Classic Rock at Bonnaroo -John Fogerty, Jeff Beck, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Cliff & Stevie Wonder

In the music world it seems the younger artists always get the lion’s share of attention on the summer festival circuit. So it’s nice to see a few of the older acts at this year’s Bonnaroo get some well-deserved attention.

Headliners Kings Of Leon and Jay-Z certainly commanded huge crowds for their main stage performances this past weekend; but there is nothing quite like seeing a 40-year veteran of the music industry like John Fogerty absolutely slay a field full of stunned youngsters who were not even born when he and Creedence enjoyed their string of huge hits in the late 60s. With his incendiary performance on Sunday afternoon Fogerty proved that he could match the youthful energy of almost every other act on this year’s Bonnaroo line-up. Standing around me in the vast grassy field in front of the What Stage were a group of twenty-somethings who were astounded that they recognized almost every song Fogerty played. Though I heard many of them cop to their ignorance of his name and stature before his set began, each song he performed brought a deeper level of understanding and respect from the youthful audience. Every song in Fogerty’s barrage of Creedence classics elicited first the shock of recognition, and then a spontaneous sing along. This was quite gratifying to witness.

On the other side of the sprawling festival grounds, guitar legend Jeff Beck calmly strode back and forth across the stage under Bonnaroo’s This Tent. It defies explanation how he makes some of the greatest guitar playing in the history of rock n roll look easy, effortlessly peeling off fiery licks of an almost-Hendrixian brawn. His cool onstage demeanor made Jeff Beck appear to be about the only person who didn’t even break a sweat last weekend.

I wonder how soon the other famous former Yardbirds: Clapton and Page will make their Bonnaroo debuts. Page’s Zep-mate John Paul Jones made a huge splash in 2007, while repeatedly popping up all weekend long to sit in with numerous bands, the clear highlight was his midnight jam session with Ben Harper and ?uestlove.

While youth culture will always demand the fresh-faced mugs and music of their peers, there simply is no substitute for an aging oracle like Jimmy Cliff. Reggae of course is always a welcome addition to any summer music festival. But this writer was chagrined to find a comparatively sparse turn-out for Jimmy Cliff’s Saturday afternoon performance on the What Stage. Perhaps Bonnaroo organizers should have placed him on a smaller stage, where the same number of people would have made for a much more impressive looking crowd. Though the field in front of the stage was two-thirds empty during his set, there was nothing lackluster in Cliff’s performance. The open field in the farthest reaches out front of the What Stage during Cliff’s set simply provided much more room for the volleying of dozens of Frisbees and footballs. Late in his set, after regaling the audience with many of his classics, Cliff cleverly melded ancient Jamaican Nyabinghi style drumming with his medley of “Bongo Man” and the old spiritual “By The Rivers Of Babylon”.

Elsewhere, songwriting legends John Prine and Kris Kristofferson had no trouble drawing large crowds for their Bonnaroo performances. Prine’s wit and wisdom are as acerbic as ever, and the Bonnaroo crowd embraced him like a favorite uncle. After the mayor of Manchester presented him with the key to the city, Kristofferson was welcomed like a national hero. Performing solo, Kris stumbled through a rather rickety set of his well-known repertoire. No one seemed to mind that his guitar was a little out of tune. Though quite rough around the edges, Kristofferson gave one of the most passionate performances of the entire weekend. The look on his face was priceless when the crowd gave each and every song a tremendous ovation. Kris seemed to be honestly overwhelmed by his reception here and it was good to see the humble smile stay on his face for the duration of his set.
One could hardly call Stevie Wonder’s set overlooked or underrated, as he was without question the most well received of this year’s headlining acts. In years past, the main stage at Bonnaroo has hosted some of the biggest names in the music industry such as Radiohead, Tom Petty, Metallica, and many more. But perhaps it is Stevie Wonder’s cross-generational appeal that drew what many attendees agreed was the biggest Bonnaroo crowd they had ever seen in the festival’s history. 

I never thought I’d get a chance to see Stevie Wonder and he did not disappoint. I half-expected a cursory run-through of his greatest hits. But what I got was a truly inspired and spontaneous mega-medley, as Wonder put his super-slick band through the paces on a series of impromptu segues and funky jams. I was hoping for a surprise cameo from Jeff Beck for “Superstition” but it didn’t happen. Wonder spared us his 80’s balladry and stuck close to the classic 70’s material that established him as a major star over 30 years ago.

Each year presents Bonnaroo organizers with the challenge of assembling an impressive line-up for the festival. Though the smaller stages often garner more attention at the festival itself, it is the big marquee names who headline the main stage that are the festival’s biggest draw. Having already hosted The Police, Bruce Springsteen, The Dead, Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Phish, and Bob Dylan, one wonders what names the Bonnaroo headliners will be in years to come. Among the bigger names yet to make their appearance at Bonnaroo are U2, Paul McCartney, and The Rolling Stones.

The Rolling Stones have long striven to maintain their status as mega-stars above the fray. If they hope to continue to tour at all it seems just a matter of time before they take a step down and resign themselves to the summer shed circuit. One way to avoid this eventuality would be to pick and choose from only the most prestigious festival gigs, of which Bonnaroo is undoubtedly one. Seems far-fetched perhaps, but I think it could happen. However, McCartney is a much more likely candidate, as he continues to tour frequently.

Some of my friends scoff at my suggestion of AC/DC, but I stand by my conviction that they would kill it at Bonnaroo! It’s not really fair or accurate to call AC/DC heavy metal. Bonnaroo has successfully presented both Metallica and Tool as mainstage headliners in the past. So I can’t really see AC/DC ranking as unsuitable or a disappointment by any standard. It would also be great to see Iggy Pop, Pete Townshend, and Morrissey given their overdue moment in the Bonnaroo sun. I’m sure a tall stack of cash would coax David Bowie out of his latest retirement. Squelched rumors are about the only thing about Bonnaroo that ever disappoints. This past year there were strong suspicions that Roger Waters would bring his current re-production of The Wall to Bonnaroo. Alas, it was not to be.

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