Bonnaroo 2011: From the other end of the filthy, musical madness
Here’s what happened. After a second full day at the festival (three days in total if you count arriving midday on Thursday), I thought it would be a great idea to check out Eminem.
Yes, I cover folk and roots music for a living, but my taste stretches out a bit farther than that. I’ve long been a Marshall Mathers apologist, not that he needs anyone to apologize for him. He’s apologized for himself more times than I can count. His most recent album, 2010’s Recovery, is a shockingly personal portrayal of what led him to the darkest depths of his life, and what led him out. It’s scary and disgusting and incredible and inspiring. There are lyrics in there that make me almost want to punch someone, and others which restore my faith in humanity. Eminem is an artist to the core. Say what you will about hiphop, rapping as an art form, whatever. The man has never hesitated to go there, to the furthest reaches of his own imagination, to expose the things he wouldn’t dare admit – that none of us dare admit – outside of the music.
I’m not saying I’ve ever wanted to kill my girlfriend and put her in the trunk, but…
But the Dixie Chicks had a huge hit with that sentiment, and somehow Eminem got chastised. I appreciate the Chicks for many of the same reasons as Eminem. But I digress.
There I am at Bonnaroo, ducking into the Eminem show because I’ve seen so much music in the past 48 hours, why not step out of “my genre” for a bit? I even got there a little early, took a stance in front of the mainstage by the pizza vendor. As the show started, the crowd compressed. Like a rubberband that had been stretched too far and then slowly let contract, everyone pushed toward the center. My muscles started to imagine what it would be like for them to be crushed by other people’s muscles. Some other folks seem to have felt it, too. They beelined in front of us, looking for a way out. All the exits were clogged with more bodies. Finally, a man near us lifted up a curtain blocking the pizza tables from the crowd. My companion and I scooted under and found our way out to the haven of the press area backstage.
That night, there were explosions in the sky. I had gone to bed by then, so was awoken by them. It took a few minutes to orient, to put the explosions in my ears together with the flashing colors above my tent. It occurred to me to rush out for the show, but I lay there instead, listening to the bang, watching the colored light bleed through the fabric.
From what I hear, at the same time, Dr. John was leading a second line through the festival grounds. Had I not been going for two days straight, I would have wrested myself from the throes of sweaty, filthy exhaustion to participate. But another full day still stood ahead of me, and I didn’t want to miss the artists I’d chosen for that final hurrah: the Head and the Heart, Mavis Staples, Nicole Atkins, Robyn, Robert Plant & the Band of Joy, the Parkington Sisters, whoever else I happened upon (in this case, a bit from the Strokes and Dr. John in the distance, and a handful of other stuff).
Already that day I’d seen Abigail Washburn perform a special duo set with Kai Welch, which was beautiful, if only the sound board had been tweaked a little better. Can’t fault the band, though, of course. I caught Old Crow Medicine Show for maybe three songs and, later, the last half of Bobby Long’s final song (a festival this size requires difficult choices, many of them in transit).
Still, despite all that great music, Saturday belonged to Mumford & Sons.
According to the Bonnaroo daily newspaper, Mumford packed a crowd of roughly 50,000 people into a field which wasn’t even attached to the mainstage. It’s only been one year since they made their Bonnaroo debut, but that year has included nominations from both the AMA and the Grammy Awards. They’ve brought a new mainstream excitement to music informed by its own roots, and kicked up enough dust to pack one of North America’s largest (and dustiest) festivals beyond its capacity.
That comment of “beyond capacity” is by no means official – it’s a claim I make based on my own body measurement – which is to say the amount of time it took, and the amount of squeezingly-close stranger contact I withstood, to maneuver through the crowd in order to make it to the other end of the festival for Loretta Lynn. That sojourn gave me plenty of time to question the decision, but squeeze through, I did.
Lynn – at 76 – may have forgotten some of the words to her own songs, but those little details were unimportant. She ripped through a block of Patsy Cline tunes to pay tribute to her late friend. She dipped into her collaborations with Conway Twitty (backed by a strapping young boy from her band), and of course delivered a number of her classics – “Fist City,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Pill,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man,” etc.
It was a good weekend for legends, from Loretta to Mavis Staples, Robert Plant (there with Band of Joy), and a newly reunited Buffalo Springfield. The latter two sets were easily the most crowded of any of the old timers, though it’s hard to imagine much of the audience knew who anyone in Band of Joy was aside from Plant, nor anyone other than Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield.
It was Staples, though, who gave the most inspired performance from start to finish. She moved through the entirety of her catalog, stopping off for a few good gospel tunes (it was Sunday, after all), some classic Staples Singers anthems (“Freedom Highway” was the most stirring, as she noted afterwards Pop Staples wrote it for “the big march from Selma to Montgomery”), and selections from her Grammy-winning disc with Jeff Tweedy, You’re Not Alone. She was even joined by Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller for “The Weight.”
Coming out of Saturday night at the Eminem show, I had entered Sunday morning on autopilot. Begrudgingly, but with hope. I knew Mavis Staples was in my future. And I knew the whole day was going to start with the Head and the Heart. The latter played in the Other Tent – a venue tucked in behind the giant blow-up water slide, far off to the side of the ferris wheel, somewhere in the no-man’s-land between This Tent and That Tent. It’s small, but the field around it provided plenty of room for unwitting 20-somethings to pour in and crane their necks to see. It was an excellent, jubilant, energetic performance (especially given the early hour), and breathed new life into me. It’s always invigorating to watch a “moment” happen in the musical life of a young band. I felt that energy start to pop at the Mumford & Sons set, and I felt it again with the Head and the Heart. Tiny white lights turning on in the hearts and minds of hundreds of unsuspecting new fans. Both those bands are onto something. There’s an excitement which breathes into you as you watch and listen.
I marched off to Mavis a new woman.
By the time Robert Plant and Band of Joy took the mainstage, I was ready to go out with a bang. They delivered. The troupe lit into a set which bridged Led Zeppelin classics with Darrell Scott originals and Band of Joy selections. Each of the backup players got their own moment to front the band, much to the delight of the crowd. But with their final lick, I had been licked.
My companion and I beelined toward food and then turned in for the night, Widespread Panic (and their – what was that? – four-hour set?) singing us to sleep. ‘Til next year, Bonnaroo…
photos: Morgan Harris/Bonnaroo