Bonnaroo 2009: Trent Says Goodbye, Bruce Says Merry Christmas

By Scott Lapatine & Amrit Singh
Sets from Jimmy Buffet and Bruce Springsteen bookended a day of mellow, familiar dadrock with more mass appeal than the inscrutable indie pop that dominated Friday. Backed by Elvis Perkins In Dearland, the ever humble Bon Iver followed Robyn Hitchcock And The Venus 3 under This Tent in the afternoon. It was unbearably sweaty, and Justin tried admirably to distract us with a cover of Yo La Tengo’s “I Feel Like Going Home” while a few Decemberists and Dirty Projectors looked on. The even-bigger-than-you-realize troubadour wrapped up with his customary request for audience participation in a singalong of “The Wolves (Act I & II).” Afterward we heard all the people talking about how Bon Iver’s set made them cry. Meanwhile on the Which Stage, the Drive-By Truckers were tearing it up with Booker T. Jones on cuts from the legendary soul man’s recent solo LP, DB-T faves like “Let There Be Rock,” and an Outkast cover (guess which).

By now, the campy costumed shenanigans at of Montreal shows have been so thoroughly documented you’d think by now the charm would wear thin. But the Kevin Barnes team has created something akin to the Flaming Lips’ audio-visual orgy with its own brand of sensory-overloading bacchanalia: only mildly tweaked each time out, and still totally delightful. This time tunes like “Nonpareil Of Favor,” “Id Engager,” “Rapture Rapes The Muses,” “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse,” and “A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger” soundtracked skits about, like, Christmas morning if all the presents emitted lethal gasses, just in case that’s something you’re keeping track of. This Tent was every bit as stuffy as it was for Bon Iver’s set (if slightly less packed), giving KB another reason to strip (as if he needed it). Layers started coming off his torso as we set off to locate water (scarce among vendors) and peruse Centeroo’s mostly fried food options. Haven’t heard of any cameos from Kevin’s hissing fauna, though.

Jenny Lewis, in high waisted short shorts (always), strummed and smiled and imparted wisdom (“You are what you love and I love you”) in between twangy solo tunes like “See Fernando” and “Jack Killed Mom.” On deck was her BFF Elvis Costello in a leather jacket, purple fedora, and multiple scarves. (Dude didn’t get the memo that it’s a million degrees?) The genre-hopping pop statesman is currently supporting a sleepy Starbucks-distributed country LP, so the performance’s curiously specific billing — “Elvis Costello Solo” — was not promising. Turns out Elvis actually came to please. He opened with three of his oldest hits (“(The Angles Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” > “Watching The Detectives” > “Radio Radio”) and closed with a roaring “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” backed by Jenny Lewis and band. Over on the What Stage, fest vets Wilco sounded tight on tracks new (“Wilco (The Song),” “Bull Black Nova”) and old (“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” “Company In My Back”). “Impossible Germany,” with its gorgeous crisscrossing guitar harmonies, was a highlight as always.

The Decemberists got a late start on the evening’s final tent set, partially because of Montreal (who also started late) left a feathery mess in their wake, possibly because they were playing Dungeons & Dragons backstage. Polarizing prog opera Hazards Of Love ultimately played to the least crowded tent we’d seen all weekend, but the players’ lockstep musicianship along with the Diamond ladies’ dramatic vocal delivery made for a compelling performance. Alternatively, last chance to nap before the Boss.

A lot of press leading up to last night suggested that Bruce & The E Street Band, unaccustomed to playing festivals, had their work cut out for them and would find connecting with the Bonnaroo audience a challenge. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. If Widespread Panic can headline Bonnaroo, the country’s most popular classic rock band has no need to worry — their working class anthems have been the soundtrack to summer fun for thirty years. (Not to mention, Tom Petty and The Police successfully headlined in recent years.) Still, three songs from Working On A Dream in the first half hour is three too many. The vibe was more fun starting with the “Stump The Band” segment. Before granting a request for “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” Bruce claimed “It’s too fucking hot for Santa!” Funny, true. Max Weinberg’s son Jay took over for a few songs before the encore. (And speaking of the Tonight Show team, Triumph The Insult Comic Dog was in the photo pit, plotting insults for a forthcoming Star Wars nerds-style remote from the fest.) Bruce’s preaching (“Bonnaroooooooo … Roooooo”) and well-tread knee-slappers (brown acid jokes, still?) was predictably cheesy throughout (he also wore a cowboy hat at one point), but no complaints about the energetic, hit-filled seven song encore ending with “Rosalita” > “Glory Days” > “Dancin’ In The Dark.”

After cooling our heels at the Such N Such performance art area to take in some burlesque (and risqué) midnight fire twirling, it was time for Bonnaroo Late Night. Last year that ended tragically. This year it ended much more emotionally. Plans to hop between Nine Inch Nails’ 1AM slot and MGMT’s 2:15AM start were thwarted when MGMT’s crowd (including Bruce and security) proved impenetrable, but that was a blessing in disguise, keeping us at NIN’s side for the entirety of an especially powerful and unforgettable set. As the artist formerly known as @trent_reznor has made abundantly clear, this tour is NIN’s last stand. But that didn’t take the edge off the moment when Trent realized, onstage, that “this is our last ever show in the United States.” He tempered it with some optimism (“Don’t be sad, I’ll keep going…”) and some explanation (“…it’s just that I think I’d lose my fucking mind if I kept doing this”). The set mixed a visceral light show with searing performances throughout (“Reptile,” the Bowie co-written “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” “The Hand That Feeds,” “Head Like A Hole,” and the Dillinger Escape Plan joining on “Wish” in Trent’s effort to “increase their coolness”), but if there was any possible way to make the show-closing “Hurt” more poignantly epic, knowing it was Nine Inch Nails’ last notes on American soil was it. Make that the second time we heard all the people talking about how they just cried. Incidentally, MGMT played new song “Congratulations,” the title track from their next LP. It looked like this:

So, what’s the over/under on year ’til the NIN reunion tour?