Review by Chris Baker
Most friends have special summer traditions to which they adhere. Some spend a weekend at a lake house sipping cocktails and working on tans. Others pack an RV and play frontiersmen for a few weeks. The adventurous may take a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee seeking reprieve.
My friends and I: we go to Bonnaroo.
The tradition began in 2006 with me and four friends from college. We had just finished our sophomore year and were looking for some excitement to dull the pain of going home for summer. One of us (I can’t remember which) discovered Bonnaroo and we decided to go. None had ever been to a music festival and we had no idea what to expect (one guy had never even been to a concert). So we packed a few sleeping bags, some canned goods and a tent into my Honda Accord and we headed south.
Five years later the tradition is stronger than ever. The group has grown considerably, even though only myself and one other person (Big Mark) remain from the original five. Not only have we grown in number, but we’ve evolved into seasoned festival-goers. Each year, new people join our group. Many of us arrive as strangers, yet each year we leave closer than ever, knowing we’ve shared (and survived) an incredible experience.
This year our number totaled 16. Some came from Rochester, NY, others from Syracuse and still more from the Big Apple. We even picked up a few Pennsylvanians for good measure. We met in Murfreesboro, TN, Wednesday morning in order to pick up last minute supplies and loiter in the Wal-Mart parking lot for a few hours before the gates opened. We arrived at the park in time to secure a premium campsite. We were well within earshot of the main stage and only a five-minute walk to the park. We set up camp Wednesday night, complete with multiple shade tents, screen doors, picnic tables, indoor/outdoor carpeting and at least two queen-size air mattresses. Like I said: seasoned festival-goers.
Thursday night has historically been slow at Centeroo. Smaller acts are given a chance to play the festival and concertgoers who arrive early enough can catch some under-the-radar bands. This year, however, the festival gates were opened Wednesday afternoon, about 18 hours earlier than usual, allowing far more time for people to set up camp and rest after traveling all day. By the time Sleigh Bells took the stage at The Other Tent* around 10:00, the grounds were flooded with people. I spent the evening wandering aimlessly from stage to stage with some friends, seeing Beats Antique, Childish Gambino and the odd jams of Dam-Funk and Master Blazter. Most of the night, however, was spent dancing in the grass at the Solar Stage to the sounds of Gypsy Hands Tribal Dance and Fresh Trix Breakdancing. Needless to say, it was a weird night.
Despite what MTV may have told you, Eminem did not “steal the show”. In fact, his people probably bought that headline. The true thieves last weekend were Jim James and Co. My Morning Jacket set the bar high Friday evening and all subsequent main stage acts struggled to reach it. That isn’t to say that none came close. Galactic, Mumford & Sons, String Cheese Incident and Widespread Panic all put on great shows, but My Morning Jacket proved to be in a league of their own.
I’d like to preface the musical review portion of this review by quoting a stranger I overheard at the festival. He said being at Bonnaroo is like being a “kid in a candy store.” While the cliché is appropriate, I think it’s an understatement. Being at Bonnaroo is like being a kid in a town filled with candy stores. Not only is there a plethora of musical acts to choose from at any given time, there are all sorts of activities, events, shows and parties to divert your attention from the dozen or so stages hosting great live music. Centeroo features a water park, comedy tent, movie theater, beer garden, carnival, Ferris wheel and even an arts and crafts tent. For this reason, it’s important to make a plan each day and stick to it. Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…
Friday, June 10
“Let me see your titties!”
-Kim Schifino of Matt & Kim
I kicked off Friday at The Other Tent with Ben Sollee. The one-man acoustic act was entertaining, but Mr. Sollee spent a lot of time pushing his environmental agenda, harping on big oil for blowing up mountains. I left early in order to get a good spot for Bela Fleck & The Flecktones. They were as good as ever with Bela plucking away merrily on the banjo and the incomparable Victor Wooten grooving on bass. After Bela came the first tough decision of the day: Grace Potter & the Nocturnals at What Stage opposite Matt & Kim at This Tent. Typically this would be a no-brainer in favor of Grace. However, I had seen her five or six times before and knew that she would be playing my hometown within a month. I had always wanted to see Matt & Kim but had never had a chance. So I performed some musical triage and bailed on the lovely Grace Potter. My policy in those situations is to go with the unknown.
My decision paid off. Matt & Kim played a high-energy set typified by Kim Schifino’s up-tempo, minimalist drumming and the pseudo-punk vocals of Matt Johnson. The duo was just as excited as their fans to be at Bonnaroo, and rambled on between songs like giddy schoolgirls. Matt’s infectious energy kept the crowd moving throughout the 75-minute set, which included an off-the-cuff rendition of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” as well as a command from Matt to “jump on it” as he worked in the Sir Mixalot tune. Kim did her best to match the cheers Matt received by getting on the mic and demanding the ladies in the audience “show her their titties”.
I left the show dripping sweat and decided to take a break from dancing with the soothing sounds of Ray Lamontagne. I sat in the grass as the bluesman serenaded the Which Stage crowd with his soulful voice and down-tempo ballads. I left in time to reach the main stage for My Morning Jacket, which brings me back to where I began.
Eclectic front man Jim James was on a mission to prove that MMJ was worthy of playing the festival’s premier stage. In years past the group has been relegated to Which Stage, and various tents before that, often competing for a crowd with other major acts. This year they received little interference from other acts, with the exception of a 45-minute overlap with Primus. James and Co. made the most of their uninterrupted time slot, putting on two hours of nonstop rock for a crowd of over 60,000.
Incorporated in the two-hour set were a horn ensemble, touches of electronic psychedelia and an acoustic number from James. The showmanship of the effervescent front man was reminiscent of The Who, with soaring vocals, screeching guitar and an utter disregard for physical safety. James jumped around the stage like a rock god, but managed never to lose control of himself or the music – perfectly balancing stage antics with a stellar musical performance.
The bands newest album “Circuital” was heavily featured in the set. They opened up right away with “Victory Dance,” followed immediately by the album’s title track. By the time they got around to playing “I’m Amazed,” I was completely absorbed by their sound. The purity of James voice combined with the raw, organic instrumentals creates a sound that few other bands can match.
With the end of MMJ’s set came the realization that it would be nearly impossible for any act to match what I had just seen. Exhausted from two hours of cheering and grooving, I returned to my campsite with a few of my group in order to get some food and rest up for a long night ahead.
Saturday, June 11
“Turn to the woman next to you and yell, ‘F*** you b****!’”
-Crowd control with Eminem
It’s difficult to sleep late when the temperature reaches 80 degrees by 9 AM. It’s even more difficult when you don’t get back to camp until the sun rises. Such is typically the case for the night owls of Bonnaroo.
I woke up in the grass outside my tent on Saturday morning. I’ve learned over the last 5 years that waking up covered in dew is more pleasant than baking all morning in a sun-drenched tent. The rest of the group were slowly making their way out of tents and into the shade. We spent the morning swapping stories from Friday night. Some told of their spot right up behind the stage for Pretty Lights. Others recounted taking a walk to Shakedown Street at 5 AM. Me: I explained how I got separated from the group after lying down in a field behind This Tent while Bassnectar’s “womp womp” shook the earth beneath me. I told how I walked to Pretty Lights in order to find everyone else but quickly gave up hope and enjoyed the light show and sampled beats of the Denver DJ from the back of the crowd.
My excessive sun exposure and alcohol intake during the day Friday had worn me out and left me a zombie for the nighttime activities. I watched some of my favorite DJs, but was detached from the music for most of the night. I vowed to myself to avoid making the same mistake Saturday. With that in mind, I set off from the campgrounds in time to catch Old Crow Medicine Show at 2 pm.
Old Crow was the first in a day-long series of bluegrass and folk bands at Which Stage. Unfortunately, the sound techs at the stage never got the levels right. Throughout the day it was difficult to hear the acts on the second-largest stage in most of the lawn. This didn’t bode well for people like me who like to mill around the back and enjoy the music without being swarmed. Regardless, the Southern string band seemed right at home, surrounded by a crowd of straw hats and denim skirts. They opened the set with “Down Home Girl,” a tribute to plantation girls, and plucked their way through their repertoire of knee-slapping tunes.
Seeking relief from the sun following Old Crow, I headed to That Tent with some friends to check out Deer Tick. I was unfamiliar with the group, but my friend Kit – who has, in the past, turned me on to groups such as Pretty Lights and My Morning Jacket – recommended them. Trusting his track record, I went with him to see what they were all about. As usual, I was not disappointed. Front man John McCauley strutted on stage drinking a Budweiser and uttering jovial greetings to the crowd. His indistinct style was a mix between a Brooklyn hipster and a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band’s sound was equally diverse. The stripped-down drum kit and simplistic guitar riffs mimicked grunge, but the songs were infused with touches of southern blues. I left the show with an appetite for more and marked Deer Tick as a band to keep an eye out for in the future.
I wandered from Deer Tick back to Which Stage to catch the end of Alison Krauss’s set. However, since there were few other acts playing at the time, the stage was unbearably crowded. And, as mentioned earlier, the sound still left a lot to be desired. After sitting in the shade for a few barely-audible songs I decided to head back to camp to get some dinner and prepare for what would end up being a 12-hour music marathon.
Back at camp I found a few of my companions still recovering in the shade. I rallied one of them (lady Alexandria) who joined me for Mumford & Sons at 6:15. I threw on a fresh shirt for the night, grabbed a bite and we headed back to the park. By the time we got to Which Stage for the English folk band, the lawn was packed. 30,000 people sang along with Marcus Mumford and he belted out the chorus of “The Cave” with a three-piece horn section accompanying. Marcus looks like a young Alec Baldwin and even sounds the way I imagine Alec Baldwin would sound had he been an English folk singer. Mumford’s band, which seemed to spring up out of nowhere over the past year, showcased their entire album in front of one of the largest crowds the Which Stage saw all weekend. The 90-minute set was a testament to their newfound popularity. They ripped through their catchy folk tunes with an energy and enthusiasm only found in bands to whom fame and fortune are a novelty. For their sake (and ours) I hope it lasts, because they were one of the few aforementioned acts who gave MMJ a run for their money. Like Matt & Kim, they were visibly thrilled to be playing at Bonnaroo.
Alex and I made our way to the main stage as the encore played (a sweet rendition of “Amazing Grace” with Jerry Douglas and Old Crow Medicine Show joining) in an attempt to find our friends for The Black Keys. We did, and we carved out a spot by the beer tent from which to watch the show. While I’ve never really gotten into The Black Keys, I was excited to see what they could do live. I was disappointed, however, when they took the stage 15 minutes late and left the stage almost half an hour early. What was scheduled as a 90-minute set ended up lasting less than an hour. They sounded great for the short time they were onstage, but I was unimpressed that they couldn’t come up with an encore or at least find something more to play for twenty minutes.
Alex left shortly after The Keys to go see an old family friend: Neil Young. He was playing Which Stage with Buffalo Springfield. She ended up backstage with Neil and secured a VIP pass, which would be put to good use on Sunday. I waited with the rest of the group at What Stage for Saturday’s headliner, Eminem. I was unusually eager to see his show. Like most people my age, I was obsessed with Eminem in Jr. High. I bought all his albums (despite my parents forbidding them) and I even had bleached blonde hair ala Slim Shady for a summer. While I’ve since moved past that phase, I assumed he would put on a good show and I would get to hear some old hits.
Unfortunately, the show played out like a bad infomercial for his new album.
The set opened with a self-indulgent explanation of Eminem’s history of drug abuse, rehab and recovery, all explained with scrolling Star Wars text on the main screen. The audience was told that we were about to witness his triumphant return to the stage and his “recovery”. He stomped onstage, angry as ever, donning a black hoodie and cargo shorts. His recovery, however, consisted of soliciting cheap screams between songs and only briefly touching on the music that made him popular (a ten-minute medley of songs from his early LPs). He displayed no real showmanship, electing instead to constantly scream “Bonnaroo” or “Tennessee” to the crowd for applause and frequently telling us to “put our lighters up”.
The anger in his music and even his commentary between numbers contradicted the whole spirit of the festival. To me, Bonnaroo is about having a good time with good people and enjoying music. This didn’t quite jive with Eminem telling the crowd to turn to the person next to them and shout “F*** you b****!” I left the show unimpressed and underwhelmed.
On the plus side, Eminem left me with nowhere to go but up, and next on the roster was one of my most anticipated shows of the weekend: String Cheese Incident. I hadn’t seen the group since before they parted ways and was eager to find out if we would be privy to the early, twangy String Cheese or the more progressive sound of EOTO. Over the course of their three-hour set, they chose to do a little bit of both, with their music and their antics. The set opened with a cover of “Tennessee Jed,” and the crowd chanted along happily to the chorus. From there, they opened up into some psychedelic, electronica tunes. About 45 minutes into the set, they cranked up the absurdity. A 40-foot inflatable T-Rex was marched through the crowd like a parade float. From another direction came a man suspended 50 feet in the air by balloons dressed as Mothra. And just when we thought things couldn’t get stranger, a roar erupted from behind the stage as a man in a jetpack rose up and soared above the crowd shooting giant balls of glitter.
Once the shenanigans subsided around 3 AM I went to see Girl Talk. While musically he didn’t do much worth mentioning (he just mashes together talented people’s songs) the dance party in the back was unforgettable. Glowstick-covered night animals frolicked and bobbed to the beats and even I will admit that it’s fun to hear songs everyone knows and loves with some heavy bass behind them.
When Girl Talk left the stage around 4:30 the only act still playing was STS9, so we grooved with them at That Tent until the sun came up. One thing I’ve learned over the years is once the sun comes up at Bonnaroo, any hope of sleeping goes out the window. With that in mind, the eight of us still awake bought tickets for the Ferris wheel and went for a sunrise ride. We capped off the morning at the Cinema Tent, with Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was lucky enough to doze off for about an hour in the air-conditioned room before the morning crowd trickled in. Following the flick we made our way back to camp. As we left the park, the security crew rewarded us for lasting the night by giving us free sandwiches and confiscated glowsticks, with which we showered unsuspecting passers-by on our walk home. We arrived at the site in time to have a snack and relax for a few hours before it was time to do it all over again.
Sunday, June 12
“Want to get onstage? Come with me man”
-Anonymous VIP who got me onstage
Most of Sunday was spent parked at the main stage where we had assembled a base of blankets, water and umbrellas for shade. With our spot secured, we ventured to the beer garden to enjoy a selection of craft brews from across the country. In the hot sun, I prefer the sweeter drinks, so I sipped on a Woodchuck Cider while being berated as a sissy by my friends. We enjoyed our drinks in the sun while Amos Lee played in the background, then made our way to the Sonic Stage for a quick set with Railroad Earth. The newgrass band played for about 100 people and closed up with “Long Way to Go”, one of my favorites.
Back at What Stage, Galactic had just begun, and we arrived back in time to catch most of their set. The jazz / funk band from New Orleans demonstrated why they have been invited to 9 Bonnaroos, and why they have played the main stage in recent years. They rocked through a 90-minute set, complete with horns, epic drum solos and a tribute to Robert Plant, who would take the stage shortly afterwards.
Plant’s set with the Band of Joy was entertaining but predictable. He primarily covered Zeppelin tunes, but with Plant’s age and the lack of Page and friends, it’s no substitute for the real deal. After hearing “Black Dog” and “Houses of the Holy” I had seen enough and wandered over to That Tent for the Superjam with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and Dr. John. The group did a great job with a few old Dr. John tunes and proceeded to do exactly what their name entails: jam.
Widespread Panic closed out the weekend on the main stage. I was fortunate enough to use Alex’s VIP pass to get backstage and pretend to be important for a bit. After failed attempts to sneak onstage with the band, I retired to a VIP lounge to listen to the show with some free food and beer. Upon telling my story to a stranger next to me, he offered to bring me onstage. Without asking questions I went with him and his pass was much better than mine because we both ended up on the rafters on stage watching on as Widespread Panic rocked a crowd of nearly 100,000 people. It was awe-inspiring and a great way to end the weekend.
Monday, June 13
As we tore down camp and loaded cars, the group swapped stories from the weekend. With a crowd of 16, it is impossible to stay together, and we spent most of the weekend paired off or in small groups, meeting up at random intervals to catch a show together. We exchanged hugs and farewells and packed into cars to go our separate ways. As I sat in the driver’s seat stuck in traffic I couldn’t help but reflect on how lucky I am to enjoy such a great weekend with such amazing people. And in my mind, I was already beginning to get excited for Bonnaroo 2012.