- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn.

As fans head to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival this weekend, the show is moving from hippie to hipper in its fifth year.

Instead of the usual jam-band favorites, this year’s headliners at Bonnaroo include Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Radiohead.

The Bonnaroo lineup has always been diverse, but industry experts say the four-day festival is changing to keep up in a competitive summer festival market.

Ray Waddell, senior editor of touring for Billboard magazine, says Bonnaroo organizers are smart to add more mainstream bands.

“You want to be broad to an extent,” Mr. Waddell says. “When you bring in Tom Petty, Beck, Radiohead and Elvis Costello, you’re showcasing a great rock lineup that’s not tied to any niche.”

The festival, which starts today also features plenty of indie rock this year, with Death Cab for Cutie, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Bright Eyes and Sonic Youth.

“Looking at the lineup, it’s actually hip,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar magazine, a concert trade publication. “The bands are coming from a lot of different genres, and they’re pulling major musical players from all these different styles.”

Bonnaroo — held on a 700-acre farm in the tiny Tennessee town of Manchester, 60 miles south of Nashville — had instant success, attracting crowds who wanted to hear the sort of sprawling improvisational rock performed by Widespread Panic, the Dead and former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio.

However, jam-band concert attendance has waned in the past few years, Mr. Waddell says.

Last year, Bonnaroo sold about 76,000 tickets, nearly 14,000 fewer than in 2004. This year, the festival was capped at 80,000 and sold out Monday.

Nevertheless, festival organizers say they have no intention of abandoning the music that has brought themthis far.

Rick Farman, co-owner of festival co-producer Superfly Productions, points to Bonnaroo favorites Anastasio, Phil Lesh, Robert Randolph and Les Claypool as just a few among the many jam bands that are returning this year.

“Do I think we will have a slightly different audience? Yeah, probably,” Mr. Farman says, “but I think it goes back to the diversity thing. A lot of people who have gone to this show before are Tom Petty fans and Radiohead fans.

“People’s music collections reflect the kind of programming we do,” Mr. Farman says. “I think most people in that IPod generation listen to a lot of things, not just rock music or just hip-hop.”

The changes are obvious to Thurston Moore, whose band Sonic Youth will return this year after playing Bonnaroo in 2003 along with headliners the Dead, Neil Young and the Allman Brothers.

“I knew that they were trying to … approach expanding the language of what a jam band could be,” Mr. Moore says. “I’m very intrigued by the fact that the headliners are maybe a bit more kind of contemporary. Or maybe not contemporary, but just sort of younger, whether that means anything.”

Bonnaroo faces competition from a handful of established summer festivals, including Coachella and the Austin City Limits Festival, each of which shares many of the same performers.

Coachella attracted more than 100,000 fans this year with acts including Madonna, James Blunt and Depeche Mode.

Competition from other festivals isn’t likely to hurt turnout at Bonnaroo — which is still the top-grossing festival in the world, according to Billboard.

“To a certain degree, these festivals compete with one other,” Mr. Farman says. “To another degree, I think they might help each other in some ways. I think people now are just getting into the mode of going to a festival event and realizing it’s a great way for them to spend their concert dollar.”

Despite the reinvented lineup, Mr. Bongiovanni doesn’t expect Bonnaroo to have a radically different crowd.

“Bonnaroo’s a destination festival where you have camping on-site. You’re pretty much there for the weekend,” he says. “There is a lot of people who are not interested in that kind of experience.”

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