The road to Bonnaroo 2011 was not a mere 10-hour odyssey from my adopted home in North Carolina to the legendary farm in Manchester, Tennessee, but a year long obsession with the music festival that has grown in stature each passing year. Last year, my first time at Bonnaroo, gave me an experience of a lifetime that left me consumed with the entire culture of this magical, four day gathering. Since my return, where I experienced a crippling Bonnaroo hangover, to the subsequent months that seemingly passed slowly by, I could not get enough Bonnaroo news and information. I immersed myself in Bonnaroo message boards, news articles, and Twitter searches trying to find the smallest rumor on artists that would appear at Bonnaroo 2011, the 10th edition of the festival. I had booked a massive RV months in advance, even before I had finalized a crew to go with. All of a sudden, I became the person friends and acquaintances would contact if they had a question about the festival. It was pretty safe to say that Bonnaroo had become one of my strongest passions in a life already filled with emotional ties to various subjects and hobbies. And, finally, as cool spring temperatures turned to summer-like humidity, it was time for yet another Bonnaroo.
Arriving in Manchester right before midnight on Wednesday evening, I was determined to beat the system and get into the campgrounds within an hour or so. That plan was quickly thwarted when I realized there was already 20 miles of traffic on the shoulder of the road. This is the first year the festival organizers officially allowed patrons in on Wednesday evening and many others had the same idea to make an early entrance. One day, considering how much Bonnaroo infuses into the local economy of Coffee County, local politicians will work with Ashley Capps & Co. and determine a more streamlined approach to move the thousands of vehicles into the festival in a much more timely manner. But until then, I was forced to wait 5 hours for entry into the campgrounds, despite my early arrival time.
After parking and setting up camp, it was nap time. I had an exciting Thursday filled with my return to Centeroo (the actual festival area where the stages are set up) filled with taking in the sights and sounds of the first day of Bonnaroo 2011. For many fortunate to get into the festival early enough, Thursday has become a hidden gem. It has become a chance to enjoy lesser known acts that you have learned about possibly only due to the fact they are on the lineup. Or maybe one of your favorite underexposed acts is playing, giving you a chance to tell all your bandwagon friends that you saw a certain band “before they became mainstream”. Last year, it led me to discover Miike Snow, an act I now listen to regularly.
This year, I was excited to see both Sleigh Bells and Band of Skulls, but many others had the same idea, since both performances were relatively packed, considering they were both tent shows on Thursday. Neither band disappointed, whether it was explosive sounds and lights from Sleigh Bells or the bluesy cords of Band of Skulls. I had gone into the festival predicting that Band of Skulls will make the same type of jump in exposure as Mumford & Sons had during the previous year. Although that is grand expectations to put on any band and they certainly have a long way to go to learn how to dominate a show, I certainly still see a big future for them. Another highlight of my Thursday was seeing Little Jack Lawrence play bass at the Karen Elson set, while her iconic (soon to be ex) husband Jack White appeared as a shadowy figure in the background of the stage, making no inclination he would be performing – and he didn’t. After the Sleigh Bells set, I decided to go back to the RV camp and get some sleep, knowing full well what would be in store for me. As I was leaving Centeroo, I was forced to leave through a certain exit and scan out my bracelet, which was equipped with an RFID chip, so that the powers that be knew my exact whereabouts. This was the first year at Bonnaroo this technology was used and it brought to mind a wicked Orwellian nightmare, filled with governmental control and torture methods. Plus the security in Centeroo seemed more determined to ensure the RFID investment was being properly used than restoring order. But then I realized I was just extremely paranoid from the long drive and the heat and it was time to move on to Friday.
As Friday arrived, I was ready to put my experienced approach to the test. I fancy myself a late night creature to begin with, and there was plenty of strong late night acts on the lineup. So instead of forcing myself to get into Centeroo right at noon (when the first act begins) and risk running out of gas before the late night acts, I would utilize my RV’s air conditioner and not enter Centeroo until 3pm, in hopes that I will make it to 5am or later. This was a mere formality just 10 short years ago but now it has become a challenge, despite my energetic personality. As I finally entered Centeroo on Friday, I could feel the downright oppressive heat, summoning flashbacks to last years’ record setting heat fest. Undeterred, I made my way to the Matt & Kim set. This was one of my biggest surprises of the weekend, as both Matt & Kim exude their external cheerfulness in both their music and interaction with the crowd. Matt continually commented on this being his first Bonnaroo by referring to it as his “Bonnaroo virginity” and he couldn’t have been happier about it. Their set put me in an optimistic mood, despite the heat already zapping energy from my body and the dust, something that was a theme throughout the entire weekend, was ravaging my sinuses. Staying at ‘This Tent’ where Matt & Kim performed, I also witnessed sets from both Atmosphere and Florence + The Machine – without really moving an inch.
Having seen Atmosphere live a few times before, there was nothing groundbreaking here for me. Frontman Slug was up to his cocky ways, but his arrogance has always seemed endearing and it works for him. Florence, during her set, was absolutely powerful, an energetic female voice that resonated with the crowd. Had this been during the evening on a bigger stage, I most likely would have been wonderfully captivated. Instead I was a bit cranky but still enjoyed the set. I will look forward to seeing Florence + The Machine live again one day.
It was now time to head over to the ‘What Stage’, the festival’s main stage equipped to hold over 80,000 people, to see My Morning Jacket. Last year, being a “Bonnaroo virgin”, I spent most of my time at the main stage. This was partly due to the top heavy nature of the 2010 lineup but also because I didn’t choose to get out of my comfort zone enough. This year I was determined to make a conscious effort to see more tent acts than stage acts, but over the past year or so, My Morning Jacket has become one of my favorite bands and I wasn’t going to miss them perform live, something they are noted for. Sitting in the back half of the What Stage area, I wasn’t very impressed with the sound system (another theme that dominated the weekend, though I had more sound complaints about the Which Stage). However, I was thoroughly impressed with MMJ’s performance, including some of the hits I’ve grown to love off their Okonokos live album, like “Wordless Chorus”, that I couldn’t help sing along to. Jim James is a masterful frontman and this shone through in his performance. It was once of the highlights of my weekend, with their strong set reaffirming why I think so highly of MMJ.
As MMJ finished up, my excitement levels rose even higher for Arcade Fire, who would be playing on the main stage next. In just what seems months, the group from Montreal has become Grammy darlings and the subject matter of an ensuing internet meme when mainstream America wondered just who the hell they are. Unfortunately, I was not sitting in the right area to enjoy their performance the way many others, who are now raving about their show, must have been. The sound at the What Stage, for those sitting in the back half, just wasn’t up to the high levels expected by the patrons of Bonnaroo. However, the performance was in no way disappointing, though from my vantage point, not the legendary set many people are currently opining. That’s the funny thing about large music festivals in general; two people can have vastly different experiences. That statement usually refers to choosing to go see different act compared to another person, but in this case it refers to seeing the same act, but sitting in entirely different areas. As the legend of Arcade Fire’s Bonnaroo 2011 performance grows in stature over the “innanets”, my disappointment and jealousy grows as well.
It was now time for late night and I was running out of energy. After a quick trip to my RV to wash up and find a way to psyche myself into a few more hours of music, I was ready to go for Big Boi. Blending his verses from Outkast hits (not the same without his enigmatic partner Andre but still enjoyable) and his recent ‘Sir Lucious Leftfoot’ album, Big Boi’s set was energetic, if highly unfocused, and extremely fun. Not a ton of substance to his performance but at 2am who needs substance if you can dance your ass off without a care in the world. And that mentality brought me into electronic artist Pretty Light’s set – the highlight of my entire weekend. Playing his hits from 2:30am to right near sunrise at 5:15am, Pretty Lights, aka Derek Vincent Smith, kept the party going. I danced nearly the entire set, I was enthralled by his light show, I was impressed with the commitment his dedicated fans showed by exploding to the sound of every beat Mr. Smith played. It was an epic late night show by an artist who clearly loves what he does for a living and thrives on getting people to dance. It was a great way to end the 2nd day of the festival. As I was heading back to my RV for a morning of sleep, I gauged the crowd walking back as I screamed “Bonnarooooo” at the top of my lungs. At 5:30am, many shouted this back, still energized from a great day of music.
The excitement of Saturday’s lineup had me paralyzed ever since the schedule came out. I was going to watch performances from acts that I have learned to absolutely love (The Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, Girl Talk), followed for over a decade (Eminem), and deemed as legendary (Buffalo Springfield). The day of music started around 3pm for me once again. I checked out Chiddy Bang, a hip-hop group from Philadelphia, at This Tent. I wasn’t overly impressed, but as I have detailed in the past due to the music that shaped my teenage years, I am a much tougher critic on hip-hop acts. I was impressed with their ability to freestyle, using topics from the crowd and quickly crafting them – a lost art within the new hip-hop generation. I then headed over to That Tent to check out Portugal. The Man. I did not know what to expect going into it, but as I went up against the heat and dust of Manchester I was pleasantly surprised. I do not know how to define their brand of music (I’m not sure if you even can), but I enjoyed everything I heard, including frontman John Gouley’s voice. After finding out they are from Wasilla, Alaska, when asked if I enjoyed their performance, I simply reply “You Betcha”. As of today, they’ve also entered my iPod. I can thank Bonnaroo for a growing list of artists I would have never heard before live that I now listen to regularly, one of the many positives of a large music festival.
If Portugal. The Man was an appetizer for my Saturday, I was ready for the main course starting with Mumford & Sons. Many know the story of their whirlwind last 12 months, including playing in a small tent at Bonnaroo 2010. Now they were playing an early evening set on the biggest day of the festival on the second biggest stage, the ‘Which Stage’. And the people game to the set in droves. Unfortunately, the Which Stage sound is taking the most criticism post-Bonnaroo and rightfully so. With stage equipment sound problems and utility and service vehicles making noise behind the crowd, any act playing to a big crowd on this stage suffered. Mumford & Sons was no different, but they – possibly more than any band – had the magnetism to overcome this. I was also able to move up much closer about 20 minutes into the set, making my experience even more enjoyable as the boys from England played the hits many of us have been hypnotized by off their Sigh No More album. To cap off their show, they performed “Amazing Grace” with Jerry Douglas and Union Station, along with Old Crow Medicine Show and Alison Krauss, bringing the audience to its proverbial knees. I wouldn’t be shocked if the next year brings Mumford & Sons more exposure than the last year.
Speaking of last year, I had to make a very tough set choice at Bonnaroo between The Flaming Lips and The Black Keys, during their Friday late night conflict. After much deliberation, I went with The Black Keys and never once regretted it, as Patrick and Dan rocked the house that night with an exhilarating set. Thus my anticipation for The Black keys on the main stage this year was palpable. Quite frankly, I love this band. And with those expectations, I was thoroughly disappointed. I viewed their performance as uninspired (not to be confused with low key, which is part of their stigma). This included the way they played and the time taken in between songs. In addition, the set was one of the shortest main acts of the festival. I tried to make myself believe that it had something to do with where I was sitting, much like the Arcade Fire experience, but you can put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig or a hockey mom, or however the saying goes. Regardless, it was a disappointing performance by a duo that has been the exact opposite of disappointing over the last year.
Hoping to shake off the ill feelings of The Black Keys, I headed over to the Buffalo Springfield set on the Which Stage. Earlier in the day I had texted my father that I will be seeing them perform. You see, Neil Young is one of his favorite artists of all-time and he was also a big fan of Buffalo Springfield. Watching them perform live was not just for my entertainment but it was symbolic in a way as son enjoys the passion of the father, bridging the gap of generations in music. And then it happened; the sound system at the Which Stage was at its worst all week and there was no way to get closer to the stage in an already packed house. I could barely hear a thing and people near me furiously shouted “turn it up” to no avail. I had no choice to cut it short and take the next performance, Eminen on the main stage, into my own hands and I did what I swore after last year’s Jay-Z set that I would never do again – jump into the pit for a hip-hop performance.
As I entered the pit line 45 minutes before Eminem’s show started, I viewed the fans in the line around me. Mostly early 20s, many of which were at their first Bonnaroo. As Bonnaroo has grown, the lineup as become more eclectic. This includes hip-hop acts both large and small, bringing fans to the farm who may only be there for a few select artists. This is not a criticism on my end but a commentary of the current state of a percentage of the festival crowd. And with the same green pictures of dead presidents coming out of their pockets as the long-time, jam band-driven veteran of Bonnaroo, this phenomenon is here to stay. That same pit line, when let into the pit 30 minutes before Eminem’s set, caused a near trampling episode excited to see Slim Shady up close. I just wonder why they didn’t use the security that was so committed to ensuring patrons are properly using RFID bracelets near the pit of the main stage to prevent injury, but that is something that the festival organizers must definitely look into – after, of course, they figure out how to resolve their sound problems.
The Eminem set provided us with a lively Marshall Mathers, as if rehab gave him rebirth. He spent a lot of time on his new material, energetically ran around the stage, and delivered that infamous anger that had made him an international superstar. He did heavily rely on his hype man, Mr. Porter, to finish a lot of his lines (something typical to the genre but he seemed to utilize it more). Overall it was a nice set, but it was in no way on the same playing field as Jay-Z just a year before. Eminem possessed little interaction with the crowd and, although had a nice light show at times in the background, and looped many old music videos as a backdrop, it was an almost cheesy approach. It was in no means a legendary set, but Eminem held his own as a headliner and his fans adored him for it and his closed his set with an encore of “Lose Yourself”, something even his most ardent critics can get behind.
Feeding off the energy I felt being in the pit with people 10 years younger than me for the Eminem show, I was ready to go for late night once again despite sore and wobbly knees. I used the first part of late night walking around hearing a few songs from both The String Cheese Incident and Dr. John, playing with the original Meters lineup and Allen Toussant. But this was in preparation for the Girl Talk show, something I’d awaited since his presence was announced on the lineup back in February. Girl Talk had a lot to live up to after Pretty Lights the night before, and although he provided a strong set with a huge crowd dancing and throwing glow sticks everywhere, it just wasn’t what I experienced 24 hours earlier. His set ended on time (an etiquette artists in the electronic genre rarely adhere to) and for the most part, left people satisfied. But as his set came to a close I noticed STS9 was still playing and I quickly rushed over to the tent to break out some more dance moves. Using instruments in an electronic approach, STS9 finished the night off strong and actually had me favoring them over Girl Talk when it was all said and done. After an uneven day, filled with a mixture of solid performances on one hand and sound problems on the other, it was a great way to cap off another Bonnaroo day.
Waking up Sunday morning, I could feel aches and pains all over my body. I knew Sunday would be a short day for me as I had an obligation to drive home after the festival, thus it was imperative to grab as much sleep as possible. For the 4th straight day, I entered the festival around 3pm, a crafty calculation on my part that kept me going to the wee hours of the morning. Sundays at Bonnaroo provide a different experience. Thousands of people have already headed home for various reasons, making the navigation throughout Centeroo much more manageable and tents and stages prove to be much less crowded. This was the case when I decided to check out Galactic on the main stage. I was able to walk right up to the front as the show started and was delighted by the funk and jazz sounds by the band from New Orleans, with the help of Corey Glover from Living Colour. It was a great way to start Sunday, as the 9-time Bonnaroo veterans also infused hip-hop into their performance. I then took the opportunity to listen to a few songs from various acts, including Iron & Wine, Cold War Kids, and Gregg Allman. I would have stayed for the entire Iron & Wine set if it wasn’t for my reservations about the Which Stage; and that single factor led to my best decision of Bonnaroo 2011.
Leading up to this year’s festival, I was torn by one huge conflict: The Strokes vs. Explosions In The Sky. Quite frankly, I enjoy The Strokes’ music a great deal but I was not very impressed with their new album Angles. Nonetheless, they were a band on the top of my list for acts I wanted to see live. However, Explosions In The Sky had this huge reputation for live performances and I enjoy their music as well, albeit not as much as The Strokes. As of Friday morning, I had chosen the Strokes. But as the disappointment of the Which Stage sound set in my mind, this decision became less and less obvious. By set time on Sunday evening, I had fully changed my mind and chose EITS and I couldn’t be more pleased with this decision. I was absolutely riveted by the elaborate instrumental music of EITS. They put me in a relaxing mood as I sat back and enjoyed the set. Along with Pretty Lights, it was my favorite set of the entire weekend and I may have a new favorite band (tied with my 10 others). Their music enchanted me throughout the entire set and I smiled at what type of day Sunday had already shaped up to be. As I headed to Widespread Panic, I knew that I got my money’s worth out of the music of the weekend, despite snafus in sound equipment.
And Widespread Panic didn’t disappoint either. Using colorful lights to enhance their festival closing performance, the veterans of 25 years and multiple Bonnaroos jammed out to their long catalogue worth of songs by putting their own live spin on it as expected. You knew what you were getting going in to a Widespread Panic set, and the irony is you don’t know what you getting either because each performance is different. That dichotomy makes WSP special 25 years after their inception and I was glad to be a part of it. They are apt festival closers despite some grumblings that Bonnaroo invites them to perform too much.
As WSP finished up, I headed back to my RV tired and sore but pleased with what I experienced. And just like that, the 10th installment of Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in tiny little Manchester, TN was officially over. Although my excitement coming off this year’s festival probably won’t compare to last year’s version, I still knew why I decided to go to Bonnaroo in the first place; the music. Without the great musical acts, Bonnaroo suffers. Let’s face it, it’s hot and dusty, there are huge crowds that are probably too large for the tents, stages, and the overall venue, there are overzealous security guards and people driving service vehicles with little respect for patrons. There were two deaths this year, and there was a myriad of sound problems, especially on the Which Stage. But the level of music finds a way to overcome otherwise brutal conditions. I was asked if I will return next year by a friend and the answer was not (yet) an emphatic yes. If I return, I will most likely pay for VIP among other changes to make my experience easier and more pleasurable. Once the rumors start or the lineup is released, I will be rendered powerless to the mysticism of Bonnaroo. That is what Bonnaroo has become in my life; even as I move away from the obsession of it, I know it will always hold a place in my passionate heart for the rest of my days. Bonnarooooooo!–Chris Dino