If I Headline Bonnaroo, Does That Mean I’m Mainstream?
Although there are people who attend Bonnaroo regardless of the headliners, the feel of the festival changes depending on whether it is a band like Phish playing two headlining sets (as they did in 2009) or as Eminem did for this year’s Saturday night set. It basically comes down to less tie-dye, more guys without shirts on.
This year also prominently featured two indie-rock bands that recently leapt to new level of popularity: The Decemberists and The Arcade Fire. Both their 2010 albums debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and The Arcade Fire, to the confusion of many, walked away with several Grammys.
Colin Meloy’s dry humor and ironic stage banter worked to cast The Decemberists as a group of down-to-earth outsiders who just happened to crash the big-stage party. At one point, he and the band’s lead guitarist spent a good two or three minutes playing their guitars as poorly as possible, all as part of a joke involving a guitar-picking challenge made to Bela Fleck. Then Meloy got the whole crowd to sit down before starting the next song.
But even if the band’s demeanor is that of a quirky indie band, their actual music gives them away. The Decemberists’ songs, couched in an old-timey, folk and country sound, are anthems at heart. “This Is Why We Fight” and “The Crane Wife 3” never sounded so attuned to their environment.
Unlike The Decemberists, The Arcade Fire have made a career out of writing big-chorus anthems that sound exactly like what they are. In fact, the band closed their show with the euphoric one-two punch from their first album that has been a staple of their live show since the band’s beginnings: “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies)”. So it was strange when Win Butler, introducing the band’s encore, said that they had written the following song to play in front of a crowd of twenty. The song was “Wake Up”, and immediately tens of thousands of people in the audience started chanting along to the rousing, opening melody, which would be completely wasted if it was ever played for only twenty people. It was the biggest understatement of the weekend, especially coming after a set that, no matter what stage of their career it featured, made clear how much the band has always been ready for this kind of venue.
Buffalo Springfield was the main draw for the classic rock crowd, who also feasted on Robert Plant and the Band of Joy and Gregg Allman at other points in the weekend. Because Eminem was the real headliner for that night, though, Springfield got relegated to the second largest stage, the Which stage, and had to suffer through its terrible acoustics. That stage was also home to Lil Wayne and Mumford & Sons, both of whom brought out far too many people for the sound system’s capabilities. Wayne and Mumford’s die-hard fans didn’t seem to mind, though. They rapped along with the former regardless, and swooned over the brooding yet sensitive folk-rock.
The Buffalo Springfield fans were less kind at first. The first half of the set was filled with chants of “turn it up!” and “louder!”. Things got better when the band played “Mr. Soul” and Neil Young launched into one of his standard, frenetic guitar solos. Young got the loudest cheers by far throughout the set and even got the crowd to join him a couple of times in forming an “O” with their hands and waving their arms from side to side while chanting “Bonnaroooooooo”. Before the band went into the crowd pleaser “For What it’s Worth”, Young joked, “We’re going to play our hit. We have one.” In fact, any energy and levity in the set came from Young, the only person on stage who seemed to connect with the mostly younger audience and have appeal beyond his generation. The band’s decision to close the show with “Keep on Rocking in the Free World” was, even if unintentionally, an acknowledgment of this higher stature.
It was Eminem, though, that drew the biggest crowd of the festival and got the biggest reaction. The whole field by the main stage was filled with fans, each of them on their feet for the hour and a half long set. While I’m sure there were a good number of festival regulars that skipped the set out of indifference, it was undoubtedly one of the more well-orchestrated and entertaining shows all weekend. A combination of a tight live band, Eminem’s unmatched technical skills, a great hype man, and almost 15 years worth of hits made the set like a great Hollywood action movie: it never stumbled and was undeniably fun even if (or because) it was the most unapologetically mainstream of the whole festival.
The final headlining set of the festival belonged to Widespread Panic, who came to play their sixth Bonnaroo. It being the festival’s tenth anniversary, the organizers made sure to bring a lot of regulars from past years. But while My Morning Jacket – who were also playing their sixth festival – gave a rocked out, energetic set that fit perfectly between The Decemberists and Arcade Fire, and while Galactic – who have played all but one Bonnaroo – provided a perfect dance party for a Sunday afternoon, Widespread Panic’s mix of hard rock with jam band guitar theatrics was only appealing to the niche crowd that came to see them.
Bonnaroo thrives on its ability to bring together the tie-dye crew and ironic t-shirt crowd, and the fact that it’s held in the South means that it draws on that region’s deep tradition as well. This year the latter came out in a weekend-long focus on New Orleans. Dr. John’s performance of his album Desitively Bonnaroo with Allen Toussaint and The Meters, his Superjam with Dan Auerbach, and the ubiquitous presence of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band all helped pay homage to the mix of funk, soul, blues, and jazz that the city is famous for.
It’s the quality of the music that makes the hodgepodge work, though. You’re there to see your favorite indie-rock act, and you just so happen to have great representatives from other musical styles to explore as well. In past years, Dave Matthews Band and Phish have represented the jam band tradition in a way that even those who are not entirely fans could enjoy. Widespread Panic did not have that same ability and it made for an unfortunately anticlimactic ending to the festival.