CAKE IS FUN
John McCrea is a funny guy. He sort of looks like H. Jon Benjamin, so if you associate that face with comedy, then he’s even funnier. Highlights include dividing the crowd into teams and not being afraid to run down the less enthusiastic side and tangents about escapism and Abraham Lincoln. Best banter of the festival, definitely.
But the music! Cake comes off as an ideal mid-level festival band. They create fun, danceable, middle-of-the-road music and they have radio hits that have become part of our DNA that take on serious crowd pleasing potential.
DAMON ALBARN BROUGHT ALL HIS FRIENDS
One of the top three shows I saw was Damon Albarn. Early on in his set, he made a comment about being happy to be there and Bonnaroo having the most similarities to Glastonbury, the marquee festival in the UK. Maybe that’s why he brought out all the stops — he played a lot of great songs from his latest solo album, Everyday Robots, but he knew the way to set the place on fire was through his Gorillaz hits. Not only that, he flew in De La Soul and Del The Funky Homosapien for their verses on “Feel Good Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood” respectively.
So that was wild, and everyone’s heads exploded, and his songs are great. It’s what is expected of you during festivals. But he wasn’t afraid to bring it down to atypical festival songs, like the long piano ballad, or rousing slow builders with a full brass line. Albarn’s coolness is multifaceted and the type of songs he writes have the feeling of incipient classics. Or at least, that’s what was in the air that afternoon.
JAMES BLAKE TRIP
James Blake ends his set with “The Wilhelm Scream,” which is my, and everyone else’s, favorite James Blake song. I was sitting in the dirt, far behind the tent, feeling the tingling joy creep up my arms and the warmth of a body high every time the chorus would ramp up. It’s a wallowing, hopeless song, but in my mood emotion had nothing to do with how the song felt.
I didn’t even need to look at anything. I buried my head in my arms and just let whatever happen, happen. Halfway through the song, the tension kicks up in subtle ways, and my mind would latch onto it. It was thrilling. As the chorus would build to its climax, I would suddenly hear the world — the distant conversations became deafeningly loud and I could perceive a dozen of them at once. It was like the scene in Superman Returns where he floats above the Earth and just listens. And it would happen at the peak of every chorus.
I was into it.
CAPITAL CITIES VS. OKKERVIL RIVER
One of this is a pop dance band with a great trumpet and the other is a word-heavy folk rock band. One is indicative of where mainstream festivals are today, and the other is closer to Bonnaroo’s hippie origins. They played at the same time; I’m a massive Okkervil River fan, and for that reason, I thought it would be forgivable to skip them for mindless pop indulgences that I would likely never go out of my way to see again.
Capital Cities was nice. The trumpet is a vital part of their band, as it opens up their songs and gives them a secret ingredient that differentiates them from other dance bands. They ended by premiering a remix of “Safe and Sound,” just letting it play and walking off stage. We walked on to Okkervil River and found them closing with an amped-up, dramatic rendition of “Unless It’s Kicks.” Further evidence that at festivals, you have to bring out the big sound and high excitement. Got to give the people, give the people what they want.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
Sunday, the last day of the festival, was a tough, tough day. There was a general sadness about it coming to a close, but few of us even had the energy to make the most of it. When I say “us,” I mean nearly everyone I saw zombie shuffling their way to stages or napping on their feet. The one-two punch of Friday & Saturday’s endless party left us dragging what was left of us to shows.
You could see it in the way most people resigned to be far from stages as long as if they had some ground to lie down on. No one seemed to be jockeying for position. A few people set up hammocks on the pillars of the tents. We “watched” Little Dragon, Washed Out and Warpaint, but we were so wiped out and shattered that it was more like a distant listening. That’s okay. A band like Washed Out isn’t one that I feel is enhanced by watching him play the keys. It’s low resistance chillwave. I can enjoy it leaning against a fence with my eyes closed.
Elton John knocked out “Rocketman” a little before the halfway point of his set. In fact, he had knocked out all the big ones before the first hour. “Tiny Dancer,” “Bennie and the Jets,” all of it ran through. The crowd was great — singing along to the iconic hits, but, again, exhausted. One guy was propped up against trash bins with a glowstick in hand, deep in slumber, mouth hanging open. Most people took to napping on blankets, and really, how often do you get to listen to Elton John play live while relaxing?
It seemed like the entire festival was present to give their ridiculous weekend a proper send-off, whether they were a big fan of Elt-J or not. It wasn’t one final rager, and it shouldn’t be, but a chance to decompress and just fucking relax for once. It felt more like a festival — we were all in one place, talking and enjoying beer. We weren’t so much intently hanging on every word as we were enjoying the atmosphere his songs created.
There were Chinese lanterns released into the sky. Ben Folds came out for a duet where they both played songs with a million keys. Elton John is such a refined and practiced performer that the whole show took on the exacting meticulousness of a concert DVD. At the end, there were fireworks.
Shuffling back to the campgrounds, we were greeted by Bonnaroo chants, spontaneous yelling and spontaneous dance parties. A group of Canadians near my camp brought out a boom box and invited people to join them. I did, but only with low-impact dance moves because I couldn’t will my legs to do anything.
We took one final stroll around the campgrounds, which went for miles. One group was doing tricks on a full-sized trampoline. A band had set up to jam at an impromptu stage in the marketplace. Another vendor had turned their psychadelic art into one last electronic dance floor. These were small post-Roo triumphs, but it revealed to me a lot about what this was all about.
THE BONNAROO IDEA
There’s a lot of cynicism, some of it earned, about the nature of music festivals. At their worst, they’re places for teens to brag about doing drugs for the first time while instagramming pictures of bands they won’t care about in a month. At their best, they’re what Bonnaroo strives to be. They don’t always reach it in every facet, but the intention is there.
People go to Coachella because they’re excited to see bands that they like. That’s true of Roo too, but there’s a tangible sense that that’s only half the appeal. The other half is spending time with other people that like to go to Bonnaroo. Maybe it has to do with its hippie roots, but the sense of community and identity is defining. It’s why they’re still mad at Kanye. He disrespected a thing they identify with, not just a place they go to.
That’s why people build totems, that’s why Friday night is costume night, that’s why people are making art all over the festival instead of just taking pictures with it. One of my neighbors were longtime Bonnaroovians (That’s another thing — there’s a name for their group. Other festivals don’t have a name for their group.) and the first thing they promoted about the festival was the community. “It’s a place where you could find people just as weird and as crazy and as enthusiastic about art as you are,” they said. “Even if you end up face down in a puddle, the great thing about Bonnaroo is that someone will be there to pick you up and pull you out of it.”
Obviously, some of that is hype, and that kind of virtuous community is unsustainable when you have thousands of individuals with their own motives, histories and experiences. It’s not realistic to expect everyone there to be good apples. Certainly, the fest’s mainstream status threatens that, as does the influx of people like me, who aren’t even compelled to listen to a Phish album. But the idea is there, the mission statement of “radiate positivity” is apparent, and that makes a huge difference. Maybe Bonnaroo doesn’t always reach to meet those high ideals, but all other festivals should reach to meet Bonnaroo.
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.