Bonnaroo 2009 was pretty damn good, let’s get that out of the way. If last year was tightly packed with stellar acts, this year was claustrophobic due to the lack of breathing room in between them.
Too much rain? Meh. Too much mud? Maybe a little. Too many good performances? Well, kind of. My left ankle is swollen from standing around for 14 hrs a day watching some of the best live music that the world has to offer. Over the course of 4 long days, I stood around in chilly terrential downpour, blistering heat, and some of the things that fall in between. But it was all worth it, as I caught show after show until I could no longer stand anymore, at which case I would stumble to my tent and pass out, only to have the Manchester humidity awake me early the next morning.
So with all of the amazing artists to choose from over Bonnaroo’s 4 unbeatable days, which were the best? Who should you have seen? Who should you have missed. Hopefully my top 10 list will help you make some decisions if faced with the opportunity to go see these fine bands perform again. Or maybe you’ll be able to agree or disagree with me. The choice is entirely yours. Anyways, here we go.
10. Grizzly Bear:
Friday, This Tent: 5:00-6:15 PM
The harmonies that fill Veckatimest and Yellow House made their way into the Manchester farm over the weekend. Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen, Chris Taylor, and Chris Bear delivered the stunning orchestrations they are known for with ease. It wasn’t hard for most in the crowd to be pleased with such a nice performance.
Friday, That Tent: 12:45-1:45 AM
(couldnt get any good photos)
It’s hard to say what went on during Crystal Castles’ late night set. It is a literal hazy memory (smoke poured into the sizeable That Tent). There was a DJ, an Alice Glass, and a live Drummer. There were lights. Big lights. And the rest really had to be seen. As glass laid across the front row of the raucous crowd, screaming her heart out, eyes outlined by black, chaos ensued. It was the type of spectacle that was completely incomprehensible, but in a good way. An interesting, fun bonnaroo experience, creepiness and all.
Friday, Which Stage: 2:45-4:00 PM
Close your eyes. Let the waves of water drenched electric fuzz swash their way into your innocent ears. There goes your innocence.
After experiencing the event that is Animal Collective, most other things can seem pretty normal. Animal Collective is a group that grabs hold of the boundaries and beats them as hard as they can against the ground. This seemingly violent display of originality, however, is achieved through sheer eloquence. No matter the caliber of an Animal Collective performance, it is sure to leave some in awe, some downright disappointed, others simply bemused. They’re a band that’s as polarizing as they get. But Friday’s mid-day jaunt saw the boys perform the beach boys infused pysch-pop of Merriweather Post Pavilion in the sunny conditions it was inspired by. Sure, Animal Collective would seem better fitting as a late night act (they do translate better in the dark), but on the flipside, it doesn’t get much sunnier than MPP. And what better setting to perform such bright tracks than under the blazing Tennessee sun?
In a set that consisted mainly of Merriweather songs, the collective was as loose as ever, stretching three minute studio tracks into fifteen minutes, to no contest. It was clear that Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist, were letting the Bonnaroo vibes rub off on ther acid drenched sound. This was one of the jammiest Animal Collective sets we’ve ever seen. But, it was a great one at that. The thing is, with the Baltimore trio, you never do know exactly what you’re going to get. That’s where half the fun lies. As the guys fluttered through their noisy pop, at times the sound was a bit softer than it could have been, but at others you could shut your eyelids and hear waves of static crash against you. They built a wall of sound and it was easy to get lost in it, as was especially clear in the near 20 minute rendition of “Fireworks”. Ending with the dancy “Brothersport”, Animal Collective closed the door on another great Bonnaroo experience. (also available at Consequence of Sound)
Saturday, What Stage: 6:00-8:00 PM
Of course, at the Which Stage on Saturday, Wilco did what Wilco always does when they perform. They put on a solid show, filled with explosive energy, laid back whimsical philosophy, and heartbreaking tragedy all in one performance. Playing a great deal of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and highlights from most of their more recent studio albums, including the brand new Wilco (The Album), Wilco made a good choice by not trying to pull of a new album listening party in the form of a live performance. It was hard not to have a good time with Jeff and the rest of the guys in such highs spirits. Tweedy’s touchingly pathetic attempt at humor made fans remember why they fell in love with him in the first place: “If you guys start booing us, we have a built in excuse tonight. We’ll just pretend you’re saying Bruuuuce.” With little crowd laughter, Tweedy pleaded, “I worked on that all day.” But there was no booing to be seen as Nels Cline shredded his strings and bent his guitar’s bridge, Glen Kotche effortlessly flailed about his drum set, and every one else did their part. The controlled chaos that Wilco can bring forth to seemingly simple songs is always great to see live. At the end, the guys proved they aren’t lying when they say “Wilco will love you.” (also available at Consequence of Sound)
Sunday, The Other Tent: 4:30-5:45 PM
Will Sheff and the rest of Okkervil River may take a cynical stab at the concept of being a performer on both The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins, but that doesn’t stop them from taking on the role with flying colors. Sheff and his bandmates soar through ironic tracks such as “Pop Lie” to which every crowd member chants, “He’s the liar who lied in his pop song/And you’re lying when you sing along.” But highlights definitely came about in the form of older tracks such as “Black”, “A Stone”, “For Real”, and of course, the momentous “Westfall”. As Sheff bounced around stage, rubbing heads with his bandmates during their solos, there was more than enough energy on stage. The guys put on a great show, and despite some sound problems (the mix was a little high, and there was a buzzing when Sheff attempted the acoustic songs) the set was one of the best Bonnaroo had to offer. Songs like “A Stone” were executed with pure passion, probably invoking the “cryingest eyes.” Listening to Sheff sing his poetry is a more than worthwhile experience, and catching a beautiful lyric you may have missed in your home will put a smile on your face. I will say that Lauren Gurgiolo doesn’t exactly pull through with her mandolin playing on songs like “Westfall,” but nonetheless, Sheff steals the show and makes it all better. Watching the electricity on stage during Okkervil River’s set was a great way to finish out Bonnaroo, or at least begin to wind down. (also available at Consequence of Sound)
5.Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band:
Saturday, What Stage: 9:30 AM -12:30 PM
There’s a reason why they call him “The Boss” folks. It’s because he knows how to run a fucking show. Sure, it’s cheesy at times. Sure, Bruce wasn’t able to fully tailor his usual performance to the younger bonnaroo crowd. But did it really matter? Watching the 59 year old run around, sweat dripping from every ancient pore, using more energy than most people my own age (20) have is thrilling enough. But when that same guy is joined by the fucking E Street Band, performing brilliant renditions of classics such as “Thunder Road” and “Growing Up,” it’s hard no to be amazed. Even an ironic impromptu “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (crowd sign request) was impressive. Bruce Springsteen can do whatever he wants by my book, completely planned routine (not setlist mind you) or not.
4.Nine Inch Nails:
Saturday, Which Stage: 1:00-3:00 AM
It’s hard to believe Trent Reznor when he says that this will be Nine Inch Nails’ final tour. After all, Reznor has taken long breaks in between albums up until his recent kick of productivity. But it sounded so sincere when mid-set Reznor stated, “It just dawned on me that tonight is our last show in the US.” If NIN genius is indeed calling it quits for good, then Saturday’s 1 AM set made everyone in attendance quite mournful of the loss. Drawing highlights from nearly every one of NIN’s albums, the set was chock full of raucous sing alongs and heart wrenching ballads that only Reznor could pin down. Skittish drum machines, ominous fog, and glaring strobe lights welcomed Reznor and touring band to the stage. The guys were at the top of their game, in a performance that was different from most other NIN shows. Instead of the usual, perfectly orchestrated, art-piece like NIN show, Reznor’s Bonnaroo performance came across as a raw, impromptu, intimate performance. Perhaps this was due to the rather informal way everything was done, the minimal band size (only four of them), and the lack of ornate lighting (though the lights weren’t completely simple). It was like seeing them in your backyard, despite the huge crowd that looked on. Everybody was chanting along to “Head Like A Hole” and “The Hand that Feeds”, and a surprise cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” was exciting, but not until the stunning rendition of “Hurt” did it feel like this was the last time any of us would see NIN again. As Reznor sang the sad tune, nearly on the verge of tears, lighters went up, and he signed off, possibly for the last time ever on American soil.
3. David Byrne:
Friday, Which Stage: 8:45-10:45 PM
Man, can this guy put on a show. If the amazing renditions of Talking Heads classics such as “Born Under Punches,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Heaven” didn’t get you, then maybe the insane choreography going on the entire time did. Dressed in all white, Mr. Byrne stepped on stage, glowing with charisma. He came out, made a funny and humble joke, and then went right into things. Over the course of 85 minutes, Byrne wowed. His band was great, switching instruments and tasks, dancing behind and interacting with the man himself. Byrne was all over the place, and perfectly focused on the task at hand simultaneously. It was a stunning performance unlike many you will ever see. The guy is also so modest it’s hard to believe. He must realize that he was a member of one of rock’s most influential groups. Nah, doesn’t phase the guy. He’s what we call a show stopper.
2. Dirty Projectors:
Friday, That Tent: 1:30-2:30 PM
Where the hell do I start? This was a performance absolutely not to be missed. It’s hard to pack all of what Dave Longstreth and his Dirty Projectors do into one word, but as the name suggests, dirty is quite an appropriate descriptor. Not the kind of dirty that makes you want to take a shower, but the kind that makes you turn to the random dude next to you and say “Damn, that guy is dirty!” If Bitte Orca hasn’t hit your radar yet, or if you simply don’t “get” the Dirty Projectors, see them live as soon as you can. Hell, see them live as many times as you can. On the heels of their recent masterpiece, the folks that make up the experimental Brooklyn outfit brought forth enough goods to make the rest of Bonnaroo’s Friday, and maybe even most of the weekend, look like a shitshow. If it wasn’t Longstreth’s insanely glitchy, mind bending, intricate guitar work—something that seemed to wander aimlessly during solos, but somehow kept time (how that drummer kept it together was beyond me) — then, perhaps it was the triple (sometimes quadruple) threat of perfectly harmonized oscillating vocals that made it all so good. But, then again, maybe it was the intensely ornate breakdowns and power thrashing that went on in between during songs like ‘Temecula Sunrise’”. Oh hell, it was everything. All of it was almost too much to take in.
There’s nothing better than a pleasant surprise, especially at a music festival. The Dirty Projectors’ mid-day Friday set was that and more. It was a perplexing performance. One that was both awe inspiring and confusing. The crowd went nuts throughout the Bitte Orca heavy set, most notably while watching on as the ever-so-cute Amber Coffman stunned them with “Stillness is the Move,” one of the finest tracks on that record. These guys know what they’re doing, and the wow factor was as high as could be. But to really go for the gold, Longstreth invited “friend” David Byrne onstage to join the group (after all he did curate the stage and invite them to the festival) for a high energy rendition of their Dark Was the Night contribution, “Knotty Pine”, to end the set. Yes, it’s safe to say that the Dirty Projectors’ left their mark in Manchester this weekend. (also available at Consequence of Sound)
1. Bon Iver:
Saturday, This Tent: 3:30-4:45 PM
The name may translate to “Good Winter” in French, perhaps raising some doubts as to how the chilly, atmospheric folk would translate in the blistering Tennessee heat. But, for Justin Vernon and the rest of Bon Iver, the name could mean “Bad Band” and they would still blow everybody within a hundred feet right off their feet. Justin and the dudes that make up the impossibly humble, yet unbelievably powerful Bon Iver, did exactly that on Saturday. The large “This Tent” was packed tight with bodies. I mean packed. Rumor has it that Drew Berrymore and Justin Long watched on from the equally populated VIP area to the stages side. There really wasn’t a more electric crowd at all of Bonnaroo, and for good reason. This was a hair raising, bone chilling, downright beautiful thing to witness. And it wasn’t soft or cutesy either. Throughout the unbelievable performance, Vernon attacked his electric guitar, two drummers slammed their arms down with great force, and atmospheric textures still found their way in. Perfect control was the key here, and it was there in excess. Vernon sat down with his national resonator for a stirring rendition of “Skinny Love,” with every single audience member singing along. He stood up and thrashed on songs like “Wolves” in a set that included a wonderful cover of Yo La Tengo’s “I Feel Like Going Home” and highlights from the beautiful For Emma, Forever Ago.
The true high point of the best performance at 2009’s installment of Bonnaroo (yep, I said it), however, came at the set’s bittersweet end. Nobody wanted the guys to exit the stage, but it would have been wrong to attempt to follow up all the raw energy and utter passion that Vernon and the rest of his band brought out during the impossibly climactic “Wolves”. With the crowd filling in by chanting the mantra-like ending lyrics “What might have been lost” Vernon was able to take his falsetto to immeasurable heights, impossibly crooning his way to a finish. Drums crashed, and chaos ensued before it was all over and the guys walked off of the stage, drenched in sweat (at least Justin was). Not one person could say it didn’t leave them standing in amazement, and the festival’s true highlight left everybody wanting to see Bon Iver again as soon as humanly possible. It may not have been a good winter, but it was definitely a phenomenal something. (also available at Consequence of Sound)
I’m also just in the beginning of this awesome video. I’m famous!