By: Brian Mansfield
For USA Today
Positioned just so at the Bonnaroo Music Festival on Friday, one could hear Lucinda Williams’ languid folk-rock, the sweaty saxophone funk of Joshua Redman and the exploratory rock sounds of Tortoise. “I was out in the playground with my kids, and I could hear all three,” Al Schnier said. “It was a good smash-up.”
Schnier, who plays guitar for the jam band Moe, wasn’t scheduled to perform until Sunday, but he came early to soak up the atmosphere and catch some of more than 60 musical acts. Schnier was joined by 82,000 people (up a few thousand from the inaugural Bonnaroo in 2002). Fans began setting up camp in 650 acres of Middle Tennessee hayfields Wednesday, and most will leave Monday after a weekend of music that defies easy categorization.
Though rooted in the scene of improvisation-oriented rock bands such as Widespread Panic and The Dead (the latest version of the Grateful Dead), Bonnaroo this time around incorporated the avant-rock of Sonic Youth, the reggae of The Wailers and the classic soul of James Brown.
The festival offers other acts such as electronic musician and DJ Josh Wink and hip-hop group The Roots the chance to explore common ground with other musicians and their audiences.
“Spontaneity is what makes me who I am as a DJ/artist,” Wink said. “I look at what I do as no-rules, and this is a great setting for that.”
Names for performance areas such as Which Stage, What Stage, This Tent and That Tent turned any attempt at giving directions into an Abbott & Costello routine. But fans often didn’t have to go far to hear more than one of their favorite acts at the same time. Phish bassist Mike Gordon joined Sound Tribe Sector 9, a Georgia jam band, for an encore. R&B artist Cody Chestnutt performed with The Roots on Saturday, and Blues Traveler’s John Popper performed with Moe on Sunday. In addition to his set Saturday with the Allman Brothers Band and his own performance Sunday, Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes played with the Funky Meters and Widespread Panic.
Such impromptu jams, a hallmark of the festival, reward both audience and musicians. “The audience loves to see something that happens only once that exact way,” Haynes said. “As a fan, I’m the same way.”
For artists, Bonnaroo can represent a time to hang out as much as it does for the fans. “I came down a day early just to see Lu (Lucinda Williams) and Neil (Young),” country singer Emmylou Harris said Friday. She sang two songs with Williams that afternoon, stayed for Young’s performance with Crazy Horse and returned to play her own set on Saturday.
Bonnaroo festivities continued deep into the night — and got progressively wilder. A Mardi Gras-style procession, led by the Rebirth Brass Band, paraded around during Saturday’s pre-dawn hours. Late that night, the Flaming Lips played a two-hour set accompanied by giant balloons, confetti, puppets and video of nude dancers and eye surgery.
In addition to performances by Brown and The Dead, Sunday featured an early-evening SuperJam. Gordon and Haynes joined Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson and special guest Dr. John, whose 1974 album DesitivelyBonnaroo gave the festival its name.
The festival swells Manchester to about 10 times its normal size. “It’s like a small town moving to the big city for the weekend,” Coffee County Sheriff Steve Graves said. This year, traffic planning prevented the snarls that stretched as long as 30 miles in 2002.
Overall, the communal, neo-hippie good vibes and small-town Southern hospitality seem to have mixed well.
“It’s improved from last year,” Graves said, “and I think if we do it again, it will improve again.”