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Best of Bonnaroo: A look back at four days of music 

Over the course of four days, I managed to catch 54 bands during the 2009 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Some of them I watched from start to finish, but most I would watch for three songs from the photo pit before moving on to the next. It would take pages and pages to capture it all. Instead, I'll give you the highlights, and lowlights:

BEST GOODBYE – Nine Inch Nails said this would be its final tour and toward the end of the band's set, Trent Reznor told the crowd that Bonnaroo would be the band's last U.S. show ever. "Don't be sad. If I kept doing this, I think I'd lose my fucking mind," he told the crowd. The band went over its scheduled two-hour set time by 20 minutes to play a three-song encore, followed by a two-song encore. I had goosebumps as Reznor sang "Hurt" to close the set. He walked off after simply saying, "Thank you. Goodnight. Goodbye." It was the best performance I'd ever seen by the band and a perfect way to end it, if that's truly the case.

BEST ENERGY – I've heard some of the debut album by Cage the Elephant and wanted to check out its set, but was simply blown away by the band's on-stage energy. It would be very hard for me to believe that singer Matt Shultz is not on some kind of drug, but either way, the band's show was mesmerizing. It looked like he was having seizures and convulsions while his face turned red from screaming. A photographer next to me said, "I keep saying – this is the break-out band of 2009." I'd have to agree. Expect big things... soon.

BEST ENERGY (Runners-up) – I've been a fan of The Mars Volta for a while, but had never seen them live. Until Nine Inch Nails, this was my pick for one of the best shows of the weekend. The band's rock was phenomenal and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala's performance – jumping around the stage, whipping the microphone cord around, dancing and singing – was enthralling. At the same time, the guitar work of Omar Rodríguez-López was simply fantastic. I can't wait to see them again. Janelle Monae stole the show on Thursday and people were still talking about her days later.

BIGGEST SURPRISE – This isn't to say I didn't expect a great show from Grace Potter, but when I heard her sing on Friday afternoon, I was amazed at how much better she had gotten since the last time I saw her. More energy and her vocals were flawless – soulful and powerful. She made an appearance with moe., was seen all over the grounds doing interviews and performances and is one of the nicest people I've interviewed, as well. "This is kind of a launching pad for our new album, so I'm trying to do it all," Potter said backstage after a signing appearance. "There's a new band, a new energy and new spirit. The new album takes me on a soul and R&B journey that's mixed with soundscapes like Radiohead. I'm young and want to explore and grow." The new T. Bone Burnett-produced disc is due in October.

NEW DISCOVERIES – White Rabbits, The Lovell Sisters, Portugal. The Man, Janelle Monae, The Low Anthem, Andrew Bird and Erin McCarley. Some of them I had heard before, or heard of, but seeing them live gave me a new interest or appreciation. Monae's live show was easily the biggest highlight of the first day.

The harmonies and energy put forth by the Americana sister trio of Georgia's The Lovell Sisters, who were making their first Bonnaroo appearance, was captivating. Both Megan and Jessica Lovell agreed that Bonnaroo is the best place for people-watching. The trio has performed three times at Merlefest, but though it was completely different from the atmosphere at Bonnaroo. "This is a chance to win a lot of people over," Rebecca Lovell said shortly before the band's first show in This Tent. "Merlefest is more of a niche than this. For us, it's been very overwhelming here." "It's a huge city that's been created for just one weekend," Jessica added.

Nashville's Erin McCarley was also making her first appearance at Bonnaroo and was surprised by the number of people who checked out her performance. "I'm that kind of person who, if they expect too much, will be disappointed. I'd rather go the other way," she said after her performing at the Troo Music Lounge. "It's encouraging that people don't walk away when they hear you. They've been sticking around to hear the whole set."

WORST DELAY – I wrote about her on the blog and I'll say it again. I will try my best to avoid Erykah Badu's live shows in the future. Known for being consistently late, the singer hit the stage 35 minutes after her scheduled time. At a festival when many bands are performing, sticking to the schedule is important. Being the first performer of the day – there was no excuse. Her band vamped on the same eight bars of music for 10 minutes, sounding like a broken record. And when she finally hit the stage, she fed her own ego and offered no apology.

PLEASE STAND BY... – With so many genres of music represented, it was interesting to see the impact of technology. Nine times out of 10, it was always the band with the keyboards, effects and DJ tables that had the longest set-up and soundcheck times. Those bands that were stripped down to the traditional guitars/drums or acoustic instruments only had to plug in and go. There's something to be said for keeping it simple.

I'm sure there are plenty of other stories to share, but space is limited. Check out the blogs online at qcvibes.com.

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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