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Bonnaroo 2008 Review

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Bonnaroo 2008

- By Alan Dodson

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Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnston

- Courtesy of Bonnaroo

Bonnaroo 2008 was the best Bonnaroo yet. From the large number of diverse bands, to the sometimes hilarious comedy tent, the mini-film-festival worthy cinema tent, the New Orleans jazz club and countless other diversions, one always had something fun to do. And behind the scenes Bonnaroo has set itself apart from the majority of large festivals in its greening initiatives and involvements with Earth-friendly public interest groups.

Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment, the production companies responsible for Bonnaroo, took some big chances this year in booking metal legends Metallica and hugely successful rock band Pearl Jam to headline this year's edition of the four-day festival. This move away from the jam-happy roots of the festival made for some interesting buzz on the Internet in the days and months leading up to the event, but ultimately these two monster bands brought their best performances to the massive What Stage and its crowds. After a laugh out loud hour-long standup set from Chris Rock ("Of course we're ready for a black president - we just had a retarded one!"), Metallica took the stage to "The Ecstasy of Gold" and immediately launched into their 24-year-old song "Creeping Death." The stage was filled with blinding lights and pyrotechnics, no doubt very different from their tiny club show for 175 fan-club members twenty-four hours earlier at The Basement in Nashville. Intricate metal and the progressive worlds of Phish and Umphrey's McGee are not that far apart musically, and while the purists may have mused aloud about Bonnaroo going off the rails, no doubt they played a wicked air-guitar solo to themselves during "Master of Puppets." Despite Hetfield's pansy-ish "Bonnaroo yahoo!" cheer, Metallica was note-perfect and both a brave and inspired pick for a Bonnaroo headliner.

It's too bad that My Morning Jacket had to wait for Metallica to be done before taking the Which Stage for their set - by midnight the skies had opened and a serious rain was falling. A large crowd stayed and got soaked while the band muddled their way through the first half of the first set. "Hot Fun in the Summertime" was a strange choice of cover during a cold midnight rainstorm. The set progressed tentatively (it's probably fair to blame the weather) until their cover of Erykah Badu's "Tyrone" - it was relaxed and great, and they followed it up with wicked versions of "Steam Engine" and "Anytime." The set closed with another air-guitar orgy on "One Big Holiday" with a guest performance by a "new talent from around the way" named Kirk Hammett. He's apparently in a band called Metallic-something. Watch for him in the future. The second set started off as a funk workout, with songs by James Brown, Kool and the Gang, and Bobby Womack. Highlights of the second set were "Phone Went West", a cover of "Oh Sweet Nuthin'!" and the always epic "Dondante." The strangest moment of the night (and if you've been to Bonnaroo you know it gets pretty strange) was their encore of "Home Sweet Home" originally by Mötley Crüe, featuring comic Zach Galifianakis dressed as Little Orphan Annie. It was truly bizarre, hilarious, and way off key. The sentiment of the song works though - My Morning Jacket were home at Bonnaroo, and are the perfect band for the festival.

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My Morning Jacket

- Courtesy of Stereogum

When it got too hot to think or when you got overloaded with music, there were plenty of diversions to keep you having fun, cool and occupied at Bonnaroo. The favourite activity for many was finding shade and sleeping in it. If something more conscious was your scene, there were places to surf the Internet (courtesy of both Fuse.tv and Microsoft), get your hair styled and cut (courtesy of Garnier Fructis), learn how to DJ and scratch records (courtesy of Scratch DJ Academy), get a shave (courtesy of Gillette) and on and on. Some people looked down their nose at this corporate sponsorship involvement, but most places were providing something fun or useful, usually in air conditioning, and it was all free. Unlike other festivals, there are no garish corporate signs all over the stages and tents, and vendors don't force their products on you or pry for personal information for their mailing lists. Even better, Major League Baseball and Bonnaroo had a deal where MLB would donate money to Rock The Earth for every fan and artist who took a swing or a pitch in their batting and pitching cages. 2,248 fans took part, along with artists from Rogue Wave, Kings of Leon, O.A.R., Ozomatli, The Weather Underground, Umphrey’s McGee, Steel Train, The Postelles and others. A donation of $5000 was made to Rock the Earth, a not-for-profit, national public interest environmental organization dedicated to protecting and defending America's natural resources through partnerships with the music industry and the world-wide environmental community. It was something to feel good about while wading through all the discarded beer cups and other trash on the way back to the campground. Under foot, out of mind.

Bonnaroo does have an impressive track record when it comes to greening however. In partnership with the Clean Air Conservancy, Bonnaroo committed to buy enough carbon reduction credits to offset all emissions, making the festival a carbon neutral event. Clean Vibes was again in charge of all recycling and composting, and this year started an on-site composting area. "With no off-site hauling, we can reduce fuel consumption and close the loop on the festival's biodegradable waste cycle," says Clean Vibes owner Anna Borofsky. The total environmental activities undertaken at Bonnaroo are too many to list, but it should be known that environmentally, Bonnaroo serves as a model for other festivals to strive to.

There was fiery performance art at the Art of Such N Such area, plenty of shopping including an amazing row of poster vendors, hammocks, a Ferris wheel that offered sweet views of Centeroo and campgrounds and plenty of food choices including the best samosas on Earth from Vermont outfit Samosaman Natural Foods. The Brooers Festival featured microbrews from all over the United States. Planet Roo featured plenty of environmental and socially-conscious groups and activities, and the Solar Stage had 20 hours of programming daily including yoga, music, busking, belly dancing, interviews, fashion shows and meditation (although try to meditate while Les Claypool is playing the Whamola across the field!)

Along with the corporate-sponsored diversions, there were plenty of other activities to take part in when you wanted to escape the music or heat for a while. The cinema tent (air-conditioned!) featured movies and question and answer sessions by Les Claypool, Wayne Coyne, Béla Fleck and Ron Mann, along with other music movies, documentaries, environmental short films, and even live broadcasts of the NBA Finals. Beside the cinema tent was the one-ring circus tent (air-conditioned!) that housed comedy performances by big talents such as Louis C.K., Brian Posehn, Zach Galifianakis, Reggie Watts, Mike Birbiglia and the super-disappointing Janeane Garafalo. Reading from a script, wandering around the tent and not making contact with the audience does not make for an entertaining comedy show. The other comics made up for her shortcomings, and perhaps her other shows that day were better.

In the place of 2007's Blue Note jazz club, Bonnaroo created what was billed as an authentic New Orleans jazz club (air-conditioned!), featuring New Orleans bands, New Orleans bartenders and New Orleans drinks. For a minimum $5 donation (for New Orleans charities), one could buy a day-pass to the club. Trombone Shorty had a big party happening on Sunday afternoon, and it was a welcome respite from the heat. Walking into a club inside a tent is a strange feeling though - you know you're in a tent, but there's wood panelling everywhere, a real ceiling, floors, etc. Weird.

Saturday brought the bright, sunny, scorching weather back to Bonnaroo, along with some great and average performances. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings played a tight funk set, after which she spoke of the symbiotic relationship between her and her band and the audience, and how she is grateful for all of it. Ozomatli brought a hard-hitting and fun Latin-funk-hip-hop set to the What Stage - their MC was impressive with his moves while on crutches. Fresh off his performance SuperJam on Friday night, Gogel Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz filled the Which Stage with his gypsy-punk shtick. There wasn't much going on musically in this act, but it was certainly entertaining and the crowd went nuts. A stellar live show is a must if you want to be invited to Bonnaroo two years in a row, as Gogol Bordello showed. Mastodon brutalized That Tent for over an hour - it is fair to say they are the heaviest band to ever play Bonnaroo. That Tent was full, and the show was an awesome change of pace from the low-key Cat Power set lulling people to sleep across Centeroo. Back on What Stage, the mayor presented B.B. King with the keys to the city of Manchester during his tight set of what are now blues standards. All in all, Saturday daytime was damn good. And there was still so much more to come!

In 2007 the festival began a barricaded "pit" area directly in front of the What Stage so that fans didn't have to camp out to get in the front for their favourite band. The pit area is emptied after every set, and a new group of people is allowed to get up front for the next band. It's a great idea modelled after many European festivals, but the execution needs a bit of work. The line for Pearl Jam turned into a giant hydra-style queue with way more than one line snaking out from the entrance to the pit, resulting in chaos and lots of short tempers when security eventually let people in and turned many more people away. All that was needed to solve the problem was a corral that held the capacity of the pit and someone at each end to let people in or not. Easy. Now do it next year.

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Pearl Jam

- Courtesy of Stereogum

Pearl Jam took the stage and owned it for the next three hours. With a vast catalogue there were plenty of songs not played, but the songs that did make it into the performance were tight, rocking, and passionate. A Pearl Jam festival performance is very rare after the tragedy at Roskilde in 2000 where nine fans were trampled. Eddie Vedder noted this from the stage, and the biggest roar of the weekend rose from the crowd. People were pumped for this show! The second loudest crowd noise of the weekend had to be during "Elderly Woman..." - "I just want to scream HELLOOOOOOOOOOO!" Goosebumps. Vedder is a complete rock star, with great quotes, great moves, and amazing pipes. He railed against the war in Iraq while introducing a song whose lyrics were penned by a soldier injured there, Tomas Young. He discussed political change in the USA by echoing Neil Young's sentiments, saying, "Music cannot make change," only the people can do that. He went on, saying "There's a time and place for this kind of talk, right? 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?" Needless to say, the crowd bought in. Vedder was visibly angry about the state of the world, saying that he is angry and when he sees people that aren't angry with George Bush and the war in Iraq (among other topics) it makes him even angrier. He apologized later in the set, explaining that it's hard to be happy these days, but [bonnaroo] is a "great fucking night." (Amen) As for his moves, his best was taking a shiny telecaster guitar, holding it over his head, and directing the spotlights over the crowd like a six-stringed mirror. Pretty cool. The singer then channelled Roger Daltrey with the jaw-dropping cover of "Love, Reign o'er Me" from Quadrophenia. This performance was worth the price of admission, and must be the closest anyone has come to performing The Who since Keith Moon's death in 1978. The rest of the band weren't slouches either - the guitars sounded killer, Jeff Ament occasionally brought out a stand-up bass and was in a dead heat with Mike McCready as far as high energy levels go. Keyboardist Boom had some nice licks, and Matt Cameron showed why he's a master rock drummer. (The emphasis there is on 'rock' - his jazz combo played its first non-Seattle gig the next day, and, well, stick to Pearl Jam). The coolest visual of the festival came during "Betterman." The whole concert field held up their lighters, and for once it didn't feel clichéd. Eddie took a break from the song to share his thoughts: "Fuckin' beautiful!"

The crowd loved Pearl Jam, and Pearl Jam loved the crowd, and those two factors combined for an extra hour of their music. Unbeknownst to most in the crowd for the rest of the weekend and even until now, this created a problem for the production staff at What Stage. A long load out for Pearl Jam and a complicated load in for Kanye West's Glow In the Dark stage created the most talked-about circumstance of the weekend, and it's a shame the majority of people blame Kanye's ego - it's a shame it happened at all and that nobody acted to dull the controversy. Originally scheduled for 8:15 PM on the Which Stage, Kanye wanted his set moved later so that he could make use of his Glow In the Dark show rather than a straight-up hip-hop set. In the days prior to the festival, Bonnaroo rescheduled him for 2:45 AM. This turned out to be optimistic, especially given Pearl Jam's overrun. After more delays, West went on at 4:25 AM and performed for an hour, cutting songs from his setlist to make use of his elaborate staging before total daylight rendered it useless. During the delay, the audience waiting for West became restless, booing and throwing garbage onto the stage damaging his gear. This negativity spilled over into the rest of the festival - there was plenty of anti-Kanye graffiti, plenty of overheard talk about the rapper, and other artists even got into the act, most notably sacred-steel-er Robert Randolph who took the time out of one of his 'sounds like all the other songs' songs (while legend T-Bone Burnett was on stage, no less) to say "Kanye Sucks" in response to a fan's sign. The crowd took up the chant and an ugly memory of Bonnaroo was born. Surely there must have been some representative of either West or Bonnaroo at What Stage who could have come to the microphone and say "Hey, sorry for the wait, we're having lots of technical trouble." For his part, West could have addressed the situation at the beginning of his set. There was no downside to Bonnaroo or West explaining to the riled-up crowd what the delay was about; doing so could have diffused all the negativity surrounding this performance.

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Sunday was a lazy day in the oppressive heat. Shade was at a premium, but it had cooled down nicely by 6 PM for Broken Social Scene. They brought quite a few people down with them on the bus, and despite leader Kevin Drew's early-set mood swings brought about by an detuned keyboard, the put on a wicked show. At least one new song from Brendan Canning's new album "Something for all of us..." was played, along with their new political hit composed earlier in the day on the Sonic Stage. They even re-wrote the song to jive with the crowd's mood - it was either "Put down the bong and vote for Obama... You know that you wanna" or "Take a hit from the bong and vote for Obama..." and so on. Drew noted that while he is Canadian and has no vote in the US Presidential election, he told the crowd that a vote in November is not just a vote in America; it is a vote for every other country in the world. He also threatened a Canadian invasion if the Republicans were voted back into power, but perhaps if the Scene added a few more players on stage they could take care of the uprising themselves. All in all, the horns, the vocals, the instrument-switching and the steady wicked drumming made Broken Social Scene's set a high note to leave the festival on. Next stop, sketchy hotel-land, Nashville.

This was indeed the best Bonnaroo yet. A few random suggestions and comments for organizers you say? OK. Improve the pit situation in front of the What Stage. Stick to the schedule, even if it means putting a headliner on an hour earlier if you know they might play an hour late. Book Ryan Adams and The Tragically Hip. I'm sure The Sadies would love to return to Bonnaroo too. The taxis in the campground were a great idea. Tent-only camping is the best! Paint the fountain something that looks halfway decent - like the mushroom it started out as. Minor things, all told. For something that ran so smoothly and had such a good lineup, Bonnaroo will be hard to top next year. Let's hope that happens - see you then!

PS - If you're driving from or to Canada on the I75, look for exit 29 south of Dayton near the town of Monroe, Ohio. The Solid Rock Church Jesus statue is pretty interesting........

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Nice job Alan! I'd love to see The Soundtrack Of Our Lives/Pearl Jam do a double-bill playing only Who covers. Both channel The Who like few other bands can, including The Jam.

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