"Lose yourself in the music, the moment," instructed festival headliner Eminem during the closing song in his Saturday-night spot at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. A sea of music fans lined the stage and spread out as far as the eye could see, chanting the words along with him, which could fit as a perfect mantra for the behemoth festival.
Last week marked the camp-out music festival's 10th anniversary, and despite the soaring summer temperatures and cost (festival passes range from $209.50 for general admission pre-sale to $674.75 for VIP), all 80,000 tickets sold out by early May. The tagline for the anniversary gathering: "Celebrating 10 Years of Magic."
And it's that magic that draws so many people — from all 50 states and two dozen countries — to this contemporary Woodstock held on a 750-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee, about five hours from Memphis. Of course, the big-name performers — this year, Eminem, Widespread Panic, Arcade Fire, the Black Keys — are a draw, but even more than the music, it's the escapism, sense of community, and personal freedom that can't be found in everyday life — the ability to lose yourself for three and a half days, to let your
freak flag fly without fear.
Festivalgoers roamed the grounds in elaborate costumes, with painted bodies and in outfits constructed with glow sticks. In our camp area, a 20-something male wearing nothing but a speedo and sombrero conversed with neighbors. In line for a Porta-John, we ran into "Canada Man," who was dressed in a full-body, superhero leotard emblazoned with a maple leaf on the chest. And at the watering hole in Centeroo, the festival's main grounds, a guy in a banana suit stood in line to fill his water bottle.
The unusual is usual at Bonnaroo, which has grown to become North America's largest music festival in attendance and acreage. In its early years, the fest focused on a jam-band lineup, including acts like Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio, the String Cheese Incident, and Phil Lesh. But with an increasingly diverse bill of performers over the years, Bonnaroo has widened its appeal to music lovers of all kinds. Bonnaroo's not just for hippies anymore, as long as you don't mind dirtying your feet and roughing it a little — or a lot, depending on your tolerance.
It's like a rite of passage, a test of endurance: three nights camping in a field, waking up after a couple hours of sleep due to the heat, and trekking across acres of dusty ground under the scorching sun to experience the sights and sounds. It's those die-hard, festival-loving 'Rooers of all ages who've helped the festival endure.
Memphian Adam Beasley is one of them. Beasley has attended four Bonnaroos, including the first, which, according to him, might have been the wildest. Festgoers pushed the envelope and the limits of allowed wackiness. "It was like going to a country without laws," Beasley says, remembering a "nude parade" of 200 or more attendees that marched through Centeroo. "And it was 1 in the afternoon!"
There was no nude parade this year, but outlandish behavior is still the norm. Shows and activities are offered 24 hours a day, from the fest's Thursday-afternoon start until its Sunday-night close. Drugs are nonchalantly offered and openly consumed. As Beasley says, "It's like going to the circus — a system overload on all of your senses."
It's a circus complete with live music and stand-up comedy from more than 175 acts across 12 stages, a Ferris wheel that runs into the wee hours of the morning, a "silent disco," a 40-foot inflatable water slide, and several interactive art installations.
Not surprisingly, after the fest's second year, Rolling Stone magazine branded Bonnaroo one of the "50 moments that changed the history of rock & roll" and later proclaimed it "the American festival to end all festivals."
It's proven to be a special place for its fans, a place where strangers become friends, and friends become better friends. One evening, a young man got down on one knee in front of the festival's "mushroom" fountain — and hundreds of people — to propose to his girlfriend. A few weddings have even taken place on the grounds through the years.
Notable acts from my 2011 Bonnaroo experience included Beats Antique, an experimental world fusion and electronic group that performed a late set Thursday night. Florence + the Machine delivered a powerful set, performing the album Lungs almost in its entirety on Friday as the sun set. Friday night, Arcade Fire blew up the main stage, playing hits like "Rebellion (Lies)" for the thousands of fans who piled in shoulder to sweaty shoulder to sing along.
By Saturday, attendees had gotten used to the scene, the long walks between stages — and the fact that they might not get a shower until Monday. A girl in the crowd said she had had a rough first couple of days but was now convinced that she "could do this every day."
Eminem didn't disappoint and performed his biggest hits, including "My Name Is," "Cleaning Out My Closet," and "Without Me," among others.
Going back to the fest's jam-band roots, the String Cheese Incident entranced fans with electronic/jam/bluegrass fusion and possibly the craziest visuals of the fest. Midway through the set, a man in a furry moth costume with wings formed by several giant balloons and a jet pack strapped to his back flew in from the left side of the stage as a giant inflated dinosaur floated in from the right. They met above the crowd for "battle."
Sunday brought more big names, including Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, the Strokes, and Widespread Panic. Sunday also brought exhaustion and the realization that we all had to get ready to pack our bags and head back to our 9-to-5 lives.
At one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, at the Mumford and Sons Which Stage performance, I overheard a girl explaining to a friend how the experience had affected her: "I feel like I've found more of myself here."
I think that is the case for most who dare to take on this epic festival. Though no two experiences will be the same, there is a commonality. We push ourselves, lose ourselves, and in the end, find more of ourselves. A person can't help but be changed by the experience.
There are times when you want to cry from happiness and times when you almost break down from exhaustion and want to go home. But when it's over, there's a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment — and a persistent thought:
"I can't wait to do this again next year!"
My First Bonnaroo
by Michael Adams
I didn't sleep the night before, half wired with excitement and half gut-shot with dread. Bonnaroo — four days of bad heat and wanton wandering around among 80,000 crazies from all over the world; an experience all but guaranteed by everyone I asked to be both the best and worst experience of my life.
That sentiment was immediately followed with instructions to stay hydrated, figure out when they cleaned the Porta-Johns so I wouldn't contract anything serious (although most of the time, they weren't much worse than the P&H's men's room on a busy Friday night), and to not be stupid about staying out in the elements to catch an act I wasn't excited about. There's no sense in over-reaching when it comes to personal safety.
I made a joke somewhere in the planning that our trip was going to be along the same lines as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It started as a joke, but I knew that, like Duke and Gonzo's experience, our trip would also be "a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character." It would be "a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country, but only for those with true grit." And we would need all the grit we could muster to make the trip, set up camp, and survive the Bonnaroo brand of magic spread over four days.
I learned quick that this festival is nothing like Beale Street Music Fest. At Memphis in May, the chaos has a time limit. You go, enjoy the music, knock back overpriced beers, and wait for the rain to come or go. Then you go home or back to the confines of a hotel. In Manchester, the madness doesn't stop. If you're fortunate enough to have a hotel room or an RV, you're surely doing it wrong. The scene thrives on the madness caused by so many people cramped into 750 acres, the tent city of general camping and its constant flow of people, everyone up all night partying only to wake up a few hours later hungover and covered in sweat — too hot to sleep much past sun-up — no creature comforts, and very little hygiene.
Walking from stage to stage at 'Roo, it's obvious that it's okay to be a little crazy. Had I gone into it with my usual inhibitions, I would have been miserable by the end of the first night, begging to tuck tail and run instead of soaking up the scene. Logic doesn't belong here, because the spectrum is too broad. Most people couldn't handle being overheated, half dehydrated, and beyond exhausted, only to be instantly revived by the happenstance of seeing one of the performers walk through the crowd, or being mashed against a guard rail while trying to catch some of the Eminem set with what seems like every other person at the fest, only to hear from behind, "Ron Jeremy, coming through." And there's the porn legend on a golf-cart taxi, the two of you sharing the same fatigue and desire to be out of the crowd, out of the heat, but not willing to call it quits, because you're both too lost in the music. A person has no choice but to accept and embrace it, to appreciate the insanity of four freaks in the Broo'er's Festival on the last day, laughing so hard they can't hold onto their gears and beers.
In sports, there's the adage that with every game, you leave it on the field. You forget about everything but the game, and you give it all you've got. That's what happened to me at Bonnaroo. While I was there, I didn't think about bills or work or school or the sink full of dishes I left at home. The only things that mattered were staying well hydrated and rested enough to brave the heat and enjoy the moments with everyone there. Every day, we walked from the campsite and into the chaos to feel that magic, to find ourselves alive in a moment shared with everyone congregated at What Stage or Which Stage, This Tent or That Tent, the hundreds of freaks cooling off in the filthy fountain at Centeroo, and the childlike excitement of riding the Ferris wheel.
Those moments are our moments, and we left it all on the field.