Elemental Outpourings 

Bonnaroo '04 defined by torrents of rain and music

Bonnaroo '04 defined by torrents of rain and music

For worse and better, Bonnaroo '04 was defined as much by the elements as anything else—first, a sweltering heat that likely contributed to two fatalities and then a six-hour deluge beginning late Saturday afternoon that necessitated lengthy set delays. By the time The Dead took the stage that evening, the better part of two hours after their scheduled start, the center village's sun-baked field of crushed grass had become a sea of mud. Opening with a spirited (and fitting) "Tennessee Jed" followed by the crowd-pleasing "Good Lovin'," The Dead's marathon set leant heavily on fan favorites. Though courting irrelevancy, the band's generous spirits and understated mastery nevertheless did much to honor their passed leader Jerry Garcia, the festival's de facto patron saint.

After only three years, Bonnaroo has mushroomed into one of the summer's premier music events. In its first year, the fest positioned itself as a summit meeting for Jerry's kids, but only a year later the promoters expanded their original jam band conception to include an impressive array of talent—from James Brown and Drive-By Truckers to Sonic Youth and The Roots. Whether by design or happenstance, this year's lineup was something of a retrenchment. Still, the weekend's eclectic mix included Cajun, Mexican and Cuban fusions, alt-scene stalwarts, numerous bluegrass hybrids, left-of-center jazz, odd (and inventive) roots-technology mash-ups, all manner of singer-songwriters and a smattering of hip-hop and African music.

Of course, such abundance has its downside. The profusion of compelling options often necessitated difficult decisions; Friday's Wilco-Ani DiFranco-Patti Smith-Nellie McKay scheduling overlap was a true heartbreaker. Jam circuit stalwarts like String Cheese Incident, Dave Matthews and moe. all delivered well-received sets, but with such musical riches on hand, sampling among the four smaller, tented stages often proved more rewarding and exciting, while also providing welcome respite from an angry sun. Calexico's Mexican-inflected garage rock, featuring an unlikely, though infectious, twin trumpet/steel guitar frontline, winningly upended the band's more literary pretensions, while Grandaddy's seemingly studio-bound tunes proved resilient, providing a solid foundation for the band's muscular rave-ups.

Sunday's lineup was especially far-ranging and adventurous. Marc Ribot's guitar skronk blazed and shimmered over Los Cubanos Postizos' sprightly Cuban-qua-lower-Manhattan groove. Burning Spear, though some 20 years past his creative peak, delivered a rousing roots reggae set, thanks in no small part to his sharp, propulsive road band. Young hopefuls, The Bad Plus may yet precipitate the audience reawakening that jazz critics crave; the crowd cheered as heartily for the band's original compositions as for their much-publicized pop re-contextualizations. And Femi Kuti's band built theme upon theme, constructing a dense yet intricate rhythmic weave—a far more worthy testament to his father's Afro-beat than the scion's often desultory solo efforts.

Seasoned favorites presented more of a mixed bag. After a glorious multi-year run, with the singer-songwriter seemingly reengaged and rejuvenated, Bob Dylan's Neverending Tour appears to have flagged a bit; his Friday late-afternoon set was leaden and uninspired. Backed by the Tosca Strings, David Byrne's performance sampled generously from his Talking Heads catalog—as if to demonstrate just how badly he's stumbled since. But though the artiste reworked and reinterpreted liberally, only a twee "Psycho Killer" truly disappointed. Proving that rock-lifers can age and evolve with grace, Yo La Tengo fashioned an evocative soundscape for their quieter, more ruminative recent fare. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley cooed and murmured over muted guitar and organ dissonances while James McNew's ministrations on bass provided pulse and momentum.

Following a three-day marathon of sensory overload, battling crowds, humidity, rain and mire, it's perhaps inevitable that the weekend registered as a succession of cherished memories and images: Taj Mahal's ringing guitar leads matched by his rich, weathered vocals; Los Lobos' inevitable yet ever-rewarding "Not Fade Away"/"Bertha"—by now, their own; Calexico's spirited dismantling of the Love classic "Alone Again Or"; Ira Kaplan's impromptu standup, highlighted by his just-right "Dylan walk"; and most notably, a resplendent Patti Smith, whose inspiring performance made Friday's difficult decision a whole lot easier to bear. Offering hope in place of anger, Smith fed off the audience's energy, her near-perfect set building from crescendo to crescendo. Never before has "Power to the People" sounded more appropriate, or "Gloria" more direct and liberating.


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