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Bonnaroo 2006 - Festival Review - Part 1


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Bonnaroo 2006 – Festival Review

Manchester, TN June 16-18

by Alan Dodson


What Stage Crowd

photo by Ryan Mastro

It is tough to write about a festival like Bonnaroo without resorting to old clichés and hyperbole. Yes, Bonnaroo boasts an extremely eclectic lineup. Yes, it’s held on a massive farm. Yes, it’s unbearably hot. And yes, the dreaded schedule conflicts cause many happy headaches for concertgoers from around the continent. These facts are widely known and reported on; this “review†aims to shed light on some of the lesser-known aspects of Bonnaroo that are equally as important, but usually take a backseat to superlatives aimed at a (deserving) headliner or superstar.

Unlike most other concerts where you can pack up and leave after the show, the campsite atmosphere of Bonnaroo creates an immediate sense of community upon arrival. Attendees and hopefuls line up on the highway and roads surrounding the site, waiting for what could be hours to enter and get set up for the weekend.


photo by Taylor Crothers

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Spontaneous games of Frisbee and footbag break out, and everyone is generally interested in others’ stories of the journey. We hear more than one ‘Wow, you drove all the way from Canada!?’ query. Snaking the route of Bushy Branch Road are many people on foot, using whatever energy they have left in the hot sun to make it to the gate. Once ushered through the gates there is the annual struggle to get a campsite close to the action.

For some reason this year the parking forces decide to reward those who arrive first by directing them to the far reaches of the campground. Having camped in the boonies once before, we were having none of that.

We ruffle a few feathers by refusing to follow directions, and we end up getting a much closer campsite just off Shakedown Street that will allow us to spend most of our time enjoying the festival rather than ferrying back and forth from camp. Everyone shares in the mad dash to unpack cars and set up elaborate home bases, all the while dealing with the oppressive heat of Middle Tennessee. Tools are exchanged, neighbours are met and stories are shared in this instant community - a neighbourhood of friendly strangers.

We had been warily watching the weather for the days leading up to Bonnaroo, trying to determine just when it would torrentially rain this year. The forecast didn’t call for rain though; instead it called for mid-thirties with little cloud for the whole weekend. Shade was destined to be our best friend for the weekend. Without it, even contemplating fun seemed pointless.

Once shade is set up we set out to explore Shakedown Street and get a feel for the familiar yet completely new neighbourhood. The ice vendors are amazed at our trip from Canada, the pesto mozzadillas are every bit as good as previous years, and I am very happy to see that there were indeed pay showers in the our campground despite official Bonnaroo emails telling us otherwise.

Back to the weather for a moment: Although we didn’t know it at the time, the dry weather all weekend was a blessing in disguise. The portapotties were serviced more often (it seemed) than years past because the trucks could actually manoeuvre the roads to get to them. Not so much a big deal for me, but for the girls that didn’t bring pee-mates it was good news.


Bonnaroo Cinema

With no bands on stage for most of Thursday, there is time to kill and heat to escape. Thank Jebus for the Cinema Tent. Crowds swarm the tent for most of the weekend, but on Thursday it is a perfect refuge to stretch out, nap, take in some hilarious movies after the long hot car ride and set up. I’m sure the air conditioning in this tent saved a few lives this weekend. The cinema tent is a focal point for more community-building as live World Cup soccer games and the NBA Finals fill the movie screen. On Saturday during the United States / Italy game, horse-mounted police keep an eye on the very rowdy crowd, although it is all in good fun and there is no violence or anything inappropriate.

My first impression of the audience for the weekend is noticeably different than in years past. Usually a stronghold for the stereotypically ‘hippy’ types, this year’s Bonnaroo has transformed itself into a more inclusive crowd, and there are different opinions on this from the artists in attendance. Sitting in the press tent, Jack Antonoff from the New York-based band Steel Train notes, “There’s a lot more indie kids here this year!†with just a touch of disdain in his voice.

But perhaps John Popper describes the masses best. On Saturday afternoon when temperatures are at least 35 degrees, he finds the one thing that united everybody, “Now everyone just stinks the same!

The diversity in the audience can likely be linked to the diversity in the lineup. Many of the questions in the press tent this year had to do with this diversity compared to other festivals and package tours from the past.

Popper points out the troubles in the past with tours such as H.O.R.D.E. and Lilith Fair. All the guys would go to H.O.R.D.E. while all the girls would go to Lilith Fair, and that fragmentation wasn’t good for the music or the community. Or Popper’s hormones, it seems; “The absolute last place I want to be is in a field full of sweaty hetero males.†According to him, Bonnaroo brings all kinds of fans together, rather than separating everyone into niche markets.

When I ask about the more ‘radio-friendly, non-jammy lineup,’ G. Love responds that it is important to constantly change the lineups around because too often jambands and therefore Bonnaroo gets written off as stale and boring, only catering to one type of listener. A more progressive lineup means constantly challenging the listeners, critics and organisers to explore new bands and this method of discovery is really the most exciting thing about Bonnaroo.


Ben Folds

photo by Jeff Kravitz

Joel Cummins from Umphrey’s McGee agrees. “It’s really important to have that progressive element and bring new things in. I’d love to see something like Dream Theater here that doesn’t get as much exposure in the U.S., but is huge in Europe. You need to have that freshness. For fans to say ‘I’ve discovered something new that I’d never expect to see at Bonnaroo,’ I think that’s one of the things that brings people back here. It’s the ones you don’t know you’re going to see that blow you away and keep you coming back.

All that said, when it comes to the music, I did end up seeing some new impressive bands. The Cat Empire are an Australian band that throw every influence possible into their music, and the result is a wild, exuberant and positive live show that has a massive crowd dancing for hours in That Tent on Thursday night. They include plenty of call-and-response segments à la Freddie Mercury, and have lots of scat vocals, very danceable rhythms with Mexican-style trumpets. It seems everyone but me knows the words. I will try to see these guys again.

Friday the day starts with another unknown artist, Robinella. They are a local Tennessee jazz-bluegrass band that gained a national audience while opening for Kasey Chambers. The style is easy going and slow paced, with violin, upright bass, and a female singer who sounds a touch like Allison Krauss mixed with Bonnie Raitt. Her vocals are by far the best thing about this group; aside from a cover of Melanie’s ‘Brand New Key’ there is nothing memorable to report.

On my way to a press conference, I manage to hear by far, the best cover of the weekend, a ‘silent collaboration’ between Ben Folds and Dr. Dre on ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit.’ Later on Ben Folds shares that his dream collaboration at Bonnaroo would be ‘We Are the World’ with Lewis Black, the Comedy Tent headliner from The Daily Show.

Sadly, the rest of the afternoon I only manage to catch snippets of sets rather than my preferred method of catching whole shows.

Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes is the first host of what would be many guest artists; Gillian Welch joins to sing ‘Lua,’ and later in the set Jim James and Andrew Bird also help. Nickel Creek play an inspired set of their brand of bluegrass, and again bring some choice covers to help the newcomers find the sound. Radiohead’s ‘Nice Dream,’ Britney’s ‘Toxic’ and The Band’s ‘The Weight’ are given the bluegrass treatment, along with favourites such as ‘The Smoothie Song.’ In a very strange placement, G. Love & Special Sauce play in the festival’s smallest tent, just three years after performing on the Which Stage. The crowd is so large the sound system is rendered inadequate and I decide to seek refuge from the sun elsewhere.


Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers w/ Stevie Nicks

photo by Jeff Kravitz

I arrive at Cat Power’s show a bit late and witness the strangest musical sight of the weekend. Chan Marshall is sharing the stage with the 14-piece Memphis Rhythm Band, featuring Al Green’s right hand man and members of Booker T and the MGs. But Marshall sends them off the stage in order to take close to five minutes of precious Bonnaroo time making strange gestures and configuring cooling fans around her at the piano. This is inexplicably odd and I don’t want to stick around to see how it will end, having encountered her nervous unpredictable stage show before. It appears her struggle with stage fright is still a losing one; why else would you remove musical legends from the stage?

Night is fast approaching and Tom Petty’s legendary live show is an hour away. The cooler weather and anticipation sets the campground in a great mood, and Tom Petty immediately proves why he’s endured all these years. Listening to his set, it appears that everyone in the crowd knew every word to every song. When you look at the setlist, it’s like a greatest hits show, but unlike most other older acts, there is very little cheese or nostalgia; the songs still sound fresh and his band is understandably super tight. Petty’s band proves this professionalism and enthusiasm time and time again, especially during Peter Green’s (Fleetwood Mac) ‘Oh Well,’ with Petty running around the stage with tambourines. Continuing the trend, Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks joins Petty for a number of songs including ‘Stop Dragging My Heart Around.’ Her voice still sounds great and many considered it the highlight of the day.

Tom Petty’s performance raised the bar for the rest of the headliners.

My Morning Jacket’s tent is overflowing as soon as Petty’s show finishes. This is My Morning Jacket’s fourth Bonnaroo, and according to their leader Jim James, the festival is their favourite place to play. They have been my favourite act at two previous Bonnaroos, and I have no doubts that they will be my favourite this year, having toured behind their latest album ‘Z’ for months leading up to the midnight show. They open with ‘Wordless Chorus’ and ‘It Beats For You’ from ‘Z,’ and continue to play for another three hours.


My Morning Jacket

photo by Jason Kempin

Usually I have no regrets when seeing bands play live; this is a notable exception.

After the intense heat of the day and probably not enough water, I fell asleep on the lawn about four songs into their set. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

Later, I find out their setlist was incredible, material from throughout their career was played, and I heard nary one negative word about their set from the people I talked to the next day. Many people called it the show of the festival, and I have no doubt that they are right. Much like the diversity in bands and people present at Bonnaroo, My Morning Jacket’s cover songs spread across a wide range of styles. There was The Flying Burrito Bros’ ‘Older Guys’ jammed into the Velvet Underground’s ‘Head Held High.’ Songs from the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Band and the Misfits were also played.

Surprisingly, when listening to the recordings of the show now, I skip through the covers to hear more of MMJ’s originals; Bonnaroo truly makes this band seem like the greatest thing in the world. For many people that weekend they were.

Part two to come...

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