If the fifth annual Bonnaroo initially raised eyebrows for booking Tom Petty and Radiohead, two mainstage headliners that have nothing to do with the current jam scene, the festival returned to its roots last night (June 18) during a set from ex-Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and his latest group of musical Friends.
Flanked by celebrated guitarists John Scofield and Larry Campbell and chart-topper turned earthy soul sister Joan Osborne, Lesh (who closed out the very first Bonnaroo in 2002) and company opened Bonnaroo 5.0’s swan song with an epic rendering of the Dead favorite “Uncle John’s Band” before spilling into “Fire on the Mountain” and an Osborne-sung take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
Fueled by incendiary wailing on both guitar and keys, courtesy of frequent collaborator Rob Barraco, Phil & Friends returned after a break with the later-era Dead swinger “Shakedown Street” and ran through a soulful reading of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” before closing out the event with Lesh’s signature Dead tune, “Box of Rain.”
Appropriately, Lesh’s set was the only to be rained on this year, a rarity for the young, successful festival. In years past, Bonnaroo has been pummeled with showers that delayed sets and turned the Manchester, Tenn., farm into a mud pit. While baked in the sticky heat, this year’s sold-out throng of 80,000 escaped without the hassles of years past. Instead, the biggest problem for the audience was picking which bands to watch.
It was a sentiment echoed even by the Roo’s major league talent. “There’s so many great bands, you can’t see them all,” Bonnie Raitt said from the stage yesterday, before sending out a cover of John Prine’s “Angel of Montgomey” to Steve Earle, who was performing in a tent a couple hundred yards away.
The larger lineup made the beautiful collisions of sounds that mark Bonnaroo all the more eclectic. At one point yesterday, singer/songwriter Andrew Bird plucked a mandolin on the Sonic Stage as jam newcomers Brothers Past, Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Codetalkers, former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty and his band and Americana royalty Shooter Jennings rocked in the distance.
Later, while Hasidic reggae phenom Matisyahu and jam giants moe. split the majority of the audience between the two main stages, British MC the Streets (aka Mike Skinner), Son Volt and Stephen Malkmus filled the tents.
In a nod to Father’s Day, Matisyahu took the opportunity to bring out his 10-month-old son during a set that reflected the heights he’s soared since his pivotal performance at last year’s Bonnaroo. Thousands swarmed the performance, during which he scaled speaker cabinets and ignited devoted fans and curious newcomers alike.
The Refugee Allstars of Sierra Leone, a recent signing to the Anti- label, injected the bill with an international flair, sending scores dancing with a gleeful, soul-stirring mix of Afro-pop, dance and group harmonies. Comprised of Sierra Leonean musicians who fled the country to the West African nation of Guinea during a rebel war in 1999, the group’s members rotated lead vocals and solo dancing duties, leaving the crowd wanting more.
During a hit-laced set (“Thing Called Love,” “Something To Talk About”), Raitt offered up guest turns from Jerry Douglas and Jon Cleary. Across the great field, the jam world collided with New York noise, as Sonic Youth was greeted like a rock god. In a set dominated by material from its brand-new “Rather Ripped,” the group also dusted off “Pattern Recognition” and “100%.” Stephen Malkmus joined the group for an encore performance of “Expressway to Yr. Skull,” reuniting with his former Pavement bandmate Mark Ibold, who is now touring as Sonic Youth’s bassist.
As fans made their way through the Centeroo shopping and food court area, music was all around them: from the Grammy-decorated sounds of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and jazzy jammers Soulive to the obscure hip-hop troupe Atmosphere and up-and-coming rock acts Be Your Own Pet and Deadboy and the Elephantman. Comedian Lewis Black made encore performances with others in the comedy tent, while the NBA Finals and “Star Wars: Episode III” played in smaller, chillout tents.