Ten childhood friends from Hudson arrive together, despite a map mix-up that sent them to Waffle Houses on two different highways. The seven boys and three girls are all in their early 20s; several attend Ohio State. Three are siblings: 25-year-old Gavin Fox decided younger brother Garth and kid sis Georgie were finally old enough to tag along.
Another friend, Chris Ritchie, a stocky, garrulous Army Reservist back from the Middle East since Christmas, grins as he surveys the sprawling, chaotic scene.
"It's like Iraq -- porta-potties and dirty, unshowered people living in tents -- but with better food," he says. "At least there are women here."
Wood panels are spray-painted with anticapitalist slogans. Marijuana passes freely from hand to hand, shared without thought of payment. Roving men with well-stocked satchels retail Ecstasy and hallucinogens. At night, sellers of glow sticks and flashing baubles make a killing.
Now in its fifth year, Bonnaroo has been fine-tuning its music lineup since its inception. While some concertgoers grumble about the lack of staple jam-band acts such as Widespread Panic, the broad, deep bill includes something for everyone: Tom Petty, Death Cab for Cutie, Common, Buddy Guy, Steve Earle, and Sasha.
While many attendees are college students or recent graduates, the inclusion of well-established musicians like Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, and Dr. John is a draw for older fans. One of them, Jeanne Davis, came all the way from California when her daughter, Anne, gave her the "perfect birthday present" and bought her a ticket.
But the star attraction is undoubtedly Radiohead. Finding a good place to see the stage during its Saturday night set is difficult, and the video screens on each side of the stage exhibit multiple technical difficulties. When they're working, the visuals vary widely, from stop-action black-and-white Super-8 shots to color-drenched Kodachrome. The experimental tendency neatly matches the band's signature style.
Whatever the technical deficiencies, Radiohead plays an impressive 28-song set, mixing early hits ("Fake Plastic Trees," "Karma Police"), recent favorites ("There There," "The Gloaming"), and new songs ("Bodysnatchers," "Videotape").
When Beck takes the stage, he's his usual irreverent self, performing a folk solo while his backing band grabs a bite at a table onstage like some tripped-out version of dinner theater. After the band members finish their meal, they join in on percussion, playing plates, glasses, and silverware.
With as many as four stages rocking at once, there are plenty of standout performances. Ostensibly a blues musician, guitarist Buddy Guy lays down aggressive, prickly licks that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pixies album. The Dresden Dolls are a blast, as the boy-girl duo offers a pair of terrific covers ("War Pigs," "White Rabbit") to go with their own quirky, Weimar-flavored cabaret rock.
Elsewhere, Trey Anastasio plays a late-night superjam featuring Grateful Dead member Phil Lesh and former Phish bandmate Mike Gordon. It rocks a helluva lot more than Stephen Malkmus' meandering performance the next day. The former Pavement leader's elliptical writing style proves ill-suited for his more recent long, jam-ridden songs.
Lesh closes Bonnaroo with a long Sunday-night set that opens with the Dead classic "Uncle John's Band." As he plays, the boys from Hudson -- some tripping, others just getting drunk -- laugh, smile, and dance into the night.
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