The 2003 version, with a stronger and more diverse lineup, was an improvement on just-about-perfect. Rolling Stone, which in 2002 sent a reporter that only came back with a cliched story on the neo-hippie drug trade, crowned Superfly's sophomore effort as "the American music festival to end all festivals."
It's a tall order to capture the essence of this ephemeral experience -- which is about the music, mostly, but divine to some because of its gathering of like-minded spirits seeking a positive, family vibe, often aided by open drug sales and consumption. Yet, the combo of the 270 Miles From Graceland DVD and Live From Bonnaroo 2003 CD, both great on their own merits, comes pretty damn close.
Danny Clinch, director of 270 Miles From Graceland, manages to encompass all of the festival's elements in splendid fashion in a DVD that includes 23 live performances, crowd shots and interviews, all in an artful style fitting the musical mastery displayed on multiple stages. Clinch's crew of eight cinematographers provides expert concert footage; highlights are balanced between heavyweights such as The Dead and Widespread Panic along with newcomers such as Nickel Creek, and bands normally found outside the scene, such as Sonic Youth and The Roots.
Scantily clad hippie girls compose most of the gratuitous crowd shots, and interviews with fans are alternately insightful and hilarious. During one, a bearded fellow in sunglasses and no shirt uses a chart, decorated with green-glitter marijuana leaves, to describe how "study of ancient wisdom" taught him how we only need one-quarter tablespoon of grain per day to survive, along with water and "food for the soul" (weed, maybe?), and that's his diet for the festival. In between the shows and crowds, Bonnaroo's zaniness (adults on swing sets, a Mardi Gras parade led by Galactic across the grounds to a late-night set by the funky Meters) and abstract, hallucinogenic qualities (sped-up shots of swirling clouds at sunrise) are also nicely rendered.
The full access enjoyed by Clinch and company allows for intimate looks at the artists in rehearsal rooms, footage that serves up nuggets such as Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals plotting their set list in careful preparation of what they realize is a huge gig, and acoustic singer-songwriter Jack Johnson soulfully practicing his chops. We also see an elderly James Brown struggle up the stairs to the stage before his introduction, and local performance painter Frenchy in action.
The bonus disc, a music geek's dream with band info, performance schedules and more rehearsals, features artist interviews from the venue's press tent. Great moments flow from these chats with the musicians, such as Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools explaining that The Grateful Dead is more of a music-theory inspiration of improvisation, risk and creating a vibe than an actual musical inspiration. Schools articulates well a point that's obvious at a "jam-band" festival where acts such as James Brown and The Flaming Lips appear along with The Dead. The interviews also allow members of The Dead to crack wise on the notions of farewell and reunion tours. "Have you ever heard of a good musician retiring?" guitarist and post-Jerry Garcia vocalist Bob Wier asks the media. Duly noted.
Without a visual component, the Live From Bonnaroo 2003 CD captures the event in its purest form, a two-disc, best-of reel that offers 23 performances, catching one tune by musicians at their peak during the festival (or, at least, songs their record companies want promoted). The recordings are pristine and mixed to a point where they sound better than anything you'd actually discern from the stage, though eruptions of crowd applause warm certain spots. The disc's best moments come with Galactic's trip-funk of "Space Headz March," Ben Harper's cover of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," and The Roots' raucous "The Seed." However, fans of the genre and/or festival will enjoy nearly all selections.
As something created on the fringe of the mainstream with a pointed subversive twist, the weight, importance and, well, just great music that made even The New York Times notice Bonnaroo, the annual festival/gathering/drug binge is hard to describe to the uninitiated. The DVD and CD remembering the 2003 edition are great glimpses into the event, but perhaps best serve as strolls down memory lane (flashback?) for those already in the know. Because, a viewing, a listen, merely whet the appetite and prompt planning for next June in Manchester, Tenn.