Perhaps the loftiest praise Jay-Z could receive for Saturday’s prodigious gig at Bonnaroo’s What stage was that he didn’t miss Beyonce (who was spotted on site, but didn’t perform) and that he wasn’t overshadowed by Stevie Wonder (who’d wowed the crowd on the same stage a couple of hours prior).
Rather, Jay made a boisterous case that every major worldwide music festival should probably keep him on retainer as headliner for the foreseeable future. With his genial rock-star swagger, barrage of modern pop standards, and dazzling video fantasia, the man who once seemed on the verge of crotchety irrelevance after the ill-fated “Death of Auto-Tune” campaign, has now provided the star-wattage at All Points West, Coachella, and Bonnaroo in the past year.
There was a remarkable amount of tolerance for the repeated solemnization of New York and even the cornier new material—“Young Forever,” “Empire State of Mind”—resulted in mass singalongs with lighters, cell phones, and glow sticks hoisted high.
When the band kicked into U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” for the alternate version of “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” it recalled the moment when the transformation of Jay-Z into go-to festival eminence began: Glastonbury 2008, where he strategically responded to Noel Gallagher’s statement that hip-hop had no place at the fest by miming “Wonderwall,” guitar in hand, and generally crushing the unprepared Oasis leader’s credibility.
For a man who obviously needs fresh challenges, here was a new field of play. It appealed to his increasing love of rock and his neverending desire to locate new markets for his music. Now, two years later, he’s actually begun to master the form. Let’s hope he doesn’t think that he’s completely conquered the game just yet.
No matter how big Bonnaroo gets, or how many up years or down years it endures, or how many porta-potties overflow, I hope that the festival’s devotees never change. The people who go to Bonnaroo remind me of the New Orleans Jazz Fest faithful - not in every way, but in their dedication to the music (granted, much like Jazzfest, not everyone is there for the music). Even the bands are consistently amazed at how many people show up in the middle of a Tennessee farm and know the band member’s names and the words to their music. In a way, this mentality fosters a mindset that is desperately needed in today’s music consumers, and that is attention to detail. Bonnaroo has come a long way from its roots by doing what it needs to survive. What it needs now, on the cusp of the tenth anniversary of the event, is for everyone involved to keep making it the best music experience possible.