Bonnaroo 2012 | Tennessee | Review | Photos

Words by: Chadbyrne R. Dickens | Images by: Joe Russo and Brad Hodge

Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival :: 06.07.12-06.10.12 :: Manchester, TN

Photo gallery for Thursday is below review, and you can jump to the other days through these links!

Friday Photo Gallery

Saturday Photo Gallery

Sunday Photo Gallery

Bonnaroo 2012 by Brad Hodge
If Huey Lewis played Bonnaroo, I am certain his lyrics would chime, “Bonnaroo, Bonnaroo, is everything they say, and no place that I’d rather be. Where else can you do a half a million things, all at a quarter to three?”

Life challenges us with choices. The decisions we make can be quite polarizing: pro-life or pro-choice, Republican vs. Democrat, for or against the Death Penalty, and whether or not you think Bonnaroo is the definitive music festival. The most renowned and attended music festival in the country has an avid following, as well as a fair number of detractors, but after a steamy weekend soaking in music, I must raise a bruised, tan and mud stained thumb high in admiration for everything associated with it.

Although I log in umpteen shows and festivals each year, there was a reason why this was my first Bonnaroo experience. For years, I followed the mistake of listening to my peers, who claimed that Roo had “sold out” and become commercialized with long lines of disingenuous fans, overwhelming heat, and a vastly different line-up from its initial 2002 offering, which included many of the largest acts in jam music. My initial visit to the festival concluded, I discovered that not only were my friends inaccurate in their disparaging remarks, but Roo proved to be one of life’s most special experiences.

Bonnaroo 2012 by Joe Russo
As if I were following an unseen yellow brick road, I walked through the steel gates into a large 700-acre field where I was compelled to simply stop, look and listen for a full 20 minutes. A fast-living New Yorker, I’m not one to be still for long. But, I was immersed in a euphoric fantasy turned reality and knew this initial experience would only occur once and I had to savor it. I had been teleported to a surreal world as if inside Willy Wonka’s factory located in a country version of Times Square. It was pleasantly overwhelming and I hadn’t fully engaged with the music or mayhem yet. I would soon discover that Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment provided the exemplary entertainment experience that impresarios in Vegas and elsewhere can only dream of emulating. Fittingly, Bonnaroo, taken from the title of Dr. John’s album, translates roughly into “having a good time.”

With over 80,000 attendees spread over 700 acres in the middle of Manchester, Tennessee, nestled 65 miles equidistant from Nashville to the north and Chattanooga to the east, Bonnaroo is indeed a small, makeshift city composed of everything one’s heart could desire. It is the definitive epitome of stimulation overload, with almost too many engaging and euphoric options to tantalize one’s entertainment needs. Even the most experienced ardent concertgoer cannot be fully prepared or comprehend the ever-present buzz of excitement enticing one to the many pleasure domes simultaneously. Bonnaroo consists of 235 sets spread over 9 musical stages, a comedy tent of 17 shows, a silent disco with 17 rounds, a cinema tent with 40 offerings, interviews with 15 artists on the Solar Stage, and 29 different artist-signings at the adjacent area. The abundance of campers are parked within the 120 different parking lots, all with the same names every year, derived from famous film characters like “Ace Ventura”, “Darth Vader” and perennial favorite “Pussy Galore.”

Bonnaroo 2012 by Joe Russo
Standing still at one point, I realized that at any given time, four steps in any direction would lead me to a completely different expedition. Unlike the adolescent “choose your own adventure” novels from my youth, Bonnaroo adventures are chosen for you. Drift in one direction a few feet and one may be pulled into the cacophonous sounds of Feist, the grunting of Ludacris, or a view of dancing fools in the Silent Disco. One may take a step and bump into someone offering various means of euphoria, a group of girls in bikinis who like your t-shirt, or a conversation with a dude about the merits of Phish. I started to count how many people I met so I could report it, but lost count at 33 after the first hour. By all accounts, I was shocked that everyone was so personable and friendly, leaving the usual narcissism at home and cognizant that we were all sharing in the same ephemeral journey to bliss. A stranger will often be looking over your shoulder when conversing, not to find someone better like they do in Los Angeles, but because there is simply too much going on in the background to ignore. The thrill in this adventure is not knowing where you are going, allowing yourself to feel secure and float about assured that whatever your path it will be stimulating to your senses. Many folks claimed, “I don’t ever want to leave here” as much as those equally impressed claimed, “I can’t wait to get home. This is too much!”

In addition to the aforementioned plethora of options, the 11th Bonnaroo offered a magical fountain to wet one down in during the long hot day, a Ferris wheel serving up a birds-eye view of the utopian village, and a wide array of vendors (arranged by category) that included services, food, drink, magazines, clothing and art. The digital music lounge offered an auditory experience. The Fuse Barn provided a big screen stream of the shows and a place to recharge a cell phone. The Beer Tent with a huge variety of pours, and a Smoking Lounge had discounted smokes for sale. With nearly 80,000 people reportedly in attendance, gross ticket sales are estimated to hover near $20 million dollars, creating a small local economy and an optimistic chance for return on a solid investment where most festivals struggle to make any profit. Judging from all the amenities on hand and the improvements I’m told are made every year, Bonnaroo takes some of its profits to reinvest in an effort to provide an even better product the following year.

Bonnaroo 2012 by Brad Hodge
Like a scene straight out of the stoner cult classic Koyaanisqatsi, the hordes of people engaged in so many different activities as you walk from one football field into another into another offers even better people watching than a park bench in Manhattan. When maneuvering over to Radiohead after Feist’s performance, I walked through a huge crowd singing in unison. Where else do you accidently wander into the biggest hit song of 2011 [Foster the People’s “Pumped up Kicks”] while travelling between gigs? Often during these performances, you walk into a band’s gig, not knowing who they are, only to be determined to pick up their record when you get home. Often, you want to leave during a performance, only to be dragged back into the fray, forgetting for hours your initial intention to relieve yourself. The weekend, if you do it right, is a pleasantly long, grueling test of one’s will, endurance and stamina. How much fun can you have? Come and get the brass ring!

Among all the options to enjoy live music, the Solar Stage was my favorite. A very small area where up and coming bands played and many were interviewed during the show in Storytellers fashion, this stage was protected above by bamboo beams which were covered with white Christmas lights. Although we lucked out with the weather never breaking the 90-degree mark, it was still very hot and this area offered shade where one could still obtain solid acoustics. Dancing on the grass in this environment provided a rare sense of intimacy and comfort like a soft beach on a warm Jamaican night.

With no overt security presence or authority figures, I remain impressed at how well people policed themselves without incident. The prices were affordable and the signage organized with clear direction. Even the lines to use a porto-potty were manageable, allowing just enough time for a required healthy respite from the addictive, stimulating action. There were really only a few negatives at Bonnaroo, including the difficulty in seeing performers up close without major effort. One can get to the stage a few hours early to secure a front row spot, but when you want to go to the bathroom or if you want to move mid-show, you are in trouble. The stages are not raked, so the farther back you are, the less you will see, and obtaining quality sound is quite demanding. Also, cell service is almost non-existent unless your carrier was Verizon, making connecting with friends or the girl you just met at Planet Roo the night before a near impossibility. I thought this was a conspiracy against AT&T until I learned that the year before Verizon didn’t work and AT&T did. Next year, I’m bringing two cups and a lot of string.

Thursday Highlights

“Music is freedom, in and from time.” - A hippie at his 11th consecutive Bonnaroo

Orgone by Brad Hodge
Surprisingly, the Grandfather of Festivals chose not to include any traditional ‘headliners’ on this first day. In fact, the two biggest stages were closed. Most festivals load up on Thursday to entice fans to purchase tickets and come as early as possible to squander funds on libations and food concessions. However, this particular Thursday was relatively weak, especially compared to last year. When engrossed in the usual banter about “what bands are you seeing today?” most answered, “It’s a bummer that the two most well-known [Alabama Shakes and Big Gigantic] are playing concurrently. I don’t know which one to go see!” I avoided this conundrum; as I set forth to attend 45 minutes of each. Ultimately, the Thursday lineup proved an effective musical primer for the onslaught that was to follow. The beauty of Bonnaroo is not knowing which act will surprise you at any given moment, regardless of name recognition or number of units sold.

Orgone :: 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM :: That Tent

Orgone has yet to find their earned niche amongst the most entertaining and draining acts in the funk scene today. However, those familiar with their music had this performance circled from the onset. A coming-out party for a festival crowd, I was determined to get up to the That Tent stage in order to catch lead soul-singer Niki J Crawford’s vocal power up close and personal. Her vocal teasing up and down the scale with soft, sensual moans and groans in call-and-response with the lead guitar in their new song “Bye Bye to the Velvet” fixated the crowded tent space. The 10-piece band’s strong percussion section supported a brass-laden sound that permeated the Tennessee air with the West Coast band’s signature funk sound, forcing attendees to dance to the beat long after the show concluded. It was a proper way to start the festival for many arriving late on Day One. The band co-headlined New Year’s Eve last year with Dumpstaphunk and it won’t be long before you will be seeing them headline on their own.

Alabama Shakes :: 11:30 PM - 12:30 AM :: This Tent

Alabama Shakes by Joe Russo
Alabama Shakes was conceived almost three years ago in Athena, Alabama, and has been on a publicity tear of late. Fresh off appearances on late night TV in support of their first album release Boys & Girls (released April 10), frontwoman Brittany Howard demanded the audience immerse themselves in the Southern Blues that her band brings. After blistering opener “Goin’ to the Party,” the band surprised an exuberant crowd with their current smash single “Hold On” as the second song of the set, allowing for deeper cuts in the rest of their set. The crowd visibly responded to Howard’s unique, soulful sound during the more upbeat selections, and her restrained stage banter invited the crowd to participate, which was intriguing when juxtaposed with a strong stage presence that many compare to the late Janis Joplin. Further establishing credibility as a rockin’ blues rock band in the Southern tradition, Alabama Shakes has progressed from a band MTV called in 2011 “one of the Top 10 to watch” to a band that many make certain they are watching.

Big Gigantic :: 11:30 PM - 12:45 AM :: That Tent

In vast contrast to the style of Alabama Shakes, Big Gigantic is an instrumental band consisting of only two members. Big Gigantic is most widely known for their live shows and the high energy level they consistently bring to performances. By most accounts, Big Gigantic was the musical highlight of the first day of Roo. Energetic, frenetic and offering daring light show dynamics, Big Gigantic took advantage of a crowd having recently arrived to an epic festival in search of musical adventure and excitement. The band fuses a variety of genres including bass and synthesizer tones while including elements of jam music and jazz. The result is an invitation to a dance party where one is mesmerized by the proceedings, an unforeseen joy ride for even the most anti-instrumental stalwart.

Friday Highlights

“We have a lot more gas in the tank, do you?” - Brendan Bayliss (Umphrey’s McGee) at 5:45 a.m.

Umphrey's McGee by Brad Hodge
Friday promised to be a very busy first full day of music. I traveled solo so that I could hit as many sets as possible and managed to catch an exhausting 13 on Friday. The Festival rocked proper from the start with The Kooks opening on the main stage, and other standouts included the strange power of tUnE-yArDs, The Avett Brothers poignant tribute to the late Doc Watson, the raw energy of Trampled By Turtles, and the overflowing packed house for Ludacris – who disappointed many fans by playing more songs that he was simply featured in rather than his own hits. The late night belonged to Umphrey's McGee, who shared their unique jam long past their allotted 4 am stop time and provided many revelers an early highlight with music that fueled dancing well past sunrise!

Soul Rebels :: 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM :: What Stage

"We only got 30 minutes, so we gotta get straight to the mix! I don't need 99.9% participation. I need the whole 100,” announced the Soul Rebels Brass Band. When you choose the title of a Bob Marley album as your band name you better be talented, and one suspects the King of Reggae would be proud of this eight-piece New Orleans brass band. Fresh from a surprise sit-in appearance with the Alabama Shakes the previous night, the band that effectively joins jazz, R&B, funk and hip-hop was set to play for another career-broadening audience. With Colin Hay of Men at Work taking in the sunshine and snappy sounds, the band zealously showed their wears while waving instruments in the air, an intense blowing of notes with their hearts and souls. With a well-respected new album (Unlock You Mind) and a rigorous touring schedule including the biggest festivals, I look forward to following band founder and drummer Derrick Moss as he leads us on a fulfilling, horn-focused musical experience. This consummate touring outfit performs 250 shows a year.

The Infamous Stringdusters :: 2:00 PM - 3:00 PM :: The Other Tent

The Word by Joe Russo
I love bluegrass and Roo had its share of impressive acts over the four days. I thoroughly enjoyed the set I witnessed from this band playing their “High Country” music. Fusing deep-rooted traditional folk and bluegrass music with rock, the 5-year-old quintet tore it up with a variety of foot-tapping, soul-searching jams. Nominated for a Grammy last year, the jovial band of country boys cordially invited folks in with contagious songs that featured the banjo, stand-up bass, slide guitar and occasional mean mandolin. Lead guitarist Andy Falco looks like a young Christopher Guest but is exponentially more adept than Nigel Tufnel. The band joyously jammed through “Don’t Mean Nothin’” before gifting us with “Think For Yourselves,” a song they contributed to the Songs For Haiti effort. No matter what your tastes, one can trust these young men will provide bang your boots and good hearted hillbilly fun. Ironically, the Dusters would play another show at Roo, performing a unique cover of Phish’s “Free” at the same moment that Phish was playing it at Worcester to open the second night of their 2012 tour.

The Word :: 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM :: The Other Tent

Only seven days earlier, I had shared with all that would listen that my personal highlight of Mountain Jam was spending a few hours with The Word. Thus, I attempted to prepare everyone going to Bonnaroo to attend this super group’s performance. With Robert Randolph, John Medeski, and the North Mississippi Allstars' Chris Chew and Luther & Cody Dickinson, the band offers up an amalgam of some of music’s best players. In this incarnation, vastly different from his Family Band, Randolph is flanked by Luther, another stellar guitar player, and the interplay between the two, the call and response and challenge to one another, is a feast for the eyes and ears of any guitarist aficionado. Randolph continually proves he belongs in the conversation among our most talented guitarists like Trey, Santana, Eddie Van Halen and Clapton. When one has the opportunity to see a living legend one must take it. Since his work is more known in the South, many people are still unfamiliar with the visionary talent and extraordinary chops Randolph effortlessly exhibits while sitting under his pedal steel. Although the gospel-rooted sound is well suited to the slow blues numbers, it’s when Randolph takes off in an ever quickening speed accent that he successfully enraptures your heart while raising the ante with his axe playing until everyone in the audience impulsively decides to dance harder than at any other show all weekend. Some may be turned away by Randolph’s sound, which can be so raw and intense that it can be grating to a novice’s eardrums. When I met the gregarious, hilarious and extraverted Randolph later, with his trademark doo-rag off his head, I realized I was then speaking with a Clark Kent, post-transformation.

Dumpstaphunk :: 2:00 AM - 3:00 AM :: The Other Tent

Dumpstaphunk by Joe Russo
It’s a debate if being born into music royalty is a blessing or curse. Although nepotism may open difficult doors, one is inherently challenged to meet lofty expectations. Ivan and Ian Neville have made a career of not only attacking such challenges head on, continually forging ahead and leaving an indelible mark of their own. Despite being in competition with the first half of jam band favorite Umphrey’s McGee, the celebrated New Orleans funk outfit brought the Mardi Gras party to a packed, jubilant audience. Those not familiar with the groove-driven group have never witnessed the power that the double-bassed band drills into one’s soul. The bassists for arguably the best funk band around, Tony Hall and Nick Daniels, popped bass lines in duality, providing the backdrop for Ivan to pine at the keys and pound the microphone with soul. In anticipation of their upcoming fall album, Dirty Word, the boys mixed in two new songs from the album amidst a non-stop tour de force of fun and leg-kicking funk jams. The new album features Flea, Trombone Shorty and Rebirth Brass Band. However, they needed no help on this night to wow the late night Friday crowd. With standouts like “Fame > Dumpsta” and “Deeper,” Dumpstaphunk remains synonymous with New Orleans and anyone from NOLA would be proud to call this their official band.

Radiohead :: 10:00 PM - 12:00 AM :: What Stage

Radiohead by Brad Hodge
“Radiohead was gorgeous, like digital art with a great bass player,” exclaimed a devout fan near the pit. Whether one is a hardcore follower of Thom Yorke and treat him as the Second Coming or one of those who didn’t know a note of Radiohead’s music, like me, the boys from across the pond delivered a second appearance at Roo that was described by many as nothing less than epic. Radiohead throttled the senses of an audience ripe to be overwrought with their unique sounds. With a mesmerizing and unique array of videos projected overhead resembling a six-piece jigsaw puzzle consisting of various TV screens, the stage design offered the back of the crowd an alternate, surreal angled take of various band members during the action. Through mellow tunes taken from mostly recent works and instrumental offerings, the band only seemed to connect with their already uber-loyal fan base. I heard more than one non-fan offer thoughts along the lines of, “This is so boring. I’d rather slit my wrists.” The loudest roar occurred when Yorke suggested, after singing the new “Supercollider,” that a Jack White collaboration may be forthcoming. Bassist Colin Greenwood slashed his hand during “Body Snatchers” yet managed to play without ill-effect. Radiohead was surreal, trippy, strange and bizarre, playing a professional 25-tune set for over 2.5 hours. With dual drummers and a state of the art production, I’m glad I finally caught one of the “World’s Biggest Bands,” and was entranced by “15 Step,” “There There” and the moving closer “Paranoid Android,” even if I ultimately didn’t’ fully understand the hoopla. To many this was the definitive concert experience of their lives - a great example how musical taste is subjective.

Saturday Highlights

Punch Brothers by Brad Hodge
Day Two included a variety of musical highlights for all tastes. Colin Hay started the day with “Down Under.” Santigold won over a legion of fans with her impressive performance. The Roots enthralled the crowd in the way one would expect. The oft-volatile Danzig told us, “This ain’t Bon Jovi!” before abruptly leaving the stage mid-show in a dispute with photographers. Innovative showman Alice Cooper “killed” his audience with more frequent costume changes than Britney Spears, a cover of a Lady Gaga tune, and an updated rendition of “School’s Out for Bonnoroo.” A Van Halen tribute act was somehow slotted for the late night slot, and Vernon Reid demonstrated with Spectrum Road why he was tabbed as “the next great guitarist” over 20 years ago. Skrillex bombarded the senses of a jammed late-night Which Stage audience with dubstep from inside of a spaceship, and Questlove’s Super Jam marked the return of D’Angelo after a 12 year hiatus.

Punch Brothers :: 4:00 PM - 5:30 PM :: Which Stage

My favorite music is acoustic and when a friend I respect claimed this was the best acoustic offering in the country, I was certain to arrive early and hold the railing in front of the stage. Although the band played Roo in 2010, the Which Stage is the second biggest stage at Bonnaroo and I was curious how the six-year-old band would take control of the space and the heavily-numbered crowd. Chris Thile, former member of Nickel Creek and lead singer of the Punch Brothers, acknowledged the unique situation: “The fans here are an essential part of the experience." Clearly, the band played off the crowd energy in a forum bigger than I imagine they are accustomed to. The quintet derived their name from a Mark Twain story and their music is steeped in classical music. Their third album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, was released in February and was the first album I download upon return from the festival. Many folks at Roo are green in terms of bluegrass/acoustic music appreciation and think “all those bands sound the same.” Punch Brothers’ raw sound smacks you in the face with undeniable power, emotion and soothing vocals that immediately demand respect and an ever-present, knee-slapping, child-like frenzy of delight.

Wyllys :: 5:00 PM - 8:00 PM :: Silent Disco

Bonnaroo 2012 by Joe Russo
Wyllys (Wade Ellis Wilby) is an experienced spinner who continues to revolutionize his ever-growing niche with genre-bending nu-disco shows. In addition to his original approach when laying down the fattest bombastic beats and grooves compelling anyone within earshot to get down, he brings an energy to the turntable that is unrivaled amongst his DJ brethren. Having blown up on the scene of late, this favorite son to recent late night sets at Mountain Jam and a now-famous monster 8-hour set to close Summer Camp at sunrise wears his passion on his sleeve and takes his job as fun guru seriously. The Silent Disco was a highlight of the Roo experience for anyone who weathered the oft-long line to get in. The crowd inside a relatively small tent all grooved out together while the sound is transmitted to personal wireless headphones instead of a normal PA system. To claim that the experience is surreal and a trip is an understatement. This one of a kind experiment should not be missed. I would not be surprised to see one popping up in an urban area near you soon

Steven Wright :: 6:30 PM - 7:45 PM :: Comedy Tent

“Photographs are square. Yet, camera lens are round.” With younger folks trying to see Aziz Ansari being turned away in droves, I joined a sold-out tent to capture the unique talents of Steven Wright, a comedian I had been chomping at the bit to see since I first saw him on TV in the 80s. Sadly, many people only know Wright as the radio DJ voice preceding the famous ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs. In fact, Wright is one of our all-time funniest comics and arguably the smartest. His ultra-sarcastic, clever, creative and sardonic humor remains a trailblazing, influential brand all his own. Vastly different from his contemporaries, Wright delivers his dead pan in a deliberate fashion, forcing one to think after each punch line, only to fall over laughing once you get the twisted joke. With an audience filled with folks who think outside the box as a matter of course, Wright consistently killed it, an unquestionable highlight for those who motivated to the air-conditioned Comedy Tent and away from the music for a period.

Red Hot Chili Peppers :: 10:00 PM - 12:00 AM :: What Stage

Red Hot Chili Peppers by Joe Russo
In many respects, the Chili Peppers were the ideal headliner choice for the coveted Saturday night slot. With a catalog of hits reflecting their hard work over the past three-plus decades, they offer a wide range of sing-along songs and loud, heavy, funk-laced grooves. With many polarized with either strong affinity for or against the other headliners [Radiohead and Phish], the Chili Peppers offered a compromise and perhaps the one with the most universal appeal. The band muscled through a frenetic, energetic romp with enough kilowatts to light the entire festival grounds. The band bounced, jumped, strutted, and strolled about in their trademark cocky manner – acting much more like the revolutionary band out of the 80s than a group of veterans quickly approaching 50. Anthony Kiedis, joined by thousands for their biggest hit, “Under the Bridge,” aptly mixed in old favorites like “Give it Away,”“Californication” and “Dani California” with more recent fare like “Scar Tissue” and the electric, bass-heavy “Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” from their most recent album. My only regret, at my first Peppers show, was not being afforded the chance to hear “Knock Me Down.” Some fans expressed mockery - “They guys are doing the same antics as old guys as they did when they broke out,” or, “They try to be so creative and clever, but the symmetrical, one sock up thing they are doing is not cute.” Whether a fan of the music or not, the opportunity to witness one of our greatest all-time bassists, Michael “Flea” Balzary, is akin to watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel – one knows they are witnessing brilliance one may never see again. Although caught up in the usual showmanship and over-the-top swagger, Flea not only performed with impressive, off-the-charts energy while providing violent head bobbing blasts but he also proved gracious enough to thank those “supporting all kinds of music” and even some other performers. This Los Angeles-based rock band, still holding on to the mantle of headliner nearing their 30th year, did it with class and style at Bonnaroo while providing many thousands a stellar night of music without losing a step.

Sunday Highlights

“Welcome to your barbecue, where we roast all the dreams that never come true. Welcome to your Bonnaroo, pig out and dream anew.” – Zach Gill (ALO)

ALO 2012 by Joe Russo
Roo pulled out all the stops for the final day of the extravaganza. Gary Clark Jr. delivered his signature heavy-guitar rock, Grouplove surprised with a memorable outpouring of soulful energy, and Ben Folds Five relished in their second concert in 12 years. However, only Bonnaroo would have the following five bands playing concurrently pre-Phish: Bon Iver, The Shins, Young the Giant, The Civil Wars and .fun.

ALO :: 12:30 PM - 1:30 PM :: This Tent

The California-based quartet has been a personal favorite for years, and are the deserving recipients of an ever-growing fan base. Fortuitously for all of us, they were the only band to play three gigs during the weekend at three different sized stages. The mid-Sunday performance at This Tent marked their largest opportunity to impress, and they delivered. From the unique opening guitar riff by Lebo on his acoustic guitar modified to sound electric, “Walls of Jericho” engaged a crowd eager to dive headfirst into a band many were unfamiliar with. Talented frontman and poet Zach Gill arrived to the oppressive Roo heat wearing a Gilligan hat, corduroys and a sports coat. When I asked his bandmates about his wardrobe choices, they responded, “I think he’s worn that every day this year.” A jovial and charismatic singer, Gill exclaimed, “I’m gonna rock your socks off!” before taking off his jacket in preparation for the smooth delivery of “Plastic Bubble,” the band’s most accessible and friendly song apt to convert any music lover. Gill engaged the audience throughout the show with a smile, adding personalized experiences and an element of humanity to the proceedings. The highlight for the raucous crowd was definitely a special, energetic Bonnaroo version of “Barbecue” that included a bit of “Eye of the Tiger.” These four seasoned professionals are a band to watch, the kind of guys you hope you park next to at a festival for some highbrow, cerebral discussions while praying they break out the instruments for a laid-back jam session.

The Beach Boys :: 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM :: What Stage

The Beach Boys 2012 by Brad Hodge
“We’ll never grow old as long as we are singing Beach Boys songs,” chimed one of the Beach Boys near the beginning of their set. The legendary men sharing luscious harmonies about the California surf and sun were this year’s ideal “living legend” selection to the eclectic mix of music at the festival. Currently out on an enormously successful reunion tour to back the monster album That’s Why God Made the Radio, the familiar, sweet, melodic mesh of voices effectively shared the biggest hits from their catalog. Incredulously, 46 years ago to the very day of this performance, they had the No. 1 record in the land with “I Get Around.” Although looking older than the usual musical tour de force with most of the band members entering their seventies, their patented vocal style was still intact and hits like “Good Vibrations” “God Only Knows” and “Kokomo” satisfied the all-ages audience who welcomed the light pop, knowing it may be the their last chance to see the legendary group. Some complained that Brian Wilson was somewhat stoic behind his piano, but they forgot his legendary troubles and should be grateful he was there sharing his genius at all. It was only fitting that the Beach Boys would perform during the worst weather of the festival, as if their songs worshipping the sun-filled life served as a direct defense against the rain assault, much like the more overt “no rain” mantra which once engulfed Woodstock. It had probably been decades since they performed to a crowd of such numbers, yet they did not forget how to entertain in the professional and lighthearted manner for which they have always been known.

Kenny Rogers :: 4:30 PM – 5:45 PM :: The Other Tent

Kenny Rogers by Joe Russo
Kenny Rogers asked us to relax as he set out to “play all my hits!” The iconic superstar was the final act announced for the festival, and many were excited to see how a rare old school country act would fare. Surprisingly, the Other Tent was jammed with young fans, with many Southerners raised on his music. Many sang along word-for-word as the 73-year-old Rogers belted out classics like “Through the Years,” “We’ve Got Tonight” and “The Coward of the County.” The grizzled veteran found the energy to entertain a new generation with the confidence and modest bravado one would expect from a living legend. The proceedings were interrupted as the Mayor of Manchester and her posse presented him with this year’s Key to the City. Rogers garnered a great deal of respect from the crowd, most of whom weren’t born when he experienced his heyday in the 1970s and early 80s. Even if a fan was not well-versed in his music, they were respectful enough to know they were privileged to see an icon. Rogers consistently bonded with the crowd, playfully teasing that they couldn’t keep beat, clap or sing, and at one point observed with a smile, “Stop swaying during this song already. You look like a bunch of Ray Charles!” A highlight was the hilarious explanation Rogers shared of his first hit in 1968, “Just Dropped In.” Without divulging too much, he alluded to the lyric’s celebratory theme regarding the use of LSD. Suddenly, Lionel Richie, who currently holds the top selling country album in the land, appeared to sing a duet of “Lady,” Rogers’ 1980 hit song penned by Richie from an album he produced. Richie, dressed in all-black and looking fit for 63, owned the stage delivering his joyous, celebratory classic “All Night Long,” while playfully asking his old friend to join in. They hugged and kissed so often during the performance that Kenny joked afterwards that their “relationship is this close to being inappropriate!” I have a VHS copy of the 1985 American Music Awards, brilliantly hosted by Richie, who kept repeating one word that night – outrageous – and that word best describes this bucket list fulfilling performance for many on Sunday afternoon.

Phish :: 8:00 PM - 12:00 AM :: What Stage

Phish by Brad Hodge
Phish has held the mantle atop the jam band music scene ever since Mr. Garcia passed away and has continued to build a devoted fan base through extensive touring. Bonnaroo was the band’s third tour stop of 2012, immediately creating a buzz when it was announced Phish would be the headliner to close the festival they last attended in 2009. It was intriguing to be among of so many young music fans not overly familiar with Phish’s work or who had never seen them live before – most were excited for their deflowering experience. The increased number of newbies at Roo was not lost on the band, as they played over a dozen repeat songs from previous shows in order to appease the festival crowd with more accessible, listener-friendly tunes. Trey Anastasio’s virtuoso guitar chops translated well, and from the show-opening notes of “Down With Disease” even the most ardent veteran knew that a tight solo would provide an ear-gasm quickly. The sixth song brought a surprise to the stage after Trey stated, “It seems every time we come here we get to play with people we admire and are absolutely thrilled to play with.” Then, Kenny Rogers waltzed out to shocked applause and a nifty rendition of “The Gambler.” It was only fitting that the Texas country star, having been given the Key to the City, would be a part of closing the epic weekend. Later during “Possum,” Trey provided a note for note tease of “The Gambler” to the delight of the fans. People were dancing hard across a very worn-down and wet field in front of the Bonnaroo main stage as a light mist cast down upon our faces to refresh us throughout the entire show.

Phish by Joe Russo
I enjoyed hearing a few old-school tunes from the early days like “Wilson,” “Cavern” and “Harry Hood.” However, the “Harry Hood” jam at the end was aborted. “2001” was as funky as ever and I thought a wonderful way to garner more fans. “Rocky Top” has been played by Phish for years yet it had never been more apropos as this night’s Tennessee sing-along. The band had been tighter and more focused before, but it was far from a disappointment. Regardless of your musical taste, Chris Kuroda’s light show pushed the envelope to new heights and were worth the price of admission in their own right. What the band lacked in setlist selection was made up for at times by their energy, which further buoyed the general atmosphere already suffused with the surreal and crazy. The first encore, “Show of Life,” was a perfect synopsis of what we were all doing at Roo. Some fans don’t like the lyrics, calling them too contrived and saccharin, but the reality is Phish has few songs that are cerebral, understandable and accessible in a linear way, leaving this emotionally-charged ballad as perhaps their best, at least on paper. Upon conclusion of the show, Phish having left the stage, no one moved! Fireworks blasted a kaleidoscope of colors and trippy patterns across the glowing misty night sky. No one wanted to leave. After, Phishheads mostly panned the show after comparing it to the previous two ripping nights in Worcester. However, if one is going to compare shows so starkly then why go at all? Phish had a professional performance peak in 1997-98, plus indoor Phish always trumps outdoor Phish, and the setlists from the early shows, like my first in 1989, will forever remain superior to anything they attempt today. A “Moma Dance” or even a “Ghost” will never deserve equal justice when juxtaposed to a “Divided Sky” or “Lizards” from the earlier era. But as any true Phish Phan knows, Phish at their worst is still better than anyone else.

Parting Thought

If Jim Morrison were alive to participate in the Bonnaroo revelry, he would close the festival with, “When the music’s over, turn out the light.” The electricity may be severed at the abused Manchester grounds, but the light will forever remain lit with endless memories to cherish until next year when 80,000 music addicts and fun-loving folks embark on another journey to unscripted euphoria. As the weekend wound to a close and I noticed a girl in full clown make-up and a loud crazed man dancing next to me, the scene provided a none-too-subtle moment of clarity: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle of Roo,” and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Continue reading for Friday’s photos...


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