The debate raised its sonic head a few weeks ago, quickly escalating into one of those barroom epics that can confound music fans for hours at a time. Though nobody seems ready to anoint the Beach Boy sound as the American equivalent of The Beatles' Merseybeat mastery, it's tough to make the argument for another act. The Velvet Underground, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The E Street Band and the JBs, for instance, were all suggested and dismissed.
I'm putting the question out to you.
I went to Bonnaroo fully expecting to catch sets by Son Volt and Sonic Youth, two personal favorites. But after the spectacular, sprawling set by Radiohead, and taking my aching bones into consideration, I decided I would be much happier strolling through my front door as Son Volt hit the stage. I was correct.
As I type this Radiohead, arguably the biggest band in the world -- though only U2 and the Stones have the right to make that arguement -- is playing its much ballyhooed set on Bonnaroo's main stage. I can hear it but not see. So why am I not out there, mingling with what surely must be all 80,000 Bonnaroosters? Well, there's a couple reasons.
First, I wanted to give any early reader that might stumble across this entry a sneak peak at what the new model Radiohead sounds like. For openers, it's a return to guitar.
...a puppet show. Beck's stage extravaganza included puppet clones of Beck and his band, fighting bears, a giant boombox and an onstage dinner break. No kidding. My favorite moment, a pre-encore documentary featuring said puppet's impressions of Bonnaroo.
Beck puppet: "Which Stage, What Stage, That Stage. I smell hippies."
SUPER SET: Beck and Cypress Hill
I've been waiting 20 years to catch Elvis Costello live. A long-time fan, I've always considered a Costello set one of my concert grails, a show to see before I die. When I envisioned said set, I pictured a theater setting, somewhere intimate where I could really feel the connection between myself and an artist I've long admired. Instead, I was one of several thousand vying for precious lawn space in a large open field.
It was perfect.
If I take nothing more than the Costello set and a minor case of sunburn away from Bonnaroo, I'll leave happy.
Here's the thing. There are a lot of journalists here cover the festival, a good many of which have opted to stay in hotels rather than suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous music fans encamped on the Bonnaroo grounds. They may see the bands, but for my money, they are missing the show. Acts like Tom Petty and Radiohead attract people to this festival, but it's the surprising sense of community that makes the event special.
I, as a service to you the reader, have spent the last two nights in the campground and I'll admit, at this point I'm a bit stinky and very sticky.
Much of the excitement for fans a Bonnaroo has nothing too do with the things that will happen, but rather the things that might. For instance, although fans were enthusiastic about a Bright Eyes set, the real buzz was over who might step on stage with the Omaha act. It was, in fact, Gillian Welch. Right now, the whispers are about the possibility that classic rock icon Stevie Nicks will join Tom Petty onstage. Sources seem to believe this is true. That's a big part of the Bonnaroo magic. Yes, the assembled acts are impressive, as impressive as any festival in the world.
Here's one of those good news, bad news stories. The good news, or so I've been told, is that this year Bonnaroo will be a dry event, with nary a rain cloud in sight.
As it turns out, I had no idea what 80,000 people might look like. Rather than a traditional festival, with stages scattered across an open field, Bonnaroo sprawls across seemingly endless tracts of land like a combination tent city/bazaar and state-of-the art performance facility. Rhyme and reason are, predictably, scarce currency and enoying the various stages, attractions and overall vibe is a little like jumping in the ocean. You just have to leap in, certain that the water is fine.
Bonnaroo is also an interesting portrait of the American system at work.