After the dual spectacle of Wonder and Jay-Z Friday evening, I did a few slow laps around Centeroo, marveling that the last day of Bonnaroo 2010 had arrived – and that most people just didn’t know it yet. Easing by each music tent, I circled, impaling my brain on a sort of late night "sensory spit." Dan Deacon’s slapdash, noisy barrage of sounds is incredibly jarring in the live setting. The exploratory fascination of his last album, Bromst, was challenging, but not nearly as challenging as watching his band attempt an approximation of the sound live. It’s the kind of music that can give you a skin condition after prolonged exposure.
Passing Deacon’s cacophony at This Tent, I passed within sight of the new Lunar Stage. This small stage is positioned entirely too close to This Tent, and the sound is dialed loud enough that I could probably have heard the music on a drive back home to North Carolina. Therefore, two equally loud streams of music assaulted anyone seeing a show at This Tent if they weren’t perfectly positioned. The Conan broadcast, along with showings of the NBA Finals and World Cup, were perfect for the Lunar Stage’s huge screen, but when music was happening there, it was almost always an annoyance and almost always the dullest, mind-mangling four-on-the-floor techno.
Further disorienting myself, I lingered for a bit in front of the throttling rock engine that is Clutch at The Other Tent. I’ve never been a huge fan, but someone must like them an awful lot, because they are Bonnaroo veterans at this point. I cruised under the Ferris wheel and loitered the longest at That Tent for Thievery Corporation’s set, which still leans heavily on familiar songs to produce the best moments, such as the thumping "Warning Shots" and the decade-old standby "Lebanese Blonde." I don’t think the guys in Thievery play the role of late-night dance lords as well as people want them to, and their shows have become incredibly predictable. I retraced my steps and waited briefly to see what all the fuss was about over Deadmau5, but his set time came and went with no action, so I voted with my feet and hunkered down for the night in preparation for the final stretch.
Jay-Z may have spiced up his "Heart of the City" with the resounding beat of U2’s "Sunday Bloody Sunday," but Sunday at Bonnaroo 2010 was more sweaty than bloody. It was one of the hottest days I have ever experienced at a festival, and my experiences includes the 1999 Oswego Phish campout, which I still think is the closest thing to hell on earth I’ve ever felt. Everyone involved in Bonnaroo on Sunday laid down gallons of sweat, and no one more than the trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood, who ruled my day at the festival. There was plenty of melodica to be had at the band’s brief Sonic Stage set, which pumped along as pleasantly as it could in the brutally breeze-less mid-afternoon sauna.
I retreated into the closest shade I could find at the What Stage while another legend knocked out a memorable set. John Fogerty offered plenty of toe-tapping gems like "Lookin’ Out My Back Door," "Born on the Bayou," "Who’ll Stop the Rain," and "Midnight Special." I could have sat there, drank lemonade and paid homage to Jeffrey Lebowski by getting my Creedence on for a longer period of time, but I wanted to angle into the crowd at They Might Be Giants and get a good spot for MMW’s main set on The Other Stage.
They Might Be Giants pull songs from a surprisingly large portion of their catalog, and showing up for half of their show doesn’t guarantee you a "Particle Man" or "Istanbul" – in fact, I missed out on the former by just a few minutes. I did, however, get fairly close to the stage and I found the band an absolute joy to watch. "So a lot of you have been up for like one and a half days, right? We’re sort of getting that vibe," quipped principal frontman John Linnell, who then made sure to twist the exhausted brains of the audience with hilariously demented songs like "Older," which wryly points out the fact that we do get older every few seconds, and "The Mesopotamians," which chronicles the misadventures of a "band" named The Mesopotamians. The set rounded out with a pair of classics – "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and a rollicking "Ana Ng" encore. Nearly 30 years since the band’s inception, their material has proven intelligent enough to endure the wrath of time.
MMW was the last band of the weekend at The Other Tent, and they did close it down in style. The unflappable trio presided over the grooviest dance party of the weekend in a fairly roomy environment. The show was comprised almost entirely of material written in the last eight years, and it was a refreshing experience. As great as 1990’s MMW is, they needed to change things up, so we got a couple of old favorites pinned between a nonstop, boogie-inducing progression of raunchy bass lines, improbable drumming stunts, and breathtaking sounds from the keyboard nest.
The monumental musical tasks that MMW can accomplish via simple glances and facial expressions boggle the mind. The ease with which they execute lowdown funk and high-minded ephemera is remarkable, and while their playful side doesn’t show often, you can see flashes of it: Medeski sopping sweat from his head with a towel and then using the towel to rhythmically swipe sweat from the keys of his piano; Chris Wood gleefully holding out and letting his band mates draw shrinking circles of funk around his silence before blasting through with a perfectly planned bass line; and Billy Martin producing all manner of strange percussion and wind instruments in succession, like a child joyfully showcasing toys. The only thing that wasn’t perfect about their 90-minute set was the appearance of Beatle Bob onstage in his continuing role as court jester/village idiot of the nation’s music scene. Visibly annoyed band members rarely make good sounds, but MMW did an admirable job dealing with the distraction.
After MMW, it was time for dinner near the Which Stage with Phoenix ringing through in the background. I was nonplussed by the 25-minute chunk of their set that I heard, but I think they give their fans what they want, which is songs from the albums, performed as on the albums. I tend to enjoy a little more risk-taking, and I was hoping for a bit of both worlds with festival closer Dave Matthews Band, who can play as perfectly as needed while also venturing into the slightly less-known. I say "less-known" because their days of setting off into completely unknown territory seem to be behind them.
The once-varied jams in songs like "Two Step" and "Tripping Billies" are no longer very different, so now more than ever it is all about the setlist. In that respect, the show was standard and sorely lacking in deeper cuts. Perhaps going through the motions a bit in light of their impending year off, the band played to their standard level of individual excellence, but the flow and content of the show were a bit slow and lackluster. Songs that were dusted off for the start of this tour have now blended into regular rotation, so there was no mystery. The "Don’t Drink the Water" opener, while ominous and fierce as ever, was wholly predictable, and the normal set of new songs surfaced – "Shake Me Like A Monkey," Seven," "Why I Am," and "Lying in the Hands of God."
The appearance of Danny Barnes on banjo was a bonus, but he truly broke through the band’s wall of sound only once, during the thudding breakdown in "Cornbread." The inclusion of two extra horn players allowed for an entertaining merry-go-round of solos in "Jimi Thing," and Matthews’ solo reading of Neil Young’s "The Needle and the Damage Done" was a poignant moment at the end of a long weekend. There were fireworks, and a suitably raging "All Along the Watchtower" closer, but to coin a phrase, the damage was done, and DMB was relegated to third place in the war among headliners.
No matter how big Bonnaroo gets, or how many up years or down years it endures, or how many porta-potties overflow, I hope that the festival’s devotees never change. The people who go to Bonnaroo remind me of the New Orleans Jazz Fest faithful – not in every way, but in their dedication to the music (granted, much like Jazzfest, not everyone is there for the music). Even the bands are consistently amazed at how many people show up in the middle of a Tennessee farm and know the band member’s names and the words to their music. In a way, this mentality fosters a mindset that is desperately needed in today’s music consumers, and that is attention to detail. Bonnaroo has come a long way from its roots by doing what it needs to survive. What it needs now, on the cusp of the tenth anniversary of the event, is for everyone involved to keep making it the best music experience possible.