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September 14, 2006

Bonnaroo lights up Tennessee for aging hippies and young ‘uns alike

Bonnaroo, the annual music festival held in Manchester, a.k.a. Bumblefuck, Tennessee, gets a bad rap. Many people have never heard of it, and those who have seem to imagine it as some sort of boiling, drug-infested bacchanalia; an annual congregation of young and aging hippies, equally pathetic in their attempts to replicate the long-dead, uninhibited ethos of Woodstock and the ’60s. Like many stereotypes, though, this one proves both fact-based and grossly misunderstood.

Indeed, annual performers and headliners have included assorted members of the Grateful Dead, Phish, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, and jam bands like moe. and Widespread Panic. There is also a strong drug presence, with practically the entirety of the 700-acre farm on which Bonnaroo is held smelling suspiciously (well, more like blatantly) of both marijuana and dirty, sweat-saturated bodies. Therefore, it would admittedly be difficult to make a case against the charge that Bonnaroo is a hippie haven, where the like-minded naïveté of dreamy-eyed flower gropers can conspicuously bloom amidst a sea of tie-dye, hemp, and Volkswagons. Like the majors of many a U of C student, though, Bonnaroo is changing.

It was my second consecutive year at the festival, and though much remained unchanged—the ubiquitous weed, the heat, and the creepy strangers whispering coded offerings in your ear as they pass (“Molly…” “Doses…”), the differences this year were marked. Not the least among these differences was the lineup itself. While many Bonnaroo regulars had returned, including Trey Anastasio (with Oysterhead, the avant-garde power trio he formed with Primus’s Les Claypool and The Police’s Stewart Copeland), Phil Lesh & Friends, moe., and Béla Fleck, the lineup also included some uncharacteristic additions: Death Cab for Cutie, Beck, Ben Folds, The Streets, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Common, to name a few. Oh, and of course, the elephant in the room, Radiohead.

I had never seen Radiohead live before, and barely believed I was about to. I went in thinking that their presence in particular would create a divide in the crowd between the hippies and everyone else. More so, I feared that, in spite of headlining, Radiohead would play to a crowd encompassing maybe half of the festival’s attendees, the other half napping until the midnight SuperJam with Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Phil Lesh, and the Benevento/Russo Duo, where the music they came to Bonnaroo to hear would be played. I also feared that this would create mutual resentment between Radiohead and the crowd, in turn resulting in a bitter, lackluster performance by Thom Yorke, the Greenwoods, and company.

I could not have been more wrong.

The crowd for Radiohead was the largest of the entire weekend, with seemingly all 80,000 fans crammed into the field in front of What Stage, every member of the audience trying to get as close to the stage as possible long before the set even began. From the opening momentum of “There There” to the beautifully morose “You And Whose Army” and “How to Disappear Completely,” new gems from their upcoming album (“House of Cards,” “Arpeggi”), and an array of classics (“No Surprises,” “Paranoid Android,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” and “Karma Police,” to name a few), every song was performed by the band with intense passion and received by the sea of fans with thunderous gratitude. Yorke seemed to be enjoying the experience as much as anyone, once proclaiming, “Thanks…we love you, too,” and later, “This is truly a festival.” The set provided a powerful apex to the weekend, and dispelled any apprehensions I had about its incongruity.

And indeed, this was possibly this year’s greatest strength: Almost nothing would have seemed incongruous. The jam bands, jazz, classic rock, indie rock, college rock, hip hop, international music, bluegrass, folk, and reggae were all well represented, with artists as diverse as Medeski, Martin, & Wood, Matisyahu, Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket, Seu Jorge, Buddy Guy, Atmosphere, and The Refugee All-Stars of Sierra Leone all playing to sizable, exuberant audiences. Personally, the best shows I saw were Radiohead, rappers Lyrics Born and Common, and Beck, although Beck left me wanting more music and fewer gimmicks. At each of these shows, the performers kept the sundry crowd on their feet and pleading for more. And although I thought Tom Petty’s set overlong and a little flat at times, I can honestly say that I did not see a bad show all weekend.

This year’s Bonnaroo was a turning point in the evolution of the festival. The wide musical spectrum encompassed by the acts made for a weekend that found large crowds assembling in front of every major stage, and an experience that did not give way to redundancy, as it may have if the festival had remained dominated by jam bands and aging classic rock acts. And so, come March and April, start checking online for next summer’s artist list. Although next year’s Bonnaroo promises to be different, there is bound to be something for you, and it will certainly be worth the drive.

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