We were ten miles outside of Manchester when the drugs began to take hold.
Slayer playing at Bonnaroo, demonstrating why iPhone stage photos are futile.
Twenty years ago, back in my Lollapalooza days, that purloined opening sentence would have been a lot more interesting. But this is 2015, so the drugs in question were a potassium/magnesium suppliment for dehydration (and because I’m chronically K deficient) and a sublingual glutathione tablet to boost liver function.
I found out Tuesday afternoon that I had won passes to Bonnaroo in the Contemporary Media internal ticket lottery. It was pure luck that I able to clear my schedule for the weekend, and that my friends I called in Murfreesboro and Nashville were either free or already going to the festival. I'm originally from McMinnville, the next town north of Manchester, so we were able to arrange a spot to stay not far from the festival grounds. Despite the fact that I grew up in spitting distance of the place where both Radiohead and Jack White have said they played the best shows of their lives, I had never made it to Bonnaroo before. So as the not-very-heady rush of adequate potassium levels washed over me, I felt pretty excited.
The first thing you notice about Bonnaroo is the sheer scale of the thing. And yet, it was by far the best organized and most competently run festival I’ve ever attended. The attention to detail is impressive, right down to the sight lines in the festival area itself. If you’re wandering through the thousand-acre site and, as frequently happens, you need to pee, your best bet is to simply scan the horizon for a sign that says “Restrooms”, and you’ll quickly know where you need to go. Granted, that sign might be a mile away, but at least you know in which direction to head. I got the smartphone app, which included both a dynamically updated schedule and a GPS-enabled map. It was extremely helpful when we found ourselves hiking from stage to stage, which was very frequently.
We arrived at about 6:00 on Friday evening, which meant I missed a few acts I wanted to see, such as Against Me!, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. The first music I saw was Atmosphere, a Minneapolis hip hop group I had never heard before, who were killing it at the Which Stage, the second largest of the festival’s 7 stages. After three or four songs, we booked it over the What Stage, where Alabama Shakes were ruling the festival’s largest venue. Bandleader Brittany Howard was channeling some serious Sister Rosetta Tharpe energy, alternately walking all over the guitar neck and wailing with complete abandon. I had seen them play before, and was impressed, but this was just a next level performance.
We stayed on the outskirts of the crowd so we could head out quickly, since we had to traverse the west to east length of Centeroo to catch Ben Folds. The Nashville-based pianist performed with a sextet, and the songs demonstrated his arranging and orchestration chops. After a few songs, we ran over to catch the end of the Tears For Fears set. I had already seen two good and one great performance before 10 PM, but the scene at Tears For Fears was really something special. There were plenty of people there who, like me, were old enough to be old school fans of the British New Wavers, but we were massively outnumbered by the 20-somethings in the crowd. But surprisingly, the kids were the ones who were singing along with “Head Over Heels” and “Shout”, even though the songs predated their births by a decade in some cases. And the band was lapping it up. In front of huge crowds, performers are either elevated to heights they didn’t know they could reach or diminished by fear and self consciousness. Friday night, Tears For Fears were elevated.
After a quick stop by Ben Harper, we returned to the main stage for Kendrick Lamar. The crowd had grown from “massive” to “mind-numbingly enormous” since we’d been wandering through Centeroo, but Lamar had them eating out of the palm of his hand, especially during the barn-burning Isley Brothers vamp “i”, whose relentlessly upbeat refrain seemed to have been written especially for the Bonnaroo atmosphere. Sill, I have to admit that I was disappointed with Lamar’s set. The music came off as a little lightweight in a way that his recordings don’t. Perhaps he was bitten by the self-consciousness bug.
My group was trying to hook up with some other friends, so we ended up at the Modeski, Scofield, Martin, & Wood set. Bonnaroo’s roots are in the old jam band circuit, but one thing I learned at the festival was that EDM has come to fill the same sociological niche jam bands used to, which was frankly just fine by me. The jazzy noodling seemed like a throwback to an earlier time, and not in a good way. We were way out of position to catch Run The Jewels, and I was the only one of the group who wanted to see them anyway, so we hit Earth, Wind, & Fire instead. They were a great kind of throwback, with tight choreography and impeccable playing complimenting Philip Baily’s soaring vocals. Late in the set, Kendrick Lamar joined the band and seemed much more at ease than he had during his main stage performance. The crowd was dancing the whole time, but the closing twofer of the genius sing along “September” and a loose, chaotic reading of “Let’s Groove Tonight” sent about ten thousand people into a soul frenzy.
Then it was time for the act I was most excited to see out of the entire lineup: Flying Lotus. My companions had never heard of him and are not electronic music fans, so most of the group split. But I was not disappointed in the least. From the incredible dual screen, projection mapping visuals to the pristine sound and flawless execution, Flying Lotus was the best example I’ve ever seen of a large-scale electronic music performance done right. Among his fantastically creative ADD-addled originals, he mixed in other songs, sometimes chopping up and remixing them on the spot, or, in the case of Madvillian’s “Accordion”, just playing the whole song straight while emerging from behind the light show to groove along with the crowd. The set climaxed with several songs from 2014’s You’re Dead, including a transcendent “Coronus, The Terminator”, but also threw in “Clock Catcher” and “Do The Astral Plane” from his 2010 breakthrough album Cosmogramma. I danced as best I could on tired legs, and by the end of the set, my remaining friend who hadn’t been driven away by the specter of IDM admitted he was beginning to understand why I worship Flying Lotus. As we retreated from the festival grounds around 2:00 AM, we figured that this was about as great a Friday night as you ask for from a music festival.
The next day got off to a less auspicious start. Word going in was that this was a weaker lineup than usual, and it showed on Saturday afternoon. With our posse reassembled, we decided our first priority was to hit the Cinema Tent for a screening of Birdman with a live percussion score performed by composer Antonio Sanchez. Since Birdman is one of the decade’s greatest films, the score was a part of what made it awesome, and the cinema tent was air conditioned, this seemed like the best thing going. But when we arrived at the Cinema Tent, we discovered that several thousand people agreed with our assessment. Long waits are frequently described as “a line a mile long”, but this line was literally a mile long. As we went from person to person trying to find the line’s end by asking “You in line for Birdman?”, the fairground’s well designed eyelines once again came in handy, as one of our group spotted the beer garden, where we retired for some shade and copious refreshment.
The first actual music we saw was the bluegrass pickers Trampled By Turtles. They were most definitely Not My Scene, but they were good at what they did, and the beer helped. Even in the blazing son, the mood at Bonnaroo is quite friendly. High fives with strangers is de rigueur. Security is kept largely out of sight, but even so, we saw no fights the entire weekend. Tired people tend to just find a shady spot and lay down on the ground, letting the crowd mill around them. I thought this was pretty weird, until I found myself doing exactly the same thing while listening to my friend Chip Greene play with a pickup band at a bone marrow cancer charity tent.
I had heard good things about War On Drugs, but the Philly rockers turned out to be competent but uninspired retreads. I was similarly disappointed in Belle and Sebastian, although they played to a packed tent of enthusiastic cultists. More enjoyable were the fifteen minutes I spent enthralled by a New Orleans bounce DJ set outside the Club Barn.
The evening kicked into gear for me with Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyabor. The eccentric Nigerian’s recordings from the late 70s were rediscovered and rereleased by David Byrne’s Luka Bop records, where they gained a huge cult following. Onyabor himself is now reportedly a Christian minister in Africa and doesn’t play secular music any more, so Byrne gathered a group to play the songs live. At Bonnaroo, Byrne was replaced fronting the crack ensemble by Nashville based English soul singer Jamie Lidell, The Rapture’s Luke Jenner, and Nashville rapper Mike Floss. With incredible beats and ripping saxophone work by Charles Lloyd, it was the most I danced the entire weekend.
Still completely jazzed, we headed to the main stage for Bonnaroo veterans My Morning Jacket, who were delivering all the goods in the guitar rock department that War On Drugs hadn’t. After fueling up at Prater’s BBQ and running into some high school friends, we headed for Slayer.
The Slayer set was one of the stranger things I’ve ever seen, and not just because there was a guy in a chicken suit in the mosh pit. Bonnaroo has a peaceful vibe, and thrash metal Slayer is about as opposite of that as you can imagine. The show was as intense as their reputation suggests. Now in his 50s and sporting a gigantic caveman beard, singer and bassist Tom Araya seemed to be having trouble keeping his metal face on. When they would pause for breath every third or fourth song, he looked silently out on the tens of thousands in the crowd and just grinned like a kid on Christmas as the crowd screamed louder and louder. It was a strange combination of raw musical aggression and, well, love.
Once Slayer left the stage, we wanted to see how the headliners Mumford & Sons were faring on the main stage. When we got there, I saw the single largest collection of humanity I have ever been a part of. It was an incredible sea of people that extended all the way to the bathrooms at the far side of the arena-sized farm field. It is a tribute to the professionalism of the sound crew that we were able to hear Mumford & Sons so clearly from a mile away. Unfortunately, Mumford & Sons are incredibly boring, especially when you’ve just come from watching Slayer tear the roof off a tent. So after a few songs, we wandered off to catch a set by Nashville alt rockers All Them Witches. Playing at the smallest stage to only a few hundred people, it was vastly superior to the snoozefest on the main stage.
By now, it was 1 AM and time for one more visit to the beer garden. The group was tired and contentious, but we pressed on to check out Bassnectar. They are wildly popular, but the sound, which was pristine all weekend, was cranked way up, muddying the bass and drowning out what little subtlety Bassnectar demonstrates. It was far and away the worst thing I heard the entire festival, and it followed us everywhere, even as we tried to catch D’Angelo and the Super Jam on our way out of the park. I had to return to Memphis on Sunday, so it was a bummer end to my first Bonnaroo experience. But taken all together even a comparatively “weak” Bonnaroo was ten gallons of fun in a five gallon sack. I’m definitely entering the lottery again next year.