When Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment created and produced the first Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival at Great Stage Park on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn., back in 2002, it was viewed as a showcase for jam bands.
The name Bonnaroo was lifted from the Dr. John LP Desitively Bonnaroo, which literally means a “really good time.”
Now the four-day event has evolved into arguably the premier popular music festival in the world, a citation anointed last year by Rolling Stone. The 2009 spectacle, which runs Thursday through Sunday, covers almost every genre of popular music not only in America, but Europe, the Caribbean and Africa.
Since the organizers purchased a major portion of the site in 2007, Bonnaroo has become as much a lifestyle experience as a music event. The 530 acres reserved for the festival includes camping and parking areas, recycling and greening efforts, numerous vendors selling every type of food, drink and souvenir imaginable.
Still, it’s the music that’s the main attraction. Some 120 acts are presented in a setting featuring multiple platforms and locales. There are two main stages. The What stage, where it’s a prime honor for any band to headline, is the main venue with a capacity of 100,000, and it stays open from noon to midnight.
The Which stage seats 30,000. This Tent, That Tent and The Other tent are smaller performing sites for more intimate viewing experiences. A Comedy Tent is reserved for the 20 or more stand-up performers, while other stages like the Solar and Cinema present movies, the silent disco and more.
Chances are anyone who has waited this long to get tickets may be out of luck, but you can still try to garner general admission tickets from the Web site (bonnaroo.com). They range from $224.50-$249.50 (plus ticket fees).
For real music lovers, it’s hard to beat Bonnaroo for its diversity and scope. We emphasize trying to catch groups and performers that don’t always get tagged as “must see” artists, which is one reason why we’re leaving some personal favorites out of our 10 acts to see list (such favorites include Al Green, Elvis Costello solo, Erykah Badu, The Del McCoury Band, Tony Rice, Cherryholmes, The Features and Charlie Allen, among others). But if you can catch them plus the others we cite, by all means do so.
These are our selections, though not in any order of
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
They’ll be making their only North American Festival appearance this year at Bonnaroo, which further upgrades something that really doesn’t need any hype. There are those out there who feel Springsteen’s last few discs haven’t been that stellar, but even his harshest critics concede that he’s a master live performer and will no doubt be energized in this environment.
The former Tone! Tony! Toni! and Lucy Pearl member and a master at everything from singing to producing, writing and mixing, Saadiq had to cancel a Nashville appearance unexpectedly last year. But his recent Columbia CD should have won the R&B Album of the Year Grammy, and his appearance is among the top urban and black music shows of the festival.
Whether she’s working with Conor Oberst, Elvis Costello & the Imposters or doing her own quirky solo releases like Rabbit Fur Coat and Acid Tongue, Jenny Lewis always has intriguing things to say in her music. Other people like the Rilo Kiley work more than me, but her presence in that group still made it interesting and reaffirmed the notion that she’s always someone worth hearing.
I’m not sure whether you’d call what she does dance-tinged rock, funk-influenced electronica or pop with hip-hop touches (maybe all of the above), but Santogold does things that are fresh and unique on and off stage. Sometimes the songs seem more like sketches than finished ideas, but even those prove intriguing, and she has a reputation as a compelling on-stage attraction.
Bela Fleck & Toumani Diabate
Whether he’s playing with Earl Scruggs or at the helm of a session with the Flecktones, Bela Fleck’s formidable and imaginative banjo solos are consistently engaging and exciting. Now, he’s joining forces with Mali’s kora king, Toumani Diabate. It’s impossible that this won’t be a spectacular event, and hopefully these two will do a duet CD in the future.
TV on the Radio
It’s taken them almost eight years to smash through the underground, but Brooklyn rockers TV on the Radio hit the big time in 2006 with Return to Cookie Mountain and then things continued to explode with last year’s Dear Science. The question is, can they reproduce in a live setting some of the more elaborate songs from the discs, particularly those with looped snippets and refrains? That mystery only adds to the pre-show intrigue.
Priorities are easy to determine when you come back from the brink of death. Texas native Alejandro Escovedo’s Real Animal eschews cute production tricks and unnecessary gimmicks and is just visceral, animated and superb rock music. He does it with a style and verve that cement the reputation for lyric flair and musical firepower that he developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s before the bout with Hepatitis-C that almost ended his life. It was also a superb follow-up to 2006’s The Boxing Mirror.
The New Orleans piano great and songwriting ace is doing more playing these days, though there are plenty of rumors that Elvis Costello, his comrade of recent months, just might pay a surprise visit to the stage during his performance. Toussaint’s array of legendary compositions, his equally impressive list of production credits, role in the New Orleans music industry and his own underrated singing skills notwithstanding, it’s his frenzied and inspired keyboard word on his current release The Bright Mississippi that has many fans eagerly anticipating his Bonnaroo date.
The Itals/Wailing Souls
So much 21st century reggae has abandoned the skittering beat and social consciousness of the ‘70s and ‘80s in favor of a percolating rhythm more in line with rap and rock than Bob Marley or Dennis Brown. These are two of the premier roots reggae ensembles in the music’s history, both getting their start during the days when the genre began making noise in both England and America. Now they’re back in the spotlight and still doing the close harmonies and protest pieces that represent their hallmark.
Phish (2 shows)
At their best, Phish displayed every positive attribute of jam bands (versatility, improvisational acumen, cleverness) and few of the detriments (undisciplined arrangements, excessively long solos). The new song “Time Turns Elastic” is doing nicely on iTunes, a new CD produced by Steve Lillywhite is due next month and Phish will be taking Bonnaroo back to its roots with two big shows.
Also don’t miss David Byrne, Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3, Wilco, Snoop Dogg, Merle Haggard, Booker T. and The Drive-By Truckers, King Sunny Ade & The African Beats, Heartless Bastards and Femi Kuti and the Positive Force.