Review: Dancing in the Dust: Dispatches from the Sixth Annual Bonnaroo* - U2 Feedback

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Old 07-20-2007, 09:40 AM   #1
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Review: Dancing in the Dust: Dispatches from the Sixth Annual Bonnaroo*


By Andy Smith, Editor and Allan Aguilar, Guest Writer

The timeliness of this report has slipped into what we hope will be timelessness. If any rock festival’s lingering memories should resist fading too fast, Bonnaroo’s should.

As one colleague put it to me in an email, “If you’re gonna be hung over from something, be hung over from 'roo.” For this editor, the recovery was more than mental and spiritual but brutally physical. Four days of bruises, blisters, and blood were also four days of sun, sin, and sonic over-saturation—and worth every minute of pain and discomfort for the powerful musical decadence that only the twenty-first century sonic carnival can provide. Finally, more than four weeks later, at last, we offer our belated interpretations.

Defying unseasonably dry and excessively dusty conditions, close to 100,000 people gathered for the sixth consecutive year in the fields of south central Tennessee to create the temporary metropolis of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

Flouting regular sleep schedules and over-priced amenities, our faithful reporters managed to see more than a dozen decent shows between them and provide the following musical and cultural dispatches from the most diverse music festival on the continent.

Given the sheer quantity and fearless quality of the entertainment at what returning fans affectionately call the ‘roo, no report can ever cover the festival fully—even in the more than 3500 words we have devoted to the task. In fact, I will be consuming reviews of this year’s ‘roo until it’s time for the next. Even with two reporters on the beat, our report is necessarily incomplete. For the following content, the reviews or comments by our guest writer Allan Aguilar are noted with his initials (AA) at the end of the sections authored by him. The remaining sections were penned by yours truly, Interference editor Andy Smith.

Rock and Roll All Day and All Night Long

The music at Bonnaroo doesn't play all 24 hours of the day—but almost. Those few hours left dedicated to silence are those between five and noon, if you're lucky. Stay curled up in your tent as long as you can because once the bands start going they will keep going until the wee hours of the morn.—AA

“Thursday is the New Friday”

Initially, Bonnaroo was known as a three day music festival, and apparently, the Thursday night shows were some kind of an extra—like the notorious “bonus tracks” at the end of a CD. Finally, even the promoters now acknowledge that this is a four-day festival, and the fans concur, with the lines outside the gates forming in the wee hours between Wednesday and Thursday for early entrance into the fields.

The festival’s daily paper—staffed by writers from Relix magazine, printed on newsprint with a press-run of 15,000, and known as the Bonnaroo Beacon—boasted that “Thursday is the New Friday.” We couldn’t agree more, for as soon as dusk passed into darkness, the fields came alive with the sounds of music.

Over at This Tent, the Black Angels tore through their set, turning up the feedback and fuzzing the freaks with the contact buzz that has contributed to their growing fame. With relentless touring street smarts, this band epitomizes the many-headed rock-and-so-much-more hybrid that Bonnaroo has become, uniting the dreadlocked nomads and the indy nerds with attitude into one sweaty mass of music-loving communion.

Immediately following the Angels, Mute Math was due in This Tent. To a packed mass, the New Orleans-based band brought their stunningly hypnotic and stadium-ready pop rock to an enthusiastic mass.

Leaving Mute Math early for the National, my companion of the moment and I were disappointed that the show had not begun. What band shows up 30 minutes late for a 60 minute Bonnaroo set? I still stayed for some, and as much as I love this group and dug the rendition of the heartfelt “Slow Show,” the set didn’t quite gel as well as it could have.

From The National, I traveled to the tightly packed Troo Lounge for a sweaty and hefty, skanking and ranking reggae jam with my new best friends in the scene, a musical collective from Athens, Georgia called Dubconscious.

During the day, this lounge has tables, and since no one bothered to clear the floor, some of us ended up topless on table tops, shaking our asses and waving our fists. This worked until we worked the table into the ground, in crashing cacophony. Not phased, the people crowd-surfed the table and many chairs out to the perimeter without losing a beat. Amazing. Later, some of us did our best reggae soft-mosh into the final minutes. We were back to camp by around 1am, which for Bonnaroo is an early bedtime.

Meanwhile, Back at That Tent

As the first night of Bonnaroo draws to a close, one of the last sets to play is the Mexican guitar duo, Rodrigo y Gabriela. Although they both play acoustic guitar and neither of them sing, the two manage to transform the seemingly simple into the inexplicably complex. Gabriela's furiously fluttering fingers beat and strum out bass lines and rhythms that rattle the very soul, while it would take a humming bird to catch Rodrigo's lightning-quick melodic fingerpicks at work. With the two hailing from Mexico City, one would expect to hear a certain kind of music—picture any movie that features Antonio Banderas with a guitar and a gun. Rodrigo y Gabriela take some good old Mexican acoustic goodness and infuse it all the way through with a taste of metal to create a sound that truly defies definition. Except for the one I just gave you.

With intricate, ever-changing rhythms and melodies coupled with mind-numbing solos, Rodrigo y Gabriela are anything but a one-act play. How many guitarists do you who can play their guitar with a beer bottle? That's what I thought. Obviously, hearing them is not enough; they must be seen playing to be fully appreciated. –AA

The Hopeful Melancholy of the Cold War Kids

What better way to wake up to a full Friday than to the soulful, indie stylings of the Cold War Kids. Nathan Willett’s smooth vocals soothed the mind as we lazily bobbed our heads and tapped our feet to the slow, steady rhythms of the guitars and drums. They augmented their sound with cymbals, tambourines, or whatever else they could find to bang on, but don't go expecting senseless noise from these kids. The Cold War Kids have honed a hopeful sound tainted by a melancholy that makes you want to cry a little, in a good way. Go ahead: close your eyes and take it in.—AA

Friday’s Downfall

Each Bonnaroo has its impossible coin-toss of a choice. At this time on this day, what set should I see? Friday afternoon forced itself on me with the painful fact that I just could not do it all. And still I tried—and in trying treated myself to my worst Bonnaroo wound yet. I ended up listening to the Kings of Leon from the medical tent nearest the main stage. (They really do mean all that stuff in your Bonnaroo program about “pacing yourself.”)

But my decision to run and “just catch a few tracks” of the Lebanon, Tennessee superstars meant missing Gillian Welch. Bandaged and broken but not beaten, I hobbled to hear the amazing Michael Franti and Spearhead. And catching this set meant missing most of The Nighwatchman, better known as Tom Morello of Rage and Audioslave fame.

Photo: Photo: Michael Loccisano, courtesy of

Tired but unrelenting, I found myself making it for Morello’s finale. Speechifying more than singing, he had several thousand middle-class white kids waving their fists and shouting the lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” It was a moment to behold

The Possessed Trance of STS9

Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) do things a little bit differently. With a blend of traditional instruments mingled with the latest technology available in music, STS9 entrance and possess. Every time a new song began, and even multiple times within some songs, I found myself thinking “Sound Tribe Sector 9,” as if someone were whispering my appreciation for this band directly into my brain. With so many varied influences, anyone who appreciates modern music can find something to like about STS9—
despite the labels imposed upon the band by some (like “jamtronica”?—Ed.). Fans cannot witness them and not be somehow moved. Close your eyes and travel the universe; let the music consume you and claim you as its own, commanding you to move your body to its rhythms. Lose your mind, lose your body, lose yourself—ride the sound waves to another place. You won't want to come back.—AA

Don’t Stand So Close To Me Over at the Whatever Stage

I hate to say it, but the main stage shows could be Bonnaroo’s Achilles heal. Now that the promoters have purchased the property, some serious landscaping at the What Stage might be in order. We need shade. We need an incline.

During the day, tent shows are cooler—literally. On Sunday, I saw weary, roasted humans sucking down gallons of water and passing out to sleep in the sun. At the What Stage, even the wonderful Wilco almost put me to sleep before I decided to detour my way back to This Tent to catch the backend of Feist’s fierce set.

But even when the lights go down and the entire Bonnraoo converges on this central field for two or three hours, some things never just come together in that more-than-magical Bonnaroo manner. My initiation into this sizable letdown was last year’s Radiohead set, hardly my favorite of the festival, even though I thoroughly dig Radiohead.

Prepared for mass alienation, bad sightlines, too many tall people, and all of that, I was ready for Tool and The Police. Being a huge Tool fan and a follower of the Police since I was a middle-school virgin, I expected to know most of the songs and “feel like a fan.” In fact, both sets were generally strong, and I had decent—never great—places to stand.

Yet here’s the rub—Bonnaroo headliners need to own that spot and show some respect to the fans who have to be some of the most appreciative and supportive in rock. The spectacle shuts down all the other stages for the Friday and Saturday headliners at 9pm and gives bands 2.5 hour blocks of time where they’ll have access to our prime-time, undivided attention. Still, as muscular as Tool’s set was, they couldn’t carry it past two hours.

Moreover, lead singer Maynard James Keenan’s attitude could best be described as a snobby, cynical, and pretentious “let’s tease the hippies” mockery. From bragging about his air-conditioned trailer to baiting the drug users with a threat of arrest, his attitude actually detracted from the show. While I think Bonnaroo made huge strides for the real eclectic and inclusive music festival of the future by inviting Tool, it’s as if Maynard just spat his venom at such a big-tent approach.

Sadly, while The Police provided a great performance, Sting’s attitude and endurance didn’t fare much better than Maynard’s. When an attempt at a sing-along didn’t generate the desired enthusiasm, Sting actually got snooty. When performers feign gratitude or even mean it, it’s always better than turning their noses up at their bread and butter, the sisters and brothers who still sign their paychecks, so to speak.

Hands down, the best What Stage set I saw was Saturday’s Ben Harper performance. Yes, we got to see John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin on stage. And even though it was hotter than hades everywhere, Harper gave us his full set, starting on time and playing up until his last allotted minute. Moreover, he gave the crowd his heart, welcoming us to the “best festival in the world.” Finally, we got the politically charged medley of “Black Rain” fused with a sizably soulful interlude of Marvin Gaye’s “Make Me Wanna Holler” and the most delicious and heartbreaking rendition of “Diamonds On the Inside” ever.

Photo: Jeff Kravitz, courtesy of

The Incomparable Gypsy Moshpit at Gogol Bordello!

On the third day of Bonnaroo my true love gave to me… Gogol Bordello!!! Some bands make you dance, others make you chill. The unique flavor of Gogol Bordello will simply kick your ass. The title of their latest album says it all: "Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike." Prepare yourself for ritualistic flailing as you cast all inhibitions aside in the presence of a unique cross-culture renegade sound. Take some juicy Gypsy filling, coat it with a nice hard Rock candy shell, and sprinkle it with a little bit of reggae and you've got a winning recipe for a truly tasty treat. Eugene and company perform with an intense energy that spills over and infects the crowd, creating a jumping, screaming mass of people reduced to their primal impulses. Push or be pushed: Gogol Bordello live shows not for the faint of heart. –AA

Photo: Jason Merritt, courtesy of

Music is a Healing Force—Not a Punishment or Reward

The modest activist village called Planet Roo provides an island of sanity, earthiness, and humanity within the massive festival that can at times teeter on the edge of a manic communal insanity. Calling a full-blown blowout like Bonnaroo a “green” space bears some qualifications.

The sheer magnitude of the event requires an untold expenditure of energy and creates a mountain of waste. The heroic efforts of the Clean Vibes waste recovery effort reverses some of the damage, and the solar-powered stage inside Planet Roo is the podium for the radical conscience inside the corporate beast.

All kinds of activist booths and interactive classes make Planet Roo a highly participatory element in festival where it’s still possible to be mostly a spectator. And for the politically aware spectator that wants to get a little closer to the bands, Planet Roo provides amazing panel discussions on music and activism.

Listening to Spearhead’s Michael Franti talk about his gig at San Quentin prison was one of the highlights of the weekend. “Music is a healing force,” he said. “I don't play music for people to reward them or to punish them. ... Every time I come into a prison I am invited to share my peace and my music, but I always leave feeling like I learned more from than they did from me.”

Photo: Michael Franti by Andy Smith

The members of Dubconscious sent people from their entourage to the panel on biodiesel and sustainable touring on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, the band’s panel discussion mingled with a live set; this performance-as-lesson-as-call-to-action was an overall interactive induction into popular music as what lead singer Adrian Zelski might call a “non-dogmatic tribal ceremony” for invoking social change in the spirit of John Lennon and Martin Luther King.

Let’s be clear—having a Planet Roo is much better than not having a Planet Roo, but as with any profitable, larger-than-life efforts with a peace, love, and the inevitable organic granola conscience, the cries of hypocrisy and apathy are not too far from home. Call Al Gore and Michael Moore when every stage is solar, and every porta-pooper makes compost for a garden of wild flowers grown in hippy shit. Of course, some fans would live at Bonnaroo site in Manchester if the owners let them, and some of us are lucky enough to live so close that our drive is not the soulless and solely destructive force that driving can be.

God Bless The Flaming Lips

Every Bonnaroo seems to have at least one show of pure legend, one purely blissful and transcendent nugget of rock history being made right before your eyes.

In 2006, My Morning Jacket’s late Friday night show—an exquisite and enchanted endurance-fest—surely secured that band’s ascendant fate and future reputation.

This year, the revered and revelatory set of pure legend transpired at midnight Saturday on Which Stage when Bonnaroo became Wayne’s World.

After an enthusiastic sound check of “War Pigs” at 11pm, the masses waited for an hour. Then, The Flaming Lips arrived in a space ship, blew our minds for over two hours of absolutely insanely beautiful psychedelic pop, and then left in the space ship again.

We could have crafted something surreal from the thick, steamy air that hung over the Lips’ lovers and the genuinely curious gathered in the Which Stage field late Saturday. Some of the massive crowd had been waiting all evening, having skipped Sting to save the perfect spot for the Flaming Lips’ landing. Then, the Police ended early, and the Lips performed an enthusiastic sound check of “War Pigs” at 11pm. After that, the build-up was incredible. The people sprawled past the fields and into the available nooks of Centeroo. I’m not sure what the “capacity” would be for a Which Stage show, but this scene was surely humongous.

As I wandered the colossally patient throng, I began to wonder what other shows were going down that could steal some of these folks’ attention and make more room for the truly devout. I even went as far as imposing some reverse psychology: “You guys hate the Flaming Lips. They really suck in concert. Don’t you want to see Galactic instead?” Nobody seemed to buy my line, which is fine—why would I deny anyone their first Flaming Lips show on a magical new moon night in a Tennessee field. Besides, they weren’t going to keep me from my destiny; I travel with a wiggling pixy who seems to know how to find her way to the front at every show, and thank the muses, just past midnight Sunday morning was no exception.

What kind of band arrives at the gig in a UFO? Dresses its friends in alien costumes in the middle of summer? Sprays the fans with copious doses of colorful confetti splooge? Can we put these over-the-top Okies treatment of concert-as-splurge-and-spectacle in perspective?

Photo: Jeff Kravitz, courtesy of

We’re living a moment in rock where the brewed in a basement bass-less minimalism of bands like The Black Keys and The White Stripes sets the standard for many of a wannabe boy-rock-wonder getting his first band together. While I love the pure blues and balls of this deep retro as much as anyone, this is not the intoxicating, multimedia potion that turned me on to rock as a child.

To stage stupefying theatrics that in no way detract from songs, in creating the craziness of it all, the Flaming Lips seem to steal liberally from the likes of KISS, Pink Floyd, GWAR, The Butthole Surfers. On Lips tour, I imagine every night is part prom, part Halloween part, part journey to the outer reaches of the galaxy. Fans have even implied that if we landed the UFO in Iraq, the war would end tomorrow.

A festival like Bonnaroo is the universal canvas for Wayne Coyne’s decadent palette to find its full range. Tens of thousands of kids—many of them out-of-their-heads on a recreational substance of choice—were the willing test group for the flagship spaceship landing. We wanted the Lips to etch their pixie-ish mix-mash of punkadelic peacenik bubblegum pop on the window of our souls, and the Lips delivered.

One interviewer has described Wayne Coyne as “part philosopher, preacher, cheerleader, ringmaster.” And the festival stage brings this genuine persona its fullest expression. Throughout his countless testimonies to journalists about the festival, Wayne Coyne sounds like an evangelist, waxing prolific on the profound benefits of a communal experience. He loves to talk about the toilets, the torrential hailstorms, the smells, the substances, the sleepless nights, and setting up a spaceship at sunrise on a Saturday morning.

Between each song at Bonnaroo this year, Wayne the preacher and teacher was in full force, offering the most charged politicizing seen on any Bonnaroo stage this year (besides Tom Morello’s of course). From the “War Pigs” sound-check to the anti-Bush speech before “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” Coyne could not have been more motivated to find that fragile yet ferocious place where rock and revolution still mingle, despite the restless hecklers and obvious limits such a stance includes.

Photo: Andy Smith

From the opening magic to the final notes when the band closed with the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” and then boarded the UFO once again, from a set that included “Race for the Prize,” “Fight Test,” “Yoshimi,” “Waiting for a Superman,” “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “Do You Realize,” and more, The Flaming Lips defined what rock can be at its best and why Bonnaroo remains an incomparable immersion into the ecstatic potential of popular culture.

Sunday Comes Too Soon

Father’s Day found Bonnaroo all too quickly. As bright as the voicemail from my daughter was, this day meant that the festival would soon be over, and we knew the inevitable, it would be another 360-ish days until we could dance in the dust once more.

For an early day almost churchlike set, the gospel great Mavis Staples dedicated “May the Circle Be Unbroken” to her deceased daddy, and I picked up the phone to call my pops.

While I chose to end my 2007 Bonnaroo on The White Stripes and skipped the Widespread Panic show, nothing that transpired Sunday could wash the previous night’s memories from holding strong.
Stand up to rock stars!
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