Written by John Shepherd Wednesday, 23 June 2010 12:19
In the end, it may be that just because you take it easy at Bonnaroo, there’s no guarantee the festival will take it easy on you.
Preparing for my second year attending the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, I made a decision: I was going to take it easy. Last year I pushed myself pretty hard, most days going for twelve to fifteen hours at a stretch. I saw an amazing variety of good music, but I also exhausted myself. I hardly spent any time with my festival companions and there were parts of the festival I had no exposure to, like the Cinema and Comedy Tent. For 2010, I wanted to slow down, take in some of the more esoteric sections of the festival if I could, and generally approach the whole thing with a different attitude. I wasn’t going to worry about a thing; I figured Stevie Wonder, Saturday night’s headliner, would approve wholeheartedly.
This philosophy was to (hopefully) influence everything, beginning with my departure from home and arrival in Manchester. We left late morning on Thursday and arrived in town in the middle of the afternoon. After meeting up with fellow festival-goers—including all three of my younger siblings, who had never really experienced anything like Bonnaroo before—we made our way into the grounds, getting inside in less than 30 minutes. Pitching our tents and shelters in “Camp Dr. Rumack” (which I re-christened Camp Grasshopper, as the area was absolutely infested with those cute but somewhat annoying little hoppity-hops), we quickly got settled in and began making friends with neighbors.
This year’s Thursday lineup didn’t have much working for me, and I didn’t have any band I was really keen on seeing until 10:00 pm. Consequently, the set-up was leisurely and the relaxing plentiful as the afternoon wore into evening. We all sat around highlighting schedules and getting acclimated to the new world we’d inhabit for the next four days. We finally set off for Centeroo, the heart of the festival and location to all the stages and tents, at about 7:00. The walk this year from our campsite to the entrance was roughly fifteen minutes, about ten minutes shorter than last year. As we approached and entered, it felt like we’d never left from last year. I was amazed by how quickly I became re-immersed in the otherworldly vibe that permeates Bonnaroo.
We spent our first hour or so inside wandering and taking in the sights: the huge colorful arch spanning the main entrance; the already graffiti-ed walls; the festival mascot “bobbleheads” (this year in various national soccer outfits to celebrate the coinciding World Cup); the mushroom fountain; the lookout tower and ferris wheel at the back of Centeroo. Making good on my plan to try new things, I and my companions rode the ferris wheel, which offered spectacular views of much of the immediate campgrounds and all of Centeroo. Immediately to the right was the Other Tent, lowest on the stage “pecking order;” to the left and forward right were mid-size equals That Tent and This Tent, respectively; farther forward the festival’s second stage, the Which Stage; and to the distant forward left Bonnaroo’s main stage, the What Stage.
After this bit of exploration and sight-seeing, it was time to get started with the music. First up was a band I didn’t really know except by name and reputation, The Temper Trap, at That Tent. One of the things I like most about Thursday at Bonnaroo is that it’s a day of discovery. So many of the bands on Thursday are just waiting to be “found,” and The Temper Trap was no exception. Sounding like a hybrid of Radiohead and Band of Horses, this band made me want to hear more the more I listened. I couldn’t stay for their whole set, but will be checking them out again.
Next was Mayer Hawthorne and The County at This Tent. I’d heard Hawthorne and company do an in-studio live show on NPR, and liked their brand of old-school R&B quite a bit. That did not prepare me fully for the total awesomeness that was their live show. High-energy and clearly having a blast, Hawthorne, in thick-rimmed glasses and white suit, led the band through a set of originals augmented by a couple covers, including an over-the-top, massively crowd-pleasing version of Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend.” The crowd was relatively small, and I found myself simultaneously wishing that more people got to see this band and feeling happy that, for now, Hawthorne and the County are the special treasure of a smaller group.
There was no way to top Hawthorne on Thursday, so after stopping briefly by the incredibly crowded That Tent for the xx, it was time to head back to camp. A relatively early evening, but Friday, despite my newfound focus on maxing and relaxing, was shaping up to be a marathon run.
Waking up early on Friday, it became obvious that this year’s Bonnaroo was going to be a scorcher. We’d done what we could to shelter our tent, but the heat was intense enough even early in the morning that it didn’t really make any difference. Last year I’d said that heat would be preferable to rain in the big-picture of weather; I began to wonder if I was going to be eating those words this year.
Before the day could get fully started, it was off to the press tent (where the A/C was thankfully blasting away) for a brief orientation followed by a surprise press-only acoustic set from troubadours Dr. Dog. Considering I wasn’t likely to make their full set later in the day, this unexpected and intimate brief set was quite welcome. The band delivered a low-key selection of four songs, switching vocalists and instruments multiple times throughout. Once they were finished, it was time to head back out into the rapidly blooming heat.
First up for me on the stages was Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue at the Which Stage. Powered by Shorty’s high-energy leadership of the horn section, the band moved and grooved through their brand of pulsing, horn-driven funk. The highlight of my time at the set was a rocking, funkified, deeply groovy version of The Guess Who’s “American Woman.” Somewhere, Lenny Kravitz was suddenly sad, and he didn’t know why.
Leaving the Which Stage, I made my way for the first time to the Lunar Stage, an add at this year’s Bonnaroo. The “stage” was really just a band-shell with a giant screen mounted on it, and throughout the weekend various screen-driven activities (including the opportunity to play Beatles Rock Band, which hardly anyone did) would be on offer here. Today at one o’clock, the Lunar Stage was simulcasting the live Conan O’Brien Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television show. The stage was packed, as the 1,800-seat Comedy Tent, where the show was actually taking place, was far too small for the big demand, and was air-conditioned (rumor had it that people had begun lining up at the comedy tent at 5am).
After the show kicked off with a couple songs from the band (absent Max Weinberg, sadly), there was a video sketch of Conan at home—“Two Months Earlier”—with a ridiculously long fake beard and bulging belly, surrounded at first by dozens of empty beer bottles and pizza boxes. Over the strains of “All By Myself,” the sketch then treated us to a montage of Conan jumping on a trampoline alone, having his dog lick peanut butter off his toes, making strawberry and Doritos smoothies, and other odd, hilarious stuff, before another montage walked us through Conan coming back from all that in shape to do the live show. Then the man himself bounded onto the stage, and I was struck by how much I’ve missed him. I wasn’t a regular viewer of his stint on The Tonight Show (part of the problem on that one) until the very end, but I was always comforted knowing he was out there, confounding expectations about what a successful, mainstream TV comic should be. Subsequent sketches included a hilarious live commercial, with voiceover from Andy Richter, for the germy, sweaty Silent Disco, and the introduction of the “lamest rock mascot ever,” the giant inflatable bat from Meatloaf’s “Bat out of Hell” tour. It was very good to see Conan again, and I was reminded how eager I am for his new show in the fall.
But there was zero shade at the Lunar Stage, and the day’s heat was only getting worse. We decided to take a brief sojourn in the shade of the Brooer’s Festival tent, where craft breweries from the around the country (including the excellent brewery from my town, Schlafly Beer) offered pours of quality brews. Here we met Tomi, who turned out to be at Bonnaroo solo, in her capacity as Marketing Director for the excellent Experience Music Project in Seattle. We immediately hit it off and chatted for a long while about all manner of things both artsy and fartsy. Consequently, I missed Umphrey’s McGee (who I was only half-heartedly interested in seeing anyway) at the Which Stage. I did feel somewhat badly about missing them, but the shade and good conversation were definitely in keeping with my desire to take it easy.
I was not, however, going to miss Damien Marley and Nas at the What Stage at 4:00. After being introduced by Conan (who was emceeing the What Stage on both Friday and Saturday, and who said in his intro that he was “contractually obligated to see boobies” in the crowd) the duo and their full backing band launched into their sound: a relatively happy, if somewhat uninventive, marriage of hip-hop and reggae. After a few songs, Marley left the stage, and Nas did some solo stuff, which I found myself enjoying quite a bit more than the previous songs. Then they switched, and Marley did solo stuff, and I found myself thinking the same thing. While I’m typically a fan of solid artist collaboration, I found myself forced to admit that I liked these guys better apart.
Next up were vintage-pop masters Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, better known as She & Him, at This Tent. After a late start, the duo and their band cycled into their set, with emphasis on songs from their newer album, Volume Two. Deschanel was an energetic front-woman, jumping around the stage, in contrast to the more staid Ward. I haven’t seen them before, and I own and like both of their records. The crowd seemed to really be digging them too, but I had to wonder: How much of this enjoyment is real, and how much of it is the fact that half the band is a movie star? It’s no knock on the musicianship—Deschanel is the rare actor-dabbling-in-music who is actually very talented as a lyricist and vocalist—but it’s difficult for me to see the “hippie and hipster” crowd really going this crazy for a no-name group playing these kinds of songs.
In any case, I didn’t have long to ponder these thoughts, as it was off to the Which Stage for The National. I’m a big fan of this band, and I was curious as to how their relatively low-key, rumbling songs would translate to a large outdoor stage. As it turns out, pretty damn well. Opening with “Start a War” and “Mistaken For Strangers” from their outstanding previous album Boxer, before transitioning to a couple songs from their latest High Violet, the band captured the attention of the large crowd and seemed to be having a good time, especially frontman Matt Berninger, who made repeated cracks about the heat before removing the vest he was wearing.
I was definitely enjoying The National, but wanted to get a good spot for Tenacious D at the What Stage, scheduled for 6:30. I’ve been a huge fan of Jack Black and Kyle Gass since they began their career as “The D” following the cult sketch comedy show Mr. Show in the late nineties, long before Black was well-known. I’ve seen them a couple of times before, but not for a long while, and so was pretty excited for their main-stage set. The boys did not disappoint, opening with several new songs thematically centered on The D rising from the ashes like a phoenix (the ashes being that tremendously ill-conceived box office flop, The Pick of Destiny) and reclaiming their rightful place as rock gods. Backed by a full band, the duo then moved into older, crowd-favorite songs and sketches, including calling forth Satan for a “rock-off,” leading to the Tenacious D classic, “Tribute.” Good stuff all around.
Post-D, a couple of relatively quick hits: First was Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers at That Tent, for tight bluegrass and (yes, because it’s that Steve Martin) banjo-comedy. Self-deprecating about his role in the band (who are a well-respected bluegrass unit in their own right) and unexpectedly, goofily humorous, the old-timey white-suited Martin cracked wise and shredded on the banjo. Next was Michael Franti & Spearhead at the Which Stage. After seeing Franti and company at the Hangout Festival some weeks ago, I concluded that the man is definitely at least a little bit magical. At Bonnaroo, he was no different, taking risks throughout his set and exhorting the crowd to ever-higher levels of, for lack of a better way to put it, frenzied brotherhood.
Friday night’s headliner on the What Stage was Kings of Leon. I know this band some, but not well, and I’d been going for a heat-of-the-day nine hours by the time their set was to begin. Couple that with the non-negotiability of several of the late-night shows, and I decided to skip the Kings set, and instead headed back to camp for a couple of hours of much needed rest.
I was back in Centeroo at midnight. The first late-night shows presented me with my most painful scheduling decision of this year’s Bonnaroo: The Flaming Lips were playing at the Which Stage at exactly the same time blues-duo The Black Keys were at That Tent. I’d seen them both before, so that was no help as a tie-breaker. The Lips were to play their full version of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which of course sounded spectacular (in every sense of that word), but The Keys’ new album Brothers is one my favorites of the year so far. What to do?
My decision, for better or worse, was made for me by my fellow ‘Rooers. The crowd at the Which Stage was massive, cramped, and sweaty. I was so far away I could only see the stage as a vague smear of dazzling light, and could barely hear the band at all. So, it was off to That Tent for The Black Keys and their swampy set of stomping blues. Backed for some songs by a bassist and a keyboardist, The Keys pounded and shimmied through a set focused mostly on songs from the new album. My favorite new song, “Sinister Kid,” received a less-heavy treatment than I expected, but all in all I didn’t regret in the least missing The Flaming Lips for this incredible set.
The last set of the day for me was the one I’d been looking forward to the most: LCD Soundsystem at This Tent. I left The Black Keys early so I could get a good spot—ending up about thirty feet from the stage. I’ve only seen LCD once before, and I was privileged enough then to have been on the front row. I was eager to try and replicate that as much as I could, especially given how enamored I am of the songs on their new album, This Is Happening. As it turned out, the set was light on new songs, but packed from beginning to end with awesomeness anyway. Not to sound like a gushing fanboy, but every song was a marvel, from the relentlessly driving classic “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” to the playful rocker “Drunk Girls” from the new record. Aside from a few hiccups (after getting hit by a thrown glowstick, frontman James Murphy said, “You know what having shit thrown at you feels like? A lot like having shit thrown at you.”) the set, which ended at 4am, was a fantastic way to end an exhaustive and exhausting day.
After having nearly abandoned my new “taking it easy” approach on Friday, and after having only gotten about three hours of sleep before the blazing sun got me out of my tent, I was not raring to go Saturday morning. I did decide to go visit the showers (only seven bucks, but the wait was more than an hour and the water pressure next to non-existent) for a much needed grime-removal session, but other than that, I was feeling pretty lazy. The heat didn’t help. The forecast for Saturday was calling for it to be even hotter and more humid than it had been on Friday, and by late morning, we could all feel the difference. If I was this god-awful hot just sitting still in the shade, how much worse was it going to be in the relatively un-shaded bustle of Centeroo?
Thank goodness I’m a nut for the World Cup, or I probably would have never gotten moving. The USA v England match was being broadcast at the Lunar Stage beginning at 1:30, and I was keen to see at least parts of it if I could. I got there about 1:45. The sun was relentlessly blazing down on the large crowd, and, less than seven minutes into the match, England had already scored a goal. I watched for a few short minutes, and then decided I’d head to the press tent so my phone could soak up some juice and I could soak up some A/C. A half-hour later I was back at the Lunar Stage just in time see that the USA had tied it at 1-1 going into halftime.
I decided to try and catch some of Norah Jones at the Which Stage around 2:30. I like Jones, but her music is never going to be described as peppy, and might sometimes be described as, well, sleepy. If you’re looking to relax in the comfort of home, fully rested and maybe with a glass of wine in one hand, then Jones’s jazz-tinged balladry is perfect. If you’re baking alive on a rural farm after taking what could charitably referred to as a nap for your overnight rest, the effect is significantly less pleasant. I tried to stick around, but just couldn’t do it, and headed back to the Lunar Stage to watch USA hold England to a draw in the second half of the World Cup match.
My next show was Jimmy Cliff at the What Stage. Cliff is a legend, and his feel-good soul-tinged reggae (or is it reggae-tinged soul?) was a welcome upbeat sound in the heat of the day. Throughout my time at his set, Cliff talked about the need for us to love one another, and that was a welcome message too.
After Jimmy Cliff, I headed to the press tent for an hour-long panel that consisted of several musicians (including Brian Bell of Weezer and Stefan Lessard of Dave Matthews Band) and was well-attended, probably as much for the meat-locker A/C as for any other reason. I’d not made it to any of the formal panels in 2009, and was pleasantly surprised by the group’s participation and by the excellent moderation of Esquire music columnist Andrew Langer. There was a lot of good discussion amongst the panelists about the joys and trials of playing large festivals, and how playing for smaller crowds can sometimes be better than playing at the large stages. Sufficiently revived by both the conversation and the cool air, I headed back out in the day…
…and found that the sky had clouded over while I was in the press tent. It wasn’t much cooler, but to not be beaten up by the sun was welcome enough. I headed, for the first time, to the Other Tent, which on Saturday was dedicated to artists with Latin American roots. Ulises Bella, one of the multi-talented members of Ozomatli (who I would miss later in the day) had been at the press panel, and had recommended Los Amigos Invisibles. These guys were incredibly funky and super danceable, even if I couldn’t understand a word of the Spanish lyrics. There were maybe 200 people there, as most everyone was at The Avett Brothers and everyone else was at The Melvins. During the show, a brief and oh-so-refreshing rain shower fell. The hippies stood just outside the tent and grooved in the rain. Good call, Ulises.
Next up was a trip down memory lane at the Which Stage, as we joined a large crowd for an energetic set from grunge-pop pioneers Weezer. Simultaneously making me feel very, very old (Weezer’s “Blue Album” came out when I was a freshman in high school, so to hear a nearby audience member say, “Yeah, my parents used to listen to these guys”…well, that hurt a bit) and rocking my socks off, Rivers Cuomo and company still know how to bring it. Cuomo bounced and caromed across the stage, leading the band through a set surprisingly heavy on tracks from older albums, including two of my favorites, “My Name Is Jonas” from the “Blue Album” and “Why Bother” from the mightily under-appreciated Pinkerton.
And then it was time for Saturday’s headliner at the What Stage, Stevie Wonder. I had never seen Stevie before, but had heard that he puts on a very good show, and I was excited. We arrived late to the set (which was just as well, since Mr. Wonder was late too), but still managed to get a decent spot on the sprawling What Stage grounds. When Stevie did finally emerge, it was as he played an immensely funky instrumental intro on keytar. He then led his massive band (I think there may have been as many as fifteen members) through a set that included every hit, along with some newer material. The thing that struck me most, and with all the force the most obvious things often do, is that Stevie can only interact with the crowd audibly, which means that he’s constantly asking for group sing- and clap-alongs, at one point even leading us through scales in what he jokingly called a class at the “Stevie Wonder School of Music.” It made the experience of seeing him and hearing him play that much more moving, even as we danced ourselves crazy.
Next on the What Stage was Jay-Z. Deciding as a group that we liked our spot, we decided to stay right where we were and wait for his set. I was not sure how much I was going to enjoy him. I know his work somewhat (I’m a much bigger fan of “underground” hip-hop than most mainstream stuff), but wasn’t sure, especially given the long, hot day, how much he’d really do for me. But when his set started, and we saw the giant video backdrop with the jagged top-edge, like a skyline, and the man emerged from the darkness into an overhead spotlight, I knew I was going to like Jay-Z live just fine. Leading his full band through all his numerous hits, with that video background taking on all sorts of trippy life (including at one point, the actual Manhattan skyline), Jay-Z was a one-man powerhouse, and he numerously declared himself to be so. I decided to leave about halfway through, as I finally hit my wall for the day, but I’m glad Jay-Z keeps coming out of retirement so he can put on shows like that.
Sunday was another day that found me struggling to get out of the campsite. I was taking it a bit easier than I had in 2009, at least on paper, but the heat was doing me no favors with feeling rested. Also, we had decided to leave Sunday night instead of Monday morning, so it was necessary to break down and pack up all the gear under the full force of the sun’s Luciferian heat. Once that was done, I was more like a nocturnal animal than a human—blinking stupidly, unable to think clearly. No, it wasn’t that bad, but motivation was definitely in short supply.
I had intended to make it into Centeroo by 3:00 to catch parts of both Regina Spektor and Blues Traveler, but just couldn’t get moving. So, my first show of the day was at around 4:30, when I caught the first part of the set from nerd-rockers They Might Be Giants in the Other Tent. I love TMBG, and I’ve seen them several times. As always, they delivered both the excellence and the sublimely ridiculous. Starting with a deliriously over-the-top introduction, then moving onto the somewhat unfamiliar (a song from one of their kids albums that involved the listing of country names alphabetically) to the incredibly familiar (“Birdhouse In Your Soul,” “Particle Man,” “Racist Friend”), TMBG was a real crowd-pleaser, although the crowd was small enough that I was able to be in the shade of the tent.
After seeing about half their set, it was time to move on to Kris Kristofferson at That Tent. Kristofferson was playing solo acoustic, which sort of surprised me, but turned out to be pretty elegant, despite the rustic outdoor setting. Something about the country legend alone on stage with nothing but a guitar, a microphone, and a music stand lent an air of additional gravitas to the part of his set that I saw. The small but attentive crowd seemed to agree with my take.
I then made my way to the Which Stage for Ween. I knew this band some—mostly the Chocolate and Cheese album—but not enough to really call myself a fan. Ween reminds me in many ways of a much cruder They Might Be Giants. The songs are exceptionally well constructed and played tightly, and the lyrics can be construed as silly. The difference is that Ween seem to be about making a mockery of artistic self-censorship by explicitly saying all the things in song lyrics that people say in real life—curse words, raunchy imagery, and all. Their song “Roses Are Free” is a personal favorite, and they gifted me by playing it, so all in all, I can say I enjoyed their set quite a bit.
Around 6:00, I made my way back to the Other Tent for acid-jazz gurus Medeski, Martin, and Wood. The crowd was exceptionally small for their set (even considering that The Zac Brown Band was playing opposite them at the What Stage), but enthusiastic. I knew I could only stay at their set for a short while, but I was reluctant to leave both the jagged grooves and shade of the tent. After an hour of music that deconstructed both the terms “jazz” and “jam,” however, it was time to head back out into the sun of Centeroo.
Next up was French power-pop group Phoenix at the unsurprisingly packed Which Stage. Phoenix has really blown up in the last year (as evidenced by their move from a short late night set last year at That Tent to this prime timeslot at the Which Stage this year), riding the success of their excellent album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. The band’s set focused heavily on songs from that album, beginning with the opener “Lizstomania.” In an especially nice touch, they played the songs “Love Like a Sunset Pts. 1 and 2” literally at sunset, and they also played the rarely heard live “Countdown” because they wanted the Bonnaroo audience to get to hear the entire album.
Lastly was Sunday night main-stage headliners Dave Matthews Band. I don’t particularly care for DMB, but was willing to give the set a chance. However, the grounds at the What Stage were uncomfortably crowded, even the members of my group who do like DMB didn’t really care for the first couple songs, and we had a long drive after an exhausting weekend to get home. So we left not long after the set began, got back to the campsite, and soon emerged after four days back out into the non-Bonnaroo “real” world.
I’m not sure if I ended up adhering much to my new policy of taking it easy at Bonnaroo. I did see (slightly) fewer bands this year, and I did experience some parts of the festival I missed last year. I was still exhausted and dirty when it was all said and done, and was still amazed by abundant cold air and shining indoor restrooms after four days of port-o-lets and blazing heat. In the end, it may be that just because you take it easy at Bonnaroo, there’s no guarantee the festival will take it easy on you. Which is as it should be. All I know is that I can’t wait for next year, when the 10th anniversary of Bonnaroo promises to make me rethink coming back full force, just so I can take it all in. | John Shepherd
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