BONNAROO | 06.14 – 06.17 | TN

By: Dennis Cook

Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival :: 06.14.07 – 06.17.07 :: Manchester, TN

Bonnaroo 2007 by Josh Miller
Bonnaroo has become a "thing." More than just a festival, it's a buzzword, a sizeable blip on the cultural radar. If the model girlfriends and VH1 personalities wandering around didn't give it away then seeing it called "The New Woodstock" on E! Television's Daily 10 show days afterwards sealed the deal. Through adventurous, uncannily prescient programming and a willingness to deviate from the "phatty grilled cheese" aesthetics of older festivals, Bonnaroo continues to merge massive entertainment with a concentrated effort to reach folks on a more personal level.

In a dance of hippie ideals and corporate savvy, Bonnaroo, like some perverse sonic shopping mall, anchors their four-day gathering to a brand name like The Police but makes room for wonderful, lesser known acts like Haale, Yard Dogs Road Show and Sam Champion. Increasingly, you can amuse yourself with things other than live music and still happily fill up your time. The Yet Another (Comedy) Tent featured big names like Lewis Black, Dave Attell and the coolly whacked Flight of the Conchords. Elsewhere environmental seminars, Internet cafes, highbrow salons, MLB batting cages, burlesque acts, video game arcades and a Ferris wheel vied for our attentions.

John Paul Jones & ?uestlove
Bonnaroo 2007 by Rod Snyder
Walking around Thursday afternoon before the main stages lit up, I found myself quietly singing The Police's "Too Much Information" under my breath. Bonnaroo is sensory overload dropped like a Vegas meteorite into the middle of the Tennessee hills, a spasmodic Transformer encircled by dusty fields and watchful trees. Think too much about it and it'll freak you out - especially during the long, disorienting night walks - but surrender and it can be a great deal of fun. Not sure how successful the global issues/social change aspects are given the general Dionysian vibe and shameless hucksterism spilling into every corner but you gotta admire them for trying to make a difference.

What follows is a chunk of the experience. There's no way to put all of it into words, and like Almost Famous pointed out, some things that happen on the road should stay on the road. But, I will say my fourth Bonnaroo made me acutely aware of the atomic nature of existence – protons crashing against neutrons and electrons, everything tied together with knots we'll never untie and probably shouldn't even try to.

Thursday

Bonnaroo 2007 by Rod Snyder
Settled in by mid-afternoon, there was time to stroll the grounds before the proverbial electrical storm of nightfall. This place really mutates once the bands start cranking and the hordes descend from the massive tent city, a temporary Wild West town with rumored unlicensed strip clubs, tattoo parlors and all manner of barter economics happening. One misses out on the pleasant malaise that descends on Thursday afternoons by coming later, not to mention the chaos of parking and setting up camp in the dark. Free to wander, mentally and physically, one relaxes, knowing a warm haze of music, intoxicants and fresh encounters awaits them. Bonnaroo is so much bigger than the day-to-day world that it's hard not to feel you're on an adventure, a kid loose in Disneyland or rafting the Grand Canyon.

David Cross :: Bonnaroo 2007 by Rod Snyder
Ryan Shaw kicked off The Other Tent, exhuming Sam Cooke style '60s soul with a glorious falsetto and welcoming stage presence. With a super tight band behind him, Shaw strutted and preached before an appreciative audience, especially the ladies who swooned a little at Shaw's good looks. Prone to cheerful platitudes like "My music is about love" and "We're gonna speak some things into existence tonight," Shaw nonetheless won over one of the widest age ranges at any set this year. His gospel-esque take on folk standard "If I Had A Hammer" echoed the late, great Ted Hawkins, and the encore of Marvin Gaye's "Shotgun" showed the Motown spirit is alive in Shaw.

The Black Angels :: Bonnaroo 2007 by Rod Snyder
If they ever decide to make a new version of The Monkees TV show, The Little Ones would be a dandy candidate. Archetypal indie rock, they laid oodles of jangly guitars over tribal-y drums, focused arrangements and breathless backing vocals. If I got most of my new music from MySpace and hadn't graduated high school decades ago their name would be written all over my Peachy folders.

Austin's The Black Angels worked up a joyous dirge built by drum thuggery and keenly placed guitar explosions. Their voices sliced through the cumulus like a scalpel as the brilliant light show hijacked the neurons in our heads. They never drew anything out for too long, and everything had the creepy, cool vibe Bauhaus once created. Some tunes unfurled like a '30s blues record heard on a radio wave light years from home, a floor tom beaten by maracas carrying us off while we stared helplessly grinning at the keyboardist throwing her whole body into the music, a human sacrifice for this inviting pyre. The Black Angels wriggled like warm flesh under our grubby hands - slightly deranged, wholly hypnotic, undeniably sexy stuff.

Clutch :: Bonnaroo 2007 by Dave Vann
Clutch, despite hearing repeatedly that they'd be "the most rock thang" at Bonnaroo, didn't really fire my jets. They are certainly a solid hard rock band with decent songs but Super 400 and Black Stone Cherry do what they do better. People did dig their energetic, hard-bitten set, though.

More diverse, engaging classic rock could be found with the Sam Roberts Band, who combined The Slip's restless energy and seamless songwriting with crunchier guitars and dreamy harmonies. Like their sensational 2006 album, Chemical City, they opened with "The Gate," an irresistible invitation that marries power pop to sweeping ELO dynamics. The whole band leaned forward when they played, willing the music outward, actively engaging the enthusiastic crowd who bounced a maple leaf beach ball in the air, a nod to the band's Canadian roots. While they don't reinvent the wheel, they do remind one of all the charms of '70s rock.

Apollo Sunshine :: Bonnaroo 2007 by Rod Snyder
What more can we say about Apollo Sunshine? That they're one of the finest, most exploratory, endlessly catchy pop bands around? That live they shake with a ferocity thought lost when CBGB's closed? All true but each time I see them beat numbers out of their vintage equipment my faith is renewed. At Bonnaroo they expanded their usual trio with an extra guitarist and a percussionist. Imagine if Fela spent the Summer of Love in San Francisco and you're in the ballpark. There's a delightful tug-of-war between melody and chaos in Apollo Sunshine. One never knows how it'll turn out but the sparks really lit up the night air in Manchester.

Over at the new Bonna Rouge nightclub tent, Yard Dogs Road Show showed some skin after a Victorian tease. They're "quasi" a lot of things – tin pan alley, vaudeville, Tom Waits, Folies Bergere, Marx Brothers. It's a hell of a show that scoots to a clip-clop stomp akin to the Squirrel Nut Zippers with more comely trombonists, dream sequences and Leon Russell lookin' old men than you can shake a stick at. Dandy!

Rodrigo y Gabriela :: Bonnaroo 2007 by Dave Vann
After lengthy technical difficulties, Rodrigo y Gabriela dazzled the huge crowd at That Tent with technically exhausting flamenco-heavy metal. It's not as strange a combination as you might think, and in their very capable hands (and strong, beating hearts) lays the germ of a new kind of acoustic music. The Pink Floyd sing-a-longs and Metallica covers don't hurt but it's their own passion packed compositions that speak of a rich future. Also, points for being two of the most engaging seated performers ever.

Tea Leaf Green :: Bonnaroo 2007 by Dave Vann
San Francisco's answer to The Faces, Tea Leaf Green closed down The Other Tent in front of the biggest audience of the night. The quartet throws a fine party and word-of-mouth is spreading fast. Before the set, singer-keyboardist Trevor Garrod chilled in their dressing room trailer, a bit overwhelmed by the hubbub outside. A sensitive soul, Garrod instantly shed any nerves the moment his fingers hit the electric piano and the microphone loomed. Some folks are born to the stage, and Tea Leaf demonstrated they have rock 'n' roll in their bones. Guitarist Josh Clark offered his increasingly heavy riffage but with an instinct for backing off when necessary. Like a slow boil, the bouncing, sweat drenched kids up front inspired everyone to bubble over eventually. As a longtime fan, it's fun to see more and more people pick up their songs, singing them with gusto like on an especially fine "Taught To Be Proud." What they craft endures, and while a relative oldie like set-closer "Sex In The '70s" shouldn't keep working, they always find the pleasure switch in our brains. Hands down, one of the finest performances this year.

I peeked into both the Comedy Tent and the swanky new Somethin' Else jazz tent but outrageously long lines, erratic door polices and limited seating kept me away most of the weekend. The choice to see top flight comedians and jazz artists in air conditioned comfort was surely appealing but that choice usually meant missing as many as two to three other performances. The bits I caught of the Scott Amendola Band, the David Murray Black Saint Quartet and Don Byron Plays Jr. Walker were excellent, though all suffered from a degree of sound bleed from the rock acts playing This Tent a few yards away.

Continue reading for Friday...


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