My First Bonnaroo Adventure
Like any newcomer to Bonnaroo, I might be forgiven for finding the experience somewhat overwhelming — what with the vast array of acts and entertainment. And yet, as I soon found out, the event is remarkably well run and expertly organized. The people are friendly, the epitome of Tennessee hospitality, and fellow festival goers are all too willing to share their experiences and advice. Hell, security guards are politely referred to not as overbearing watchdogs but rather, as “safety” guards, and even when they tell you when you’re not allowed access to a certain area, they exert their authority with a measure of politeness unheard of elsewhere. Granted, Bonnaroo tends to attract a young crowd overall, but age differences don’t seem to matter in the embrace of the common bond that proves so intrinsic to the entire experience.
So despite being exhausted after a fifteen hour drive, my wife Alisa and I decide to check out the festival right away. Unfortunately, arriving at 10 PM limits our options, so we opt to see a band called Glossary, native sons of Tennessee who are making their one and only appearance of the festival. They’re better than we expected, and I expected them to achieve a pretty high bar. In performance they’re fairly energetic, much more so than their somewhat sedate albums otherwise suggest.
After about half an hour or so, we decide to catch a portion of the performance by Alabama Shakes, a new up-and-coming band whose singer wails with the ferocity of Janis Joplin. However, as we soon learn, one of the hazards of the festival experience is that there are so many good bands are offered simultaneously, critical decisions must be made and committed to immediately. We’ve opted for Glossary, which means that by the time we arrive at the site for Alabama Shakes, we’re so far from the stage, the band look like tiny specs in the distance. Chalk that up to a reputation that’s preceded them and our misguided belief that once we arrive at any given venue, the crowds will automatically part and we’ll have an ideal vantage point. They do sound outstanding, but since we can’t catch a glimpse, we give way to our exhaustion and retreat to our overpriced Super 8 shortly after midnight.
Day one… is done, but our adventure is just beginning.
* * *
We’re still recuperating from the day before, but with so much of Bonnaroo still before us, we arise and head to the press tent for a basic introductory course on the dos and don’ts of Bonnaroo etiquette, as conducted by the good folks from Big Hassle Media, who, contrary to what their name implies, do everything possible to ensure our attendance is hassle-free. Our official orientation provides us with some impressive statistics — as well as an appropriate pep talk – all focusing on the inherent attraction of Tennessee – great music, fascinating history and beautiful scenery. We’re told that attendance at Bonnaroo elevates it to the state’s seventh largest city in the state with some 80,000 people in attendance. More on that later…
We’re here to enjoy the music – all kinds of music it seems, beginning with Shahidah Omar who we find at the Miller tent, weaving an exotic blend of soul, ethereal arrangements and rousing anthems, all at a fevered pace. Her multi-octave voice soars to a high register, and despite a relatively sparse crowd, she’s greeted enthusiastically by all in attendance. One song in particular, “Stop the War,” resonates well with the crowd, its title a clarion call reinforced by a mighty surge that only heightens as it reaches its thundering climax. There seems little doubt that more will be heard from Ms. Omar as the weeks and months go by. By the way, it turns out that her husband is J.B. Smoove, the guy who plays Larry David’s crazy sidekick on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and he’s clearly visible videotaping the entire preference. One can only imagine that next season on “Curb” we’ll find him saying something like, “Hey Larry, you got to see this lady. She’s hot, Larry. Yes she is! I’m telling you, Larry, she is something else!”
We next venture over to catch the Dirty Guv’nahs, local favorites from nearby Knoxville who perform a rousing mix of southern soul and rugged retro rock that sounds like vintage #Exile on Main Street#, with a Hammond organ providing ‘60s era authenticity. Several songs stand out: “Halfway to Birmingham,” “3000 Miles Between Us” and a heartfelt take on “Angel from Montgomery” that gives John Prine’s original rendition a run for its money. Honest to goodness, y’all! A pair of topless women can be spotted up close to the stage, no doubt giving the Guv’nahs extra incentive to provide a great performance, leading me to keep my eyes on the stage despite my inclinations to do otherwise.
We grab a bit of lunch and venture over to catch the Infamous Stringdusters, personal faves ever since we first saw them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival several years back. On day two of Bonnaroo, they rock The Other Tent (yes, Bonnaroo venues are given simple, descriptive names which still allow for confusion) and put on a show that equates to one continuous burst of effusive bluegrass energy. A six-man band that utilizes old time instruments such as dobro, banjo, stand-up bass, and fiddle, they’re frenzied and ebullient beyond compare. “It’s quite a phenomenon, this string band thing,” they suggest. “We don’t know exactly what it is, but we’re happy to be part of it.” And part of it they are, trading licks and leads with a frenzy that’s truly dazzling, inspiring an enthusiasm that’s shared between artists and audience. An all-too-brief set includes several stand-outs – “Power of Love” and “Get It While You Can,” among them. Not so coincidentally, those two titles seem to sum up their show as a whole.
Part of the challenge at Bonnaroo is navigating the distance between venues, which, due to its sprawling size, provides an extra level of difficulty when it comes to catching all the acts as intended. We make a strategic decision to exit the Other Tent and return to the Miller Stage to see Katie Herzig, another favorite of ours from a past Cayamo Cruise a couple of years back. Here, she proves as enticing as ever, utilizing a deft four person back-up band for her slightly left-of-center fare. A version of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” proves dazzling indeed, each of her two female accompanists perfectly replicating the various vocal effects that accompanied the original. “You guys are so adventurous for being here,” Herzig says, referring to her left-of-center girl group harmonies and quirky arrangements that still manage to rock to a real crescendo. Happily, the Miller Stage proves easily accessible in terms of getting up close and personal; aside from the fact that it offers giant cushions and comfortable wooden lawn chairs, it’s far easier to get a stage-side vantage position. Consequently, any act that plays there is bound to be an easy choice.
Then again, Bonnaroo is all about choices, given the number of acts and the fact that so many of them play on competing stages simultaneously. And one has to realize that despite all the planning and strategy initially concocted, in practice, it’s going to be impossible to catch everyone that we want to catch. It won’t even be close. Not by a long shot.
Nevertheless, Sam Bush is a must-see, given that we first witnessed him at Telluride, and indeed this Telluride vet seems to generate as much adulation here as he did there. Tennessee is his home state after all, and while he might have been offered a smaller stage here at Bonnaroo, there’s little doubt he still rules the roost. Curiously, he starts his set with what sounds like a kind of Celtic stomp before launching into a series of extended instrumentals that dazzle with changes of tone, time and texture. Most fittingly however, the high point of his set is his tribute to the late Earl Scruggs, to whom he dedicates an exceptionally spirited take of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Likewise, three originals – “Love You Forever,” Ride That Bluegrass Train” and “How Did We Get This Far” provide some surprisingly reflective interludes prior to his unlikely but surprisingly effective cover of “Norwegian Wood.” Who would have thought?
Then our plans go awry. Alisa joins the photo contingent to shoot pictures of the upcoming Avett Brothers show. Being that the band is another of our favorites, I venture off to get a good vantage point in the pit to the left of the “Which” stage. By the way, the similarity between the stage names can be confusing. After all, the Which Tent boasts a giant illuminated question mark above it, leading most people to initially believe it was the “What” stage. Consequently, I’m still confused. Which is not What, and What is where the Avett Brothers are playing. Unfortunately, I don’t realize that until a multi-ethnic band called Afrocubism finishes their set about half an hour into what was supposed to be the Avetts’ show and only then I realize I’m in the wrong locale. Happily though, the mistake gives me a inadvertent opportunity to see a band I might not have otherwise opted to enjoy, a big band that lives up to its name through its fusion of World rhythms, hypnotic melodies and an enduring enthusiasm that captures the hearts and delight of its young audience. “Bonnaroo!” one young lady exclaims, giving me a high five. Indeed, that’s the kind of festival this is, one that makes the good vibes all but impossible to resist… or, for that matter, to get caught up in.
Unfortunately, that energy can also be a stumbling block when it comes to getting close to the stage where I find the Avetts well into their performance. Gone are the days when they were semi-accessible. Now they’re playing the same place the Red Hot Chili Peppers will hold court tomorrow night, and the possibility of getting any closer than what seems a good half mile away is all but dashed from the get-go. This proves to be my single biggest disappointment of the festival and there’s no way I’m consoled by watching their set on the giant screens either. I pause to hear – hear and not see – a couple of Avett favorites, at least as much as I can make out from my distant vantage point, and then retreat to the safe haven of the press area to contemplate my next move.
After an hour or so of pacing between the press tent and the press trailer, Alisa eventually shows up. We hug… repeatedly… and then plan our next move. Alisa makes the decision we should catch Feist, and here again, it seems the better part of Bonnaroo has made the same decision. Feist obliges the sprawling crowd by beginning her set rocking out on guitar, thrashing away to the sole accompaniment of her drummer like a female Jack White in full throttle. Despite her soulful singing, she turns out to be way more rocking than on record and far more feisty (pardon the pun) as well. “People in the back,” she shouts. “Are you just eating funnel cakes or are you watching the show? Those of you in the middle, are you just passing through and trying to decide if you’ll stay? You, the dedicated ones up close… thanks for coming!” She receives a rousing response from a crowd she’s clearly captured early on, and indeed, her performance becomes one of the most rousing events of the afternoon.
Of course, when you have a crowd of 80,000 people, rousing would seem to be the operative word anyway. No stage, no matter how small, fails to draw a crowd, and the larger venues draw massively, even when there’s a divide between two or more headliners. As we stumble through the masses, the number of Bonnaroo attendees seems to have grown exponentially. “Where did all these people come from?” we wonder aloud. Indeed, we seem stuck in a human traffic jam of massive proportions with no escape in sight.
Still, Bonnaroo isn’t as much about the music as it is about the experience, or so I surmise. As a result, we opt to return to the Miller Tent where we know we can at least be afforded a measure of comfort. Besides, Sara Watkins is playing there and given her low-key ambiance (she plays fiddle to the sole accompaniment of her brother Sean on guitar), it gives us an opportunity to chill for awhile. Her show is stripped down to the max, which makes her take on “I Remember You” especially poignant. In truth, it’s the most laid-back gig we’ll see at Bonnaroo, not a bad thing considering the frenetic pace of the preceding afternoon. And Alisa is feeling ill as well, an unfortunate turn of circumstance as it forces us to miss Radiohead, the evening’s headliner. Then again, the question of proximity might have eliminated that possibility to begin with. We make Foster the People our final concert of the night, their polished pop and professional posturing providing another diverse entertainment option. To me, they sound like a throwback to ‘80s Brit rock, kind of like a deliberate fusion of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. They seem a bit twee to me, what with their strutting singer and multiple array of keyboards. We soak up the entertainment and then drift back to our car.
Our second day at Bonnaroo is history.
* * *
Saturday – Bonnaroo, Day Three
Being part of the press contingent has its perks. For starters, we get to enjoy a special impromptu unplugged performance by the Punch Brothers in the press tent. Standing in a circle, the bluegrass bunch play a rousing set, with leader Chris Thile yelling “Rotate” prior to each new tune. The players promptly obey, giving their onlookers a 365 degree view. “Thanks for bearing with us despite our extreme technical difficulties,” Thile tells those in attendance. “Actually, we have a lack of anything technical at all. Unlike Radiohead, we’re more like Stringhead.”
With that bit of homespun humor to inspire us, we head over the comedy tent to catch a bit showbiz shtick. A juggler named Marcus Monroe starts the show off and gets us giggling. A fast talking Mike O’Connell seems more manic and even more decidedly deranged, The two women who make up the musical comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates are, by contrast, cute and charming, although a sly little ditty about the art of giving a hand job to a guy suggests they are far from the innocent babes they appear.
Sadly though, their set is all too short, but it’s a pleasure to see Colin Hay again, having seen him last on the Cayamo Cruise. Hay does his standard set, with little concession to the comedic format, but he does toss in the obligatory Men at Work standards – “Down Under,” “Who Can It Be Now” and “Overkill” specifically – as well as some of his solo selections, with “Goodnight Romeo” adding a poignant note to an otherwise lighthearted set. “The thing that’s really fucking funny about all this is the fact that I’m still doing this after 30 years,” he reflects somewhat sardonically.
Speaking of comedians, we happen to run across Judah Friedlander, the guy who plays Frank, the guy with all the crazy hats on the sitcom “Thirty Rock.” He was a major attraction in the press area, all brightly outfitted with his trademark big bushy hair and beard. The proclamation on his hat this particular day was in Braille he explained when I asked why the message wasn’t especially clear. Sadly, we had missed his gig at the comedy tent, but he mentioned that he would be marrying a couple on Sunday. Queried about the fact that he wasn’t really a preacher or a justice of the peace, he responded assertively. “I’m a superior,” he insisted. “That outranks them all.” Weell okay… if you say so Frank/Judah…
This being Bonnaroo, it seems only right that we continue to immerse ourselves in more music and to explore some acts we’re not all that familiar with. With an adventurous attitude to guide us, we opt for an afternoon set from Portland Oregon’s Blind Pilot, a band I’ve heard of but heard little from. Their sounds is exceedingly melodic, all the better to accompany the giddy vibes that encircle the surroundings. Despite their reticent to rock ferociously like some of the other acts, the crowd receives them well, even though its likely most in the audience aren’t all that familiar with them. Like most of the bands we’ve encountered, they really seem to be enjoying themselves, and also like most of the other bands, they’re effusive in their praise of the entire experience. “I’m not sure what it is,” their singer insists. “But we’re having so much more fun at this festival than at any other festival.
Still, no outfit inspires enthusiasm like Flogging Molly, a rowdy Celtic punk ensemble fronted by Dave King, a native Irishman whose rugged accent and irascible attitude ensures their insurgency stays intact. They’re a genuinely unruly bunch, goading the crowd, the guitarist doing double splits, the bassist climbing the monitors and encouraging their crowd. I’ve managed to secure a place in the photo pit but the safety crew encourages me to move to the outer flanks. Sure enough, within moments of their opening assault, people are crowd surfing over the tops of the audience, maneuvered to the barricades with the safety guards help them alight and send them scurrying back into the crowd. Then again, the Mollys provide the essence of working class rebellion and when they turn Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A ‘Changin’” into a double time punk-infused rocker, the song takes on an anger and intensity only hinted at in the original. Ultimately, the Mollys turn in one of the most manic and intense shows of the weekend, courtesy of original tunes like “Saints and Sinners,” “If Ever We Leave This World Alive,” “The Power’s Out” and the title track of their latest long player, The Speed of Darkness, each of which rails against bankers, politicians and other perceived oppressors of the blue collar clan. Still, despite their staunch sentiments, all involved seem to be having a great time. Except perhaps for the safety crew, who may be working as hard as they ever will this weekend keeping folks at bay.
After that overwhelming intensity, it seems an apt time to relax so it’s off to the comedy tent for the second time today to see Steven Wright toss out a non-ending string of idle observations that sound silly but seem to make sense in Wright’s unlikely universe. He paces the stage constantly, save a brief attempt to play guitar, tossing out joke after joke without pausing to see if the audience’s caught on. “Only one company makes Monopoly,” he drolly observes, noting the irony of it all. “I hate it when my foot falls asleep during the day. That means it will be up all night.” “I can levitate birds, but no one seems to care.” And so on and so on. You get the point.
Alisa is off to catch the score of the Heat- Celtics game in the cinema tent – an obsession that even a festival can’t have her ignore – so I wonder over the comfy Miller tent to see a young singer-songwriter named Robert Ellis. Ellis looks like a young, long-haired James Taylor and sounds like one too. Accompanied by his guitar and a guy playing dobro, he sings mostly forlorn ballads with a genuine country inflection. Sadly, his intimate musings are no match for the rumble coming from the Which Stage and ultimately Ellis ends his show a couple of minutes early, his tender trappings no match for arena-sized escapades.
By this time, evening is upon us, and the two performances we’ve chosen to occupy ourselves with promise to provide a powerful double header. For starters, there’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the sprawling expanse of the What Stage area, the space reserved for Bonnaroo’s certified headliners. I’d already missed the Avett Brothers, intimidated as I was by the size of the crowd and the impossible expanse that separated me from the stage. This time I vowed I would attempt to get as close as I could, even if it meant being in the midst of the masses and jostled about with the band’s adoring admirers. Sure enough, it proved a difficult trek to find my way to a vantage point that would actually allow me to distinguish the musicians on stage, and that included an occasional stumble and an interminable struggle to make my way through the thousand of bodies that seemingly stood in my way. The VIP area was already overloaded and not even my media pass would provide access, so I bravely stood in the crowd, watching in all as the Chili Peppers went through their paces. They got my nod as the funkiest band of the fest, at least among those I witnessed, and their kinetic energy was truly electrifying. Anyone who’s seen them knows of what I speak. Yet, after awhile, I began to feel claustrophobic, and aware that it would take another half hour to work my way out of the crowd, I began to precariously liberate myself from the environs. It wasn’t easy; at one point I got caught behind a girl whose frenetic dancing entrapped me in a rough bit of bump and grind. Not that it was unpleasant, but she seemed oblivious to the fact that I was on the receiving end of her backwards thrust. I decided it was time to venture on and found myself greatly relieved when I was able to find a way to walk beyond the bounds of the crowd.
It seemed more prudent at that point to make my way back to the Miller tent where I could bide my time prior to midnight, when Alice Cooper’s set was due to start. Fortunately though, even in these mellow environs we were able to amp up our energy level courtesy of We Are Augustines, a three (occasionally four) man outfit who made the most of their resources before an adoring crowd. Theirs is an anthemic sound, all rousing, riveting guitars with the occasional keyboard interlude. “We’re playing Jay Leno Thursday,” they proudly proclaimed to the enthusiastic reaction of the tightly-packed audience. Indeed, they turned out to be one of our more exciting discoveries and one from whom we hope to hear more.
Sufficiently stoked, he head to the distant That Tent where we squeeze into the side viewing area to see Alice Cooper. We’ve made a conscious decision to opt for the superfluous over the cerebral, that being Jack Bruce’s new band Spectrum Road who’s performing one tent over. It’s a tough choice – Spectrum Road’s jazzier inclinations would mean a set full of extraordinary improvisation, not to mention a showcase for the man who was a lynchpin for the band Cream, but Alice’s promise of entertainment is too much to resist. Alisa’s a bit shy about being in the pit to take photos as Alice announced in an earlier interview that the first three rows would likely get splattered with blood. As it turns out, there’s no blood-letting at all, although Alice’s usual bag of tricks keeps the audience entertained regardless. Oversized puppets, billowing smoke effects, various changes of garb and, of course, Alice’s ageless accoutrements – an especially animated boa constrictor and his turn at the guillotine – keep the visuals front and center. Indeed, little seems to have changed in Alice’s forty year lifespan, but the shtick still works. At 65, Alice’s take on “18” seems a bit of a stretch, but he and his metal-laced backing band draw all the drama from it and his other signature anthems – “Billion Dollar Babies,” “No More Mister Nice Guy,” School’s Out” and “Only Women Bleed,” the show’s only mellower respite. The Cooper set is inevitably filled with spectacle and though Alice can go over the top – at one point he wears a shirt with the warning emblazoned “I’ll eat your face off,” an all-too ominous clash with real life via the naked Miami zombie who did just that to a homeless guy – but mostly everything’s all for fun. When the band launch into “Elected” as one of their two encore songs, one even gets the impression it might not be such a bad idea to do as he suggests. Could an Alice Cooper presidency be much worse than what we get from the two major parties?
And with that thought on our mind, day three of Bonnaroo comes to a crashing crescendo…
* * *
My first and most striking impression from Day Four here at Bonnaroo…
Sarah Jarosz is impossibly young… at least for someone who’s earned such acclaim. Playing fiddle at the helm of her crack person ensemble, she dazzles the crowd here in the Other Tent and happily returns their kudos. “This is one of the best crowds we’ve every played for,” she says giddily. “Maybe top of the list. And I’m not just saying that!”
If she’s simply catering to the crowd, she’s not alone. That seems to be the common sentiment among the artists here at Bonnaroo. It certainly was shared by Delta Spirit, whose performance we caught briefly on our way to our next destination, a fleeting encounter with Gary Clark Jr., whose Bluesy flash and deep soulful groove brought to mind a current incarnation of Jimi Hendrix both in his virtuosity and his daring. A recurring riff from Jimi’s “Third Rock From the Sun” reinforced that impression, but Clark’s confidence made it all the more credible.
It seemed that short encounters would be the order of the day today, given that we had wound down to our final day of the festival and still had so many acts left to see. Today was our final opportunity and it was our challenge to make the most of the limited hours we had left. In truth, I greet the coming conclusion of this experience with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret, because we’re having so damn much fun. Relief, because it demands so much effort and exertion. And on Day Four, we have so precious little of either left.
It’s already 2 PM and time for one of the major events on today’s calendar, a press conference featuring an unlikely gathering of disparate performers – Kenny Rogers (who to me seems somewhat out of sync here anyway), Steven Wright, Ben Folds, Pete from the band the Antlers and the wide-eyed Sarah Jarosz. Surprisingly, it’s Rogers who grabs most of the attention, not only with the press inquiries, but from his fellow artists and those desiring to getg a photo taken with him.
Rogers: “This is a great opportunity to do what we do and share it with the crowd. I did the Stagecoach Festival a couple of years ago and the crowd knew all the songs. I suspect they were victims of child abuse because their parents played my music and made them listen.”
Wright: “I’ve never played a music festival before…but this is special for me. When I got my first big break on the Tonight Show, it was surreal for me. It changed my life. Kenny was one of the guests and I ended up sitting between him and Johnny Carson. And here I am, sitting next to him again.”
Folds: “I’m not big on festivals. I usually get to them right before our set and then leave right after. But Bonnaroo is a painless festival. I remember being at one festival and seeing Kenny’s tour bus. Then I realized it was one of his accountant’s tour buses. And I wished I was one of them.”
Then he leans over and snaps a picture of him with Rogers.
Jarosz: “Look who I’m sitting with!”
Rogers: “In the ‘60s, everyone was too stoned to know what was going on. Now at least they wait awhile before getting high.”
The biggest revelation of the entire press conference? Kenny Rogers and Alice Cooper used to be golfing buddies. The juxtaposition of these two distinctly different individuals out on the golf course causes most of those in attendance to shake heir heads in wonder.
I linger afterwards, getting my photo taken with Kenny, sharing a few words with Wright. (“I don’t deliberately sit down and think up my material. My brain scans the universe and it just comes to me. It’s like a big rainstorm, a sudden downpour.”)
I have other up-close celebrity encounters during the afternoon – the aforementioned J.B. Smoove, for whom I attempt my impression of him ala “Curb Your Enthusaism” (“Hey Larry, want me to take care of him for you Larry?”), eliciting a good-natured chuckle, and original Beach Boys guitarist David Marks, who I will later congratulate for a superb performance (“thank you, sir”).
By this time, it’s late afternoon, and our time to catch the remaining acts is growing short. Sadly, I’m going to miss a bunch of bands I had hoped to see – Bon Iver, the Civil Wars, Young the Giants, Kathleen Edwards, War on Drugs, ALO and Here We Go Magic among them. I’m determined to see City and Colour, so while Alisa is prepping to shoot photos of the Beach Boys, I hasten over to the far reaches of the Other Tent to see them. Like the others before them, they attract a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd (the Bonnaroo audiences are incredibly knowledgeable because without exception, they seem able to sing along with everybody’s songs) and City and Colour’s amiable sound is all the more agreeable to encourage more of that communal spirit.
Sadly though, I have to cut my stay short in order to journey from the Other Tent to the What Stage (there’s those descriptive names again!) in order to see the Beach Boys. I had debated that choice, knowing that they’d attract a huge crowd and that like before I’d be a mile from the stage. Plus, we had seen them only a month or two before, so there was an element of redundancy involved. But once I hear that roll call of classics – “Heroes and Villains,” “Sail On Sailor,” “Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” “Help Me Rhonda,” et. al., I decide I had made the right choice. Besides, I was able to sit in the stands on stage left, and while I’m still a long ways away, at least I’m comfortable.
Still, it was time for final choices, and out of sheer curiosity I opt to see Kenny Rogers, wondering what kind of reaction he’ll receive from an audience at least a few generations removed. True to his reputation, Kenny’s got the crowd in the palm of his hand and singing along with each of the 21 number one hits he promised he’d sing. Okay, so no one’s crowd surfing but the reaction is pretty spectacular, and even when Rogers good-naturedly chastises the crowd for a poor sing-along attempt on “Ruby (Don’t Take You Love to Town)” (“They sang that better in Tibet… and they don’t even speak English in Tibet!”), the crowd seems unfazed. Ironically, this is the one VIP area that Alisa and I are tossed out of. So, to the big burly guy in the green “Safety” shirt who threatened us with bringing in reinforcements to ensure we leave, you gave us our one rowdy encounter… at a Kenny Rogers concert. Give yourself a hearty pat on the back!
Discouraged after that rude behavior, we make our way over to the Which Stage, which again, because of its giant spinning question mark should be called the What Stage. Never mind; it’s way too late to be questioning such things. The Ben Fold Five is holding court, having reunited for the first time in more than a dozen years in preparation for a new album to be recorded this year. Folds is a frantic fellow, a man who obviously enjoys his job and who boasts an audience that obviously enjoys the fact that he does enjoy his job. He bounces up and down at his piano, the rightful heir to Jerry Lee and Elton John, mugging, taking photos of the crowd and generally putting on a gleeful performance. For those unawares, the Ben Fold Five is actually only a Ben Folds Three, with botht he bassist and drummer adding an extra measure of sound beyond the traditional role their instruments might otherwise allow.
Nevertheless, I can’t resist asking an obviously enthused young man why it’s three instead of five.
“Because it’s hysterical,” he responds. “That’s all you need to know. It’s all right there!”
And indeed it is.
Meanwhile, the whiff of odors permeating the festival has passed from pot to pee to poop, the latter of which reinforce my abject disdain for porto-potties. That unpleasantness aside, we have enough fortitude to see the Shins, who set a mellow mood and maintain more mass adulation. James Mercer plays he perfect host, leading his reconstituted outfit through a generous selection of songs from their newest album, Port of Morrow, and doing it with perfect aplomb. The blissful vibe brings to mind a ‘60s-style celebration, with lots of tie-dye, long-haired onlookers, a couple more topless women and a stoned sensibility befitting the final hours of this Bonnaroo blast. Phish will only affirm that feeling, but by now, we’re beat and content to watch their performance on a big screen from the comfort of the hospitality tent. It seems a strange remove, especially given the revelry that’s taking place only a few yards away. But we’ve decided that at this place comfort over-rules commitment. Even the unlikely – and unexpected cameo by Kenny Rogers, who joins Phish for an off and unexpected take on “The Gambler” can do little to rouse us from our sedentary state. Phish are extraordinary, but the reality of remaining alert throughout their four hour state is slim indeed. We pack it up and head out, bidding Bonnaroo goodbye and glad we came.
An adventure ended, we can now say that even if we bungled our way through Bonnaroo, at least we endured. Almost anyway…