Another Stellar Year at America's Grandest Festival, Bonnaroo
After many years of waiting the Bonnaroo Music Festival was within reach. The line of cars that snaked down the shoulder of the highway was all that stood between me and a weekend of amazing music. At the security checkpoint we were reminded that glass was prohibited while two gentlemen lightly searched our belongings. We were in.
Setting up camp at midnight was made relatively easy by large floodlights stationed throughout the campgrounds. Ater the tents were erected we sat down to study the map of the festival grounds. Giggles could be heard while talking of the campfround names. Camp Boba Fett and Camp Marsellus Wallace gave personality to the sprawling cornfields which lay in front of us. We had landed in Camp Oddjob, a managable distance from the stages.
Thursday was upon us after a few short hours of sleep. We made a quick breakfast of eggs, shredded cheese, and tortilla and soon the hike to Centeroo, our 24-hour venue for all things art and music, was underway.
Upon entering the venue many, including myself, were awestruck. The sheer size and scale of everything seemed enormous. I made my way to The Bonnaroo Comedy Theatre to catch a hilarious set hosted by the Comedy Central duo Key & Peele. With much of the crowd roaring with laughter throughout the nearly two-hour performance many were sent away with aching sides and grins from ear to ear.
Next up was Big Gigantic. This electronic hip-hop group has grown to be one of my favorite festival staples. Their set got people even in the outskirts of the That Tent jumping and grooving to their unique blend of samples and live saxophone.
After retreating to my camp site a long sit was in order. Friday morning had arrived and a long day of stellar shows lay ahead. While drifting off to sleep anticipation of what was to come danced in my head.
The daylight of Friday came all too quick. Ater dragging myself from my tent and gathering my bearings I made another trek to Centeroo. The Kooks were set to take the stage offering their take on indie rock with a British spin. One of the most striking things about their set for me was the realization of the diversity in a Bonnaroo crowd. Seeing children dancing next to men dressed in all black and hippies with dreadlocks reminded me of why I had wanted to attend the festival all these years.
A quick swing by The Adult Swim Ragbag of Jollification made for a nice break in the sets of music. The free t-shirts and carnival games offered a warped sense of humor to the northeast corner of the festival grounds in a way that only Adult Swim is known for.
Next I made my way to The Other Tent to catch Trampled By Turtles. This group of modern bluegrass heroes took the stage to a scene of rowdiness that reminded me of the punk shows of my youth. At times during their set they would be playing so frantically that the crowd's dancing seemed to fall in and out of time with the music. Afterwards many sauntered away from the tent showing pure happiness and exaustion on their faces.
One highlight of the weekend came early for me watching Radiohead front row. The band seemed excited to be playing the festival for a second time with Thom Yorke seeming a more talkative than usual. The two-hour set touched on a wide variety of the bands back catalogue. As Yorke danced about the stage the spectacular light show that the band travels with changed periodically giving off different moods and perspectives throughout the set. The band also remained incredibly true to their albums which combine rock with electronic manipulation, a feat that many would consider next to impossible.
After being floored by Radiohead I hopped a festival taxi, or golf cart, back to my camp site. Umphrey's McGee was set to start at 2 a.m. and I knew they would offer a high energy set that would require me to be rested and ready to rock.
My assumptions proved correct with the band playing until the early morning hours. Throughout the set covers and teases of Funkadelic and Michael Jackson kept even those who were unfamiliar with the band interested. The band also opted to do a full band switch halfway through the set with Big Gigantic instead of taking a normal set break. With my sleep cycle completely out of order I made the walk back to my tent, reviewing the setlist mentally. My 56th Umphrey's show was a great success and more importantly one which will be remembered for years to come.
After a quick nap it was back to the grind. The Devil Makes Three brought their evil-bluegrass to Tennessee for the masses to behold. The trio's normal line-up was shaken up with their bassist being injured weeks prior and being replaced. However, this proved to not hold the band back as they ran through their set at break-neck speed. As girls hula-hooped and people bobbed their heads in unison the band sang of whiskey, crime, drugs, and sex, all with a backwoods twang that put smiles on the faces of all in earshot.
After a short break at the Cinema Tent I was off to Puscifer. The band includes Milla Jovovich of the Resident Evil movies and offers a different side of Tool frontman Maynard Keenan's personality. With the creative use of video screens, costumes, and dark humor the set turned out to be one of the most visually appealing of the weekend.
Dispatch had been a band I had been waiting years to see. After being introduced to them during their decade-long hiatus I often thought they would never be seen in a live setting again. Their main stage set proved to be worth the wait. With a setlist heavy on their classics the band led the crowd in what seemed like a huge sing-along.
A pleasant surprise at the end of the night was GZA performing "Liquid Swords." With many old-school Wu-Tang favorites being performed in memory of Old Dirty Bastard, the late rapper from the rap collective, people of all sorts were found rapping along with "C.R.E.A.M." and "Bring Da Ruckus." Also, the explanation of the name Wu-Tang was another gem that found it's way into the set, leading into the the early hours of Sunday morning.
As rain began to fall early Sunday morning many chose the shelter of tents and awnings as a warm alternative to the fields and trails However, by the time The Beach Boys took the stage much of the festival grounds and patrons had dried. As the harmony between Brian Wilson and company's voices washed over the What Stage area many took the time to sit and relax, conversing with old and new friends, and readying themselves for the night ahead. At many points I found myself surprised at just how many Beach Boys songs I actually knew. The voices were pristine showing that even with age, the Boys haven't lost their edge.
The Shins were next on my list of required listening. With my crew of friends reassembled we made our way to the front of the crowd, admiring James Mercer's voice and stage presence. What many would not expect from an indie band like The Shins was their ability to drop in samples and allow space for a few lengthy solos and instrumental jaunts into the unknown. While many swayed with the music the moon slowly rose, setting the stage for festival closers Phish.
The band had already taken the stage as I walked to the stage. The energy of the weekend was still flowing rapidly as Trey flew into a flurry of incredible guitar work that left many a jaw on the floor. As balloons and glowsticks flew through the air the band blasted through favorites such as "Chalkdust Torture,"Cavern," and "Wilson." A surprise appearance from Kenny Rogers on a Phish debut of "The Gambler" gave everyone something to discuss during the set break. As the show wound down fireworks lit up the sky leaving many, as well as myself awestruck.
During the walk back to the campsite smiles were seen all around. Bonnaroo had fulfilled what it promises yearly: amazing music, art, people, and diversity.