Two weeks ago, Manchester, a small town west of Knoxville, became the sixth-largest city in Tennessee. Normally, the ebb and flow of populations in small southern towns isn’t something worthy of print. The migration of 100,000 or so people is a bit different.
The massive migration past the Mason-Dixon line is like many other wildlife migrations: It’s seasonal. Locals even have a name for it: Bonnaroo.
Yes, June has come again, and with it that most famous of ongoing outdoor festivals. For four days in Tennessee, hippies from around the world gather to watch jam bands, buy prayer beads and smoke pot. And for the first few years, that was the image that stuck in the minds of concertgoers; if you struck Bonnaroo with an atomic bomb, three quarters of the American population of hippies would go up in a mushroom cloud. But the people behind Bonnaroo had a different image in mind.
It wasn’t quite the music of Woodstock they seemed to emulate; it was more the singularity of the moment. Every teenager in the country wanted to make the drive to upstate New York to tune in, to drop out. Our cultural tastes are too diversified and personalized now to ever see such a thing again, but 2006’s visit to Manchester by Radiohead certainly came close.
Since last year’s festival, the artist lineup reflects a desire to be more inclusive, and with this year’s artists including Spoon, The Hold Steady, Feist, The White Stripes, The Flaming Lips, Cold War Kids and Wilco, the crowds gathering before shows looked even more like the indie-rock set you’d expect to see gathered at the Blind Pig.
Except, of course, that you don’t normally have to live with the indie-rock kids in a farm of tents for four days. In that sense, it’s difficult to write reflections on Bonnaroo without disclosing what a deeply personal experience this festival really is. It’s one thing to mull over an artist lineup on the internet and quite another to spend a long weekend without a proper shower, quickly becoming primal in a desire to seek water or shade or food at all costs and trying to survive long enough to stand up for the bands you drove to see.
As with festival concerts of all types, the story of your concert experience will be written by your walking shoes, the $4 cup of frozen lemonade and your bottle of SPF 45. Or, as is more likely, the absence of these things.
The best bands can make all of the dust and the heat fade away. The best concerts don’t seem to take place in Manchester. The Flaming Lips show, for instance, happened to take place on a set looking like the Moon. The worst bands make it very evident that you are locked into a grid of tents and can’t leave for four days. The throbbing noise from Tool shot almost a mile from the main stage into my tent, turning my night into a crazed headache of rolling and moaning and praying for silence and death. I have never wanted to be home more than in that moment.
But it wasn’t all bad. The Hold Steady proved that it can bring its rock and roll tent revival to a thousand people as easy as it can a bar-full. The crowds for Spoon screamed so loudly for an encore (typically forbidden at Bonnaroo) that lead singer and rock android Britt Daniel even allowed himself a brief reaction: “You guys are hard core.” The Black Keys got to be very loud; Feist got to be very quiet. And, on Sunday night, I got to drive home.
Like sneaking into clubs or sleeping in the library during finals, Bonnaroo has become one of those foundational college experiences that everyone should have. Here’s why: When Sting came on stage for the reunion of The Police, arguably the biggest draw of the entire festival, he addressed the crowd repeatedly as, “100,000 people from Tennessee.” Salty rock journalists took this as a sign that Sting filed his set from the tour bus, unaware of where he was or what concert he was playing. But the crowd didn’t boo; for that weekend, we were all citizens of Bonnaroo, Tennessee.