While Europe has enjoyed a diverse selection of music festivals for decades, their American counterparts are only slowly catching on. Over the past few years, festivals have been popping up all over the country, catering to almost every musical genre. All Tomorrow’s Parties, Coachella, and MACRock are just some of the big name festivals to recently emerge. The Bonnaroo festival debuted in 2002 on a six hundred acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee. The first event featured a diverse, if somewhat hippie-oriented roster, divided over three days and four stages.
The festival came back in 2003 to that same patch of farm land bringing with it some of the artists from the first year, but also including more hip-hop and indie rock acts. Alongside hippie fare like Widespread Panic and the Dead were the Flaming Lips, Tortoise, and My Morning Jacket.
With the ideals of Woodstock thrown out the window, music festivals have become more about corporate synergy than politics, so it’s only natural that Bonnaroo would immediately spawn a commemorative DVD and CD. Directed by Danny Clinch, 270 Miles From Graceland is a document of last year’s festival that rises above the cash grab motivations behind the project and puts together a well-shot, well-edited musical postcard.
A double-DVD set, the first disc offers up 23 live performances, while the second disc includes Portraits from the Bonnaroo Experience (meaning deleted scenes), clips from various press conferences, and some backstage rehearsals.
The film starts off nicely, following Antibalas from New York to Manchester, but the back of the DVD box advertising a live performance from the group is somewhat misleading. While it makes use of the sound from their performance, most of the time devoted to the group is spent either in the van or at gas stations along the way. However, the rest of the disc lives up to its promises and delivers live performances from both the main stage and side stages.
Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals really open up the film with a fiery performance, and a couple of acts later the Polyphonic Spree bring their cult-like presence to the stage in a showy, overly earnest rendition of “It’s the Sun”. Whereas, later on, the Flaming Lips would truly engage the energy and positivity of the crowd, the Polyphonic Spree were simply trying too hard. Their power in numbers (which must easily be two dozen) cannot make up for their inability to write an interesting song.
The middle of the disc is particularly strong, with great performances by sunburned country rockers My Morning Jacket and the chilled-out cool of Tortoise. Then there is Sonic Youth. Rocking out harder than bands twenty years their junior, these crazy New Yorkers serve up an astonishing version of “Bull in the Heather”. Played at double time, and featuring new member Jim O’Rourke on guitar, it is a grittier take on the almost too-calculated album cut.
However, as the disc comes to a close, the performances get weaker. While highly entertaining, the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne’s voice seemed to have left early for the night as he struggles hoarsely through a poorly mixed “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”. The only redeeming quality of their performance is the nun-puppet sing-along that closes the track. You’ll have to believe me on this one.
The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, offers up a truly disappointing set with enough backup singers and scantily clad dancers to make Kid Rock sit up and take notice. It’s a shame that Brown must rely on these stage-candy performers to carry a song. Rarely in “I Feel Good” does James Brown actually sing. Instead he is busy conducting the rest of the group and trying hard to let us forget that he no longer has the spontaneous energy he once had. Even the one song is a tad depressing, as you watch Brown try desperately to keep up with everyone around him.
While beautifully filmed, it seems that in the rush to get the film out Sanctuary forgot a few key elements as part of the their packaging. Nowhere do we get a chapter breakdown. The film itself doesn’t introduce the performers, the back of the DVD box is out of sequence, and the tray card is merely a reproduction of the cover. In order to know who was playing or what song they were doing, I had to stop the film and access the chapter menus to figure it out. The bonus DVD material, while mostly nice, lacks one key element—the history of the festival. Nowhere are we given the background or inspiration for this new festival, and that’s a bit of a shame.
Overall, I do recommend this DVD to anyone who had a chance to attend the festival or who is thrilled by the roster of artists. The concert footage is nicely intercut with scenes of the fans and attendees of Bonnaroo, truly capturing the vibe of what it’s like to spend a few days on a patch of grass, listening to your favorite music.