Ancient history: Festival Review Bonnaroo 2008

Bonnaroo 2008 – Manchester, Tennessee – 6/12 to 6/15

It’s hard to tell just how much of this weekend was real. The 12-hour overnight car ride to kick things off kind of left me in a permanent state of delirium for the rest of the week. Between the sleeplessness, extreme heat, and lack of showers at the festival, I was kind of a walking zombie for four days. I’ve never had a better time in my life.

Just to give everyone a better idea of what the festival is like in general: About 90,000 converged on a collection of hayfields. Our campsite (the space behind where our two cars were parked) was a 1-minute walk from “Shakedown Street,” a gravel road with a bunch of vendors and porto-potties. From there it was a 10-minute walk to Centeroo, a collection of stages, tents, and vendors that represent the auditory core of the festival.

Thursday, June 12:

We kicked off the weekend with MGMT, a semi-psychedelic band out of New York. We were truthfully drawn simply to a fire show going off beside their tent, but their music brought us closer. I’d never heard of them before, but they brilliantly captured the mood of the festival.

Download: “Time to Pretend”

I caught bits and pieces of Grupo Fantasma (pretty chill) and The Sword (their billing as the next Wolfmother is a stretch) before walking over for the start of the Vampire Weekend set. VW met my expectations. The crowd was loving it, and I was happy to hear “A-Punk” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”

Friday, June 13:

I was under-whelmed by Drive-by Truckers and Fiery Furnaces before stopping in for Stephen Marley at the main stage. Despite the heat, I enjoyed his rendition of several of his father’s songs. In fact, if I didn’t know Bob Marley was dead, I’m not sure I would have even known that it wasn’t him singing.

I wandered between a few smaller stages after Stephen Marley before stopping in for Les Claypool, the creative force behind Primus in the 1990’s (they wrote & performed the South Park theme and “John the Fisherman”). MAN, is this guy strange… But he’s also a brilliant musician and performer.

Download: “One Better”

I left Claypool on the second stage for the Raconteurs, who were just starting on the main stage. The Raconteurs were probably the single band I was most excited about, because I know Jack White is a great artist, but I’ve never had a chance to see him live. He justified my hopes, playing what would become my second-favorite show of the weekend (more on that later). Jack White and Brendan Benson both ripped off some crazy guitar solos during “Store Bought Bones,” revealing a fleshed-out version that I had never heard anything like. “Steady, As She Goes” followed, with White and Benson kicking it off with an extended soloing duel. White and Benson also contributed vocals. White seemed to be giving it everything he had, reaching for notes he wasn’t always capable of (but hey, it’s a rock show. Isn’t that part of the fun?). A few times he also sang into a mic that had kind of a “strobe-light” effect. I really, really recommend watching clips from their performance. It showed me a side of the band that I had never seen or expected.

Watch: “Store Bought Bones,” “Steady, As She Goes”

After the Raconteurs, I headed over to one of the smaller tents, where M.I.A was giving one of only two shows this year. Maya A., out of the U.K., was a surreal spectacle. When I got there, her stage was completely filled with dancing fans, and I’ve never seen a writhing crowd quite like this. I was not at all familiar with M.I.A’s music, but it quickly grew on me, with her eclectic use of sound effects (such as air-horns, which made me feel as if I was halfway between a concert and a Premier League soccer game). She had great stage presence, magnified by the multitude of fans dancing with her.

Download: “Paper Planes”

Chris Rock was a nice respite from all of the music. It wasn’t the best show I’ve ever seen from him, but he did have a few funny moments relating to the Bonnaroo crowd.

Saturday, June 14:

BB King showed exactly why he’s one of the legends of blues. At over 80 years old, the man can’t stand through a concert (he sat on a chair onstage), but he still had the crowd riveted as he ripped off riffs like he was 25.

Dweezil Zappa, of Zappa Plays Zappa, is a spitting image of his father, in both sound and appearance. His set harkened back to the 70’s, when rock was fresher, purer, and more fun.

Pearl Jam. Absolutely the performance of the festival (this answers the question put forth by my description of the Raconteurs set). They started off the show with “Hard to Imagine,” and proceeded into the best concert I’ve ever seen. Vedder himself seemed in awe of the experience, addressing the crowd with teary eyes as he said “There are a lot of emotions flying around out there… There was a time when we thought we’d never play another festival like this, and for good reason (referring to a 2000 festival in Denmark where 9 people were trampled to death). …But after seeing BB King and Jack Johnson, and Cat Power, it makes you realize how it can actually work and on top of that it’s a great fuckin night.”

Vedder’s voice was in fantastic shape throughout the show. It made me realize how much he must care about what he does, compared to someone like STP’s Scott Weiland, whose drug problems have scraped his voice away to a mere shell of what it once was. The condition of Vedder’s voice was particularly noticeable during their stunning rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” He completely let it fly, and he sounded great. He pleased the crowd especially with “Black,” during which it appeared to me that he gave it so much emotion that he was close to completely breaking down by the end of the song. He seemed very touched and impressed by the size of the crowd during his performance of “Better Man,” when thousands of lighters revealed how far back the crowd actually stretched. Addressing the crowd, he expressed “That’s fucking beautiful, man.”

Mike McCready’s guitar solos were incredibly impressive. I’ve never seen any guitarist play so fast with so much dexterity. He sometimes ranged into sounds that were not pleasant-sounding, but it was rockin’ all the same.

The band ended up stretching a scheduled 2-hour set into a 3-hour epic performance, with two encores. They finally finished the show with Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” a fitting end to a show in which Vedder frequently asked the crowd to move for change. “It is welded into the Constitution that people have not only the right, but the responsibility to make change. It can’t get any worse. We’re right here in the middle of America. We can change the whole world. Do you agree that this is the time and place for this kind of talk? …Our music can’t change the world, but I do know one thing, that this many people, right here, can make a change.”

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