En Route to Bonnaroo: We Made It!

June 2011

Aside from the general desire to share my wanderings, the flavors and the general feel of the South inspired me in ways that will be evident and bear a background story.  Accordingly, I present the city-by-city recap of my Southern Sojourn.  Sit back, put on some headphones and relax because this is going to be a long one.

We made it to Bonnaroo!

The Lay of the Land

We drove to Nashville on Wednesday, Wednesday being a full twenty-four hours before the start of the festival.  As we passed Manchester, TN, the cars were already forming lines on both sides of the highway for at least a mile (?).  What could the day of the festival possibly hold traffic wise?  We mentally prepared for lots of bonding with the rental car, but lo and behold, our later evening arrival worked highly to our favor.  The lines were ever so slight, and by that point, the remaining campsites, though farther from “Centeroo,” were quieter, less sardine-like, and most importantly, their porta potties experienced much lower traffic.

While the sun set beautifully over a farm field’s low horizon, we pitched our tent and befriended our new neighbors.  Our first night was all about exploring, taking in this temporary, pop up city and its 85,000 inhabitants!

It really is a city.  Someday some urban thought tank will fund me to research the festival from a city planning perspective (don’t steal that idea or my funding).  Centeroo is like the medieval castle or the symbolic cathedral or central government building; it is the livelihood and backbone of the “city.”  An ornate entry, fences/walls, security, and as the festival progressed, the occasional puddle moat protected Centeroo.  Beyond the music “village” walls, the divisions form the various classes of Bonnaroo society.

The inhabitants of Tent City pay for the amenities and hassle free packing of the rented tent options:  cots or air mattresses, bedding, a lock, a weatherproof tent, proximity to Centeroo (ie:  prime real estate) and an attentive staff.  These are the hotel dwellers for all intents and purposes, surpassed in comfort only by RV City.  The RV dwellers are the real upper crust of this festival society.  The inhabitants are either performers or people willing to pay for the real luxuries of “camping”:  AIR CONDITIONING, water and waste pumping, bedding, a kitchenette and the real golden ticket in the Bonnaroo world:  a cleanish toilet.

The middle classes sprawl from there.  The family camping area (yes, people bring children?!?!) is frighteningly uniform, much like a suburban cul-de-sac.  Our neighbors told us how they finally jumped a barbed-wire fence after finding themselves hopelessly lost amongst the monotony of the Bonnaroo ‘burbs.  The rest of the fields were comprised of the gamut of campsites displaying the skill levels and creativity of the campers.  There were elaborate grills, tarp forts, lawn furniture, camper rooftop decks, temporary showers, etc.  We were quite modest with our simple Coleman tent purchased at the closest super center the day of the festival.  Just past our tent and the remaining field was the road, and from there, as I understood it, were the commuters.

(Click on the above image to see the full set of my Bonnaroo pictures)

The standard urban amenities existed as well:  water, sanitation, refuse, recycling and like the more progressive cities of America, composting.  I did not envy the volunteers who bent over plastic bottles, separating the recyclable from the chaff, in exchange for free entry.  Perhaps this was my “tent city” moment, but I’d rather suck up the expense of a festival pass than spend days in the hot sun separating plastics in exchange for a few shows.  Call me what you will, but don’t call me to the recycling heaps.  That being said, thank you to those who did make the festival a greener place to live, especially the volunteer who jammed to My Morning Jacket while monitoring the trash/recycling/composting station (I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I think he may have also been eating the salvageable compost finds.  The salute stands).

What does the Bonnaroo village known as Centeroo contain?  Anything and everything and way more than I could even take advantage of!  First of all, it has landmarks, which are useful when orientation disorients- a large cuckoo clock, a Ferris wheel, sculptures and structures such as the Victory Garden.  There are “roads” lined with food vendors, and I’m not talking about the average festival fares [ie:  shitty hotdogs and funnel cakes].  There were wood-fired pizza ovens, artisan beers, an array of ethnic foods and meals containing vegetables that were still recognizable as vegetables!  I even consumed brown rice.  BROWN rice!  Additionally, there was the “Food Truck Oasis,” offering an array of trendy, mobile, gourmet foods.

Most of the Centeroo roads lead to the 20-foot, lit, central fountain.  The ability to drench oneself prior to a stretch of concerts, or in the least, drench a bandana to wrap around the neck, was invaluable.  This cooling method was a brilliant idea until day three or four when the water distinctly smelled like urine.  Heat, sweat and dust became all the more tolerable at that point.

Speaking of urine, because how often does that transition arise, Centeroo had its share of porta potty stations, and as far as porta potties go, I’d say these were just fine but maybe too few in number.  There was still what I will call “The Bonnaroo Cunundrum”- needing to hydrate while simultaneously not wanting to pee.  Heather made the most amusing, “I can’t touch anything until I touch hand sanitizer” departure from every porta potty she used.  Sandra also hypothesized we would all find solace in the first grimy gas station bathroom we’d find post Bonnaroo.

Confirmation came on my drive home in an especially creepy Ohio bathroom situation (who sends a lone female to the bathroom in the back exterior of the gas station only to find some man awkwardly waiting for her to finish using the facility?  Who?!?).  Lastly, there was the “Bonnaroo Mirage.”  One morning, we trekked through an empty field to a row of relatively untouched port potties beyond our campsite.  The next morning, we made the same trek only to arrive at an empty field.  The porta potties were gone.  Had we imagined them all along?

The Bonnaroo planners either were inebriated themselves or thought they were playing a funny joke on the soon-to-be inebriated festival goers when they named the stages:  What Stage, Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent and The Other Tent.  The cuteness of this gimmick lasted about 30 minutes, with only a fraction of that thirty minutes actually spent thinking about stages.  The stages!  Our Bonnaroo raison d’etre!

It’s Not Just Music, It’s More!

Between the confusing stage names, the overwhelming number of bands and the carefully calculated concert combinations, our repeated consultations to the dense schedule left the paper nearly in tatters.  Inevitably, there were some amazing shows that had to be sacrificed, some that had to be cut short and others I will remember forever.  Forever!

I could give a snarky, self-important review of the shows I saw, but it’s not my music review style (despite my typical abundance of snark).  Instead, I offer why I really found Bonnaroo to be about much more than music.  The music recalled so many phases of my life over the past ten years:  the ridiculous, the bad, the good and the sleep deprived.  These were the soundtracks to significant portions of my personal development.  There I was in a Tennessee field, singing along to those significant songs, with the other thousands of sweaty, dusty, dehydrated festival goers.  I have known nothing like it.

Highlights According to the Chronology of my Life…
The Ridiculous, The Sleep Deprived, The Bad, The Good

Eminem:  My Ridiculous Days

The last I really recall of Eminem was dancing in my friend’s car as “Slim Shady” went round the outside, and we went to homeroom.  Then I fell off the bandwagon.  However, he’s Eminem!  You have to see Eminem if he’s right there.  By “right there,” I mean distance made him about the size of my pinky finger.  Thousands of people separated the Marshall Mathers from me, which was comforting when his soundtrack opened with an all too realistic gunshot sound jolting the audience to attention.

The Eminem crowd must have emerged from the woodwork, if there is woodwork at Bonnaroo; the demographic had shifted so drastically.  We had to push our way through a lot of white trash to get to a reasonable viewing point, and I’m not talking about [ready for it?  Bad joke in 5, 4, 3, 2…] the white colored debris on the ground (ok, so maybe some snark in this review).  The Bonnaroo website put the total attendance count at 85,000, and it felt like allllllll 85,000 Bonnaroo wristbands were waving in the air at that show.  Were all those 85,000 wristbands waving because they truly related to the lyrics?  Doubtful, but it was entertaining when I was passing a girl singing along to the following lyrics while waving her hand (and booty?) at her (presumably) boyfriend…

“.. I said you don’t, wanna fuck with Shady (cause why?)
Cause Shady, will fuckin kill you (ah-haha)”

How romantic.

This is part of the fun (?) of the Eminem show?  Of course, we don’t all relate to a crazed fan or a crazed mother or a crazed girlfriend.  Eminem didn’t capture and express a deep sentiment of mine.  Instead, he reminded me of my own ridiculousness when his music was more a part of my life:  the dancing in the car, the drive to some silly homecoming game, the “debates” with our tennis coach over “good” music (boy, were we so generally mistaken then), the initial shock of something so crude to me at the time, etc.

Eminem’s show came at the late night, midpoint of a heavy line up of concerts, and about half way through his show, I thought, “this is it.  I’m done.  I can’t make it.” Right about then, at that moment of intense fatigue, he unleashed a medley that led me right to high school again and reinvigorated me.  In an instant, my tired, inner grumblings were dancing around with two of my best friends and quite possibly,every single Bonnaroo attendee.    Thank you for that Marshall Mathers, thank you for that!

The Arcade Fire:  My Sleep Deprived Days

Tall, skinny Tommy, the painter.  He was the first boy to truly break my heart, and incidentally, the first to introduce me to The Arcade Fire.  He gave me Funeral as a Christmas present, and I listened to it over and over and over again for two reasons:

1.  He gave it to me and
2.  It was a perfect album.
3.  It had been a while since I had owned an album, and I was drawn to the tangible, art of the entire package.

At the time of my obsessive listening, I was in architecture school.  To this day, I count it as one of the most difficult challenges I have faced; both because of the actual pressures and because of the intense pressures I put on myself.  There were many sleepless nights spent in studio, some fun, some stressful, some seemingly never ending, some racing against deadlines, some so insanely exhausting.  In that time, I broke myself down so thoroughly and slowly saw who I really was, where I came from and how I needed to change.  It was impossible and necessary and doable and negative and positive and … sleepless.  It was in those moments when the song “Rebellion (Lies)” really resonated.

Sleeping is giving in,
no matter what the time is.
Sleeping is giving in,
so lift those heavy eyelids.

People say that you’ll die
faster than without water.
But we know it’s just a lie,
scare your son, scare your daughter.

People say that your dreams
are the only things that save ya.
Come on baby in our dreams,
we can live on misbehavior.

Every time you close your eyes
Lies, lies!

If I had to pick one solitary experience from Bonnaroo and one solitary experience only, it would be the finale of the Arcade Fire show.  We were in an immense crowd, but their devotion and true dedication to each and every one of us in the audience compressed the crowd into what felt like a small room of friends.  As the lead singer pressed his palms together and closed his eyes so tightly, I knew we were both attempting to stay in that moment as long as possible.

Maybe because the one who left me hadn’t bestowed the subsequent two albums upon me, but Funeral impacted me far more than the others.  I hadn’t connected at all to Neon Bible, and I was only half-heartedly appreciating Suburbs prior to the festival.  However, the show breathed new life into everything I had ever heard from them, changing how I would listen to them after the festival.  Nonetheless, I still felt more connected to the show during the Funeral songs.

When the familiar notes of “Rebellion (Lies)” emerged from “Power Out,” my festival was complete.  I looked at Sandra, and she was in disbelief as well.  Apparently, we had both found comfort in that song during our sleepless nights.  As the notes played, the three of us counted amongst the tens of thousands who were arguably part of one of the most memorable finales of the festival!  I hadn’t expected my “if I had to pick only one” moment to come during this show, but as that “last song” became even one more encore performance, the music, the moment and the hands waving in the air felt nearly spiritual.  We were connected to such sincerity, such honest intention, and it truly felt like more than music.  It continues to give me chills.

Mumford & Sons:  The Bad

Reasons 4, 5, 6, 8 for going to Bonnaroo were Mumford & Sons.  I recently realized what I would have described as my “passionate” side is actually a strong indication of an “addictive” personality.  Part of that realization stemmed from the number of times I listened to the Mumford & Sons album.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I was only listening to them, or only intentionally listening to them (I can’t, after all, control all the ambient music around me) with a few minor exceptions when I tried to prove I was a normal human being with normal music inclinations.  Unfortunately, I have to doubt that to be the case.

I first came to M&S via my obsessive listening of Laura Marling.  I was so caught in her precocious wisdom, I nearly missed what M&S had to offer to my playlists.  It was when Heather first began mentioning Bonnaroo and listed M&S as one of the bands she wanted to see that I finally, truly listened to them.  It probably took one attentive listening before I was hooked, and oh how hard I was hooked.

I couldn’t argue against the passion they gave to each and every song, each and every time they performed them (at that point, I was combing through youTube for any and all videos).  I am a big believer in experience and honesty coupled with questioning/curiosity as the basis of strong artistic expression (without entering into a full fledged “what is art” or “what is ‘good’ art?” debate).  In that arena, Mumford and Sons appeared experienced beyond their years.

The time I found them coincided with a time when I was questioning a lot about love and my connection to another human being.  I literally shed tears listening to the album.  Probably by my fortieth listen of Sigh No More, I knew I had to make a change, as romanticized as that may sound.

Love it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be
There is a design, an alignment, a cry
Of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be

I wasn’t feeling free, nor was I feeling like the person I was meant to be.  I wasn’t feeling like he was free or the man he was meant to be.  It wasn’t the song that pushed me to make a final decision, but it made me take a cold, hard look at myself.  Subsequently, I felt more of the lyrics from Little Lion Man.  Two sides had been at fault for a while, but I realized I had inadvertently and cruelly crushed someone.

But it was not your fault but mine
And it was your heart on the line
I really fucked it up this time
Didn’t I, my dear?
Didn’t I, my…

I had turned a page in my life, and the questions of White Blank Page became more relevant.  Would these words be true of the next person to hold my heart and hand?

Can you lie next to her and give her your heart, your heart?
As well as your body, and can you lie next to her and confess your love, your love?
As well as your folly and can you kneel before the king and say ‘I’m clean’, ‘I’m Clean’?

I found so much personal meaning in each song, and I also respected how much meaning the band brought to their work.  Their show was a top priority, and it was no small feat that we made it as close as we did, and as a bonus, had our little blip on the big screen.

Dear Mumford & Sons,

Singing along with you made my Bonnaroo experience complete.  Your finale rendition of “Amazing Grace” with various musicians including Old Crow Medicine Show exemplified what a live show should be:  fun, passionate, beautiful, energizing, so on and so forth.  I aspire to Country Winston’s wild faux hawk/mullet, and Ben Lovett exuded more zeal for his accordion playing than I have ever seen pressed into bellows and keys.  Also, it was a bit surprising that Ron Jeremy counted among the fans on your stage, but why not?!?

Thank you!

Florence and the Machine:  The Good

For all the sad transitions Mumford & Sons may have represented or recalled in my life prior to Bonnaroo, Florence and the Machine fully captured the happiness I unexpectedly found shortly thereafter.

Happiness, hit her like a train on a track
Coming towards her, stuck still no turning back
She hid around corners and she hid under beds
She killed it with kisses and from it she fled
With every bubble she sank with a drink
And washed it away down the kitchen sink

The dog days are over
The dog days are done
The horses are coming
So you better run

As my happiness bordered on bursting, my heart nearly beat out of my body, forming a nearly audible percussion accompaniment to the developing chapter of my life.

There’s a drumming noise inside my head
That starts when you’re around
I swear that you could hear it
It makes such an all mighty sound

There’s a drumming noise inside my head
That throws me to the ground
I swear that you should hear it
It makes such an all mighty sound

Louder than sirens
Louder than bells
Sweeter than heaven
And hotter than hell

I ran to the tower where the church bells chime
I hoped that they would clear my mind
They left a ringing in my ear
But that drum’s still beating loud and clear

The firery Florence describes music as this, “It’s something overwhelming and all-encompassing that fills you up, and you’re either going to explode with it, or you’re just going to disappear.”  While standing on the sand pit surrounding her stage, tipping on my toes and straining to see the wing like, black, Gothic ensemble take flight in song, I venture I was closer to the disappearance side of the spectrum.  Her voice belongs in an abandoned, stone ruin in which her ever-growing vocals would fill the caverns and reverberate as her body took rhythmic flight.  She could float above the gray stones of an old cemetery in which the names have been etched away by the years and neglect.  She could be the dewy morning of a sun kissed meadow.  She is otherworldly and magical.


There was so much more:  blue lights floating from paragliders (?) parachuters (?) in the sky, crowds spontaneously singing together while herding between shows, the intense, sweltering heat of a tent at 8am, the Harikrishnah chants, the giant hula hoop, the overall people watching extravaganza….  There was so much more, but I conclude with this.  Bonnaroo was the best it could have possibly been (aside from an all access pass to every stage?!?!), but I will leave it on this high note.  With all the festivals of this world, I doubt I will return to that field in Manchester, but someone else should definitely go in my stead.

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