Bonnaroo Recap, Part 1: Travel, OCMS, Deer Tick, & Loretta Lynn
Even as Bonnaroo quickly began growing in stature over the past ten years, I had long thought it was a festival not for me. The idea of toiling in the sun for days amidst beautiful but dirty, intoxicated young people, sweating gallons, and trudging across dusty or muddy fields sounded more like work than recreation. You could accuse me of having a weak constitution or a low threshold for discomfort and you’d be right. My time as a kid practicing football twice a day each year in the summer heat as well as a few stints roofing houses and working menial construction jobs turned me into an avid indoorsman June through August. Sure, I like the occasional camping trip or scenic hike, and I spent years as a fairly avid mountain biker, but, for the most part, I prefer my leisure indoors or on a patio/beer garden during Tennessee’s increasingly brutal summer months. Last year, however, I was offered a last minute video gig shooting a brief interview with the Black Keys at Bonnaroo. I almost took a pass on the well-paying job because I had visions of multi-hour traffic jams, hiking through fields with heavy film equipment, and saucer-pupiled twentysomethings offering me free hugs. I was wrong (mostly.) The insane traffic jams of prior years had been overcome, entering and exiting the complex was a breeze, and no one bombarded me with naive affectations of universal love (though the site of a big dude covered in sweat and anguish is probably not their first target. Even hippies have their limits.) So, I decided to give it a go this year and actually do some camping and extended hanging out.
Due to some unexpected work obligations, my plan to arrive Friday morning was pushed until Saturday. However, an unyielding manic swing had taken hold of me Bonnaroo week, peaking on Friday, and I decided to arrive very late Friday night after already having traveled seven hours for my day job. My unfortunate travel companion graciously agreed to this last minute change of plans. This change of plans was a mistake, at least in my execution. After scrambling to pack, forgetting many important items, and charging out of Nashville about midnight, we arrived to pick up our passes around 1 AM in Manchester. While Bonnaroo is incredibly well-organized, and most of the pertinent information had been emailed to me, the skeleton crew on the night I arrived could literally answer none of my questions (including “Now, what is the date today?” as I signed a form; their response “Just make one up.”) As a result, I had no idea how to find the media camping area and was forced to enter the main admission gate. Huge, huge mistake.
The main gate crew verified our passes and then searched our car. Extensively. A swarm of teenage-ish volunteers began digging though every backpack, camera case, grocery bag, and sleeping bag. Their vigor was impressive. I shall not confirm or deny whether my cohort had a tiny amount of herbal relaxant confiscated, but I can say that being lectured by teenagers about honesty and integrity at 1 AM is awkward at best, if not a little comical.
Once safely inside, we asked for directions to the media camping area. We were told to keep driving until we could find someone else to direct us to our destination. Well, after two hours of driving through a mixture of dust clouds and barely clothed, often intoxicated hordes of festival attendees swarming the gravel roads (at approximately five miles per hour when we could navigate through them), we finally found the proper gate, only by happenstance (no one directing traffic could even venture a guess for us.) I almost didn’t believe the staff person when she said we were in the right place. I must have asked her to confirm four times, afraid to let myself feel relief unless I knew for certain we had conquered the hazy, moonlit maze.
So, we settled in, set up camp, and poured ourselves a cocktail. We were still keyed up from the anxiety of playing hippie Frogger through the makeshift roads but too exhausted to venture into the complex to catch the remainders of the late night sets. Instead, we broke out our instruments and quietly swapped songs we’d written for a couple of hours until the sun rose above the bass beats steadily pounding from the stages not too far away. It ended up being a beautiful night, and we were both excited to get to the music the next day now that our ill-fated arrival was behind us.
|Old Crow Medicine Show on the Which Stage|
After lying around for about three hours, only one of which accounted for sleep in ten to fifteen minute bursts, I was ready to figure out my game plan on Saturday. The first act I saw in earnest was Old Crow Medicine Show on the Which Stage. The set opened with one of my favorite covers, “Down Home Girl”, an appropriate enough song for Bonnaroo referencing southern women, second line parades (more on that next post), and muddy water. The crowd was large, enthusiastic, and obviously knowledgeable of the Old Crow canon; a confirmation that the band isn’t too far from cultivating an arena-worthy audience. Not bad for a string band playing small clubs not too terribly long ago. As with most acts, the band wove references to Bonnaroo into many of their songs, most successfully into the backwoods anthem of “Humdinger.”
|Deer Tick under That Tent|
Next on the agenda was Deer Tick under That Tent. I have to admit, the band has long been one I’ve respected but never found myself fully drawn to. I was hoping that catching their live set would sway me fully one direction or the next. Frankly, there is an air of rock star hipsterism to them that keeps me at a distance. Or maybe I’m unfairly creating that perception as the result of too much earnest acoustic folkie bluegrass in my library. Whatever my bias, I hoped to give them a fair shake. I liked their set. Not being terribly familiar with their history, I can’t easily name song titles, but I liked their ethos of a little R&B filtered through a stripped down garage band aesthetic.
|Kareem Abdul Jabbar|
After Deer Tick, I made my way over to a press conference that included Daniel Lanois, Stephen Stills, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. I have to cop to the fact that I showed up in large part to see if Kareem Abdul Jabbar was the Kareem or some indie rock band from Brooklyn I’d never heard of. I was glad to see it was the master of the sky hook, and the twelve-year old Lakers fan in me started geeking out a little. I still remember passages in fairly vivid detail from reading Kareem’s autobiography as kid where he discussed in eloquence his thoughts on race, politics, sex, and religion. He was at Bonnaroo promoting his film, On The Shoulders Of Giants, the story of an all-black basketball team, The Harlem Rens, in the days of segregated America. What an unexpected treat to see this legend.
|Loretta Lynn under That Tent|
Speaking of legends, the next show I saw in full was none other than the Queen of Country Music, Loretta Lynn, under That Tent. There is something radiant about that woman, a perfect embodiment of humble charisma. I was moved seeing so many very young woman losing their minds and shouting along as the raven-haired vixen sang many of her classics, as well as other standards from the great American country music songbook.. Lynn is a reminder that honesty and authenticity will always have more allure than crass pandering to base desires. She has more genuine sex appeal today in her little finger than Lady GaGa, Christina Aguilera, and Katy Perry combined. And it’s because she leads from her soul, with all of its wit, tenderness, confidence, and vulnerability. She also seems so extremely comfortable in her own skin, made only more beautiful by the wisdom manifested in a few wrinkles here and there. She was a master of working the crowd, occasionally flubbing a line but smiling through it with all the confidence in the world. She joked about Jack White coming to join her on stage, eliciting a gasp of anticipation from the audience, only to let them know he wasn’t there and laugh off the collective exhale of disappointment. Without saying so or even meaning to, she reminded us that no matter how talented White may be, he’s still a neophyte artist when compared to her legacy and career. She closed the set with “Coal Miner’s Daughter” to raucous applause as the sun went down. It was the perfect ending to a long, hot day.
Reveling in the magic of her set and feeling full of good vibes due to the love she was rightfully shown by a young crowd, it was time to head back to camp for a rest to get ready for the night’s later festivities. I didn’t think her set could be topped, but there were some strong contenders late into the AM hours. My next post will provide the details of an all-nighter full of New Orleans funk and manic Eastern European rhythms, rants, and rages.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.