Well folks, we did it again… and we had a blast! While the sensory overload that goes into conquering an entire weekend of the best music, food, art and education in the world sounds simple enough, it doesn’t come without complications. With the passing of two close friends, the birth of a new one and a monumental family reunion (Happy 90th Grandma Jean!) that I was missing out on, it was going to be tough to wrap my head around this year’s Bonnaroo experience. There’s nothing like a heaping helping of the human condition to re-illustrate the old “live in the moment” model for life. If you recall, it is what originally brought me to this monster fest in the first place.
After all these years, it’s still a little tricky to shake that last bit of reality and make the transition from real world to ‘Roo world, but once you actually slap on the sunscreen and hear that first beer crack open at 9 a.m., you know you’ve arrived and the fest is in full swing. To start us off right, I fired up some bacon quesadillas (and a veggie burger for Kerry). Apart from a small grease fire, it turned out to be a good first meal, but was nothing compared to what we were privy to later in the guest area. It was there we met up with fellow AG photographer Joshua Brasted and my buddy Shaggy, who was on deck to boil 700 pounds of crawfish for the media/guest compounds. Now that’s how you start a festival NOLA style! We did our best to teach the uninitiated how to “pinch the tails and suck the heads.” It was hard to pull us away from this king’s feast and actually see some music that night but we found time to sit in a field, full-bellied, and catch a portion of Japandroids blasting out a killer rock set. The Canadian rock’n’roll duo wowed into the night while Purity Ring and Alt-J rounded out what was probably the strongest opening in the festival’s 12-year history.
Our second day started early, with another serving of NOLA flavor— ”What’s up Bonnaroo! My name is Trombone Shorty and I come all the way from the great city of New Orleans!” He strode out onto the main stage to an eager crowd, which he then proceeded to slay. So much rock, and yet so much soul! Not even the biggest stage in the world could shake the confident swagger displayed that day. From there, we moved on to Calexico. After a soggy set at Jazz Fest this year, I was looking forward to seeing these guys under a tent, amidst a cool breeze… and that’s just what the gods dialed up for the day. The Southwestern rockers seized the pristine conditions and turned the venue into a salsa dance party; but my favorite part was hearing their energetic cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or.” They would later end up on the big stage jamming some tunes with Wilco.
If we were going to be fresh for the evening shows, we were going to need a well-deserved break, which was a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with our camp neighbors (shout-out to Will and Molly’s Kentucky crew!), who gave us the lowdown on the Amish donut. “GET THE AMISH DONUT!” On that cool, clear night, Sir Paul McCartney played one of the most iconic shows I’ve ever seen in my life. If you’ve ever been a fan of the man, you were a happy camper that night. The guy is 71 years old and is still the hippest, most charismatic and hilarious rock’n’roller alive. He started with “Eight Days A Week” and filled the rest of his three hour set with songs and stories that spanned his entire career. This was huge! This was a Beatle! Among the hits that included “Let it Be,” “Blackbird,” “Helter Skelter” and “Hey Jude,” Sir Paul graced us with “Here Today,” a quiet song about his buddy John Lennon and “the conversation they never had.” It was a pretty emotional moment and an amazing feat to silence a crowd of 70,000 with a song so honest. Without skipping a beat, he slipped right into “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Maybe, Paul? Uh, absolutely! He closed out with a firework display fit for a king—blowing the back out of the main stage in the wake of choruses to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Live and Let Die.”
I was trying to make it out to see the late night Animal Collective show when I found myself passed out in a chair at the camp. Somehow, I was convinced that I was already at the show when I was jolted awake at 3 a.m., missing the first half of the set. I scraped myself together and booked it out there with the rest of the walking dead, but I couldn’t trick my broken body into keeping me up much longer.
After a 16-hour day and thinking you’ve beaten the experience, you reach for your schedule and realize you are doing it all again today. With a hot cup of “sleep when you’re dead” mentality and an armful of morning AG newspapers for the campers, I headed out to my first press conference of the weekend. It was to feature a special performance from Portugal. The Man who arrived only hours before. The stripped down set, for an audience of about 30, went over well and sounded great, but I don’t think I fully grasped the scope of the intimacy until soaking in their big stage set that hosted about 20,000.
To fill the rest of my day, I juggled a medley of standout acts. Dirty Projectors dazzled with sweet harmonies, while Weird Al Yankovic (complete with costume changes) played through “Smells Like Nirvana” and lived out his “Amish Paradise.” Nas reached all the way back to Illmatic and, with jubilated disbelief, celebrated his love for his daughter on her 19th birthday. I even caught a little bit of R. Kelly ripping through “Ignition.” He proved why he is still one of R&B’s smoothest male vocalists and I have to admit, releasing hundreds of inflatable white doves at the crest of “I Believe I Can Fly” was a pretty sweet touch.
With the sun fading and the breeze cooling, I knew it was time to honor my appointment with Björk! Those of you who know me can attest to the weight that this show would carry for me. An unusually thin crowd gave way to front and center viewing. This was it! We finally made it and a lifetime’s worth of anticipation was killing me! Surrounded by a live drummer, a production programmer and a female choir who doubled as backup dancers, the queen presented herself in a mask and dress that radiated femalien royalty. Her sea urchin- themed get-up matched the animated videos that played perfectly in tandem with the setting sun. And when the sun finally disappeared, she turned the stage into a dance club with “Náttúra.” She requested that no photos or videos be taken during the show and encouraged undivided participation. The set list weighed heavily on songs and themes from Biophilia, but also peppered in favorites like “Hidden Place,” “Hunter,” “Jóga,” “One Day” and “Bachelorette.” The drum and bass production on “Hyperballad” swallowed me whole and in that moment, nothing else mattered. Repeated shivers down my back told me loud and clear: this was the highlight of my weekend!
I was determined to finish this thing strong, but having survived what is already a physical and mental whirlwind thus far, how do you begin to muster a third wind? For starters, I sat in on an
air-conditioned press conference that featured members of The National, Divine Fits, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Bob Saget. Bob talked about his bipolar fame of “TV dad versus raunchy comic.” “I’m tripping right now!” he proclaimed. Afterwards, I got to meet and take a picture with him. He was a really nice guy and even cracked a joke with me! From there, I dragged myself from stage to tent and back again to see everything from A$AP Rocky and Tame Impala to Kendrick Lamar and The National. My much-needed shot of adrenaline finally came in the form of the always colorful David Byrne and St. Vincent. Byrne was as animated as ever and both are just natural-born performers. As they banged out Talking Heads classics like “Wild Wild Life” and Annie Clark’s smoldering “Cheerleader,” they flaunted choreographed dances that literally revolved around their extensive brass section. It was so perfectly theatrical that you could almost see them becoming characters in their own play production. Just as I predicted in last month’s preview, “Burning Down the House” immediately followed Clark’s “Cruel.” Both were glorious and all I could do was turn into a puddle of silly grins when I saw my ‘Roo intuition, once again, unfolding right in front of me. Sunday’s closer was none other than Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This would be their second Bonnaroo appearance and my third time seeing the classic rockers.
What can you say that their career hasn’t said already? When you go see Tom Petty, it’s always going to sound amazing and he’s going to cram about 25 hits into a two- to-three hour set. This time would be no different, and I never get tired of hearing “Don’t Come Around Here No More” or “Free Falling.” In typical Bonnaroo fashion came the Sunday night drizzle, so we decided to call it an evening and enjoy the rest of the set from our campsite. Every year it seems to rain on that last night and into the next morning, which makes for a slightly messy breakdown and pack-up. It’s almost as if the rain is absolving those last remaining bits of ‘Roo. But it’s not until you wake up to the echoes of soon-to-be drivers offering to shed the last of their weekend stash, or until you take down that last soggy tapestry, that you know— it is done and it’s time to get back to the realities of our human condition.