Signed, sealed, delivered- photo by Jeff Kravitz
Stevie Wonder had never played Bonnaroo before last night, but his influence on the nine-year-old festival has been felt since its inception. Bonnaroo’s first headliners, Widespread Panic and Trey Anastasio, both borrowed from the former child prodigy’s extensive catalogue countless times and almost all of Bonnaroo’s subsequent headlining acts have referenced Stevie Wonder’s timeless mix of funk, soul, R & B and pop in some fashion—from the party beats of the Beastie Boys to the singer/songwriter soul of Jack Johnson to the funky pop-fusion of Dave Matthews Band and the urban energy of last night’s other marquee name, Jay-Z.
So when the 60-year-old keyboardist took the stage last night for a two-hour tour through his hits, it felt more like a heroic homecoming than an introduction to a new audience. Dressed in a sequenced white jumpsuit, Wonder sat center stage behind his clavinet and led an expansive 13-person band that included multiple keyboardists, percussionists, backing vocalists and the occasional dancers. A careful nod to Bonnaroo’s youthful energy and classic spirit, Wonder stayed clear of his more polished latter day output and focused almost exclusive on his timeless favorites: “Higher Ground,” “Superstition,” “I Wish,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and many others. Despite a few political jabs, he let the music do most of the talking and remained current by dedicating a song to U.S. troops stationed overseas and expressing his excitement for Jay-Z. His influence was felt immediately: members of Ween, the Avett Brothers, Dave Matthews Band and many others pressed near the front of the stage to see the legend in person.
In fact, perhaps nobody embodies Bonnaroo’s genre-jumping spirit quite like Stevie Wonder, the common root connecting such divergent festival styles as rock, funk, New Orleans brass, rap, synthesized sounds, soul and jam. On a day that featured everything from the classic-alt rock of Weezer and the 3-D shock metal of GWAR to the jazzy vocals of Norah Jones and the storied American songs of John Prine, it is sometimes hard pinpoint what exactly is the Bonnaroo state of mind. Yet, in many ways, its Bonnaroo’s farm yard backdrop and free-spirited sense of experimentation that united the day’s diverse acts—and more than ever musicians used the festival itself as reference point. Anthony Greene, of progressive rockers Circa Survive, told the crowd he planned to jump into Bonnaroo’s trademark fountain after his set. First time performers Paper Tongues described the festival as “sacred soil” and mentioned that they had friends who used to come to the festival. Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo cited Manchester, TN’s population with and without Bonnaroo.
Cover songs, another one of Bonnaroo’s longtime hallmarks, was another coming theme: New Orleans party rockers Big Sam’s Funky Nation jammed on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” guitar hero Jeff Beck took on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Americana troubadours Dave Rawlings Machine paid tribute to no less than The Band (“The Weight”), Neil Young (“Cortez the Killer”), Bob Dylan (“Queen Jane Approximately”) and Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”). The group sandwiched the latter song around an original, after which Rawlings joked that “he wrote that song, except the good part in the middle.” MGMT, whose principal members attended Bonnaroo as fans in 2002 and 2003 and returned as performers in 2008 and 2009, received two nods when both alternative rockers Weezer and hip-hops stars B.O.B. covered “Kids.”
Jay-Z salutes the Bonnaroo crowd – photo by Kevin Yatarola
In fact, cover songs helped last night’s co-headliner Jay-Z connect with stadium-size crowd on the What Stage, many of whom had never seen the legendary rapper perform live. Jay-Z, who has only played a handful of U.S. festivals throughout his storied career, referenced, sampled and teased numerous party anthems throughout this 90-minute late night performance. Early in his set he toyed with both Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and 2009 Bonnaroo headliners the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and, later on, he offered “Dream,” which heavily samples Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” Jay-Z seemed genuinely appreciative of the crowd’s energy and, before busting in his current smash “Empire State of Mind,” called Bonnaroo his “second home.”
Like Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z packed his set with hits like “Hard Knock Life” and “Big Pimpin,’” but he also made a point to break down the wall between the stage and his fans. While scanning the crowd, Jay-Z made reference to a number of familiar festival items—from glowsticks and tie-dye and Bob Marley shirts—and brought a fan named Maggie onstage to celebrate her birthday. Ever aware of his surroundings, when Jay-Z slipped and referred to the crowd as rocking a building, he quickly corrected himself and assured the crowd that he appreciates their support.
Though both Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder had never played Bonnaroo before, many performers returned to the festivals with new songs, albums and, sometimes, even bands. Norah Jones appeared for the first time since the inaugural Bonnaroo in 2002 with her new group featuring country/western cult hero Smokey Hormel. In sharp contrast to piano-based jazz-pop she showcased during her first Bonnaroo set, Jones played guitar for much of yesterday’s performance and nodded to the likes of Johnny Cash and Neil Young. DJ Logic, who has appeared at Bonnaroo almost every year since its inception, invited out two-time Bonnaroo performer John Popper of Blues Traveler for a rare sit in the Silent Disco. Heady/heavy rockers Clutch, who first played Bonnaroo in 2006, graduated from a tent to a coveted 90-minute late-night performance in The Other Tent (the group also played a stripped down set on the Sonic Stage and a set of instrumental music as The Bakerton Group in the Troo Music Lounge Friday). The Disco Biscuits, who have previously played Bonnaroo in 2002, 2006 and 2008, opened their late-night set with an appropriate “Home Again.”
Though he was initially pigeonholed as an indie/garage rocker, Bonnaroo regular Jack White has become a purveyor of country, blues and other roots music. White previously played Bonnaroo with his other major bands The White Stripes and The Raconteurs and this time brought his new band the Dead Weather. He also proudly declared Nashville to be his current home.
In the past six years, especially, Bonnaroo has developed into a launching pad for a new generation of Americana and roots-oriented acts that borrow from the twangy vibe of traditional folk and the punk kick of modern indie music. Several of these groups performed throughout the day, including North Carolina’s the Avett Brothers, who first played at Bonnaroo in a café in 2006 and have gradually moved their way through Bonnaroo’s hierarchy of tents and stages. In addition to bonus afternoon set for Chase customers, the Avetts performed to sprawling crowds on Bonnaroo’s massive Which Stage. No longer an acoustic-based trio, the Avetts have expanded to a five-piece band that utilizes drums, cello and other instruments needed to reinterpret the songs of the group’s recent crossover hit, I and Love and You.
Oiling up the Dave Rawlings Machine – photo by Dean Budnick
Likewise, That Tent played host to numerous roots and alternative folk acts, some seasoned performers, others rising stars. More than almost any other tent Saturday, this selection of bands embraced Bonnaroo’s collaborative spirit. A passing of the torch of sorts, the entire Dave Rawlings Machine, including festival regular Gillian Welch, joined U.K.’s Mumford & Sons for a take on Bob Dylan’s “Wagon Wheel.” Later in the night, John Prine, who is enjoying a late career renaissance thanks to a new tribute album and collaborative live disc, brought out the members of Old Crow Medicine Show for a few songs, including the classic “Angel from Montgomery.” Outlaw country legend Kris Kristofferson, who is slated to perform at Bonnaroo Sunday night, also joined Prine and the members of Old Crow.
Elsewhere, progressive metal titans Isis performed on the eve of its breakup, indie tech-freak Dan Deacon led an expanded ensemble and numerous Alt-Latin rock groups congregated in The Other Tent. Jeff Beck, whose solo work and time with the Yardbirds, helped lay the groundwork for modern hard rock and eventually metal, proved his guitar might by performing after hardcore rockers The Melvins.
Just as Stevie Wonder’s vast range of styles are all tied together by his distinctive voice, the Bonnaroo state of mind is defined more by how bands play against the festival’s backdrop than exactly what style of music they perform. Either that or it’s the only place where Jack Black and Jack White can share the same marquee.