Bonnaroo Festival Journal, Bonnaroo Music Festival, Manchester, TN- 6/21-23
As our plane touches down in Knoxville two days before the festival is set to begin, I start to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Why have I come all this way, is this really what I should be doing with my time & money & precious vacation? Coming from Berkeley, California for live music. It makes sense to me but I find this idea tested in subtle ways in the next day. Meeting my fiancee’s family on Thursday morning I have the combined nerves of being the newest addition to her kin and the strange guy from the Bay Area who wanted to travel thousands of miles for what many see as a mere concert. They aren’t mean about it but I can see the puzzlement in their eyes when they ask me about the music. Most of the band names are foreign to them but my enthusiasm seems to quell their worries about what I’ve dragged their family member into. I feel scared about taking someone to a festival like this who’s never attended a multi-day onslaught like this. And then it occurs to me none of us in this scene has ever attended anything of this scale before. A sudden calm comes over me realizing that.
The drive to Manchester late in the afternoon is smooth as silk. Tennessee is lovely, green, flat and wholly different from California. I’m the wheelman on this one since my sweetie’s new license didn’t come in time for the trip. Not minding at all and the rental car (the mighty Chevy Malibu, dudes) has an in-dash CD player. Armed with shows aplenty we bop down the highway to a mix I put together for the Summer solstice, which happens on Friday, the first day of the festival. We even have time to stop for one last rib-stickin’ meal at the Cracker Barrel (lordy, how can Southerners use the name cracker’ without wincing). It will be our last food not served on paper plates or waxed paper for several days so we dig into freakin’ huge servings of chicken & dumplings and a country breakfast platter. The cheese hash browns make me swoon and I now believe that there should be more gravy on things after this visit to the Barrel.
We don’t hit traffic until we get to Exit 111, the gateway to Bonnaroo off Highway 24. We crawl along at a snail’s pace as the lines of cars creep towards the camping ground. People talk to each other through their open car windows. Most are smiling though a few look beat after 12 hours or more waiting in traffic. I feel a bit guilty that it’s only taking us 90 minutes or so to get in once we hit the exit. I share this with a couple in a big dusty black truck and they say in a friendly way that we’ll be getting a beating when we park. There is an easy give & take to the crowd already that makes me hopeful that things will be all right despite the massive numbers streaming in.
Wake up at dawn on Friday. The tent is beastly hot and sweats like Roger Ebert from the condensation inside & out. Letting my gal sleep away I head out to recon the grounds. Arriving in darkness proved hugely disorienting so I stumble a bit when I see just how many people are right in our vicinity. The eye cannot take in all the RV’s, tents, trucks, banners, inflated toys, lions, tigers & bears. Oh my.
I am reminded of how ancient Roman Armies must have filled fields wherever they traveled. And while they must surely have been fearsome in battle I’m equally certain they were terrifying during times of recreation. I make a mental note to be extra extra nice to every local I encounter and to spend money in Manchester as freely as possible.
The port-a-johns are terrifying already. Waste is mounded above the seat rim in many cases. People move down a row of 15 aqua cubicles, opening doors, cringing in disgust and then closing them. This becomes a frequent site at Bonnaroo and one of those things that let’s you know that the phrase “Oh the humanity” isn’t just for zeppelin disasters anymore.
A few dozen folks wander around looking equally dazed. We wash up in the makeshift sinks where the ground is already muddy below. I acknowledge out loud that we’re going to get filthy this weekend. Everyone laughs and digs their toes into the mud. As I wash my hair with Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Peppermint Pure-Castille Soap. Nothing makes one feel so clean in so dusty a place. It is one of those staples of the rock road I picked up seeing the Grateful Dead in the mid-1980’s and I never leave home without it. I share the tiny plastic squeeze bottle around with several people. Their sigh of happy cleanliness is all the thanks I need.
Dressed and cool again I wander towards Centeroo, the core of the festival that contains many food booths, merch tables, and the 4 stages for music. There’s also a carnival way put together by Ben (of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame). It’s dubbed the True Majority Festival’ and it asks people to pay for variations on traditional carnie games that shove liberal ideals down their throat. As I eye the booths before they open I can’t help thinking how misguided this is. While I agree with most everything they are trying to say it just seems wrong-headed to try and make people pay to be preached to.
Closer to the long row of food vendors I find the playground. A few kids run around but it’s mostly adults who’ve come out to play at 7 am here in the country. I grin so hard my face hurts watching people laugh on the swings.
The crowd is largely in their teens & twenties and at 34 I feel a bit the elder statesman to this scene. Having seen the Dead many times I also have that piece of our shared cultural history as a reality rather than just mythology, which being honest is what it is to many 20 year olds who worship something they never saw first hand. I’m sure the true elders of the scene, the ones who feel the Grateful Dead ended with the death of Pigpen, feel the same way about me. Odd to think that this type of music now has multiple generations, that it is handed down to people’s children as a living legacy. As if to punctuate my thought a sun bleached 3 year old runs up to me and hugs my legs. She doesn’t know me but sheds her warmth on me nonetheless. Her mom comes to fetch her and I hand them both bubble necklaces from my bag. We have come armed with treats & favors, bubbles and paper fans to share freely with the crowd. It’s a holdover from my earliest days seeing the Dead and one my partner has embraced whole heartedly. As Willie Wonka says, a good deed shines in a weary world
The music the first day is strong but the clamor of everyone getting settled and the collective disorientation in the crowd never lets the full-blown festival vibe sink into most people, myself included.
Jim White plays a grand set all by his lonesome on the Theatre tent stage. The crowd had a very mixed reaction to him but we loved him instantly. All his self effacing humor, explicit religious imagery, slinky guitar work and ripping good songcraft won me over big time. His albums have thick production and many cuts come trundling with phat ass beats. He explains at the show that he’s the inventor of “hick-hop” which beautifully describes his blend of country, rock and modern sounds. He made a great joke that alienated many in the audience about midway through his set. He said, “I think I’ll play a bunch of Phish covers. Oh wait, I haven’t smoked enough dope to make me do that.” About a third of the people just left at this. A small band of us applauded loudly. I was proud of him and us for not bowing at the altar of Phish even here.
Later we found a choice spot in the shade tent at the back of the Stadium, the biggest venue, and got ourselves knocked out by Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. Just tremendous. Like the strangest, funkiest circus music I’ve ever heard. The band has gelled into a real committed unit instead of a floating aggregate of players. Like Funkadelic (an obvious precursor to this band’s sound) they dress for performances. Colonel Les had shorts with his military regalia, saxophonist Skerik wore a red bishop’s ensemble and guitarist Einor had a top hat & tails on. Percussionist extraordinaire Jay Lane (Ratdog) had his caveman vest on and looked thrilled to be banging on so many interesting instruments including the xylophone, which adds a unique texture to their sound. Best version of Angry Young Man I’ve heard the Brigade do yet. During Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Les relates a dream he had the previous night after eating chili dogs. He imagined himself on stage at Bonnaroo and to his left was his friend Warren Haynes. At this point Warren walks out on stage and shreds a mighty solo before being dragged off to the Arena stage to front Gov’t Mule. I’m vaguely sad I can’t be in two places at one time but it fades as the Frogs launch into Hendershot with the horns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band improvising on the tune. A rollicking good cover of Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath only serves as icing on a very yummy cake.
Back at our tent we can hear Widespread Panic noodling away on the massive Stadium Stage. John Bell’s voice always makes me think he needs a hot cup of lemon tea and few squirts of Cloraseptic. And all their songs still sound like ONE BIG SONG to me even after years of trying to get into them. Their 3-hour set allows us to eat supper and kick it in preparation for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s late night show. We have been blessed with a less severe heat snap tonight and nary a mosquito in site (though I fear I’ve jinxed that by even mentioning it). Drinking water whenever I stop to wonder what I should do next and find I’m feeling good though frighteningly grubby already.
Dashing off to Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe I found the tent stage area mostly empty. The massive crowd, by then swelled to nearly capacity at nightfall, were mainly gathering at the other tent stage for Keller Williams backed by String Cheese. While I loves SCI I’ve never developed a taste for Keller. Like many artists others adore, I can admire his musicianship without digging him. Respect is easier to give than enthusiasm I guess.
It didn’t stay empty long and by the late start at 12:30 am it was an ocean of people. This happened a lot at Bonnaroo. One moment I’m standing in wide-open space and suddenly I can’t see the edges of where I’m at for all the bodies jammed around me. The funk juggernaut that is KDTU made the crowd levitate from note one. Seriously, the energy coming off the stage hit one like a blow that seeped into your body & spirit. Didn’t hurt that they opened with their tribute to African musician Fela Kuti, a thunderous soul clap called Elephants Have Big Feet. 25 minutes later they paused mere seconds and then launched right back into it for 2 hours straight. Never a dip in the HUGE buzz coming off the 5 guys on stage. And though delighted by what I was hearing the full measure of my weariness jumped me like Mister Sleep himself had tapped me on the shoulder. At the set break we staggered through the now enormous Tent City and slept a night full of odd dreams of fireworks and freaks…
Saturday we’d resolved to find a shady spot and make that base camp for all > the daylight activities. Even without the extreme heat the bloody mugginess is a strength killer. Our spot was a shade tent at the very back of the biggest outdoor stadium. It also housed one of the mist makers scattered around the grounds. No showers but a light, cool shimmer of water. It helped in ways that transcend words. We were just enough out of range of the water to be dry AND cool. The occasional shift in wind gave us a hint of water on the breeze. Delightful and collectively dubbed THE finest place to watch music at the festival by all of us who’d figured it out.
That it was also a stone’s throw from this hellaciously good BBQ joint on wheels did not hurt. And on the note of food, we ate like royalty the whole time. Soft warm breakfast quesadillas, orangeade ices, mad good hot wings, a vegie burrito with marinated tofu that made me think of how even vegans could eat well. Between the vendors and our own stash of apples, bananas, granola bars and the low rent croissant & beef jerky sandwich I > introduced my honey to, well, I felt truly well fed everyday.
Now for the music on Day 2…
Two non-starts began the day for me and made me a bit pessimistic. Blackalicious came out and announced that their singers and their rapper, Gift of Gab, couldn’t be there for health reasons (he’s diabetic and hurt his foot real bad 3 weeks back so needed to rest). A fairly plain DJ set from Cheif X-Cel. He’s got crazy skills at making samples into music but he didn’t move the crowd at all. Then Ben Harper comes out. I had been dubious of a solo act, any solo act, being able to fill a space designed to hold 50,000 people at peak times. And I was right. Couldn’t hear him at all unless you were directly in front of the stage and then only if you were less than a 100 feet out. He played soft, introspective material and I just wilted. I got really depressed and wandered around aimlessly. Sitting near the entrance to the Stadium I got to hear a bit of Particle’s set which sounded amazing. Full of crackling electro energy which helped make a dent in my dark mood.
When I came back Cut Chemist was just about to start his DJ set. He laughs into the mic and says, "I want to dedicate this battle of man vs. nature in the next hour to all the trees they cut down to make the roads into here. And to the wind." As if on cue a big breeze kicks up and rolled over the sunshiny crowd, cooling them as it passed their way. The first sound to emerge from his turntables was Laurie Anderson’s O Superman. I was stunned. What a weird, perfectly cool choice. And then the beats came in. He layered so many sounds and interesting rhythms onto that song I know it will never be the same for me again. The rest of his set was equally unpredictable. Between obscure hip hop gems and ethereal electro excursions he made room for the Stones’ Can’t You Hear Me Knocking and the Beach Boys’ Vegetables.
Standing in the field barefoot, I let myself sink into the earth, yoga style. I started to think how long it had been since I’d touched the earth, how long since I’d had an afternoon to just sit around staring at clouds and people and bubbles and tie-dyed babies (and tie dyed babes for that matter). Out of the corner of my eye I caught site of one of the many freshly-made-in-front-of-your-own-eyes lemonade stands. It had revived us on Friday so I thought it might do the trick again. When a small slice of genuine happiness can be purchased for $3 dollars then I’d call that a bargain.
From that point on the music never dipped below mind blowingly great. Not for one act of the many I saw in the next day & a half. The desire to show off, to really knock one out of the park was evident in every musician’s face. Once they hit their stride a few songs into their sets they relaxed, breathed in some confidence and let themselves soar. It was inspirational to see artists live like this. Yeah, inspirational, there is no other word will do.
String Cheese came on and provided the ideal hit of Colorado cultivated positivity that I think everyone out in the Stadium field wanted, maybe even like me, needed. Kicked it off with a jumpin’ take on Aerosmith’s Walk This Way. There is such joy in their sound and the crowd soaked it up and reflected it back to them. By far the finest audience for any show we saw there. You could actually stretch out your hand and feel the love in the air. String Cheese is one of those rare bands that’s better every time you see them. No matter how good you remember them being the last time out, this time they’re better. A few songs into their 2 1/2 set they bring out, "A man who helped inspire us to become a band." A tall skinny white dude sits down next to keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth (by far my favorite flava o’ Cheese). They dip into the saucy Latinismo and the dude is knocking me out with his Horace Silver style piano chops. They move slowly into a faster jam. The minute he opened his mouth I knew who was up there with them and leapt to my feet to yell, “It’s Steve Winwood!” His voice is as pure and powerful as ever and the version of his Spencer Davis Group gem I’m A Man was the stuff of legend (speaking of which, legend has it he wrote that when he was just a sprout of 15). Karl Denson popped out to add just a touch mo’ soul to the proceedings and then stuck around for a few more numbers since the music flows from him in mighty rivers and cannot be stopped after just a few minutes once you turn him on. The music built to a finale of Black Clouds -> Kashmir (yeah, the Led Zeppelin tune) -> Jam -> Black Clouds. The hula-hoops came out and the hips got to swiveling during this breathless run and everywhere you turned people were dancing & smiling.
On light feet after SCI we split before Widespread Panic again came on to rest campside until moe’s late night gig [editor’s note: Dennis missed out on two fine sets of music this evening with some fine guest performers as well- in particular Dottie Peeples’ appearance and Steve Winwood’s run through “Low Spark” were stellar- heck Winwood probably wouldn’t even have been down there had Panic not invited him]. Sweetie opted for a full-blown night of sleep in our cozy blue tent and gave me her blessings to trot off.
Hadn’t mentioned earlier that the dusty trail from our tent area known as Camp Barbarino was a 1/4 mile plus from the stages/main center o’ things. All the camps were listed on an extensive pocket map to aid us in finding our way home. All had amusing names/themes (mostly from bad TV shows) including Camp Chrissy & Camp Tripper or my favorite Camp Barracus where one pities the fool who doesn’t sleep there…
I high tailed it to the Ballroom tent and found a mob already assembled a half-hour before the show began. Being on my own I just weaved my way into the back end of the tent and immediately found myself surrounded by very nice young guys, all wide eyed recent converts to this type of extended improvisational music. As such they bubbled with excitement over every detail which only served to bring out the uber music geek in me. Talking we figured that between the 4 of us we covered points at far reaches of the entire North American continent. We laughed at how we’d all stretched our lives & bank accounts to attend this thing. But it meant something more than just a mere concert to us. The music had called us here, and our hopes for something unique, something truly extraordinary had brought us to this place. Inside the crucible of audience and stage and darkness and sound sometimes things truly do become much more than their base materials.
I have often felt embarrassed about how much I love music and the live musical experience in particular. Without a doubt my passion for music is irrational, unreasonable and certainly childlike at times (though hopefully not childish…). But standing amongst 5,000 or so like minded people at midnight I realized something about myself: It’s okay to love this stuff this much. There are so many opportunities for sadness in this world, for disappointment and frustration and despair. And there’s just not enough things on the side of joy to always balance this dynamic out. So when we find those things that make us happy beyond belief we might want to embrace them. I silently promised myself that I wouldn’t pretend to be cool or distant or any less giddy about the music I love again. Sure I’ll keep the endless setlist rambling to those in the flock. Maybe some of you don’t need to hear about the virtues & shortcomings of past two drummers in KDTU. I respect that. But just know that the minutiae and footnotes and personal revelries delight me.
Then the lights went out.
moe. went on to play two 2-hour sets and a 1-hour encore. That’s just numbers. What really happened for those that rode it out was a ritual that tested limits of body and space and time. Just as the moe boys operated on the outside edges of what they are capable, the gathered masses helped them make this music, gave them ears to listen to what they create. Each set only consisted of maybe 6-7 songs but they explored them in ways that made each seem new to me. The guests just brought out the best in them and let them see their own music in new light. Robert Randolph turned everyone’s head with his unrehearsed improving on Head at the end of the first set (seriously, Rob Derhak started laughing with delight watching Randolph and kept egging him on to continue). During the 2nd set the bassist & keyboard player from The Disco Biscuits jammed out the end of Recreational Chemistry giving it a raver vibe that fit nicely with the bouncing, giddy audience. Brendan, one of the guitarists from Umphrey’s McGee, popped out to play on Rebubula. String Cheese’s Michael Kang & Travis pushed the outer limits on Cracker’s Low and moe’s own Bring It Back Home in the encore. Unlike a lot of guest spots all of these musicians found a place for themselves within moe’s singular sound. They grooved on what the band laid down enough to respect and embellish the whole rather than needing a spotlight on them.
Each set was a solid block of music, never a pause between each tune, only a seamless exploratory yearning that moved everything forward. From the fabulous opening Plane Crash through oddly funky new material and on through fan favorites that had all of us ruining what was left of our voices by singing along at the top of our lungs, it all was wonderful. More a ritual than a concert and as such this music at its very very best.
Towards the end of the 2nd set I wondered for the first time what time it was. My answer came in the form of a skyline I will never forget. Out of the back left corner of the tent was the Tennessee sky brightening against the clouds. Dawn was nearly here. I took a leap into the air and let the music take me for more than another 90 minutes. When it came to a close, the band thanked us for taking this journey with them. Their words not mine. I turned to one of the young guys I’d shared the show with and said, "Well that certainly was something." We smiled, hugged, said a silent goodbye and went out into the early light towards our temporary homes. I think it was a moment of idiot eloquence so I share it with you.
Sleep didn’t come due to a gaggle of local hayseeds who were drinking at 6:00 am and loudly dishing all the people around them (most of whom were trying to sleep in tents RIGHT NEXT TO THEM). It was a sharp contrast to the friendly, generous cocoon I’d just emerged from (at the moe show people shared water & pipes & beers & hugs very freely). As I lay there on the air mattress next a softly snoring sweetie a thought popped into my head. It was one that had first come to me the previous afternoon at String Cheese: If human beings can make sounds like this then there may be hope for us yet.
I truly believe in the power of music to unite people. Call me an old hippie if you must but there’s something to this idea and I got to see it first hand a few times during Bonnaroo. Put people in the right space and the right mind frame and make them dance (that’s important) then good things happen. Maybe not always what one expects but it happens. And suddenly all the differences and short comings and ugliness melt away and it’s easier to love people, easier despite themselves, easier despite our own stuff that holds us back from a life of joy & substance. It was a lovely thing to ruminate on as sleep eluded me.
Sunday, put simply, was one of the greatest days of my sweet short life. The music just fed this overwhelmingly positive feeling. Robert Randolph and The Family Band delivered a gospel fueled performance that made even the shaggiest hippie throw their hands in the air and shout a prayer to the skies. Aided by Luther Dickinson on several tunes the holy church blues drew in anyone that happened by. It had that kind of power, the kind of power actual churches only rarely possess. That man manages to testify on his pedal steel guitar in a way that bypasses words. Credit really does go to the entire band – bassist & wonderful singer Danyel Morgan, rock solid drummer Marcus Randolph and hammond organ wizard John Ginty. It’s like having a musical lightning rod for the divine. Several folks leapt into the air a few times in undisguised joy. Tremendous to behold.
Dug the heavy blues of the North Mississippi All Stars. Luther Dickinson is the real mojo hand carrying real deal I tell you what. They opened with a low down reading of Sittin’ On Top of the World then took us out Marching On The Freedom Highway where we were Drinking Muddy Water on our way to Sugartown (Shake Baby Shake). The Arena area holds 10,000 people and while the NMAS did their best to fill the space I couldn’t shake the feeling that as good as they were this band was meant to be heard in bars & smaller halls. Then the true intensity of the band could vibrate your organs nicely.
Enjoyed the delicate banjo & standup bass duets of Bela Fleck & Edger Meyer. Though again, their sound just seemed wrong for the venue. One of the tent stages might have served both this duo and NMAS better. Something for the organizers to consider for future Bonnaroos.
Knowing we wanted to leave the site before Trey Antipasto (that’s Les Claypool’s name for him) we opted out of seeing Phil & Friends. I’m a big fan of both Phil & Friends and Ratdog and I think what I like best about them is the unique sound they each have with the same material. When Bob Weir plays with Phil’s band it sometimes comes across as watered down Grateful Dead to me.
Having avoided the mobs at the Stadium we set up early in the Theatre tent. Early enough to catch a fantastic little group called the Gabe Dixon Band. They recall Ben Folds Five but with more color to their sound but also had a flexible groove that would make them an ideal opener for say the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey or even String Cheese. Without a guitarist in the band they have a jazz-soul thang happening that’s pretty infectious. Plus their songs are instantly catchy. Gabe himself asked that we consider picking up their debut CD to help them onto their next gig. Love a band that admits they need the money for gas (On A Rolling Ball is stellar by the way and hasn’t left my home player for a couple days now).
We were also early enough to avoid the flash rainstorm that would have hit us out in the Arena. Ten minutes of frankly scary downpour and then five minutes later the skies were blue & bright again. What a state!
Then Norah Jones and her supremely talented band came out. A little baffled by their inclusion in this festival they stepped up and played a set that showcased their instrumental prowess and their finesse with the carefully built catalog they perform. A tune by The Band fit them like a glove (sadly I couldn’t quite place the exact title). It was graceful and lovely and calming after all the bigness of the previous acts I’d seen. When they pulled out the Tennessee Waltz for their final number I slow danced with my babe outside the tent. It was a perfect note to end our time in a field in Manchester so we made for the car and nearly skipped with joy when we saw we could make our way out. It was intense and dirty and I felt like I burst with happiness.
I'd call that a pretty good vacation. Now to figure out next year’s festival destination