Live review: Bonnaroo 2009


It’s no secret that after eight years the Bonnaroo Music Festival is a Southern style free-for-all and camp-out that kicks off the summer. In fact, it has become an institution, drawing loyal fans much like mardi gras and NASCAR. But what keeps Bonnaroo fresh and important is the venue — a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee — that allows fans and bands to let it all hang out and defy the norm. This year once again brought together newcomers and legendary headliners Tennessee’s largest music venue.

If you never been to Bonnaroo, it’s somewhere between Coachella and Burning Man. Great performances are simultaneously going on around the clock. It’s impossible to see every band; I can only mention what I saw.

The photo pit at Passion Pit’s set was quite a scene. It was early on Thursday night, but the band with the most buzz going into the festival delivered by throwing down a high-energy. After dodging crowd surfers and the giddy press corps, I stumped a good few fans by asking them to describe the band. I heard everything from ‘80s music to pop. Nonethless, the synth-poppers got down and the festival got off to a great start.

After getting a bit of sleep, I made sure to see Animal Collective and Santigold on Saturday afternoon. Santi’s official name change from Santogold to Santigold was still fresh news, and made no difference to the screaming crowd, who seemed to know all the lyrics. “You’re the best crowd in the States!” Santi White belted out. It was definitely one of the best shows all weekend. The antics at the Of Montreal set included a gas mask and what appeared to be a Christmas celebration. Of Montreal drew an excited and surprising reaction from the fans. Later that night, Public Enemy got plenty of love from the ‘Rooskis, as did the late-night sets from Paul Oakenfold and Pretty Lights.

Keeping it fresh on the farm seems to be a goal of the festival’s organizers, and they did it quite well. The effort to evolve included an iPhone app for tech-hungry fan,s and increased recycling and composting as a general rule of the thumb was a definite positive. But the greatest addition may have also been the festival’s greatest critic, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who made his inaugural visit. He definitely gathered some material deep in the “tent territories.”

DJs did gain some well-deserved prominence this year. Money Mark played the enormous What Stage prior to the Beastie Boys’ set. The Scratch DJ Academy setup a tent and brought out New York City turntablists willing to educate cadets looking for a diploma. The solar powered Solar Stage held performances all weekend by the Hunab breakdancing crew, with DJ Brett Rock in the mix. The Xbox360 sponsored arcade/discotheque and Silent Disco provided the late-night dance floors, where DJ Quickie Mart and Motion Potion played multiple sets.

The love of music new and old is central to Bonnaroo’s ideology and helpful in fully appreciating the weekend. Otherwise, Bonnaroo 2009 served was one of Nine Inch Nails’ last US show, and the first time I’ve ever seen MGMT. Both were exciting and a bit disappointing, but fun nonetheless. It wasn’t the best of times or the worst of times, but it was well worth the trip.

Words & images: Blake Becker