Bonnaroo is 10 years old now -- old enough to tell the difference between right and wrong -- and at this point there aren't too many mistakes happening.
Starting the weekend on a Thursday night with mostly younger bands is a good fit for the college-age campers and gives the industry folks a head start (and something to talk about the next day). Friday and Saturday are packed from noon to 4:00 a.m. with rock bands that stretch from one edge of country to the other edge of metal, with a detour into some sweet soul along the way.
Sunday is, for the most part, music that sounds great when you're tired, or hung over. The Sunday night jam-band headliner gives the grownups some recovery, networking and BBQ time.
Of course there's comedy and movies, burlesque and panel discussions, but the point is that it's one of the country's Big Music Festivals, and if you're lucky enough to have VIP access to air conditioning otherwise, the music is plenty.
That said, Bonnaroo can still entertain -- even dazzle -- the most jaded music industry vets. There's magic that happens when artists find themselves in front of their biggest and most responsive audience ever, and they dig in and rise to the occasion. It's soul-filling, uplifting, transcendent at its best moments.
(That is to say, it's worth the heat, the dust, the mud, the sunburn, the lack of personal hygiene, the mediocre food, the constant scrounging for ice, the smell of horseshit, the port-a-potties, the jockeying for position to get the right viewing spot for the right band. And that's for the folks who HAVE all the right wristbands, laminates, music industry friends, and years of experience at navigating it all.)
So, who reached for the transcendent?
Buffalo Springfield returned from a 43-year hiatus to play to their biggest crowd ever (on the second stage, which was probably a mistake). Neil Young greeted the crowd with "We're Buffalo Springfield. We're from ... the past." Richie Furay was in fine voice for "Kind Woman," and Young and Stephen Stills traded powerful guitar solos on "Bluebird" and "Mr. Soul."
My Morning Jacket brought big energy to the big stage with a set that combined new songs from Circuital with some classics. They scaled the show up to the far reaches (no easy feat when the back row is the pizza line a half-mile away). Jim James brought some new duds back from his solo career (trousers, fuzzy white boots, black cape), and even more vocal confidence.
The Decemberists did a beautiful 2-song set in the backstage recording trailer before they hit the What stage. They're one of the bands who brought the older and younger folks together, spinning out a daytime sing-along that just happened to attract thousands and thousands of people.
Arcade Fire -- who gets my vote for best stage setting with its drive-in theater theme -- played the hits for the huge main stage crowd. Win Butler said he didn't take the turnout for granted, since most of their songs were written for rooms of 20 people.
The spirit of collaboration is always a big part of Bonnaroo. Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin joined Mavis Staples for "The Weight," and Ben Sollee and Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined My Morning Jacket for a few songs. That New Orleans flavor that adds some spice every year showed up with Dr. John performing the album that gave this festival its name, Desitively Bonnaroo, along with The Meters and Allen Toussaint. This year's "Super Jam" featured Dr. John, Dan Auerbach and guests doing a New Orleans fueled set. (The duo is working on a new Dr. John album now.) Plus the New Orleans bus put out a nice backstage Sunday brunch. Thanks for the grits, guys!
Preservation Hall popped up again with Del McCoury, and then to lead a late-night parade through the grounds to an unannounced show on the Mr. T float with Portugal. The Man -- that was one of those "only at Bonnaroo" moments, along with the oversized balloons that launched an 'astronaut' from the crowd, a giant inflatable T-Rex bopping around, and the simple, lovely lanterns that arc slowly into the air from above the What stage.
Covering the festival for WFUV radio means doing live broadcasts with exclusive backstage performances and interviews, which all take place in the radio compound connecting to about 40 different stations from all over the country. A trailer surrounded by hay bales for insulation (ah-choo!) hosted short sets from Ray Lamontagne, Mumford and Sons, Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea, The Black Keys, Iron and Wine, San Francisco's Beat Antiques and more. (You can find videos on bonnaroo.com.)
The festive atmosphere (and/or the Music Allies bar) attracts the non-music VIPs to the compound, including top chef Tom Colicchio, who jumped on the mic with me to talk music and microwave burritos. One of his discoveries was a set by The Pimps of Joytime. Frequent Ron Jeremy sightings were curious for the number of photo ops grabbed by men.
Part of the musical love-fest is spotting artists watching other bands play. Win Butler from Arcade Fire was side stage for energetic newcomers, GIVERS; Robert Plant, Buddy Miller and producer Tucker Martine were all watching Daniel Lanois' Black Dub, and Mavis Staples sat side stage to enjoy Robert Plant and the Band of Joy. When we're all lucky, this year's overlaps and discoveries become next year's side projects.
Eminem and Alison Krauss, Sam Beam and Big Boi, Louis Black and Loretta Lynn. Sure, it's weird, but happily, it's a friendly place. Not just civil-friendly, but hippie-culture-friendly, with strangers offering you sincere best wishes that you have the greatest summer EVER.
Really, please, do.
Rita Houston is Music Director for WFUV-FM Public Radio in New York City and wfuv.org. Her weekly show, The Whole Wide World with Rita Houston, aired live from the festival on June 10, 2011 and can be found online through June 24 at http://wfuv.streamguys.us/archive/