we were “ready for mothafuckin Phish?” No where else in the world would that situation seem remotely normal.
The second-tier stages offered up some great nuggets of music – Animal Collective played a short, ethereal set, Bela Fleck mesmerized me with his banjo that seemed to be an extension of his body, and Gov’t Mule proved to be the perfect music to lay in the shade and doze off to, in the best way possible. These stages also introduced me to a number of acts that I had always been interested in listening to, such as MGMT and Grace Potter, both of which were among my favorite artists at the festival. The best show at any of these stages, though, had to be Saturday’s all-nighter put on by moe. What was supposed to be a show from 1-4 AM, Moe kept the jamming going until 6:30 AM Sunday morning, with the sun rising as the good times came to a close.
Wilco’s Saturday evening set at the main stage was among the best of the weekend, with front man Jeff Tweedy colorfully running through classics such as “Handshake Drugs” and “Jesus, Etc” and introducing us to some new tracks such as “Wilco (The Song).” As the crowd swayed or laid down on the sun-drenched field, Wilco brought it all, with each song filling the Southern air with an interesting mix of heavy country-rock and textured layers of electric feedback.
The highlight of Bonnaroo, though, was without a doubt Phish. The newly reunited jamband headlined with two shows, on Friday night and closing the festival out on Sunday night. On Friday, Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell and Jon Fishman proved to the tens of thousands present that they were playing the best they have been in over ten years, playing a nonstop, three-hour set bursting with classics such as “You Enjoy Myself,” “The Divided Sky” and “Wilson,” while at the same time throwing down a few new tracks such as the energetic “Kill Devil Falls” and the humorous “Alaska.” The Bonnaroo finale on Sunday night continued the trend of stellar playing by all four members of Phish, who still have a few tricks up their sleeve. Anastasio and co. were feeling very playful, blazing through crowd pleasers such as “Sparkle” and “AC/DC Bag,” and it was after fan-favorite “Run Like An Antelope” that they brought out the big guns – much to everyone’s surprise and enjoyment, Bruce Springsteen came onstage to close out the set with the Vermont jamband backing him up. The smiles on everyone’s faces was enough to let me know that this was a once in a lifetime event, the live collaboration of two of the biggest touring acts this summer.
As the crowd spilled out of the main stage area into the campgrounds outside, meandering by independent vendors selling glassware and hot waffle sandwiches, everyone had a certain glow about them. This magical weekend was coming to a close, and we were all reflecting on it. We thought of the shows we finally got to see after much anticipation (Wilco) and the shows we sadly had to miss (David Byrne, I will have to catch you some other time). There were acts that pleasantly surprised us (Grace Potter), and bands that did not live up to their name (Ben Harper). Overall, though, we all knew that we were a part of something special, something that, for four days of the year, makes 700 acres of Tennessee fill up with lights, sounds and people.