While the reunited Police may have been the biggest act at this year’s Bonnaroo, it was the nearly omnipresent cameos of a legendary member of Led Zeppelin that created the biggest word-of-mouth stir among old and young fans alike.
Bassist John Paul Jones was part of the late-addition Superjam Friday night with singer-guitarist Ben Harper and the Roots drummer ?uestlove, and they electrified the pumped-up overflow crowd by beginning with both Harper and Jones on lap steel for a scorching “When the Levee Breaks” and coursing through various other Zeppelin gems, either in their entirety or merely referenced to instant recognition, including “Good Times Bad Times,” “How Many More Times” and “Whole Lotta Love.” He would join Harper again the next day during the latter’s mainstage perf for another full-band version of “Dazed and Confused.”
Jones, who appeared humbled by the adoration bestowed upon him by the auds and fellow artists, also seemed genuinely happy to be performing his and others’ music live. He also accompanied the all-female bluegrass band Uncle Earl (Jones produced their early 2007 disc “Waterloo, Tennessee” on Rounder Records) for a couple numbers on mandolin, and would later help out Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the primarily string-oriented the Other Stage. (Names of various performance areas — Which Stage, What Stage, This Tent, That Tent, The Other Tent, etc. — seemed inspired by the Abbott & Costello baseball routine.)
Many artists seized the opportunity to expose the large (all 80,000 tickets were sold) and diverse festival aud to new or recent work on the 700-acre plot in middle Tennessee, where the only element beyond organizers control were the temperatures that baked an already drought-stricken region.
Nashville-based Kings of Leon kept rocking oblivious to a brief P.A. outage while promoting “Because of the Times” (RCA); the White Stripes proffered a few new tunes from “Icky Thump,” which bows this week; and Wilco included several songs from “Sky Blue Sky,” which became even more compelling when rendered live. But some groups, like Ween, stuck to the tried-and-true and simply delivered fanbase-pleasing sing-alongs like their quirky “Baby Bitch” and “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down),” both from 1994’s “Chocolate and Cheese.”
Richard Thompson and band turned in a superlative perf at the Other Stage (sometimes it was convenient, as well as just plain energy-saving in the sweltering heat, to stay put for a while), mixing brilliant tunes from his long career with new ones from his just-released Shout Factory album “Sweet Warrior,” including a well-received “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,” where the “Dad” in question is soldier slang for Baghdad.
Other acts made at least some effort to acknowledge, if not actually embrace, the jamband tradition of the fest. The Police inserted the occasional extended middle passage to some songs for room to vamp, while Tool’s enigmatic vocalist (though not frontman, since he generally performs near the back of the stage) Maynard James Keenan began what was easily the most menacing repertoire at any Bonnaroo with the sardonic comment, “I smell patchouli,” and continued to tweak the gathering in between their prog-metal ditties, wearing a cowboy hat at set’s end. A walk-on by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello also seemed a purposefully insincere attempt at conforming to expectations.
Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, introduced as “the king of Bonnaroo” at a mid-Saturday Q&A and solo perf (which featured far too much of the under-amped former and only two songs of the latter for fans wilting in the sun), truly epitomizes the jamband nature of the festival. He led his group through a sizzling 3½-hour perf beginning at midnight that started in earnest with guest Michael Franti rapping over a dark reggae take on the Rolling Stones’ “Playing With Fire,” only to be followed by Bob Weir on a pair of Dead tunes and spirited sit-ins by members of Hot Tuna and North Mississippi All-Stars.
An eye-opening mini-set developed when Led Zep’s Jones emerged yet again to join the group to wrap up a de rigueur Mule drum solo with the riff of the John Bonham spotlight “Moby Dick” and then launched into three more Zep classics: “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid,” “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “No Quarter,” the last two with Jones moving over to organ and keyboards.
Comedian Lewis Black also made an effort to “jam” with Gov’t Mule by interrupting an instrumental to start a rant about its lack of lyrics, but unfortunately someone in the crowd who didn’t want the rock to stop responded to the Frank Zappa query “Does humor belong in music?” with a resounding “no” by nailing Black on the side of the head with a small object, which only served to divert the comic’s shtick from the band to the culprit before the show would resume.
The only other ugly image, despite fest’s best efforts to recycle and go “green,” were the grounds themselves, which at most times resembled a war zone. Vast stretches of parched earth were strewn with bottles and trash as bandanna-masked drivers (to combat severe dust clouds) rode ATVs day and night around charred, prone and occasionally unconscious bodies. There was one reported camper fatality on Friday, and jazz giant Ornette Coleman passed out during his perf Sunday and was taken to Coffee County Hospital after being treated for heat stroke on the festival grounds.
Coolest locales, literally, were the 1500-capacity Yet Another (Comedy) Tent and the 300-capacity Somethin’ Else jazz tent, both of which had ever-valuable actual seating and air conditioning.