What's one way to ensure your mega-music festival is well-attended in the middle of a recession? Book a reunited Phish.
The jam band's legions of ardent followers sellout arenas in minutes, so with little difficulty they will flood the Tennessee fields of the Bonnaroo Music Festival, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday.
In its eighth year, Bonnaroo — arguably the country's biggest festival and the country's best, according to Rolling Stone — will have a distinctive Phish flavor.
Oh, and a guy named Bruce Springsteen is playing, too.
"If there was such a thing as a recession-proof lineup this year, this had to be it," said Ashley Capps, the co-founder of Bonnaroo and president of AC Entertainment.
In a festival spread across six stages — not to mention a comedy tent, an arcade and a disco — a single act rarely stands out much at Bonnaroo. Besides headliners Phish (playing twice) and Springsteen, there are more than 100 other acts performing. They include: Beastie Boys, David Byrne, Nine Inch Nails, Wilco, Al Green, Snoop Dogg, Elvis Costello and TV on the Radio.
Phish, the Vermont-based band on tour for the first time since breaking up in 2004, should feel right at home. Bonnaroo, after all, was founded in 2002 as a destination festival much in the mold of the event concerts Phish has hosted in remote country regions. Though individual members of the band have played Bonnaroo, Phish has never performed there.
"Phish has always been an inspiration behind Bonnaroo," said Capps. "The festivals they created that were totally Phish-centric were certainly one of the deciding factors that encouraged us to move forward with the Bonnaroo concept."
Produced by AC Entertainment and Superfly Productions, Bonnaroo is held on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn., about an hour's drive south of Nashville. Passes generally run for about $250-$300 for the weekend; VIP tickets cost considerably more.
A weekend of such sonic gluttony at a festival born out of flusher times might be a steep expense for some. But approximately 60,000 are expected to attend — an audience that both Phish and Springsteen have drawn before simply by themselves. Just this year, Springsteen played the Super Bowl halftime show and President Barack Obama's inauguration.
"I love the fact that we're playing to, I don't know, probably half of the audience who maybe never even heard of us ... certainly never heard us," Van Zandt said in a conference call with reporters. "That's nothing but fun and nothing but exciting."
There are festivals inside the festival, too.
On Friday, one stage will host a day of African music, with performances by King Sunny Ade & the African Beats, Amadou & Mariam and others. On Saturday, the same tent will transform into a mini-bluegrass festival, featuring the Del McCoury Band and the David Grisman Quintet.
Aside from performing, Byrne has also curated a stage. Artist-picked slates have become common at other festivals — notably the All Tomorrow's Parties events — but it's the first time Bonnaroo has had a performer pick a lineup. On Byrne's stage: Ani DiFranco, Santigold, St. Vincent, The Dirty Projectors and Katzenjammer.
"Maybe for a couple of the acts, for some people, my name might help draw attention to them, or might make somebody go ... `Maybe I'll check that out if we think that's worthwhile,'" said Byrne, who founded the world music record label Luaka Bop.
Attention getting is always a part of the game at a smorgasbord festival like Bonnaroo, where attendees have numerous options at almost every hour.
Though Bonnaroo began with a reputation as primarily a crunchy, roots-rock affair, its musical realm has expanded over the years. Last year, for instance, Metallica and Kanye West played sets at Bonnaroo, as did regulars like My Morning Jacket and the Disco Biscuits.
Above all, musical virtuosity is rewarded by crowds at Bonnaroo, who respect those with a talent for the stage.
Capps, speaking of perhaps the only similarity between Springsteen and Phish said: "They are both great live acts — among the greatest live acts. That, to me, is probably the common bond more than anything else."