Down on the Farm: Three Days of Sun, Mud & Music
The enigmatically-named Bonnaroo is a temporary settlement of psychedelic villagers who, for all their colorful adornments, claptrap singing, and admirable -- albeit disjointed and drug-fueled -- sense of community, less resemble real humans than they do mud-laden incarnations of the blissed-out Whos from Whoville once the four days of music and camping draw to a close. Sprawling out over a 600-odd-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee, Bonnaroo is the largest music festival in the country -- in excess of 90,000 people attended this year (up from 80,000 last year and 70,000 before that), and it's certainly the best. It has evolved from its origins as the quintessential hippie fest, with all the jam bands it could muster, to an ever-expanding phenomenon that now includes indie rock, old-time music, hip-hop, and country -- not to mention a video arcade, stand-up comedy acts, movies, batting cages, and shopping. If the thought of enduring purgatorial heat and ankle-deep mud (with its many unsavory and sundry ingredients) to see granola amblers like the Dead, Phish and Govt. Mule is about as alluring as a slab of tofurkey, then perhaps Patti Smith, Yo La Tengo and Gomez will speak to your indie urbanity. Whatever your persuasion, Bonnaroo's got it.
Hopping the shuttle from the Nashville airport on Thursday, I was deposited at a dirt crossroad with campsites and independent vendors on all sides. Large pack on my back and stupidly wearing jeans and long sleeves, I wove my way through throngs of people in various states of intoxication and undress, the trillion-degree heat turning every one of my pores into miniature geysers. The people I was to meet up with wouldn't be arriving until the next morning so I had to think creatively about my evening accommodations.
I wandered aimlessly for hours until finally the sun was down and I was randomly invited to have a drink with some folks from Kalamazoo, Michigan. What began as a serendipitous display of hospitality, resulted, many beers and joints later, in the realization that I was smack dab in the middle of an episode of Jerry Springer. After hours of being scandalized by inane arguments about their friends' botched sex-change operations and the threesomes they'd all enjoyed with each other, I nervously turned in for the night. As I lay there, my back turned to the bizarre revelers, one of the guys exclaimed he planned to rape me. Super. Was this really how my first Bonnaroo would begin? Fending off a would-be rapist who happened also to be an unrepentant racist? I could not begin count how many times the "n" word was bandied about. But through the thickly smeared obscenities I detected the jest in his words, however horrible and inappropriate, and decided just to keep my eyes closed until I fell asleep. A verifiable sea of people, and I chose the cast from the Michigan Chainsaw Massacre.
The next morning I made my getaway and was finally able to find my friends in their RV. This heaven-sent motor vehicle boasted air-conditioning, beds, a bathroom, kitchen, DVD player, cold beer, and most importantly, not a single person wishing to violate me. So on Friday, the first official day of music, I began to realize my macabre introduction to the festival was simply an anomaly that had had the misfortune of zeroing in on. The rest of the weekend turned out to be some of the most fun I've had in years and the people, for the most part, were peace-loving hippies, which was just fine by me.
DAY ONE - FRIDAY
On the Which Stage -- adding to the Dr. Seuss vibe are the names of the stages: Which, This, That, The Other, Another, etc -- Texican band Los Lonely Boys were, officially, the very first band to perform at Bonnaroo. Their blend of traditional Mexican music with head-banging, alternative, roots-rock is an updated version of the sound Los Lobos essentially patented, and was a hit with the music-starved fans who had been waiting a full day and night for the thrill of live entertainment. Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage next with their energetic, hootin' hillbilly take on bluegrass, dubbed "progressive" by some but which sounds far more traditional than such a label might allow. Combining the high-pitched vocals of bluegrass founder Bill Monroe with the breakneck spirit of rock and roll, these boys from Colorado helped set the jolly tone for the rest of the festival.
The primary gripe anyone will have about Bonnaroo is that there are invariably great sets that must be missed in favor of another. Leaving Yonder Mountain's set was tough but the siren call of crimson-haired, alt-country nymph Neko Case pulled me towards This Tent for her show. She appeared with her backing band, Canadian rockers the Sadies, and belted out her anguished, spine-tingling gorgeous tunes with a voice that that seems to emanate from a fuzzy transistor radio on some dark, empty southwestern highway. Haunting and beautiful, she was part of an impressive roster of female singer-songwriters at this jammed-out, animated affair. Patti Smith's exuberant proto-punk, Ani DiFranco's vigorously strummed folk rock, and Gillian Welch's melancholy take on traditional country and bluegrass were all strong presences. The latter, along with her partner and guitar virtuoso David Rawlings, lit up "This Tent" several hours after Case, with traditional standards like "I'll Fly Away" (Welch sang it in O Brother Where Art Thou?), and highlighted songs from their new album Soul Journey. "I was just a little Dead Head" goes her song "Wrecking Ball", garnering swells of affirmation from the crowd. Any Dead reference is always a good bet at Bonnaroo. Most compelling was Welch's acoustic rendition of "Manic Depression" by Jimi Hendrix. Scanning the crowd, smiles of recognition were visible and everyone promptly reciprocated with the enthusiasm such a left-field cover deserved. Any nods to Hendrix are sure to get folks riled up, especially when a song as iconic as "Manic Depression" is given such an affecting, down-tempo, acoustic country reinterpretation.
The great, defiant Wilco beckoned next at the What Stage. "Have you guys heard our new album?" asked frontman Jeff Tweedy about their, at that point, unreleased record. A roar from the crowd pointed to yes. "How'd that happen?", he joked -- of course they've had their album A Ghost is Born streaming for free on their website for several months now. Their philosophy was that fans would respond in kind to the band's liberal attitude, and buy the album once it was officially released -- they will most likely be proven right, as Wilco fans are a devout bunch. Playing eight of their new songs, interspersed with now-standards from the rest of their oeuvre, Wilco triumphed over the festival. Call Tweedy the Lazarus of rock and roll. After checking into rehab for an addiction to painkillers, he's trim, energetic, and actually seems to be having fun up there with his rock band. The new album's sound, if not its tone, is decidedly upbeat -- "Spiders" even opens with an '80s synth-beat, the lively "Hummingbird" is underpinned by a Stephane Grappelli-style violin, and Neil Young's gleefully ambling guitar jams pop up frequently. But never a band to fall prey to safe melodies, even their ballads descend into swirling experimental jams and lengthy guitar noise. Slightly indulgent, perhaps, but the prettiness must be balanced out. Their underdog status and innovative music have earned them the respect of fans and critics alike, and if their performance at Bonnaroo is any indication, they'll only get better.
In an odd twist of fate, Bob Dylan followed these heirs to his throne with a fairly uninspired performance. His choice of songs was perfect Dylan and not always what one might expect, but he was hunched behind a piano most of the time and, frankly, sounded bored. Two nice surprises were his covers of Hank Williams' "You Win Again" and Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty". Both songs lend themselves to downbeat singing so the unenthused vocals almost seemed appropriate. He's clearly sung standards like "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" far too many times, and whatever vitality he once imbued in them seems to have left the building for good. That said, to an utter fanatic like myself, it was still, and always will be, a thrill to see the bard from Minnesota in person. Bob Dylan on his worst day is better than many other artists on their best, if only for the fact that his songs are unsurpassable.
Dave Matthews and Friends -- Trey Anastasio of Phish playing the role of "best" friend -- finished the evening at the main stage with long-winded, experimental jams and some lively covers of songs ranging from Rufus' "Tell Me Something Good" -- Anastasio effectively channeling Chaka Khan's soulful yell if you can believe it -- to the Band's "Up On Cripple Creek", as well as several tracks off Matthews' first solo album Some Devil. Mostly for die-hard jam fans but their skill and energy were undeniable, and Anastasio's patent enthusiasm, like an incredulous little kid with his first plastic guitar, made it all the more clear why Phish has the fervent following it does.
At 1:30 AM, copyright super-menace Danger Mouse was spinning at Another Tent. He was either the best deejay I've ever heard or the funny-tasting chocolate bought from a young hippie girl was really doing its job. Might have been a bit of both.
DAY TWO - SATURDAY
Slightly reeling from the night before, we awoke to hear Los Lobos take the What Stage at 12:30 with full force. Their rootsy blend of ranchero-meets Buddy Holly Americana wafted through the windows of our RV, which was miraculously positioned no more than 10 vehicles away from the main entrance. The RV roof served as an ideal viewing platform for the What Stage. Los Lobos seemed right at home with the rest of the jam bands as they worked up a 10-minute song or two -- they even paid homage to jam-band godfathers the Grateful Dead with a cover of one of their songs (if I hadn't begun to drink Bud Light at 11:30 in the morning, perhaps I might remember which one).
Festival circuit Gov't Mule rocked the What Stage with their blues-rock, and southern-fried boogie. Frontman and guitarist Warren Haynes has most recently replaced Jerry Garcia in the newly configured Dead and has, for over a decade, been the new Duane Allman. Gov't Mule's following is massive, and far from bending any genres, they cater to the needs of their niche market with forays into extended, often psychedelic, guitar jams.
My Morning Jacket
Kentuckians My Morning Jacket took the Which Stage by storm and emerged as one of the highlights of the festival. Lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jim James came out barefoot, his face completely obscured by the Captain Caveman hair he sported. When they got to serious jamming, it was like watching electrified Fraggles make music -- one assumed on instruments concealed beneath the competing tangles of flailing hair. If they are a jam band, it's in the vein of Brian Wilson, as sung by Neil Young -- lush pop orchestrations, grinding western guitar landscapes and James' wistful, echoed vocals expressing the raw emotions that made both Young and Wilson so worthy of our love and empathy. Many songs would even fit snugly alongside anything by the Band, but My Morning Jacket sounds as modern as any critic would have you believe is necessary to avoid the pitfalls of retro-ism.
Replacing Willie Nelson, who sadly had to cancel due to carpal tunnel syndrome, was Steve Winwood on the What Stage, fresh from his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The question no doubt running through everyone's head was: Will he sing "Higher Love"? You bet. Hearing it live was revelatory. Whatever corniness it's held in our minds for all these years definitely requires a re-evaluation. Winwood's signature keyboards and the power of the earnest message came together splendidly and I was transported right back to 1986, Mom driving me to school as it blared on the radio. I liked it then because I was an un-jaded nine-year-old, I later scoffed at it, only to come full-circle and appreciate it, God help me, non-ironically. Of course his fantastic rendition of Traffic classic "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" sounded as fresh as it did way back when. Winwood may have plumbed the depths of his new-age soul but he's remained a consummate musician throughout and his performance at Bonnaroo was definitely one of the most memorable.
Rushing over to This Tent for a Doc Watson show was worth the energy. Once accompanied by his son Merle, now deceased, he is instead joined by grandson Richard -- a worthy replacement for his father. Watson's flawless guitar playing and smooth baritone, even at 82 years-old cut through bluegrass numbers like "Blue Moon of Kentucky" as deftly as they soar through jazz standards like "Summertime". The latter spoke most poignantly to the sun-beaten masses and received one of the most effusive responses I witnessed all weekend. For this timeless, pure music to extract the hoots, hollers and applause from such a motley sea of stoned kids shed a slightly brighter light on the future of this nation, if only for a fleeting moment.
The mighty Dead topped off the evening with an impressive show that truly gave the people what they wanted. Despite the rank, messy fields of mud, the Dead lured every last camper from their hovels to partake in the decades-old communion that inspired so much of this festival's music. Kicking things off with "Tennessee Jed" was most appropriate, and their excellent cover of "The Weight" by the Band took on a new meaning to the bedraggled fans who, by this point, were ripe as hobos and were definitely feeling the weight of their indulgent carousing. Their version of Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" gave the original a run for its money and just when I thought my first Dead show would end without me hearing my favorite song, their encore was "Box of Rain". This person indeed got what he wanted. At the risk of sounding blasphemous to legion of Heads, the absence of Jerry Garcia was indeed regretful but the music didn't suffer for it a bit. To me and indubitably to legions of others, this was as close to Ithaca '77 as we would ever be, and the illusion was most effective.
DAY THREE - SUNDAY
A 1:00 PM wake-up gave us enough time to hunt down some breakfast at the campground -- delicious falafel from a cart close by -- get a little bit irie and run up to see Taj Mahal at the Which Stage. His blues revival, to those not in the know, could very well have passed for the real thing, as he's even adopted the whisky-soaked growl of the true blues man. Echoes of Mississippi John Hurt rang out through his simple acoustic chords, but the lyrics were as sassy and sexual as anything you'd hear on hip-hop radio. Mentions of his baby's "pie" and other such lewdnesses sent waves of laughter and incredulous cheers through the crowd. Taj Mahal is another artist who has withstood the test of time and has emerged sounding better than ever. "She Caught the Katy" and "Corrina", both off his 1968 album The Natch'l Blues rang through the hot and humid air like cool breezes from Tennessee's simpler past.
Having fully exhausted every last bit of energy available in our overly-eager bodies, we returned to the RV to clean up the site. David Byrne was on at the What Stage and our proximity to it afforded us a leisurely soundtrack to our final hours at Bonnaroo. His more recent world music explorations were interspersed with blasts from his Talking Heads past. The result was not an over-the-hill artist singing his band's old songs, rather we could very well have been at an honest-to-God Talking Heads concert -- vibrant, energetic and with all the same punch the songs deliver every time we hear them on the radio. It was a good note to mark our departure, which despite our declarations of wanting to camp there forever, was a welcome proposition.
Winding through the Tennessee mountains, away from the giant farm we'd called home for the past several days, I reflected on the pros and cons of the whole experience and concluded that the cons -- mainly the mud, the heat and the exhaustion (I won't get into the two unfortunate overdose deaths at this year's festival) -- were worth the price of such carefree madness. I am ready for next year.