Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival 2011
Taken a walk outside recently? If you’re like me, the answer is probably no. It’s fucking hot outside. But if there’s any good reason to leave the house this summer and brave the sweltering heat, it’s the festivals. My most recent outing was a road trip into the heart of Tennessee for the 10th-anniversary of Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
For those of you unfamiliar (who are you?), the festival takes place over four days on roughly 700-acres of farmland in the small town of Manchester, Tenn. And when I say small, I mean Manchester’s population grows roughly 1000% during the festival. On top of that, this year’s ‘Roo, seeing the true scale of its popularity, sold out to a mind-melting 80,000+ festival goers, not including staff or entertainment. That’s a lot of people. I’m not even sure the rest of the country knows this town exists 361 days out of the year, but judging from all the welcome signs, these folks are happy to experience a unique, annual pilgrimage in their home town (or just happy to see overprivileged kids beef up the local economy).
This was my second Bonnaroo (my first was in 2009), so needless to say, I was excited to go back. After making the ride up with a friend of mine and crashing on a couch in Cleveland, we were off to Manchester for Day 1. Getting in around noon on Thursday, we set up the campsite, met our neighbors and began our hike to Centeroo, the (crowded) hub of entertainment on the campgrounds. On the way, vendors seemed to be having a festival of their own, hawking every piece of psychedelia and paraphernalia imaginable (I almost coughed up $45 for an Alex Grey full-print shirt).
Some more sunscreen, a meal and a security check later, we were in Centeroo ready to see the first band on our schedule, Wavves at This Tent. A young band with a tumultuous past, Wavves took to the stage like professionals, riling the crowd up with speedy tracks from the band’s three lo-fi LPs, a new song, and even an energizing cover of Black Flag’s classic “Nervous Breakdown” (which may have been my favorite of the set). The dust kicked up in my throat from screaming by the mosh pit, but it was well worth it.
After, we headed over to the Other Tent to see kindred weed-rockers, Best Coast. The visit was short though. The band’s crowd, no doubt inflated by their appearance in commercials and on network television, was not matched by the sound. Best Coast’s inability (or refusal) to tour with a bassist leaves the sound thin and kind of unexciting, which seems increasingly unfit for a band of their profile.
After waiting to use the porta-potties like showering refugees, Friday afternoon was off to an early start.
Our first stop in Centeroo was the Comedy Theatre to wait in line for tickets to a set later that afternoon (who would’ve thought you had to wait for tickets at Bonnaroo?). Luckily, the wait didn’t last too long, and we decided to cool off to some Kylesa, a sludge metal outfit from Georgia, in This Tent.
Soon enough, it was time for the comedy show. Lewis Black (an absolute favorite of mine) played host for a couple of budding comedians, Tim Minchin and Hannibal Buress, as well veteran Kathleen Madigan, delivering a mix of old material and improvisational humor. All of them had surprising ease keeping momentum with the crowd with everything going on outside of the tent. For that, I tip my hat to them.
The next musical performance was NOFX because, well, I wanted to revisit my high school days. The nostalgia was intense. Hell, I felt like I was back at Warped Tour! But even Fat Mike and the crew were feeling the ‘Roo spirit, ripping through crowd pleasers, joke numbers, and engaging the crowd making quips as though their drunken, on-stage banter over the years has become part of their repertoire. Gotta love those guys. Next for the night was My Morning Jacket on the What Stage. Not a band I’m particularly a fan of, but I will say they put on a fairly exciting live show. Just don’t give them two hours next time. Too much MMJ.
After they finished, the moment all of us indie-heads were waiting for was upon us: Arcade Fire. Complete with a movie marquee and clips from a short film based on their most recent (Grammy-winning) album, the band took the stage with a warm welcome, firing up the crowd with the moving single “Ready to Start,” and seamlessly moving through highlights from their three albums, closing with the anthemic “Wake Up,” and the Blondie-esque cry of “Sprawl II.” It was immaculate.
Things continued with Big Boi at The Other Tent, who slayed the crowd with his tongue-twisting verses from his new solo album (which rules), sprinkling in his verses from OutKast’s laundry list of hits, reminding the world that Big Boi is still Big Boi, with or without Andre 3000.
Unfortunately we had to leave his tent, cause whoever did the scheduling messed up and put Weezy against Big Boi. What’s up with that? Lil’ Wayne, not really known as a festival act, put on a fantastic set, which probably isn’t hard considering any song he chooses to perform is a crowd pleaser. But he kept it fairly recent, never reaching past Tha Carter II for hits. The night ended shortly thereafter with a quick visit to Bassnectar and Pretty Lights.
Saturday seemed to be the busiest day of the weekend, the schedule riddled with conflicts: Portugal. the Man vs. Man Man vs. Wiz Khalifa vs. Mumford & Sons? Huh? After a side-splitting comedy set by Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino), we decided to hop around and take in everything, only to realize that everything was still crowded despite the busy schedule.
Finally, we settled on Mumford & Sons at the Which Stage (the second largest stage). When my friend said they deserved to be on What Stage, she was absolutely right. I’d never really given M&S too much time, but the crowd, which had gone back for what felt like miles, certainly had a tangible love for the band, never shy to profess it as the act played feverishly on the stage. It was definitely a performance worth catching.
After swimming through the sea of people to make it back to our campsite, we prepared ourselves for a set that I couldn’t see coming even if it sent me a telegram first. As the Black Keys left the stage, the entire Bonnaroo crowd waited in anticipation for the arrival of the infamous rapper/producer/pop icon Marshall Mathers, commonly known as Eminem. The announcement of his headlining was surely divisive, but after his set, there was no doubt that Eminem belonged on that stage.
Clearly a seasoned performer, the 38-year-old rapper rattled through verses at breakneck speed while dancing back and forth on the stage. He was shortly joined by fellow Detroit rapper Royce da 5’9″ to perform a couple songs off their recent duo EP, Hell: the Sequel. The energy in the crowd exploded when Eminem eventually hit the well of buried hits like “Without Me” and “My Name Is.” I think I can finally forgive Relapse (and Recovery)…almost.
Then the night officially started. I caught the latter half of the Scissor Sisters set, and at about 2:30 a.m., with about 10,000 other people at This Tent, it was Girl Talk time. Gregg Gillis, (arguably) the mash-up master, turned the tent into a gigantic rave room, cutting together a collage of pop culture staples— everything from “Juicy” to “Karma Police” to “Pretty Boy Swag” to the Beatles’ “Birthday” — mashing them together into club bangers while the dancing mass mashed against the Tennessee dirt. Gillis certainly has a unique knack for synthesizing great party music. It wouldn’t surprise me if we woke some people in the next town.
Sunday proved no less exciting than the days before. Our day began around 1 p.m., arriving late to the Smith Westerns at This Tent, but just in time for their pop-rock sing-along “Weekend,” as well as a new song. The rest of the day we used to rest up and explore until around 4:30, when Swedish radio-pop-turned-dance-queen Robyn took to the stage at The Other Tent. Backed with a live band, she delivers her distinct brand of New Age and electro, dancing all the while, and not just for the crowd. “Dancing On My Own” seems more like part of her person than a catchy hook, giving her performance a power that others lack.
We closed out the weekend with two sets of equally epic proportions slotted at the exact same time: Explosions in the Sky and The Strokes. We decided to go half-and-half respectively and, truth be told, I kinda wish we’d stayed with EITS. One of the few (or perhaps the only) instrumental rock bands to play all weekend, the quartet breathed life into their emotional, bare sort of post-rock with passion and with the full attention of the crowd, a testament to the visceral power of their music.
The Strokes, on the other hand, come from a much different background, where the pastoral plains of Texas are replaced with the bright city lights of New York City. And the proof is in the pudding. A bored looking Strokes, fronted by a seemingly disgruntled Julian Casablancas looked as though they were transplanted right from a bar in Lower Manhattan, where the alcohol and lights play a much larger role, onto a big stage in the early evening in Tennessee. To be brief, the guys were out of their element, but giving them the benefit of the doubt, the performance wasn’t as bad as it was just lackluster.
Our weekend was over. Our home in Tent City was reduced to stakes and tarps and we had to say goodbye to our new friends, our old ones, the strangers, the drugs, the drum circles, the lights; everything. And instead of blowing out candles for ‘Roo’s tenth birthday, we were given a fireworks show, a beautiful spectacle to end a beautiful evening.
It does sadden me that I had to miss legends like Dr. John and Bootsy Collins to catch contemporary artists, not to mention the crowds and the heat, but there’s only so much you can ask of one festival. Bonnaroo, like other festivals of its size, throws so much at you that it’s often difficult to understand the magnitude of everything happening around you, which can be as much a curse as it is a gift. But one thing is undeniable: it’s an experience that stays with you well after you leave. Speaking of which, I think I’m finally ready to cut this wristband off.
P.S~ My condolences go out to the family and friends of the two deaths that occured this year at the festival (reported by Billboard).