Loosely based. That’s both the strength and the problem of Live From Bonnaroo 2004, a double album chronicling the third year of the eclectic music festival, which is held in Manchester, Tennessee. Though jammier bands — Trey Anastasio, the Dead — are at heart the festival, concert promoters made sure to include enough deviation from the ten-minute twirler to reel in a larger crowd, sell more tickets, and maybe open a few more ears.
And much-deserved credit goes to the producers of Live From Bonnaroo for keeping with the theme, prudently choosing tracks for the compilation highlighting a range of artists (though not necessarily styles — there’s no hip-hop here), from Gillian Welch’s haunting "Caleb Meyer" to the sexed-up blues blowout of Kings of Leon’s "Trani." The collection can’t avoid a few meddling jams disguised as country-blues, but the real standouts — the true eclectic — come when the disc strays from the norm. Tracks from Gomez, Guster and notorious chameleons and newfound hippie-darlings Ween are enough to keep even the most stylistically schizophrenic listener interested.
In spots the album’s inclusionary concept backfires: songs from the Black Keys, perhaps the least expected to appear at such a festival, trudge along in a heavy monotone as loose as Anastasio’s proficient, but overextended, orchestral jam. But surprises abound too, from the focused funk blues of Umphrey’s Mcgee ("Nemo"), to some sweet late-nineties skanking courtesy of Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, to the emoting (and unexpected phaser pedal) of Damien Rice. Though neither Umphrey’s McGee nor Rice is foreign to the festival crowd, it’s heartening to hear Rice stretch a bit, and most of all to witness Umphrey’s take the proverbial jam-band torch from Phish and do something new and exciting with it.
Perhaps that’s the largest testament to the album: a band I had only peripheral knowledge of, one I’d lumped in with the jam-band genre and initially skipped over, turned out being the song I ended up liking the best. You can’t please everyone all the time, but with a little sifting through Live From Bonnaroo, there are enough solid, unexpected delights.