Rock and Radiohead in Tennessee

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People start to gather early during the first day of the 2006 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 16, 2006 in Manchester, Tennessee.

The first of three full days of eclectic rock music was still 24 hours away, but yesterday on the sun-drenched grounds of a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival was already getting raves. As throngs of t-shirt and flip-flop clad youngsters listened to up-and-coming bands in tents whimsically labeled "This," "That," "What" and "Which," revelers cooled off in a giant mushroom water fountain, watched movies and comedy acts, or gaped at giant smoke rings wafting across the limpid evening sky. Meanwhile, on a wide expanse of lawn studded with giant gremlin-like sculptures, a woman wearing pink angel wings leapt at oversized bubbles being blown by a pair of shirtless young men. "Sorry, I couldn't control myself!," she exclaimed.

The mood of celebration was shared by Bonnaroo's creators, who voluntarily chose to limit the size of the sold-out event to 80,000 — 10,000 fewer people than last year. "We're committed to making it better every year," explained Jonathan Mayers, a promoter from New Orleans who co-founded Bonnaroo in 2002 around the idea of spotlighting local Southern artists. As Mayers has watched Bonnaroo grow, he and his collaborators have dedicated themselves to transforming the event into a regional mecca that fuses a range of musical styles with technology, media and art. "We want to challenge our audience and we want to introduce people to new music and artists that they've never seen," he says. "We always wanted to expand and open up our programming to include a lot of different types of music — we wanted Bonnaroo to be the kind of event that even more than the music was about the experience."

Mega-concert promoters have not always been so sanguine. Just a few summers ago, the American rock festival seemed destined for the trash heap of music history. As recently as 2004, Lollapalooza, the granddaddy of traveling rock happenings, was struggling to stay afloat as sagging ticket sales and a general decline in live concert attendance took its toll. But the following year, Lollapalooza retooled itself from a touring entity into a two-day event based in Chicago's Grant Park. More than 60,000 people showed up to see a slate of some 60 bands that included the Pixies, the Killers, Arcade Fire and Widespread Panic. The event grossed a healthy $2.9 million, a major rebound.

At the same time, Bonnaroo and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, held in a polo field in the desert outside of Palm Springs, California, were attracting huge crowds to multi-day marathons that strived to create an alt-culture atmosphere. Getting their cues from European music festivals like England's Glastonbury, Italy's Evolution Festival, Denmark's Roskilde and Norway's Lillehammer, U.S. promoters have realized that once-a-year mega-events have financial and logistical advantages. Multi-day music fests not only allow bands to reach more people in less time for more money, but the scale of such events encourages organizers to turn venues into kaleidoscopic theme parks designed to loosen the wallet and tickle the senses. At Bonnaroo this weekend, hundreds of revelers wearing wireless earphones could boogie to a broadcasting DJ at the "Silent Disco," a tribal hoedown that was equal parts dance party and conceptual performance piece.

California's Coachella, which was launched in 1999, has carved a niche as a haven for alternative and progressive artists with acts such as The Cure, The Crystal Method, Zero 7 and The Flaming Lips. Along with Lollapolooza, which will present the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other groups on August 4-6, other festivals making waves this year are Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival, featuring Spoon, Os Mutantes, Mission of Burma and The Futureheads; and Austin City Limits, which boasts Ben Harper, Willie Nelson, Van Morrison and Massive Attack.

Bonnaroo's 2006 lineup includes Beck, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Dr. John and Tom Petty.But thebiggest buzzis about Bonnaroo's Saturday headliner: Radiohead, thereigning English rulers of progressive rock. Adding to the anticipation is the fact that Radiohead will beperforming songs from their as-of-yet-unreleased new album. Nabbing Radiohead for its only U.S. festival appearance was a coup for Bonnaroo, demonstrating that the festival, previously regarded as a backwoods Mecca for roots rock and hippie-tinged "jam bands,"has managed to shift its image and dent Coachella's reputation as the nation's coolest summer rock happening. Coachella's relatively underwhelming lineup last April was probably hurt more than helped by the last-minuterecruitment of Madonna, who had some hard-core rockers grumbling that the festival hadbesmirchedits indie-rock soul with Material Girl pop gloss. The resulting rift — left coast trendies in the desert vs. Eastern roots rockers — has polarized fans, who have been duking it out in blogs and message boards for months.

"It's a tough call," wrote "Mark" last March in a message board on "I agree that Bonnaroo appears to have more of a roots/blues/folk-rock vibe to it, whereas if you're looking for more of an indie-rock flavor, then Coachella is the place. Looking at the long list of smaller bands, there's probably more I'd like to see at Coachella. But if the decision must be based on headliners, then [for me] the scales would be tipped toward Bonnaroo with Radiohead." Opined Elizabeth Brady, in her article on the same site: "Life is full of difficult decisions, and the recent announcements of the lineup for these two festivals is perfectly representative of this theory. And when, like myself, you live nowhere near the locations of either show and getting there is sure to be an ordeal, you've really got to weigh it our and decide which is the better choice."

Bonnaroo's Mayers, for one, downplays the festival face-off, noting that Coachella was an inspiration for Bonnaroo and shares its genealogy as a descendent of Woodstock, the iconic '60s music festival that started it all. "We're not in a competition with anyone," Mayers says. "We're much different events. First of all, we're on the other side of the country, and we're a camping event too. Everyone is living here together and I think that really differentiates us from a festival like Coachella."

In fact, both festivals, in addition to carryingWoodstock's counterculture DNA, share a vision of the rock festival as a 21st century tribal gathering that fills a gap left by other social institutions. They also share a recognition that the ability of music to bring different people together is a source of its primal power. But in a digitally fractured, politically ruptured world, the real appeal of communal grooving may be as simple as the linguistic translation of Bonnaroo: a Creole word for "good times."