This was our first trip to Bonnaroo. And like most newbies to Bonnaroo, we found the experience initially overwhelming - what with the vast array of acts and entertainment. We also discovered that it's remarkably well run and expertly organized. The people are friendly - the epitome of Tennessee hospitality - and fellow festival goers are all too willing to share their experiences and advice. Hell, security guards are politely referred to not as overbearing watchdogs but rather, as safety guards, and even when they tell you when you're not allowed access to a certain area, they exert their authority with a measure of politeness unheard of elsewhere... at least in my experience. Granted, Bonnaroo tends to attract a young crowd overall, but age differences don't seem to matter in the embrace of the common bond that proves so intrinsic to the entire experience.
Despite being exhausted after a 15-hour drive from Florida - punctuated by being caught in a Georgia speed trap - my wife, Alisa, and I decide to check out the festival as soon as we arrive Thursday night. Unfortunately, arriving at 10 p.m. limits our options, so we opt to see a band called Glossary, native sons of Tennessee who are making their one and only appearance of the festival. Knowing them only from their albums, they're better than we expected, and I expected them to achieve a pretty high bar. In performance they're fairly energetic, much more so than their somewhat sedate albums otherwise suggest.
A conversation with an amiable fellow named Rick, finds us making our first friend and encountering someone who can give us the lay of the land. Rick's travelled all the way from New Hampshire to make Bonnaroo an obligatory part of his summer festival circuit. "Are you guys planning to do anything crazy?" he asks the wife and me. "Like what?" I inquire. Rick doesn't answer, seemingly anxious to leave that to our imagination.
After about half an hour or so, we decide to catch a portion of the performance by Alabama Shakes, a new up-and-coming band whose singer wails with the ferocity of Janis Joplin. However, as we soon learn, one of the hazards of the festival experience is that there are so many good bands that are onstage simultaneously, critical decisions must be made and committed to immediately. We've opted for Glossary, which means that by the time we arrive at the site for Alabama Shakes, we're so far away from the stage, the band look like tiny dots in the distance. Chalk that up to a reputation that's preceded them as well as our misguided belief that all we need do is arrive at the venue, the crowds will part, and we'll have an ideal vantage point. They prove to be the first regrettable show we'll miss this weekend. They sound outstanding, but since we can't really catch more than a distant glimpse, we give way to our exhaustion and retreat to our overpriced Super 8 shortly after midnight.
Day one... is done, but our adventure is just beginning.
I'm already exhausted, but the first full day of Bonnaroo is still ahead of us.
For starters, we venture over to catch the Dirty Guv'nahs, local favorites from nearby Knoxville who perform a rousing mix of southern soul and rugged retro rock that sounds like vintage "Exile on Main Street," with a Hammond organ providing era authenticity. Several songs stand out: Halfway to Birmingham, 3000 Miles Between Us and a heartfelt take on Angel from Montgomery that gives John Prine's original rendition a run for its money. Honest to goodness, y'all! A pair of topless women can be spotted up close to the stage, no doubt giving the Guv'nahs extra incentive to provide a great performance.
The Infamous Stringdusters have remained a personal favorite, ever since we first saw them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival several years back. They rock The Other Tent (yes, Bonnaroo venues are given simple, descriptive names which still allow for confusion) and put on a show that equates to one continuous burst of effusive bluegrass energy. A six-man band that utilizes old time instruments such as Dobro, banjo, stand-up bass and fiddle, they're frenzied and ebullient beyond compare. "It's quite a phenomenon, this string band thing," they suggest. "We don't know exactly what it is, but we're happy to be part of it." And part of it they are, trading licks and leads with a frenzy that's truly dazzling, inspiring an enthusiasm that's shared between artists and audience. An all-too-brief set includes several stand-outs - Power of Love and Get It While You Can, among them. Not so coincidentally, those two titles seem to sum up their show as a whole.
Part of the challenge at Bonnaroo is navigating the distance between venues, which, due to its sprawling size, provides an extra level of difficulty when it comes to catching all the acts as intended. Then again, Bonnaroo is all about choices, given the number of acts and the fact that so many of them play on competing stages simultaneously. And one has to realize that despite all the planning and strategy initially concocted, in practice it's going to be impossible to catch everyone that we want to catch. It won't even be close. Not by a long shot.
Nevertheless, Sam Bush is a must-see, given that we first witnessed him at Telluride, and indeed this Telluride vet seems to generate as much adulation here as he did there. Tennessee is his home state after all, and while he might have been assigned a smaller stage here at Bonnaroo, there's little doubt he still rules the roost. Curiously, he starts his set with what sounds like a kind of Celtic stomp before launching into a series of extended instrumentals that dazzle with changes of tone, time and texture. Most fittingly however, the high point of his set is his tribute to the late Earl Scruggs, to whom he dedicates an exceptionally spirited take of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Likewise, three originals - Love You Forever, Ride That Bluegrass Train and How Did We Get This Far provide some surprisingly reflective interludes prior to his unlikely but surprisingly effective cover of Norwegian Wood Who would have thought?
Unfortunately, that Bonnaroo enthusiasm can also be a stumbling block, as I find out when I get into the vicinity of the stage where the Avett Brothers are already well into their performance. Gone are the days when they were semi-accessible. Now they're playing the same place the Red Hot Chili Peppers will hold court tomorrow night, and the possibility of getting any closer than what seems a good half mile away is all but dashed from the get-go. This proves to be my single biggest disappointment of the festival, and there's no way I'm consoled by watching their set on the giant screens either. I pause to hear - hear and not see - a couple of Avett favorites, at least as much as I can make out from my distant vantage point, and then retreat to the safe haven of the press area to contemplate my next move.
Of course, when you have a crowd of 80,000 people, rousing would seem to be the operative word anyway. No stage, no matter how small, fails to draw a crowd, and the larger venues draw massively, even when there's a divide between two or more headliners. As we stumble through the masses, the number of Bonnaroo attendees seems to have grown exponentially. "Where did all these people come from" we wonder aloud. Indeed, we seem stuck in a human traffic jam of massive proportions with no escape in sight.
Still, Bonnaroo isn't as much about the music as it is about the experience, or so I surmise. As a result, we opt to return to the Miller Tent where we know we can at least be afforded a measure of comfort. Besides, Sara Watkins is playing there and given her low-key ambience (she plays fiddle to the sole accompaniment of her brother Sean on guitar), it gives us an opportunity to chill for awhile. Her show is stripped down to the max, which makes her take on I Remember You especially poignant. In truth, it's the most laid-back gig we'll see at Bonnaroo, not a bad thing considering the frenetic pace of the preceding afternoon. We soak it up the ambiance and drift back to our car.
Saturday - Bonnaroo, Day Three
Being part of the press contingent has its perks. For starters, we get to enjoy a special impromptu unplugged performance by the Punch Brothers in the press tent. Standing in a circle, the bluegrass bunch play a rousing set, with leader Chris Thile yelling "rotate" prior to each new tune. The players promptly obey, giving their onlookers a 365-degree view. "Thanks for bearing with us despite our extreme technical difficulties," Thile tells those in attendance. "Actually, we have a lack of anything technical at all. Unlike Radiohead, we're more like Stringhead."
This being Bonnaroo, it seems only right that we continue to immerse ourselves in more music and to explore some acts we're not all that familiar with. With an adventurous attitude to guide us, we opt for an afternoon set from Portland Ore.' Blind Pilot, a band I've heard of, but heard little from. Their sound is exceedingly melodic, all the better to accompany the giddy vibes that encircle the surroundings. Despite their reticent to rock ferociously like some of the other acts, the crowd receives them well, even though its likely most in the audience aren't all that familiar with them. Like many of the bands we've encountered, they really seem to be enjoying themselves, and also like most of the other bands, they're effusive in their praise of the entire experience. "I'm not sure what it is," their singer insists. "But we're having so much more fun at this festival than at any other festival we've been to."
Still, no outfit inspires enthusiasm like Flogging Molly, a rowdy Celtic ensemble fronted by Dave King, a native Irishman whose rugged accent and irascible attitude ensures their insurgency stays intact. They're a genuinely unruly bunch, goading the crowd, the guitarist doing double splits, the bassist climbing the monitors and encouraging their crowd to react appropriately. I've managed to secure a place in the photo pit, but the safety crew encourages me to move to the outer flanks. Sure enough, within moments of their opening assault, people are crowd surfing over the tops of the audience, maneuvered to the barricades as the safety guards help them alight and send them scurrying back into the crowd. Then again, the Mollys provide the essence of working class rebellion and when they turn Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A 'Changin' into a double time punk-infused rocker, the song takes on an anger and intensity only hinted at in the original. Ultimately, the Mollys turn in one of the most manic and intense shows of the weekend, courtesy of original tunes like Saints and Sinners If Ever We Leave This World Alive The Power's Out and the title track of their latest long player, "The Speed of Darkness," each of which rails against bankers, politicians and other perceived oppressors of the blue collar crowd. Yet, despite their staunch sentiments, all involved seem to be having a great time. Except perhaps for the safety crew, who may be working as hard as they ever will this weekend, keeping folks at bay.
I wander over the comfy Miller tent to see a young singer-songwriter named Robert Ellis. Ellis looks like a young, long-haired James Taylor and sounds like one too. Accompanied by his guitar and a guy playing Dobro, he sings mostly forlorn ballads with a genuine country inflection. Sadly, his intimate musings are no match for the rumble coming from the Which Stage, and ultimately Ellis ends his show a couple of minutes early, his tender trappings no match for arena-sized escapades.
My first and most striking impression from Day Four here at Bonnaroo...
Sarah Jarosz is impossibly young... at least for someone who's earned such acclaim. Playing fiddle at the helm of her crack person ensemble, she dazzles the crowd here in the Other Tent and happily returns their kudos. "This is one of the best crowds we've every played for," she says giddily. "Maybe top of the list. And I'm not just saying that."
If she's simply catering to the crowd, she's not alone. That seems to be the common sentiment among the artists here at Bonnaroo. It certainly was shared by Delta Spirit, whose performance we catch briefly on our way to our next destination. It seemed that short encounters will be the order of the afternoon, given that we had wound down to our final day of the festival and still had so many acts left to see. Today is our final opportunity, and it's our challenge to make the most of the limited hours we have left. In truth, I greet the coming conclusion of this experience with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret, because we're having so damn much fun. Relief, because it demands so much effort and exertion. And on Day Four, we have so precious little of either left.
It's already 2 p.m. and time for one of the major events on today's calendar, a press conference featuring an unlikely gathering of disparate performers - Kenny Rogers (who to me seems somewhat out of sync here anyway), comedian Steven Wright, Ben Folds, Pete from the band The Antlers and the wide-eyed Jarosz. Surprisingly, it's Rogers who grabs most of the attention, not only with the press inquiries, but from his fellow artists and those desiring to get a photo taken with him.
Rogers: (Asked why he's here) "This is a great opportunity to do what we do and share it with the crowd. I did the Stagecoach Festival a couple of years ago, and the crowd knew all the songs. I suspect they were victims of child abuse because their parents played my music and made them listen."
Wright: (Admitting the fact this is the first music fest he's ever played) "I've never played a music festival before...but this is special for me. When I got my first big break on the 'Tonight Show,' it was surreal for me. It changed my life. Kenny was one of the guests, and I ended up sitting between him and Johnny Carson. And here I am, sitting next to him again."
Folds: (Asked his impression of his surroundings) "I'm not big on festivals. I usually get to them right before our set and then leave right after. But Bonnaroo is a painless festival. I remember being at one festival and seeing Kenny's tour bus. Then I realized it was one of his accountant's tour buses. And I wished I was one of them." He leans over and snaps a picture of himself with Rogers.
Jarosz: (dazzled by it all) "Look who I'm sitting with"
Rogers: (Commenting on the differences between then and now) "In the '60s, everyone was too stoned to know what was going on. Now at least they wait awhile before getting high."
The biggest revelation of the entire press conference? Rogers and Alice Cooper used to be golfing buddies. The juxtaposition of these two distinctly different individuals out on the golf course causes most of those in attendance to shake their heads in wonder.
By this time, it's late afternoon, and our time to catch the remaining acts is growing short. Sadly, I'm going to miss a bunch of bands I had hoped to see - Bon Iver, The Civil Wars and Kathleen Edwards, among them. Yet, I'm determined to see City and Colour, so while Alisa is prepping to shoot photos of the Beach Boys, I hasten over to the far reaches of the Other Tent to see them. Like the others before them, they attract a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd (the Bonnaroo audiences are incredibly knowledgeable because without exception, they seem able to sing along with everybody's songs) and City and Colour's amiable sound is all the more agreeable when it comes to encouraging more of that communal spirit.
Still, it was time for final choices, and out of sheer curiosity I opt to see Rogers, wondering what kind of reaction he'll receive from an audience at least a few generations removed. True to his reputation, Rogers got the crowd in the palm of his hand and singing along with each of the 21 number 1 hits he promised he'd sing. Okay, so no one's crowd surfing, but the reaction is pretty spectacular, and even when Rogers good-naturedly chastises the crowd for a poor sing-along attempt on Ruby (Don't Take You Love to Town) ("They sang that better in Tibet... and they don't even speak English in Tibet"), the crowd seems unfazed. Ironically, this is the one VIP area that Alisa and I are tossed out of. So, to the big burly guy in the green Safety shirt who threatened us with bringing in reinforcements to ensure we leave, you gave us our one rowdy encounter... at a Rogers concert. Give yourself a hearty pat on the back.
Meanwhile, the whiff of odors permeating the festival has passed from pot to pee to poop. The blissful vibe brings to mind a '60s-style celebration, with lots of tie-dye, long-haired attendees, a couple more topless women and a stoned sensibility befitting the final hours of this Bonnaroo blast. Phish will only affirm that feeling, but by now, we're beat and content to watch their performance on a big screen from the comfort of the hospitality tent. It seems a strange remove, especially given the revelry that's taking place only a few yards away. But we've decided that at this place comfort over-rules commitment. Even the unlikely - and unexpected - cameo by Rogers, who joins Phish for an off and unexpected take on The Gambler can do little to rouse us from our sedentary state. Phish are extraordinary, but the reality of remaining alert throughout their four hour set is slim indeed. We pack it up and head out, bidding Bonnaroo goodbye and glad we came.
An adventure ended, we can now say that even if we bungled our way through Bonnaroo, at least we endured. Almost anyway...