Bonnaroo 2016 will forever be known as the year of the Lightning Bolt Miracle.
As the sun began to set, flashes of lightning were growing visible in the distance. There wasn't a cloud in the sky over the Farm, but jagged streaks of electricity were inching ever closer on the horizon. The only thing missing was the thunder.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were playing to a rowdy crowd. Their (cheesy) jam that turned them into Grammy-winning rappers (a fact most of us wish weren't true), "Thrift Shop," had been met with rapturous applause, and they'd even brought out Chance the Rapper. Chance had been making plenty of appearances this weekend and also performed with J. Cole on Friday. And it wasn't long after Chance was pulled on stage when the message was sent out that Centeroo was closed. The storm was drawing closer.
In the four Bonnaroos I've attended, I've never seen Centeroo closed. We've had rain in years past. One of my fondest memories of the festival is dancing in the rain as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers tore through "Mary Jane's Last Dance" during their 2013 headlining set. But after dozens of people were struck by lightning at a music festival in Germany and Governor's Ball had to cancel its entire Sunday lineup this year because of inclement weather, Bonnaroo decided to err on the safe side.
And a sea of festival goers returned to their tents and their vehicles. The evacuation orders explicitly asked folks to take shelter in their cars and not their tents and while not everybody heeded that advice, there were plenty of fans offering shelter in their vehicles to folks who didn't have cars or whose vehicles were too far away and they were afraid they wouldn't make it to their cars in time. People shared snacks with the folks that were stranded. As the storm continued to rage in the distance, people danced in the rain that began to pour over camping.
That's Bonnaroo. As miserably hot as this year has been and as frustrating as certain elements of the Bonnaroo experience can be, this festival is defined by its community. And it's a community that doesn't leave anyone behind if it can help it. People share their water when they see that someone is dehydrated. I spent most of yesterday wandering around the festival looking like I was dying because of the sleep deprivation I wrote about yesterday (I managed to sleep last night) and also the fact that my sunscreen was mixing with my sweat and stinging my eyes throughout the entirety of the day. And every five minutes or so, a fellow Bonnarooer asked me if I was doing okay and if I needed any help. When the storm hit, I made sure a neighbor in camping who was on the verge of alcohol poisoning earlier in the day found shelter and didn't continue to sleep out on her tarp and get electrocuted. And if I'd been in the same state, somebody else would have done the same thing for me.
As it turned out, the storm never even reached the fair grounds. We got a little bit of rain, but it didn't last more than fifteen minutes or so. And just as the anticipation for when the storm might finally show up was dissipating, everyone received the all-clear message on their phones and over the camping loudspeakers. The schedule for the evening had to be re-arranged, but Bonnaroo was able to go on.
If Nirvana had the most ragged intensity of the grunge bands and Smashing Pumpkins were the most avant-garde of that company, Pearl Jam were the best musicians. That was on full display Saturday night.
Much like Friday's LCD Soundsystem set, Pearl Jam played to a shockingly sparse field, but that was alright because for all of the actual Pearl Jam fans in attendance, they were gifted to the type of setlist that fans of Eddie Vedder & co. should salivate over.
On the 15th anniversary of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Pearl Jam were also celebrating the 25th anniversary of their first record, Ten. And although they didn't play the entire record (I counted the distinct absence of "Once" and possibly one or two other tracks from the back half of the record), they came damn close. "Even Flow," "Why Go," "Alive," "Jeremy," and more rocked a crowd who slowly but surely realized how much of the band's iconic debut they were getting to hear that evening.
Pearl Jam didn't neglect the other records in their discography and "Lightning Bolt" and "Daughter" and "Better Man" are still the raring crowd-pleasers they've always been, but Pearl Jam has always been a band known for the unpredictability of their setlists, and when we were hit with multiple sequences of two or three tracks from Ten in a row, all of the old-school grunge fans in attendance began to lose their s***. I caught a few grown men with tears in their eyes as Eddie Veddier howled his way through "Black." I honestly came pretty close myself.
Although as much attention as Eddie Vedder gets for Pearl Jam (and he's the most important baritone in rock since Jim Morrison and I'd argue he's a better singer and a better songwriter), the real star of the set was Mike McCready who's one of the best straight up rock guitarists since Hendrix, Mike Campbell, and Jimmy Page. And there were at least half a dozen moments where McCready left all of the rock heads in attendance with their jaws on the floor as he shredded through one extended instrumental interlude after another displaying a virtuosic control of the tension that an expert guitar solo can provide. And when he improvised through a psychedelic grunge cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," he proved himself more than worthy to play a track that was made legendary by David Gilmour and Roger Waters.
Whether it was McCready's hypnotic shredding or Vedder's iconic howl and dramatic storytelling, Pearl Jam's Bonnaroo set was everything a rock concert should be and an uplifting reminder why Pearl Jam have lasted for twenty five years and I hope we have them twenty five more.
The rest of the day featured gorgeous performances from South Carolina folk rockers Band of Horses and Vermont Americana rocker Grace Potter. Band of Horses released their latest record, Why Are You OK, earlier this month, and Ben Bridwell hasn't lost a step in his fusion of gospel, folk, and rollicking Southern guitars. And although I preferred Grace Potter's records with her old band, the Nocturnals, she's still the reincarnation of (the very much alive) Bonnie Raitt, and her brand of feisty rock-pop is an inviting entry-level course in the sounds of the South (even if she's from Vermont).
Potter and Band of Horses were both playing the What Stage this year which is the festival's main stage and you can hear the Main Stage from lots of places in camping. And I wandered around the campgrounds observing the folks lying in the grass, weaving their heads to "The Funeral" and sharing some beers and talking with their friends as one of our best folk rock bands proved why they're so special. And it's hard to imagine a more beautiful way to spend a Saturday than that.