Publication: The New York Times
Author: Jon Pareles
Back in the 1960’s, the hippie counterculture briefly looked like a political opposition to a protracted war. At Bonnaroo this year, hippie fashion statements also go with protest songs and anti-Bush pronouncements. Perhaps that’s no surprise at a festival that includes longtime politically inclined rappers like the Roots, Michael Franti and El-P, who tour to the same collegiate audience that comes to Bonnaroo. Friday’s lineup also included Manu Chao, the globe-trotting, mostly Spanish-speaking songwriter whose hopped-up reggae and ska songs decry violence and poverty, support human rights (especially for immigrants and displaced people) and savor romance and marijuana.
Righteous politics can’t guarantee good songs. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine arrived as the Nightwatchman, his acoustic-guitar-strumming agitprop persona. He’s so sententious he verges on self-parody, referring to himself in the third person. “Much appreciated by the Nightwatchman,” he said, after the audience obligingly cheered a second run-through of a song about health care, “Alone,” that needed another take for a Michael Moore video.
Yet even performers who don’t protest full-time were making political statements. The blues and jazz songwriters James Blood Ulmer and Doug Wamble; the upbeat, smiley bands RX Bandits and Apollo Sunshine and the trad-rock songwriter Richard Thompson all lodged their discontent. And perhaps by coincidence, I heard one song redone by two very different acts, the soul-revivalist singer Ryan Shaw and the rock band Cold War Kids. It was Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”