As of this writing, there are 458 music festivals all across the country. I haven’t counted them or anything, but that’s what it feels like when I look at my concert e-mails, tour schedules, and fliers passed out after concerts. In this day and age, we pay less for actual albums, and so our music spending money has transitioned to premiere luxury items: vinyl records, t-shirts, and intense music festival experiences.
With so much competition, it’s hard to stand out of the pack. The big three remain: Coachella in the Southern California desert, Bonnaroo in the Tennessee forest and Lollapalooza in Chicago’s metropolis. As a west coast boy my entire life, I’ve never known the last two. With a killer lineup and a desire for The South, I set my heart — and my wallet — on Manchester, Tennessee, just an hour’s drive from Nashville, the heart of all music.
It was four days of grime, camaraderie, illicit materials, makeshift camping, bathroom strategies, body mashing, sweaty dancing, folk art and music. But what makes Bonnaroo different? These are the episodes that led me to an answer.
I’ve been a Thao stan since 2008. As a budding music journalist, one of the first interviews that made me anxiously excited was an interview with her. Accordingly, the first full set we witnessed was Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. If you’ve never seen Thao, all you need to know is that she is one of the most vibrant, lively performers today. She puts everything into her wild slide guitar solos, infuses fun into the dour-or-bubbly world of modern folk rock, and is just a general joy to watch and dance to.
The two friends I brought along had never seen her before but were converted by the end of the set. I can’t stress enough how great her live show is — it requires no adrenaline rush of mosh pits, or the spectacles of sets and props. It’s just a high energy performance with sick lap steel solos that make you want to play an instrument and dance. Plus, seeing her work in a Ludacris verse never gets old
THE MOST VIOLENT THING I HAVE EVER BEEN APART OF
Going to a Cloud Nothings show is like fighting a hundred people at the same time. This is a show that I adored, but would take a toll on me that would echo through the rest of the day. I started far outside the pit, where I watched the first two songs with other antsy fans. Eventually, we all got fed up with it and someone opened up a periphery, satellite pit. We jumped in, until the two merged into one giant mosh of sweaty joy.
Overanalyzing the character of mosh pits is one of my favorite things to do. In this case, this wasn’t a simple circle of shoving. People were grabbing me by the collar, little girls were throwing flying shoulder tackles into walls of bodies, and at its peak there were something like 5 people crowd-surfing at all times. Someone’s ass landed directly on the top of my head and I somehow swallowed a hair.
As for the band themselves — they’ve already crafted these perfect punk songs with peaks, valleys and hooks they can ride for days. They didn’t have to do much more than play them faithfully. The way a song like “Psychic Trauma” or “Pattern Walks” manipulates the quake of a crowd, as if they were pulling on tectonic plates, is a thing of beauty.
Side story: At some point between songs, the crowds parted and a short kid with glasses came lurching through to the back. “I’m sorry,” he said, and then he paused to throw up in his hands. I don’t know if he took some bad shit or he it was just that wild, but I patted him on the back and used the opening to get closer.
Singing along in a crowd full of sweat and nihilism, all of us sick of something, gave new meaning to the words we shouted together: “I thought I wanted more than this” is suddenly a chant of satisfaction instead of self-disgust. “No future, no past” is a rallying cry of defiance. When the show ended, we all just high-fived each other. It just felt right.
In a masterwork of Bonnaroo booking, that insane full-body-fuck-you Cloud Nothings show was right before a BANKS show. BANKS, the cool, fashionable alt-R&B singer. That means a lot of her fans, hoping to get close, were at the Cloud Nothings show waiting for their turn to move up. In this case, there was a group of clearly displeased girls among the mosh, vomit, and rage. They explained to a guy behind them they were waiting for BANKS and had no idea what they were getting into. We were ruining their lives.
Still, I have to give them credit: they stuck through the whole set. They were soldiers and were rewarded with a tremendous BANKS showing. She let us know it was the first time she had played a night time set at a festival, and you could tell that was a small milestone for her. Watching her cover Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” was a treat.
THE PUSHA T VERSES
I’m pretty sure this was the first hard rap show of the fest and you could tell people were excited. The tent was packed beyond its borders I don’t think the crowd missed a single word when rapping along.
The odd thing is that Pusha T‘s most notable, festival-friendly work is either as a guest feature (Kaney’s “Runaway”), or on one of his songs that features a guest (“Nosetalgia”). So to address this, we got Pusha T rapping like 20% of a song in a medley. He did “Runaway” and “New God Flow” and “Mercy” and all that, but he also cut short songs like “Hold On.” I understand and agree with why he does it — it just felt like a transactional set. Here are the parts that I do that you like. Let’s just do them, get it out of you, and move on to the next one.
Still, people turned it up to 11 for the G.O.O.D. Music version of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like.”
ART FROM THE PEOPLE
Roo is heavy on folk art. Most festivals pay a cool artist to create an eye catching art installation, like, say a flaming metal dragon. Bonnaroo has a little of that too, but for the most part, the art is provided by the people. They invite you to spray paint the walls leading up to the arch, people make funny totems on top of 10 foot poles to carry around, and different camps have themes and flags. Friday night was officially sanctioned as a costume night, but people had been showing up in costume for years.
It’s as if Bonnaroo is a canvas and people are here to paint it.
THE BIG GAMES
One of the small but highly enjoyable things I got to do was watch a few quarters of the NBA Finals. They also showed the world cup but I have no idea what that is. There’s an outdoor Kalliope stage, really just a big DJ podium, that becomes the center of the dance party at night. In the day time, it’s just a platform next to a huge screen, and that huge screen shows the games.
Basketball jerseys were by far the most common sports jersey, probably because it’s weather appropriate, but watching the game with a few hundred Spurs and Heat fans made every play — even in a blowout — a communal event. A crazy Tiago Splitter reverse layup or Manu’s disrespectful jam over Chris Bosh was exponentially more exciting in a Bonnaroo crowd.
I can’t fully engage every single show in this overly stacked festival. It’s just impossible to see everything and really observe it. At best, I could stop by and watch 1 to 3 songs from a distance before moving on to the next stage. With that in mind, these are the weekend’s scattered observations:
- As I walked by, Fitz and the Tantrums said something about Lionel Richie making love to your woman while listening to Lionel Richie.
- Cass McCombs came out in a prisoner’s rights tee, but most notable is that he’s a real, strong full band act. I’d imagined him as a solo guitar dude, but no, he can make “Dream Girl” a laid back rock & roll song.
- I watched some Poliça from a distance and thought it sounded more exciting on recording. :/
- The T-shirt game was silly. Outside of the Bonnaroo shirts, they would have random rotating band shirts every day. Not even the main acts, Ben Folds had shirts there and he was just a special guest.
- Nick Cave was towering over a crowd with an arrogant sneer, singing about being a cocky motherfucker. It looked pretty bad ass.
- Cherub’s crowd was so big that I couldn’t find the exit and gave up. Let me make that clear: I was trying to exit a wide open field.
- Even watching Ice Cube from a distance, you are suddenly ashamed of ever making “Are We There Yet?” jokes.
- The Derek Trucks/Chaka Khan/Andrew Bird/Ben Folds/David Hidalgo SuperJam was clearly there for the older folks and rock & roll purists. It was quaint, but also seemed like a bunch of talented people performing covers they like on a whim. I left at the end of “Tell Me Something Good.”
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.