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At the beginning of my second full day at Bonnaroo, I wake to find a message from my father. Ed Sr. raised his boys on Yes, King Crimson, and Quadrophenia. I owe my interest in music to his early, off-kilter influences, so when he says that I have to see Buddy Guy, I don’t think twice. Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Clapton all cite Guy as their single biggest influence, and I expect this to be a history lesson of blues as much as a blazing, guitar-driven set. I’m right; Guy lays out the best quotes of the weekend:
“I could play up here all day if they let me.”
“I can play some of that old shit, but I can play a lot of Buddy Guy shit too.”
At one point, he jumps into the crowd, taking a stroll with his guitar. The crowd opens up for him, and he continues the coda of one of his songs some 60 feet into the audience—he must have the longest guitar chord ever.
This guy doesn’t just play the blues; he owns the blues. And he’s an entertainer who still knows how to play a crowd some 50 years into his career. Buddy Guy seems to be a favorite on the festival circuit, and for good reason. Of course, most of the attendees are under 30 and some of us are unfamiliar with what Guy has brought to music. My education with Guy begins today and will continue long after his guitar has gone quiet.
My friend Patrick drove in from Dallas to meet us in Tennessee. Other than being a great guy and a staple of my festival experience, Patrick’s hidden talent is an uncanny ability to get to the front of any stage regardless of a crowd’s size or composition. He is my fearless captain as we zig and zag through the crowd during the beginning of Beck’s set. When I think there were no holes left and we’ve hit a wall, Patrick finds a seam that brings us 40 feet closer. And then he does it again. The best part is that nobody ever seems to get upset with him—even though they’ve been standing there for four hours and we’ve jumped up in less than four minutes. When we finally settle on a spot, four of us sit down and begin organizing our party favors.
Beck is the only artist this weekend that makes full use of the large, high-quality screens that frame each side of the stage. He and his band had marionettes of themselves made for the show, and the production team bounces back and forth between the live Beck and the wooden Beck—the two are incredibly in synch. Everyone marvels at the ingenuity, but after a while the novelty wears off: most of us would rather see the 25 cameras focused on the band, rather than a puppet show.
Beck breaks out a rare “Paper Tiger” along with a handful of hits from Odelay. As he did on his last tour, Beck breaks off at one point, playing acoustic songs from Sea Change as his backup band sits down to a dinner table and one of the dancers/beatboxers/multi-taskers serves a meal. Beck busts out a handful of his own tunes plus a cover of the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?”, then introduces his next song as one that he is “pretty sure Radiohead would not be playing tonight” before going into a few verses of “Creep”. He ends his cover quickly as Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway of Radiohead look on, somewhat confused, and Beck chastises himself for being “unprofessional”.
A few songs later Beck’s backup band is satiated and wants back in. They begin using their utensils on the various place settings at their disposal before creating a wild exit to the eruption of the crowd. In between the end of the regular set and the encore, Beck and his crew of misfits once again use technology to broadcast a pre-taped video of the marionettes walking around the festival campgrounds and commenting on the people in attendance. There is no way to describe the sight of hippies gleefully laughing at the stereotypes of themselves.
And then it is time. Just after Beck’s set, as crowds of people around us turn around to leave (?!!?) or sit on the ground in the eight-by-eight-foot area they somehow feel entitled to, Patrick, our fearless captain, is already making his move. By the time we settle on a spot and realize we can go no further, we are only a few hundred feet away from the stage.
With an hour and half to kill before Radiohead, we take this time to become acquainted with our equally cramped and tired neighbors. There is Nick, who came with a caravan of people—none of whom are interested in Radiohead. He has never seen the band live but can rattle off their complete history, catalogue, and dietary preferences in under two minutes.
And then there is Andrew. Andrew, a self-proclaimed SKA fanatic, is self-deprecating and beyond excited. He’s alone and has come from Manchester mainly for Radiohead. After talking to us for 20 minutes, he casually mentions that he is only 15 years old. Since he looks like he is pushing 25, we all ask to see his license, which he agreeably displays. Sure enough, he is 15 and proceeds to tell us about his discovery of a vinyl copy of Amnesiac in his local library when he was in the sixth grade. He immediately fell in love with the band and has been waiting to see them ever since. I’m thinking I need to check out his library.
The band opens up with “There There” which—with its triple-rhythm drumming section and scantily clad bass line—is the perfect song to start a two-and-a-half-hour long party. The entire crowd is dancing, and all the angst and weariness of waiting in the sun washes away. Hundreds of glowsticks are thrown into the air, and at one point, Thom Yorke grabs a couple and throws them back at the roaring crowd.
Radiohead - Karma Police [Live at Bonnaroo 2006]
I feel I may enjoy “Exit Music” and “Karma Police” more if everyone around me—Andrew most obnoxiously—weren’t belting every word (out of key) right by my ear. I’ve never understood why fans decide to sing the soft ballads of their favorite band’s catalogue, especially when it’s a band they’ve never seen before. If you want to sing a Radiohead song, sign yourself up on karaoke night. Otherwise just sit back and listen. After all, this is only going to happen once.
The new songs—especially “Arpeggi” and “Videotape”—resonate agreeably with the crowd. Many people already seem familiar with the songs, perhaps from bootlegs. I am extremely pleased to hear a couple Amnesiac dark horses: “Dollars & Cents” as well as “Like Spinning Plates”.
We retreat from our new friends and the packed crowds in search of water as Thom quietly moans, “While you make pretty speeches/ I am being torn to shreds/ you feed me to the lions/ a delicate balance.” When I turn to Patrick, who is never known for his knack for subtlety, and ask him why he didn’t give an earful to Andrew for his dreadful singing, he looks at me and says, “Man, that kid is 15 years old and this is the concert he has been waiting to see his entire life. He doesn’t know any better and who am I to tell him otherwise?” Well said.
We watch the rest of the set a quarter mile away from the stage while pounding water and eating falafel. Thom, of course, loses his mind and shakes his ass uncontrollably during “Idioteque”. The crowd goes batshit during “No Surprises,” when Yorke preaches to the choir: “bring down the government/ they don’t speak for us.”
Radiohead - Idioteque [Live at Bonnaroo 2006]
He playfully mugs for the camera during “You and Whose Army?” And after noticing its conspicuous absence from the set, I’m not surprised when “Everything in Its Right Place” is pulled out to close the second encore. I would never say that the band has gimmicks or that their set is somewhat predictable or that I really was praying for an anthemic version of “Black Star”—but I guess I just did.
I predicted (incorrectly) in the weeks leading up to the show that the band would break out all their secret weapons for this set, playing some crazy shit just because they’re the biggest band in the world and people from all over the country came to Tennessee to see them. They could have covered “Picture of Nectar” in its entirety and both sides would have intrigued.
This was their first big festival gig in the States since Coachella in ‘04, and they were super tight and unpredictable when I saw them in New York earlier that week. I don’t understand why they feel like they have to play it so safe. But then again, though I’ll never see Andrew again, I’d wager that when he reflects on the first time he saw Radiohead, he will have very few complaints.
* * *
As I walk back to our camp, through the shanty town that is the festival campground, the Bonnaroo experience comes full circle. Exhaustion has dictated that the camper will be leaving before tomorrow’s performances, and so this is sort of it. I look around and see frat boys, bikers, gay couples, pierced couples, hipsters, buyers, users, and abusers. We might not have much in common, but a shared distrust of our current administration seems evident. Some people flocked here to listen to some music and get fucked up, while an equal measure came with their priorities reversed. I look at my neighbors, whose license plates read Arizona, Alabama, New York, and Vermont and realize that we comprise the “counter culture”. What goes on at festivals like Bonnaroo is no secret, but for one reason or another, we are left to our own devices on an 800-acre farm in the middle of nowhere.
Our phones may be tapped at home and our neighborhood friends may be dying in the desert in the Middle East, but the 80,000 people who are here have taken a break from their reality to be with others who need to escape. For some of us, it’s our jobs, for others, their lovers, cities, or routines.
The history of this country demonstrates that the greatest changes are a direct result of the efforts and opinions of those on the fringe—the minority. On quick glance, everyone here can be labeled one thing or another, but we aren’t in high school anymore and there are no cool kids to impress. The one thing that we all share with each other is the idea that our lives and our decisions are our own. We don’t want anyone in our lives telling us what we can and can’t do, so it is important to know what’s going on around us.
Everyone at this festival could be called a stoner, a hippie, a radical, or anti-establishment. But we are not anti-establishment—we are pro-thought. This country is the best country in the world because our liberties allow us to ask questions about the processes by which we’re governed. Most of us here this weekend are more concerned about global warming and the country’s current “foreign policy” than we are about tax breaks or what Jesus would say about gay marriage.
The 80,000 I walked with this weekend, the supposed “counter culture” of this country, are the ones who can facilitate the changes we hope to see in the world. I mean, if we can all dance and party in 90-degree weather and 100% humidity for three days straight, then there is no reason why we can’t get out to vote or take some time to write an op-ed. We need to get on our soapbox and get involved—because if things keep going in the direction they have in this country, then weekends like this, for the music, arts, and culture, may soon become a thing of the past.
The time is now and we have no excuse. If not for anything else, defend your right to have three days to listen to great music and do no harm to anyone but yourself. As Thom Yorke, the lead singer of the biggest band in the world said when he was still just the lead of a small band from Oxford: Stop whispering, start shouting.
Oh, and driving. I’ve got a long haul home, and that big rig is waiting.
Radiohead - Lucky [Live at Bonnaroo 2006]