Maximum Performance

Bonnaroo 2009: The Good, The Bad, And The Jammy

Maximum Performance

Attending Bonnaroo means making a bargain: Sustain only on beef jerky and Ambien-induced sleep for a weekend, and reap the benefits of bruised joints, a deflatedly exhausted post-weekend sense of self, and--hopefully--memories that'll stick with you at least until you've come down from however many 5-Hour-Energy shots (or...whatever) you've consumed to make it through all four days.

Thankfully, plenty of this year's fest was exceptional enough to stick; in a very organic way, this year's Bonnaroo managed to walk the slippery line between the festival's roots in the somewhat culty world of jam bands (the first couple years, organizers somehow notoriously got everyone who's ever segued two songs of theirs together for late-night megajams) and its more recent reputation as the premiere festival in North America (thanks to bookings like Radiohead and the Police). Coachella may still be capable of the bragging rights that come with breaking bands, but Bonnaroo's the place to come see those bands once they have broken, especially if you don't want to deal with jockeying for space with Paris Hilton.

So this year, for the fest's eighth edition, how'd they manage that balance? Smart planning, first and foremost. Yes, the reunited Phish were among the headliners, playing three mostly stellar sets that fuzed their jazzy, sometimes challenging sensibilities with crowd-pleasing singalongs (like an unexpected cover of AC/DC's "Highway To Hell") buoyed by a fanbase that'd be smart to invest in whomever's making glow-bracelets (thousands upon thousands of which erupted, fireworks-style, throughout the entirety of all three of their sets). But also headlining were the Beastie Boys and Nine Inch Nails, both alt-rock legends who could safely put to bed any rumor that Bonnaroo has gone too soft after boasting bands like Metallica and Tool at the top of the bill in recent years.

Both the Beasties and NIN did their part, with the former playing amid a stage set made entirely of Christmas lights, blasting through not only hip-hop classics like "So Whatcha Want" (mashed up with Nas's hit "Made You Look," after that star rapper sat in with the Beasties' for a new, collaborative song) but also "Heart Attack Man," an older, devastatingly aggressive punk-rock song presumably meant to please any hardcore fan without a discerning ear, and an unfortunately flubbed "Sabotage," which lost all sense of power without its generally awesome bass build. Onstage, at Nine Inch Nails' late-night set, Trent Reznor seemed, well, in a mood ("I don't know how I feel about this starting-at-1-in-the-morning sh*t," he proclaimed), so it stands to figure his aggression felt legitimate instead of forced; he claimed onstage that this was the band's last U.S. show, though it still remains to be seen whether he meant for the tour/this year/forever/until he's pissed about something else.

To the shock of absolutely no one, though, the entire weekend belonged to Bruce Springsteen, who played not only a triumphant, three-hour-plus set with the E Street Band on Saturday, but sat in with Phish for three songs on Sunday, which likely caused some accidents on the interstate as anyone trying to get an early start out of the parking lot flipped a U-turn to make it back once they got the text from their friends on the field, which probably read something like this: "LOL Bruce and Trey trading licks on Mustang Sally OMG Bobby Jean OMGOMG GLORY DAYS!"

Springsteen's own set was no less notable. Bonnaroo was stunningly his band's first-ever North American festival appearance, which is all the more surprising when you consider a couple things: First, they've been playing arenas longer than most of the attendees on the field have been alive, and secondly, he's the only living person with a hip that can enrapture tens of thousands of men and women with just one swivel. Full ownership was his: Summoning up the lordly power of fellow main-stage act Al Green, Springsteen testified that we were going to use his set to build a house (amen!) on this field (amen!) and it was going to be a house of love (AMEN! Now, what are we going to do about the sightline problems this is going to cause...?); then, he and the band gave back tenfold, using a custom catwalk that extended nearly a football-field into the crowd to make sure they were as invigorated as he was. "Have you had enough?" he screamed, before each encore; and they hadn't (at least not until the penultimate "Dancing In The Dark," during which Springsteen brough up a nervous girl from the front row holding a sign that read "I'm a better dancer than Courtney." Charmingly, she wasn't.)

On his current tour, Springsteen takes some time for obscure audience requests, and his fest appearance was no different (suffice to say, you haven't really lived until you and 100,000 of your closest friends sing along with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street band to "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" in the middle of June); to directly connect with a teeming audience of this magnitude so effortlessly is a rare gift, and one that Springsteen thankfully, obviously, has never once thought of squandering.

Still making their way, there was MGMT--and can someone please figure out when this band got so frikking big? The biggest draw of any non-mainstage band (and arguably more popular in this instance than Nine Inch Nails, who were playing at the same time to what appeared to be considerably less people), the Brooklyn duo-turned-five-piece also played a wildly well-received set at Bonnaroo last year, but this could have been considered their Arcade-Fire-at-Coachella-moment: a wall-to-wall sea of people screaming along to every word of "Time To Pretend," a too-obvious, still-irresistible ode to debauchery. You had no choice but to believe they meant it when 50,000-or-so unshowered, potentially unemployed music fans screamed, "This is our decision/to live fast and die young/we had the vision/now let's have some fun" at 3am during a massive economic crisis (it was Woodstock's anti-establishment F-you as filtered through the brains of the slacker generation.) It's still the standout song from the young band; the two new tunes debuted at Bonnaroo had the acoustic '60s-surf feel of peers the Shins, dangerous territory to explore when they'd made their name on funky psych, rather than soulless folk.

Though the Springsteen/Anastasio wank-off was the weekend's topic du jour, it was far from the only collaboration at the fest: Following a sit-in during Jenny Lewis's set, Elvis Costello invited the Rilo Kiley singer-songwriter onstage to share the favor. At 4am on Saturday, the Allmans-ish jam-band moe traded out members one by one until their stage was fully populated by Grace Potter &  the Nocturnals, who belted out three Janis Joplin-inspired howlers before moe returned, and--during a crazily well-received main stage slot--Snoop Dogg invited Erykah Badu to croon alongside him (he also delivered one of the most unintentionally hilarious intros in festival history, when he stonily slurred, "Y'all ready for motherf**king Phiiiiiisssssshhhhh??")

Since Bonnaroo music goes 'til all hours, it sometimes can seem like the fest lasts for weeks, rather than mere days: Jimmy Buffett played a semi-surprise set on Saturday at noon, waking up eagle-eared campers with "Why Don't We Get Drunk And Screw" and "Margaritaville" (later that night, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy would let a video cameraman strum his guitar during "Spiders").

On Friday, David Byrne curated a stage featuring Santigold's multi-ethnic hip-hop and the insanely eclectic rock of Dirty Projectors before prancing through a carefully choreographed "Burning Down The House" on another stage later that same night. Thursday, early arrivals dealt with biblical downpours while muddying themselves to Janelle Monae's future-soul, Portugal. The Man's take on Mars Volta-style prog rock, and the dirty rootsiness of the Delta Spirit, who played through a relentless downpour four hours later than they were scheduled, thanks to airport delays.

Afterwards, in the sun, those seem like mere distant memories, their existence proven only by the achiness of joints and seemingly never-ending hangover headaches. Was it worth it? Of course--so long as your deal with your body means giving it the rest of the year off.

View Comments