Bonnaroo 2006

Tue Jul 18 2006

The first Bonnaroo back in 2002 set the bar high for a weekend of music and freedom, and it’s debatable whether any of its sequels or any of the dozens of similarly-minded festivals that sprung up in its wake have surpassed it. Bonnaroo 2004 seemed to have missed the mark at least somewhat, and that contributed to my skipping it last year, but it didn’t stop the yearning in me when June rolled around. When the headliners were announced this year, I knew I had to go. I had to know if the dream had been compromised, or if we could still feel the resonance from the first annual fest, the one that proved to be an antithesis to the mayhem and negativity of the final “Woodstock.” We drove off into the moonlight late Wednesday night in eager anticipation of recapturing that dream.

Getting in was an absolute breeze, even having to drive 15 miles past the site and then back again. Having lived through 12 hours of standstill freeway traffic the first year, I couldn’t complain one bit. Pretty sure I did complain a little, though. A bit cranky after 12 hours in a station wagon and only a couple of them glossed over in half-sleep, maybe? A part of me missed the pure anarchy of laying out a sleeping bag on the highway as incredulous truckers threw their hands up in bewilderment. No time, this time, to walk amongst half-awake drivers to see if anybody had any cold beer left. Twenty minutes crawling down the shoulder of I-41, a quick search of the vehicle, check of tickets, and in we went. As we pulled into Camp Darth Vader to set up our tents and shade pavilions, we caught sight of a train of port-o-lets, a tractor trailer full of ice, and the mist tent/water facilities all visible to the naked eye. This was the initial Bonnaroo miracle, and it set the tone for the weekend. I really wanted to catch Dios (Malos) and maybe the Wood Brothers on Thursday evening, but it just wasn’t happening. Getting our lodgings established as the swelling heat pummeled us was chore enough. After a couple of beers I realized I’d never make it to Centeroo (call it downtown Bonnaroo), and besides, you can never count on sleeping past seven or eight in the morning unless you’re in some sort of air conditioning or you’ve got abnormal tolerance to heat. We hit the air mattress early to be sure we’d have enough energy for the first full day.

I noticed myself sizzling in the tent around 8 a.m. as predicted and got up to preview the grounds. I still couldn’t believe our location, and I was further thrilled when we decided to walk to the stage area—about seven minutes, definitely a record. There were camps at least five times as far away, I knew. As we walked in I began to get my bearings back, remembering sets from past years, though not by name of venue. Yes, we were far too seasoned (no, I didn’t say “jaded”) to start making Abbott/Costello jokes about Which Stage and This Tent and That Tent and so on. I was happy to be making my way to That Tent at 1:00 to check out Andrew Bird, an artist I’ve been championing since 2001’s The Swimming Hour. Recently, I’d only really seen him performing solo with his stompbox, a violin and a guitar, but for Bonnaroo he was augmented with a drummer and at least one other musician; it’s generally pretty tough to see exactly what’s going on onstage at Bonnaroo unless you get there very early or there are multiple big-draw acts at other stages at the same time. While it seemed a lot of people weren’t familiar with Bird’s music, I guarantee he brought some people over to his way of thinking with this performance. He was riveting, with some of his most bombastic violin playing I’ve ever heard, although I wish he’d just practice strumming the guitar on his own time rather than in front of hundreds of people. Okay, it’s not THAT bad, and I’m sure he’ll eventually be a master like he is on violin, but come on! He pumped out a pre-recorded violin loop for “Fake Palindromes” when that’s what he should have been WAILING on, all the while listlessly strumming that stupid guitar. Loop the guitar and show the people what you’re made of, Birdman! Don’t take this the wrong way; I was thrilled to feel the energy generated by this awestruck crowd, witnessing truly original music being made by a Midwestern genius. All I’m saying is, anyone can play guitar like that. Bird plays the violin like none other, when he feels like it. Let me back off before I pigeonhole him. (Pun not intended, but it’s not like I’m gonna delete it.)

After Bird we moseyed over to This Tent to catch most of Seu Jorge’s set, which was devoid of hip David Bowie covers but full of body-movin’ sub-Equatorial jams, the words of which I could not understand. Music proved to be the universal language, and the vicinity was jam-packed and jiving even in the sweltering sun. Jorge was ebullient, and clearly just grateful to be there. I felt that sentiment emanating in waves around me, from all directions. You just bask in your own gratitude as you shout BONNAROOOOOOOO at the top of your lungs. The “OOOOOOOO” part should be at a higher pitch than the beginning part.

I felt compelled to check out Devendra Banhart next, and having only heard a handful of songs prior to Bonnaroo, I spent the first several minutes trying to figure out if we were at the right stage. I couldn’t quite tell if the guy singing had a dot on his forehead. As it turned out, we were in the right place, only Devendra had apparently formed himself an as-yet unnamed band and, in a further effort to channel Jim Morrison, had come onstage bare-chested and decided to slither about like an unannointed hippie prophet. Where is the synthesizer, I kept asking myself? Inadequate comparisons aside, I actually felt like I was witnessing a virgin band trying to come into its own, and doing a pretty damned good job of it. I just felt I was slighted somewhat by Banhart’s residency in his lower vocal range; I knew he was capable of far more quirky and interesting delivery, and he never showed it. Another case of homogenization, but it was SO appropriate for the stinking masses that I could groove to it and it still plays pleasantly in my mind, particularly when they had an audience member jump up and sing his Billy-Bragg heart out. Overall, the group trod the line between improvisational and unrehearsed, but came up on the positive side. I still don’t really feel like I’ve seen Devendra Banhart perform, but whatever that band is that he’s loosely conglomerated, that was good stuff.

Yes, I’m aware that great shows were going on all around me, but being veterans, we have gradually discovered that the “shower” in the afternoon/evening is much more useful than a morning shower. For those of you not aware, a Bonnaroo shower (for the budget-conscious) consists of huddling at the water troughs in whatever clothing you don’t mind getting wet, soaping up and dumping ice-cold water onto yourself. Go ahead, pay the ten bucks for a real shower, yuppies! I’m not a hippie. I just really enjoy refreshing cold water on the johnson. Okay, I’m poor and I enjoy free running water. I’m a reasonable man, get off my case.

I headed down to What Stage figuring I’d be seeing the highlight of the day next: every previous year, leading up to Bonnaroo, we would cajole each other with the inevitability of an Oysterhead reunion. After all, such a thing was never out of the realm of possibility at Bonnaroo. This year, it was ANNOUNCED. And I found it hard to believe that anyone who saw Oysterhead on its initial tour would be able to stay away from the ‘roo. The fellas busted onstage with “Little Faces” and I was having flashbacks. (Just kidding.) But it was abundantly clear that the three musicians had been rehearsing. Oysterhead is comprised of three truly unparalleled artists. I’ve seen Trey and Les more times than I’ll recount here, but usually, THEY are in control of their respective bands. It was with extreme awe and fulfillment that I witnessed Stewart Copeland, possibly the greatest drummer alive, completely dominate and steer this trio of masterminds through a rich, varied, and dynamic set that wouldn’t allow Trey his aimless noodling nor Les his superfluous banter. If ever a jam was in danger of stalling, Stew would rocket it back into overdrive. They wove and twisted their way through most of their only album with passion and precision, aside from a couple of miscues on how a tune should end. It was a thrill to see the matterhorn in action again, as Les smacked the whamola and chugged through a swirling, devious “Jail House Rock.” As the raucous jam out of “Pseudo Suicide” ended, Copeland bounded to the mic and proclaimed his love of Bonnaroo, but I think we were all happy he didn’t actually get naked and dance with us. They closed with the tale of another man who used to be the owner of the world, and all I could think about was how much I hoped they would be working on spinning more such tales in the near future.

Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers had their work cut out for them, but most members of this crowd, slowly enjoying the sun’s descent, knew that this aging rebel stalwart of real rock and roll was a perfect fit for Bonnaroo. Still, it was impossible for me to extricate myself from memories of past Petty performances that I’d attended. The band came out late and from the beginning, seemed to be playing just a bit slowly, almost as if they wanted to stretch the show out but hadn’t rehearsed enough tunes to last the night. Petty’s frequent Jesus posturing in a cross-emblazoned vest did not come off well. I had never seen steadfast guitarist Mike Campbell so unwilling to really stretch out his lead parts, either; he seemed to fall a bit flat overall, but again, it’s because I know what he’s capable of. Maybe the Heartbreakers had all been indulging in some Bonnaroovian delights that we weren’t aware of, and it slowed them down a bit. They’re getting a bit old for that sort of thing, aren’t they? And bursting out of their air-conditioned hotels or buses or limos or wherever they were, onto the scorching plains of Manchester, could easily wear anybody out in no time. A field full of heat-exhausted merrymakers was blessed with a second wind all the same, however, as the strength of classic songs like “Free Fallin’” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” wafted over and through us, and the presence of Stevie Nicks for the all-but-forgotten “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was an experience unlikely to come around again, considering Petty’s assertion that 2006 heralds the last of his epic summer tours. The celebration of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 30th year in the rock business was somewhat lost in the larger party that is Bonnaroo, but by the time the unstoppable riff from “Runnin’ Down A Dream” exploded from the speakers, we were all having enough fun to anoint Sir Tom Guest Of Honor, if only for one night.

Friday night/Saturday morning held my greatest disappointment of the weekend, and it had nothing to do with the music that was created. Apparently, after a year off, I had lost some of my nighthawk stamina, and by the time we got back to camp to regroup and refresh for the late-night sets, the sleeping bag was somehow more tempting than the amazing late-night sets that were about to unfold. You have to go to Bonnaroo accepting in advance the fact that you will miss incredible sets of music. Sometimes it’s still hard hearing about them the next day, though. They’ll be here next year, you tell yourself, and they’ll be better.

Saturdaaaaaaaaaayyyy was upon us. Already I was feeling pangs of pre-emptive nostalgia, like Radiohead was already on a plane to the next gig and I was mired in the extended denouement that must follow the high point of the weekend. It only takes a bit of great music to jolt you back into the now, though, and it was delivered by Buddy Guy on this third sweltering afternoon. This set was the only one I attended all weekend that was significantly marred by sound problems, and I couldn’t help but feel as though Guy’s blistering guitar work tormented the speakers so that the waves of sound were swirling around, cresting and burrowing, drowning out the other musicians and disappearing behind them like an elusive yet powerful spirit. Guy’s presence was monstrous and he elevated the emotional level of the festival immeasurably, playing with a palpable passion that I’d only previously guessed at in trying to absorb the blues. For the first time, I felt the underlying frustration that brings an angry, sometimes sarcastic tint to the sorrow of the blues, and suddenly the blues was a concentrated shot of reality in a sea of escapist fantasy. I was just thankful to be there experiencing this extended moment, not sure if anyone else in the throngs around me shared it in this way, but knowing that we were all sharing it somehow.

The next set was from tribal-pop veterans Rusted Root, who have veered more toward the pop in recent years, and with a less popular result, it would seem. Thankfully, the set drew heavily from the undisputed high point in the group’s recording career, 1994’s “When I Woke.” There were no surprises in this set, but when that percussion really gets going it’s impossible to keep still even in the stifling Tennessee heat. On a 65-degree evening, the crowd could’ve gotten its groove on with more enthusiasm, though. When the newer, blander tunes appeared, I sat down in a vain quest for shade and eagerly anticipated a shower.

After we got cleaned up, we faced the toughest choice of the weekend. With nothing better to do, I would have gladly checked out Cypress Hill or given Blues Traveler a chance to redeem itself, but this afternoon, these were the non-essentials. I knew that Beck would be wowing an appreciative crowd, I knew that he would make me groove and laugh and cheer if I saw him, and I knew we’d probably snag ourselves a better spot for Radiohead if we saw Beck at the big stage first, but ultimately, since we’d just seen him in Vegas last October and I suspected the set would be very similar, he was grudgingly eliminated from the running. That left Les Claypool and Medeski, Martin & Wood. I hadn’t seen MMW in quite some time and I knew they’d be amazing, but something about seeing them in a finite time slot while it was still light out made me balk after thinking about the epic late-night set from ‘03. And even though we’d just seen Oysterhead, Les is, for me, The Man To See at Bonnaroo. More than any other artist, he exemplifies the spirit of Bonnaroo: unparalleled musical ability, a whimsical attitude grounded just enough so that you don’t forget it’s only a long weekend, unpredictable yet never disappointing. You just don’t want to miss anything that he might do at any given moment. Plus, it would be our first opportunity to experience tunes from his new album in the live setting. That settled it. Off we went to That Tent.

As we approached the tent the strains of “David Makalaster I” drifted into our heads, Les babbling something about a friend of his who might give us between 20 and 100 dollars if we ran into him later and sang the chorus of the song to him. I won’t try to transcribe that chorus here, but if you hear it, you’ll know exactly what it means. Oh, well, hopefully we hadn’t missed anything too important. Our next treat was “Rumble of the Diesel,” and already I was loving it as I really hadn’t by just listening to the studio version. Ditto, all the new tunes; a sweet departure into Primus’s “Southbound Pachyderm” during “Makalaster” didn’t hurt, either. The highlight, though, was the obligatory drum jam, something I could never say about any band other than one assembled by Les. He has an incredibly astute feel for drummers, and relative newcomer Paulo Baldi tore into the percussion jam with a fury, percussionist Mike Dillon pounding away on his assortment of targets. While these drumming marathons are staples of many jam bands, they are never this fast. The two men pounded away relentlessly, at times spiraling into glorious chaos, then synching back up and propelling the swarm of dancing bodies to headier peaks of movement. Dillon pummeled the xylophone as Baldi tore away at the toms, double bass thundering all the while, and then they briefly slowed things down to a hypnotic thump. The climactic minutes of the set can never be experienced on tape, however. As Les re-emerged in his ape mask and began to pound on the whamola, he was followed by his son and daughter, aged 10 and 8, respectively, wearing pig masks (Claypool has drawn from a vast menagerie of masks and costumes throughout his career and with all of his various bands). As Les aped and clowned for his kids, hammering on the instrument he invented, they bopped around to the beat like jumping beans. It was at once musically sublime and a transcendent moment of fatherly love as it could only exist in Claypool’s universe. I felt honored just to have witnessed it. As always, the set was a celebration of the link between band and audience, with Les at the controls, knowing how to make the audience at every gig feel like they’ve just witnessed a unique event, as truly they have. You go to see Les not knowing which way he will twist things; you just know that things will be twisted. In the final minutes, we all enthusiastically assured Les that we did indeed want to go to “D’s Diner.” Then we scampered off to hunt for a good spot for the Main Event.

I had never been in a crowd so huge. Did anyone in attendance not come to What Stage to see Radiohead? I wondered how many of these people had any idea what they were about to experience. It was a testament to the diversity of the festival and to the persistence of its organizers that Radiohead was here. I don’t mind saying that I was bursting with excitement. We managed to secure a spot just behind and to the left of the soundboard structure. Right on time, the band came out. Phil Selway thumped the intro to “There There.” It was a perfect opener, calculated to prove to any doubters in the audience that this group belonged here amongst the acknowledged masters of live performance. Radiohead isn’t about slow, improvised musical journeys; it’s about manipulating perfectly-crafted songs in ways that haven’t been conceived of before. It’s churning tension that builds to inescapable peaks, tempered with moments of pinpoint clarity and haunting beauty that wash over you and strike you dumb. Newer tunes like “Arpeggi” and “Videotape” were perfect examples of one of Radiohead’s fortes: songs that would be incredibly soothing at times if there weren’t a disturbing undercurrent running through them that just can’t be shaken. They’ve left their mark if you don’t know exactly how to feel when the song is over, but there is elation in the experience of that indefinable sensation. All these nebulous attempts at describing Radiohead aside, the music was incredible. The more tragic tunes like “Exit Music” and “No Surprises” left some people trembling, some just in awe, and some utterly confused, but what I felt was that Yorke and co. played the older songs with reverence on this night. There was no suggestion that anything was played out, or that they wanted to skip over their past. Nothing from Pablo Honey was heard, but O.K. Computer and The Bends songs were vibrant and powerful, the band believing in them. This performance of “Paranoid Android” was the first bona fide show-stopper; we were all looking at each other dumbfounded when the dust settled. The next such creation was “The National Anthem,” which I never expected to be as good without the horns but which hits me harder every time I experience it live. We were treated to a choice 90’s-era interlude with “Street Spirit” and “The Bends,” and then the absolutely unclassifiable “Myxomatosis,” a piece that moved us involuntarily, body and soul; when it was over I could barely cheer I was so astounded. The new, piano-based arrangement of “Like Spinning Plates” was a lovely surprise, followed by the slow-burning roar of “Fake Plastic Trees” which brought the audience to possibly its loudest roar of the night. “Bodysnatchers” rocked the hardest of the new songs, and after the relentless rhythmic mayhem of “Idioteque” we were practically spent, but we still got three more songs, the closing “Everything In Its Right Place” really soaring off into another dimension. We didn’t want to come back, but it had to end. So everyone was treated to the greatest band of the radiohead genre. I was sure there were some who were disappointed, considering the hype; expectations can be a killer. Radiohead isn’t a jam band. There’s no need to follow them around on tour (though some do), or seek out recordings of every concert they’ve ever played (though many will do this, too). You just know that if you miss them on any tour, you’ll never get another chance to have that experience. It was the best set of music I’ve seen the band play, and the best set of music I’ve ever seen at Bonnaroo.

Once again, the late night options all looked appealing, but none of them was particularly essential. Still, we knew we weren’t ready for sleep yet on this night. I was definitely keen on seeing the Dresden Dolls at The Other Tent, but there were two acts prior to them I’d never heard of before. Dr. John, the man who inadvertently named the festival, was intriguing as well. I’d never checked out the Superjam in past years, however, and so we determined to head there first after regrouping and refreshing and preparing ourselves properly back at camp. In years past, the Superjam seemed to end up being a loose conglomeration of previously unaffiliated musicians jamming on standards, but you never knew who might be there. It was sort of a microcosm of the possibilities of the dreams and hopes of attendees, but it had never lived up to its potential before. As we approached the tent, I was pretty sure I head Phil Lesh’s voice (not his most virtuosic instrument) singing Dead standard “Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad.” This didn’t necessarily excite me too much. We got nearer, though, and the jam was starting and I don’t think my mind was quite ready to admit that it recognized that guitar tone; after all, at least half the jam-band guitarists out there are total Phish derivatives. But my friend Nick gestured and said, “Is that Mike?” and in a rush of happiness it all became clear: the debut of Gordon/Russo/Anastasio/Benevento, apparently with Phil Lesh taboot. In thinking about it during and afterward, we all agreed that, short of a Phish reunion, there was nothing a majority of fans could have wanted more than this miracle. I hadn’t considered the possibility that Trey would fly back to Tennessee from St. Louis immediately following his opening slot with Tom Petty, but there he was; I later learned that he was the friend Claypool had been referring to (I missed the part about the red hair). At any rate, as happy as we were, I don’t see how the debut of a band could have been any better. As much as Trey rocked with Oysterhead, he tore it up even harder and stretched out even farther for this set. Lesh left the stage after “Feelin’ Bad” and the remaining quartet proved itself a force to be reckoned with. Marco Benevento has emerged as one of very few truly original, distinctive keyboard players to burst onto the music scene in the past decade or two, and the push and pull between him and Trey was powerful, to put it simply. The group would take the songs through solos and grooves, sink them into a cacophony and then explode back into a jaw-dropping jam; it seemed at times as if each man was trying to outdo the others but it worked toward the betterment of the whole team. This weekend found Anastasio completely on fire, like I haven’t seen him in years. Trey band standard “Mr. Completely” found new life and rocked harder than it ever could before. New Trey/Mike compositions “Seasons” and “Trouble” sounded inspired and saw the two old friends in great spirits. Trey’s guitar grind gelled perfectly with the Benevento/Russo tune “Something For Rockets,” one of the set’s best jams. New rocker “Mud City” closed the set in fine fashion, probably the closest a jam band has come to sounding like Deep Purple. Finally, the encore of “Drifting” took a tune usually reserved for amiable noodling to places it had never gone before, ending with an out-of-this-world jam that left us breathless but still screaming. Anastasio would not appear on the final night of Bonnaroo, but he had once again proven himself its once and future king.

We were further thrilled to discover that we could still catch most of the Dresden Dolls’ set, which turned out to be the most impressive two-person act I’d ever seen. They were great; their latest album, Yes, Virginia…, is excellent, but you really have to see them live to appreciate the power these two people alone onstage can create. It was the perfect capper of an almost unbelievable day of music, and although we were tempted to stay up for the ultra-late set by Sasha, it was 3 a.m. The sleeping bag was calling.

Sundays are meant for relaxing, revealing a blessing out of the initially disappointing placement of Radiohead on Saturday night. We didn’t feel the need to head down to Centeroo until Matisyahu’s set at 4:00. I would’ve liked to check out Béla Fleck, but relaxing and soaking in the last afternoon of true relaxation I would have for quite some time proved more desirable. Matisyahu turned out to be everything I had hoped; I really dig his latest album, Youth as well, and he’s got a pretty great but minimalist band that suits his style perfectly. They play a loose reggae-jam style with each guitar chord stark against the drum beats, backing off when it’s time for the singer to kick in. At times it seems like his guitarist is trying to amalgamate too many divergent styles, but he plays with heart, and Matisyahu himself radiates positivity that will catch you right up if you let it. He even had the matzos to spout anti-drug sentiments to a crowd that was surely at least half zonked on something or other for much of the weekend, but nobody seemed to mind. I think the man himself had more energy than anyone else within earshot, but there was plenty of movement in the crowd as the band wound its way through a diverse selection of tunes from Youth as well as older songs, nothing sounding like the studio version, as one might expect from a former Phish head. It was a perfect afternoon pick-me-up to get us back into the swing of things as we continued to recover from the night before. Bonnaroo was on its final stretch; we had to hang on and soak it all in before it was gone.

I didn’t really get too caught up in the feeling of Bonnaroo slipping away this year. I rarely if ever let my mind drift to the upcoming work week or unpaid bills or car repairs or anything else I might have to dread. There is always so much to see and do at Bonnaroo, but I think this was the year I finally was able to accept that I would see and hear what I was willing and able to, and the rest was not meant to be. The real world can wait. It waits patiently for us as we swim in the wilderness, and by never disregarding it, it allows us to truly escape it for a time. We give it so much of our selves, but on days like these, we give us back to ourselves, outside of time and space if we play our cards right. After all, when we get back, everything’s the same as it was. But we are refreshed! And already looking forward to the next escape.

On this final day, the sun never got quite so hot. There was a pleasant breeze at times, and it did feel like it could rain. Amateur meteorologists everywhere were making predictions. We arrived at That Tent and secured a nice spot before Sonic Youth took the stage. Thurston Moore was quite talkative, and the band was totally exuberant; it was hard to believe that these were veterans that scenesters name-drop but never really call to mind with their music. This is a band that thousands of other bands wish they were like, but only if Sonic Youth had never existed, because this is original music. There are echoes of bands like the Velvet Underground and all the comparisons that rock critics have made through the years, but it’s an attitude and a passion and a commitment that is unique and as constant as Moore’s hairdo. Even though they played mostly new songs, I could hear and feel all the things other, newer bands had stolen from them, even favorite bands of mine. Rock historians and critics love to put bands on pedestals because they were so INFLUENTIAL; now the understanding of this was washing over me. It didn’t fully hit me until the distortion jam at the end of the show, when I was flashing back to the early 90’s when that beauty-in-chaos was changing the world as we knew it, only we didn’t really know it at all. This was the real deal, and another band that had somehow slipped through the cracks of my appreciation had burst up through the woodwork of my consciousness again. I love it when that happens!

As we walked back to camp, many vendors had vacated, many vehicles were clearing out. Phil Lesh and Friends is a big name, but admittedly, it’s only really that enticing a name to stalwart deadheads. Surely a lot of curious hangers-on stayed, those who didn’t have to work the next day. Surely there were indie kids who were drawn by the power of the festival itself to stick around for its final act. I’d seen the group twice before. One of the shows was phenomenal; the other, so-so. I couldn’t really say whether it was the revolving lineup that made the difference, but tonight’s assemblage was a powerhouse with potential. And what about special guests? There ought to be some special guests. We walked down well after the band had started. Should we bring our ponchos? Naaah, its not going to rain. Yeesh. Just as Joan Osborne began belting out “Gimme Shelter,” we started getting pelted. Appropriate, but not pleasant for the unprepared. I confess: Phil and Friends won’t get their fair shake of a review from me. I spent more time preparing to head down, running around, getting myself and my girlfriend dry, buying late night eats, etc., than actually watching the show. Sorry, Phil, but thats the way it goes sometimes. I can say I heard a particularly engaging “Fire On The Mountain” jammed smoothly into a powerful “All Along The Watchtower,” followed by a welcome “I Know You Rider” to close out set one with a fantastic one-two-three punch. Osborne’s vocals add a dimension to ex-Dead forays that few bands in the jam community ever reach. For one thing, she’s female. For another thing, she’s a good singer. She almost makes it possible to view Phil & Friends as something more than a bunch of old men playing 30-year-old songs without the guy who wrote them. To their credit, these old men meander in and around the songs with true passion and they create that blend of departure and arrival that all jam bands strive for. The final set of Bonnaroo was a tribute to the music that created this whole scene and that, for some, still rules it, but it seemed a bit anachronistic. I kept hoping for something truly unexpected but never got it. The second set opener “Shakedown Street” melted into a fantastic rhythmic journey that found its way expertly into “New Speedway Boogie,” one of the oddball choices of the night. The rest of the second set was a bit of a loss for me; I caught bits and pieces, mostly toward the end. “Not Fade Away” is always a pleasure, but I remember thinking that “The Midnight Hour” seemed misplaced as the set was almost wrapping up. Finally, the encore of “Box Of Rain” could have been a nice closer had Joan helped on vocals; with Phil singing lead, there was no discernible melody and it sounded like a chorus of homeless zombies. No special guests, no alarms, no surprises. A few great stretches of inspired improv, but overall an anticlimax. Every great epic must have one.

We all trudged out of the main stage grounds, thankful that the huge mud problem from past years had been resolved, thankful that the crowds were somewhat smaller and not so stifling, resilient and still trying to soak in these last moments. The end-of-show screams and shouts went up gleefully, the happy cries of BonnaROOOOOOOOOOOO that you can probably still feel if you’ve been there. We had a mounted cop take our picture in front of the Ferris Wheel, but the camera’s battery died. The real world was creeping back in. The next morning we woke up late. After breakfast, we discovered that our radiator had leaked itself dry. I wont even get into our Chicago traffic problems around midnight. Sixteen hours later, we had returned through the real world to our home. The roller coaster had come to a full and complete stop. The safety bar lifted, and we stood up. Not one ounce of me felt like it hadn’t been worth it. There are many festivals, but I still feel like some experiences can only come about at Bonnaroo. This year proved to be the best yet. All elements combined to form the perfect festival experience. All logistical problems from past years had been solved, and it still felt so much like freedom. Can’t wait for our next escape.

If you’re interested, check out for the full schedule of acts, plus they’ll eventually have soundboard downloads of individual sets. Hopefully all the good ones. Ciao,


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