By Mark Guarino
Bonnaroo fans turned on the red light. And blue. And green.
These were the colors of glo-sticks crisscrossing the air signaling the return of The Police, the British power trio reuniting before 80,000 fans Saturday night. The band’s 100-minute, 17-song set was designed as the dramatic peak of this four-day festival, but the setting was strict economy. Unlike the Flaming Lips, Tool and other spectacle-minded headliners that commanded the festival’s largest stages this weekend, The Police featured just three musicians and a history of hits. While the majority of veteran band reunions of recent memory tread through the past with the cautious touch of a museum custodian, The Police strove to find new ways to approach old songs. As reassuring as it was seeing such familiar faces, the band played with a strict ear for inventiveness and a renewed sense of play.
A glance at the day’s schedule would suggest that The Police and Widespread Panic don’t have much in common except adjoining time slots. That would be wrong. The Police riffed on most of their songs, introducing new beginnings, unexpected endings while stretching the middles too. Sting brought celebrity (yes ladies, he took off his shirt) but he also bowed to guitarist Andy Summers who spiked songs with exploratory solos that released them in new directions.
Drummer Stewart Copeland alternated between sitting before a drumkit and standing before an exotic assemblage of percussion, from a gong to vibes to a collection of miniature cymbals. Everything got hit in Copeland’s drive to keep switching meters from sloppy punk to strict reggae. Some songs were recognizable by just their lyrics (“Everything She Does Is Magic”), others got shaved down to a firm reggae core (“Bed’s Too Big Without You”) while others bounced through many variations (“Can’t Stand Losing You,” “So Lonely”). Despite the change-ups, the music held to a single thread of restlessness.
The Police’s reputation for violent backstage antics and competitive infighting is well documented, but this outing appeared to be one of affection. Sting interjected his bandmates’ names into lyrics, often huddling with Summers at the foot of Copeland’s bass drum. This being a jam fest crowd, he also encouraged a mass dialogue, even if it meant singing “Da Do Do Do” and requiring the crowd to reply, “Da Da Da Da.”
Crashing expectations could have been Saturday’s unofficial theme. Unlike the dominance of dance-oriented, dreadlocked and wiggle-heavy bands that played Friday, the slate of Saturday headliners connected through the strength of their songwriting.
Fountains of Wayne played a debut Bonnaroo set of slick power pop with interjections of roots country. The band also trumped the comics at the stand-up tent just a few yards away. An example: “We were going to guest with our friend Kenny Chesney but we don’t know him,” said bassist Adam Schlesinger “He had to go suck somewhere else instead,” added guitarist-singer Chris Collingwood.
Other bands of the day proved larger than life — or at least, mightier than the clubs they typically find themselves playing.
If Bruce Springsteen was a librarian in Hackensack, he might be Craig Finn, the lead singer of the Hold Steady, a band that played a set full of rousing flourishes and manic energy to an overflow crowd. Scottish band Franz Ferdinand brought a nightclub spirit to the daytime with their stomping, insistent dance pop that ignited a sea of bodies to bounce in rhythm.
The most reliable Bonnaroo sets of the day came courtesy of Ben Harper and The Flaming Lips. Harper (with partner Laura Dern watching from the wings) played with a lap steel guitar on his lap, his songs countering his firebrand guitar skills with his sweet, fragile vocals.
Anyone who has seen the Flaming Lips knows the routine. But at midnight, a time when about everyone starts to realize their lungs are caked in dust, the circus revelry of this band’s live show became a welcome release. The Lips last played Bonnaroo in 2003 under a tent. This was essentially the same set, except super-sized on a large stage. The band arrived via a circular lighting rig that lowered to the ground like a spaceship. The last to step out was frontman Wayne Coyne who proceeded to enter the crowd while walking inside a clear, plastic bubble. It lasted half a song, but that was enough. Even if the tricks are, by now, old, the band’s cartoon humor and homespun antics still charm.
Bonnaroo at this point means hygiene is negotiable and bodies quiver earlier in the day. Day and night become interchangeable, especially when music stretches past 3 a.m. and you can buy a breakfast burrito just before midnight. This is a crowd that takes it all in stride by digging straight in. Strangers nap near one another and the sudden urge to purchase and apply body paint is inevitable. Of course food vendors see the unwashed masses as, well, unwashed masses — after all, younguns imbued with too many chemicals while carrying too much cash could put your kids through college. So it is why pizza slices cost $4 each and they can’t be plopped on the paper plate fast enough.
Maybe the most egregious example of this came as a sound heard early in the afternoon, a time when most people were just starting their day. As concertgoers shuffled between stages, the beer vendors announced cold drafts for sale. Except no words were used. They hit cowbells.