Written by John Shepherd Friday, 19 June 2009 06:23
70,000 or so fans, hippies and hipsters and frat boys, descend to live on the 700-acre farm outside Manchester for the four-day event, turning the flat land into a seething mass of humanity.
The first thing that should be said about the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is that it is not for the faint of heart. Even a newbie like me knew that going in. Featuring well over a hundred bands spread over five primary stages and several smaller stages and lounges (along with a cinema, a comedy tent, art exhibits, art performances, a circus and panel discussions), Bonnaroo offers musical variety that is exhilarating—but also quite a bit daunting. Then there are the 70,000 or so fans, hippies and hipsters and frat boys, who descend to live on the 700-acre farm outside Manchester for the four-day event, turning the flat land into a seething mass of humanity. People are everywhere at Bonnaroo, and they are there all the time.
But neither the overwhelming music schedule nor the packed streets and fields really intimidated me. I knew I could handle both of these factors going into my first Bonnaroo experience. The thing that dwarfed the difficult musical choices and the dirt and the hippies and precarious toilet situation, the thing that had me most worried as I departed for the Tennessee countryside at 2 a.m. on Thursday morning with four companions, was—easily—the weather. When you're planning on sleeping outdoors for four nights and spending the majority of your waking time standing outside watching live music, the weather is the omnipresent "X" factor: unpredictable, potentially nasty and completely uncontrollable. The choices were probably going to be rain or heat, and I thought that heat would be the lesser of two evils. Sleeping warm is one thing; sleeping wet is quite another. But as I-57 South receded beneath the tires of our two-car caravan at 4 a.m., it was raining. Hard.
We arrived in Manchester at about 8 a.m. and, after a delay of a couple hours at the local radio station, while I waited with a gaggle of other music-nerd press types to pick up my pass and (gulp) a massive frenzy of a thunderstorm swept through town, we made it into line. The traffic was heavy but moving, and we got through the tollgate and to our campsite not more than an hour after joining in. As we parked on the thatched grass near the pond (in Camp Louis Hawthorne III), it began to drizzle. As we began to set up, it began to pour. We got everything up with a fair amount of water finding places it shouldn't be, and a fair amount of swearing and snapping by me (for which I apologized once the activity had died down and we were under the vinyl shelter we brought to accompany the four tents we'd be sleeping in).
Once the rain broke, around 2 o'clock, the sun shined out and we began to get ready for our first night of music. Beers were poured, tents dried out and friends made with neighbors (Matt and Shannon, who later in the weekend shared a watermelon with us that, according to Shannon, they'd bought "for some damn reason"). At about 5 p.m. we set out to make the 25-minute walk to Centeroo. A sort of town circle and central gathering place for the festival hordes, Centeroo is ringed by the primary stages and dotted with vendors, port-a-potties, arts exhibits, and the smaller stages. Along the way we walked down Third Avenue (hereafter referred to, in hippie fashion, as Shakedown Street), the bustling main drag of the grounds. Shakedown offered buyers the chance to purchase clothing, jewelry, art, pottery, blown glass (for tobacco purposes, of course), food and who knows what else (by which I mean "items to accompany that glass you just bought"). The crowd was thick, the hawking loud, and I saw a shirtless, grizzled man with a large, squawking parrot on his shoulder as we passed through. The feeling began to settle in, probably aided by lack of sleep, that we were entering an alternate universe.
At the south end of Shakedown was the main Centeroo entrance, a colorful arch stretching 30 feet high and 50 wide. We joined the throngs going through the checkpoint ("Any drugs in this bag, sir?") and entered the central grounds. The What Stage, main stage of the festival and home to the big acts, was just to the left. The Which Stage, next down the pecking order, was slightly to the right and out of sight behind fences and trees. We took an immediate right, and soon came to That Tent. Directly across from it, but separated by a central area that included the merch tent and fountain, was This Tent. The final primary stage, the Other Tent, was in the far northwest corner of Centeroo.
I set out across the circle for This Tent, feeling somewhat disoriented and overwhelmed by all the stimulation. I was not prepared for the size, scale and otherworldliness of Centeroo. It was like Hunter S. Thompson borrowed Willy Wonka's bag of tricks, came to Tennessee with a troop of Oompa Loompas, and created a rustic and trippy outdoor wonderland for we overgrown children, who were swarming over the place like bees in a hive. The huge mushroom-shaped fountain and the towering, pleasantly grotesque bobbleheads were just the most obvious examples of the twisted carnival atmosphere. I would get used to it (too quickly, really), but in those first few moments the journey to that alternate universe took a couple of giant, jarring steps forward.
But as I arrived at This Tent and took up a position just to the side of the soundboard, all of that weirdness was washed away as White Rabbits took the stage and began to pound out their unique brand of energetic, pulsating rock. There is no other indie band out there putting as much emphasis on rhythm (which makes sense, given that they've got two drummers), and the boys from Brooklyn-by-way-of-Mizzou tore it up from the set's opener, the chunky, syncopated "Rudie Fails." Frontman Stephen Patterson was telegraphing manic energy, even from his seated position behind the electric piano.
I rocked out to the band's next few songs, but then ran into my first scheduling conflict. The excellent Delta Spirit was to go on at That Tent a few minutes after White Rabbits started, so I made the sacrifice and left the Rabbits after four songs to catch them. As it turns out, I shouldn't have bothered. When I got to That Tent, no band was playing, but one was setting up. Shortly after I got there, a rumor rippled through the crowd that Delta Spirit wasn't going on. Well then who was the band onstage, and why weren't they playing? After several minutes of uncertainty, I finally flagged over one of the sound engineers and he confirmed that Delta Spirit had been delayed until 12:45. At that point, I'd been awake for nearly 36 long hours, and my energy was seriously collapsing. There was no way I was going to make it that late. And enough time had passed in the confusion that White Rabbits were finished or nearly so, so there was no point in heading back over there. Damn. And these were the two bands I was most excited about of Thursday's lineup. Not an auspicious beginning.
I decided to stick around and at least see Portugal. The Man, who began their set on time (they had been the band setting up when I arrived). I had only heard a couple of songs from this Portland, Ore.-based band, and neither resembled their live sound—which was classic-rock throwback—at all. I was moderately enjoying their set, but my energy continued its downward spiral, and seeing the dark thunderheads rolling in from behind didn't help. I decided to call it an early (and disappointing) day, and head back before the rain hit. Good choice, as the drops began to fall just as I got back to camp.
And then the rain intensified into the strongest storm I have ever been stuck in without solid walls to cower behind. Three of us held the shelter down from inside to keep it from flying off the ground like the world's largest plastic shopping bag, and another of our party was in her tent, incoherently shouting what sounded like caricatured sailor-talk. We laughed through it, and the girls took the opportunity to wash up in the driving rain, but all were glad when the storm tapered off and the wind settled. We dried what we could, and I finally collapsed into my sleeping bag sometime around midnight. I really hoped the next day would be a better day, both in the sky and on the stages.
Friday dawned bright and clear, and the sun heated my tent so that I felt like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water by 8 a.m. After getting up and checking to see that everything was okay and still intact after the storm (it was), I got ready for a marathon day. Thirteen bands were highlighted on my schedule, and if I saw them all I'd be going nearly nonstop for 15 hours. At around 11 a.m., low, rain-free, gray clouds blanketed the sky and everyone breathed a cool sigh of relief. It was time to start the day.
British blues-rockers Gomez were first up on the Which Stage. I've seen these guys live several times, and I really enjoy them. I was able to get within about 20 feet of the stage, and was treated to an excellent show that opened with the old-school "Revolutionary Kind," then meandered through the band's decade-long catalogue, including a pulsing cover of Led Zeppelin's "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" (vocalist Ben Ottewell: "This is a song about Robert Plant's dog.") and ending with "Airstream Driver," the band's latest single. The medium-sized crowd grooved and gyrated, and as Gomez played, the clouds moved off and the sun reemerged.
Once Gomez was finished, I took off to That Tent to catch the last few minutes of the Dirty Projectors. This Brooklyn-based outfit's latest album has been getting rave reviews, and I figured they were worth a quick listen. I was not disappointed. I only got to see two songs, but the band's odd, noisy, exuberant sound was infectious. Oh, and David Byrne (he was "curating" That Tent on Friday) came out to sing on their closing number. Truly excellent.
Next was Animal Collective back at the Which Stage. The place was packed. I'd heard rumors throughout the grounds that this was the band everyone wanted to see, which was proving true, and I didn't even try to get very close to the stage. Their latest release, Merriweather Post Pavilion, occupied my earphones exclusively for weeks earlier this year, and I was interested to see how the sound would translate live. The set kicked off with "Lion in a Coma" from that record, and it was, as expected, spacy and sublime, but also...different. The soundscape of that song and those that followed had progressed or evolved since they were recorded, moreso than with most bands. I got the feeling as I listened that Animal Collective songs just operate this way. It's as if they're being rewritten each time they're played, and the album versions capture the songs as they were at a given moment, and never will be again.
In any case, the massive crowd loved it (Animal Collective: the band hippies and hipsters can come together for), and I found it pretty enjoyable, but the sun was hot. I also found myself feeling, no doubt irrationally, some small resentment as I listened. I do like Animal Collective quite a lot, but I don't so much like that I'm supposed to like them. So, with that ridiculous sentiment sizzling in my rapidly cooking head, I decided to head back over to That Tent, and catch some shade.
Oh, and also St. Vincent. I am here to tell you: Go buy this woman's albums, and see her live just as soon as you can, because she is awesome. And I promise I'm not saying this just because she's cute as a puppies and kittens playing together. Annie Clark (on electric guitar) and her band of multi-instrumentalists (a guy playing various woodwinds, a bassist-clarinetist, a guitar-playing violinist) have crafted songs that juxtapose classical, almost orchestral sounds with distorted, clanging guitar in a way that shouldn't work, but does. Sounds pretty cerebral, right? Don't fret: The energy and enthusiasm they bring to performing makes the songs accessible and fun. And this crowd was having a blast right along with the band. So glad I came over to see her, I decided then and there that St. Vincent was my surprise find of Bonnaroo.
After a brief break back in the press tent for some A/C and water (where I caught girl band Katzenjammer performing an impromptu jazz number on ukulele and accordion for an audience of about ten people on the grass outside), I walked over to the What Stage to catch a few minutes of Galactic. In addition to the driving jazz-funk for which the band is known, guest Boe Money (wearing a black T-shirt with "Boe Money" printed on it in white block letters, for some reason) gave the crowd the gift of what surely had to be the world's longest, most enthusiastic trombone solo. Yeah Yeah Yeahs began their set at the still-packed Which Stage a few minutes later. I stopped for a moment, but couldn't really see or hear. And since I haven't heard their new album and am not a huge fan in the first place, I headed back over to the old David Byrne stand-by, That Tent...
...which Santigold was burning down with her high-energy dance-pop. I couldn't get close enough to see well, but even as far back as I was her sound was incredible (she's particular about it; at one point she stopped a song when a brief moment of feedback interrupted her vocal, then started over again so the fans could "hear a song that doesn't sound like lightning") and the massive crowd was going ballistic. The still-hot setting sun was blazing on us, but That Tent could have been Santigold's very own throbbing nightclub.
Another brief break in the press tent, and then I decided to skip Al Green to get a good spot for TV on the Radio at the Which Stage. I was able to get within about 50 feet of the stage, dead center, and I was very glad I did (with all apologies to the honorable Reverend). TVotR blazed through an hour-and-15-minute set, paying special attention to the songs from their awesome latest album Dear Science but not skimping on the older stuff. Frontman Tunde Adebimpe stomped, careened, shouted and whispered throughout (particularly on "Dancing Choose"). An interesting contrast was bassist/vocalist Kyp Malone, who brought the same intensity while standing almost perfectly still the entire show.
After wandering over to grab a few short minutes with Beastie Boys (who look more like high school teachers every day, but still know how to bring it), I returned to the Which Stage to see the venerable David Byrne. What can be said about the man? He's rock royalty, a photographer, visual artist, curator (of tents, even) and God knows what else. And he can rock. In a set heavy with songs from his long collaboration with Brian Eno, Byrne jammed and wailed for the massive, undulating crowd. Thankfully the dance troupe, which performed onstage for much of the set, more than made up for the (expected) absence of the big suit.
And then there was the late-night, three hour set by the recently reunited Phish at the What Stage. I'm going to come right out with it: I love this band. I've seen in the neighborhood of 30 of their shows since 1997, went to their "last" show in Vermont in 2004 (a ridiculous clusterfuck if ever there was one), and have been psyched for the Bonnaroo shows since they came back (in fact, it's a big reason I made the decision to come at all). Phish is a polarizing band. That's fine. What I know is that this long set was packed with tight musicianship from start to finish without a set break, and that the band did the things well that take fans like me to a place of musical joy and drive others into fits of hippie-bashing rage.
In any event, after three hours of dancing at Phish and nearly 14 continuous hours of music, I was beat. And I smelled terrible (actually, I had smelled since TVotR). I had originally planned to see Girl Talk's late-night set but just didn't have it in me. I made the trek back to camp, passing the closed showers on Shakedown along the way, vowing that my smelly self would be making a visit during business hours the next day.
The weather continued to keep its peace Saturday morning. After an hour spent waiting for and then taking a refreshing shower in a darkened, narrow trailer stall, I went back to camp and had a difficult time getting motivated. The previous day had taken its toll. But it really felt like we had all settled into living at Bonnaroo. We were fully integrated into the alternate universe now, and no amount of oddity was, well, odd anymore. It was therefore not strange at all to live in a place where the garbage trucks all had large signs fastened to the sides that said things like, "For the 8th Time, Pick Up Your SHIT!" and "Pirates Recycle For The BOOTY."
I missed Heartless Bastards and Allen Toussaint due to my laziness, but got moving and to Centeroo in time to catch a few minutes of Booker T and the DBTs at the Which Stage. The music was groovy, more heavy in the guitar than I expected (since Booker T plays keys) and unremarkable. Having said that, it was cool to be in the presence of a legend like Booker T, and to hear him introduce each song. Apparently he wrote the classic "Green Onions" as a senior in high school and it paid for him to go to college. How about that, right?
I then strolled over to the What Stage to see the guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. It was odd to see just the two of them sitting there on stools, dwarfed by the massive cave of a stage, but they made up for the lack of an imposing setup with some of the most badass guitar work I've ever seen. At certain points I would look at their hands on the giant screens and their fingers would be moving so fast they'd be invisible. Gabriela even played very effective percussion on the body of her guitar with one hand. The sound bleed from Booker T was pretty rough, and I felt badly that more people weren't seeing this impressive duo destroy, flamenco-style, on their guitarras. But it was a show I was glad I'd come over for, even if only for a few minutes.
After trying to see Bon Iver at the overflowing This Tent without much success, I made my first stop at the Other Tent. The Del McCoury Band, part of the old guard of bluegrass, was set to start at 4:30. Also, it was ridiculously hot, and the full-but-not-jammed Other Tent was a welcome relief. When the band (two guitars, fiddle, mandolin and upright bass) came out, right on time, they were all clad in suits, and McCoury led them through a rousing set of bluegrass standards and original material. I came to the sort of startling realization, just before leaving a half-hour in, that if all the music I could listen to for the rest of my life was The Del McCoury Band, I'd be perfectly content, as long as it was in an out-of-the-way shack where the moonshine is served in mason jars.
I next intended to see Of Montreal back over at This Tent. It was still packed when I got there, and then the band was 30 minutes late. When they did arrive there was a ridiculous, over-the-top intro by St. Louis gadfly Beatle Bob and I decided, with a clear conscience, to leave and get a good spot at the What Stage for Wilco. When Jeff Tweedy and company took the stage around 6 p.m., the large, enthusiastic crowd was thrilled, and it looked like the band was too. Tweedy looked more like a rock star than I've ever seen, with hair swept forward and hipster clothes, but he smiled a lot. Over the course of Wilco's two-hour set, the band cycled through various highlights from their catalog, everything from (my favorite) "Handshake Drugs" to "Wilco (The Song)" from their new album. And Tweedy's smile just got bigger throughout.
After Wilco, I headed over to the Troo Music Lounge to catch a couple of songs from Chicago instrumental metal-rockers Russian Circles. They did their excellent wall-of-noise onslaught, and I was treated to the rare sight of hippies head-banging. Not surprising, since Russian Circles' sound was so huge it out-powered even The Mars Volta, who were playing on the nearby, much larger Which Stage. I then went back over to catch Bonnaroo's headliner: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Nothing much new can be said about The Boss, but I can say that the man and his band know how to put on one hell of a show. Going nonstop for three hours, including a seven-song encore, the E Street rocked and Springsteen never stopped careening all over the place. As he's been doing on previous shows this tour, he went out into the crowd and gathered fan-made signs adorned with song names (Thunder Road! The River!) and used them throughout the show as, essentially, title cards. He even played "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" after a sign asked him too, but not before saying, "It's too fucking hot for this song! But, okay, if I'm going to play it, you're going to need to make some noise Bonnaroooooo!" We danced ourselves silly and enjoyed every minute of it. I imagine The Boss ended the show with a lot of new fans, and even more respect from veteran fans (like me) who had never experienced Bruce and the E Street live.
After that show, I made my way past Nine Inch Nails at the Which Stage (which felt claustrophobic even in the open night air) to see Yeasayer at That Tent. There was no legendary facial hair on the band, which surprised me (not sure why). The young crowd was joyfully awash in the band's massive psychedelic sound, even if they didn't know how to have a proper glowstick war. I had planned to stop in to This Tent and catch at least a few minutes of moe. next, but I was done in (it was 2 a.m., after all) and so headed back to camp. I could hardly believe tomorrow was the last day.
Sunday was the lightest day on my schedule, and I and my dance-sore legs were grateful for that. I was also grateful for the overcast skies that kept the temperature down but didn't threaten rain. After a Sunday brunch of a bloody mary and smoked salmon on crackers (yes, we were fancy), I headed back to Centeroo shortly after noon. Along the way I encountered the best and worst tee shirts I saw all weekend, and within about five minutes of each other:
The Worst: "WWJD? Who Would Jesus Dose?"
The Best: "RNA: The Other Nucleic Acid"
Port-a-pottie graffiti is a big thing in the Bonnaroo community, and Sunday also gave me the best graffiti I saw at the festival:
Artist 1: my mom is hotter than yours
Artist 2: that's why i fucked her!
Artist 3: dad, go home...you're drunk
Besides that silliness, there was music to see. First up was Ted Leo & The Pharmacists at the Other Tent. The band thundered through their hard-charging, punk-tinged songs for a large crowd of mostly hippies that couldn't seem to decide if it really liked this band or not. Ted and the Ps played with gusto anyway, and debuted several new tracks, including a really awesome storm of a song that I think was called "That Was My Brain." Even the hippies got down to that one. After leaving Leo, I heard a song or so of Citizen Cope at the Which Stage on my way back to the press tent (which, by Sunday, was a total and utter mess). I know them not at all, but the songs were groovy and seemed to fit the early afternoon vibe quite well. The medium-sized crowd seemed to think so, too.
Then, at the What Stage, it was time for Erykah Badu. She started 30 minutes late, but when she did, the groove and funk were evident from the first notes of the long intro that culminated in Badu emerging onstage in a Public Enemy (who I missed during the Friday night Phish set) hoodie. Weaving in and out of funk beats and psychedelic strokes, her smoky, sultry voice implored us all to leave "Amerykah" and join her in a quest for peace and love. Lofty, probably unattainable ideals, but with her voice to help me get there, I'm buying, and so was the rest of the crowd.
I left her set early and experienced my most profound show-to-show culture shock of the entire festival when I made my way over to the This Tent for Merle Haggard (passing Andrew Bird and a couple of his aggressively bland songs at the Which Stage en route). Haggard is old, and so are most of the members of his band, but he can still play just fine and the crowd loved him. It also turned out that Haggard is a very funny man, as evidenced by his proclamation that he "wishes coke was still cola and a joint was a nice place to be." A nice sentiment, but I'm not sure it's what he was saying back in the '60s and '70s.
Reverse-engineering my culture shock, I returned to the What Stage to see Snoop Dogg. When he started, the crowd went absolutely berserk. Turns out these hippies (and it seems that hippies were mostly who was left at the festival) are big fans of Snoop. Also of jumping around, gin and juice, and pimpin'. It was an enjoyable time, and it was easy to get caught up in the enthusiastic performance of Snoop and his large onstage crew (including a full band of live instruments). At the end of his set, Snoop encouraged us all to find peace and love (taking a cue from Erykah Badu, perhaps, who came out and guested on a couple of songs).
I decided to skip both Band of Horses and Neko Case, who were playing the Which Stage and This Tent, respectively, to stay and keep a good spot for the next (and last) show at the What Stage. My companions saw both shows, however, and reported back that each was pretty awesome, with an interesting timing happening between the two so that as Neko finished a song, Band of Horses began one. Also, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who had a show at the comedy tent, joined Neko onstage and sang with her. I can only assume that Triumph's "handler" Robert Smigel was there, too.
I met some good people in a large group from Boston waiting for the show to start, and then Phish came out and gave us an excellent, soaring performance, including a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen for "Mustang Sally" and Springsteen's own "Billy Jean" and "Glory Days." Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio was grinning so broadly during this three-song run that I worried his head would just split open (and melt, maybe). Springsteen also seemed to be having the time of his life. The guest run ended the first set, and Phish returned to play another 90 minutes of their signature jam-rock. And then, in the way that things you don't want to end do (and too quickly), the show was over.
And so was Bonnaroo 2009, except for the packing. We waited to leave until Monday morning and got out fairly quickly, a group of bleary-eyed, filthy refugees emerging from that alternate universe back into the world we had left behind four days earlier. The sink (and, ahem, the porcelain flushing toilet) in the first gas station restroom was a wonder, I admit, as was the car's endless supply of cold air. But there was also a real sense of sadness in leaving, and a sense of accomplishment that we had gotten through the weekend -- that we were up to the challenges and joys that Bonnaroo threw at us. So much so that I think we would have stayed, had there been more music to see and more exploring to do. I guess that will just have to wait. For next year. | John Shepherd
All photos by Karen Dunbar except Bonnaroo main gate by Jeff Kravitz.
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