Bonnaroo Brain Dump
We’re back and after five and a half hours of sleep (probably double what I got any night on the trip) I’m marginally cogent. Showered, shaved, unpacked and incredibly nasty clothes in the washer before anyone gets a whiff of them…
OK, to get it out of the way first – I survived four nights of camping. I took the much-ridiculed “trough baths” (a poor surrogate for lack of a shower or tub). I used porta johns for four straight days. I drank sulphur water – well, mostly with a beer chaser. Even with an RV it was uncomfortable, inconvenient, probably unsanitary, muddy, dusty, noisy – you name it…
… but the musical payoff was the most intense, joyful and magnificent that I will likely ever experience.
This whole thing started a year ago when Peter took his son Adam and some friends up and came back raving about it. I knew I could never do it, creature of habit and comfort that I admittedly am. But when the 2009 lineup came out in February, EVERY ONE of my very favorite artists were on it up to and including a certain senior statesman from the swamps of New Jersey. I didn’t have to think hard to realize that, particularly since we’re missing ACL this year to go to Italy, if I was ever going to go this was the year. We quickly negotiated rental of an RV to partially mitigate the comfort negatives and I signed up.
I’m still completely overwhelmed by the experience. Setlists and even who we saw are just a blur at this point but I’m afraid if I don’t try to capture some things now they’ll be gone. I’ll do the best I can and try to refine it as time goes along.
First and foremost the music. In chronological order, I saw the following bands/artists play entire sets: Charlie Allen, Alberta Cross, Tift Merritt, Patterson Hood and the Screwtopians, Lucinda Williams, Justin Townes Earle, Alejandro Escovedo, Booker T and the DBT’s, Wilco, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue, Todd Snider, Robert Earl Keen and Neko Case.
I saw significant parts of the sets of the following artists: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, David Byrne, Fiction Family (with Sara Watkins!), Robyn Hitchcock, Jenny Lewis, Okkervil River, Merle Haggard.
I saw some (defined as stopping and listening to more than one song) of the following sets: White Rabbits, Portugal (the Man), St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear, the Low Anthem, Phish, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Yeasayer, Nine Inch Nails, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Andrew Bird.
I completely missed due to scheduling conflicts, required bio breaks or sheer exhaustion: Delta Spirit, Al Green, Girl Talk, Bon Iver, Of Montreal, The Decemberists, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello, The Steeldrivers, Cherryholmes, Tony Rice, Del McCoury, Erykah Badu, and Band of Horses.
Some summary highlights:
Best Performance (in order)
1)The Boss. On reflection, probably one of the two or three best shows I’ve ever seen him give.
2)Escovedo. Even the kids were left slack-jawed.
3)Lucinda. 180 degrees from last year’s train wreck at the Garden. Most badass performance I’ve ever seen from her.
4)Wilco. Nothing unusual, just a remarkable band on most any night.
5)A huge surprise, Todd Snider. Funny and irreverent – I was crying for 30 minutes after the show. If he could only sing…
Artists I Wanted to See More Of:
3)Elvis Perkins in Dearland
4)Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
5)NIN – way too crowded
2)Tift. She has matured remarkably as a performer in the three years since I had seen her.
3)Hood and the Screwtopians. New album is great, full band DBT-like, most importantly not Killers and Stars.
4)St. Vincent. The little lady can really shred on a guitar. Great blend of pop and edgy noise.
5)Mike Farris. Not really a surprise, but he delivered what I expected to hear based on the record. Wonderful to have a little church early in the day on Sunday.
1)Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Too hot, loud, crowded, muddy and unmelodic. Our entire group of eight started the set. Don’t think anybody was there at the end.
2)Okkervil River (too mellow and I was too tired)
3)Having to miss last half of Jenny and all of Costello the Decemberists, BOH, Delta Spirit, Bon Iver, and Of Montreal.
4)Booker T and the DBT’s (only because set was 75% Booker, just four Trucker songs)
5)Mildly, Neko. She was wonderful as always but they had a lot of confusion in the setup because of a shtick they did midset with Triumph the Insult Dog. Between that, the heat, a poor sound mix and sound bleed from the Snoop Dogg stage she was a little out of sorts until late in the show. Certainly no Lucinda moments, but she just didn’t have that normal Neko spunk and charm.
Favorite Moments (top of mind; there are many, many more)
1)Bruce’s reaction when he got a request for “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” – “it’s too f***ing hot for Santa!”. He played it anyway, but only after asking if everyone had been good boys and girls and stayed away from the brown acid.
2)Costello coming on stage with Jenny to do “Carpetbaggers”. We were expecting it, but thought she might not do it early enough in the set as we had to split to get set for Wilco. Timing and performance were both perfect!
3)Watching the hippies just completely tripping out over Haggard. Who’d have thunk?
4)Tweedy berating the crowd for not having pork chop flags (an inside joke stemming from the Jazzfest show that potentially I was the only one in the huge crowd to understand).
5)Todd Snider’s song about Dock Ellis’s 1970‘s no-hitter while tripping on acid.
6)A duet between Neko and Triumph (yes, I said Triumph) on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. She should ditch Triumph but keep the song in her set.
7)Getting to talk with Hood for a minute at a signing after his set. He seems to be in such a great place right now and I’m really happy for him. I asked if they were going to do “In the Air Tonight” again a la the 500 Songs performance and he said “I’d love to, but I’ve gotta talk Cooley into it first”!
8)Samosas – these African pastries filled with curried meats and/or vegetables. Delicious!
Thoughts about the experience:
1)No surprise, the camping just isn’t my thing. We had several hard rainstorms the first day with tornado watches which made it unwise to have the kids sleeping in the tent as planned. As a result, we ended up with eight people bedding down in an RV that should sleep five at the most. It was a rough night, and even subsequent nights with better conditions were fraught with partying festival goers, 3AM fireworks, lack of a really functioning toilet and shower (you could use both but we worked hard to manage our water supply) and eight people in a confined area on at least five or six different schedules. At least it was better than the tent camping, which was so jammed I have no idea how anyone located or got back to their specific campsite. Looked to me like many didn’t even try and just partied for four days straight.
2)Speaking of which, I was astonished by the late night action at the festival. Saturday night it felt like there were twice as many people there at 2AM than there had been at 5PM. And when I got up at my typical 6AM time Sunday morning and stumbled to the porta johns there was a sizable party still going on in the road in front of the potties.
3)Inevitably leading to the question of illicit substances… clearly the security plan is “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Vehicle and bag searches are pretty much just about sharp objects and glass. I’m sure you could have gotten anything you wanted from a significant percentage of the people you saw – that said, other than pot (which was everywhere) most people handled whatever they were doing discreetly, privately and with a remarkable lack of noticeable issues.
4)Probably as a function of being in a place where the recreational drug of choice is pot rather than alcohol, the crowds were very tame and mellow. Saw nothing even approaching a physical altercation, and only had one set with loud, drunken talkers around me (Robert Earl Keen – frat boy appeal).
5)The layout of the place is top notch. It’s much bigger than the typical festival ground (700 acres), which enables them to spread out the stages and have them all going at once. This, combined with the fact that it’s obviously a round the clock festival where a lot of people don’t come out until late night, spread the crowd and made it easy to get up close for most sets.
6)Sound with the unfortunate exception of Neko was incredible. The mainstage sound system was far and away the best I’ve ever heard anywhere. They estimated that 60,000 (of the 75,000 at the festival) were there for the start of Bruce’s set and I guarantee that every one of them could hear perfectly. The sound system really showed off the thunder and nuance of the mighty E Street band – they have never sounded better.
7)They have a really innovative water program. They set up several filtered water stations with numerous faucets at each station (the water is otherwise well water and has a sulphur content that varies from marginally unpleasant to downright stinky) and encouraged folks to bring or buy water bottles to refill rather than buying bottled water. They lose a lot of potential revenue from that stance, but it sends the right message and helps defray add-on cost to what is already an expensive ticket. As for me, I am now the proud owner of a souvenir aluminum Bonnaroo water bottle!
8)And yes, we were clearly somewhere in the 90 – 95th percentile of average attendee age… unlike ACL which tends to draw a wider range of ages. That (in addition to a big paycheck) was I think one of the things that caused Bruce to decide to play it. Unlike a typical Bruce show where the average ticketholder has seen him a dozen times, he was playing to a crowd of potential converts waiting to be baptized.
More to come, including specfics on key sets and hopefully some good pictures from Peter later. Time now for a nap. It was an incredible experience – one that I will always treasure but also one that I am not looking to replicate again anytime soon!