I just got back from Bonnaroo, and though I had told myself going in that I wasn't going to write about the festival portion, there was a moment backstage on Sunday, in the middle of the fourth long day of music, when I figured out what makes this event so special. I was standing there with my daughter, talking to Sean O'Connell, CEO of Music Allies, when he learned she had gone to Coachella but this was her first Bonnaroo. “What's the biggest difference between the two”” he asked her. And without any prompting from her dad, she fired back, “The sound! The sound here is amazing!”
Her statement certainly wasn't meant to denigrate the folks who put on Coachella; it's just that Bonnaroo, the granddaddy of all festivals, has kicked the whole live experience up a notch. People talked about it in the crowd, promoters talked about it backstage, even Jon Pareles, writing in Monday's New York Times, mentioned the amazing live sound. We who live and work inside the industry can sometimes become jaded, assuming that the advances we read about, and hear each day, are known to everybody. They're not. But when a good system, pumping out stellar music from real artists, is deployed correctly, people take notice.
Hadden Hippsley of Lambda Productions is production manager for Phish and pulls double-duty as production manager on Bonnaroo, hiring the sound companies for the five principal stages. The main stage, where Phish played two nights and Bruce Springsteen headlined Saturday, was essentially the same d&b audiotechnik system that Phish (system setup by Jordan Zur and mix by Garry Brown; read about the tour in Mix's September issue) is carrying on their massive summer tour, provided by Eighth Day Sound out of Ohio. Hippsley says that when they tested the system on Wednesday, they were reaching 850 feet to the back wall and maintaining clarity without even firing up the delays. The subs, some of which were flown, were put on a curve across the front of the stage and evenly dispersed, providing a tight and punchy low end for Wilco's groove, Erykah Badu's funk and, of course, Mike Gordon of Phish's locked-in rhythm.
Crossroads Audio outfitted the Which Stage with a tight and punchy Meyer Sound system, perhaps best dialed in for the screaming Mars Volta set and one of my surprise hits of the show, Band of Horses.
Thunder Audio handled two of the remaining three stages under the tents with a Meyer Sound MILO system: the This Tent, where everybody was raving about The Decemberists, and The Other Tent, which featured everything from Amadou & Mariam to Del McCoury Band to Ben Harper and the Relentless 7.
Brown Note handled audio for That Tent with a smaller d&b system, where fans were raving about Phoenix's performance and Girl Talk's mania, and the over-30 crowd was treated to Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, among many others.
Beyond the sound on site, Bonnaroo is truly special, a microcosm of the new wave in community and content that defines the modern music industry. But it's about the music community, not individual artist communities. It's about content: live, on the Web through AT&T, over the radio through Music Allies, in hi-def through Fuse. There's merch and Twitter and Facebook scheduling. But most of all, there's great music. And great sound.