Bonnaroo: Bruce, Phish, Bruce + Phish, NIN's Final March of the Pigs, Every Other Band in the World
Headlines: There was really only one story in the music world this weekend and that was the Bonnaroo Music Festival that took over Manchester, Tenn., from Thursday to Sunday. Approximately 75,000 were on hand for the eighth annual -- wait for it -- bacchanalia. Somehow, the festival went on even though those 35 pounds of psychedelic peanut butter cups never made it to Great Stage Park. We're saving our travel budget for following this summer's Creed tour from city to city, so we can't offer any firsthand reports. But many of our trusted colleagues were out in the field (literally) and here's our best recreation.
The big draws were Phish and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, so it was fitting that the Boss joined the reunited jam band heroes to help close out the fest. He traded solos with Trey Anastasio on "Mustang Sally" and then had Phish back him on "Bobby Jean" and "Glory Days" with "Springsteen beaming approval at Mr. Anastasio's solos, pumping up the rhythm chords and whipping up both Phish and the crowd," according to the New York Times. "Glory Days" was "an incredibly Phishian take on an incredibly not Phishy song, everything modernized and shaken loose," said Entertainment Weekly.
This was the first Bonnaroo for Phish, sort of the patron saints of the festival, given its jam band beginnings. A "euphoric three-hour set," said NYT. Stereogum, not surprisingly, was a bit less enthused. "The band's as dexterous as ever ... but their jams were endless and, aside from some sorta interesting interaction/modulation during 'Stash,' pointless" before adding: "If you've ever seen a Phish show before, you'll probably be pleased with these reunion shows. Just be incredibly patient, loyal, or stoned during the improvs." "The jam kings proved why they are one of the few bands who can dominate a crowd as large as the one at Bonnaroo," said Rolling Stone.
Maybe the reason Bruce Springsteen doesn't bring the E Street Band along to many festivals not because the Boss doesn't like to, but because he doesn't want to overshadow so many other bands. OK, unlikely. The Boss didn't have anything particularly special planned for Bonnaroo, just the usual, hard-to-top rock-and-roll revival. He even dropped an F-bomb; "It's too [expletive] hot for Santa!" he proclaimed after unfurling a huge Santa request-sign someone made. They played "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" regardless. RS: "It was a strange and hilarious moment, and one that will go down one of Bonnaroo's most memorable" and he delivered a "monster three-hour set that was heavy on hit." EW's message to Saturday's bands: "No matter how good you think you were yesterday, Bruce Springsteen was better."
Nine Inch Nails played its last show ever in the United States, according to frontman Trent Reznor. If that's actually true, he went out on a high note with songs the NYT said "reveal all their ominous, desolate, enraged glory onstage, where he can crank up the bass and the distortion." "If Reznor was growing weary from the road, you would've never known it from NIN's blistering set of raging, anthemic industrial rock," (RS). Stereogum called it, "an especially powerful and unforgettable set."
The Beastie Boys set was newsworthy for a guest spot by Nas on new song from the forthcoming "Hot Sauce Committe." EW called the set "neither disappointing nor awesome, but someplace in between." Stereogum was kinder, but noted the band's advancing age: "there's a certain thrill to seeing them give it their all, but their tour rider probably should specify an oxygen tank waiting for MCA at all times side stage."
David Byrne wasn't just a performer at the festival; he curated his own stage, which featured current Brooklyn Band of the Moment, Dirty Projectors. Dave Longstreth and Co. were "phenomenal" according to PopMatters, "building layers of beautiful vocal harmonies and spastic guitar-lines, the band somehow finds a groove that is grounded in the pop world of Wings-era McCartney and Paul Simon's Graceland, and the convulsive, quirky approach of Talking Heads." Dirty Projectors battled boroughmates Grizzly Bear for Best of Friday honors, according to Stereogum: "The melismatic strains of Dirty Projectors' 'Stillness Is The Move' and the singalong chamber pop of Grizzly Bear's 'Two Weeks' were equally enthralling moments that will be tough to top." Uh huh. As for Byrne, he "immediately demonstrated why he is godfather to many of the musicians" that preceded him (Wall Street Journal).
While the fawning over Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors remains in full force, the backlash seems to have come to early 2009 favorites Animal Collective. PopMatters called the band's Friday afternoon set "a complete and utter failure ... Full of electronic meandering" that "fell flat on its face to a monstrous crowd." Stereogum deemed it "breezy and aloof." The WSJ said it was "unfocused and pointless." Who was the genius who gave them a 2:45 p.m. slot?
Wilco "stretched out with the new album's centerpiece 'Bull Black Nova,' which hit a soaring height thanks to secret weapon Nels Cline's avant garde noisy guitar solo," (RS). That's not too surprising to hear. The band's last two albums certainly aren't career highlights, but between "Black Bull Nova" and "Impossible Germany" from "Sky Blue Sky," they've at least added a couple of classics to the canon. "One of Bonnaroo's most extraordinary sets" (NYT). "There are very few live bands better than Wilco right now" (Paste).
In January of last year MGMT opened for Yeasayer at the Black Cat's backstage. Not only a year and a half later the band drew an overflow crowd for its late-night-but-not-quite-Kanye-late-night set on Saturday. Rolling Stone says "the performance was spectacular and it is sure to go down as a career-defining breakthrough." As for Yeasayer, Pitchfork head honcho Ryan Schreiber said, "They're playing tons of new stuff and it's WEIRD. Whole other level. Best thing I've seen today." He also noted the "hippies are all about it."
Public Enemy opted to perform "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" in its entirety, with full band in tow. "As ferocious, powerful and engaging as it was 20 years ago ... while proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that Chuck D and Flava Flav can still be contemporary, revolutionary and beautifully indignant" (Augusta.com).
The over-the-top ridiculousness that is Of Montreal translated well to the festival setting. Paste reports of "cave dwellers covered in white body powder breaking a bottle over the head of Beatle Bob, gift-wrapped gas masks under a Christmas tree, pig-people grooming faceless people and getting groomed by happy troll-people who then reveal themselves as the cave-dwellers and run off with the pig-maiden, football players shooting confetti and tackling each other, a dinosaur-man with huge arms tossing rubber balls into the crowd, a bird-man popping glitter-filled balloons." Oh, if only those peanut butter cups made it in, it truly could have been something. Stereogum compared the sideshow to another band that enjoys its diversions, all while using our favorite word: "the Kevin Barnes team has created something akin to the Flaming Lips' audio-visual orgy with its own brand of sensory-overloading bacchanalia: only mildly tweaked each time out, and still totally delightful."
The old-timers got plenty of love. Praise was universal for soul legend Al Green. The Reverend "poured out his voice -- including plenty of falsetto -- and made the songs stories instead of oldies soundbites" (NYT). Merle Haggard "sounded great, especially for a man who underwent lung-cancer surgery in November" (USA Today). Elvis Costello didn't have his current crack backing band with him and played a solo set with a bunch of old hits before being joined by Allen Toussaint and then Jenny Lewis. For her set, the redhead siren "strummed and smiled and imparted wisdom ('You are what you love and I love you')" while wearing "high-waisted short shorts" (good lookin' out, Stereogum).
Raphael Saadiq dropped a Stooges cover into his set (NYT). Snoop Dogg spent "much of his main stage performance inquiring where the sexy ladies might be" (the Phoenix). I like Nashville Scene's take on the Decemberists: "Decemberists guy's bangs are far too long for a man that age." Bon Iver "takes his quiet songs and plays with the dynamics so they build into these enormous moments" (Paste).
And Triumph the Insult Comic Dog was there to poke fun at everyone. Sample: "Phish broke up five years ago, They could've played three songs in that time. The original script of the Gettysburg Address was 'Four Phish songs and seven years ago."
There were dozens more bands that played, of course. If you were there, feel free to enlighten us on highlights and lowlights. Please take a shower first, though.
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