Unfortunate announcement for all bands who played Bonnaroo on June 13, 2009: No matter how good you think you were yesterday, Bruce Springsteen was better. It’s just a fact. Bon Iver, your songs gave me the chills; Springsteen was better. Elvis Costello, I’d walk to the ends of the earth to hear your voice; Springsteen was better. Trent Reznor, I know last night was your final show in the U.S. as Nine Inch Nails; Springsteen was… well, okay, Trent Reznor. I’m gonna put you in your own category, “Legends Who Are Going Out Of Business Maybe,” and call it even. But there is a very good chance that Springsteen was still better.
After the jump, a day that saw lots of band-hopping (Bon Iver and Elvis Perkins! Jenny Lewis and Elvis Costello! NIN and Dillinger Escape Plan!), Pete Townshend-style guitar windmills (from Elvis and Bruce), and intense singalongs, none bigger than when a certain Jersey devil decided to celebrate Christmas in June. Come along, won’t you? I’ve got a spare pair of hemp-rope sandals you can borrow and everything!
Saturday was a day of conflicts across the board for me, Mixers, pretty much from the word go. After wrapping up my Friday blog, I arrived on the field at the intersection of Rodrigo y Gabriela, Booker T and the DBTs, Bon Iver, and Raphael Saadiq. With no shot at getting pictures of all four, I kept the camera stowed and just tried to take in as much as I could. Hung out behind about a dozen people merrily hula-hooping to Booker T as the legendary Stax organist took his B3 through a string of muggy jams, each one feeling familiar but never quite settling into trite. Thanks to the generous backing-band assistance of Drive-By Truckers, his sound is now heavy on the Muscle Shoals, plus we got a bonus rendition of “Zip City” that carried me over to indie sensation and neckbeard poster child Bon Iver. Despite the band’s tardy start, the enthusiastic crowd poured out of all sides of the tent, everyone trembling in anticipation of Justin Vernon’s plaintive cabin folk. There were girls in bikinis standing on trash cans, families passed out in the grass, and a truly remarkable number of people still calling what they were about to see “Bon EYE-ver” instead of the Frenchier “Bone ee-VARE.” This, in light of all the hype around this guy/band, started cracking me up — though not as much as the one kid who, at some point during “For Emma,” asked me if we were at Rodrigo y Gabriela. No, Rod y Gab are quite different, son. Quiiiiite different.
Most amazing thing about the Bon Iver set was its amazing stillness, the way Vernon’s lilting, keening voice somehow dropped a curtain between us and the milling festival madness outside. We were all there, together under that protective bubble, a point most underscored in the closing glory of “Wolves,” which started as a church-camp singalong, then built to a cheering crescendo that brought the folks sitting outside the tent to their feet, and tears to my eyes for the first time this festival. Wiping them away, I shuffled to Raphael Saadiq, who’d already shed his suit and was vamping his way through “Staying in Love” in a wifebeater; you know you’re smooth when you can make a wifebeater look suave. “Truth be told, my last album was just for me,” said the former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman of 2008’s The Way I See It. “Thank you for allowing me to dream my dream.”
Also dreaming: Me, that Elvis Costello would join Jenny Lewis on stage. He did, turning up for “Carpetbaggers” after the redhead charmed the crowd with “You Are What You Love,” “Jack Killed Mom,” and a innocent acoustic group-sing of “Silver Lining.” (Church camp again!) And yet my favorite moment may have been “Rise Up With Fists!!” when I turned to my left and saw an older African-American gentleman raise his fist triumphantly in the air, the perfect mirror image of all the white kids fighting the power alongside Public Enemy the night before. Headed to Wilco (the live show) for a bit — Jeff Tweedy looks quite the wreck, but sounds as good as ever, his voice the perfect cooling companion on a blazingly hot afternoon, and I propose that “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” be played at every music festival from now on as a sort of indie rock national anthem — then hustled back to Costello’s solo set. Introduced as “the troubador of divine bliss” by Beatle Bob, the rocker emerged, doffed his cap, and transformed into a guy in a bar sitting on a stool playing no-frills acoustic renditions of his best songs for tips. “Red Shoes,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Radio Radio,” “Complicated Shadows,” and “New Amsterdam” (into which he threw “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”) were all I could hear before sprinting to the Mars Volta photo pit, but by the time I sprinted back, Costello was surrounded by a full band, including Jenny Lewis — returning the stage-sharing favor on “Go Away” — and Allen Toussaint, who’d performed earlier in the day but stuck around to sit in with his River in Reverse partner. The supergroup closed with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” which is exactly the kind of event programming these festivals should be about; when the artists stage-jump, mix and mingle, surprise us with collaboration, that’s when things get magical. Thanks to Costello, Lewis, and Toussaint for understanding that, and being good-natured enough (and ego-free enough) to go for it.
In similarly excellent news, Cedric Bixler-Zavala was in a downright chipper mood Saturday evening, which meant that, to my knowledge, the Mars Volta made it through a set with their equipment and audience members intact. “It’s good to be here at Burning Man,” CBZ said in greeting before launching his (dare I call them Adam Lambert-esque? how bad do you think that would piss Mars Volta fans off?) wails into the sunset sky via the white corded microphone he wields like a whip. I wish I could cite song titles for any of this band’s proggy, labyrinthine compositions, but I cannot. I loved At the Drive-In with a passion that defies explanation, but I just can’t quite penetrate this band’s nightmare swirl. I did like the way CBZ introduced something as “This one’s off our first album, cause according to a lot of people, the last two suck,” though. Chipper!
At approximately 9:30 p.m., everything I just wrote about was forgotten. Springsteen may have gone on half an hour late, but he made up for it in energy, set list, crowd interaction, between-song banter, and sheer joy. Joy, Mixers, is what I felt coming off that stage: the joy of playing music with old friends, the joy of entertaining new ones, the joy of holding the light and asking people to follow, the joy of following. Bruce wasted no time in wrapping us up in his E Street euphoria, greeting us with his now-trademark “Is there anybody aliiiiiive out there??” before kicking into a run that included “Badlands,” “No Surrender,” and “Out in the Street.” Though I found Working On a Dream to be lackluster at best, both the title track and “My Lucky Day” spark far brighter live, and “Outlaw Pete” felt earned and epic, Springsteen donning a cowboy hat and clearly reveling in the roleplaying drama of it all.
“We have come all the way from the great state of New Jersey to fulfill our solemn vow to rock the house!” Springsteen said, once he got into big-tent-revival-preacher mode. He then vowed to build a house right here in this field, “take the fear that’s outside and build us a house of love… take the doubt, and build a house of faith…” This line continued for a bit, turning despair into hope, sadness into joy and happiness, and then Bruce said something about sexual healing and I got a little confused, but hey, sign me up. If Bruce is going to sweat so much it literally gushes off him like a garden fountain, the least I can do is allow myself to be sexually healed.
It was “Request Time” that thrilled me most, as Bruce entered the crowd to collect armloads of posterboard signs passed forward by eager (and well-prepared) fans. First out of the pile was a life-sized picture of Santa Claus. “It’s too f—ing hot for Santa!” Bruce repeated several times, then smiled and said if he was gonna do this, we’d better sing. And next thing we knew, in the middle of a swampy Tennessee field, at the end of a steamingly humid June day, under the light of the few stars that had braved the clouds, Clarence Clemons was ho-ho-hoing and shaking a stick of jingle bells, and everyone around me was belting out “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” like their presents depended on it. Again I say: Joy. Joy that continued through “Thunder Road” and even the prescient sobriety of “The River.” (That piece of posterboard was nicely illustrated with a little river and everything.) Joy that flagged a bit during “Kingdom of Days.” Joy that exploded when young Jay Weinberg appeared behind the kit, looking more like the progeny of Dave Grohl than dad Max, and thundered through “Radio Nowhere” and “Lonesome Day.” Joy beyond all comprehension when they wrapped up the first set with the two songs guaranteed to make Whitney sob: “The Rising” and “Born to Run.” I’ll spare you my digression on the way Springsteen has somehow taken his post-9/11 material and turned it triumphant, despite its roots in incomprehensible tragedy; I’ll also not go too far into my “Born to Run” obsession lest you think me nuts. (Listen close: I know he’s saying “Come on, Whitney!” at the end…)
I kind of left it all on the field during those last two songs, so when Springsteen drawled, “You can’t take no more! You’re all Bonnarooed out!” I almost agreed. But “Bonnaroo don’t close,” as Little Stevie put it, and so far as I can tell, neither does E Street. They pressed on, through “Rosalita” and “Glory Days” before finally wrapping things up with “Dancing in the Dark,” during which Bruce pulled up a blond girl wearing an “I [heart] NJ” t-shirt for a Courteney Cox twirl, of course.
The set list, as I recorded it: Badlands / No Surrender / My Lucky Day / Outlaw Pete (initially written down as “Cowboy Jake” for some reason) / Out in the Street / Working on a Dream / Seeds / Johnny 99 / Youngstown / Raise Your Hand (instrumental during sign collection) / “Request Time!” / Santa Claus is Coming to Town / Growin’ Up / Thunder Road / Waitin’ on a Sunny Day / The Promised Land / The River / (End Request Time) / Kingdom of Days / Radio Nowhere / Lonesome Day / The Rising / Born to Run / ENCORE BREAK / Hard Times Come Again No More (Stephen Foster cover) / 10th Avenue Freeze-Out / Land of Hope and Dreams / American Land / Rosalita / Glory Days / Dancing in the Dark
I was pretty much ready to call it a night right then and there, and had my band been scheduled to play after Bruce, there’s a good chance I would have just conceded the victory and gone to bed. But Nine Inch Nails had one last U.S. show to play before Trent Reznor’s previously-announced quitting of the touring, one last time to destroy us with bass and blind us with light show and choke us with smoke — and I mean all those things as positives. “Don’t be sad,” he told the dismayed crowd. “I’d keep doing this but I think I’m gonna lose my f—ing mind.” Then he played “The Hand That Feeds,” which may or may not have been intentional commentary. Towards the back of the field, a man sprinted across the tops of a row of porta-potties; we’d moved into the Bonnaroo witching hour, to be sure.
Tried to check in with MGMT to see if their festival mojo persisted after the triumphant tour of ’08; one look at the flash mob assembled around their tent told me all I needed to know. Even Springsteen turned up for a listen, standing in the sidestage I fought my way to reach, only to be told it was closed “by request of the band.” The photo pit, too, was closed. I thought for a second about staying packed tight with my sweaty fellow men and enduring vast discomfort in the name of journalism, but then I remembered I don’t even like MGMT all that much. Quick note for the band: If you are following a Springsteen show, maybe try to avoid kicking off one of your wheezy little dance rock numbers by having your frontman yell “1! 2! 3! 4!” Because Springsteen yells “1! 2! 3! 4!” better than you do, and you will sound like a child.
Back in the waning grown-up-consequences world of NIN, I thrashed out to “Head Like a Hole” for I guess the last time, Dillinger Escape Plan joined in for “Wish,” Trent thanked the crowd “for all these years,” and wrapped things up with the heart-stopping violent beauty of “Hurt” above a sea of lighters held in tribute by a dead-silent crowd. “I am still right here,” Trent sang, and they roared to life. “Thank you. Thank you very much. Good night. You rock,” Trent said, and then he disappeared forever. It was 3:13 a.m., but the crowd stood there expectantly for quite some time, hoping for one more moment of magic that never came.
Twelve hours in the field yesterday. My dogs have stopped barking and begun to bite. I’m going back right this second for Erykah Badu, Band of Horses, and as much more Phish as I can take. Anybody out there in Mixer land got anything they’d like to contribute? Anyone catch Jimmy Buffett? I hear he was fun!
Photo Credit: Whitney Pastorek/EW.com