It’s Saturday, June 14, 6:30 p.m. in Manchester, Tenn. Simultaneously, on five different stages, The Allman Brothers, The Roots, Leo Kottke (with Mike Gordon from Phish), Garage a Trois (featuring eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter) and DJ Spooky are holding court with their own continuously mutating audiences. Traveling among the stages, there are points where music from all five acts can be heard at once, a sound collage that is at once fascinating and disconcerting.
Bonnaroo 2003, the second installment of what may well become an annual occurrence, ended up drawing 82,000 fans from all over the country, at least 95 percent of whom camped out for the three-day festival. The event’s organizers deserve high praise for creating a pleasant, hassle-free environment out of a potential logistical nightmare. There was plenty of water, plenty of food, plenty of facilities and plenty of space.
More significantly, the promoters put together an impressive roster of acts designed to both appease and challenge the musical inclinations of their core audience. In the process, they expanded the fan bases of several deserving acts who were previously under the radar of the Bonnaroo demographicwhich didn’t, however, reflect the diversity of the musical lineup. The overwhelming majority of festival-goers were white, a vast number of them between the ages 18 and 30. Most were of the new-millennium hippie variety: J. Crew-clad weekend warriors, tie-dyed longhairs and the ubiquitous trustafarianswhite kids with dreadlocks and their folks’ credit cards. Yet the same kids who twirled to the Dead also demanded an encore from Sonic Youth, and at least a third of the crowd were groovin’ to the hip-hop of The Roots, even while jam-band stalwarts The Allman Brothers were playing just a couple hundred yards away.
Appropriately, the opening of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s set on Friday night best defined the event. Young, whose music has tentacles in psychedelic, country, punk, grunge and noise, kicked off his opening number, “Love to Burn,” with a rambling, 10-minute guitar solo before he even sang a single word. This was about a party, a ritual, a chance to cut loose from whatever societal constraints typically rein us in. And that’s exactly what Bonnaroo offered.
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