Concert review: Bonnaroo, June 11-14 

Tuesday's press release from Bonnaroo reports that nearly 80,000 people attended the four-day, Tennessee-based festival - "just shy of a sellout" - and that the weekend was "incident-free." While it's pretty far-fetched to think of Bonnaroo as a functioning village, or really much besides a party, concert and a drug-enforcement-free zone - all of which are important, but don't make for an event with globe-shaking reach - it's important to note that 80,000 people, many of them experimenting with drugs that don't always mellow one out (like that dude offering moonshine out of his RV), managed to co-exist, camping side-by-side, without freaking out.

Bonnaroo is, I suppose, one of the only places in the U.S. where, when the security guard says to you, while searching your extremely messy backseat, "I don't care if you have some marijuana for personal use, just as long as you're honest with me," you're almost tempted to believe him. If pot isn't legal in the village of Bonnaroo, enforcement is certainly lax; not only are the regular suspects (Phish fans, hip frat boys, your Mom) lighting up, but even some impressionable, clueless young people got in the act (I sure hope that the kids who asked me if I had any dope found someone more resourceful).

Springsteen, who played a three-and-a-half hour set Saturday night for an enthusiastic minority and a bored majority, preached to the crowd about doing something constructive with all this energy and money, some of which might be left over after the pursuit of drugs and music. In revival tent style, he told the crowd that he and his band had come down to Bonnaroo to build a house, to put aside sadness and build a house of joy and happiness, to employ sexual healing to build a house, to build a house with good wood and not bad wood, to build a house out of music and spirit and noise. I wondered for a minute if there was a Habitat for Humanity project planned, and I chuckled when he used the wood metaphor just after talking of sexual healing (the difference between good and bad wood being a lesson every ethical sexual creature needs to learn), but I also admired his attempt to rally the crowd.

The thing is, there is no house, and the accomplishments of Bonnaroo, putting aside Woodstock-style aggrandizement, are more modest, if nonetheless impressive. Manchester, Tenn., is assured of a tremendous influx of tourist revenue every year from something other than a museum devoted to whiskey. While the festival certainly leaves a wide ecological footprint because of vehicle traffic on the way to the Bonnaroo and energy expenditure within the festival grounds, organizers are making an attempt to dispose of trash sustainably, clearly labelling trash cans for recycling and compost, and enlisting a group of "Trash Talkers" to inform visitors about which bin into which to throw one's plate and can - after I struck a clueless look for five seconds wondering where to throw a coffee cup, one of the Talkers accosted me, telling me where to pitch it, and explaining that compost created during the event is used to fertilize a vegetable garden on the Bonnaroo site. Water refilling stations were clearly marked and made it convenient to use a water bottle for the duration, although plastic water bottles were still sold by plenty of vendors. And the festival hosts a wide variety of bands, including plenty of headliners, but also several "indie" bands or "world music" groups that won't find their way to festivals constrained by genre or excessive fealty to the giants of the music business.

But no rules were broken, all Dionysian celebration was kept within careful bounds (drugs OK in the park, but don't dare leave them unconcealed when driving by the cops stationed by the highway, huddled around two dispatch stations in a show of force), the fences were carefully watched by safety officers (who at least wore calming pink shirts) and this festival is something of a departure from the rest of the festival and outdoor amphitheatre scene. So before anyone gets too high off all the togetherness and greater-than-thou devotion to sustainable resource management, I'd ask them to consider one of the few outright polemics I heard during the weekend, delivered by Nigerian afropop bandleader Femi Kuti to the almost entirely white and mostly middle-class crowd (it's an expensive festival, after all). Late into Friday night, while Phish finished up on the main stage, Kuti challenged the crowd, saying "You better ask yourself," why the continent richest in natural resources (Africa) is economically the poorest, and why Africans (and Americans as well) are still beholden to a Great Man theory of history that assumes heroic political figures should have the power to change the world, a philosophy that has been nothing but harmful in post-colonial Africa, and that certainly informs our political landscape. Kuti gave us all this to chew on, along with a great horn chart and tight band.

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Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger

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Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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