On Saturday night, Bruce Springsteen found himself in a position he probably can't remember last being in: having to preach to the not necessarily converted.
Springsteen and the E Street Band's headlining slot at Bonnaroo was only the band's second-ever festival date - the first being Pinkpop in the Netherlands just weeks ago - and instead of proving it all night to a sea of older faces comfortable reporting back every syllable of every song, Springsteen arrived to a crowd that needed some background. "The mighty E Street Band is here tonight and we're going to do everything we can to bring down the power of the music on you," he preached during "Working on a Dream," and spent the remainder of his nearly three-hour, 28-song set doing absolutely that.
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To be fair, Springsteen's set started with some bumps in the road: new tracks "My Lucky Day" and the eight-minute (Phish-length!) spaghetti Western epic "Outlaw Pete" (the latter finding Bruce in black cowboy hat) didn't quite catch with the sprawling festival crowd.
But it didn't take long for Springsteen to figure out that though his job was different, his well-honed work ethic would suit the occasion just fine. A hard-times trilogy of "Seeds," a revved-up "Johnny 99" and "Youngstown" (which featured the night's killer Nils Lofgren solo) helped Springsteen turn his focus from converting the crowd to emoting about the kind of cold, crisp realities he's been known to occasionally write about.
Not that the darkness lasted long: the now-traditional sign-collecting request portion of the evening yielded none other than "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," probably Bonnaroo's best-ever Christmas-themed 60,000-strong singalong ("It's too f---ing hot for Santa!" laughed Springsteen, just before playing it anyway). Other signs yielded a sweet "Growin' Up" and a gorgeous "Thunder Road." And as has also become customary over the band's past few weeks, Max Weinberg midway through yielded the kit to his 18-year-old son (and heavy metal veteran) Jay, who absolutely killed. Jay sped up "Radio Nowhere" to well past the speed limit, drove the band through "Lonesome Day" and "The Rising," and brought a raging, loose new energy to "Born to Run." Dad should be proud.
Springsteen clearly saw Bonnaroo as a challenge, but once he settled in, the band was an unstoppable train. If Springsteen didn't convert everyone on the festival grounds, he sure as hell wore them down over the course of the three-hour set, best of the fest so far.
Saturday opened with the festival's last addition: Jimmy Buffett, who was initially billed as a guest of his protege Ilo Ferreira and the Coral Reefer All-Stars but who ended up playing about half of his usual summertime setlist. Ferreira, who Buffett discovered two years ago at a bar in Mali, joined the band for three songs of his own, reporting that just 48 hours before he was in customs in Africa, unsure if he'd even be able to make the trip. For his part, Buffett threw a nod to the environment with a cover of "Scarlet Begonias."
Jimmy Buffet performs at Bonnaroo, June 13, 2009.