Having just returned from Bonnaroo — the annual 4-day music festival held in Manchester, Tennessee — I felt it appropriate to give a review that went beyond bashing Kanye and praising all else. So over the next four days, I’m giving an artist-by-artist roundup of the shows I saw while surrounded by an amalgam of good people, better drugs and the best music lineup of the summer. We end today with Sunday — when the blues and bluegrass reigned supreme.
Robert Randolph’s Revival
2:45-4:15pm, That Tent
Behind My Morning Jacket, Robert Randolph played my second favorite set at Bonnaroo ’08 — managing to turn 4-minute songs into twenty-minute opuses heavy on rhythm, call-and-response breaks and swampy guitar sections. Robert brought out most of his hyper-talented family for the show, and new hits like “Diane” and “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That” sounded just as funky as they do on record. The highlight, however, was ten-minutes of instrumental jamming on Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” — during which the ‘Roo crowd proved remarkably adept at remembering decades-old disco lyrics. Then came a spot-on version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” perhaps a sonic shout-out to Sunday evening superstar Robert Plant.
Jakob Dylan & the Gold Mountain Rebels
3:00-4:15pm, This Tent
If Robert Randolph knows a thing or two about keeping music in the family, Jake Dylan wrote the damn book. And if you couldn’t tell by the name of his critically-acclaimed, multiplatinum band — the Wallflowers — he’s not much of a frontman. Instead, the lesser Dylan was extremely low-key on stage, missing many chances to introduce giant ’90s hits like “One Headlight” and “Sleepwalker.” He didn’t ignore the entirety of the Wallflowers catalogue, however, playing album tracks like “Closer to You,” “Three Marlenas” and an alt-country version of “How Good It Can Get.” But any semblance of stage swagger was sorely lacking, and somehow Jake managed the slowest, saddest set on a day ruled by the blues.
Yonder Mountain String Band
3:45-5:15pm, What Stage
Though the red rocks of Colorado are a better fit for YMSB’s high-altitude brand of bluegrass, the four-piece string outfit rolled through nearly two hours of folk on Sunday afternoon. The best moment, however, was an epic death dirge introduced by lead singer Jeff Austin as the darker side of an otherwise bubbly band. And though I missed a rabble-rousing take on “Crazy Train” during Yonder’s encore, I thoroughly enjoyed a mature set of music from the dudes who used to call themselves the Bluegrassholes.
4:45-6:15pm, Which Stage
My distaste for O.A.R. is no secret: songs like “Crazy Game of Poker,” while catchy, sound like DMB-lite dance records; major radio hits like “Love & Memories,” meanwhile, test the limits of selling out. That said, the right atmosphere can turn sparks into dynamite, and such was the case with O.A.R on Sunday night. Playing to a capacity crowd — the largest Which audience of ’08, in fact — the band rolled through an air-tight set of horn-heavy hits and very few misses. Hell, I even found myself singing along to “Poker” alongside thousands of fans who wouldn’t be out of place at a beachside BBQ.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
6:15-7:45pm, What Stage
Robert Plant, the most legendary name attached to this year’s Bonnaroo lineup, did not disappoint with his bluegrass set on Sunday night — nor, for that matter, did his outfit (think GQ Gandalf) do anything but reestablish his post as our preeminent rock god. Alison Krauss wasn’t half bad either, and together they rolled through much of last year’s acclaimed Raising Sand album. The true treat, however, was a low-key, half-whispered take on Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Black Dog” — with the central riff played on an unaccompanied folk banjo.
Death Cab for Cutie
7:00-8:30am, Which Stage
My Bonnaroo experience ended on a quiet note — an extremely quiet note, in fact, as Ben Gibbard played a solo version of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” from Death Cab’s ’05 Plans LP. The rest of his set was similarly lo-fi, and hits like “Soul Meets Body” were very recognizable. But some of Gibbard’s electro-heavy material — think pre-Plans Death Cab and everything by Postal Service — wasn’t quite suited for Bonnaroo.