In Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” there’s a seminal scene where Edward spots his true love in the middle of an enormous circus tent. As he sees said true love, time stops, people freeze in place and popcorn is suspended in mid-air. Edward parts through the popcorn, circus freaks hanging by their feet, etc. on his way to meet his true love (because, you know, that’s what’s supposed to happen). It may be cheesy, but that has always been one of my favorite moments from any movie.
And as the Flaming Lips took the stage at the stroke of midnight at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, I only had to wait an hour or so for my “Big Fish” moment.
I walked up late to Which Stage after struggling to satisfy my appetite for late-night music with so many good bands on tap and not enough time to see them — the Black Keys and Bassnectar, to name a few. But the Lips were the main attraction, all prepped — after playing a set of their own music — to play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (with help from Stardeath and White Dwarfs). Having heard the legendary album so many times on vinyl from my various housemates’ rooms, I knew I couldn’t miss the performance.
With lead singer Wayne Coyne’s face projected from a fish-eye microphone camera, his channeling (or rather, respectful honoring) of Pink Floyd frontman David Gilmour became a mythical experience, interwoven between trippy flashing images of the moon and a running woman displayed in negative. Then, in the middle of the song “Brain Damage,” it happened.
“If your head explodes with dark forebodings too,” Coyne sang, “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.”
And then the stage exploded with what seemed to be 500 or so pounds of confetti, the pieces of tissue paper suspended in midair like time had stopped. I looked to my left and grown men were crying. It was all I needed from the weekend. It was my moment.
Walking away from the best show of my life, I took in the atmosphere around me more than I had the night before. The 700-acre farm that is Bonnaroo looked like a bazaar, tented shops all over, kind of like a drugged-out carnival. Nowhere else could a group of strangers finish up their long nights of musical sensory overload (perpetuated by copious use of psychedelics) by simply falling asleep on the ground where they were standing. But everyone understood.
Even beyond this sense of hippie-family and drugs, Bonnaroo was simply about making people remember why they love music so much — especially its ability to make those moments that stay with you.
My friends and I were torn on our overall strategy for tackling the festival’s massive lineup, one that forced tough decisions at every front. Should I see Weezer or Jeff Beck, or should I watch Jack White’s entire set with his new new band, The Dead Weather? Or should I blow it all off, save my strength and get a really kick-ass seat for Stevie Wonder? Decisions like this tended to dominate the weekend, and a lot of times, it seems like those in charge of making said schedule could’ve done a little better spreading the high-demand acts out.
So we had to make the best of it, missing some bands I’d looked forward to like local Ann Arbor soul child Mayer Hawthorne and folksy Blitzen Trapper. But after forgoing both of those acts on the first night, I knew I would have to spread my time out thinly, choosing to leave in the middle of some acts, instead of camping out at one tent and staying there.
The first night carried few treasures in comparison to the other three legend-filled blocks, but I was still relatively awed. The xx impressed with an intense and trippy light show, under That Tent, and although the band wasn’t one of my favorites heading in, I felt at home with its devoted followers. After telling a group of three huge fans behind me that I “liked their vibe,” our groups converged and we gladly enjoyed their most likely Ecstasy-driven, seemingly divine love for the band for the next hour.
By the next exhausted afternoon, the blistering sun had reared its ugly head and the sweat began pouring down. Knowing that the day would be complete when I made my way to see the Damian Marley & Nas collaboration, I took it easy before the hemp-crazy, dreadlock-filled affair. Not much of a stage show considering its afternoon slot, the duo still reminded me why they’re two of the best in their respective genres. Damian Marley headed a very successful reggae lineup at the ’Roo, and Nas would’ve been the clear choice as best hip-hop act if it weren’t for Saturday night’s headliner, Jay-Z — a bitter rival of his.
But it was Saturday night that led me to admit that my lofty expectations for Bonnaroo were indeed right on target. After getting there early to get the best possible seats (one of the few times we made this a priority all weekend), we were some of the tens of thousands to come out to see the legendary Stevie Wonder. I was dehydrated, I smelled something rank and my metabolism may have been permanently ruined that night, but there are few things that compare to seeing a rock‘n’roll legend in the flesh. Performing all of his classics, Wonder also threw in a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and did not disappoint — reminding us that despite the fact that Peter Frampton made the talk box famous with “Do You Feel Like I Do?” it was indeed Wonder who was one of the gadget’s real pioneers, and his experience came through in the stunningly funky cover. It was easily cemented as one of my favorites of the entire weekend. Rounding out the set with sing-a-longs like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “Superstition” and “Higher Ground,” there are very few things that compared to looking in every direction and seeing literally everyone in your range singing along.
Shortly following Wonder, Jay-Z completely altered my feelings on live hip hop. With the New York backdrop lighting up the stage, Jay-Z plowed through as many songs as possible but in a way I didn’t think could be so enjoyable. He may have only played a few verses of some of his best songs, but he more than knew the right songs to play all the way through. “We’re gonna turn it up to 99 on this next one,” he said, breaking into an amazing live performance of “99 Problems.” Making triangles with their hands, the fans bowed down to their beloved Hova, who made sure to remind the crowd on several occasions that he now had 11 No. 1 albums, not 10.
But again, it was the moments that dominated the evening. As Jay-Z’s two-hour set came to an unfortunate close, he insisted that the crowd remain “Young Forever,” breaking into his latest single with what seemed like the entirety of Bonnaroo joining in on the refrain. With the sardine-packed crowd so pleased, no one seemed to mind that the walk out of the field — by that point filled with mud, empty beer cans and abandoned pizza crust — took nearly 45 minutes.
Sure, the great lineup was indeed a recipe for success, as ’Roo-goers could see anything from bluegrass with actor/comedian Steve Martin (who is one of the best banjo players I have ever seen) to Rebelution, a funky reggae group that I could hear all the way from my campsite, to stellar comedians like Conan O’Brien (who was legally barred from TV and made sure we all knew it) and Aziz Ansari. But the moments were ones that I won’t soon forget. Not every band was “true love” for me, but from seeing my first DJ set to nearly passing out at my second DJ set (Deadmau5) or casually being sung to sleep in the shade by National frontman Matt Berninger, I knew these moments couldn’t come from anywhere else in the world at that time but Manchester, Tennessee.