When the Bonnaroo organizers announced back in February that Bruce Springsteen and Phish would be headlining this year’s festival, we decided it was high time to put aside our general disdain for the pungent smell of patchouli and book a ticket to fly out to the woods of Tennessee for a weekend of communal awesomeness. And wow, what a great decision that ended up being! Putting aside for now the fact that spending the weekend in the refugee-camp–like surroundings of Tent City is a serious test of both physical and mental endurance, the weekend provided enough musical and comedic highlights to not only make up for the (at times) oppressive weather conditions, but also to convince us that this is something we should be doing every year. Follow along for some of the highlights!
When we arrived in Manchester on Friday morning, our first priority was, naturally, to find ourselves some good ol’-fashioned air-conditioning. With temperatures in the nineties, and humidity hovering somewhere around 1000 percent, we made our way over to the comedy tent to watch a set from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog that he dubbed Bonnapoo. In a set that recalled his legendary Star Wars bit (only substituting hippies for geeks), Triumph took great delight in taking potshots at the hippiefest that is Bonnaroo (“It’s kind of like the Superdome at Hurricane Katrina, only outdoors and without the hope”) and the amount of drugs that were flying around the festival grounds (“You people are so high that I’m the fourth talking dog you’ve seen today”). Triumph would end up being a fixture at the festival throughout the weekend — Robert Smigel told us they were filming a segment for the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien that “would hopefully air sometime this week” — and even managed to briefly duet with Bruce Springsteen on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” on Saturday night. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
After a disappointing early evening set from the Beastie Boys on the festival’s main stage (a plea to Mixmaster Mike: stop messing around with the group’s best beats!), Phish took the stage to rapturous applause from 70,000 fans around 11 p.m. on Friday night. We watched about 30 minutes or so before heading over to see Phoenix, who turned in the festival’s best set on Friday. As much as we like their new LP, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the group sounded even more dynamic in a live setting. Not only were front man Thomas Mars’s vocals note- and pitch-perfect, but the band wowed the audience by letting songs like “1901” and “Run Run Run” propulsively build over the course of seven or eight minutes each, more than doubling their running times on the album.
Fortunately for everyone at the festival, Saturday started off a bit cooler and more overcast than Friday. We woke at the crack of noon and made our way over to see Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer All-Stars, who were a last-minute addition to the bill. He played a short set of the songs you know by heart, regardless of whether you consider yourself a Parrothead. Hits like “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Margaritaville” went over like gangbusters with the earthy crowd, and the good vibes emanating from the stage set the tone for a great day.
After a short nap — we needed it, we were up until 5 a.m. or so the night before watching Girl Talk and Paul Oakenfold — we made our way back to the comedy tent on the main festival grounds in an attempt to see Jimmy Fallon. Unfortunately, both of his sets in the 1,500-seat tent were sold out. So instead, we walked over to see Jenny Lewis perform a solo set, the highlight of which occurred when Elvis Costello joined her for a duet of “Carpetbaggers.” We then made the tough decision to see Wilco over Elvis Costello, which reminded us that we’ve kind of been taking Jeff Tweedy and company for granted for a while. We’re fairly confident that we made the right decision, as Wilco’s sound is perfect for a festival setting; as we learned a few years back when we saw them at Coachella, Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline’s dueling yet complementary guitars make for an incredible soundtrack for lying on the grass and staring up at the expansive skies.
Next up on the festival’s main stage was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who some originally doubted would be able to win over the hordes of jam-band enthusiasts that typically attend the fest. Those doubts were quickly erased as the band launched into “Badlands” to a chorus of ecstatic screams from the crowd. Bruce and the band were clearly energized by the festival setting and the unfamiliar prospect of playing to an audience who wasn’t intimately familiar with their catalogue, and they responded by skewing their set list ever so slightly toward the greatest hits of the band’s nearly 40-year history. Highlights of the three-hour set included a fan-requested version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (to which Bruce initially quipped, “It’s too fuckin’ hot for Santa!”) and a ridiculously awesome closing trio of “Rosalita,” “Glory Days,” and “Dancing in the Dark.” And in a new(ish) twist for longtime Springsteen fans, we were treated to both Max Weinberg and his 18-year-old son Jay playing drums; while Max looked like he might have been a bit jet-lagged from the long flight from L.A., Jay came out onstage to “Radio Nowhere” and played the rest of the 90-minute set with Grohl-ian fury.
After the Boss wrapped up his set, we made our way over to see Nine Inch Nails. After a day largely comprised of dad rock, it was a slight shock to the system to see and hear the fury of Trent Reznor. We were pretty drained after Bruce, but we’re glad we stuck it out, as Reznor announced near the end of the set that this would be the band’s “last show ever in the United States.” He then quickly added that he’ll “keep going, but I think I’m going to lose my fucking mind if I keep doing this.”
Sadly for us, though, we missed the entirety of the fest on Sunday; after all, a blogger’s work is never done! In between the twelve hours we spent walking, hitchhiking (really!), taxiing and flying back from Manchester to NYC, we learned via text messages and tweets that Bruce Springsteen ended up joining Phish onstage on Sunday night for a joint run through “Mustang Sally,” “Bobby Jean,” and “Glory Days.” The lesson learned? Next year we’re totally taking Monday off from work!