by Andrew Swartz, published July 6th 2011
photos by Andrew Swartz
Hipsters beware. Bonnaroo is no longer fair game. This has gotten way out of hand, and something needs to be done. 86,000 people? Headliners including Lil Wayne and Eminem? Tickets priced well over $250? What the hell is happening to the once sacred Bonnaroo that was practically untouched by any human with the smallest iota of respect for personal hygiene? I know it’s sad, but those days are long gone. There were a few times that I honestly wanted to leave the festival this year; whether it was because of the overbearing sun or lingering dust, I do not know. But, I can assure you there is still plenty to enjoy.
Bonnaroo sits on a 700-acre farm in bo-dunk Manchester, Tennessee. The place is vast. There are helicopters to transport VIPs (I’m not talking about the VIP ticket holders ‘ they’re not that important). There are golf-cart-cabs to drive people to and from their campsites. The place can fit 86,000 people with their cars and camping equipment. It has it’s own ZIP code. This leads to a serious problem. With 700 acres of total space and only a sliver of that preserved for stages, campers have some substantial ground to cover to reach the stages from their cars. My personal commute was around 40 minutes one way. This isn’t exactly a pleasant walk either. There was an inescapable cloud of dust lingering over the farm for the entirety of the festival, which made breathing a problem during the commute. Cars were like cakes, iced by the dust, and snot was turned black like we had spent the month in Beijing. In addition to the dust bowl, we didn’t see any rain, but 90+ degrees every day. This was endurable, however, for a muddy weekend would have been much worse. The walk was also tolerable, depending partially on one’s sobriety, but a hassle nonetheless.
Once inside the gates of Centeroo (where the music is held), festival-goers are greeted with countless food vendors, dust, music, a fountain, a Ferris wheel, a water slide, what stages, which stages, and tents (big ones) where smaller acts can be seen. There are multiple official Bonnaroo merchandise vendors throughout Centeroo, whom, to my girlfriend’s dismay, ran out of all shirts under large within the first day or so. Aside from the lack of Bonnaroo swag (which probably saved me some money), everything else was great. There are several places to fill up water, the food was outstanding, and the atmosphere, above all, was friendly. Most importantly however, is the music.
Starting at noon and ending in the late A.M., the music is phenomenal. The fact that Bonnaroo provides attendees a chance to see bands like the Strokes, Robert Plant, Iron and Wine, Beirut, and Explosions in the Sky all on the same day is remarkable. It’s what brings 86,000 people to the middle of Tennessee in the sweltering June heat. One band at this year’s festival that I cannot stop talking about is Brooklyn’s Twin Shadow.
George Lewis Jr., otherwise known as Twin Shadow, showed attendees why he deserved to be at Bonnaroo only five years after spawning Twin Shadow. His ’80s influenced electro style would seem clichÃ© to anyone simply reading a description of his sound, but in person it is absolutely astonishing. It is unique in many ways ‘ his voice is haunting, with tone reminiscent of Michael Stipe but smoother and less hopeful. The up-beat on pretty much every song helped keep the crowd on their feet dancing and following every word escaping Lewis’ mouth. Although his set was scheduled at the same time as Sleigh Bells, the crowd was still overflowing the tent, tentatively watching the stellar performance. In addition to Lewis’ own genius, his touring band was flawless, especially the drummer. They will be coming to Boston on October 6th and are sure to put on an unforgettable show.
Other noteworthy performers include The Strokes, who showed up late to their set because they were busy watching Beirut, The Low Anthem, who treated us to a song with Cellist Ben Sollee, My Morning Jacket, who played a dominant 2 hour set, and Girl Talk. The last was my favorite show of the festival, and possibly the greatest concert moment of my life.
We camped out next to the barricade before Girl Talk’s set because he has been known to bring fans onstage to dance around him. Sure enough, we were given passes to dance onstage. We anxiously waited throughout Scissor Sisters’ set and eventually made our way to an entrance on the side of the stage. Before my friends and I could comprehend the situation, we sprinted onstage, jumping and dancing like overly excited children. There were balloons and confetti aplenty, and the crowd, moving like waves, seemed to go on past the horizon. Around 5 songs into the set, I saw a heavy-set man with long hair and a moustache walk behind me. I turned around, and to my surprise, Ron Jeremy (yes, the porn star) was grabbing Girl Talk’s back, trying to get his attention. I was denied a high-five, which, in retrospect, was probably a good thing for sanitary reasons. Security then pulled Ron off of the stage and the show went on. Although we ended up missing Gogol Bordello’s set in the adjacent tent, I can confidently say I made the right decision. It was truly an experience that I will never forget.
My experience regarding Girl Talk proved to be only one in a conglomerate of anecdotes from the weekend, including an up close view of Weezy and a trip to a foam replica of Stonehenge. Bonnaroo is a magical place. The people, for the most part, are welcoming and kind, and are glad to help in any way possible. The music is the best the world has to offer, all in one spot. The place has its own energy; energy that makes you believe that you are experiencing something truly special, something that cannot be found easily at a rock club or open amphitheater. Simply put, bands seem to be more ‘into it’ at Bonnaroo.
Although the heat and dust are intense enough to exasperate even the veterans of the festival, there are few festivals that come close to Bonnaroo in regards to music, atmosphere, and old-fashioned fun.
We were watching the Strokes shred on the Which Stage on Sunday evening, and my friend said something that will stick with me for a while. ‘These bands are here for us. Do you understand how lucky we are? We get to witness these guys make music right in front of our eyes. They are making music for us. All of these bands. Playing their songs just for us.’ That is what makes me battle through the heat and dust and grime: to experience something that may not be underground or undisclosed, but something that is still extraordinary.