Buncombe to Bonnaroo

Asheville was well represented at this year’s Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, hailed by Rolling Stone as “one of the 50 moments that changed the history of rock and roll.” A plethora of local artists, industry insiders, vendors and music fans made the 6-hour trek down from the mountains into the muggy farmlands of Manchester, TN last weekend to help make it what many long-time festival goers considered the best Bonnaroo ever.

Among the performers with deep Asheville roots this year were Toubab Krewe (full disclosure: this writer was happy to be on-site working on behalf of the band), Rayna Gellert, Band of Horses, Warren Haynes, DJ Equal, Hunab Kru and Poetix.

Toubab Krewe at the Roo. Photo by Dave Vann.

Toubab Krewe kicked off the band’s third trip to Bonnaroo (they last appeared in 2006) with a massive Friday afternoon performance in front of upwards of 8,000 dancing fans. They were joined during the set by long-time collaborator and Uncle Earl member Rayna Gellert, who lent soaring fiddle lines to the zydeco-influenced rhythms of “51 ft. Ladder.” Later that evening Toubab Krewe was joined on the more intimate Sonic Stage by Toumani Diabate, widely considered the best kora player in the world. It was a dream come true for members of the band, huge Diabate fans who had befriended him on a previous trip to Mali but had yet to play with him. A fan of Toubab Krewe’s unique fusion of styles, Diabate added a fast flurry of beautiful high notes on the West African harp to the set-ending and boogie-inducing “Kaira.” 

More roo Krewe. Photo by Dave Vann.

A couple days later, Band of Horses helped close the festival down, headlining Sunday evening on the Which Stage. The southern-fried indie rock group includes long-time Asheville musicians Tyler Ramsey (guitar) and Bill Reynolds (bass), and for their first encore Ramsey was allowed to take the reins, singing an original song as the rest of the band backed him, and as none-other than Bruce Springsteen smiled approvingly from the side of the stage. Playing the same stage the day before was Woodfin-born Haynes’ Government Mule, which played a cover-heavy set that included out-of-the-box choices for the blues-rockers like Radiohead’s “Creep.”

Band of Horses. Photo by Jake Frankel.

Sandwiched between these high profile shows were several well received sets on the smaller Solar Stage by Asheville b-boy posse, Hunab Kru, and local spoken-word performers, Poetix. Asheville-turned NYC-based DJ Equal brought his skills to the Silent Disco, keeping the dancing, head-phoned masses partying late into the early morning hours.

Western North Carolina was also well represented behind the scenes.

Music Allies, a locally based music marketing company, organized and produced Bonnaroo Radio throughout the weekend, broadcasting original programming and in-studio performances throughout the festival grounds and to partner stations in cities everywhere from New York to Seattle. Even more importantly, Music Allies organized and produced what in this writer’s opinion was the best free backstage bar at the fest, drawing performers, radio hosts and other VIP’s to their compound for fantastic margaritas (thanks!). Providing further backstage hospitality was Wild Hare, an Asheville catering company charged with providing nearly round the clock hi-quality food and beverage service to performers and staff.

DJ Equal. Photo by Jake Frankel.

Joining some of Asheville’s best and brightest at Bonnaroo this year was an overwhelming list of the top names in music, including Phish, Beastie Boys (both fresh from their local shows last week), and Bruce Springsteen.

Phish’s two headlining shows were highlights of the weekend, the band demonstrating why they’ve achieved near god-like status among fans with impeccably executed compositions (“The Divided Sky”) long improvs (“Down with Disease”), unpredictable song selections (YEM>Wilson>YEM) and funky psychedelic madness (“Tweezer”). As previously reported by Xpress, in one of the most surprising collaborations at the festival, Bruce Springsteen joined the band on Sunday night for a trio of tunes (“Mustang Sally,” “Bobby Jean,” “Glory Days”) and engaged Trey Anastasio in a dueling guitar solo jam that sent Phans into an unprecedented light-stick waving fury.

The Boss. Photo by Josh Rhinehart.

Other highlights of the weekend included The Boss’s own epic three and a half hour headlining set, King Sunny Ade’s funky Nigerian groove, David Byrne’s revival of early Talking Heads material, late-night dance parties by Pretty Lights and Girl Talk, soulful sets by the Reverend Al Green, hip hop queen Erykah Badu and rising roots singer Jenny Lewis, the freak-show performance art that is Of Montreal, the raunchy hits-heavy party thrown by Snoop Dog (30,000 hippie-ish attendees robotically chanting along to Akon’s pre-programmed chorus of “I want to f—k you” was beyond surreal), and the ruthlessly intense and demented industrial electro-rock of NIN, made even more special by Trent Reznor’s on-stage declaration that it would be the group’s last show ever on U.S. soil.

Links to Bonnaroo videos on YouTube:

Glow stick dancing to Phish
My new friend in my flooded tent
DJ Equal rocking the silent disco
NIN at Bonnaroo: their last U.S. show ever?
David Byrne burning down the house

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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5 thoughts on “Buncombe to Bonnaroo

  1. John Smolkin

    Lord, there aren’t even English sounding names for bands there. No wonder it is such an obscure venue. Woodstock was done 40 years ago. Can’t be re-done.

  2. Whatever John Smolkin

    Yeah…it’s so obscure it attracted 80,000 people and it’s so obscure that Rolling Stone named it “Best Rock Fertival of 2008.” Its soooo obscure that Bruce Springsteen played it, Phish played it, and dozens and dozens of other widely known bands played it. NO ONE is trying to re-create Woodstock, already been done and it was a disaster. welcome to the 21st century, where there are other people out there who like different music besides John Smolkin.

  3. Piffy!

    Oh, John Cullen, you would have a blast at Bonnaroo, you old coot, you!

  4. ironhead

    Uh-oh! It’s the globalization of rock band names! We must stop them before it’s too late!

  5. Rebecca Sulock

    English-sounding band names: Ye Olde Rocke Goblins, the Lads and Ghosts of King Richard.

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