The hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of young Americans grew to a feverish pitch yesterday with the opening of the 10th Annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. If you’ve not yet heard of this festival on steroids then perhaps one of American music’s finest institutions just hasn’t made its way into your head. But to the sold out, record setting crowd of somewhere about 80,000, the countless new experiences on their minds; together exciting, and anticipated for months, was finally here and happening.
Bonnaroo takes place in southeastern Tennessee about an hour southeast of Nashville. Did I mention this is June? In Tennessee? So one thing about Bonnaroo is that it is usually an experience in sweat management and 2011’s edition is no different. A festival of this magnitude, with tens upon tens of thousands of people, takes serious organization in every aspect. With over 600 acres carved up into six dozen plus different campgrounds with names highlighted from some the Y Generation’s favorite iconic movies & TV; some as diverse as Camp Stewie Griffin, Camp Mitch Kramer and Camp Cleo McDowell (referencing Coming to America) and who can forget Camp Han Solo?
You could say some of these items don’t matter. “Tell me about the music at the festival,” you say. However, Bonnaroo is not simply a “music festival.” It is fantastically organized, yet balanced, in a chaotic display of sociology’s greatest wonder: human interaction with its environment. To simply write about the bands on stages and what their music sounded like would be a gross misrepresentation of what the Bonnaroo experience really is.
With most of the crowd in the 20-something demographic, they possess the stamina necessary to endure over 60-minute walks to the main concert bowl from their campsites; endless looping inside the 200+ acre concert bowl making their way at any one time to one of 12 stages; to the endless oppression of Tennessee sun plus humidity plus dust; this festival is really an exercise in survival of the fittest. All while imbibing and enjoying the atmosphere that they’d waited so long for.
Now, in regards to the music: This writer has not experienced such mega-diversity at any single event ever. The sheer breadth of styles and depth of variety is, like many other parts of this event, sometimes overwhelming. While many festival goers are attracted to their favorite acts, I am working on making a point to branch out and catch the song-based offerings of artists I have never heard, normally would never see, or even have knowledge about if it not were for the musical blender known as Bonnaroo.
This cornucopia of artists perform on stages called What Stage & Which Stage (for the AAA level, national headliners), then there’s This Tent, That Tent and The Other Tent (for nationally known, but not as huge artists), and then another stack of smaller stages and “lounges”: Sonic Stage, Solar Stage, On Tap Lounge, Comedy Theater, & even a Silent Disco. Yes, there is no sound emanating from the Silent Disco: eager fans wait in a long line at all hours of the day to don wireless headphones to dance to the vibes spun by the scheduled DJ. This is quite a site to see! Writhing bodies slithering and funking it out — all somewhat bobbing and yelping in rhythm — to the bystander not hearing any music. This is an amusing display of humanity.
The rush to get to the festival site, secure media credentials and actually make it into the grounds with the music — favorably referred to as “Centeroo” — was quite an operation in and of itself. Upon entrance, my legs gravitated to the first early set of music I was able to catch which was the Kalamazoo-based Greensky Bluegrass. [full disclosure: this writer does work with this group] Their set was one of the first 3-4 performances of the weekend. With the campers arriving as early as Wednesday night, some campers were on-site waiting for music for nearly 24 hours. The audience was notably hungry for Greensky Bluegrass’s offering and the exchange of energy was apparent before, during and after each song.
Greensky took that energy and ran with it full steam keeping the packed crowd dancing in the midday swelter. Thankfully some clouds rolled in mid-set and brought the temperatures down at least 10 degrees. Their crafty songs, newgrass approach and intense instrumental prowess made them a lot of new fans in the show hour long show.
Honestly, there was so much going on in the melding heat that I decided to make a quick loop to the other stages to see what was happening, but couldn’t focus to stay very long.
I caught some of Freelance Whales and really liked what I heard. They had a very packed set at That Tent with their offering of layered textural rhythms and interlocking grooves with semi-pop hooks. I had trouble grasping each song’s depth, but liked what I heard. Perhaps that is because I couldn’t see the band and there was 98 degree heat and sun bearing down. So you, reader, can try to get an idea of the actual experience — while the festival has music at its core — I feel like I want to share some of the other dimensions of this epic event.
One of my highlights of the evening was backstage in the artist compound, a place that 99.9% of Bonnaroovians will never see because of lack of access. I feel very privileged to have met esteemed music photographer Danny Clinch. He’s shot numerous covers for Rolling Stone and, hopefully soon, the cover of Ghettoblaster, along with nearly every major performer to make a splash in the industry. Bottom line; he’s an amazing photographer. Additionally, he performs the harmonica with a zeal and enthusiasm I was not expecting.
So, late on Thursday night (which is the only night that the two large main stages, Which & What, were “dark” with no music), the artist area lit up with all sorts of impromptu acoustic music sessions. Clinch has a makeshift studio set up in the artist area where he’ll take photos of various performers. Then at night his area was turned into yet another stage at Bonnaroo. Not one on the official schedule, but one where he could bring in a band he preferred, in this case James Wallace & The Naked Light, to perform.
This end-of-the-evening musical offering was such a pleasant and welcomed surprise to me, and after a busy day in the heat and a few alcoholic beverages, something in my soul prompted me to sit in one of the wooden Adirondack chairs and take it all in. Clinch sat in for a tune raging his bluesy harmonica, bending notes and swirling in with the sounds of Wallace’s nuvo-post-pop-falsettoy-flighty-vocals-but-still-rootsy-enough-to-hit-your-soul music. I was pleased when their friend, banjoist extraordinaire Abigail Washburn, stepped on stage and sang and played tenor banjo. Maybe 100 people were enjoying this concert backstage, and the sheer intimacy and upbeat freak folk they offered made me smile as exhaustion began to set in.
For me, it was a nice, balanced and centered nightcap for the first of four epic-to-be days at Bonnaroo. Lots of words to share, more to come!
PS: If you think I missed any music, you’re right! No matter what you’re doing at Bonnaroo, you’re missing something! Just look at this over-packed schedule of events I have to manage here.