July 4, 2009

Ode to Thee, Oh Bonnaroo

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It was with great excitement and hedonistic anticipation that I looked forward to this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, held from June 11-14 on a farm in Manchester, TN. Tales I had heard from past attendees and the glossy coverage in Rolling Stone promised a long weekend of wonderful music, wonderful people and general paganistic pleasure. Headliners like Band of Horses and MGMT whet my appetite; smaller acts like Amadou & Mariam and The Dirty Projectors made me all the more excited. For a music fan — and one who especially enjoys shared irresponsibility — there’s nothing better.
My pilgrimage to the Mecca of summer music (it trumps other similar festivals: Coachella’s in April, Lollapalooza’s too restrictive and Glastonbury is British) began early. My travelling companion from MA was going as a Bonnaroo volunteer, which required her to sign in by Tuesday evening. An 11 p.m. departure in the green Camry on Monday ensured that, after 18 hours and 10 states, we were in Manchester by five.
The area of Tennessee in which we found ourselves, a rural stretch between Chattanooga to the southeast and Nashville to the northwest, is pleasant enough: endless farmland, moderate hills, a solid balance of green and beige. After dropping my friend off with her new colleagues (I still begrudge her the two days she spent “working” in the artists’ tents and beer lounges before the festival started), I continued on to Nashville, figuring I might as well see something while I waited for Thursday to come.
Did you know that Nashville is both The Music City and The Buckle on the Bible Belt? Well, it is. Luckily, it was the first that was most evident as I wandered around downtown on Wednesday. By sheer luck, the Country Music Awards festival was in town. A sea of cowboy hats and sequins greeted me on Broadway; every two steps a live band blared its honky-tonk from a smoke-hazed watering hole. I got my fill of love-sick hee-hawing and boot-stomping and mingled with the locals before heading back to Manchester to await the start of the Roo.
The town, not surprisingly, was rapidly becoming a madhouse. Policemen guided traffic at every highway exit and dreadlocks and hacky sacks were prevalent. Following a tip I had found online, I headed in search of company to an unlikely destination: the local Wal-Mart.
Have you ever had fun at a Wal-Mart? I hadn’t either, until Wednesday night. In what is apparently an annual tradition, hundreds gathered at the big box store on the eve of the festivities to fraternize and rejoice, passing around beers, hookahs and other party favors as bewildered locals drove by with their paper towels and jumbo-size Lay’s stuffed safely in the back seat. I cooked a meal of couscous on my camping stove and relaxed with some new friends on a green island in the parking lot as streams of young people wandered by. The evening consisted of irregular trips to the bathroom inside (the store was a sea of sunburned young faces and baja (“drug rug”) sweaters) and the occasional hiding of the beer as a patrol car swept by. Towards 10, some industrious hippies set up a little deejay station on top of their van, blessing everyone with a solid mishmash of hip-hop and rock favorites. The lot cleared out a bit as some attempted to get into the festival grounds early, but the music and partying continued well into the wee hours. Tired from all the driving and hoping to save some energy for the concerts, I spread out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag on some grass near an abandoned motel in the next lot over. Rudely awakened by rain around 4 a.m., I spent the rest of the night in my car. It was not my last battle with the elements.

The first several hours of Thursday were a logistical nuisance. Regular festival-goers are allowed to (attempt) to enter the grounds on Wednesday evening; press, though, have to first acquire their passes at an off-site location Thursday morning. And so a motley crew of photographers and scribblers found itself outside a local radio station at 10 a.m. We waited and waited, eyeing anxiously the tremendous bank of thunderclouds coming our way. The company that handles Bonnaroo’s press is Big Hassle Media — some things you just can’t make up — and its employees had apparently overslept or were caught in the swarm of hipsters and flower children who had descended upon the town. We suffered through one serious, and I mean serious drenching on the steps of Fantasy 101; the clouds were and so dark and so low and were moving so fast that I half expected the hand of God to reach down and snatch me. Two hours passed. We got drenched again. At long last I acquired my pretty little wristband and booked it over to the grounds.
Of course, more waiting ensued, about two hours’ worth (which, apparently, made me lucky — others reported delays of up to five hours). A long line of cars snaked its way past farms and ranch houses as hucksters on the side of the road sold cheap soda and hot dogs. I gave a brief ride to a guy who claimed to be hopping over the fence and back all day. Eventually, with more rain falling, I made it to security — a half-hearted search for glass items and illicit materials. At long last, I found myself in a wet, green-brown field, striking a tent behind my car next to a dozen other campers, surrounded by a small city of hippies, music nerds, restless souls, indigents, party people and youngfolk. I was in Bonnaroo at long last.
The heart of the festival is an area called Centeroo. This is where the music happens, primarily at the What Stage, Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent and The Other Tent. Then there’s about a million stands selling everything from hemp purses to didgeridoos to funnel cake to healing crystals. Non-profit organizations plead their cases in an area called Planet Roo. Corporate sponsors offer free batting cages, dance parties, cigarettes. The whole area covers about 100 acres (out of 700 total) and is at times almost unbelievably busy, primarily around the hours of 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Over the course of the weekend, the ground would go through varying degrees of solidity — at times, especially around the all-too-rare water stations, the turf would denigrate into sandal-sucking and funny fall-inducing mud. The general atmosphere was one of rushed euphoria, patrons trying to get in as much music and activity as they possibly could before their bodies surrendered or the dreaded Monday sun finally rose. The longest lines were for the Scratch Academy (learn to deejay), the Silent Disco (attendees given headphones synched to the same song while onlookers laugh at their “silent” gyrations) and the salon. Over half the people there seemed to be red-faced, have significant facial hair and wear cargo shorts.
After a bit of revelry with a school friend and his chums from home, I started listening to music in earnest. Thursday is kind of the warm-up night for Bonnaroo; the pickings aren’t poor by any means, but the big names don’t show up en masse until Friday. I’ll do my best to give an idea of the bands I saw and the shows I enjoyed; listing them all, however, would be boring for both writer and reader. One leaves an event such as Bonnaroo not so much content as bewildered; the sheer volume of experience, aural and otherwise, that one has taken into oneself in the course of three and a half days is impossible to process. It is not until later that a vague picture, gold-tinged and smelling like packed dirt, begins to make itself known. Details, then, must be given selectively; we’re already 1,300 words in, and we haven’t yet heard a note.
The first show I saw was Portugal. The Man. These rising indie stars enjoy, in addition to non-traditional nomenclature, a good guitar riff and a nice vocal harmony. What I didn’t realize prior to their set was how sick they were at jamming. In the brief time I was with them at That Tent they rocked hard and got the crowd moving, and one can ask for little else.
Next came People Under the Stairs. I’ve long been a fan of this “underground” L.A. rap duo (it’s always hard to categorize hip-hop that’s not hopelessly reliant on a) cringe-inducing, schmaltzy synth hooks or b) endlessly offensive lyrics, so we’ll have to stick with “underground”), but I have, in general, been disappointed by such shows — MCs seem to have a hard time doing more than pounding out the album versions and jumping back to their planes for the next show. But PUTS is a whole different story. After a bit of trouble with their equipment, Thes One and Double K got down to business, pumping up the crowd with endless call-and-response chants and extremely well-rehearsed tag-team rapping. An ample supply of freestyling didn’t hurt, either. Highlights included chanting “FUN! FUN! FUN! FUN!” (Thes One was all about getting the crowd pumped for the weekend) and singing along to the chorus of “Acid Raindrops.”
Next came a bit of Passion Pit, a so-so electronic ensemble from Cambridge, MA who occasionally come off too angsty (this may be my anti-emo bias speaking). After that, around one, I hit the hay, briefly socializing with those camped around me. My neighbors included a guy from Louisville who always wore a kilt, a purveyor of fine glassware with bug eyes and a gang of Phisheads from UMass. My poorly-erected tent had partially flooded during a brief rainstorm, and so it was another night in the Camry. Such is life.
Friday was, without a doubt, the most exciting day at the festival. This was due to several factors, including the fact that festivalgoers still had a fair reserve of energy, which would soon be depleted to critical levels due to endless dancing, walking and sun exposure. Also, the world of Bonnaroo was still a relatively novel place (not that it ever got old), and such things as spontaneous, pseudo-sexual, carnivalesque parades and the sight of giant metal sculptures on fire were still surprising.
My own day began in the temperature-controlled Press Tent — we had a meeting that mostly concerned intricate rules for photographers, and I spent a large part of the time hoping they would mention free stuff. The only thing free turned out to be ice cold water, which would come in handy later when, rushing between stages and tents late at night and shocked by the sight of long lines at the water stations, my friend from home and I exploited our volunteer / press credentials to enter the press area. (It was a constantly remarked-upon irony that the two of us were both allowed into Bonnaroo for $250 less than everyone else — that is to say, for free — while enjoying such perks. One must know how to work the system when attending festivals). I meandered a bit in the cordoned-off area between Which and What Stages — mown grass, lawn chairs, more batting cages — and observed the people. The nearness of this area to the artist’s tramping grounds gave me the opportunity to catch a few glimpses of the performers and their friends. Based on totally unscientific observations about their fashion and demeanor, I reached the conclusion that the musicians here were pretty much just like the fans — that is to say, willfully indolent, accepting of all manner of oddity and aberrance and prioritizing fun over work — only really, really good at something. That may not be too profound, but I had always assumed that rock musicians and their ilk were borne of a higher race of beings than mere mortals. I guess disillusionment progresses with age.
My first show of the day was The Dirty Projectors, headed by Brain Longstreth, he of the yodelly vocals. I’d seen one of their shows in Ithaca a couple of years back and hadn’t been too impressed, but their recent collaboration with David Byrne on the Dark Was the Night compilation piqued my interest once again. The erstwhile Talking Heads’ frontman’s appearance to help out on “Knotty Pine” was not unexpected. As Byrne and Longstreth sang together, I noted that the similarities between the two went beyond the obvious musical affinities (odd melodic lines, pop-friendly experimentation). In fact, Longstreth is practically Byrne reincarnated, what with his lanky physique, his wind-in-the-willow dance moves and his nicely ironed shirt. The young band may be headed into some “genuinely new territory,” as Byrne put it in the official Bonnaroo 2009 Guide, but it was DB himself who made the first steps.
Next, I caught a bit of Vieux Farka Touré, displaying the first of some incredible guitar playing that was to be on display at The Other Tent throughout the weekend. Animal Collective overlapped at Which Stage, a show that was, I’ll confess, a bit disappointing. Although it severely damages one’s indie rock credentials to say so, this is a band which seems admired largely because they should be admired; in other words, no one wants to admit that most the time they’re pretty boring. Standing out in the grass on Friday afternoon with the sun burning down and the bustle of a crowd all around, I found myself actually forgetting that they were playing. If you need to focus to listen to a live band, there’s something wrong.
The bustle continued. Cycling through shows that I would have shelled out to see individually, I was forced to cut short Béla Fleck (technically astounding), The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (fun, and Karen O’s pretty sexy), Grizzly Bear (oh so soothing and melancholy, as you’d expect), Santigold (heard only briefly on the way from This Tent to What Stage) and Al Green (the embodiment of soul). The only full set I caught that afternoon was moe. playing acoustic at the Sonic Stage. This band’s known for their spacey electric stuff, so the show was a real treat; despite the maddening Tennessee heat, the energy was high. The guys can rip — despite the fact that they look like anything but rock stars, their chops are out of this world, and their dueling guitars may have caused some seizures up front. At times, the whole thing was a bit too guitar-geeky for me — i.e., as is often the case with artists like Buckethead or Joe Satriani, the demonstration of superior technical ability seemed to become at times the primary concern. This was not a problem, however, when the drummer shifted over to the chimes. Never in my life have I seen such a prodigious musical performance on such a silly instrument. My only qualm was the realization that this guy must have spent countless hours alone in his room playing the chimes. To each his own, I guess.
At seven, I headed with a couple of friends to catch Amadou & Mariam (the time constraints of Bonnaroo are such that I was forced to miss TV on the Radio’s entire set — they’re one of my favorite bands, but a prior bad experience with them live and the cajoling of my buddies made me decide, with a tear and a sigh, to leave them for greener pastures). This blind couple from Mali, whose long career is just starting to get more exposure in the States, exudes good will: A & M smiled throughout the whole set, and their mix of blues, traditional African rhythms and a bit of dance electronica had the crowd grinding. Amadou was a far better guitar player than is evident from their recordings — several times he ripped off awesome solos, bending down and beaming like a kid showing off a new trick. Speaking of which, is it wrong that I find it ironic for a blind guy to have a bright gold guitar? Anyways, the jimbe player was another gem, shaking his dreads furiously and coming to center stage to do a one-on-one drum / dance-off with each of the two sisters who writhed to the side throughout the set. The bass player was kind of creepy, greying at the edges and always looking intensely at different members of the audience as if about to answer an important question. Despite rather sparse attendance, the show was one of the best all festival. Something about exuberance and sheer technical ability — as opposed to, say, the self-conscious minimalism of a group like Animal Collective (see above) — gets me going.
Without a chance for rest — I had been dancing or walking now in the hot sun and hot tents for seven hours straight — it was off to The Beastie Boys at What Stage. Water bottles were refilled and drained in seconds. Speaking of which — party endurance and the things one does to boost energy — perhaps it’s time we address one of the central topics related to Bonnaroo — that is, illicit drug use. As you might expect, it’s everywhere. People peddle everything from molly to mushrooms to morphine (which was inexplicably referred to in the parking lot of Wal-Mart by a sketchy teenager as “dancing feet”), and it’s likely that at any given time around half the festivalgoers are under the influence of some drug or another, the most prevalent of which is, of course, marijuana. The drug habits of your correspondent during the Bonnaroo weekend are nothing to write home about, but he of course kept his eyes open in order to bring you back the truth: drugs are a big part of Bonnaroo, and they’re a big part of why people come. The only security present at the festival is somewhat ridiculous-looking mounted officers with red jackets and riding helmets, and so it’s a substance abuse free-for-all. Of course, there were many who did not partake — small children and the elderly are not uncommon sights at Bonnaroo. But suffice it to say that drug talk is an annoyingly frequent element of conversations at the festival.
The Beastie Boys were decent, but as often happened at What Stage (the main venue with a reported capacity of 100,000 (there were 75,000 at the festival)), I was far from the front. My only regret is that I missed “Intergalactic,” because I had to cut the set short in order to catch David Byrne at Which. This was imperative as, since about the age of two, I have been thoroughly saturated with the music of The Talking Heads, primarily in my mom’s minivan on the way to soccer practice. DB is like a voice inside my head, and the prospect of finally seeing him live was a little surreal. This sensation was enhanced by the man’s famously ridiculous (and incredibly self-regarding) stage show: he was bedecked in a bright white suit and played a bright white guitar, and a troupe of dancers who must have been classically trained pirouetted and slithered their way around him through “Once in a Lifetime,” “Heaven,” “Take Me to the River” (kudos to Al Green) and other tunes. At one point, the whole gang sat down in office chairs and performed a truly odd number which had Byrne at the center (as always) and his minions circling about him. The songwriter’s social commentary is great, but subtlety is not its defining characteristic. My friend and I rushed forward for “Burning Down the House,” and the show I had been waiting to see for almost two decades came to a close. I felt oddly complete and at peace.
And then Phish. What can be said about this band? Their music strikes me as what Smurfs would play if they were a little high and had nothing to do all day. It’s pleasant, but nothing particularly striking. The show was summed up for me in a three-part harmony that formed the chorus to one of their earlier numbers: “Awesome … awesome … awesome … AWESOME!” Not that I thought the concert was such; rather, the chorus demonstrated the naïve enthusiasm — and lack of nuance — that comes to mind when I think of Phish. They’re like Grateful Dead Lite: they don’t fill you up.
After a brief, well-deserved break in a café, it was over to That Tent to prepare for Crystal Castles and Girl Talk. Bonnaroo turns into a dance party of sorts in the early morning, and space in the tents — huge, metal-domed structures sans walls — is tight. Before CC even came onstage, I was gagging for fresh air and wondering how on earth these people could be smoking cigarettes in such a stuffy place. (Incidentally, it seems that the pseudo-hippie types that flock to the Roo smoke a disproportionate amount of tobacco; one wouldn’t expect this from the general earth-friendliness that defines their outlook. It’s a matter worth further consideration). To my left were a group of obnoxious bros, smashing Natty Light cans and tossing them into the crowd and terrible speeds. Nowhere, it appears, is safe from these types of jackasses.
Crystal Castles came on late and scared me. The lead singer, Alice Glass, was like a female Gollum on amphetamines, flashing terrifying glares at the crowd and screeching into the microphone like she’d just lost the Ring for all time. CC is a dark, profound electronic outfit, somehow fitting vocals and a semblance of melody over furious techno beats that leave the crowd both excited and a bit disturbed. The whole group was clearly into that type of antagonistic cool by which rudeness and feigned indifference lend an air of sophistication to the show. They came on late, and Glass, after body-surfing the hell out of the crowd for about forty-five minutes, tossed the mic into the audience and stalked off the stage. Disdain for one’s fans has a certain theatrical value.
The build-up to Girl Talk was long and energy-filled. It took forever for the crew to set up the stage, and once Greg Gillis himself arrived to his cheesy amp-up music, the crowd was ready to explode. Within minutes the stage was packed with fans dancing their asses off, and all manner of inflatable item — balls, a shark, chairs — were bouncing around. I was very close up and it was like grinding with a thousand people at once — nice, and oddly invigorating. The best way to describe the party was organized chaos, although it wasn’t all too organized. Girl Talk was quickly swallowed up in the sweaty masses surrounding him, and after his equipment got unplugged a couple of times and several onstage dancers seemed on the verge of suffocation, he was forced to stop the show and instruct security to clear some kids off. Nonetheless, his well-known pop mish-mash was at top form, and he even extended the show, playing material from the Night Ripper era to keep the party lasting well past four. Long-awaited fresh air and the terrible vocals of Paul Oakenfold’s excellent beats, heard from outside This Tent, were the highlights of the rest of the evening (morning).

I got a somewhat late start the next day, my legs sore from dancing and my shoulders tender from burning. The camping areas of Bonnaroo are a regular fiesta during the day, with masses of people wandering along the dirt roads and stopping at tents for beers, blunts and bonding. Abhorrent port-o-potties line the road and the occasional salesman plies his wares, legal or otherwise. Events such as Bonnaroo bring together a distinct minority that, due to its politics, fashion, behavior and general outlook, is mistrusted by — and even more distrusting of — society at large. Transformed for once into a majority, the wild kids go nuts. Music, of course, is the main attraction at the festival, but the sense of communal bonding and the opportunity to at last let their freak flag fly are at least as important. Drugs, too, become a touchstone for shared identification; I’m convinced that, as much fun as the altered states and the enhanced music are, it’s really the chance to talk unabashedly about substance abuse, the chance to not be coy or shy or secretive about a shared interest, that causes the weed and acid and x and the dozens others I don’t know about to flow in such abundance. Anyway, enough sociological theorizing.
I caught a bit of Heartless Bastards at Which Stage — I had wanted to hear them because they share space on the Fat Possum label with the likes of The Black Keys and Dinosaur Jr., but was disappointed by their lack of dirt: they just sound pleasant. Booker T and the DBTs were, of course, very tight. Next was Bon Iver, who, as I had hoped from his album, was the very essence of sad longing and wistful Wisconsin loneliness. I sat outside This Tent during the show with some friends, basking in the sun and wondering just how long my body could last on such little sleep and subsistence. It wasn’t that I felt bad, though; there’s something about the enchanted acres of Bonnaroo that leaves one feeling refreshed and right, despite the fact that one hasn’t eaten in a day (food’s too expensive, and what with all the music playing there’s just not time) and the southern sun beaming down on the tent leaves no chance of sleeping past eight. If you’re looking to lose weight and feel slightly dazed and stupid, then Bonnaroo’s your best bet.
Of Montreal, to my pleasant surprise, was much jammier and psychedelic than I had expected. Of course, the only other time I had seen them had been a frat party at Cornell, a venue not much given to experimentation. Before their set was done I headed over to catch Wilco, who, based on many friends’ recommendations but despite my own lukewarm appreciation of the band, I was hoping would rock my world. Not quite. Wilco is a group that has mastered the idiom of rock — they’ve got the various nuances such as how to write a bridge, when to lay on the organ and how to build to a climax down pat — but somehow can’t get past sounding a little cut and dry. Perhaps this has to do with Jeff Tweedy’s past aspirations as a music journalist (Tweedy, by the way, is one ugly man, something you need to see in person to appreciate). Having studied his art so intensely and thought about it perhaps in a more critical fashion than most of his peers, he’s almost too good at the chord changes, the instrumentation, the varied sound and all that other formal stuff. His band is like a great counterfeit painter or a magnificent translator — they’ve got the chops, but too little heart. Also, as with most of the big acts featured on What Stage, they’re a bit too clean: varnished sound and crystal-clear mixing might work for the likes of Al Green, but a rock band should be a little messy.
As I headed to This Tent I passed by Mars Volta on Which Stage — the Texas rockers seem to have exhausted their initially promising sound, and they either need to start getting even weirder or convince John Frusciante to fully defect from the Red Hot Chili Peppers if they have any hope of holding the public’s interest. Then came The Decembereists — positively delightful. They played the whole of their new Hazards of Love, which sounds much better live and stripped of some of its serious, prog rock heaviness. Then came a few fan favorites, including “July, July.” The night was shaping up to be lovely and clear, and Colin Meloy expressed the joy of the crowd in between songs: “Isn’t the air perfect for singing?” Acts at Bonnaroo are generally more engaged and exciting then on a usual tour date; the energy from the crowd likely has something to do with it, as well as the aforementioned sense of rare communality.
One group that does not fit into this community is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I attended this show purely due to peer pressure and the fact that no one else was playing at the time; I’ve never been one for the Boss, and nothing he did on Saturday night convinced me to change my mind. The whole thing is just so goddam corny. The songs might be all right in their essentials — it occurred to me again and again that some of the riffs would make terrific punk tunes — but Bruce can’t resist ruining them with every last trite garnish: heavy organ, ridiculous back-up vocals, cheesy saxophone, etc. He’s got a great voice, but he seems to have settled on a very easy idea of rock and rolled with it for decades: shout a lot (“Is anybody alive out there?” Shut up, Bruce), prance around, smile for the ladies and deliver a nice anthemic chorus. I spent most the time people-watching (best t-shirt of the festival: a really fat kid in a cotton number that said “I beat anorexia) and saving up energy for the later shows. Also, Bruce played a shorter set than he was supposed to, which automatically puts him in my doghouse.
After the show there was a rare break in music, with the tens of thousands of concertgoers milling around Centeroo for half an hour as they waited for Nine Inch Nails (icky) or moe. (seen enough). I headed over to The Other Tent for Ben Harper & Relentless7, which, if I say so myself, was the finest show of the whole weekend. Before he got involved in this new blues rock thing, Harper had already proved himself an able songwriter and an incredible singer; now, busting out some unexpected chops on the six-string, he’s playing the best stuff of his career. The show started slow with dimmed lights and no Ben in sight; his band vamped some nice riffs for an impatient audience. At long last, a light revealed the man himself seated over a steel guitar at center stage. He worked the crowd, building to crescendo after crescendo only to slow it down once more and relax back into some soul-stirring blues. Finally the song blew up, and the result was pure old school rock ’n rock bliss. It didn’t hurt that the backing band was wildly talented. Eventually Ben traded the steel guitar for the genuine article, and it only got better. To my everlasting regret, I left during a cover of “Under Pressure” to catch MGMT. I figured I should check out some new up-and-comers. Never go against your gut.
MGMT was in That Tent, and I was hoping for a repeat of the previous night’s dancing madness. Unfortunately, the Brooklyn dudes decided to go with the spirit of the latter half of Oracular Spectacular, and the show was a somewhat staid, typical affair as opposed to a sweaty, grooving bacchanal. I left early to rest my weary limbs and heard the piercing tones of “Kids” as I laid me down to sleep.

Sunday at Bonnaroo is like Sunday anywhere else — lazy, pleasant and somewhat melancholy. The energies of the festivalgoers have been drained by two and a half days of non-stop dancing and prancing, and those who are able to still move on the final day seem to prefer the slow sway to the maniacal two-step.
I caught a bit of Citizen Cope in the early afternoon, but, as usual, I thought him a bit dull. Next was Erykah Badu, who, if you didn’t know already, is a lady with an attitude: in between her furious falsetto and crazy raps, she regaled the crowd with her profanity-laced pump-ups and wild asides. Andrew Bird followed at Which Stage: who knew a man could whistle that way? Spending an hour with the Birdman was spiritually regenerative; I felt that there were still good people in the world, and sometimes they can even play a fiddle.
I headed over to What Stage next to catch a bit of Snoop Dogg because, hey, we all can recite a few lines of “Gin and Juice.” About twenty minutes after he was due to appear, a man came onstage to announce that Snoop was a few miles away and would perform as soon as he arrived. This raised my suspicions; the previous year Kanye had incurred the everlasting wrath of the Roo crew by showing up three hours later and giving a lackluster show (“Fuck Kanye” graffiti still graced the walls). I smelled something similar in the air and I departed to get a good spot for the next concert, only to hear the bold bass and nasally delivery of the man from the LBC as I walked away. Some things you can never get right.
My last show at Bonnaroo was Band of Horses, a group I had been in love with for over two years and whom, because of their affinity to My Morning Jacket (think reverb and twang), I had eagerly anticipated seeing live. It was a let-down. Although it was a treat to see Ben Bridwell sing live — the man has the voice of a Southern angel — and to hear all their best tunes in person (“The Funeral” gave me goosebumps, “No One’s Gonna Love You” had me heartsick and “The General Specific” was just the barn-burning crowd-pleaser you’d expect), the group seemed decidedly uninterested in putting on a good show. Save for some ivory-tinkling on “The General Specific,” there was no jamming to speak of, and almost every song came packaged in the same structure as it appears in on the album. Not even a transition: each number came to an end with the band members taking drinks of water, switching instruments, wiping their brows and coughing into their shoulders. The music they play practically requires that it be improvised upon; this is down-home, rocked-out bluesy folk, and there’s no room for timidity or laziness. As I said, disillusionment progresses with age.
A final observation: the kid next to me during this last show, who was clearly tripping hard and had no regard for those around him, sang along practically the whole way through in a full-throated, off-key tenor. When I wasn’t building up the courage to sock him in the face, I considered a little theory: what if the type of music featured at Bonnaroo — that is, in most cases, popular music, indie music, rock music, crowd-pleasing music that is girded by fantastic musicianship and a definite sense of style — derives its main attraction from the fan’s ability to imagine that she is the one singing or strumming or pounding? We’ve all shrieked our way through a shower or air-guitared the solo to “Stairway to Heaven,” and would-be rock stars are a dime a dozen; is the essential component of this type of aesthetic experience that we can imagine ourselves in the place of the creator? Most art criticism focuses on the transmission of content from artist to audience; but what if what’s really going on isn’t transmission, but substitution? We love a song or an album so much that we feel like it’s a part of us, that it speaks right to us, almost as if we wrote it. Phenomena like karaoke or Guitar Hero are just the logical end of what rock music’s all about: making the fan believe she’s the one on stage. An event like Bonnaroo encourages this illusion and gives ample opportunity to indulge the fantasy; thousands of like-minded music nerds surround you, and the frequency and ease with which you pass from one music god’s show to another gives the impression that there’s really not so much that separates you from the immortals. Bonnaroo is all about this type of indulgence and escapism; it’s an oasis in the dull year when, for once, those things that we enjoy most — music, camaraderie, partying and irresponsibility — become the sum of our existence. It lets you believe once again, at least briefly, that life is not all about deadlines and disappointments, right-of-ways and appropriateness. People go wild. People smile. One guy even died. But, at the end of it all, it’s only a long weekend.