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Published: 2005/06/02
by Jesse Jarnow

Bonnaroo Music Festival 2004 – various artists

Sanctuary Records 06076-84736-2

Understanding the appeal of Bonnaroo has become something of a parlor game. Since the festival's launch in 2002, critics have — no pun intended — had a field day sketching Venn diagrams of genres, musicians, and fanbases in order to explain why 60,000 fans might be drawn equally to a festival that showcases ancient bluegrass musicians like Doc Watson at the same time as modern avant-garde trailblazers like Bill Laswell. The explanation — it would seem — comes in simultaneously the most likely and unlikely of places: their latest two-disc souvenir CD of the 2004 edition (pumped out just in time for Bonnaroo '05).

It is instructive that, of the first four artists cited by liner note writer Parke Puterbaugh to show off the festival's healthy eclecticism — Watson, Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti, punk goddess Patti Smith, and cabaret-weirdo Nellie McKay — absolutely none of them are featured on the set. Out of the festival's 100 or so acts, those four are merely a drop in the larger bucket, but think about the shape of the bucket. There are 24 artists included, and — together — they form a group portrait of Bonnaroo's middle ground. There are big names (The Dead, Trey Anastasio), there are cult faves (Primus, Ween), there are buzz bands (Los Lonely Boys, Kings of Leon), there is dinosaur rock (Gov't Mule, Steve Winwood), and there are hippies (String Cheese Incident, Umphrey's McGee), but there is very little jamming (only Anastasio and Warren Haynes are allowed past the five minute mark), and even less experimentation.

The dudes at Superfly have tapped into something with Bonnaroo, and there’s no use beating around the bush any longer: this is American popular music in the early 21st century. Call it college rock, call it whatever you want, but this is what the kids — or, suburban white kids, if you wanna be specific — are listening to (give or take some pop radio and angry metal). It contains all the same desires, dreams, drama, and ecstasies as any of the stadium bands of yore. Stack Led Zeppelin against Dave Matthews and — while you could probably derive a case for Jimmy Page rocking and partying harder (mud sharks versus dumping sewage off of a bridge onto a boat of tourists, the mud shark wins) — they still come out equal, at least in terms of what they mean to a rapturous high schooler who only gets to see one or two big rock shows during his summer vacation.

The operative aesthetic for the Bonnaroo CD set is safety. That doesn't mean that there isn't interesting music. My Morning Jacket's soaked reverb is perfectly cut for a festival amplification system, as they demonstrate on the sweetly crunching "One Big Holiday." Primus's "Fizzle Fry" didn't lose an ounce of its weirdness during that band's hiatus. Ween's "Zoloft" is demented as fuck. Bob Dylan's "Down Along the Cove" positively smokes (and also happens to be the first officially released document of post-guitar Zimmy).

Taken together, though, they blend, My Morning Jacket changing almost imperceptibly into the Black Keys. Sure, songstress Gillian Welch has little in common with Texan upstarts Los Lonely Boys, except for that all important sense (for an audience member, anyway) of what it means to be an American standing in a field of the middle of the South listening to music in that glorious summer of 2004, running up to a Presidential election. It is in the melodies, and the genre choices, but — mostly — it rests in a bigness, a grand sweeping sense of somethingorother, the DNA that allows DIY folkie Ani DiFranco to sit side-by-side with lite-jammers String Cheese Incident. It is a quality — as real as this here two-CD set — that is still not entirely articulated, except — perhaps — by the sound my friend makes when he pops up, flips me off, and shouts at the top of his lungs, "Bonnnnnnnnnnnnarooooooooooooooooooo!"

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