Bonnaroo. It’s a fun word to say, and it’s a word that excites hundreds of thousands of musical souls, from flower children of all ages to jam band-loving bros to hipsters who can withstand the heat. All walks attend Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, which has become an annual, modern-day answer to Woodstock and one of the top music festivals in the world. This year, I was one of the 80,000 that came to camp out in the dusty field for Bonnaroo’s 10th anniversary.
It was my first time. Most of my friends had gone numerous years before, and the myths had grown along with the festival’s size and popularity. Finally, on June 10, 2011, the stars aligned, allowing me to experience the sights, smells and incredible sounds of the festival—or at least two days of it.
And I can honestly say that my first Bonnaroo experience was not what I thought it would be, in both good ways and bad.
The bad can be attributed, in part, to my own lack of knowledge on how to prepare. I don’t really understand my thought process this side of the experience, to be honest. You need more water than you think. You need food. You need cash. Let’s just say I was excited to get on the road, which interfered with good sense.
I arrived in the city in late afternoon on Friday. After picking up a press pass and wristband at a Holiday Inn next to the VIP entrance, I was a little surprised to find that no one at that entrance knew where folks with standard or press passes were supposed to go. You work for Bonnaroo, but don’t know where to find the general entrance? Hey, okay. So it was back on the interstate to play “guess that exit” until I found the campground.
I got my first real look at the campground standing beside my car as some cheerful security people picked through the trunk and backseat. It was enormous—a vast, colorful sea of tents pitched dubiously alongside automobiles in a sweltering dust bowl.
Finding my friends was actually easy, and after their tents were up (I didn’t really think I needed one, nor did I have one, and I would catch sporadic fragments of sleep for the next two days either in the car or with various friends), we made our way to the big shiny clock tower that serves as a handy festival area landmark for those who are intoxicated, trippin’ or just tired and confused.
As dust kicked up on the path, I watched people bust out bandanas or pull up the neck of their shirts to cover their noses and mouths. It would have been weird to do that in a tube top though, so I just ate the dust. Luckily, there were some pretty paintings on the walls enclosing the music grounds; they were fascinating to look at through the dirt clouds. Plus my companions were already drunk, which was fun.
And the next thing you know, we’re through the gates, where I would spend the better part of the next 24 hours witnessing some phenomenal live performances and a fascinating display of camaraderie among thousands of strangers.
I saw people crammed and dancing under a fountain spouting water of a questionable hue. I saw happy couples curled around one another, fast asleep in the dirt. And as I walked into the sweatiness and stickiness, someone accidentally shoved me right into a stranger, who said with complete sincerity, “Oh, excuse me. I’m sorry, that’s my bad. Please, after you.”
At this moment, I was gripped suddenly with the entire point of Bonnaroo. Besides a motherload of music in one place, the point is simply good vibes, which were all around as people looped about in their heat-induced delirium. Realizing this, I gave in.
I fell victim to anonymous ass-grabbing amid the crowd during My Morning Jacket’s mind-blowing performance. Hair flying, Jim James kicked up his furry white boots and thrashed through an electrifying set entwined with steely roots and electro dance beats. They plowed through a lot of favorites, including “Gideon”, “Highly Suspicious” and “I’m Amazed”, though the dark beat of “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Part 2” was particularly sexy.
I saw Nashville’s JEFF the Brotherhood sucker punch a sizable gathering under the tent of the On Tap Lounge. With their latest LP We Are The Champions still not officially released at the time, they did Middle Tennessee proud, pounding out stoner punk jams like it was the 10-year anniversary of Bonnaroo or something.
I told various friendly strangers, sorry, I don’t have any weed as Primus spooned out tart bass lines, one after another. This was right around the time parachuters began gliding across the night sky leaving trails of pretty glittery stuff in their wake. This did happen; because I wasn’t trippin balls, I can vouch for this.
I saw the anthemic spectacle that was Arcade Fire. I arrived a half hour into their set, but was immediately blown by the immensity of their stadium indie rock that seemingly reached far past the What Stage. As they plowed through some of the best off The Suburbs and Funeral, I kept waiting for Will Butler to grab his drum and start making his way up the side of the stage. His moment came during “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”, a highlight that was prefaced with front man Win Butler’s encouragement, “All right, I’m not fuckin’ around. I give you permission to move your ass, now.” Lights were flashing—it was kind of disorienting—and Will moved toward the pit to hammer at his drum. The encore closed with the beautiful “Sprawl II” sung by Régine Chassagne.
It got weird, though. Overheated and laughing hysterically, despite my best efforts to stay hydrated, I was dragged to the press tent the next day by a friend (who was in no better condition for different reasons) and forced into a booth. I wound up eating barbecue with a jovial Patrick Hallahan at the next table. I think I waved and then dragged myself to pee in a slightly cleaner press port-a-potty.
We made it out of there in time to catch Mumford & Sons at Which Stage. I’ve watched Mumford hype gather at full steam all year, popularized within the Americana vein alongside Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes and The Avett Brothers. I’d never listened to much of their music though, so I was especially curious about the set. Honestly, I still don’t get it. Neo-folk movement? More like bowel movement. Just kidding. But seriously, I just don’t understand how they’ve accumulated such a massive fan base, no offense to anyone.
What really brought the Bonnaroo experience full circle was the last set I saw before leaving Saturday night. Buffalo Springfield was back in incredible style, declaring that they were “from the past” upon taking the stage. It was just beginning to rain, and despite poor sound and cries to “turn it up,” the set included the inevitable “For What It’s Worth” and some of Neil Young’s best. Young, in his white Neil Young hat, was on acoustic and led greats like “Mr. Soul” and “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World,” making some delightfully out-of-touch comments in between: “Bonnawho?” he yelled, then answered himself, “Bonnaroo!” And with the closing chords of Springfield’s set came the end of the evening.
After my experience, would I go back to Bonnaroo? I don’t know. Admittedly, I have never seen so many amazing musicians all in one place before, nor had the opportunity to experience as many new bands at the same time. I love music. I love the sun. I love camping. So what’s the problem?
The inaccessibility of the stages featuring larger acts, to name one. I couldn’t get anywhere near The Black Keys.
For another thing, it’s hot. I realize that’s a given, seeing how it’s Tennessee in the middle of June. And I realize that summertime is all part of the appeal, and more people are likely able to go. But you know what? I overheard one festival-goer propose a February Bonnaroo, which sounded like a glorious idea at the time.
And I can’t fathom the price of those tickets. Yes, a $200+ wristband buys you a four-day musical smorgasbord, but there’s no way I would have been able to afford that, and most of my peers couldn’t, either. Moreover, most of the mid-level acts have come through Cannery Ballroom at some point, which costs as little as $10.
A lot of it was being ill-prepared and not knowing what to expect. I ran out of fruit snacks. I inhaled so much dust, there’s probably a small creature growing inside of me now. I stared at a grasshopper crawling on the brim of a guy’s hat for 20 minutes. I realized that you can’t help every person lying on the ground clutching his head, because if you walk two paces, there’s another person in the same situation. If I was to return to Bonnaroo in future years, there’d have to be something bat-shit crazy going on in the lineup. Like, Rolling-Stones-teaming-up-with-Justin-Bieber crazy.
Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is a shockingly community-oriented shindig that has boasted a wealth of talented artists over the past decade. Everyone I met there was just so happy, which is really remarkable when you think about it. Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment, the festival producers, have created a musical touchstone that attracts, for the most part, nice people who want to have a good time.
So in that respect, Bonnaroo was not what I thought it was going to be—the enthusiasm of the attendees, and the energy and gratitude of the bands were far better than I imagined. Even though I’m probably going to do Lollapalooza next time.