It would be impossible to write a review of Bonnaroo that would adequately capture any of the magic of three days of camping in the sweltering summer sun of Manchester, Tenn. So I’ve chosen to focus on just two shows from the massive event, and neither of them is Radiohead.
While the kings of modern music had a spectacular Saturday night, they did not prove to be the kings of Bonnaroo.
What this festival is truly about is a free spirit that is rare in modern times – an audacity to be different through the expression of not just music but of music culture as well. Bonnaroo is a place where the experience of music is just as essential as the free expression of it. It isn’t enough to just play your songs well; you must create an environment for your music that stands alone.
On Friday afternoon, I witnessed one such moment, led by folk star Devendra Banhart. Banhart and his friends (a band affectionately called everything from “Stoner Boner” to “The Tennessee Cops” by Banhart himself) took the stage around 2:30 p.m., but the show had started long before that. Hours before his performance, Banhart was strolling around Bonnaroo, greeting fans and non-fans with equal energy, ending every conversation with “I do it for you, for you guys.” With his long wavy black hair, and wearing a torn dirty white shirt with tight brown pants, he fit in perfectly with the crowd. And by the time he took the stage, he had lost most of that clothing, and so had much of the crowd in the sizzling midday heat.
Banhart and friends ran through a gorgeous set of tracks from his latest full length, Cripple Crow, as well as a few old tunes, and a few new ones (including a track written at Bonnaroo called “White Russian Troll”). But the high point came toward the end of the show, when Banhart asked the audience “Do any of you write songs?” One hundred hands shot up. Banhart actually proceeded to invite one of these kids on stage to perform an original song as he and the band moved to the back of the stage. As that random kid poured his heart out on Devendra Banhart’s stage, playing Banhart’s guitar and singing into Banhart’s mic, the entire audience felt something special. It was the type of inclusive moment that made us all feel like rock stars, and perhaps that was the point. But regardless, the kid got the loudest applause of anyone that day, and it’s one of the more poignant memories from the weekend.
The second show also comes from Friday, but this one was a whole ‘nother animal. Starting at midnight, directly following Tom Petty and competing with Common, My Morning Jacket didn’t exactly have the greatest time slot for what most people consider alternative country-fried rock and roll. But even those who appreciate My Morning Jacket as bona-fide rock stars could not be prepared for the magnitude of this show. What was scheduled as a two-and-a-half-hour rollick through the night grew into a mammoth three-hour-and-20-minute explosion of ecstatic performance.
That has to be the longest running time of any show at Bonnaroo for one band, but this night was about so much more than just the sheer amount of music played. The band came onto the pitch-black stage to the theme of “When You Wish Upon a Star” with lead singer Jim James carrying a lantern as if stepping into a magic forest. By the time they got to the chorus of opener “Wordless Chorus,” the crowd was in a hysterical state of emotion, and those of us lucky few in the front could feel the pulsating power of the audience affecting the band. It grew to a fever-pitch until the climax of the show, at almost the two-hour mark, when James and crew roared through a cover of The Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” emphasizing the final refrain, “You are forgiven” with such passion and energy that you could not help but be moved to tears.
But this crowd-band interaction was no accident for My Morning Jacket. James has reported to the press that the song that made him fall in love with music was “Wish Upon a Star” as it intro-ed all his favorite Disney films as a child. Friday night’s 31-song set was about the beauty and appreciation of music, unfiltered.
My Morning Jacket did this for the fans. They reached out to the audience and brought them closer than any other band at Bonnaroo. And in that action, they channeled the most beautiful thing about these large-scale music festivals: the feeling of inclusion in something special.