MANCHESTER, Tenn. “" In the middle of a field east of Nashville lies a pile of garbage. Past the garbage are walls lined with “Kanye still sucks” and eye-popping graffiti, and past that are thousands upon thousands of people pushing through lines to get a spot near a tent where a musician is playing or where a comedian is laughing or to find a spot under a tree where they can watch all the action.
Bonnaroo is a seven year music festival staple. Many notable musical acts of the past decades (Radiohead, Bob Dylan, The Police, etc.) grace the stages of Bonnaroo. But what really sets it apart is the atmosphere.
I managed to buy my own ticket to this year’s festival. I’ll do my best to relay the scene.
The car ride in takes 12 hours, eight of which are spent sitting in a long line of cars playing stop-and-go on back roads around Manchester, the town where the festival is held each year. With the line of cars reaching past my line of sight, it is hard to tell if there will ever be any relief from the relentless heat and sunshine over Tennessee.
I don’t know the cause of all the traffic. I heard at a gas station earlier that Bonnaroo had improved the flow of traffic this year, surprisingly, so you can imagine the sighs I let out when four hours of brake pumping traffic next to cornfields lead into five hours and six hours and so on.
My friend and I climb out of our car and walk the long line of vehicles. Most of the people we pass doing the same thing as us are as friendly and diverse as I had hoped. At least all the walking and pointing and pissing is eventually going to lead to something. A camp site, a map, and a show.
The traffic let us into Bonnaroo, and after we pass the people pointing at the sky calling for one more ticket so that they can enter the festival with the rest, we get into a campsite. The traffic caused me to miss early acts like Chairlift and White Rabbits. I hear from a friend before we put a tent together that Delta Spirit, a band scheduled to play around 7:30 p.m. (it is 11:00 p.m.) is delayed due to traffic and… weather and wouldn’t be playing until 12:30 tonight.
On cue with our escape from the car came a downpour of rain for the remainder of Thursday. The festival is a mess of cold and hungry and irritated attendees who just have the misfortune of being unable to control their situation and yet the show tents are still full of people and people were still dancing and having a good time.
Before Delta Spirit takes the stage, Passion Pit plays a dance-fueled synthesizer romp filled with all the energy they’ve been talked up for having. The crowd gets into the simple drum beats and the passionate screams of lead singer Michael Angelakos.
I catch Delta Spirit that night before heading back to the damp campsite. Matt Vasquez sings deep and scratchy soul music for the attendees who manage to stick it out even though the rain isn’t letting up. You have to give it to Delta Spirit for playing through all the mess and Ode To Sunshine couldn’t play against a more contrasting background.
The couple next door to our campsite are laughing and squawking about Passion Pit and about the sun and about the rain. It’s 6:30 a.m. I’m up. The tent two rows down has a naked bald man walking back and forth stretching and sipping on a bottle of water. We pack up our gear and begin the long, maybe two mile trek, to Centeroo, the main location for all the events at Bonnaroo “" excluding Shakedown Street “" where independent vendors of all shapes and sizes try their best to catch people before they make it to the stages. Past the porta-potties and the water trucks are protesters and the buzz of four-wheeled taxis.
Inside of Centeroo I make my way to That Tent, a tent that has been curated by David Byrne and has the Dirty Projectors playing later in the day. By noon the band Katzenjammer takes the stage. They infuse the whole tent with this pseudo chipmunk pop rock energy that doesn’t happen too often. They’re a European band of four girls who alternate instruments every song or every couple songs. I have to give it to them for committing so much to their own music that even when they’re performance sounded silly from all the high-pitched singing, they are still having more, if not the most fun, out of anyone I have seen so far.
At 1:30 p.m. David Longstreth and crew (The Dirty Projectors) take the stage. On the heals of their latest release, Bitte Orca!, Dirty Projectors rock the tent like I hoped they would. Songs like “Stillness is the Move” sung by the lovely Amber Coffman, really shine. With volleyballs bouncing around the stage, fans of the band eagerly anticipate the arrival of David Byrne, the man who put together the events on That Stage as well as a collaboration with Dirty Projectors on the compilation CD “Dark Was The Night,” for a song called, “Knotty Pine.” Without hesitation Longstreth announces that “his friend David” is joining them for their last song. With Byrne, as well as the rest of the Projectors on stage, the audience is in awe of how good the band sounds and of how much fun everyone is having.
After the Dirty Projectors I walk over to the Which Stage (you see, at Bonnaroo all of the stages have names that are clever and almost make you wonder if someone is listing a location or asking a question). The list goes from biggest to smallest with the What Stage, Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent and The Other Tent. Over at the Which Stage, Animal Collective is preparing to play to a huge crowd. It’s the largest crowd I have seen at Bonnaroo this year. Getting up close to catch Animal Collective singing songs like “My Girls” off of “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” is a stretch considering the ground in front of the stage is so packed tight. At 2:45 p.m. Animal Collective begins their set with “Lion in a Coma” off of MPP, and the crowd screams as the band breaks into their hour and fifteen minute set.
The audience pulses with Animal Collective and the sun comes out even brighter. Bonnaroo put all of the rain and the traffic behind it and walks forward until 5:00 p.m., when Grizzly Bear plays on This Tent.
Before Grizzly Bear takes the stage I climb up on top of a mound of dirt. The night before “" remember all the rain? “" well This Tent got flooded. In order to compensate, the kind people that run Bonnaroo piled mounds and mounds of dirt under stages that were flooded to help dry it out and it just happens that a giant mound of dirt sits in the back right hand corner of the tent. My friends and I climb on top of this mound and have the best seat in the house.
Grizzly Bear is late to take the stage. During the time when they are supposed to play and the time that they actually begin playing, things don’t look so bright for awhile. Fifteen minutes after their showtime Daniel Rossen flies into a guitar loud rendition of “Southern Point” from “Veckatimest,” their latest CD. After the first song the band worked itself into their impressive set list giving the crowd what they want. With songs like “Little Brother” and “Knife” “Veckatimest” isn’t the only work Grizzly Bear has done that is worth talking about. After an hour Grizzly Bear begins to rap it up and Chris Bear asks, “Who’s all going to see Phish?” and the crowd roars and Grizzly Bear finishes their set with grace.
TV on the Radio and the Beastie Boys are on my list, so after Grizzly Bear closes their set I walk over to the Which Stage where TV on the Radio plays to a crowd as big, if not bigger, than Animal Collective’s. They sound amazing from the tent and Kyp Malone and crew play a set list ranging from “Staring at the Sun” to “Dancing Choose” and the crowd can’t be happier with the selection.
After TV on the Radio I walk over to the What Stage, the main stage where Phish and Bruce Springstein and Wilco are all going to play, and prepare for the Beastie Boys set. The crowd at What Stage is so large the musicians on stage must be in awe of how many people they can call their fans. Already the crowd reaches the back of the field yet more people keep piling in. Lines are made through the seated concert-goers so that those just arriving can cross their fingers and dive into a pile of people, hoping to find a clear spot where they can rest their feet on a blanket. Or dance.
On time with everything, the Beastie Boys take the stage and ask Bonnaroo what is up. It’s only a matter of time before the crowd is bouncing to Beastie Boys. Special guest Nas takes the stage with the Beastie Boys and announces that they’re collaborating for an album coming out soon. “Motherfuckin’ Bonnaro” is the in-between-song banter as the band rocks the stage.
Hot and sunny and 8:45 a.m. I brush my teeth from water at a water station next to some porta-potties and then we make our way to Centeroo to catch Elvis Perkins in Dearland. I see graffiti on the walls outside of Centeroo are littered with even more artwork and it appears as if the momentum of the festival is still moving forward. People are starting to get used to the environment and it’s been two days so that makes sense.
Some people hope that Bonnaroo never takes itself down. But it has to in two days, so I make my way to This Tent, where Perkins is taking the stage to play a breezy set before Robyn Hitchcock and Bon Iver. When Perkins does appear on stage his hair is long and his face is cleanly shaven. He sings through a series of newer songs from his record with “in Dearland” and then he plays through older songs like “While You Were Sleeping” and “May Day” and the crowd really gets into it. Closer towards the end of his set he calls out for Jenny Conlee, keyboardist for The Decemberists, to come take the stage but she’s nowhere to be found. Perkins blames it on her “beauty sleep” and continues to play until he calls on Bon Iver to close out his set with him. The sound is great and the energy on stage beckons everyone in the audience to move along with the music.
Hitchcock ends his set at 3:00 p.m. and Bon Iver takes over at 3:30. Bon Iver plays to the crowd and the crowd loves it. I hear that his concert makes numerous people cry and I don’t doubt it. He’s has a way with lyrics and sound, and live, the band sounds great. He closes out the set with the guys from “in Dearland” coming out to play a Yo La Tengo cover followed by a sing-along for both the bands.
The show that stole a lot of my attention on Saturday comes from a little band called of Montreal. You may have heard of them, but if you haven’t, then you should. Their show, which was a monstrosity of color and energy and excitement, was one to be remembered. I don’t say that very often. What I mean is that when I see Kevin Barnes, lead singer of the band take the stage and start dancing around to songs from his latest, “Skeletal Lamping,” as well as songs from “Hissing Fauna” and “Are You The Destroyer?” the whole crowd bounces with him.
The icing on the cake of this show is the finale. Barnes and crew launch into a loud guitar solo which then follows suit like a majority of songs on “Skeletal Lamping,” where, at any given moment, you could feel like you’re having the worst trip you could ever have, Barnes grabs his guitar by the neck and smashes it into the stage. The guitarist with wings, Bryan Poole, tosses his guitar up above his head and it spins and he catches it, only to then smash it alongside Barnes in a passionate display of destruction.
After Barnes smashes his guitar he then smashes the mic stand into the stage a few times before turning around and diving into the drum set. After a couple minutes lying on the ground behind the set, he stands back up, and dives into the crowd to surf until the song eventually ends.
The What stage is packed with people eager to get a good seat for Bruce Springstein as well as to rock along with live renditions of Wilco’s “Impossible Germany.” Jeff Tweedy travels his discography, playing songs as a hot air balloon floats by in the background, as Tweedy comments on the smell in the air. Tweedy, smiling from ear to ear, looks grateful to be standing in front of all these people.
Sunday afternoon Ted Leo & The Pharmacists play a good set. Showcasing a few new songs like “Even Heroes Have To Die” just after a couple hits from “Shake the Sheets” was a nice treat to what Ted Leo does well, which is writing rock with punk lyrics.
But the real send off for the whole festival comes from Andrew Bird’s set on the Which Tent at 4:15 that afternoon. Playing a good variety of “Noble Beast” and “The Mysterious Production of Eggs” keeps the audience involved through the loud noise of another band playing on the stage directly opposite his own. Whenever Andrew plays he plays it loud and well and the quality of the sound drowns out any other noise as Andrew Bird remarks about how Bonnaroo is his favorite of all the festivals and everything else.
But, before I cut out on the whole festival, missing Phish at the end of the day for more reasons than one (mainly traffic and exhaustion) I get a glimpse of Snoop Dogg as he arrives fashionably late to a huge crowd of people where sing-alongs and “hell yeahs” were thrown out for an hour and a half.
It was a fitting send off to a festival all about sing-alongs and “hell yeahs” because at Bonnaroo, everything goes.