I was one of the lucky few. I live in Nashville. But for those trekking through the heart of Tennessee in their Jeep Cherokees bearing Ontario plates, napping your way hour after hour toward a sun-blazed patch of Manchester farmland must be a feat equal to Fitzcarraldo. Bonnaroo is our opera house in the middle of the Peruvian jungle – maddeningly back-breaking to get there but absurdly heroic once you’ve arrived.
In all truth, by the time you’ve bathed out of a thermos with bitter, cold well water, nursed your inner thighs raw from miles of walking (don’t forget the Gold Bond) and dropped the last of your Aloe Vera on your neck, the music itself is sometimes forced to take a back seat. It’s all part of the Bonnaroo experience, as they say. That in mind, to give a complete rundown of every show would not only be overkill – a grocery list of notable bands, half of which you wouldn’t skip for all the funnel cake in Coffee County, and the other half you’ll wish you’d seen when their names become snowballed in an avalanche of blog buzz in the coming months – but miss the point entirely of what that experience is all about. First of all, it’s impossible for one overheated and underslept camper to take in all the worthy shows that crisscrossed one another at various tents. You learn to slight Ben Folds for Iron & Wine to assure yourself a hard-earned line of sight toward the center mic. Or show up at This Tent for an early MGMT performance opening night, inching yourself through a thousand thick to assure a front-and-center spot three hours later for Vampire Weekend. (Here’s a hint: Find those ambitious bikini-clad tarts who tease and charm their way through the hordes of grizzly-faced loners and shroomed-out jocks in Cargo shorts, and tack yourself onto the end of the line – they usually get their way and, once you’re up close, they’re short enough where you don’t have bobbing heads obstructing a panoramic view of the stage.) Suffice to say, Bonnaroo may have once been jam band heaven for Greenpeace Deadheads, but for all its cool, it turns into a land war 100,000 wide when it comes to claiming your two-foot diameter spot at curtain call.
Or maybe that’s just me. After all, I didn’t have a dime bag to get me by. Nothing but adrenaline, yummy homemade burritos and cold bottled water courtesy of the press tent kept me moving. That and some of the best shows I’ll see all year.
Day One: Have the Amphetamines Kicked in Yet? Or The Dismemberment of Kid Rock
The stage lights flash across the tent roof inciting a premature round of applause from the crowd. Still 20 minutes ’til technorati math rock quartet Battles are supposed to perform and random bursts of “Bonnarooooooo!” sail toward the stage. It’s the first great show of the festival, people still have excess energy and no one’s been conditioned to waiting out the interim silences between sets yet. Squat Indian-style in the dirt, encircled by hundreds of sweating college kids, a bone-thin couple sat next to me burrowed into a small dip in the ground across from each other. He unties a plastic pouch of meth and cuts a line for his sweetheart; she snorts, people stare and he finishes off the rest.
The band finally assembles as John Stanier settles into his drum kit front stage – ride cymbal hoisted ridiculously high above his head so that he has to stretch for each full-body crash – and, whether or not you’ve powdered your nose to prep for the night, a buzz spreads through the crowd. Spanning a scant six or seven songs in their hour-long set, half familiar Mirrored territory and half either new or unrecognizably retooled material, Battles’ onslaught of frantic beats kick in and refuse to let up. Mindlessly repetitive rhythms expand and cave in on themselves alongside Tyondai Braxton’s processed vocals, especially hitting a vein in the audience with “Atlas” toward the end of their set.
After that exhausting display of throbbing drum freak-outs, the Ivy League punk of Vampire Weekend was a welcome respite. For a band who’s debut only hit shelves a few months back, the Afro-pop four piece showed a sureness well beyond their maturity and found a way to expand their limited catalog into a tightly wound show even longer than Battles. Opening with “Mansard Roof,” the band ropes in the crowd with a call-and-response shouting contest for the chorus of “One (Blake’s Got A New Face),” and even dipped into some fresh material. As the set came to a close with “Walcott” and crowd surfers got in their last-minute thrills, along came a cardboard cut-out of Kid Rock sailing over the hands of the audience. As it drifted toward the middle, the Southern-fried embarrassment of a rock star suddenly had his limbs torn apart. A tattooed bicep was pecked off, who knows where his black fedora hat disappeared to, and as Ezra Koenig belted out, “Don’t you know that it’s insane,” a forearm was raised up high and swayed into the song’s final crescendo. Long live indie rock!
Day Two: The Creeping Death of a Hippie Kingdom
The outside barriers of Centeroo, the main entertainment hub, have spraypainted silhouettes of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Jimi Hendrix smoking a rasta blunt. As the weekend bore on, campers could be seen tagging the walls in elaborate cursive, painting Technicolor portraits of their girlfriends or intermittent exclamations of “This is bat country!” scrawled in a manic script. But after Friday night, my personal favorite was written in kindergarten block letters, no frills or fuss: “Metallica Sucked.”
Once a shot in the arm of pure blood speed metal, the Four Horseman have become, as their headlining show proved them to be, virtually plastic. A rundown of primer Metallica songs from ’91’s Black Album and prior, gritted teeth and Hetfield’s growled downward inflection at the end of every lyric, the show might as well have been performed by a versed cover band. Metallica haven’t been able to write a single memorable song in nearly 20 years and, as a result, regress to their early material – though, to give credit where credit’s due, it was a solid decade’s worth – making them aged echoes of themselves. More a lesson in arena rock choreography than mainline metal, James Hetfield could even be seen nonchalantly side-stepping to his mark after a solo finish to stand in full view of the center stage camera. If that weren’t enough, the pyro’s wet dream before “One” – complete with artillery cannon earth-shakers and strobe light gunfire – reiterated the sentiment loud (very loud) and clear.
More than that, the mere fact that Metallica was offered a spot for Bonnaroo doesn’t bode well for its future. While the festival has always maintained its attractive star power to boost ticket sales and compete with the likes of Sasquatch and Lollapalooza, last year’s reunion of The Police was relatively innocuous and Radiohead (2006) are more relevant now than ever. But having Metallica is a gateway drug to the likes of U2, Coldplay, or, God forbid, Madonna – believe it or not, Metallica is that fucking huge. And that detrimental to all that Bonnaroo represents, mainly undeniable talent and a welcome spotlight to the have-not indie bands. It’s lazy to assume Bonnaroo heads of state have sold out, but this is about as close as it gets, guys.
P.S. A few words about M.I.A.’s supposed “retirement speech.” Now, I may be proved wrong in the coming weeks when the talking heads confirm or deny any intent to bow out of the touring game. But from where I was standing when the words were actually spoken, I’m thinking rumors are flying out of proportion. First, a little context for those still unaware. Just days before the ‘Roo was supposed to start, M.I.A. cancelled the entire European leg of her tour, saying to NYMag.com, “I feel like physically I just have to stop for a second. It’s too insane.” Though nothing definitive had been said, many wondered whether the Sri Lankan scratch-dance queen would show at Bonnaroo at all. When she did, obviously, and told the audience, “This is my last show and I’m glad I’m spending it with all my hippies,” at least I took it as her final show in the meantime. I think that because she followed it with, “They’ll never get rid of me,” the part no one seemed to notice. So a word to those who even care about this trite music gossip: The music biz and the artists in it are fickle creatures, so really, who knows what she meant?
Last Days: Bathed in Beautiful Golden Rain from the Heavens, Or Wake Up, Mr. West, It’s Fucking 4:45 A.M.!
If an early afternoon show by Jose Gonzalez, the feminine charms of Rilo Kiley and Cat Power, Mastodon’s ear-bleeding performance and Iron & Wine’s reggae-tinged set didn’t set a good mood, though, it was My Morning Jacket’s midnight raucous that put Saturday on course. Not an hour after Metallica packed it in, Jim James blasted through the evening air with “Evil Urges,” summoning a cooling drizzle from the rain clouds that had overcast the skies for an entire day. It wasn’t long before the bottom let out into the first hour and a wind swept headlong onto the stage, splashing James with a bitter cold shower during a breakneck solo. The amazing thing was, he never slipped for a second, but pinched his eyes shut and felt his way blind through the rest of the song. After a quick huddle to let stagehands tarp the electronics, he stepped back out front and said to the night, “It feels awesome to be bathed in the golden rain from the heavens.” Boasting nearly as many covers and guest appearances as original songs (Sly & the Family Stone, Erykah Badu, Funkadelic, James Brown, etc.), MMJ’s set carried on a tireless four hours and could be heard sailing over the miles of campground, even over Tïesto and MSTRKRFT booming out the dance beats in between.
Iron & Wine – photo by Amy Allen
Another short night’s sleep later, a dank blanket of humidity settled over ‘Roo to ready the day for that evening’s marquee, Pearl Jam. Like their headlining partners, PJ haven’t been able to write a decent song in quite some time. Their ’06 album, despite popular opinion, was a botched return to formula and their new one this year will likely deliver up much of the same radio rock fodder. Unlike Metallica, though, Vedder and co. don’t parade their music, they simply play it. Maybe they’re still up to their old tricks by opening with B-side fave “Hard to Imagine,” dropping in on the Who’s “Reign Over Me” and rehashing a hefty batch of Ten staples, but aside from Eddie’s plug of the New Orleans charity tent – they always vouch for the underdog – and the simple fact that they’re on a stage the size of a space docking station, PJ somehow remain practically void of pretension.
Too bad we can’t say the same for their main stage follow-up, Kanye West. Originally scheduled for the second biggest stage Bonnaroo had to offer, the recently graduated hip-hop megastar forced festival chiefs to place him at the head of the table with the big boys under the pretense that he had a one-of-a-kind “glow in the dark” show that could only be supported by the bigger stage at 2:30 a.m. To his credit, the enormous turnout would have had Centeroo overflowing, but still, Kanye came off as a superstar brat trying to maintain his stadium status. In fact, an inside source tells me Mr. West and Eddie crossed words backstage, prompting Pearl Jam to tack on an hour’s worth to the tail end of their show. Still, there’s no telling what took Kanye’s lighting crew – even having, I’m told, to dump half of their equipment because it wouldn’t fit on stage, thus ruining the promised glow extravaganza – another THREE HOURS to ready the show.
Suffice to say, I didn’t attend. For those who did tough it out ’til dawn to see their champion, most said it was worth the wait, though fans did rally together for a “Kanye Sucks” chant during the wait, and more than a few fans had choice words to share with Bonnaroo film crews the next day.
Sure, sure. I’ve got gripes about Bonnaroo and I hate to end on such a sour note. If you ask me again to go next week, though, my car’s already packed and I’ve got a beeline to the Port-a-Johns mapped out in my head. So on a lighter note, a big thanks to the Treble family to give this thug-level contributing writer a chance to go at all, and to Big Hassle for keeping me hydrated and a leather couch in front of an ice-cold A/C. I hope to see you all again next year.