The Bonnaroo Music Festival began somewhat modestly in 2002 as a standard-issue multi-day festival of jam bands and debauchery. In recent years, however, it has grown into one of the nation's most prestigious and musically diverse summer concert events, annually attracting nearly 100,000 fans, artists, and journalists from all over the world to the tiny and apparently quite open-minded town of Manchester, Tennessee, for four days of sensory overload.
A lot has been written in the local press about Austin's South By Southwest festival, which, like Bonnaroo, is a multi-day bonanza of more acts than any one person could ever hope to take in. But Bonnaroo is a different experience in almost every way. While South By Southwest is a "showcase" event geared toward music-industry professionals, Bonnaroo is overtly fan-centric.
The average ticket buyer has the same viewing access to the bands as anyone else — including (unfortunately for me) the media. Most attendees, including the artists themselves, spend the weekend on the festival grounds, camping-out and mixing it up. Bonnaroo is a place where you're just as likely to almost get run over by David Byrne on his bicycle while trying to get to the main stage as get offered a joint by Wayne from Peoria while standing in line for the comedy tent.
As a previous Bonnaroo attendee (2006 and 2008), I can say that this year's festival was an overwhelming success over previous years. Part of it was pure luck, as Mother Nature cooperated by providing plenty of temperature-checking cloud cover and breeze. This year's lineup was also, at the very least, superior to 2008's. I'll take Bruce Springsteen, or even Phish, over Metallica any day of the week. Even the most questionable, to my mind, of Bonnaroo 2009 choices, Nine Inch Nails, ended up delivering a decently fun and entertaining set in the end.
The Comedy Tent was once again a principal attraction. Jimmy Fallon headlined two shows on Saturday and was funnier than I expected him to be. Former The State members Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black hosted a comedy revue on Sunday that was highlighted by a surprise guest appearance by Margaret Cho and a flawless set by Parks and Recreation's Aziz Ansari.
The comedy highlight of Bonnaroo 2009, however, was the ongoing presence of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who hosted a variety show Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, completely (and hilariously) hijacked a press conference with Tift Merritt and Alejandro Escovedo on Saturday, and roamed the crowds gathering footage for The Tonight Show throughout.
There was no shortage of great musical moments at the festival. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' energetic, new-wave assault on Friday afternoon stands out for sure, as does Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band's marathon set on Saturday night, which included a crowd request for the holiday jam, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." Springsteen also made a guest appearance with Phish on Sunday night.
But for the second year in a row, the musical highlight for me was the Malian pop group Amadou and Mariam, whose hypnotic, blues-inflected brand of Afro-pop is primal and perfect. Guitarist/singer/songwriter Amadou Bagayoko's howl, be it in French, Malian, or broken English, is both heartbreaking and incendiary in a way that reminds me of John Lennon, while his trance-like guitar work is steeped in Delta grime. The band's Saturday-evening side-stage set was an absolute show-stealer.
In the end, though, it's not for me to say what was great and what wasn't, because the whole experience is so personal, the choices so limitless that Bonnaroo can be whatever you want it to be: a simple, relaxing camp-out weekend with friends; a hectic, schedule-checking carnival of cool bands and shows; or even, as it is for some, a wild, drug-induced blur.
Would I go again? Ask me when they announce the schedule for Bonnaroo 2010 next year.