June 18, 2008

At Bonnaroo Music Festival, Old Bands Jammin’ With the New

By Jon Pareles

At around 3 a.m. Sunday at the 2008 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, Phil Lesh and Friends were harmonizing on "Sugaree," a song by Lesh's band mate in the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia.

The Icelandic art-rock band Sigur Ros had just finished a set that deployed a horn section, a tootling pennywhistle, a group of female drummers singing la-la's and a confetti drop along with its usual elegiac anthems.

Ghostland Observatory was pumping out electronic dance music in one tent; Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk were playing New Orleans funk in another.

And thousands of people waited at the main stage, called the What Stage, for a performance by the rapper Kanye West, whose elaborate production setup was running late. He started at 4:30 a.m.

That was just part of the musical spectrum of the seventh annual Bonnaroo festival, which took place Thursday through Sunday. Bonnaroo started in 2002 as a jam-band marathon drawing latter-day Deadheads and Phish fans, but it has expanded every which way. Some jam bands were still here, but they were only one choice among many.

It's a tricky moment for Bonnaroo. Specialized jam-band festivals have arisen nationwide. Phish broke up, Dead members have their own bands, and the Dave Matthews Band is off the road for now. The Bonnaroo jam bands this year, like Umphrey's McGee or the Disco Biscuits, haven't reached the arena circuit (although Widespread Panic, Sunday's headliner, certainly has). Bonnaroo didn't quite sell out its 80,000 tickets this year - an exact attendance figure was unavailable - which may be in part the result of high gas prices. But Bonnaroo still emphasizes musicianship rather than youth or current pop appeal (with a few exceptions, like West).

The other main-stage headliners were Metallica on Friday and Pearl Jam on Saturday. The Bonnaroo crowd - in face paint, tie-dye and dreadlocks - was not the longtime following for Metallica's dynamic, battering-ram songs about death and destruction. When James Hetfield, the band's singer, asked who was seeing Metallica for the first time, an overwhelming majority of hands went up. Metallica gave the crowd a vigorous refresher course in its old songs.

Pearl Jam stopped playing at general-admission festivals after 2000, when fans were killed during a rush to the stage at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. But it changed its policy for Bonnaroo. Marveling at the crowd during the set, Eddie Vedder was happy that people could "be together and communal and survive and it's all good."

Pearl Jam's set brought supercharged punk momentum to old and recent songs. The music could leap toward hard rock, folk-rock, Eastern modes, even a tinge of country-rock. Some songs went rocketing through their riffs; others turned into exhilarating jams, with psychedelic drones spurring Mike McCready's spiraling lead guitar lines. Between songs, Vedder urged the crowd to vote for change and called for an end to the Iraq war.

While this year's lineup was just slightly less diverse than the 2007 Bonnaroo festival, which also included a full-time jazz tent, it nonetheless had blues, country and soul patriarchs (King, Willie Nelson, Solomon Burke) as well as hip-hop, bluegrass, indie rock, heavy metal, African music, punk, folky songwriters and one tent devoted entirely to New Orleans music and another with comedians. (Chris Rock performed on the main stage.) The festival is produced by Superfly Productions, which started in New Orleans, and by AC Entertainment, based in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Bonnaroo resides on farmland about 65 miles, or 100 kilometers, southeast of Nashville, with campgrounds adjoining the festival site. It draws people who arrive for a long weekend, often with hippie wardrobes and mud boots for Bonnaroo's nearly inevitable rain.

Fans stood through an intermittent deluge as My Morning Jacket, a band from Louisville, Kentucky, that pushes pealing, surging Southern rock toward soul and psychedelia, played a three-hour set in the wee hours Saturday. "It feels awesome to be bathed in beautiful golden rain," said the band's leader, Jim James.

Vendors sell wooden flutes and hemp clothing, and one area is devoted to environmentalist groups and speakers. This year Bonnaroo got its own U.S. post office, complete with a festival postmark, operating from a hut made of clay, straw and recycled tires.

With performers on six main stages and various smaller ones, dozens of individual band tales converge at Bonnaroo. M.I.A., the Sri Lankan rapper now based in Brooklyn, New York, has canceled her summer tour, but she tore into her seismic beats and revolution- touting hooks here, in what she declared was her "last gig ever." (Pop retirements are rarely permanent.)

The famously shy Chan Marshall, who performs under the name Cat Power, turned into an extrovert at Bonnaroo. With dramatic crescendos from a band that mingled cabaret piano and bluesy guitar, she plunged into songs - like the Hot Boys' "I Feel," which pondered music, art and love. After her set she returned to the stage like a country star, greeting fans and tossing them flowers.

Room to jam made the Raconteurs, led by Jack White of the White Stripes, even more triumphantly extroverted. They reached back to the good parts - the bluesy intensity and rock flamboyance - of 1970s blues-rock, with White making his guitar moan and wail.

African influence ran deep in Iron & Wine, which wove guitars and marimba into utterly mesmerizing versions of Sam Beam's enigmatic songs. Vampire Weekend, which infuses indie-rock with African guitar licks, introduced new songs that sounded ever closer to one of its obvious models, Paul Simon. Musicians from Africa performed in Extra Golden, a Kenyan-American alliance, and in Orchestra Baobab, from Senegal.

With Nashville nearby, Bonnaroo has a streak of Southern music: the thoughtful Americana of bands like the Drive-By Truckers and the Wood Brothers, and the instrumental excursions devised by bluegrass virtuosos looking beyond three-chord songs. The Bluegrass Allstars, including Bela Fleck on banjo and Jerry Douglas on Resophonic slide guitar, juxtaposed Bill Monroe tunes with their own intricate compositions. Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet (also including Fleck) mingled bluegrass, chamber music and Chinese influences.

Jack Johnson, the surfer-turned-songwriter who is playing many of this summer's rock festivals on an environmentally minded tour, performed a typically amiable set of his contented love songs, with Vedder joining him on one of them. For a moment Johnson used a wah- wah pedal that had belonged to Jimi Hendrix.

There were misfires. The New Orleans tent had a $5 cover charge to be donated to various nonprofits, but on top of Bonnaroo's ticket price - more than $200 - it backfired. Fewer people heard excellent musicians like the pianist Henry Butler, or the late-night jam sessions led by George Porter Jr. of the Meters; with a bigger crowd a tip jar might have collected more donations. And like most outdoor festivals Bonnaroo suffers from sound bleed: Music from one stage carrying to another. Sigur Ros was openly perturbed by the hip-hop thump across the field.

Bonnaroo also had straightforward tribute bands: Lez Zeppelin (women playing Led Zeppelin) and Zappa Plays Zappa, led by Frank Zappa's son Dweezil. Levon Helm of the Band, Lesh and B.B. King were also looking back. So, in a way, was Metallica, which played only one song released since 1991. Too many oldies could mean irrelevance. But alongside them were worthwhile younger performers like Battles, Two Gallants, Mastodon, the Coup, Tegan and Sara and Grand Ole Party - enjoying a hippie weekend but making 21st-century music.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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