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Published: 2005/06/05
by Benjy Eisen

Live from Bonnaroo 2004

The Bonnaroo 2004 DVD is not a "concert souvenir." In a CD review for Relix a couple years ago I used that term, affectionately, and was later informed by the band in question that they weren’t happy with my choice of words. The thing is, I was giving the disc props. I like souvenirs. I’m the kid at Barnum and Bailey that won’t stop wailing until his mommy and daddy buy him the program book. I have "collector spoons" (now collecting dust), and a dead baby shark in a jar of formaldehyde from a beach weekend in 1989. I’ve got snow globes from Disney World, maracas from Acapulco, and matchbooks from a dozen Hard Rocks. Sure, they’re all in boxes and generally referred to as "that junk" (usually preceded by "when are you finally getting rid of…"), but souvenirs are letters from childhood, signed, sealed, and delivered every time I need to be reminded of an earlier time/place. Of course, that’s not what I was thinking when I bought them back then, I actually thought the crap was "cool shit." That adds to their charm now, I suppose. Yeah, I suppose.
But the Live from Bonnaroo 2004 DVD is not a souvenir. Nor is it a documentary. No, no! It’s the Late Night Rock N’ Roll Picture Show, a four-hour smorgasbord of (mostly) great performances, wookie cams, artist snapshots, townie talk, band practices, and press junkets, with plenty of backdoor action spliced in the muddy roads between. It’s Bonnaroo on a stick…essentially.
Well, alright. But let’s talk about history for a moment. Bonnaroo is historic, yes, but it doesn’t yet have history. In a couple weeks from now, it will turn just four years old. We have some great memories of its infant years, but not until another generation from now will we have the distance that history requires. As for rock n’ roll? Oh yeah baby, rock n’ roll has history. Some people have claimed for years that rock is dead, which would mean that it only exists in history I’m not one of those people. Rock is still breathing; I can feel it on my neck as we speak. But it is old and it does have history.
Woodstock. Pink Floyd’s concert in Pompeii. The Band’s farewell ball. The Grateful Dead in 1973. The Festival Express that rode across Canada. A particular Led Zeppelin performance from Madison Square Gardens. Jimmy Hendrix lighting his Fender Stratocaster on fire at the Isle of Wright. A young, hungry U2 at Red Rocks on a hot, summer night. The Talking Heads bringing down the house in Hollywood, circa 1983.
These things happened. They were totally rock n’ roll. I wasn’t there. Nonetheless, they exist and they continue to be a living part of history not just footnotes and bibliographical references because of film. Great rock n’ roll moments make great rock n’ roll picture shows.
Of course, rockumentaries can also alter our perception of history. By choosing to include certain things and exclude others, the filmmaker becomes storyteller becomes historian and, well, things can get jumbled fast. I was at Bonnaroo 2004 and I wasn’t under a rock. But of the 30 performances featured on the DVD, I managed to catch just five of them live. That’s fantastic! Maybe not from a documentarian viewpoint, but certainly from mine a kid who always ducked out of history class to listen to Grateful Dead boots and smoke cigarettes on the roof of the gym. (And if I’m lying about that, you must still believe the sentiment. After all, I have the power to change my own history, too.)
Keep all this in mind as you watch Live from Bonnaroo 2004. Like he did last year with 270 Miles From Graceland, director Danny Clinch proves that his uncanny ability to capture all the right moments in photographs translates seamlessly to film. It might not capture everything that went on at Bonnaroo; it might not even capture most of it. That’s an impossible task and, frankly, there’s little point to it. If you go, bring a camera. Take some snapshots. Download the sets afterwards. You know?
Instead, Live from Bonnaroo 2004 is arranged into four one-hour "episodes" on two discs. That decision may be a bit curious (did Clinch intend these to air as a television series?), as is the fact that the opening and closing segments are cloned for each episode. But whatever. The cinematography is stellar, the editing borders on genius, the foot-fetish shots are forgivable, and the performances are mostly brilliant. And surprising. After all, at the festival itself, you have the choice to avoid certain bands and catch entire sets by others. On the DVD, those decisions are made for you and while you may grumble, like I’m doing right now, about the exclusion of David Byrne, Wilco, Vida Blue…the consolation prize is that you’ll discover unexpected rewards. What I’m saying is, don’t skip the chapter with Los Lonely Boys it’s balls-out riveting.

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