Bonnaroo | 06.11 - 06.14 | Tennessee

Friday :: 06.12

Bonnaroo 2009 by Snyder
Arriving Friday I was shocked at what great condition the grounds were in. After the torrential downpours of Thursday I was expecting Mudaroo 2009. Of course there were a few muddy spots where traffic was particularly high, but this was nothing compared to what I saw the first few years (and at no point did I wind up with annoying wet feet!). I'm not sure how they absorbed the water, but whatever the organizers did, they did it well. And that's part of this whole "Bonnaroo is the best" thing: Every year they make the event better. Case and point: The VIP Hill. At my last Bonnaroo (2005), when I went to the Main Stage VIP section I was sitting on a stale-ass metal bleacher. This year (and for the past couple) there were still bleachers, but they also built a big, soft, beautiful rolling hill that rises off the main stage field. It may sound like a small thing, but it highlights a big point: The folks behind the fest are always working to make Bonnaroo the best it can be. It's like an organizer for another very large U.S. music festival (which I won't mention) said to me Sunday night as we wound down, "There's just so much to learn from Bonnaroo."

Patterson Hood & The Screwtopians

The first act I really settled in for at Bonnaroo 2009 was Patterson Hood & The Screwtopians. Working outside the Drive-By Truckers, Hood is still a master frontman with one of the sharpest pens in the songwriting game. Even with DBT bandmates Brad Morgan (drums) and John Neff (pedal steel/guitars), there's less dynamite behind Hood here and that's part of the idea. But just because there's more restraint doesn't mean these cats can't beat the songs around when needed, and they roughed up some spots under the hot Tennessee sun. Most of the material came off Hood's upcoming solo album, Murdering Oscar (and other love songs) out June 23, but he dipped into the Truckers' catalog a bit. Of particular note was Neff's soaring pedal steel on "Pride Of The Yankees," Hood's ass-kicking guitar on "Understand Now," and one of the happiest songs Hood has ever written, "Granddaddy."

Animal Collective

Animal Collective :: Bonnaroo 2009 by Snyder
I wanted to like this set, I really did. I totally dig just about all of Animal Collective's albums and I particularly like the recent Merriweather Post Pavilion, but live I just couldn't connect. No doubt these future freak electro-rockers would have benefited from a night spot, the daylight making their light show non-existent, leaving fans to stare at three dudes playing with machines - but there was more to it than just timing. The sound was horrible, with deep bass rumbles drowning everything else out and it's hard to imagine they wanted it to sound that way, but then harder still to understand why it wasn't fixed. Before I lost my patience there were some cool, distorted delayed waves of sound washing across the crowd and I vaguely enjoyed "My Girls," but with so much going on it became impossible to remain underwhelmed and stick around. As disappointed as I was with their set, based on how impressive I find their albums I'm willing to give Animal Collective one more try in a club setting.

St. Vincent

I really had no intention of checking out St. Vincent. Looking at my schedule I knew I was gonna be at Animal Collective, but this is exactly what makes Bonnaroo so freakin' awesome: Bored/annoyed/over any one act and all you have to do is walk a few hundred feet to find something new and totally intriguing. Of course, that's the theory behind all festivals, but rarely (if ever) are the lineups packed with enough talent (especially at three o'clock in the afternoon) to really make this work. Well, Bonnaroo works. I left Animal Collective and strolled over to St. Vincent with zero expectations and proceeded to have my mind blown. I've heard the buzz behind St. Vincent (centered around singer-songwriter-guitarist Annie Clark) and enjoyed the recent sophomore album, Actor, but I had no idea the live show was like this. As I approached That Tent I was pulled in by swells of distorted noise. Staring at the stage it wasn't just Clark abusing her guitar, there was also a flute and a violin doing battle over the bass and drum. The band would build large static walls that came crashing into pretty melodies, only to be fractured by digital distortion. There were moments when clarinets would weave around keyboards or a processed sax would grind against Clark's buzzing, barbed wire guitar, which she even played lying on the stage at one point. But even when it was heavy and extra psychedelic there was still something beautiful hiding underneath. There was some combination of Bjork and Sonic Youth in the approach, but what Clark is doing with St. Vincent is definitely her own beast. One of the most wonderful surprises I'd experience all weekend.

Grizzly Bear

Ed Droste - Grizzly Bear by Snyder
There was a large crowd packed under This Tent for Brooklyn's Grizzly Bear. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the band's music - and hence their performance - is the delicate way they arrange songs. Committed entirely to the composition, there was very little in the way of solos, improv or showing off, instead there were beautiful harmonies and well executed sections. During "Lullaby" the band began chanting, "Chin up, cheer up," over and over and the crowd began to sing-along, swaying left then right. Opting for simple structures layered with more complicated accents and various stringed things, Grizzly Bear held the crowd's attention and certainly increased my desire to see them again. But, across the way was an African legend and if he came all the way to my country least I could do was shake my ass at his tent.

King Sunny Ade

Juju master King Sunny Ade is a hero in his home of Nigeria. A philanthropist who employs an estimated 700 people, Ade is often considered the Bob Marley of Africa. But more than any of his good deeds or donations, what makes Ade special is his infectious blend of traditional African music/instruments with western forms, featuring electric guitars and synthesizers. With five of the 13 people on stage (plus two African dancers) playing percussion instruments, the groove never stopped. Tempos would be pushed into ever-faster spirals until they would break into tranquil open spaces or deep, groaning expanses. Similar to Afrobeat, there was constant motion and some call-response lyrics, but the snaking guitars and big, soulful vocals took the music to different terrain. If you didn't walk out of this set with a smile on your face it had to be your own damn fault.

TV on the Radio

Featuring the addition of a sax player, TV on the Radio unfurled sheets of thick sound on the Which Stage. Guitarist Kyp Malone shot distorted chords while singer Tunde Adebimpe bounced around as he belted out the lyrics to "The Wrong Way" and "Halfway Home." There was an urgent tempo to the standout combo of "Golden Age" and "Wolf Like Me," and although certain points were a bit sloppy it never took away from the performance. A bit later in the set, TVOTR busted-out the euphoric "Staring At The Sun" and the dark "Red Dress," which both ignited the crowd. Throughout the set the sax was used in perfect proportions; always slightly distorted and never the focus (no cheesy solos), the tasteful horn constantly pushing the edges of the sonic maelstrom. A strong showing by one of the best bands on the circuit.

David Byrne

David Byrne :: Bonnaroo 2009 by Snyder
Choosing between the Beastie Boys and David Byrne as headliners for Friday night was one of the more difficult decisions of the weekend. Having seen both previously I went with the Talking Heads legend and I think I made the wrong choice. It wasn't that Byrne's set was bad, it was just overshadowed by the Beasties - literally, you could hear the rap group's noise bleeding over to Byrne's stage, drowning out his perfect singing voice. During set openers "Strange Overtones" and "I Zimbra" (the classic first track from the Heads' 1979 Fear of Music) you could barely hear Byrne, and I was pretty close, up near the soundboard. The delicate beauty of "Heaven" was impossible to enjoy and you could hear folks from all corners of the Which Stage yelling, "Turn it up!" With the most professional sound crew and systems money can buy one has to assume this was Byrne's doing not Bonnaroo's, but regardless, the volume needed to be raised. The levels did seem to go up during the huge triple play of "Crosseyed and Painless" > "Born Under Punches" > "Once In A Lifetime," and people responded by shaking asses and pumping fists. Closing the set with "Take Me To The River," "The Great Curve," "Air" and "Burning Down The House," there was plenty to enjoy. Had the volume been louder this could have been a big set, but in the end it was slightly underwhelming. Byrne is still touring with his large ensemble of dancers and singers, and while his current band is truly wonderful and hard to deny in the beautiful theater settings they've been playing, at Bonnaroo - with the Beastie Boys raging just a few hundred yards away - a bit more rock balls and less theatrical pomp would have served our elder statesmen well.

Phish

Trey Anastasio - Phish :: Bonnaroo 2009 by Snyder
It's not that I was a hater. Far from it, in fact. I actually once adored this band. I too can play the lame numbers game and compare how many shows I've been too (around 80) and when I saw The Best Show Ever (12/31/95 comes to mind). I never stopped respecting Phish, even when they really fell apart. I had just moved on, quite literally "over it." With so many amazing bands constantly coming into my life it became impossible to give a shit about an act floundering around way past their prime. Then, I went to Bonnaroo. I hadn't seen Phish since Coventry and I really didn't care. I was looking forward to checking them at the 'Roo but I just wasn't buying the hype. Instantly I was impressed with opener "Chalkdust Torture." Standing back on the hill and watching it all unfold, I was even relatively pleased with new song "Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan," but it was the well executed, clean reading of the highly composed classic "Divided Sky" that really got my attention. The last few times I saw Trey he had an incredibly difficult time with the technical spots. Here, he didn't miss much. Phish was pulling me in and I honestly couldn't believe it. As one would expect, "Down With Disease" was the first time things started to really open up - and at over seventeen minutes they certainly went places, but it was "Stash" > "Golgi Apparatus" > "Wolfman's Brother" that blew the hinges off. "Golgi" was whatever, serving to bridge these two journeys together, but "Stash" was primal, some sort of prehistoric ooze that covered the crowd. The band was overwhelming, and while "Wolfman's" wasn't the longest version I've heard, it got pretty weird. New song "Kill Devil Falls" was very impressive, where the middle jam section was dark and menacing in the vein of "David Bowie." It was around this point that it became clear there was no chance of a set break. "Free" was a treat and "Wading in the Velvet Sea" was crappy as ever (but without a set break it was sort of a welcome moment to take a piss and get a beer), but it was blow out time from there as Phish dropped bomb after bomb: "Harry Hood" > "Highway To Hell" > "2001" > "You Enjoy Myself" > "Wilson" > "You Enjoy Myself" followed by an encore of The Beatles' "A Day In The Life." Even with cursory knowledge of this band, just looking at those songs in one set should set off alarms. For some, the straight 20 songs in a row and lack of a set break with super-hit after super-hit to close the show was a little unnerving, sort of like being out at sea and unable to see any land. For this phan who is coming back around it seemed more like a statement. But what it all boils down to, like just about everything in life, is expectations. And I went to see the Phish show at Bonnaroo with almost no expectations. I was looking forward to hanging out with all my crazy Phishhead friends and that was about all, but what I got was a giant reminder that this band still has something important to add to the conversation. Am I jumping on tour? No. Headed to Red Rocks even? Not this year. But none of that matters, the point is Phish is back and this time it's worth checking out.

Late Late Night

Phish's set was officially billed as a Late Night slot, and ending after 2 a.m. clearly it was, but there was still other stuff going on, so I set off to get a sample. Me and mine took in pieces of Paul Oakenfold (whose thumping set of sensual house had folks bumping well into the morning), Girl Talk (who clearly had the biggest party raging as scantly clad ladies shook it hard), and my personal favorite of the late late night stuff, Pretty Lights (who mixed our past with the present for a rather compelling headtrip). But after Phish (not to mention St. Vincent, TV on the Radio, King Sunny Ade and David Byrne) it was really just a wash, something to put in our ears as we went over the day's events and tried to calm our nerves in hopes of some sleep at some point.

Girl Talk :: Bonnaroo 2009 by Snyder

Continue reading for Saturday's coverage...


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