By Jackson Howard, Daily Arts Writer
Published June 20, 2013
There’s something really, well, special, about going to a farm in the middle of Tennessee with nearly 100,000 other people for a four-day music festival. There are the incredibly revolting Port-A-Potties, the erratic weather that can bring 100-degree heat followed by an apocalyptic thunderstorm, and the inevitability that you will be forced up against someone that a) has not showered in days, b) has hair in really weird places and/or c) is doing whatever drug is in their possession (weed, mushrooms, ecstasy, unrecognizable powders that scare me) in front of you and your mother, making both of you unspeakably uncomfortable.
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All that aside, in a world of seemingly impending doom, destruction and despair, Bonnaroo is an anomaly, a paradoxical utopia that on paper looks impossible but in practice is one of 21st century society’s greatest accomplishments.
Think about it. Somehow, tens of thousands of people from all over this God-forsaken country and planet — people from California and Brazil, Jews and Buddhists, straights and gays, and everything in between — come together once a year at a 700-acre farm in no-man’s-land, Tennessee in the name of music, art and an intangible feeling that can only be called Bonnaroo. This past weekend was my fifth trip down to Manchester, and despite my swollen feet, sun-burnt shoulders and the exhaustion of having my never-aging mother Sofie, who inexplicably has the energy to see nine concerts back-to-back, as my companion, I had maybe the greatest weekend of my 19-year-old life.
Yes, I got to see some of my favorite musicians play music non-stop for four days. But what really makes Bonnaroo so special are my fellow Bonnaroovians — a family of dedicated, relentless, costume-wearing, tattoo-flaunting, borderline-psychotic music lovers. Three-hundred and sixty-one days of the year, we trod along as students, office managers, secretaries, advertising consultants and garbage men, but for four glorious days, our inner ’Roo is allowed to emerge, and what a sight to see: Superman capes, an obese man with pasties on his nipples, a woman in a full banana costume and lots and lots of boobs. It’s hot, it’s overpriced and it’s a hell-of-a schlep, but year after year, people come back to the farm because it’s Bonnaroo. And once the Roo is in your system, you’re never getting rid of it.
Being Year 5, Sofie and I had a near-perfect sense of how to navigate the pit of chaos that is Bonnaroo (the venues are named as follows: That Tent, This Tent, The Other Tent, Which Stage and What Stage. Yeah. Confusing.). We wasted no time on Thursday night, going to see Haim, Deap Vally and Alt-J at a variety of tents. Thursday night is always fun: Not as many people are there, and more up-and-coming bands usually play. The two girl groups, Haim and Deap Vally, both put on great shows, with Haim running through a fun set of ’80s-infused, harmony-laden pop-rock and Deap Vally shredding through a ferocious, sexy, White Stripes-esque hour of music. We arrived at Alt-J to find This Tent overflowing with fans, and we fought to get even a decent look at the group (that’s another thing about Bonnaroo. There are always more people.) The band played songs from their incredibly catchy and well-executed debut, An Awesome Wave, and though their often-mumbled lyrics were pretty difficult to make out (“I dare you to understand one word” Sofie whisper-shouted), their tight grooves and dedicated fans made for a great show, climaxing with the “I love you so” chants of “Breezeblocks.” By the end, my knees were already shaking with fatigue, which worried me considering we had only been at the festival for five hours. I went to bed at 1 a.m. both excited and nervous for the next day.
My mother and I flew through nine concerts on Friday, and I had to drink more than a few Red Bulls to stay alive. First off was Local Natives, one of my favorite bands, who did their usual blend of hipster, somewhat-depressing, drum-heavy rock. Midway through their set, though, I began to get bored, as did my mother. We decided then to go explore something new, which ended up being the African singer Fatoumata Diawara or, as my iPhone corrected,
“Fat Piñata Diorama.” Over the years, Bonnaroo has provided us with a vast goodie bag of spur-of-the-moment surprises, and Fatoumata Diawara did not disappoint. I watched happily as Diawara — an elegant and strikingly beautiful African woman clad in bright yellow and red — danced, preached, chirped and dread-whipped for an enthusiastic audience.
We moved from Diawara to a smaller stage to watch Allen Stone, a hippie-looking white guy who sang some of the best soul I’d heard in years, then to Passion Pit, who covered the main stage in huge white balloons during a set of their usual dance-pop numbers. Stopping for a quick snack at a food truck (you have to eat about seven times per day in order to stay awake for nearly 15 hours of music), we headed over to Big K.R.I.T., who absolutely took the roof off of The Other Tent.
Wu-Tang Clan was next, and they ran through a greatest-hits set complete with a lot of middle-finger raising and reminders that the Wu-Tang Clan is indeed still nothing to fuck with.
Then came one of the highlights of my concert-going life. To be honest, I did not expect to love Paul McCartney. He’s a Beatle and a legend in his own right, but to be frank, I thought he’d be boring. I could not have been more wrong. Sir Paul ran through a three hour set — yes, three — of hits (“Come Together,” “Baby I’m Amazed” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.”), slower numbers (“Blackbird,” “Yesterday”) and two touching tributes to John Lennon and George Harrison, the latter punctuated by an awesome rendition of “Something.” He made a crowd of around 80,000 feel tiny, telling hilarious and insightful stories about Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton while looking more than spry at 70 years old. Sure, there were a few missteps here and there — his voice isn’t what it used to be —but everything was accounted for by two roaring encores and three hours of more than memorable music.
We wrapped up the night by stopping by The xx (fine as usual, though it was too sleepy at that point for me) and ZZ Top (absolutely incredible, played to a packed tent complete with matching purple coats and trademark beards — Billy Gibbons even had someone come onstage and light a cigarette in his mouth while he soloed). The best part was that the weekend was only half done.
Saturday began with Beyoncé’s little sister Solange, who provided a somewhat-entertaining, short set of electro-funk to a surprisingly large audience. Nas came next, and though I’d seen him twice before, I was incredibly happy to be watching him again. Backed by an energetic and talented band — most of whom wore New York Mets hats — Nasty Nas tore through a set of hits, from his classic “Illmatic” all the way up to his stellar recent release, “Life Is Good.”
As the sun set away and the Bonnaroo Ferris wheel lit up, we popped into a tent to see DJ A-Trak. His trap-electronic beats shook the ground, prompting Sofie to ask me, half-joking and half-serious, “Can this bass be good for my organs? It feels like everything is vibrating.”
We moved onto Jack Johnson, filling in last-minute for Mumford & Sons, who had to cancel due to their bass player’s health. By the time we reached Johnson, my legs might as well have been bloody stumps. My stomach churned angrily, my thighs were red with sunburn where my excessively short tennis shorts neglected to cover me, and my phone was nearly out of battery. We left Johnson and dragged ourselves reluctantly to R. Kelly, quietly deciding that we’d leave after a few songs. But that didn’t happen. What instead transpired at the Which Stage from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. was one of the most bizarre and incredible performances I had ever witnessed (Fuse even dedicated an entire article to it).
Standing about 20 feet from the stage, I watched as a score of gospel singers appeared while the music from “Ignition (Remix)” started. However, I was instantly confused, as R. Kelly was nowhere to be seen. Only when I looked up did I notice a cherry picker raised 50 feet in the air on top of the stage, carrying, you guessed it, R. Kelly. The crowd went wild, and then the music stopped. For 45 seconds, the stage was silent save for the creaking sound of R. Kelly’s crane moving slowly downward. I’m not sure if Kells planned this, or if the crane was just malfunctioning, but it was the first in a brilliant hit-or-miss night from him. He sang his party jams (“Fiesta,” “Gigolo,” “Thoia Thoing”) mixed in with his baby-making slow-burners (“Feelin’ On Yo Booty,” “Your Body’s Callin’”) with absolutely no rational order. Still, his vocal range was mind-blowing, as heard on the intro for “Bump N’ Grind,” and his finale performance of “I Believe I Can Fly,” complete with the return of the gospel choir and the release of dozens of plastic doves, was miraculous. Kells did his share of ridiculousness, too, like singing for five minutes about how he needed a towel to wipe the sweat off of his face. As Jason Newman of Fuse summed it up, “The line between earnestness and absurdity has never been blurrier than at an R. Kelly concert.” That’s for sure.
The night capped off with Sofie dragging me to Billy Idol (I have to appease her sometimes) who was both fun and somewhat hilarious as he ran through “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell.” My voice still hoarse from R. Kelly, I went to bed preparing for the final conquest.
I think my mom has a slight crush on Macklemore, which is fine (at least it’s not on Flava Flav), so I shuffled along with her to see his and Ryan Lewis’s afternoon set. I must admit, though, that I’m not a huge fan. Macklemore live is tons of fun. His songs are catchy, and he somehow walks the line between aloof rapper and touching, recovering drug-user sentimentalist.
Then came Kendrick Lamar. I am a huge, huge Kendrick fan, and he did not disappoint. Standing on the festival’s biggest stage with just a microphone and a DJ, Kendrick managed to pump up the entire crowd by himself. I forced my mom to join me and a middle-aged man I met, (who turned out to be Michael Azerrad, the incredible music journalist), in the middle of the Kendrick pit. There I met Sean, a midget who I had seen at the Nas show wearing a tutu and a red, white and blue bikini top (“I gotta mix it up,” he explained to me.) Not only did Sean and I dance and jump like crazy, but he even pulled out a wine bag from his backpack during “Swimming Pools (Drank),” which he proceeded to drink from and toss around the entire crowd.
After a forgettable set by A$AP Rocky — I admit I was really tired, but he just yelled the whole time — we arrived for the last hurrah: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Seeing that I know next to nothing about Petty, I was not happy about going, especially considering it had started to rain. But my unbreakable mother insisted, and so we went to watch in a complete downpour. The first thing Sofie and I both noticed was how absolutely baked he seemed. I’m not talking a little bit high. I’m talking so absolutely blitzed that he looked like he could barely finish sentences, and the only reason he did not mess up his songs was because he has been playing them for 30 years. As stoned as he was, I must admit, he killed it beyond belief.
At the airport the next day, Sofie and I high-fived proudly. Another year in the books. We had seen 20 bands, consumed a toxic mixture of pizza, crepes, Amish doughnuts, ice cream and lots of lemonade, made friends with a legendary music journalist and danced until blisters popped from our feet. Though I told her I was happy to leave, which in part I was, I knew inside that I was already beginning to have serious Roo withdrawal. I started to worry about work, checking my phone restlessly and finding myself searching desperately throughout the Nashville airport for anybody else with the familiar wristband. Oh well. Though my normal routine inevitably has to resume — homework will pile, friends will call, life will go on — I know that if I’m ever feeling down, all I have to do is think back to a certain farm in the middle of Tennessee, where, 361 days from now, my Bonnaroo family will be waiting for me.