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Published: 2008/06/16

From The Saturday Bonnaroo Beacon: Homecoming Kings

In certain ways, no band has come to symbolize both the sound and spirit of Bonnaroo more than My Morning Jacket. Since their quiet Friday afternoon debut in That Tent way back in 2003, MMJ has slowly grown from a side stage attraction to the festivals unofficial mascot, taking on a mammoth rainstorm (2004), jamming with oversized puppets, (2005) and squeezing a smorgasbord of covers into an all night two-set marathon (2007) sometime along the way. The groups sound itself is something of an amalgamation of Bonnaroos core styles: a psychedelic fusion of country, folk, indie, jam and, of course, classic guitar rock that owes as much to Pearl Jam as it does to Harvest-era/Bonnaroo vet Neil Young. Theyre also probably the only band that indie-rock bloggers, stoner metal freaks and Shakedown Street denizens all safely claim as their own. So when My Morning Jacket took Which Stage shortly before midnight for their biggest headlining performance yetor at least until New Years Eve at Madison Square Garden the quintet felt more like old friends heroically arriving home than rock-stars stopping by Manchester, TN on some cooker-cutter national tour.
For over the past seven years, Bonnaroo has not only grown into one of the countrys premiere live music events, but also as an incubator for some of the post-jam eras best live acts. Its no secret that Bonnaroo was dubbed the new Woodstock in its earliest incarnation, but since then, the festival has slowly come to represent the eclecticism and instant gratification of the modern iPod-era, where segueing from Willie Nelson to M.I.A. to Metallica feels natural, and it requires a social tour manager to cure your average case of Bonnaroo ADD.
But, as exciting as it is to watch Bonnaroo grow stylistically, it is also just as exciting to watch bands like Umphreys McGee, Les Claypool, Drive-By Truckers, Steel Train and the Disco Biscuits grow along with the festival over the past seven years. In 2002, Umphreys McGee had a few independent albums under its belt, but was still by and large a Midwest attraction. Since that time theyve organically moved through the Bonnaroo ranks and this year drew a sprawling crowd—-and special guest saxophonist Jeff Coffin of the Flecktones—-to their marquee 90-minute set on the Which Stage. They also almost single-handedly bridged the worlds of metal and jam thanks to a colorful late night set in 2004 that found the group nodding, covering Metallica complete with a James Hetfield look-a-like. Likewise, Bela Fleck morphed his duo set with Edgar Meyer from year one into a full on SuperJam featuring the likes of Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, the Disco Biscuits have grown from a humble afternoon set to a late night attraction and Steel Train has done things with the fro that no Jewish mother ever imagined (as well as aging into an airtight indie-rock band that comfortably maintains its organic roots).
And then therere Les Claypool who felt like an alternative to the festivals array of roots-rock and jazz/funk in 2002 and is now something of Bonnaroos official ambassador. In certain ways, the inaugural Bonnaroo felt like a culmination of modern jam-nations first decade and Claypool made sure to remember those he lost along the way, nodding to H.O.R.D.E. veteran and Morphine bandleader Mark Sandman during his mainstage set. In years past, hes also nodded to his past lives over the yearsthe seminal funk/metal group Primus and the early jamband Oysterhead, as well as play with various incarnations of his solo band. During his set on the Which Stage yesterday he looked back on Primus lone Bonnaroo appearance, joking that he was fried on mushrooms. This year he reminded more than a few fans that Warren Haynes and Kirk Hammett are nothing but Facebook friends-in-law, jamming with Govt Mule in 2002 and anchoring a SuperJam last night that drew in Gogol Bordello.
Not that Fridays offerings didnt look outside the Bonnaroo Box. Since 2006, especially, the festivals promoters have made an effort to court some of the days best rock bands—-to the point where Jack White feels synonymous with the Bonnaroo brand. And though he probably doesnt know the difference between schwag and swag and probably hasnt heard the word wookie since the last Star Wars, he does know a thing or too about blues-infused rock-and-roll guitar, one of Bonnaroos original calling cards. His What Stage performance with the Raconteurs not only helped cement his reputation as the indie-generations biggest rock star complete with a punk-style speaker dive that made me squirm. Elsewhere Big Sams Funky Nation brought New Orleans second-line sound to the New Orleans-themed Somethin Else tent, sisters Tegan & Sara meshed childhood stories with beautiful melodies and rising untz-stars !!! proved that silly names arent reserved just for hippies. Nodding to the days offerings, The Swell Season invoked the Bonnaroo spirit by jamming with special guest poets from the audience, State Radio injected a bit of Rage Against the Machines political ethos into their organic-pop and Willie Nelson reminded the tie-died sect that family isnt always spelled with a PH. After being introduced by none other than Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett, Chris Rock also offered his take on diversity during what is likely the largest comedy performance of all time, but also tailored his set to the music-loving crowd.
A left-field addition to Bonnaroos lineup for sure, Metallica raised the bar on how fierce a show hippies can handle. But, like fellow headliners Pearl Jam (who have long outgrown their original grunge tag) and Widespread Panic (who transcend the boundaries of both jam and southern rock) Metallica is no longer simply a metal band. The groups testosterone-heavy two hour performance included bona-fide American anthems like Enter Sandman, Seek and Destroy and The Unforgiven, as well a few semi-acoustic rockers that owed as much to original Woodstock performers The Who as they did to the heavier bands on Ozzfest. More cognizant of their crowd than past guest headliners like the Police, for the most part Metallica stuck to the chestnuts, though there is no question that Hetfields word evoked a decidedly different ethos: For how many of you is this your first Metallica show? he said early on in his show We love playing live music and love killing it live. And a mosh pit under the Bonnaroo marquee probably turned a few heads, the crowd was still filled with the same glow toys, hula-hoops and flower dresses that have defined Bonnaroo since its inception.
Of course few have done more to breakdown the border between indie and jam than My Morning Jacket, who ascended to the stage before a Great Went-style glow stick war that would make Phish proud and proceeded to charge through covers ranging from Sly Stone to Erykah Badu to Kool & the Gang. In certain ways, the performance combined the most memorable moments from MMJs past Bonnaroo performances: offering an all-night, cover-heavy set in the middle of an almost theatrical rainstorm. The group also ran through most of Evil Urges, simultaneously channeling the spirits of past Bonnaroo performers the Flaming Lips and John Prine In the sit in department, Jim James brought out Kirk Hammett (and he hinted in yesterdays issue of the Bonnaroo Beacon) for an energetic version of My Morning Jackets first signature song, One Big Holiday.
In the end, perhaps Chris Rock said it best. Its about the context in which the word is used, he said during a rare moment of sincerity. And while he wasnt talking specifically about music, Rocks words seem to sum-up the Bonnaroo spirit. At a time when one-time fans have come through the ranks to the point where they are now buzz performers (let us here tip our hats to Vampire Weekend and MGMT), Bonnaroo is defined by its context, more than any specific style As Jim James once said, I want to take you. For all that you are. Although our worlds seem far apart I want to see you- thru all that you do. I want to thank you. Report by Mike Greenhaus

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