By Jeremy Gerrard
When I claimed my degree from Chico State a few years ago, I cried an emotional goodbye to that pinnacle of American freedomâ€”the summer vacation. Like a runaway cat from childhood, or the popularity of reading novels, I didn’t think she’d ever come back again. But lo and behold, half-assed planning on Wall Street catalyzed a wicked recession, causing unemployment to climb like a terrified squirrel. In the wake I stood a laid-off English graduate student with one pocket full of money and the other with time. So where does one venture with such pockets? Well, when Synthesis offers a press pass, naturally you go to one of the biggest and best talent-laden music festivals to ever grace Mama Earth: BONNAROO.
Held on an almost unimaginably vast farmland in Manchester, Tennessee, Bonnaroo brings about 90,000 people (over nine times the size of High Sierra) from all over the country to a 96-hour non-stop party of camping, vending, dancing and musical amazement. The line to get in stretched out on the highway for miles and miles and miles and hours and hours and hoursâ€”but if you asked anybody if they’d wait twice as long to get in next year, â€œabsolutelyâ€ would be the only reply. Everyone instantly snaps into a community mindset and wants to share everything with everyone else so no matter what, you’re taken care of, and you’ve got friends. My campsite landed between a group of younger guys from New Jersey with a plethora of beer and a lesbian couple who brought their own shower, an eight-person tent and every kitchen utensil ever invented, among other things. Something told me expectations were about to be exceeded.
The first night, Thursday, warmed up the festival with over 20 smaller bands, the best of which were the high-energy White Rabbits, the honest folk of The Low Anthem, and the brain-mixing, hip-shaking vibrations of People Under the Stairs. Thursday also allowed time to check out the festival’s non-musical attractions. Many booths were set up to discuss unique approaches to green activism, on which Bonnaroo legitimately prides itself; many other tents offered yoga, comedy sketches, movie theatres and some small business pushers from the local area. While soaking in all of the talent and information, I was also soaking in a massive Tennessee downpour of biblical proportions. Of course festival goers were not deterred, and in fact fed off the rain like an electrical current. Downpours in the south have this great advantage where even in heavy rain and the wee hours of the morning, the temperature is still a comfortable 80-something.
On Friday morning, after sharing a few rounds of cold ales with newly arrived California companion Byron Dunning, we set off to â€œCenterooâ€ where the stages and other primary action ensued. A hypnotic, crowd-commanding Animal Collective commenced the experience. On our way to find a bite to eat (killer shish kabobs) we fed on a dirty funk jam from New Orleans’ Galactic, complete with a 10-minute horn battle. We would’ve stayed longer but we had to catch at least a sliver of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs before making it back to the â€œWhat Stageâ€ for Al Green. All you have to know about Al Green is that he came adorned in a red pin-stripe suit holding a bouquet of roses, distributing them with smiles during soulful refrains and leaving not a dry pair of underwear in the crowd.
TV on the Radio brought as much energy as almost any other group there, rivaled best by Bonnaroo’s most anticipated act of the weekendâ€”the ever-infamous Beastie Boys, who followed the aforementioned TV. Mix Master Mike easily won the individual performance of the weekend, effortlessly twisting and synching his arsenal of effects and beats. That the Beasties hadn’t played as a group in a while showed a few times with hiccups in rhyme and structure, which they used to remind the crowd that they were hearing real live music, â€œno tapes or recordings,â€ as Mike D. explained. Any hiccups though were easily compensated anyway, with special guest Nas sitting in on â€œSure Shotâ€ and â€œPaul Revere.â€ Although most of David Byrne’s set overlapped with the Beastie Boys, we were able to catch enough of him to see some sharp choreographed dancing by the band, piping hot backup singers, and Mr. Byrne himself tastefully chopping up inventive chords in a pink tutu. I turned it in for the night from there, but Byron re-entered the chaos to see Paul Oakenfold and Girl Talk, whose sets closed the night at 4 AM, and who he thought stole the show for the weekend.
We shrugged off the mud and grime of Friday and hit Saturday with glimpses of Wilco, The Decemberists, Elvis Costello, the David Grisman Quintet and The Mars Volta, whose new drummer is a four-limbed percussive monster. I wouldn’t be surprised if his sticks were widdled down to toothpicks at the end. Bravo, sir. Hanging with the big names, but on a tiny stage, were Cotton Jones, whose songwriting put a refreshing squeeze on folk rock, and whose male/female vocal compatibility made your gut smile. Of Montreal were equally surprising, but surprising only to me it seemed, as their crowd was massive, enthralled, swooned and rightfully ecstatic. Backstage we saw Flava Flav get interviewed by Triumph the Insult Dog, and then made it out to hear Bruce Springsteen, who entertained with classic Boss flavor, and even included his stylish rendition of â€œHere Comes Santa Clauseâ€ during the three-and-a-half-hour set. Sunday closed the festival with Andrew Bird, Band of Horses, Neko Case, Coheed and Cambria, another four-hour set from Phish, and Snoop Dogg, who could’ve told the crowd to strip and they all would’ve done it.
The only unfortunate aspect of a festival this size is that you’re guaranteed to miss some great acts. I couldn’t catch Nine Inch Nails, moe, MGMT, Ben Harper, Dillinger Escape Plan, High on Fire, The Lebowski Fest, Public Enemy or Bela Fleck, among many, many others. However, not one band I checked out disappointed. Not one. Bonnaroo is seriously a giant pool of talent that you can either wade in, splash in, dive to the bottom of, look at your reflection in, or swallow up, and whatever your method, you’re guaranteed to be soaked in awe.