Bonnaroo 2009: A Shot in the Arm

Wilco at Bonnaroo

As I write, I’m on my fourth cup of coffee in the span of about two hours. With the exception of having my wisdom teeth extracted last year when I was souped up on a cocktail of Versed and Demerol, I have never been this tired in my entire life. I’m having trouble concentrating and, in all honesty, making sense of the events that spanned last weekend. It’s been two days now of off-and-on writing and I’ve only come up with 500 words worthy to print, and not one real insight into why this is. My profession as a music critic lends itself not so much to slumps of writer’s block – that, in my opinion, is a myth created by people who never had anything interesting to say in the first place – but to a slow petering out of passion for what I’m doing.

For a critic, the basic pleasure of passively listening to music can become all too mechanized so very quickly. Not filtering through layers of art rock dissonance on your Bose ear buds. Not obsessively spinning your watermarked promo to prepare for your next phoner with whatever indie sensation hit the fan that week. But learning to shut off the snark and relish the blemishes of live music is an effortless talent that can be so difficult to come by and too often taken for granted. It’s something the teenage version of ourselves knew instinctively and what every radio-bred hipster stomping across Manchester, Tenn., last weekend knew all too well, apparently. Call it pedestrian; call it uninspired. I admit, it’s a suspension of disbelief that rubs hard against the well-worn grain of my conditioned mode of thinking about music. But if sweating it out in the oven-baked farmlands of Coffee County with 75,000 refugees drove home any kind of point, it’s that, all snobbery aside, it’s sometimes better to turn a blind eye to my overdeveloped knack for fault-finding – better to forget and let it roll off your back than forgive in retrospect.

Not that we’re suddenly into Phish, mind you. There’s still an impassable line between mouthing the words to “Shot in the Arm” as you sidle a labyrinth of mellowed day nappers during Wilco’s sunset show, and dancing out a 12-minute jam of the musically ordinary. What I mean to say is, maintaining professional objectivity at a festival is about the quickest way to quench any potential experience you might have. Hell, it’s the entire purpose of going at all.

When you’re living off Nature Valley granola bars, overripe bananas and pitas out of the trunk of your two-door Honda, bathing one limb at a time with brutally cold well water in a renovated cargo can, and recruiting five strangers to push your car out of an ankle-deep mud pit in the middle of a lightning storm, you’d damn well better have more stories to tell than insightful comments on whether or not electronic music translates well to unbearably humid, 90-degree temperatures.

Suffice it to say, no, I did not enjoy Animal Collective’s mid-day set, and to no fault of their own. On the jam-packed day two of Bonnaroo, when Dirty Projectors leads into A.C., bleeds into Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio is capped off with Beastie Boys, it was the one show in a string of worthies I was most anticipating. But with little more than a quaint American Princes set the night before to act as primer for the crash course that would ensue that first full day, I simply wasn’t ready. That despite near immediate drunkenness when setting up camp Thursday, and a light haze massaging my scalp from a few scattered puffs of our communal glass pipe. Maybe it was finding my bacon-and-egg breakfast burritos soaked in thawed ice water first thing in the morning. Maybe it was the two hours of sleep I culled the night before between uncontrollable shivers. Maybe something else entirely.

As I peeked in on Dave Longstreth & co. at That Tent belting out their scattered polyphony with cherrypicked tracks from Bitte Orca – an album that must have been at the top of everyone’s Recently Added column on iTunes, but nevertheless had an impenetrable crowd clamoring Deradoorian’s full-throated yowls verbatim – the friends I had come with were scouting out Toubab Krewe on the opposite side of Centeroo. When they obliged my mandatory seat at Animal Collective, by the time “My Girls” was rattling the overhead lights, they were mapping out if it were possible to stop by both Galactic and Grace Potter on their way back to camp – two acts that have never even made a blip on my rather broad radar, perhaps with good reason. Whatever excuse I might have had, though, for remaining entirely ignorant of so many acts that were given equal standing as ones that were, in my mind, obvious front runners, I was apparently much easier to fit in a demographic than I had expected. The unseen powers that be behind Bonnaroo knew my schedule before I had even been approved for a press pass, it seemed. Maybe that statement reeks more strongly of paranoia that I’d like to think, but, honestly, it depressed me and I skipped Grizzly Bear because of it.

What I failed to realize last year when I braved Bonnaroo for the first time as a stag journalist – worming my way through the crowds for every show, exhausting my last ounce of energy at day one, and keeping human interaction to a bare minimum – was that this festival is built around a mob mentality. On one hand, I mean that in the best way possible. When the frisk lines entering the main venue as Beastie Boys took the stage suddenly collapsed in a full-on rush – the gloriously out-of-tune opening moments of “The Biz-Vs-The-Nuge” sailed across the beer stands and untold amounts of contraband broke the ranks to be lost among the stacked thousands of pot-addled onlookers – it was undoubtedly one of the best fucking moments anyone would have all weekend.

On the other hand, Phish’s three-hour set to close out the What Stage that night was like watching a series of public abortions – everyone’s far too sedate and slightly nauseous from the narcotics, each song seems to take much longer than it should until you’re suddenly left straddling a blanket and sore when it’s over, and it’s far more routine a procedure than something so ostensibly personal should be. I downed a cold beer for that one and was in bed by midnight.

But that would not have prepared even the most seasoned festival rat for what followed not 24 hours later as 75,000 Boss fans cheered on one of Bonnaroo’s most glamorous implosions ever witnessed. To put it lightly, it was a surreal experience. Though more than comfortable with his three-and-a-half hour time slot, having accrued nearly four decades of generation-defining music under his belt (some of which is hands-down good, I admit – here’s looking at you, Nebraska), Bruce Springsteen has become a parody of the true-blood American rock icon stereotype he helped invent in the early ’70s. Behaving like a working man’s messiah, strutting through the center walkway among the throngs of Boss eager beavers, letting his adoring hosts lay hands on him, and yelping like a Pentecostal preacher between songs, Springsteen could have just as easily been spitting beatitudes as single-handedly commanding a GM labor strike.

Maybe that’s too harsh. I’ll take a step back. The E Street band are about as technically proficient as they come; after all, they’ve had more than enough experience blasting Born to Run staples over the years. Even their inexplicable rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” about an hour into their set – this was about an hour before I took a 20-minute nap on the grass as I stared up at the Big Dipper pouring its heavenly grace over us all – hit every major chord just right. But such pomp strikes me as so disingenuous that it riles up every bit of snark I can muster. No, Bruce, I will not build a metaphorical house in the hills of Tennessee for you – not of love, faith, hope and especially not “sexual healing.”

So there, that’s the worst of me as a critic. Two days into Bonnaroo and my veins were itching to scratch past the pageantry of the occasion and call it like I see it. And that, dear reader, is when I was completely broken: I couldn’t enjoy the bands I came to see, and I damn sure couldn’t enjoy the ones I wandered into for solidarity’s sake. As I sauntered over to the Which Stage at about midnight to set up early for Nine Inch Nails’ 1 a.m. show, I passed off the camera to a friend, safely tucked my wedding band in my pocket and mined my way into the thick of the expectant crowd. Inside, I meet a pale-faced 20-something who’s been following the band around for the last month, and he reminds me of what I’ve forgotten. This very tour, this very show marks the absolute last time Nine Inch Nails will ever take the stage in the U.S. ever again.

You’re not to be blamed if you take lightly Trent Reznor’s vow that this is the final farewell for Nails. After all, M.I.A.’s similar claim last year, though egregiously taken out of context, reminded us all once again how flighty musicians can be. The thing is, though, Trent Reznor has proved himself to be anything but fickle. With arguably the single most devoted fanbase of any band to have peaked in the post-industrial wake of the ’90s, Nine Inch Nails, for all their self-loathing and pitiless fatalism, has been an anchor mostly worthy of such idolatrous devotion. I, for one, believe him. Put aside the fact that the last decade of NIN’s output has been average at best. Personally, my infatuation quickly waned following The Fragile – a bloated, Double D monument to Reznor’s studio sagacity rather than the singular stroke of brilliance that was The Downward Spiral – and surfaced again only recently when Reznor began chucking the industry in favor of self-promoted, self-distributed (even if sub-par) works like The Slip and Ghosts I-IV.

Not a moment before Reznor approached the center stage mic like a dark lord clad in his signature jet black t-shirt, bulging torso and militantly close-cut hairdo, backlit by hundreds of sun-hot bulbs, I heard a girl mutter to her mohawked boyfriend, “I almost can’t see Trent Reznor growing old.” She was absolutely right. The goth liege that sprouted a cult following of disgruntled Cure fans in the late ’80s may have waned a bit over the years, but what he produced at his peak remains just as relevant today as it ever was. At no time was that more apparent than when, two songs in, blinding bursts of light announced “Terrible Lie” and, instantaneously, the ankle-to-ankle crowd gave way before me and huddled frantically against the front barricade.

Now, I say this without any exaggeration. I have never in my life seen a crowd react this wholly, this absent-mindedly, and it was everything I could do to choke back a tear. Whatever reservations I had been holding onto, whatever gadfly mentality had been polluting that visceral response I had forgotten over the years was violently and unceremoniously extracted from the pit of my stomach. Much of the following two hours is a blur, really, other than losing my voice to rabid yells and periodically wiping my forehead to make sure that wasn’t blood in my eyes. As “Hurt” closes out the night and the final, ground-shaking note signals the 3 a.m. mark, an uncomfortable silence permeates the sweat-drenched masses. Out of the center stage darkness, Trent’s abused mic topples over, the last of the smoke clears and several hundred people stare vacantly at a couple roadies disassembling the drum kit.

As I look back on those three days now, though, I don’t think of any of the “Head Like a Hole” mantras of the hordes around me. I don’t think about the Boss or barely hobbling back to my tent drenched in 50 people’s sweat and spit. Of all people, I have Jeff Tweedy’s voice ringing through my head, rehearsed and resonant: “What you once were isn’t what you want to be anymore.

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