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2008 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival review

Recap of the 2008 Bonnaroo Festival by Ryan McGee

2008 Bonnaroo Music Festival review: 
By Ryan McGee
Photography by: James Green

The 2008 Bonnaroo Music Festival may have finally ended the practice of typecasting music fans.  With arguably the most diverse line-up in music festival history, the 2008 version of Bonnaroo featured musicians, artists, and comedians that reached across genres, generations, and geography. In a culture that so easily (and lazily) slips into making oversimplified judgments about people and their differences, Bonnaroo is a revolutionary and bold concept.  Bonnaroo dares 80,000 Metallica, Kanye West, DJ Tiesto, and Widespread Panic fans to camp in steamy Manchester, Tennessee for 4 days of very little showering, more music than you can possibly listen to, and getting along.  Bonnaroo is about connection through a love of live music – in all its forms.  And it works.  Imagine that. 

Bonnaroo can be hard to navigate and plan.  Especially with stages that are named the following:  What, Which, This, That, and the Other.  Conversations with my British friend James would sound like an Abbot and Costello skit.   

Me: "What stage is My Morning Jacket playing?"
James: "Which Stage"
Me: "Yeah, which stage?"
James: "That stage" (pointing)
Me: "Oh you mean the Which Stage?  Ok." 

Add alcohol, whiffs of strange herbs, and the heat and…well, you get the picture.   Bonnaroo is also an emotional roller coaster ride.  There is the thrill of discovering a new artist, being disappointed by the dull, being blown away by old favorites (several times this happened with me), laughing your sack off to a comedian, and staying up for 20 hours a day trying to fit this all in.  

For fans contemplating future Bonnaroo festivals I have two things to say:  1.) DO NOT DRIVE, and 2.) TAKE THE NASHVILLE AIRPORT SHUTTLE.  James and I (and the rest of the shuttle riders) giggled with glee as we passed miles of traffic and got into the venue with no wait.  We had camp set up near a surprisingly small tent only area (learn to backpack and pack everything on your back), and were taking it all in before noon on Day One.  Horror stories abound about the wait in.   

Day One belonged to a dread-locked, British neo hippie singer songwriter named Newton Faulkner.  Newton was masterful at playing, muting, and using his acoustic guitar as a percussive instrument.  He told funny stories that kept the audience captivated and ended it all with a rousing sing-along version of Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody."     

Blues enthusiasts listen up: the Isle of Man’s "Back Door Slam" is the real deal.  I’d love to see these guys become this generation’s Cream. if they tightened up their songwriting and try to get a little funkier.  There is no doubt about their musical talent, and their live performance showed they are capable of greatness.  We’ll be hearing about these guys for a long time. 

I wish I could say the same about a number of other bands that performed on Day One.  MGMT, Battles, and the ultra-chic Vampire Weekend didn’t really do much for me.  I heard a lot about these bands prior to the festival, but their music didn’t seem to transfer well to me that first day.   

Bed Time.  Bonnaroo sleep is shallow, punctured by screams, laughing, mushroom tripper conversations, and people having sex.   

The first night two girls who sounded miles away just screamed at each other all night.  I also heard the following conversation: 

"I’m stuck in this porta-potty and I can’t get out!  Fuck!"
"Which door?!"
"I don’t know!"
"I’m trying to help you!  I’ve never been this high though!" 

Day Two kicked off with one of my favorite acoustic artists over the last couple of years, Jose Gonzalez.  I love Jose.  His gentle vocals and songwriting pull at my heartstrings.  Perfect in the afternoon heat.  Once I scored my media passes, I saw Jose backstage and jumped on the opportunity to thank him and shake his hand.  Big time thrill for me.  I know, I’m a pussy.    

Next were the Raconteurs.  I first want to say that I’m embarrassed I haven’t caught onto this band sooner.  Always been a White Stripes fan, though.  Shame on me.  The Raconteurs are better.  The Raconteurs performance was the most haunting of the festival.  Jack White seemed to come unhinged with passion for this band and was impossible to take your eyes off.  Jack’s lamb chop sideburns, unbelievable guitar playing, and his vocal storytelling are a thrill to watch.  The Raconteurs are Brendan Benson and Jack White’s medium to explore their musical capabilities, and it is compelling to watch them do just that. 

M.I.A’s thundering bass and tribal rhythms weren’t enough to keep people standing in the crowd with arms folded.  So she invited everyone up on stage to dance.  The stage shook under the weight of the mass and gyrating bodies.  M.I.A. is a London-born Sri Lankan, which underscores Bonnaroo’s global reach and impact.  It’s crazy to see so many white people dance to this stuff.   

Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammit from Metallica came out to introduce Chris Rock to the Bonnaroo masses.  Chris Rock fucking rocked.  I laughed my ass off and had tears streaming down my face.  No one, I repeat, NO ONE hits the truth or has as much courage to talk about politics, race, money, and sex like Chris Rock.  And no one makes me laugh so hard. 

Metallica was just o.k. for me.  I last saw Metallica in 1993 and I literally felt like I had my ass kicked.  Their adrenaline-fueled approach didn’t really translate well for me this time around, after standing in the afternoon sun all day listening to other bands.  Their set consisted of all old stuff for the most part.  I was also saving myself for My Morning Jacket.   

MMJ is at the top of their game right now as a band, and their performance was the highpoint of the festival for me.  They played the song that should be the soundtrack to everyone’s summer, "Highly Suspicious" from their new album Evil Urges.  And during the climactic scream of their song "Gideon," colored glow sticks furiously flew through the rain-soaked air.  I couldn’t help but feel absolute speechless, jaw-dropping joy at the whole scene.   MMJ speak to the soul like few new bands do; the highlight of the festival for me.      

I loved Saturday’s Against Me! performance.  This is a band that says what it means and cares about it.  Against Me!  is criticized from old school punks for being too pop.  To me there is nothing more punk than speaking your truth and playing with the heartfelt passion that Against Me! does.   

There is no half-assing it in a Mastodon mosh pit.  It’s kind of like jumping out of an airplane: you commit to jump and that’s it.  You can’t decide once you’re in to half-ass it.  Mastodon’s music (this band is vastly under-rated and their drummer is unreal) provides a release for all the anger, frustration, and negative energy that life throws at you.  I knew this while standing on the outside and saw some dude with bloody teeth throwing himself about and punching in the air.  Then I jumped in and threw down.  I love moshing and this was the most ferocious pit I’ve ever been in.  I got the wind knocked out of me, and a Charlie horse.  I felt renewed spiritually and emotionally.     

Pearl Jam’s passion and power were on full display Saturday night in one of the best shows I’ve ever seen from them.  Pearl Jam’s music and concerts are about life redemption, and Eddie Vedder and the boys deliver it.  They played the drum propulsive "All Night" for the first time, which features one of my favorite PJ lyrics, "Life has nothing to do with killing time."  Older songs like "Alive" seem to take on new meaning in today’s contexts.  Pearl Jam’s performances always leave me with renewed faith in the power of rock and roll to literally change your life.  Their Bonnaroo set was incredibly moving and made everyone believe in that power.  

By now everybody knows about the Kanye West incident.  I love Kanye, but Mastodon’s mosh pit and Pearl Jam’s redemption were overload for me.  I couldn’t even stand up, so I went back to my tent for a little nap, planning to wake up @ 2:45 am to go see Kanye.   

I thought someone had slipped me some mushrooms when I awoke at dawn and still heard "Gold-digger" from across the way.  Kanye was way late for his set and the next day everyone was pissed.  Come on Kanye!  Respect your fans and show up on time man!     

The last day of the festival seems dedicated to getting back to Bonnaroo’s jam-band based roots.  Most of the artists scheduled that day were of the jammy or chilled-out variety, which is a perfect way to wind down a festival of over-stimulation.  Rogue Wave’s songs were so good in the mid-afternoon sun.  Robert Randolph and the family band were stellar as always, and Broken Social Scene shined despite some sound problems at first.  Widespread Panic’s extended jams closed the festival and gave me time to lay back on my blanket, watch the stars, and let the music take me away. 

[Ryan McGee - Kotori Magazine]

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