Whew. The Bonnaroo Music Festival, as those of you who have made the sojourn to the four-day central Tennessee music orgy know, is not an event for wimps. You might wait ten hours on the highway just to get in. Once there, you might stand in line for 40 minutes to enter an oven-hot, overflowing porta-potty. You might walk two miles from your campsite in East Jesus to reach Centeroo, where all of the music takes place. You might wait a half-hour to fill up your water bottle. And this year, all of it took place under a punishing sun, triple-digit heat indexes, and demonic humidity. If that scenario sounds miserable, it often is. And I can’t wait to do it again.
You see, if you can gut out the physical challenges—and there were at least 80,000 people this year who were willing to—you stand to experience the musical smorgasbord of your life. No other festival can touch Bonnaroo for its eclectic mix of first-rate artists from a staggering cross-section of genres. In fact, Bonnaroo, in the festival’s ninth year, offered more incredible live music than you can possibly stand to take in, and lord knows I tried.
Bonnaroo Music Festival
(10 Jun 2010: Manchester, TN)
This year was my first trip to the farm, and according to reports, I got off relatively easy with a six-and-a-half-hour bumper-to-bumper crawl along the highways and backroads to get onto the Bonnaroo grounds. People tend to make the best of the situation—with traffic most often at a dead stop, there are plenty of opportunities to throw Frisbees around or to defecate in cornfields, and almost everyone we saw was getting a healthy start on their weekend’s party supplies while stuck in a traffic jam that under any other circumstance would turn a man murderous. How long you’ll wait on Thursday is one of the more mysterious of Bonnaroo’s crapshoots—some will wait 30 minutes while others run out of gas after 12 hours, depending on the breaks (and the brakes). But no matter how long you’re on the outside, the excitement of being on the inside tends to make the wait dissipate in your memory, just as the thrill of the roller coaster erases the hour you waited in the stanchions. The reason people make return trips to Bonnaroo is the same reason that women agree to have a second baby: they forget how bad the process hurts.
Once on the property, I was directed—media pass be damned—to the BFE campground as far from Centeroo as possible, and at 4pm I was finally able to unpack. In a deranged panic, I threw my tent up in superhuman time because although I’d missed a few fifth-tier acts on small stages while stuck in traffic, I would be damned if I missed the Postelles at 4:15pm, which marked the proper start of Bonnaroo. So I set my sights on Centeroo’s ferris wheel, a mere speck on the distant horizon, and started running. Two 12-minute miles later—I had to stop and pant in the 97-degrees a couple of times—I was in Centeroo standing in front of That Tent just after the Postelles kicked off their set. It was the first of 55 shows I’d watch (of at least 30 minutes each) over the next three-and-a-half days.
The Postelles / Photo: Adam Macchia
Thursday at Bonnaroo in years past was a day for early arrivals who were treated to a few unannounced acts in the evening before the actual fest started on Friday. Now, Thursday has grown into one of the weekend’s most exciting nights, a survey of some of the world’s best indie-rock bands spread out among Centeroo’s three tents—That Tent, This Tent, and The Other Tent—until the wee hours of the morning. (The two big stages don’t get going until Friday). The tents are actually large sheds, each able to accommodate a few thousand fans, and people who sit well outside the tents’ covers are offered decent views and plenty of sound. Moreover, moving from one tent to another is relatively easy, although it wears you out after a day or so—the tents are close enough together, in fact, that sound occasionally bleeds around from one tent to another.
I moved from The Postelles’ punch-drunk new-wave to Fanfarlo, who played their geeked-out trumpet-and-violin post-folk to a rapturous crowd. Incidentally, I stood next to Beatle Bob, the world’s most obsessive music fan—I would later see him introduce several acts throughout the weekend. I booked it over to the Troo Music Lounge, a misting tent and one of three small venues around the property, to see the excellent honky-tonkin’ vixen Elizabeth Cook; I stayed for her hour-long set of wise-ass alt-country groovers and twangy ballads, most of them culled from Welder, one of the year’s best country albums—she even strapped on clogging shoes at one point for a little adorable hoofing. I had enough to time to head back to That Tent for the last half of Diane Birch‘s set of piano-pop, walking up at the tail end of her cover of Hall & Oates’s “Rich Girl”, a nod to Daryl Hall, who would be performing the next night. Otherwise, Birch, in a black bowler and Willie Nelson pigtails, highlighted tunes from her debut album, Bible Belt, including the drowsy funk of “Rise Up” and the set-closing gospel-soul of “Valentino”.
Diane Birch / Photo: Adam Macchia
I then made a bee-line for the Other Tent, for the sonically punishing sounds of metal warriors Baroness, and a Diane Birch-to-Baroness transition is not one you get to make too often. They led off with the same trifecta that begins their killer Blue Record, the somber guitar patterns of “Bullhead’s Psalm” that descend into the full thrash onslaught of “The Sweetest Curse”, on which John Baizley, looking like an Amish psychopath, demonstrated one of metal’s most fearsome devil-spawn howls. “Jake Leg” featured Baizley’s and Peter Adams’ guitars wrestling each other in snake-bitten prog-metal workouts that lit a considerable fire under a sizeable crowd of affable headbangers.
Next, I made the natural transition back to the Troo Lounge for bluegrass teenager Sarah Jarosz, who performed solo on banjo then guitar then mandolin. She’s a preternaturally smooth instrumentalist on a variety of old-tyme frailings and newgrass slick-picking, and she has a delightfully unaffected and warm alto, making for one of the most blissful and intimate sets of the whole festival; she covered both Patty Griffin and Gnarls Barkley along with songs from her own A Song Up in Her Head, copies of which were flying off a makeshift merch counter next to the stage.
Miike Snow / Photo: Jason Merritt
As night began to fall, giving relief to the morbid heat, and as more people were able to finally make their way onto the grounds, the pent-up energy was exploding in the tents, palpable in the jam-packed This Tent for Miike Snow. It was a theatrical affair as the Swedish synth-rockers took the stage wearing Phantom of the Opera masks, bathed in dramatic blue light and heavy smoke, pounding out an ensemble sound that equally combined keyboards, guitars, and electronic samples into a grinding mix of Depeche Mode-style pulsation and New Romantic melodicism. The crowd went bonkers for songs like “Plastic Jungle” and “Billie Holiday”, climbing onto each other’s shoulders and flinging glowsticks, but they reached a fever pitch for the finale, an electrifying stomp through their hit single, “Animal”.
Electro-popped out, I skipped a jam-packed Neon Indian show in favor of the classic-rock leanings of South Carolina ’s NeedtoBreathe. My expectations were mild for a band of that name and one with Christian-rock beginnings, but they turned out to be one of the festival’s best surprises. With a Kings of Leon-ish mix of robust anthems, NeedtoBreathe busted out the Les Pauls, the muscle shirts, and their best tunes—“Lay ‘Em Down”, “Something Beautiful”, along with a tough cover of Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me”—in front of a big, hard-partying crowd that knew all the words.
The Temper Trap / Photo: FilmMagic Inc.
Afterwards, I hot-stepped it back to an overflowing That Tent in time to catch the opening of The Temper Trap, one of the day’s most highly-anticipated sets. Major stars in Australia, the four-piece, lead by charismatic Indonesian-born singer Dougy Mandagi, who danced around (in a popped white collar) to the band’s shimmering U2-ish songs, pounded on a water-soaked floor tom, and demonstrated one of the most effective falsettos in modern rock. I couldn’t pull myself away, even knowing that Blitzen Trapper was starting over in the Other Tent, not until I could participate in the euphoric revelry “Sweet Disposition”, and on the festival’s opening night, before sun and fatigue had beaten everyone down, I’m not sure the collective mood of this year’s Bonnaroo crowd was ever higher than during that song.
I ended up at Blitzen Trapper midway through their set just in time to hear the title track of their ambitious new record, Destroyer of the Void. Live, the band wrapped Kinks-y melodies and chamber-folk ambience around the earnest singing of Eric Earley, making for a set that provided an otherworldly drift of canyon-rock beauty as darkness deepened over Bonnaroo. The band challenged the audience by playing four straight tunes from Destroyer before scratching the itch of admirers of ‘08’s Furr by busting out sinewy versions of the title song and “Sleepytime in the Western World”.
Mayer Hawthorne / Photo: Jason Merritt
Now past 11pm, I was curious to catch at least a few songs of Mayer Hawthorne’s set across the way at This Stage. Hawthorne and his band were in matching white seersuckers, and the singer peddled his trademark shtick of half-earnest, half-ironic Motown revivalism. While he billed himself as the “second coming of James Brown”, I couldn’t commit fully to his goofy stage banter or his a cappella reading of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”, all of which undersold his competently funky band and a fairly fun reading of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”, surprising as that was.
As crowded at That Tent was earlier for the Temper Trap, it didn’t prepare me for the colossal throng that surrounded the tent for the start of British indie darlings, The xx. Taking the stage backlit by fierce white lights, the band opened with the minimalist plucking of “Intro” to a mesmerized crowd of reverential swayers. Singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim were meticulous in the breathy murmuring and single-note instrumentation that define their moody sound, and they went on to play the entirety of their superb self-titled debut, albeit in a shuffled sequence. Thousands in attendance had fallen in love with that album, and Thursday’s Bonnaroo set felt the fulfillment of a promise.
Wale / Photo: Allison Murphy
Thinking I was set to arrive halfway through Washington DC rapper Wale’s midnight set in That Tent, I hurried over to find a disgruntled crowd waiting for the emcee, now over a half-hour late, as his DJ did his best to stall without much success in placating anyone. With memories of Kanye West’s infamous hours-late Bonnaroo set causing the crowd to fear the worst, Wale finally came bounding out and, after a shaky start, delivered a high-energy hour-long set backed by a DJ and live three-piece. Peak moments: the party-starting soul-thump of “Pretty Girls” and an impromptu Jay-Z tribute in anticipation of Hova’s Saturday night set.
I left Wale to catch Joshua James’s 1am set in the Troo Lounge along with a couple dozen other weary revelers. I’m an admirer of James’s 2009 record Build Me This, but his bullet-miked vocals were overwrought, and his songs were woefully rearranged. At 2am, I started the long walk back to my tent but found myself sucked into watching the gyrating swarm in front of the new Lunar Stage, on which DJs—Sharam while I was there—spin for insomniacs and pharmaceutical experimenters until sunrise. The other option at this hour is the Silent Disco, in which live DJs play for dancers wearing headphones—it’s a hoot to see a tentful of people losing their minds to what looks like utter silence. Indeed, Centeroo is a city that never sleeps. However at 3am I finally did, after 11 straight hours of live music consumption and a nervous search for my campsite among a vast, confusing sea of them.