By Mark Guarino
Bonnaroo 2007 ended with a bang and a scare Sunday. The ending day of the four-day festival in middle Tennessee spun the furthest away from its long-earned reputation as a jam-band blowout. On this day, concertgoers — by now dusty, wired and not caring so much about either — had a chance to sample the widest array of music the festival has yet to offer, from a pioneer of free jazz to a country music elder to contemporary bands that softened some edges and roughed up others.
The day nearly ended with a tragedy. Ornette Coleman, the 77-year-old sax conceptualist, collapsed unexpectedly 45 minutes into his set in the early evening. Coleman’s appearance was one of the most anticipated of Bonnaroo due to the festival’s tradition of introducing elder legends to new audiences. Standing under a tent wearing a pale yellow suit and porkpie hat, Coleman performed a short playful set, switching between alto saxophone, violin and trumpet. He buckled to the ground while playing, his son and drummer Denardo Coleman was the first to reach him. After resuscitated, he was carried off the stage. At press time, there is no word of his condition.
While this was happening, the White Stripes had already lit into their set across the festival grounds. Although Widespread Panic would officially end the festival when the White Stripes finished, the duo’s 90-minute set seemed to carry forward the unwieldy spirit of Bonnaroo’s final act. On a stage shaded entirely red, Jack White faced a sun lazily setting but a crowd fired on all cylinders. He fed on and also helped provoke the rowdy energy in a set that found him flailing across the stage while performing solos of squealing blues on an array of guitars, from a tattered-looking steel guitar to a white acoustic he named Rita (a portrait of Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth was on its backside). Speeding up, twisting back, springing forward, White and his consort-drummer Meg played in continual motion that combined the piercing agony of electrified Delta blues and the sexual swagger of its more flamboyant rock successors. Thanks to the magic of processors, Meg White’s bass drum boomed like a cannon every time her pedal pressed down and Jack White’s acoustic fingerpicking splayed like mortar shells, making songs like “Seven Nation Army” sound massive.
Being set in the rolling hills 60 miles south of Nashville meant Bonnaroo included more rural music, but simple only in sound. Early country pioneer Charlie Louvin played two sets Sunday. Just shy of his 80th birthday, Louvin sang with delicacy, except when interjecting a dose of yodeling or when his voice curved around notes, raising them high in a falsetto. His six-member band played deceptively light, making songs about loneliness seem sweet except for Louvin’s lyrics that set them on executioner’s row.
Bluegrass luminary Ralph Stanley also appeared twice the same day. Roots music advocate and producer T-Bone Burnett suggested that Nashville erect a statue in Stanley’s honor. During his own set — backed by iconoclasts Jim Keltner on drums and Marc Ribot on guitar — Burnett relied on the unconventional inclinations of his players to create unusual blues songs that brooded with industrial clatter (“Palestine, Texas”) and others that zigzagged along like a boozy carnival parade (“Zombieland”).
Unlike earlier in this festival, Sunday lined up bands that, although not typically considered jam bands, expanded their horizons their own particular way. Chicago’s Wilco stood on the same stage that held a riotous set by The Police the night earlier, but instead chose to play a set in soft focus with the occasional tuft of noise. They opened with songs from the new album “Sky Blue Sky” (“You Are My Face,” “Side With the Seeds”) that quietly rose to prominence thanks to guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche. Through Cline’s frequent interjections of minor key abstractions and Kotche’s bursts of frantic drumming, the songs reached cacophonous moments, frequently countering the gentle guitar strum and voice of leader Jeff Tweedy.
The Decemberists is a band most likely never to be mentioned in the same sentence as Widespread Panic, but they too charged in directions that required the audience to follow patiently to see where they were being led. Opening with “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” the band re-enacted the protagonist’s battle with a great whale by trading vocal roles, collapsing to the floor and using an accordion, mandolin, acoustic guitar and drum to build to what could best be described as “speed klezmer.” Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy even dressed with finesse, in a seersucker suit he announced was “imminently breathable” but lamented was nowhere to be replicated in the sea of hairy armpits and dirty tie-dies.
Their dinner theater style was a strange choice for an outdoor festival slot where funnel cakes can be purchased just a Frisbee toss away. But after such a lengthy opener, the band wisely dumped the delicate acoustics and went electric for a prog rock exchange that put them more on the level of Foghat.
Perhaps Bonnaroo’s only legitimate connector to the Monterey Pop era was Grateful Dead guitarist and singer Bob Weir, who performed Sunday with his band Ratdog. No new revelations here, but none were required. The brain might catch fire if required to figure out how many times in his career Weir matched “Come Together” by the Beatles to “Throwing Stones” by the Grateful Dead. Ultimately, Ratdog’s set — like those of jam favorites Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic, Keller Williams and the String Cheese Incident, all on Bonnaroo’s roster this year — served as an alternative to a weekend of music that worked against it. The singer-songwriters, alternative hip-hop groups, bluegrass combos, urbane jazz artists and art-rock bands that have scurried under Bonnaroo’s umbrella these recent years demonstrate that hippies in the iPod era want it all.