The organizers of the Bonnaroo music festival have done a remarkable job in recent years of booking relevant new music from multiple genres including, E.D.M., Hip Hop, and Pop music. The result has been to attract a vibrant multi-generational audience. But the festival has wisely continued to offer more traditional music as well, offering up Country, Rock, and most importantly Jam bands, sticking to its roots while simultaneously expanding the musical genres offered. This year’s festival was no exception, filling the lineup, in particular, with great hippie bands. On the second day of the festival, two sets stuck out in the genre.
Phish played their first of three sets at the festival late Friday night to a huge crowd. The two-hour set was characteristically composed almost entirely of original music. The band, also well known for their interpretations of popular music only covered one song this night, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which is most well known as the theme to the classic science fiction film “2001 A Space Odyssey.” It was a fitting rendition for the outdoor festival, with twinkling stars in the countryside night sky. Members of Phish are probably the ultimate Bonnaroo veterans, playing the inaugural event back in 2002. The band has played the festival on multiple occasions. In fact, phish.net reports that the band or members of the band had played Bonnaroo at least 19 times between 2002 and 2016. The show Phish performed this first night of their 2019 Bonnaroo appearance was nothing short of spectacular with their uniquely stunning light show that breathes to the music in different dimensions aided by hydraulic lifts. The band led by a beaming Trey Anastasio on lead guitar opened with “Carini” sending the adulating crowd into a dance craze. The jam warped into heady territory with drummer Jon Fishman screaming wildly while bass player Mike Gordon drove a steady beat. The band segued into “Down With Disease” meshing the two songs perfectly. Keyboardist Page McConnell got a chance to shine in the transition launching the group into an extended trance-like jam.
The music turned to funk inspired jam territory on the next tune, “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” That was followed by “Kasvot Växt,” as the crowd continued to dance wildly many with their totems raised high. A near 15-minute jam came next on the song “Everything’s Right.” The song “Mercury” followed, slowing things down a bit before segueing into the tune “Tweezer.” Things got funky again for “Cavern.” Some in the crowd exhausted from a day of dancing began to take a break lying on their blankets and staring at the stars as the band broke into the aforementioned “2001 A Space Odyssey” theme. The spacey atmosphere continued through the tune “Martian Monster.” That song took a hard jam segueing into the tune “Steam.” That was followed by renditions of “More” and “Harry Hood.” The group ended their set with “Seize The Day!” Phish returned triumphantly to a cheering ovation for a double encore featuring “Possum” and “Tweezer Reprise.”
Superjam was the second great jam of Friday night. The festivities got underway about 45 minutes late at 2 am Saturday but continued for two hours. Superjam has been a Bonnaroo tradition for many years and began as a mashup of classic rockers. Over the years the jam morphed into a more musically diverse event integrating newer musical prodigy like Skrillex with veteran musicians from more traditional genres. This year for the first time the small army of performers was made up almost entirely of relatively young new performers. Griz curated the event still beaming from his triumphant main stage performance earlier on Friday. He led a band composed of his own musicians interspersed with a steadily changing line up of other guest musicians and singers. The setlist was comprised of cover tunes by rock legends like Bob Marley, David Bowie, Prince and Sharon Jones (A Bonnaroo alumni before her untimely death.) But the most poignant cover of the evening came when the band played Dr. John’s “Right Place Wrong Time.” The New Orleans icon who just recently passed away played a historical performance in 20011 at Bonnaroo. That three-hour jam featured the original Meters and Dr. John along with the late Allen Toussaint. The band included an entire rendition of the 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo, which the festival is named after. The performance may well have been the best in Bonnaroo history.
This year's Superjam was also a fantastic presentation honoring the music greats that have fallen in recent years. Griz and the band opened with Dick Dale’s “Miserlou.” That was followed by "So What'Cha Want” by the Beastie Boys and then the aforementioned Dr. John song. By this time a vast crowd had packed tightly in This tent stage screaming their approval wildly for the well-known tunes. The next song "Could You Be Loved” by Bob Marley appropriately featured Nahko and Medicine For The People joining the band along with guest singer, Australian-born, Jamaican-based musician and record producer Nattali Rize. That sent the crowd into a ballistic sing-along. R&B singer, Deva Mahal, daughter of another Blues icon Taj Mahal took over lead vocals next on the tune "This Land Is Your Land,” which Sharon Jones had covered. Jennifer Hartswick took over lead vocals next for an intense pair of songs, "Piece Of My Heart” by Janis Joplin and “Valerie" by Amy Winehouse. The throaty backup singer and trumpet player from Trey Anastasio’s band did justice to both. Then actress Chrishira Perrier joined singer K.Flay for a duet on Prince’s “1999.” The audience loved it and proceeded to party like it was 1999 again. Perrier, a competent singer, stuck around to be the lead voice on two more tunes, “Mary Jane” by Rick James and “Dang!” byMac Miller. She was joined on the latter by Chicago rapper and Griz collaborator ProbCause. He stuck around to pay tribute to Nipsy Hussle rapping "Grinding All My Love.”
An exhausted audience began to branch out across the vast field outside the tent laying on blankets, watching the giant video screens while fresh festival-goers filled every inch of the tent area in front of the stage for the monumental jam. K.Flay returned to do an intense version of “Lithium” by Nirvana. At one point with adrenaline flowing the young singer jumped onto the front speakers above the crowd and an elated Griz followed her. But as she backed up, she misstepped and fell backward between the speakers. Griz quickly pulled her out and back up on the stage. The singer continued to belt out the lyrics, but you could hear her voice quivering a bit from the apparent shock of falling. Griz took over the lead vocals next along with his longtime guitarist Muzzy Bearr on the Sublime sing-along “What I Got.” That was followed by the most intense guitar solo of the night from an unlikely source. Canadian country singer and guitarist Lindsay Ell pulled out all the stops to play and sing “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden. The singer thrashed her long blonde hair about in full heavy metal headbanging mode as she played a piercing guitar solo. At one point she also jumped onto the speakers and laid on her back playing searing notes on her guitar wowing the crowd. Ell continued with an eerie tribute to George Harrison on The Beatles classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
The next new singer to take the stage was Frank Lopes Jr., known professionally as Hobo Johnson, the lead vocalist for Hobo Johnson and the LoveMakers. He was joined by drummer Jess Haney and bassist Charlie Holt from Rainbow Kitten Surprise for a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. Sam Melo lead singer of Rainbow Kitten Surprise took over lead vocals next. He was joined on backing vocals by Hartswick and Ell returning to the stage. They covered the Sam Cooke classic "Bring It On Home To Me.”
The music took a very different turn when Noah Kahan assumed the lead vocal role for a cover of “Wake Me Up” by E.D.M. master the late Avicii. Kahan is a new neofolk rocker from Vermont. He was joined for the upbeat dance tune by Nashville based Music City Mystique Drumline. Griz sat crouched like a cat beaming a Cheshire grin for much of the jam session, periodically singing and playing his trademark Saxophone riffs. The drummers stuck around for a solo drum tune and for the next tune song by Walk The Moon frontman, Nicholas Petricca. The animated singer belted out a dance-infused rendition of the Queen classic “We Will Rock You.” He stayed to sing a second tune, the David Bowie classic “Under Pressure,” which was also a successful cover for Queen. He was joined by backing vocalist Annakalmia Traver from the Artsy rock band Rubblebucket.
A beaming Petricca stayed to sing a third song, David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” Griz played explosive sax, and the Blackstar Band joined the house band. Traver returned to take over lead vocals on another Bowie classic “Life On Mars?” Singers Mahal, B.E.A.R.R. and Perrier, returned to lead the group in a rousing finale featuring a sing-along of the George Michael classic “Freedom! 90.”