By Randy Ray
The Bonnaroo independent spirit came alive on the first full day of activities that saw Thursday’s stormy weather give way to a very pleasant and diverse festival environment. And the chain of influences that cut through the entire day like a catalogue of classic musical motifs found numerous touchstones. Friday saw Al Green on the Main Stage passing the symbolic torch to David Byrne on the Which Stage, who covered “Take Me to the River” and name checked the R&B legend, and culminated in a monster three-hour Main Stage set from Phish, who have sited Byrne as a major influence on their music.
Indeed, Byrne was everywhere, and helped curate the first area solely dedicated to hand-picked artists selected by a musician at Bonnaroo at That Tent. The solo icon and former Talking Head selected diverse indie powerhouses to perform including Katzenjammer, St. Vincent and Ani DiFranco. Byrne also sat in with the Dirty Projectors on their track “Knotty Pine,” a song the tandem both recorded for the Red Hot compilation, Dark was the Night. Later, with his band and a stage full of dancers all dressed in festive white on the Which Stage, Byrne played a boisterous, crowd-pleasing set that contained music either co-written, or produced by Brian Eno, from their duo projects, or albums recorded with Talking Heads.
The Other Tent also had a conceptual theme on Friday—Africa Calling—and featured wonderfully eclectic variations on a continental theme from Toubab Krewe to Béla Fleck & Toumani Diabata, and leading up to a transcendent post-midnight set by Femi Kuti & the Positive Force. Meanwhile, as if the ante can never be raised too high, Public Enemy was plowing through their formidable profanity-laced hip-hop repertoire at the same time at This Tent, but not before a band of young upstart superstars, the rising Phoenix delivered an ear candy onslaught at the post-Byrne curated That Tent.
Not to be outdone, the little tent that could (and one of several locations that have gone through a very welcome renovation this year at Bonnaroo) Troo Music Lounge featured a wide variety of acts throughout the day, including the jammy supergroup Moonalice, and the ambient space pop conjured up by Jets Overhead before a warm country set by Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle.
On a day of various stories told from a variety of perspectives with refreshingly free-spirited Roo concepts, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals offered a theme of a different color. Literally. The Potter stage was red with roses while she wore a red dress for the occasion, which featured the new Nocturnals bassist Catherine Popper, a former member of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals (another red theme?), and debuted the title track from their soon-to-be released album Medicine produced by T Bone Burnett. (And if you’re keeping score of the various independent themes throughout Friday, Al Green also tossed roses to fans during his own set.)
The independent nature of the Bonnaroo festival is also manifested by how well new bands are intermingled with classic genre-defining acts. Furthermore, groups that fall somewhat in the middle between the heady outbreak act and the seasoned veteran are also represented quite well. But the song remains the same in a way as Animal Collective on the Which Stage can play songs that tease multiple Grateful Dead songs, including “Unbroken Chain,” and band members Geologist and Avey Tare can boast that they met in the 9th grade and both were wearing Dead shirts at the time. Torch? Passed.
The connection goes deeper when one thinks of the following set by Yeah Yeah Yeahs who have name-checked the Dead; although on Friday, lead singer Karen O wore tiger-striped spandex pants and a mismatched exercise top with carefully-placed hands that would seem out of place on Jerry Garcia. But hey—all is fair in love, war, and Roo, eh? Captain Trips was also present in the Moonalice set when they covered “Sugaree,” animated by new member John Molo on drums (who has played with Dead family bands The Other Ones, Phil Lesh & Friends, and Bruce Hornsby).
And speaking of newer acts, TV on the Radio has exploded onto a scene that didn’t seem to exist last year, after several seasons spent honing their alt jazz/rock/whathaveya in Brooklyn, and now find themselves as somewhat of a sonic trailblazer. Stuart Bogie from Antibalas (who played here in 2003), sat in with the band during their powerful Which Stage set, which prefaced another set by an equally relevant group of iconoclasts.
The Beastie Boys hit the What Stage prior to Phish and had the overflowing crowd fairly well-greased and energetic thoughout its 90 minutes. Nas sat in with the Beasties as “an exclusive” in a set that had a lot of funk jams intermingled with old school favorites. And flexibility, whether it is with the taste of the independent, inquisitive Roo fan, or a band’s ability to adjust to its circumstances certainly helped moe., who were allowed to play a full hour at the intimate Sonic Stage when Gomez was forced to cancel their set.
But all of these activities, seemed like merely a prelude as the torch passed to Phish and beyond to whatever laid ahead on Saturday with the anticipated performance by the American institution known as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Phish—as collectively independent as one can imagine—chose to display all sides of their band personality by offering exhilarating jams (“Down with Disease”), multi-section tapestries (“Divided Sky”), unexpected cover bust outs (“Highway to Hell”), and wonderful new segues (“You Enjoy Myself”>”Wilson”>”You Enjoy Myself”) in an impressively strong set by a band that is redefining the term “comeback” in 2009.
Whereas various indie rock bands have referenced the Grateful Dead, and inevitably, Phish as a cultural touchstone, it is the independent spirit found within this chain of influences that truly defines these bands and, indeed, the festival itself. Your turn, Boss.