Dancing in the Sunshine is Serious Business
Bonnaroo is exhausting. Sixty hours after the last notes wafted into the Tennessee air, my feet, back, legs, skin, and head have barely recovered. In 2004, a tremendous storm left me drenched, tentless, and barefoot in ankle-deep mud. But it doesn’t take a major meteorological event: if the thunder don’t get you, then the punishing heat, sleep deprivation from late night superjams and endless forced marches between Centeroo and your camp site might.
In Star Wars terms, Bonnaroo 2004 was Yoda’s swamp hideout Dagobah. This year resembled Tatooine: a parched, scorched desert where a parade of alien creatures shuffles through blinding sandstorms. Under these conditions, living out of the trunk of your overheating car for four days without electricity, easily available showers, or bathrooms that feature actual running water can be enough to break the toughest Tool fan. (I’ve seen it happen.) Ornette Coleman, who was no doubt helicoptered in and had air conditioning at his disposal, nonetheless collapsed on stage from heat exhaustion. Why on earth would anybody do this thing?
It’s All About the Music, Man
Let’s get one thing out of the way: none of the headliners did much for me this year. John and I used the Tool show on Friday to recharge for the late night sets, but there was no way to escape their brutal sonic onslaught and flashy light show that must have been visible from Mars. Likewise, we only heard The Police run through their hits from afar, and I’m okay with that. Southern jam band Widespread Panic closed out the festival on Sunday. New guitarist Jimmy “Catfish” Herring had some great moments, but the hecklers behind us nailed it: “We don’t really like you! We just stand here because there’s nowhere else to go.” If I’d been consulted, The Roots, Wilco, and Ratdog would have headlined–but I did appreciate the rest Sting afforded us.
Now for the good stuff. Wilco, obviously in grand spirits, played a wonderful afternoon set–I’m especially partial to “Impossible Germany.” The Roots, confined to the same time slot on Friday, threw down hard, but my favorite ?uestlove moment came later that night, during The Philadelphia Experiment in the nifty new jazz tent: somewhere around 3am, after Gina Gershon sat in on the Jew’s Harp, Ahmir Thompson got up from behind his kit to drum on random objects in the audience, including the table I was sitting at. It loses somewhat in the telling, but to have that man banging the living shit out of the spot where you were just about to put your drink was a real kick.
On Thursday, we caught the blazing tail end of Tea Leaf Green and witnessed Rodrigo y Gabriela rock “Stairway” into “Tamacun.” London synth band Hot Chip seemed like they were about to bust out “Being Boring” any minute but never did. Gypsy punk Gogol Bordello was almost as crazy as Manu Chao, Lily Allen covered The Specials and “Heart of Glass,” and in the comedy tent, David Cross and Aziz Ansari made easy hippie jokes. Late Friday night, Bob Weir sat in with Gov’t Mule for “Sugaree” and “Loser,” and I saw Keller Williams doing “Stayin’ Alive” with the String Cheese Incident. Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones came on stage with Gillian Welch, and he later played “Dazed and Confused” and other Zep tunes at the superjam with ?uestlove and Ben Harper. Rumor had it that JPJ’s run of sit-ins came to an abrupt end when his bass was stolen.
Because of the heat, we sacrificed Ratdog for air-conditioned David Murray. Damien Rice sounded oh so sweet but a tad maudlin for my mood. Ween made a lot of crazy noise, Martha Wainwright insulted her father in time for father’s day, Michael Franti told us to end the fucking war. On the Sonic Stage, Jorma Kaukonen played an intimate acoustic set. The Hold Steady surprised me with an enthusiasm not seen at That Tent since The Polyphonic Spree, and the Troo lounge had great smaller acts like John Paul White, Jennifer Niceley, and Salvador Santana. The mutating beats of Sasha & John Digweed kept a rave going until after 4am. From afar, we heard Wolfmother, the Decemberists, Franz Ferdinand, The Flaming Lips, Galactic, the North Mississippi All-Stars, and the White Stripes, and they all sounded good.
All the Freaky People Make the Beauty of the World
And that’s the real secret of Bonnaroo: it’s all good, and not just in that heady bumpersticker way–I mean it literally. There wasn’t a single act that didn’t have something interesting going on, and most I saw were great. Given the music and the conditions, the crowd self-selects, too, and every one of the 90,000 Bonnaroonians I talked to this weekend was joyful, friendly, interesting, and kind: the Iraq vet who helped with our car problem, Sneaky Mike, the coolest cat in Pittsburgh, Matt and Vanessa from Dayton, the woman who described her job as “making sure the passed out people aren’t actually dead,” the naked guys, the hula hoop girls, everyone I photographed, the neighbors who hooked me up with milk for coffee three times like in a fairytale, the people who appeared out of the dust like a fata morgana to share a warm beer.
Bonnaroo is a Temporary Autonomous Zone, a Hippie Utopia where everybody’s cheerful, anything goes, and four or five great concerts are always chugging along at the same time. Permagrins abound. Between the DJ arcade, the ferris wheel, the movie tent featuring appearances by DA Pennebaker and Jim Jarmusch, the silent disco, and a million unscheduled impromptu happenings on every block of Shakedown Street, there are infinite choices at Bonnaroo, and they’re all fun. It’s not a “scheduling conflict“, it’s a blessed moment when, like Miles Davis said, there are no mistakes. Having to pick between Ravi Coltrane and STS9, the Flaming Lips and Galactic, Gov’t Mule and the Philadelphia Experiment is not a problem — it’s an education in abundance.