FEST FLASHBACK: Bonnaroo 2006 feat. Tom Petty, Ben Folds, Bright Eyes, Beck, and Radiohead

[5 June 2007]

By Eddie Ciminelli

Can’t decide whether or not to get gone? In anticipation of the big, bad body bake that is the Summer Festival season (buy your SPF60 now, people!), PopMatters spends this week revisiting the highs and lows of last year’s most scintillating soirees.

Bonnaroo DAY 1
16 June 2006

Having left the camper behind, we venture forward into the abyss. The first act I’m set to catch is the increasingly popular Chicago son, Andrew Bird. On stage there are a variety of pedals, a drum kit, and a phonograph straight out of a southern plantation’s sitting room. Bird emerges to an excited crowd, dressed in jeans, a cut-off blue t-shirt, and sunglasses.

Known to completely reinvent his songs live, Bird stretches his words and notes like a cat’s cradle, pulling off an impressive improvisational reading of his work. The stiff classical reputation of the violin vanishes in Bird’s hands, as he reconfigures his instrument to suit his particular need of the moment. He plucks, he loops his sounds, and he strums his violin to cheers and howls—garnering loud adoration like few violinists have heard before. And then there’s the whistling. Any asshole with lips, a jukebox, and a barstool can keep up with Axl Rose’s little ditty on “Patience” or John Lennon’s contribution to “Jealous Guy”, but Bird’s whistling adds an entirely new dimension to his tunes. Spectacular. Easily one of the best sets of the weekend, and we are just getting started.

Ben Folds

Ben Folds

Pulling from his days with Ben Folds Five along with his solo career, Ben Folds is a nice, upbeat pickup with which to fight the staggering southern heat. The crowd is treated to a number of fan favorites, including “Zac & Sarah”, “Brick” and “Not the Same”. I know very little about Ben Folds, but I do know that “Not the Same” is the song he always introduces as the one “about his friend who took acid, climbed a tree, and came down a born again Christian”. It is unclear whether or not the explanation this afternoon is part of a routine or a warning about the misuse of drugs. If it is the latter, it clearly falls on deaf ears.

The crowd seems most entertained when Folds breaks out his popular cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit”. Hearing Folds’ boyish voice lament about “sucking on deez nuts” gets the thirty-somethings giggling like eight-years-olds who just figured out how to crack the password to the Parental Control lock on the cable box.

Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes

Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) was being called the “new Dylan” long before he could drive or germinate the seed of his own Wallflower. It seems that a lot of us pay more attention to his reputation than his music, and that’s too bad because last year he put out some impressive stuff. “Lua” is especially touching today, as Oberst reflects upon his transplant from the fields of Omaha to the sidewalks of Brooklyn. In the song he explores the idea that a person can more readily change their zip code than their vices (“It takes one to know one, kid/ and I think you got it bad”), and that it is in these similar pitfalls—as opposed to dreams, opinions, or interests—that we find our friends and lovers (“the love I sell you in the evening/ by the morning won’t exist”).

During his set, we’re treated to a surprise appearance by Gruff Rhys of Welsh rockers Super Furry Animals. He belts out a mood setting version of “Hello Sunshine”. Though I have never seen Bright Eyes and have counted myself a fan for some time, I begin to find myself losing concentration in the heat.

It is too hot and I am dehydrated, so I rule out catching Cat Power’s set. We go back to our camp to eat burgers and abuse our generator. Pairs of my pranksters roll in at different points. Some are sunburnt, some are burnt. Others immediately pass out. We try to organize and discuss who among us will be attending headliner Tom Petty‘s three-and-a-half hour set. A Heartbreaker hater muses that Tom will have to run through his greatest-hits disc twice to fill such a long slot.

I leave to catch the last two and a half hours of the Petty set while half our camp stays behind. Those of us going walk away to jeers, our friends telling us to enjoy the acoustic version of “Learning to Fly” we are bound to hear. They plan to kick back and continue their vigorous assault on the four cases of Yuengling resting at their feet.

There’s a huge turnout, but most people appear too tired to enjoy the set. A mass of men and woman over dance in their fanny packs, trying to cop a toke from their neighbors between songs.

I’m not as excited as those around me when Stevie Nicks comes out—at first I’m not even sure who she is. As I’ll later realize, my parents are the only two people born in the ‘50s who do not own a copy of Rumours. After 40 minutes of Nicks’ dancing and Petty’s grinning, I call it quits—right as an acoustic version of “Learning to Fly” begins to float from the stage. I duck my head and focus all of my attention on navigating the crowd without stepping on some passed-out hippie.

My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket

Two hours later and chemically rebooted, I’m ready for My Morning Jacket. Or so I think. After 45 minutes, I feel spent and leave my friends some 30 feet from the stage. I doubt I’ll have a bigger Bonnaroo regret. The band goes on to play almost three more hours after I leave. I later hear that they played covers by the Stones, the Band, and the Misfits. People will go on to talk about this set all weekend long (in line for the crappers, in hushed tones around 4 a.m. fires, and in their sleep).

Most people mention Jim James when talking about My Morning Jacket, most specifically his Neil Young/silo-drenched reverb voice. When the band plays live you do initially notice James’ haunting voice through the bushels of hair atop his head and on his face, but slowly your attention spreads around the stage. A few songs in, you forget he is even out front. The band headbangs through the entire set (at least what I see of it) like they probably did as kids listening to their favorite Poison ballads. They drag out each song without pulling the thread out of its soul, and stop on a dime in the middle of their joyous collaborations. This is only the beginning of the chemistry they possess.

Playing their third consecutive Bonnaroo, My Morning Jacket epitomizes the reasons why a festival like Bonnaroo is such a memorable experience. They set the standard for the entire festival I think to myself as I lay in a patch of moonlit grass in the middle of nowhere Tennessee. And I can’t even claim to have seen the majority of their set.

Shame on me for puttering out, and blessed are those who stayed for its duration. This is a show that will be talked about by those who witnessed it for years to come, that much I promise you.

Bonnaroo DAY 2
17 June 2006

Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy

At the beginning of my second full day at Bonnaroo, I wake to find a message from my father. Ed Sr. raised his boys on Yes, King Crimson, and Quadrophenia. I owe my interest in music to his early, off-kilter influences, so when he says that I have to see Buddy Guy, I don’t think twice. Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Clapton all cite Guy as their single biggest influence, and I expect this to be a history lesson of blues as much as a blazing, guitar-driven set. I’m right; Guy lays out the best quotes of the weekend:

“I could play up here all day if they let me.”

“I can play some of that old shit, but I can play a lot of Buddy Guy shit too.”

At one point, he jumps into the crowd, taking a stroll with his guitar. The crowd opens up for him, and he continues the coda of one of his songs some 60 feet into the audience—he must have the longest guitar chord ever.

This guy doesn’t just play the blues; he owns the blues. And he’s an entertainer who still knows how to play a crowd some 50 years into his career. Buddy Guy seems to be a favorite on the festival circuit, and for good reason. Of course, most of the attendees are under 30 and some of us are unfamiliar with what Guy has brought to music. My education with Guy begins today and will continue long after his guitar has gone quiet.

My friend Patrick drove in from Dallas to meet us in Tennessee. Other than being a great guy and a staple of my festival experience, Patrick’s hidden talent is an uncanny ability to get to the front of any stage regardless of a crowd’s size or composition. He is my fearless captain as we zig and zag through the crowd during the beginning of Beck’s set. When I think there were no holes left and we’ve hit a wall, Patrick finds a seam that brings us 40 feet closer. And then he does it again. The best part is that nobody ever seems to get upset with him—even though they’ve been standing there for four hours and we’ve jumped up in less than four minutes. When we finally settle on a spot, four of us sit down and begin organizing our party favors.

Beck

Beck

Beck is the only artist this weekend that makes full use of the large, high-quality screens that frame each side of the stage. He and his band had marionettes of themselves made for the show, and the production team bounces back and forth between the live Beck and the wooden Beck—the two are incredibly in synch. Everyone marvels at the ingenuity, but after a while the novelty wears off: most of us would rather see the 25 cameras focused on the band, rather than a puppet show.

Beck breaks out a rare “Paper Tiger” along with a handful of hits from Odelay. As he did on his last tour, Beck breaks off at one point, playing acoustic songs from Sea Change as his backup band sits down to a dinner table and one of the dancers/beatboxers/multi-taskers serves a meal. Beck busts out a handful of his own tunes plus a cover of the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?”, then introduces his next song as one that he is “pretty sure Radiohead would not be playing tonight” before going into a few verses of “Creep”. He ends his cover quickly as Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway of Radiohead look on, somewhat confused, and Beck chastises himself for being “unprofessional”.

A few songs later Beck’s backup band is satiated and wants back in. They begin using their utensils on the various place settings at their disposal before creating a wild exit to the eruption of the crowd. In between the end of the regular set and the encore, Beck and his crew of misfits once again use technology to broadcast a pre-taped video of the marionettes walking around the festival campgrounds and commenting on the people in attendance. There is no way to describe the sight of hippies gleefully laughing at the stereotypes of themselves.

And then it is time. Just after Beck’s set, as crowds of people around us turn around to leave (?!!?) or sit on the ground in the eight-by-eight-foot area they somehow feel entitled to, Patrick, our fearless captain, is already making his move. By the time we settle on a spot and realize we can go no further, we are only a few hundred feet away from the stage.

With an hour and half to kill before Radiohead, we take this time to become acquainted with our equally cramped and tired neighbors. There is Nick, who came with a caravan of people—none of whom are interested in Radiohead. He has never seen the band live but can rattle off their complete history, catalogue, and dietary preferences in under two minutes.

And then there is Andrew. Andrew, a self-proclaimed SKA fanatic, is self-deprecating and beyond excited. He’s alone and has come from Manchester mainly for Radiohead. After talking to us for 20 minutes, he casually mentions that he is only 15 years old. Since he looks like he is pushing 25, we all ask to see his license, which he agreeably displays. Sure enough, he is 15 and proceeds to tell us about his discovery of a vinyl copy of Amnesiac n his local library when he was in the sixth grade. He immediately fell in love with the band and has been waiting to see them ever since. I’m thinking I need to check out his library.

Radiohead

Radiohead

The band opens up with “There There” which—with its triple-rhythm drumming section and scantily clad bass line—is the perfect song to start a two-and-a-half-hour long party. The entire crowd is dancing, and all the angst and weariness of waiting in the sun washes away. Hundreds of glowsticks are thrown into the air, and at one point, Thom Yorke grabs a couple and throws them back at the roaring crowd.

I feel I may enjoy “Exit Music” and “Karma Police” more if everyone around me—Andrew most obnoxiously—weren’t belting every word (out of key) right by my ear. I’ve never understood why fans decide to sing the soft ballads of their favorite band’s catalogue, especially when it’s a band they’ve never seen before. If you want to sing a Radiohead song, sign yourself up on karaoke night. Otherwise just sit back and listen. After all, this is only going to happen once.

The new songs—especially “Arpeggi” and “Videotape”—resonate agreeably with the crowd. Many people already seem familiar with the songs, perhaps from bootlegs. I am extremely pleased to hear a couple Amnesiac dark horses: “Dollars & Cents” as well as “Like Spinning Plates”.

We retreat from our new friends and the packed crowds in search of water as Thom quietly moans, “While you make pretty speeches/ I am being torn to shreds/ you feed me to the lions/ a delicate balance.” When I turn to Patrick, who is never known for his knack for subtlety, and ask him why he didn’t give an earful to Andrew for his dreadful singing, he looks at me and says, “Man, that kid is 15 years old and this is the concert he has been waiting to see his entire life. He doesn’t know any better and who am I to tell him otherwise?” Well said.

We watch the rest of the set a quarter mile away from the stage while pounding water and eating falafel. Thom, of course, loses his mind and shakes his ass uncontrollably during “Idioteque”. The crowd goes batshit during “No Surprises,” when Yorke preaches to the choir: “bring down the government/ they don’t speak for us.”

He playfully mugs for the camera during “You and Whose Army?” And after noticing its conspicuous absence from the set, I’m not surprised when “Everything in Its Right Place” is pulled out to close the second encore. I would never say that the band has gimmicks or that their set is somewhat predictable or that I really was praying for an anthemic version of “Black Star”—but I guess I just did.

I predicted (incorrectly) in the weeks leading up to the show that the band would break out all their secret weapons for this set, playing some crazy shit just because they’re the biggest band in the world and people from all over the country came to Tennessee to see them. They could have covered “Picture of Nectar” in its entirety and both sides would have intrigued.

This was their first big festival gig in the States since Coachella in ‘04, and they were super tight and unpredictable when I saw them in New York earlier that week. I don’t understand why they feel like they have to play it so safe. But then again, though I’ll never see Andrew again, I’d wager that when he reflects on the first time he saw Radiohead, he will have very few complaints.

Bonnaroo 2007 takes place 14-17 June 2007 in Manchester, TN.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/fest-flashback-bonnaroo/