Each summer a strange phenomenon happens all over the world. Blessed by warm weather and longer days, promoters on both sides of the Atlantic find the largest field they can, erect a platform and throw a party to end all parties. Usually featuring a bevy of stages, a plethora of styles and limitless bottles of waters, these festivals battle each other for attendance by boasting the biggest bands they can find. What this leads to is usually a handful of festivals, that aside from their name, feature shockingly similar lineups. For a fun exercise, grab the schedules for a few festivals, get a highlighter and see how many acts are spending their summer hopping from event to event.
It would be nice if I could say that Bonnaroo was a unique event that catered to a singular vision. The track listing of this double-disc compilation certainly cultivates that impression. Hippie-strong and jam-band friendly, tracks by Bob Dylan, Trey Anastasio, The String Cheese Incident, The Dead and Dave Matthews will no doubt draw the dollar bills of the baby boomer set. But a quick glance at the liner notes, reveal Bonnaroo just as genre generous as Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, Sasquatch and Coachella. With over 90,000 attendees in 2004, acts ranged from cutting edge electronica (Danger Mouse, Cut Chemist) to indie rock (Yo La Tengo, Grandaddy) to the names mentioned above. Certainly not every artist featured at Bonnaroo can appear on the compilation, but a greater cross section of acts certainly would have been more indicative of the variety the festival presents.
With those gripes out of the way, Bonnaroo Music Festival 2004 is a solid set of music which features crisp, clear live recordings that are pleasantly free of the sort of problems usually plaguing these projects (inconsistent volume, strange mixes, etc.). The first disc (or This Disc as its cheekily called) kicks off the set with a rousing performance of Bob Dylan’s “Down Along The Cove” that transforms the three-minute R&B rock ‘n roller from John Wesley Harding into a furious six-minute stomp. The Dead stretch out and relax with “Self Defense” though one wonders why their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (so enthusiastically written about in the liner notes) wasn’t chosen instead. Steve Winwood provides a solid take on his hit “Dear Mr. Fantasy” while Dave Matthews does his New Orleans rock thing with “Trouble”. The latter half of the disc keeps the mood of good ol’ rock and roll with tracks by My Morning Jacket, Los Lonely Boys and Kings Of Leon.
However, listeners looking for a bit more (though not too much) variety may have more fun with That Disc. “Curlew’s Call” by Trey Anastasio gets things going, sprawling across ten minutes, but this ain’t no ordinary jam band track. Leading a 40 piece orchestra, the track swells with horns and infectious grooves and leans more on jazz traditions than rock ‘n’ roll. With the token Phish-related appearance out of the way, the rest of the disc offers some mature alternative fare. David Byrne shows why he’s still got it with a strong take of “Dialog Box” from Grown Backwards. Damien Rice does the plaintive singer-songwriter thing with “Volcano” while Les Claypool dazzles with Primus in an infectious run through “Frizzle Fry”. Ween, who I’ve never really payed much attention to, surprise with an evocative run through “Zoloft”, and Ani DiFranco cashes in protestor points with “Evolve”. The rest of the disc keeps a similar sort of pace with tracks by Gomez, moe. and Beth Orton rounding things out.
With it being May, the festival season is still just gearing up so there is still time to hit the web, check your bank account and plot which field you’ll want to lose yourself in for a weekend, while soaking up some great tunes. But if you can’t get away, and you’re looking for some serious rock jams, sit back with a beer in the comfort of your own home and spin Bonnaroo Music Festival 2004, taking comfort in the knowledge that at least you won’t have to pay three bucks and wait half an hour for a bottle of water.