A Birdseye View Of Bonnaroo

Longtime Pollstar photo contributor John Davisson is a busy guy, shooting shows all over his home state of Florida and logging thousands of miles as he crisscrosses the country to cover the ever-growing list of festivals.

No matter how full his schedule is though, John always keeps us filled in on what’s happening. This time out, he checks in with a blow-by-blow report from Bonnaroo.

I arrived at Bonnaroo early Thursday as I wanted to make sure I caught Janelle Monae at The Other Tent. She puts on an amazing show. If you haven’t seen her and she comes near you, definitely catch her.

Photo: John Davisson
Janelle Monae tears it up on day one of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn.

During one song she did a painting as she sang and at the end of the song, she tossed the painting into the crowd, where everybody that got a hand on it tried to lay claim. I thought it might get ripped to shreds, but I heard one person walked out with it. She also played bass on a song which I had never seen before, and her guitarist was great. For one song, she stood on a stool to sing; not something I would want to do as I’m not that steady on my feet.

Photo: John Davisson
Now where did I leave that T-shirt gun?

Next I caught Charlie Allen performing the first set at Bonnaroo, and Portugal. the Man, both in That Tent. I also caught some of Hockey’s indie dance rock in This Tent. I arrived late for The Knux, a hip-hop duo performing at The Other Tent, and they had a bunch of fans onstage with them, which made for some nice pictures. The Delta Spirit had to postpone their set until later in the night as their plane was delayed in Dallas.

Photo: John Davisson
It’s everybody in the pool as The Knux’s Krispy Kreme parties with the crowd in the Other Tent.

I caught a few songs by White Rabbits and they were nice upbeat music. The Low Anthem performed in That Tent and they were great, kinda mellow but some nice textures in their music. It started raining during their set so I stayed put in That Tent to catch the Zac Brown Band who did an amazing set, as always, mixing country with a jam band aesthetic. I was glad they did their totally ripping version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” After their set came the first (and only thankfully) big rain of Bonnaroo 2009.

Photo: John Davisson
Frontman Stephen Patterson and White Rabbits travel all the way from New York City to deliver a high powered set.

Friday I arrived late as my camera shutter had blown the night before and I drove to Chattanooga to get a replacement camera. Fortunately I made it in time for Grace Potter & the Nocturnals blazing set in This Tent. Grace has always been good and she has a band that totally shreds.

Photo: John Davisson
Grace Potter channels her inner Hendrix on day two of the festivities.

After 3 songs shooting Grace, I went to the Other Tent to catch part of the set by Bela Fleck and Toumani Diabate. Bela always finds some interesting vehicles for his banjo, and his African collaborations are no exception. Toumani even took time to explain to the crowd how he plays.

Next I then went to the Which Stage to photograph the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as Karen O always has an interesting outfit (and since I photograph, fashion is a motivation factor for me). Al Green played a great set at the What Stage. How can he go wrong with that voice? TV On The Radio then played the Which Stage.

Photo: John Davisson
The fashion-forward Karen O leads the Yeah Yeah Yeahs through a Friday afternoon set.

The evening ended with the Beastie Boys (who are starting a new tour) on the What Stage, and David Byrne on the Which Stage. David Byrne was awesome, playing lots of Talking Heads songs and several encores to the rabid hippies that wanted to dance all night long. Phish also played an 11:00 set at the What Stage that had the hippies celebrating and tossing glowsticks into the air.

Photo: John Davisson
Beastie Boys light up Friday night.

Of course, Bonnaroo doesn’t really stop on Friday night so I caught some Public Enemy and Crystal Castles at midnight sets. Public Enemy played their entire “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” album. Crystal Castles were pretty intense, with the singer jumping into the packed crowd many times. Their were more late night sets, but I needed some sleep after the long day.

Photo: John Davisson
Flavor Flav and Public Enemy keep the party going after midnight.

I began Saturday at the Sonic Stage for sets by Katzenjammer and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Annabel Lukins runs the Sonic Stage and she always gets a nice collection of artists to drop by for short intimate sets. I also caught a few songs by Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 in That Tent. He plays some of the catchiest, yet quirky, pop you will ever hear, and he had Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of REM in his band. I also managed to make it back to the Sonic Stage for some of Brett Dennen’s set.

Photo: John Davisson
The lovely ladies of Katzenjammer help kick off Saturday’s party.

Raphael Saadiq brought some great Motown-flavored soul to That Tent and Bon Iver had This Tent packed for some great music that sometimes floated over the crowd and sometimes roared through the crowd.

Photo: John Davisson
Raphael Saadiq brings some soul to the party.

I also had to catch some Jenny Lewis in That Tent as I love her voice. Elvis Costello followed her with a solo set, and you can never go wrong catching Elvis. Bruce headlined the What Stage for a marathon set. Ben Harper brought his new band the Relentless7 to The Other Tent for a midnight set of intense rock.

Photo: John Davisson
Who rocks harder than The Boss? Nobody.

Sunday needs Gospel music and Mike Ferris & the Roseland Revue brought it to the Which Stage shortly after noon. I then headed to the Sonic Stage for Erin McCarley’s only set at Bonnaroo 2009. She comes from the Hotel Café vein, and probably likes playing intimate sets where she can better connect with her fans.

Photo: John Davisson
Erin McCarley represents for singer/songwriters Sunday afternoon.

Next came some quirky music by Elvis Perkins in Dearland at the Sonic Stage with a little metal by Dillinger Escape Plan at That Tent in-between, just so I wouldn’t get too mellow. I also caught some Brett Dennen in The Other Tent and some more Grace Potter & the Nocturnals on the Solar Stage. Yikes, that’s 3 times I caught Grace Potter at Bonnaroo 2009; I must like her, but that’s a good thing.

Photo: John Davisson
She’s a little bit country. Margaret Cho goes native in Bonnaroo’s 2009 Comedy Tent.

I finally made it to the Comedy Tent for Michael and Michael Have Issues. After a couple of comedians, I left for some more metal (thrash metal this time courtesy of Shadows Fall) at That Tent and then caught a few songs by the legendary Merle Haggard at This Tent, before catching some more comedy from the Daily Show at the Comedy Tent. Again I left early, this time to catch some Neko Case at This Tent as she has such a wonderful voice and I love it when her songs have a country edge.

Photo: John Davisson
Trey Anastasio and Phish bring Bonnaroo 2009 to a close with a little help from a friend.

The weekend ended with another Phish set, and this time they drafted Bruce Springsteen for a few songs. ‘Nuff said there. Bonnaroo 2009 was over and except for the rain on Thursday, it stayed dry all weekend, which was a blessing. As usual it was a wonderful experience with a lot of friends (publicists from Big Hassle and other photographers in the pit and people I know in the industry) that I look forward to seeing every year. Bonnaroo is the right name for this little festival in Tennessee.