Reality is a condition caused by the absence of Bonnaroo Between the scorching heat and thunderstorms, music lovers from all over the US (and some abroad) joined in Manchester, Tennessee for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival June 11-14th. Some set up camp on the 700-acre property in the torrential downpours that lasted throughout the morning and mid-afternoon on Thursday, while others waited out the storm stuck in long lines on the shoulder of the highway, only to pitch their tents in muddy cow fields. Needless to say, for the majority of festival patrons, the journey had gotten off to a rough start—especially with forecasts predicting more storms, all weekend. With my rain poncho in tow, I weaved my way among the six main stages (and seven other smaller tent venues) as one of the reported 80,000 ‘Roo attendees—veterans and virgins alike—for four days of music under the unpredictable southern skies. Here, I give you ‘Roo in photos, with personal anecdotes, criticism and praise to boot. Thursday’s rain subsided just in time for Brooklyn’s Chairlift, who are most well known for their song, “Bruises” from an iPod Nano commercial. The crowd went crazy for the track, with Caroline Polachek (songwriting/vocals/tambourine/synthesizer) flailing around on stage with the energy of a Mexican jumping bean, and easily mellowing out for the rest of the set. I was unfamiliar with their music before the performance; only knowing “Bruises” from television as well. I can say with authority that it is the black sheep of their body of work, while the rest is a warm, refreshing take on electronic indie-pop—a lovechild of Zero 7 and Thievery Corporation of sorts. They took the stage before the uber-hyped Passion Pit’s late night show, setting the bar high for Thursday’s acts. As Passion Pit fans trenched through mud to reach the stage, I spotted the backstage entrance and made a beeline past the security guard to secure my spot just in time for “Better Things” to open up the set. Disgusted by the odd take on my favorite song from their Chunk of Change EP, I worried that the whole show would be a disappointment, as some friends who had seen them at SXSW in Austin had forewarned me. Thankfully, the show progressively got better and better as the crowds sang out the lyrics to their new album, Manners. With the screeching high pitch (and most definitely digitally altered) voice of frontman Michael Angelakos, their synth-pop jams had the whole crowd bopping along to “Sleepyhead” and “Moth’s Wings,” two standout tracks from the debut LP. Exhausted from my travels and hardcore dancing, I called it a night, later finding out I missed a killer late night set from Kraak and Smaak. Disappointment city. Friday morning brought sunshine, and a jam-packed schedule of some of my favorite bands of 2008-9. On David Byrne’s curated stage, The Dirty Projectors kicked my day off right with selections from their recently released experimental Bitte Orca, a vastly different record featuring beautiful vocal arrangements sung by sirens Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian (who recently came out with a stunning solo EP as well—check it out!) This was my most anticipated show of the weekend, and the wait was well worth it. They even brought up David Byrne for collaboration on their Dark Was the Night track “Knotty Pine!” The guest appearance was overwhelmingly welcomed, an exciting precursor to his solo show later in the evening. Next came Animal Collective in the beating hot sun of Which Stage. I’m definitely not the first one to say that the show was nothing without the light spectacle that is synonymous with Collective shows, but it could not have been more of a downer. Three guys on synthesizers is boring enough, add extreme heat and poor sound, most fled the stage after a few tunes for other acts playing at that time—as did I, on to St. Vincent. I will give credit to the Merriweather Post Pavilion boys for their performance of “Fireworks” (from Strawberry Jam). The multiple samples trailed into a deep-layered mess of noise mid-song and emerged after several minutes in a triumphant high point for the set. The rest was a clusterfuck mush that was too spacey, even for Animal Collective. After taking a break from the heat in the press tent, I ran into Triumph the Insult Dog interviewing TV on the Radio. The guys got a kick out of the interview, laughing along with the crowd that formed around while Triumph flubbed his jokes, though all in good humor. Multi-instrumentalist and beauty Annie Clark took the stage as St. Vincent, shredding her guitar like a rock goddess while dominating the stage with her petite frame. She belted out favorites from Marry Me as well as the new album Actor. Her melodies were as flawless live as they are recorded. Her instrumentation is even more impressive to see in person. Her grace on stage is intoxicating. If you don’t know St. Vincent, you should. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs put on a stunning performance, per usual, but it seemed as if she and guitarist Nick Zinner were not on the same page. Their single, “Maps” from It’s Blitz! Went completely awry. The intent was to start it off slow and gradually build up, but that surely was not the case. It slumbered through, with Karen O visibly frustrated and ready to move on. Grizzly Bear overflowed with enthusiastic fans Friday afternoon…eagerly waiting to see the foursome melt their voices into a rainbow of sonic harmonies with the tunes of their new album, Veckatimest as the pot-o-gold. One of the most solid and impressive performances of the day, it proved that these guys aren’t going anywhere. What can possibly be said about the legend that is Al Green? Compared to the Phish-heads’s staked out for the headlining set later in the evening, Green looked dapper in his suit, throwing out roses to fans and crooning all his soulful hits with umph. There are only so many opportunities to see him play, I didn’t doubt for a second my choice to see him over Dear Science’s TV on the Radio playing on the other main stage. The afternoon heat was reaching its peak and I needed a break, so my compatriots and I headed to the Silent Disco—a tent set up that features DJ’s from all over spinning to a crowd that grooves to the music through individual headphones—no speakers required for this dance party. I caught San Francisco’s own Motion Potion and J. Boogie mixing 70’s funk and 80’s hits, respectively. Going into Bonnaroo, I had very little expectations for the headliner (of two nights no less!), Phish. I have only heard their music once, and though I appreciate their improvisational wandering instrumental solos and simpleton sing-along lyrics, I had no idea what the insane hype around Phish was. After having spoken to many die hard Phish fans about what to expect, I was only told “it will blow your mind,” and “just wait, you’ll see.” And see I did. The lightshow was a visual overload, coupled with an unbelievable amount of glowsticks of all shapes and sizes being thrown up into the weed-smoke cloud that consistently billowed from the crowd. It sure was a sight to see. This performance was the only festival appearance by the band on their tour after having gotten back together after a five-year hiatus. While I contorted and flailed my body to the music, unfamiliar but overtaken by its sounds, I came to realize the brilliance that is Phish. Whether you are a jam band aficionado or not, you must admit they are an incredibly talented band, and it’s true, their shows will blow your mind. Friday’s late night line up was packed with dance party potential, starting with Girl Talk. I had seen him live three times, and was unimpressed with his inability to be innovative with his song choices. We get it, Girl Talk, you’re not a DJ, but yet you spin the same top 40’s hits over and over. So basically you’re just the radio, sans commercials, and lots and lots more sweat. Within 10 minutes, the music stopped twice, both times at peak moments musically. Greg Gellis’ excuse? “To be honest, my head just hit the laptop.” It’s no wonder, there were so many people flooding the stage, security crumbled and so did Gellis. I moved on to Pretty Lights. As I walked away from Girl Talk’s heavy bass and screaming girls, it seemed strangely quiet at Pretty Lights, comparatively so. The crowd was small enough to push through to the front, and everyone seemed supremely happy in his or her own world, intoxicated by the screen of colorful images projected behind the turntable/drums set up. The show was fantastic. To classify their music would be a dishonor to their organic electronic compositions that bridge genres while still bring bangin’ dance beats. Jimmy Buffett performed to an astonishingly large crowd (considering he had been confirmed just two days prior!) at noon on Saturday. I only wish I had a blender to mix up some piña coladas and margaritas to cool me off from the heat! Killing time before Bon Iver, I made my way to a press conference with comedian Margaret Cho, musicians Brett Dennen and Robyn Hitchcock, activist Robert Kennedy Jr., Jimmy Buffett and ILO. They discussed the success of creating an environmentally friendly festival, the perils of the music industry, and for Buffett, the honor of still being welcomed to perform. He mentioned how he and Bruce Springsteen started around the same time and is amazed how they can still draw crowds to their music even though it was released so long ago. Bon Iver swept me off my feet. His music crept into my heart a few years ago, with “Skinny Love” emblematic of his extraordinary falsetto and passionate, seductive guitar playing. His performance at Bonnaroo justified all those qualities over and over again, selecting tracks from his breakout debut LP For Emma, Forever Ago and Blood Bank EP. I can’t find the words to describe the beauty of his music live. The audience agreed too, showering him with praise after each and every tune. Most notably though, was his appreciation for the audience in return at the end of his set. This is a man who still appreciates what got him on that stage, a most redeeming quality for a musician who deserves all the acclaim he gets. He closed the set with “Wolves” and asked for audience participation on the “what might have been lost” lyric, turning the tent into a giant choir of voices that was the perfect culmination to a brilliant performance. Of Montreal followed Justin Vernon with a playful set that came short of pleasing the most devout fan, as their energy was sub par for the bar that had been set previous to them taking the stage. Let down, I made my way to Elvis Costello in time to catch a great new tune, premiering at ‘Roo. His performance restored my faith in the singer/songwriter—with one man and a guitar can come memorizing music, and Costello embodies, if not exceeds, that mission. It’s a wonderful yet strange experience to be surrounded by so many vastly different people in such a concentrated area, most especially because sometimes, masked behind camelbacks, sweat and wide brimmed hats, the Nine Inch Nails crowd seems to fit in with Phish fans, or Snoop Dog followers with those of Wilco. There was no better display of this intermingling than at Saturday night’s headliner, Bruce Springsteen. Despite some of the conversations I eavesdropped in on, the majority of the Bonnaroo population anxiously awaited The Boss and his beloved E Street Band. It was a pleasure to see him play all the hits, while also taking requests from fans. He even sang “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” a tune no one expected to hear mid-June, but was enjoyable nonetheless. I could have lived without his fervent speeches, channeling more of a Southern preacher than a rock ‘n roll star riling up his fans. Either way, there’s a reason The Boss is called The Boss. Anyone that’s 60 and delivers a performance with that much gusto deserves the title. Saturday late night got of to an impeccable start with Yeasayer, a band whose music I knew very well and had seen before (last year, at Lollapalooza). To say they were great is an understatement. They were my favorite performance of the weekend. They have grown as a band in the past year, more cohesive and comfortable reproducing on stage the detailed bells and whistles that make up their recorded music. With a spectacular amount of energy, they pounded through All Hour Cymbals, their electro-art-rock first release to a crowd of post-Bruce fans. Fans belted out the melodies while the band punched out the harmonies with Grizzly Bear-esque finesse. What’s the next best thing after their performance? The anticipation for their second record. I was forewarned about MGMT’s live performances. I was told they couldn’t hold up to the greatness that is Oracular Spectacular. I was told correctly. “Fun” level aside, their performance lacked the fluidity of their album. The foundation of MGMT, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, were filled out with three other band members for the set, and they sure seemed new to the stage, unable to duplicate the “electric” overproduction of their album, even after three years of performing the same 10 songs. At one point the music trailed into unfamiliar territory and stopped awkwardly. That’s not something you want happening during the coveted late night spot they were awarded. Highlights though, were Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek coming onstage to sing “Voices Carry" by 'Til Tuesday, their own “Electric Feel” and ever-so-popular, “Kids.” While I bash their technical abilities to reproduce one of my favorite electronic-based albums, their performance was nonetheless a sight to be seen. I’m looking forward to seeing what MGMT has in store for us in 2010, as the title track for their next release, “Congratulations” was introduced to the Bonnaroo audience as their closing piece. Let’s hope the reputation they’ve garnered live works out more in their favor for their album then it did their ‘Roo performance. Not ready to call it a night after MGMT, some friends and I wandered into the main campgrounds “shakedown,” discovering South Carolina’s Zach Deputy performing in a tent, PA system and all, to whomever would listen. The evening turned to morning and as the songs kept coming, so too did the haystacks flying…higher and higher into the air. He is a one-man band who is just happy to be alive, performing, and sharing his experience with the 50 something people that surrounded his makeshift stage. Here’s to you, Zach. You were the unofficial highlight to my day, what makes Bonnaroo the music haven it is, and you deserve this shameless plug. Sunday’s lineup packed all star musicians, one on top of the other (scheduling-wise, of course) making the choice between going to Which Tent or That Tent, This or the Other Tent even more difficult. I started my afternoon off not at any of the aforementioned stages, but the small and intimate Sonic Stage with Elvis Perkins in Dearland. This was their second set of the weekend (I missed the first), playing only a handful of songs, but not without gusto. Between the horn section entering the audience for a ditty, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver coming out to play (unfortunately not sing), the performance was a cheery and uplifting start to the final day of Bonnaroo. Undoubtedly the hottest woman at Bonnaroo, not for her good looks (although she is mesmerizing), but for rocking a Public Enemy sweatshirt and top hat, songstress Erykah Badu got a wary audience to their feet after taking the stage over a half an hour late. All was quickly forgiven as she crooned hits tracing her lengthy career’s work with grace. If Andrew Bird hadn’t been playing just a stage over, I would have wanted to hear her play all afternoon long. Such are the tribulations of large festivals. Okkervil River up next. Though I enjoy their music most affectionately, it just didn’t sit right in a festival setting. Either too depressing or too contrived, they’re performance was standard, with all-too-frequent anecdotes slowing down the pace. Their stage presence also lacked the energy for which the Bonnaroo audience, now four days in, had grown accustomed to by other acts previously on the same stage. Do yourself a favor and see them in a more intimate setting…its well worth it. I closed out the weekend with one of my favorite superstars and fellow Californian, Snoop Dog. His performance was electric, playing all his hits, hollering at the “sexy ladies” who (including myself) were digging everything Snoop put out. Although his parting words, “Smoke Weed Motherfucker” may have been redundant, it was the perfect way to relate to the hoards of Phish fans flocking to the stage to find their spots come sundown.