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Published: 2003/10/29
by Chris Gardner

Live From Bonnaroo 2003 – various artists

Sanctuary Records 06076-84621-2

A set like this serves three purposes really. It's a document of the event,
a memoir for the attendees, and an advertisement for next year's fest. It
succeeds under all guidelines, but seems particularly effective as a
document of a wildly eclectic festival. Like Bonnaroo itself, there is
much here to rattle that cluster of nerves atop your spine and much you may
want to skip. However broad your musical tastes may be, it seems unlikely
that the Sonic Youth fans will crank the Jason Mraz or vice versa. The
packaging (which handily includes the weekend's line-up card and a map of
the site, cleverly named campgrounds and all) is pro, and the sound quality
is exceptional. I suppose it says something that we can already expect that
from the Bonnaroo crew after only two years, but in the end it is the
quality of the music itself that sells the set.

The real challenge is cramming dozens of hours of music onto two little
discs. It is impossible to please everyone here, but producer John Alagia
gives it a game effort. In a set this diverse, it all comes down to
personal opinion and taste, so I won't feign critical distance. Here's what
I love:

Widespread Panic, "Papa Johnny Road" – I can't pretend that I don't miss
Mikey Houser, but George McConnell's ballsy slide work makes Panic an even
more bristling, more Southern band. McConnell replaces
Houser's soaring lines with grit and swagger, an attitude that makes John
"I got a real good mind to beat you senseless," all the more convincing.

My Morning Jacket, "Dancefloors" – These guys fall right into a gap that
needed filling. Southern rock, indie rock, psychedelic rock… whatever.
Morning Jacket is just good damn rock and roll. The rendering here is
faithful to the album, which says more about the album than this
performance. With each listen, this becomes more and more my favorite.

Allman Brothers, "High Cost of Living Low" – Yeah, sure it looks like I'm a
Southern rock junkie at this point, but it's just coincidence. My favorite
thing about the current incarnation of the ABB is that Derek Trucks and
Warren Haynes play patented "Allman Brothers Guitar" when they play with the
band. Each is capable of a considerably more, but they seem to revel in the
twinned lines and the slide that have become so decidedly Southern thanks to
the band. They stay in the pocket, fill their role, and save their more
outward explorations for other projects, and the ABB is better for it.

James Brown, "I Feel Good" – Frankly, this song was played out for me before
I left high school, but the horn arrangement on this version is
irrefreakinsistable. Damn if he ain't still the Godfather of Soul,
the Hardest
Working man in Show Business, the..ah hell, you already know.

Medeski, Martin, and Wood, "Macha" – Long a favorite of mine (look for the
studio cut on the
Bubblehouse EP), this version doesn't disappoint, reminding you why
MMW has
so many disciples and imitators these days.

Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon, "Rings" – Good enough to make me wonder why I
never bought this. I feel like an asshat.

Keller Williams, "Love Handles" – Another in a line of silly Keller songs
that seems at first dismissable and then embeds itself so deeply under my
skin that I can never scratch it out. Damn if I'm not a sucker for the
looped mouth flugel.

And that's not even to mention:

  • Emmylou Harris, "Red Dirt Girl" (which rings true even if it seems

completely out of place here; the same can be said for Sonic Youth's "She
Is Not Alone.")

  • Wayne Coyne's blistered pipes on the Flaming Lips' "Spoonful Weighs a

Ton" (has anyone ever sounded better when their voice was so clearly shot?)

  • Ben Harper's "Sexual Healing" (even if he inexplicably G-rates the song by

refusing to say "masturbate.")

  • Jack Johnson's "Wasting Time" (which is growing on me, despite my best


  • and finally the Polyphonic Spree's joyous "It's the Sun." White people

in white robes in Tennessee have never been quite like these ecstatic

That may seem like everything, but there is some flotsam drifting through
the disc as well. Some performances (or selections) are subpar, notably the
Dead's tractionless "Sugar Magnolia" and a cast-off, three-minute Galactic
tune. So it goes. You can't like everything at a festival this large, and
I wouldn't have attended several of the sets from the artists included. Ben
Kweller, Jason Mraz, Buddahead, O.A.R., blah, blah, blah. Just personal
mind you, but one of these could have been sacrificed to squeeze a Neil
Young tune in to serve as a link between My Morning Jacket and Sonic Youth.
Still, one suspects there is a reason for his exclusion, as Young is the
only headliner not represented.

As a whole, the double-disc set is not tainted by the few tracks you may
want to skip. You might skip different cuts, and that's cool. In fact,
it's half the point. Bonnaroo's mission seems to be to offer something for
virtually every type of live music fan. This year's festival branched out
from its jammy roots, cast a wider net, and succeeded. The sheer size of
the event makes it not only plausible but practical to reach out to
everyone, and this double disc, a seemingly faithful document of the event,
follows the same path. Take what you like, and leave the rest behind.

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