You see, there is a bit of a caste system to the wristbands that provided access to this year's completely sold-out festival. The vast majority of Bonnaroovians have GA wristbands. They stay in tents, rarely shower (if ever), buy food from vendors (often eaten while walking), and spend hours baking in the hot sun to get a glimpse of bands amid thousands of others in a grassy field. Of course, that's if they aren't passed out in one of the plentiful spots of shade, simply too exhausted to carry on to the next show. The next level is VIP, which offers better access to the stages, private campgrounds with showers, or RV rentals. The highest level of wristband is Roll Like a Rockstar, a special package that provides accommodations on a fully stocked tour bus, chauffeured golf carts whisking around on hidden back roads, private viewing areas and restrooms, and hospitality lounges spread throughout the farm.
Our group wasn't just rolling like rockstars, we were rolling as rockstars. We wore the coveted yellow ‘Artist’ wristband, with full access to nearly every area at Bonnaroo one could ever wish to see, and plenty of perks that no paying attendee can experience. I didn't realize before the trip but this is much more access than even press receives, as my experience seems to have been much different from Andrew's. We didn't have a tour bus or golf carts, but none of that nonsense mattered because we had the most superior access to music out of anyone in attendance.
Sometimes, the good things in life are just about knowing the right wonderful people.
We were instantly sucked in by heavy bass filling the grassy area in front of This Tent, walking right into the private viewing area at the foot of the stage to catch the beginning of Danny Brown's set. His biting delivery and filthy lyrics were nearly overcome by the bass, which up this close twitched the hairs on my arms to the beat. This was the first of several fantastic hip-hop sets we wandered into, and my introduction the the unbelievably enthusiastic Bonnaroo crowds. I've never seen anything like how ballistic the packed tent became when Brown shouted out, "Bonnaroo, y'all some freaky motherfuckers! You gonna be getting dirty up in those titties later?" Brown played a bit of Blondie's "Rapture," dancing around onstage to recapture the crowd's attention before launching directly into the aggressive "Die Like a Rockstar."Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.. Their indie-rock seems deceptively simpler live than recorded, as I'd never realized their perfectly harmonized songs are fleshed out by recorded electronic elements. Not only did the band bring a killer cover of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," they also brought a little something special for the crowd. Josh Epstein explained that they were so grossed out by the porta-johns when the band played their last festival that they decided to buy a bottle of Dom Perignon and leave it in one of the 7,500 facilities spread across the Manchester farm. Though Epstein encouraged "whoever finds it, goddamnit, have a good time," I'm pretty sure anything I found in one of those things would be staying there for the next person to enjoy.
From the back of the field we caught the last two songs from Orgone. Their funky R&B had Soul Train written all over it, like a fantastic 70's blaxsploitation soundtrack. Vocalist Niki Crawford encouraged the crowd to get into her vibe, saying "Orgone has been making sweet, sweet love to you for the last hour. Did you feel it? How you gonna make love back to us?" before the crowd enthusiastically responded with a sing-along to "Love Maker" as we started our walk back to This Tent. Stopping briefly by one of the smaller side stages, the Great Taste Lounge Brewed by Miller Lite (one of the thankfully rare visible sponsorships), we enjoyed some psychedelic basement rock from Monstro before continuing on to catch Yelawolf. [MORE photos, video and wraps after the jump.]
The unofficial headliners of the night were the much-hyped Alabama Shakes, () with a crowd that was packed all the way to the middle of the Centeroo fountain. With the VIP section full and turning people away, we headed backstage again to catch the show from an amazing vantage point. Brittany Howard's soulful voice was simply stunning in person, as the band blasted through their debut album and played a new song. This may have been the largest crowd the band has played to date, without a bit of hesitation from the group. As much as I adore the album, unfortunately the show was a bit slow after being blown away by Phantogram. Several times through the rest of the weekend I found myself wishing a different band had been selected as the focus of the evening, but looking back it was a wise choice to calm everyone down a bit after the energy the hip-hop shows produced.
A short walk across the now deserted farm, and we collapsed into our beds sometime around 4 a.m. It would be the earliest I made it to bed all weekend.
Making the first "did we make the right choice" decision that comes from the compromise of different musical tastes colliding, we skipped Ben Howard to go see The Infamous Stringdusters at the Hippie Tent (Other Tent.) Their bluegrass meets jam band style was unique, and I rarely complain about any group with a stand-up bass. I was anxious to get a good view of Two Door Cinema Club at This Tent, so we cruised out a bit early, stopping briefly at the Great Taste Lounge to see Katie Herzig. Her soft-vocals and indie pop reminded me a bit of Feist, and stoked my excitement about seeing her later that afternoon.
One of my "don't miss" shows was Little Dragon so we headed out a bit early to settle in backstage at This Tent as the crowd started climbing the tall fences separating "us" from "them" trying to get a glimpse. The Swedish electro-pop darlings' first Tampa show was one of my first reviews for Creative Loafing, and I remember thinking that vocalist Yukimi Nagano's huge presence really needed a bigger reaction than the Crowbar crowd provided to the then-unknowns. There was no lack of enthusiasm at this show as Nagano absolutely owned the moment, her tiny body moving with a quirky tireless bounce across the stage as thousands of fans (and Flea, also backstage) danced and sang along to their old and new material. With tons of cowbell and vocal loops, it was one of the strongest sets I caught all weekend and the first time I heard the crowd demanding an encore. Though I'd hoped to catch a few songs from Fitz and the Tantrums, I couldn't tear myself away and actually ended up missing a bit of Feist.
On our walk we stopped to see the Flavor Savers at the Solar Stage, I think. They were listed as a 'beard and mustache competition,' but were playing in multicolored chicken costumes, which definitely merited at least one moment of attention, even in this crazy environment.
With the largest crowd I'd seen yet, This Tent was already jamming to Ludacris delivering what seemed like a never-ending catalog of hits. Once again, VIP was full so we danced from backstage next to our new buddy Fogell. Complete with backup dancers shaking their asses, Luda even performed some of his collaborations like Usher's "Yeah," and Fergie's "Glamorous." The man knows how to get the crowd excited, shouting out "We got two tour buses. We gonna have to bring back some of these ladies! Anyone want to come back to our tour bus?!" He followed this up to a huge response from the crowd leading them in a back-and-forth chant of "When I say 'let's get' you say 'fucked up.'" On our way out to our hidden restrooms behind the stage, I got to chat with Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano. I mentioned their gig so long ago in Tampa and she remembered it and Tampa's own Jack Spatafora, of Aestheticized Presents, fondly. It was pretty cool to be able to share my excitement with her at seeing them hit this level of success, and she's every bit as gorgeous and sweet close up as you'd imagine she might be.
Coming onstage to a chorus of looped echoey vocals calling out over the screams of the crowd, Radiohead opened with the first track from King of Limbs, "Bloom." I knew this set would be heavy off the new album, and although I didn't instantly take to the subtle layers of sound of the release, suddenly it all made sense as the flashing shards of blue light and video collided with Johnny Greenwood blasting the hell out of a snare drum and Thom Yorke's emotive wailing. Those lights, man. Twelve square video screens rearranged themselves for each song, flashing constantly changing close-ups of the band playing, which I hope gave even the farthest reaches of the packed lawn a view of what was going on. The giant LEDs I'd seen earlier from behind now displayed brilliant colors and patterns, as flashing bursts of light spread across the crowd. I couldn't stop snapping photos, trying to catch every change of scene as it appeared. Yorke was in unusually excellent spirit, dancing non-stop and chatting easily with the audience. ("Lotus Flower" below.)
Over two and a half hours long, the set included most of King of Limbs, favorites from nearly every album, and three newish songs, "Identikit," "Daily Mail," and "Staircase." I dig the danceable electronica direction, and especially like the hint that Yorke dropped in his dedication for "Supercollider:" "This song is for Jack White. We saw him yesterday. A big thank you to him, but we can't tell you why. You'll find out." While I anxiously wait to hear the supposed collaboration, I keep reliving my favorite moments from one of my favorite bands: Yorke's jittery dance to an absolutely blazing "15 Step," Greenwood playing straight through after cutting his hand open during "Bodysnatchers," and listening to "House of Cards" standing next to the person that, in my mind, the song has always been entwined with. Perfection. ("Bodysnatchers" video below.)
On our way out, our friend mentioned he'd walked past Yorke entering the show on a small bridge that separates backstage from artist transportation. As he looked at him, the overwhelming noticeable element was that the bridge smelled like sewage. It's just a fact of Bonnaroo, kids; even the rockstars have to use the porta-potties. The bridge returns later in this story, but at this moment all that mattered was that he and Thom Yorke had smelled the same poop, and it didn't affect his performance one bit.
After the show we headed back to regroup at the RV briefly, then on high recommendation went over to catch The Word, a collaboration of Robert Randolph, John Medeski, and the North Mississippi Allstars. Honestly, I couldn't tell you a thing about their performance, as I was just too pumped from Radiohead and anxious to get over to see Major Lazer. I guess that everyone leaving Radiohead was just as excited, as thousands of people spread out around This Tent were jumping in the brightly colored lights. We tried to push through the crowd, but it was too solid to maneuver and we knew there wasn't enough time before the end of the set to swing wide and come in from the stage entrance. I could hear Diplo yelling "If you wanna say fuck that Sheriff put your middle finger up in the air" as we headed to our next show and I regretfully missed my second "must see" act of the weekend. I didn't even realize until we got home that we were also missing hip-hop royalty, Talib Kweli and Mos Def, performing together as Black Star. Sometimes there are just too many options at Bonnaroo.
As we walked we passed one of several "pop-up shows" that spontaneously appear at random non-stage spots. There was the Sydney band, Art vs Science, playing with Mark Foster from Foster the People to a small group of 100 people. Dressed in silver jumpsuits and playing some crazy-addictive electro-funk, the band provided the second theme song for our weekend, "Flippers." Seriously, you gotta move your flippers if you wanna get down at Bonnaroo. (Video below.)
Heading back in the direction of the Silent Disco, we stopped to hear Umphrey's McGee just starting their never-ending set of metally jams and covers before noticing a spaceship on the empty Which Stage (video clip below). Heading closer for a better look, (because who wouldn't stop to look at an abandoned spaceship?), we checked our schedule to see what band had played the stage last. Was it from Foster the People? What the hell did they do with a spaceship?! I'm pretty sure this was the moment where I realized things had started to get downright weird in Tennessee.
Moving on, I was sucked briefly into Big Freedia's awesomely literal ass-shaking set from across the lawn. A perfect example of Bonnaroo's strong connection to New Orleans, Big Freedia (pronounced Free-da) is one of a group of self-proclaimed "Sissies" (a local term for men with varied and ambiguous sexual identities). The music is classified as bounce, and that is exactly what the packed Other Tent did until 4am (video below), while we walked past the line for the Silent Disco and put our headphones back on to dance to Jared Dietch taking on Wyllys in another spinning throw-down. Most of our group had long since gone to bed, but a couple of us stayed dancing. Every time I tried to leave (at one point starting to walk out the door) Dietch would pull me back onto the floor with his killer mixes.
At around 6am, I finally pulled myself away and walked back alone across the farm; Centeroo deserted except for the group at the tent still listening to Umphrey's McGee continue playing three hours longer than their scheduled two hour early morning set. Their technicolor light show still going in the early morning light, I could still hear them jamming as I collapsed into bed.