Bruce Springsteen on Saturday night 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 Holland 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.
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."
In a mid-afternoon That Tent set, Raphael Saadiq impressed with a rootsy R&B set that showcased his classy blend of gospel, blues & vintage soul. Saadiq hit a sensual climax with a string of songs from his 2008 record "The Way I See It," including "Sure Hope You Mean It" and "Let's Take a Walk."
Wilco utilized the full power of its lineup to rock main-stage festivalgoers into the evening – frontman Jeff Tweedy was naturally the star of the show, with stalwart bassist John Stirratt riding copilot up front and fiery drummer Glenn Kotche twirling madly in the back, but it was multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and especially guitarist Nels Cline who propelled Wilco's set to ecstatic heights. Cline's audacious guitar solos were every bit as intricate and ambitious as Phish's complex compositions the night before. Yet, maybe because of Wilco's strong Americana roots, the group's extended instrumental sections were emotional and moving without seeming cloying.
After a two-hour set ranging from the pastoral, Woody Guthrie-penned "California Stars" to the ethereal, jammy "Impossible Germany" to the stark, angular homicide drama "Bull Black Nova."
Earlier, the Drive-By Truckers backed Booker T. Jones on a set of soulful instrumentals from Jones' recent solo record, "Potato Hole," including a buoyant take on "Hey Ya." The Truckers also turned up a few of their own selections, including Patterson Hood's autobiographical "Let There Be Rock" and Mike Cooley's "Zip City."
Sunday at the festival promises sets by Okkervil River, Band of Horses, Andrew Bird, Citizen Cope, Snoop Dogg and a fest-closing second set from Phish, who have three and a half hours booked on the What Stage.
Here is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's setlist:
"My Lucky Day"
"Out in the Street"
"Working on a Dream"
"Raise Your Hand" (sign collecting)
"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"
"Waitin' On A Sunny Day"
"The Promised Land"
"Kingdom of Days"
"Radio Nowhere" (with Jay Weinberg for rest of set)
"Born to Run"
"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"
"Land of Hope and Dreams"
"Glory Days" -> "Louie Louie"
"Dancing in the Dark"