MANCHESTER, Tenn. — Funk and soul held sway, if only by a plurality, at the 11th annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, the four-day gathering that started on Thursday here, about 70 miles from Nashville. All three of Bonnaroo’s main-stage headliners — Radiohead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Phish — drew on the power of rhythm, especially African-American rhythms, as organizing principle and kinetic pleasure.
The festival’s most newsworthy event was the return of D’Angelo, who made a great neo-soul album in 2000 and dropped out of sight a year later. His voice and charisma intact, he was singing funk and rock songs with a band led by Ahmir Questlove Thompson of the Roots. And the must-see set on Thursday night was by Alabama Shakes, whose songs reclaim all the spirit of 1960s soul music.
This year’s Bonnaroo peaked early with a spectacular set on Friday night by Radiohead, which is more than ever a hard act to follow, especially when heard through Bonnaroo’s magnificent sound system. Radiohead made its songs jitter and crackle, with new electronic overlays and abstract funk rhythms dancing through paranoia and foreboding. Its backdrop was a two-story wall of lights, constructed from recycled water bottles, that flickered with geometric patterns as if enclosing the band within cybernetic space.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, on Saturday night, were pure musical sinew, an unstoppable, muscle-powered rhythm section knocking out rock and funk ideas from the 1960s through the 2000s, topping them with wild guitar and jumping all over the stage. Phish, Bonnaroo’s Sunday night finale, was in its most euphoric mode, leaning on the part of its repertory with roots in blues, funk and country; the pop-country hit maker Kenny Rogers, who had performed earlier on his own and with Lionel Richie, joined Phish on the huge stage to sing “The Gambler.”
In a way, Bonnaroo 2012 was a holding action. Radiohead and Phish were returning headliners — Radiohead from 2006 and Phish from 2009 — and this year’s overall lineup did not quite equal that of previous years. But Bonnaroo is never monolithic. With more than 150 bands on five large stages, along with smaller ones scattered around its 700-acre grounds, Bonnaroo could be folky as well as funky; it also had pop, indie-rock, electronic dance music, oldies and comedy. A few performers, like Tune-Yards, did double duty, performing live soundtracks for silent films in a movie tent.
When it began, Bonnaroo featured jam bands and their sources, and that foundation remains. The audience and vendors were awash in tie dye. Reminders to recycle and other environmental messages were omnipresent; the plastic cups could be composted. Performers cheerfully, or mockingly, addressed the crowd as “hippies.” And the Bonnaroo throng — about 80,000, many camped out on the grounds — is still ready to dance to everything from hip-hop to bluegrass. It’s an untrendy crowd, gathered for a good time.
Yet the pop landscape has changed over the last decade, and Bonnaroo has adapted in its own way. While more specialized jam-band festivals have modeled themselves on Bonnaroo’s early years, the current festival’s lineup now overlaps more with those of other festivals; the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for instance, will also headline Lollapalooza in Chicago. And what originated as a once-a-year event in Tennessee is available for endless replays on YouTube.
Some of the festival’s most enthusiastic audiences shouted along with the hip-hop chants of strong newcomers — the hedonistic Danny Brown, the pugnacious Yelawolf, the comical Das Racist and the socially conscious Kendrick Lamar — as well as with more established acts like the Roots, who have always been a robust live hip-hop band, and Ludacris, who brought a band of his own. The latest rediscovery of 1960s soul also played well at Bonnaroo: not just Alabama Shakes but also young bands backing mature soul singers like Sharon Jones (with the Dap-Kings) and Charles Bradley (with the Extraordinaires).
Bonnaroo’s schedule still had plenty of room for jam bands like Phish, Dispatch and Umphrey’s McGee, who played in Saturday’s wee hours, from 2 a.m. to just before 6 a.m. The Word, an instrumental jam-band coalition, brought together the steel guitarist Robert Randolph, the keyboardist John Medeski and two members of the North Mississippi All-Stars. The groups steamed through tunes from gospel and Stevie Wonder.
A good part of the Bonnaroo crowd savored instrumental passages as well as pop hooks. The meticulous arrangements of Bon Iver, with long stretches of hushed delicacy, held thousands of people transfixed when he played the main stage. White Denim, a band that goes barreling from tricky, musicianly structures to Texas boogie, drew roars of approval.