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Bonnaroo 2003 Music Festival

By: Andrew BeaujonManchester, Tennessee
June 13-15, 2003

There are two kinds of music fans: those who are honest about what they like and those who claim to like everything. The latter were everywhere at the second annual Bonnaroo Music Festival, a jam-band event for people who claim there’s no such thing as jam bands. But the thing is they’re kind of right-as shrinking radio playlists and cash-strapped major labels leave more and more artists behind, more mainstream performers are following the jam movement’s lead. Considering that Bonnaroo’s 80,000 tickets sold out in 17 days, “going jam” seems like a wise career move.

On day one, Sonic Youth took it relatively easy on the overwhelmingly white, college-aged attendees, playing mostly tuneful numbers-“Kool Thing,” “Sugar Kane”-before closing with a clanging “Sonic Death.” Later that evening, Neil Young took a page out of his old tourmates’ handbook, beginning and ending his magnificent set closer, “Like a Hurricane,” with rainy rushes of noise.

Knoxville’s Robinella and the CC String Band kicked off the next day with a jazz-burnished take on bluegrass. Then Liz Phair, in a low-cut top, short skirt, and jackboots, delivered one of the fest’s oddest sets: Clearly unaccustomed to playing to an audience that actually wanted her to succeed, she took so many requests for sublime early material like “Divorce Song” and “6′ 1″” that the dishwater character of such chart-stalking new songs as “Extraordinary” and “Rock Me” was depressingly clear.

Later, as the Allman Brothers boogied on the main stage, the Roots drew an enormous crowd that leader Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson later said was the biggest audience they’d ever seen in America.

The Dead, a Grateful Dead tribute band staffed by the original Dead’s surviving members, headlined day three. That afternoon, bassist Phil Lesh summed up the jam-band creed, telling reporters that he’d be “in the bell tower” if someone forced him to do a note-for-note set every night. But there’s something to be said for sticking to the set list: Later that day, Dead percussionist Mickey Hart was spotted in the wings air-drumming along with a shticky, well-choreographed performance by James Brown. Brown’s set, it should be noted, took place opposite a show by scene stalwarts Moe. The latter band’s anchorless improvisation may have brought a lot of these kids to Tennessee, but at least a few of them left with a brand new bag.