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Bonnaroo 2009 Review


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By Alan Dodson

This year I am (almost) loathe to make a 'critique' of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. It's not for lack of effort, but I wonder how to critique something that has so few flaws yet still come across as somewhat 'objective' (ha). So, let's stay positive. It's an entertainment review, and I don't see much at all to be negative about, so get ready for some superlatives!

That's not to say there weren't any faults to be found with Bonnaroo - but I was there for the music, and going from stage to stage, from campground to stage to tent to press compound to Centeroo I didn't see anything (anything!) that was ridiculously wrong. If there indeed were problems, they were either minor, hidden well, or solved quickly. This was a notable step in the right direction from 2008, when the Kanye West controversy cast an embarrassing shadow on everyone involved.

The overriding theme of the weekend was collaboration, more so this year than in any other year that I can recall. And yes, that even goes for those years when Warren Haynes sat in with everyone. The most talked-about pairing was Phish's Trey Anastasio's boyhood (and still) hero Bruce Springsteen sitting in on Phish's Sunday night headlining set for
'Bobby Jean' and 'Glory Days.' Trey introduced Bruce by talking about his first-ever rock show at the age of 12 and how it has so far been unrivalled, how he wished that every show were like that (only to discover that isn't the case,) noting the show was exploding with energy for three hours. Musically, this collaboration was good but not outstanding; but then again these two forces have never played together before and it was definitely a better plan to keep it simple than to try to hit one out of the park. Perhaps the fact that this collaboration happened at all overshadowed the music played on stage to my ear. That said, it was great to see Trey and 'Mr. Keyboard Player' Page have the time of their lives. Mike seemed pretty stoic, while at times Bruce seemed genuinely stunned by Trey's playing.

Continuing with the theme of collaboration, Queens-raised rapper Nas joined the Beastie Boys for the new song 'Too Many Rappers' from the Beastie's upcoming Hot Sauce Committee. Elvis Costello joined Jenny Lewis at the end of her set for the tune 'Carpetbaggers,' while Lewis returned the favour and joined Elvis during his set for 'The Crooked Line' from his most recent album Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. Costello also summoned some Beatles vibes, playing 'Veronica' (written with Sir Paul) and performing his great 'New Amsterdam / You've Got to Hide Your Love Away' medley. (Other covers included Van Morrison's 'Jackie Wilson Said' and the Velvet Underground's 'Femme Fatale.') New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint and bluegrass Grammy winner (and Sugarcane) Jim Lauderdale also joined Costello for parts of his set. During his set earlier in the day Allen Toussaint played one of the oddest covers of the weekend - an interesting version of The Stooges' 'Search and Destroy.'

Unbeknownst to me at the time, The Decemberists took it slow when taking the stage for their set which was booked against Costello's. This was the worst timeslot for me, as Costello is my all-time favourite but The Decemberists' current album The Hazards Of Love is my number one album of 2009 (so far.) This summer The Decemberists are playing the album from front to back, as it is a kind of folk-opera with an overriding lyrical and musical theme. It's very compelling and a treat to hear, but likely won't be played this way on any subsequent tour so I had to see it this time! But, Elvis is Elvis, and his set was so good I couldn't tear myself away until I was sure he was almost done. Indeed, I only missed four songs of Costello and made it to hear The Decemberists' second song onward due to the delay. Excellent!! Man. The Decemberists' delivery of The Hazards of Love was amazing and is in contention for my favourite show of the festival. Of course it sounded like the album, but there was immediacy, some human mistakes and a visually interesting production. It's one thing to write good lyrics, but it goes to a new level when they are delivered so clearly. I did not stay for the encore as I'd taken in what I came for and The Mars Volta beckoned, but fan favourites such as 'The Crane Wife, Part 3,' 'Oh Valencia!' and what must have been an (ahem) interesting rendition of Heart's 'Crazy On You' were played for the hardcore that stayed.

Again, there were some notable collaborations everywhere in the venue. Bon Iver, playing to a huge crowd at their first Bonnaroo, welcomed the Elvis Perkins In Dearland horn section for a dreamy cover of Yo La Tengo's 'I Feel Like Going Home.' Backstage, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon joked about his band's relatively small catalogue after Lucinda Williams spoke at length about tailoring a rock-and-blues-heavy setlist for festival audiences. Vernon deadpanned that his band didn't have that luxury as they 'only have nine songs.' He later corrected himself by saying, 'we actually have twelve songs.' The most hair-on-the-back-of-the-n eck-raising collaboration was also the most massive. Bon Iver instructed the overflow crowd at This Tent to sing the repeated crescendo 'what might have been lost' at the end of 'The Wolves (Act I and II)' - see the video here or here but note that the video really doesn't do any justice to this amazing moment.

David Grisman joined the Del McCoury Band while Jon Fishman (Phish) watched from sidestage. Erykah Badu joined Snoop Dogg for Lodi Dodi (evidently they like to party.) Dillinger Escape Plan joined Nine Inch Nails for a scorching run-through of 'Wish,' after which NIN frontman Trent Reznor announced that Bonnaroo would be the Nails' last-ever United States show. If that's the case, I'm so glad I caught most of it as it was intense, loud, bright, and punishing - in the best of ways. Nine Inch Nails put on a show like no other band can, and, as another review accurately put it, provided an excellent dark yin to the rest of Bonnaroo's mostly positive yang. Grace Potter, after playing a few shows of her own, joined moe. in their monster 4.5 hour overnight set. Booker T and Drive-By Truckers played tracks from their new album Potato Hole, alongside deep cuts like Booker T's classic 'Green Onions.'
Collaborations were not just confined to the human species. Neko Case announced a special guest during her Sunday set and I don't think anyone expected that guest to be Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. After a fairly funny back-and-forth between Case and Triumph, including a bit where Triumph called out New Jersey in honour of The Boss who was watching Case's set from sidestage, one of the oddest musical pairings I'd ever seen came to fruition. Triumph and Case sang a duet on the traditional spiritual 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' which punctuated a strong yet same-old set. Perhaps I've been conditioned to her shows from seeing her perform numerous times, but lately she seems to be coasting (albeit at a high level.) Her shows seem just a few notches above amateur productions of top-quality professional material. I'd like her to switch up her setlist, maybe get some different backing musicians who can change the tone or colour of some songs (but keep Jon Rauhouse!), cut back on back-up singer Kelly Hogan's stand-up routine - something to raise the bar. It was a good show, but I think Neko has to step it up a bit. She's got the chops and the songs - deliver!

While I missed a proper festival performance from Rhode Island band The Low Anthem, a special press-only performance was arranged for Saturday afternoon and it was excellent. While front man Ben Knox Miller seemed a bit stand-offish in the press tent on Friday, while playing with his own band he showed he was a great singer and emoter, while clarinetist / bell-player Jocie Adams and upright bassist / pump organist Jeff Prystowsky rounded out the folksy sound of this set. Three of four laid-back quieter songs were played, yet when I listened to their latest album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin I was surprised to hear a number of decent rockers. The band seemed very versatile with great songwriting, arrangements and performance and I'd heartily recommend checking them out in a town near you.

Of course I'd be remiss to sign off without mentioning Phish's amazing shows. Friday night I was set up right beside the sound board and had a great view with perfect sound. I was shocked at how good they sounded and how tight the performances were. I'd read the reviews on the internet leading up to Bonnaroo, but I thought it was mostly hype and good reviews to ease the transition back into touring life. I was so happy when Phish lived up to the hype of those early reviews! Chalkdust was spot-on, and the roar of the crowd for 'Can't this wait 'til I'm old? / Can't I live while I'm young?' was incredible. The energy, tight playing, joy on Trey's face and jaw-dropping light show continued through old classics, three new songs, an AC/DC cover out of nowhere, a wicked 2001, and a You Enjoy Myself > Wilson > You Enjoy Myself show (and set) stopper. Phish proved that they are back, the songs they chose to bring with them out of retirement are rehearsed and tight, and they will no doubt be an even hotter ticket down the road. Halloween and New Year's anyone?

All in all, Bonnaroo 2009 was super smooth and a great time. The organizers should yet again be commended for running such a well-oiled machine with so few issues and so many high points. If only every festival was like Bonnaroo!! See you next year!

Quote of the festival - "That's good for me! Dig a hole right there!" - Sean Taylor, pointing to the ground after Bruce Springsteen's sit-in with Phish, June 14 2009.

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Can someone post this in normal text, without having to scroll way across on every line.

Sounds great AD, love the quote. I kind of forgot saying that.......

Sorry, I put this up quickly and forgot to take out some shit that IE renders really fucked up like.

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