Critic’s Notebook: Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, in All Its Multiplicity

June 18th, 2013

Wade Payne/Invision, via Wade Payne/Invision/Ap

Members of the Wu-Tang Clan at the hip-hop superjam on Friday night at the Bonnaroo festival.

MANCHESTER, Tenn. — My Bonnaroo this year probably wasn’t like anybody else’s. It couldn’t have been: it sprawled without a clear stylistic center. There were 121 shows of many stripes in four days, not counting the sets on the lesser stages, which would add up to about the same number. Vinyasa sessions, local pulled pork, neurotic comedians talking death and colonics. Films and videos, singalongs, dance-alongs. A campground world with solar-powered solo-electric guitar jams, food trucks, illicit this and that. A workshop called “Build a hula hoop! Appalachian Flow Arts.” A 530-acre principality of all-over-the-place-ness.

But the music is where the overall message of our four-day weekends would have lined up, because music is where a festival tends to define itself. The best sets I saw, in bits and pieces, were by Swans, Bombino, R. Kelly, Fatoumata Diawara, Death Grips, ZZ Top, Action Bronson, Dirty Projectors, Charli XCX and Paul McCartney. Which is to say: severe and symphonic New York drones, Saharan wedding music, Chicago R&B, Wassoulou call-and-response, brutal Sacramento art-rap, white Texas blues, rugged and syntactically deft Queens hip-hop, composery Brooklyn rock, London electro-pop from a 20-year-old, and the longest-serving regent of Anglophone popular music, who is now 70.

Never mind me and my choices: put those acts together, and what’s the message? What does it express? Not newness, really, but something about grooves and songwriting and resonance; perhaps, all together, a desire for longevity. The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is not about “authentic” music — beware of that word — but it might be about music that either has had a long life or expects to. Music that isn’t instantly forgettable. Music that you would want to deposit in the correct recycling bin.

Bonnaroo is mainly a camping festival, sold out this year at 80,000. It’s an experience festival — not just because its promoter, AC Entertainment, which puts on smaller festivals at other times of year around the country, uses the advertising tag line “Another AC Entertainment Experience,” but because Bonnaroo really is understood as a marker in people’s lives. And experience trumps aesthetic sensibility.

It did once have an aesthetic sensibility. When Bonnaroo started in 2002, it was to a recognizable extent a hippie music festival; a little after that it had the possibility of becoming an electronic hippie music festival. Notwithstanding a few vestiges of hippiedom on this year’s schedule — Animal Liberation Orchestra, Gov’t Mule — those notions have become too narrow and crusty for the festival to support, or perhaps Bonnaroo had a smart long game. Now it has become a multitiered index of old and new Western popular music, full stop, with a bias toward rock and the rough-hewed, voguish or not: the Lumineers, say, or scorched-earth rappers.

It does continue to be exceptional, this Paul McCartney thing, the emotion he wrings out of people even in songs that play at frumpiness or repressed emotion, like “Your Mother Should Know” or his recent “Here Today,” conceived as a dialogue with John Lennon. I do see more general attention and respect at Bonnaroo given toward the stage than at the other enormous pop festivals I’ve been to; this is one of the things that separates it from Coachella, for example, even though its lineups overlap.

In Mr. McCartney’s case, for his Friday night concert, that respect was particularly intense, nothing to be cynical about. If it is longevity that people here respect, he symbolizes it, not just through the persistence of his music but through his voice, which was in strong order for the cathartic “Maybe I’m Amazed” and the smaller dimensions of “Blackbird.”

His visitation to the grounds on Friday night, which began with a state trooper motorcade and ended with fireworks, spilled about 40 minutes into overtime. Presumably because of a no-compete clause, it pushed the late-night sets even later. So ZZ Top faced down a restless audience with Billy Gibbons’s pinpointed guitar-tone demonstrations on slow blues shuffles, and Animal Collective’s elastic, fast-firing chains of chants and whoops, which have become taut and shiny over time but whose rhythmic base has never completely settled: it’s still strange and destabilized, an interesting problem.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.