SATURDAY, JUNE 12
Waking up to a late start, we realized we needed to venture back out to Walmart to pick up some crucial supplies for the group, a process that only took only about 45 minutes; from what I've heard, GA passholders can't leave the farm at all. Though momentary civilization was a nice break, especially the wifi, while we were out I missed the first of four Blind Pilot sets. Though I'd recently seen them play at Crowbar, I've been playing their album nonstop and really wanted to see the band perform in front of a crowd this large. I heard they played a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil," which would've been really cool to hear at a festival with jammy roots.
After the relaxing morning we'd just experienced, emerging out into the masses was like encountering a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. Mid-day in the hottest sun of the weekend, the day pass holders had invaded the festival in what seemed to instantly double the amount of sizzling sunburned bodies sprawled in the dust. It was bizarre realizing just how different this festival is for general admission, as we shook our heads in sympathy for the swarms of people waiting in line to fill their water bottles. [More after the jump.]
Making a tough compromise about where to go next we headed out to catch Tool's frontman, Maynard James Keenan, playing as Puscifer. I love Tool, and Puscifer was described as a "multimedia extravaganza," so I was willing to risk missing a few minutes of SBTRKT. Unfortunately, they never took the stage while we were watching; at the point where they were 20 minutes late we split from our group. Though everyone who stayed felt it was worth the wait, we had tough choices to make. The decision to see SBTRKT backstage at This Tent is one I didn't regret since I'd missed their Tampa show at The Orpheum (dumb me.) Although their mid-afternoon slot seemed bad timing for a show that everyone kept saying would've torn apart the crowd later in the day, it didn't dampen the enthusiasm of thousands of people spilling out of the tent, or from one of our friends who was dancing onstage. Aaron Jerome, the mastermind DJ behind the group, worked his magic changing things up a bit from the album, as Sampha provided vocals. Though we left before the end because of more schedule conflicts, the only bummer was that Little Dragon didn't appear to perform "Wildfire," though they did play the song. [Video below.]
As people moved en-masse to the What Stage to get a good spot for the evening, we repeated our nonstop walk across the farm towards This Tent to see Mogwai. The band that singularly developed my love of post-rock did not disappoint on a single level; with three guitarists and two drummers, it's no wonder their sound is so epically huge. Throughout the instrumental set, bassist Dominic Aitchison continually motioned to the sound techs to turn up his already thunderingly powerful sound, completely enveloping us in sheer awesomeness. The set was heavy with material from Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, which is definitely the most upbeat of their releases. Not only are they one of the most fantastically loud bands I've ever heard live, but simply hearing "I Know You Are But What Am I" live in this amazing setting…just absolutely totally satisfying. [Video below.]
Crossing Poo Bridge to see The Roots, we had another celebrity encounter as we passed Santigold talkign animatedly with a small group of people. She's surprisingly tiny up close for having such a huge presence onstage, and all smiles and adorableness, seemed completely pumped from her performance.
On our way back out for a quick stop at the RV, we had another opportunity for Poo Bridge to deliver it's magic; as we left, Flea was on his way in. Shirtless, yelling, and holding his bass above his head in the air, I was shocked into silence seeing that from inches away, the man is exactly the tightly wound ball of energy he is onstage.
Heading back towards artist hospitality, we realized our phones were still charging back at the RV. About to turn around, in another instance of Bonnaroo intuition we ran into our friends racing through security to our coveted open clearing under the camera. Fogell was here tonight, and we heard later that Ashton Kutcher was around (though like a mythical unicorn, I never glimpsed his lovely presence). Grateful we'd found our group, our phones stayed nestled in place for the night, actually a welcome change; without the distraction of notes and photos my focus was on only the music and my friends. I was bummed not to have a camera though, since this was Bonnaroo's most interesting night of people-watching.
There was still plenty of bounding in this performance, Anthony Kiedis and Flea both still in great shape, performing much of their hit-filled set shirtless. At one point Flea even crossed the length of the stage walking on his hands; certainly not your typical 49-year-old. The big surprise of the show was really their technicality. Flea remains one of the most entertaining bassists to watch live, his hands moving in a flurry I rarely see. New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, was a solid stand-in for Frucisante, if lacking the innovation that made the former guitarist so interesting to watch. There was also a lot of focus on instrumental jams, with both artists showing off to each other while Chad Smith (or Will Ferrell - it's tough to tell the difference) energetically pounded away on drums. Kiedis still has all the energy and quirk of his younger self, and both he and Flea are still up to their old tricks. At one point, when the bassist was distracted by one of the flying Chinese sky-lanterns that dotted the sky through the festival, Kiedis said something like "you just coming up? me too man…me too," leading us all to believe they were both tripping balls. Flea also delivered one of the most heartfelt moments of the festival, saying "I feel peace and love and goodness and kindness everywhere I walk here," as he described some of his favorite sets and thanked everyone in the crowd for caring about music.
We lost most of our group at the the backed up VIP exit and decided to take our chances walking out with the crowd to This Tent to catch The Roots' SuperJam. In what turned out to be an interesting, yet scary as crap mistake, we found ourselves in a mass of thousands of people stampeding to the show. As everyone pushed forward, we tripped across the lawn carpeted with empty cups; so much for the Bonnaroo hippies being "green." After a while, we finally got to a point where absolutely no one was moving at all, while something about the energy of the show and the long day in the sun made the crowd restless in an aggressive, almost tribal way. The dust had kicked up, and with the lights of Centeroo blazing a bizarre glow covered the farm as the sound of Alice Cooper playing in the background set the tone.
It ended up becoming too much work just to get anywhere - in or out - so we chose out and fought our way against the chaotic flood of people, eventually making our way towards Skrillex. Even though we were relieved to be out of our most "general admission" moment of the festival, it turned out we missed one of the most noteworthy performances of the weekend. SuperJam brings together artists at the festival and "special guest stars" who aren't necessarily performing. Though everyone had whispered ?uestlove's guest might be Jack White, everyone was stunned by an appearance from R&B star D'Angelo, coming onstage for the first time in a decade.
We weren't too upset about walking away, since Skrillex was one of the shows we'd really been looking forward to seeing. The Which Stage lawn was already filled with people stretching back to Centeroo waiting for the tiny DJ; we were able to walk right into the front section. While it was crowded our area was nothing like the mass of bodies behind us, everyone packed in so tightly they couldn't move at all. As we all anxiously waited, a countdown played on a giant LED screen behind the spaceship we'd seen the night before (apparently not for Foster the People at all). The crowd clapped and shouted along with the last 10 seconds of the countdown before blindingly bright lights and bursts of smoke blasted out simultaneously with the ear-drum burstingly loud music. The crowd exploded with glowsticks flying into the air as bodies began flailing all around us.
I'll admit that I've never really understood dubstep until this show, and pretty much agreed with a description I'd heard of the style as "the official sound of robots raping each other." Surrounded by the music and light, it suddenly made sense. There's just no other way to dance to dubstep besides an instinctual thrashing back and forth that takes hold of your entire body. At least at this show, there were just enough moments of dance music to give some relief before Skrillex, a master of controlling his crowd, unexpectedly switched back to dubstep and it's pure physical power. The contrast between the two dance styles was exhausting, yet exhilarating and unexplicably fun. As the DJ played "Bangarang," "Kyoto," "Scary Monsters," "Nice Sprites," and even the softer "Summit," dancing was impossible for the thousands of people squashed into general admission. Unable to really move, their arms just flailed furiously back and forth to the beat like a sea of anemones. While everything about this show was fun, the best part came towards the end, when the spaceship Skrillex played from raised up above the stage as the lights flashed brighter. The DJ shouted out for everyone to "put someone light on their shoulders," and just like that, the audience became three dimensional as thousands of girls raised up above the thrashing arms. Skrillex, the little guy with the goofy hair, surveyed it all from above us like a goddamned king. Absolutely brilliant, and one of the highlights of my weekend.
At this point, simply too physically exhausted to go see GZA performing Liquid Swords with the Latin funk group Groupo Fantasma, we made the short walk back to our RV and the comfy beds calling our names. I was still too pumped up from the evening to fall asleep though, laying in bed listening to the party still going outside until long after sunrise.
SUNDAY, JUNE 12
With a more relaxed schedule than the days before we wandered around checking out merch and getting coffee. It was different to be hanging out with everyone else, and this was the first time I really regretted not making it out to see the GA campgrounds. We'd meant to use this time to play at the waterpark (they have a Big Ass Waterside and jumbo slip-n-slide) but it wasn't warm enough to brave the line. The ferris wheel was also packed, so we headed to our next show.
Though I'd seen them before and wasn't impressed by their live energy, we decided to give Here We Go Magic a chance. Unfortunately, I still felt they were disconnected onstage. The songs from the new album, A Different Ship, are definitely more exciting than their older material, especially "How Do I Know," which had the crowd singing along. [Video below.] They also were plagued by some technical issues, guitarist Michael Bloch playing the last three songs with a broken string and mentioning they'd borrowed equipment from The Antlers. As they closed with "Fangala," I realized that vocalist Luke Temple was wearing the same hat I'd seen him in years ago. Running into the singer later that afternoon at artist hospitality it was still on his head, which I guess is what's memorable about the band to me.
Filled with excitement, we made a quick jump to the Other Tent to see another show I'd missed in Tampa earlier in the week, City and Colour. Bring Me Your Love is one of my favorite albums; I've spent many nights with it's sad songs and lovely lyrics. Dallas Green's voice drifted over the crowd, for once mostly still except heads bobbing and singing along. I was actually a bit surprised how many people were at the show, and didn't hear until later that the Tampa gig sold out. His love songs are truly stunning live, and it's tough to describe the emotion in the Juno award winning vocalist's eyes as he looked out at the full tent. I really wanted to hear the entire set but had another big show to get to, so we left right after hearing "The Death of Me," another standout moment of the festival for me. Green thanked the crowd briefly, saying "When you play things like this you never know what you're going to get. I couldn't have asked for anything more." It was hard to pull away as he continued playing, so we stopped at the back of the lawn to hear just one more song.
We'd been excited all weekend to see The Antlers set, so we got a spot at the front of the stage in the VIP section. I'd seen them once before, opening for Minus the Bear to a nasty crowd in Orlando. They're one of my favorite bands, and getting to see them perform for people that appreciate them was high on my list. Opening with "Rolled Together" from the new album, Burst Apart, The Antlers sounded absolutely perfect. I imagine it's difficult to recreate the drama and intensity of their albums live, though vocalist Peter Silberman makes it seem easy as he hit every note. The rest of the band was also in great form, keyboardist, Darby Cicci smiling frequently as he played and touring guitarist, Tim Mislock coming to the edge of the stage and bending over while playing as though bowing to the packed house. At times all three sang together, fleshing out the tightly edited harmonies from their albums. The sound was really phenomenal, and everyone was totally into the performance. Silberman talked briefly about how "strange and amazing" playing the festival was to them, and how he'd just met Kenny Rogers backstage. He said it sounded like a joke where "Peter Silberman, Kenny Rogers and Ben Folds were at a bar…" which oddly enough, is exactly what the gatherings at artist hospitality were like on this last day. [Video below.]
With a little time to kill, we decided to go for a drink and relax a bit backstage. As we walked past we stopped to hear a bit of the newly reunited Ben Folds Five playing the Which Stage, while "Fun, Fun, Fun" from The Beach Boys was faintly coming from the What Stage. I split from my friends and decided to head towards the aging rockers, since I was just a kid the only time I saw them play, but in a "Bonnaroo intuition" moment, I stopped to grab a beer at the quiet Bonnaroo Studios bar. and stayed so long on their cozy couches that I completely missed The Beach Boys. Intuitive, because if I'd stayed on schedule I never would've ran into into Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) at Poo Bridge. Another of my favorite artists, I'd actually had a dream about him the week before, where we were sitting and chatting, and I had all sorts of witty questions lined up, and Justin kept telling jokes as we laughed together. In reality, I did a clumsy 360 degree spin around as he walked past, shocked that the gangly man was right there in front of me. The only witty comment I could think of was "you're wearing red jeans," so I wisely decided to keep my mouth shut.
Walking into the crowd in front of the What Stage for the show was different from any other gig we'd seen yet. Although it was packed, nearly everyone standing in a muddy puddle for a good view, it was also strangely silent as the mist started to fall. With the sun just beginning to go down, this golden hour turned out to be the most stunning setting Bon Iver could have possibly played to. It was as though time stood still for a little while.
This was an emotional set for me, as Vernon's music has been an important part of my listening for several years. His show at the State Theater years ago was also the first show I'd seen with the friend standing next to me, so we'd come full circle in our music history by being able to see this show together. Unfortunately I'd missed the band's Tampa show a few days before (the unfortunate side effect of our area getting artists before or after their Bonnaroo stop,) but I wondered how surreal comparing the different venues must feel to the singer as he walked onstage. Not that Tampa didn't see an amazing performance, but I knew that watching the band play at this festival would be a completely different experience.
Tears rolled down my face through pretty much every song, as every time I'd gain my composure the next notes were even more heartbreakingly beautiful. Vernon is showing much more confidence and stage presence than the first time I saw him now backed by a truly phenomenal touring band, experimenting with vocal effects, and with a Grammy under his belt. The band played the favorites I expected them to, though everything seemed intensified live; I know the spectacular sound at the venue definitely helped. "Blood Bank" turned out to be the hardest rocking song of the set [video below]. Already one of my favorites, after hearing it live, the song has definitely moved up on my "Favorite Bon Iver" list. The show-stopping moment, though was a breathtaking version of "Holocene," its lyrics "all at once I knew, I was not magnificent" echoing especially true as I looked around at the crowd sprawling all around me, everyone seeming moved by the moment.
A poignant sing-along came during "The Wolves (Act I and II)" with Vernon asking for the audience to sing along to: "what might have been lost," stating "let's see if we can't crack open the sky or something." At that moment, seeing him smile at our response, I realized what makes memorable performances at Bonnaroo is that artists love playing this festival as much as we love seeing them play. Although we had a full evening left, I could've ended my weekend at this exact moment and been completely satisfied.
On our way out we had another surreal encounter at Poo Bridge: Mr. Kenny Rogers. We'd missed his set earlier with surprise guest Lionel Richie, and heard it was awesome. Seeing the singer was more exciting to me though, since he's always reminded me of my dad. I remember singing along with him to "The Gambler" as we drove in the car, and the pudgy singer's beard and blue eyes also bear a resemblance; needless to say I've got a soft spot. The man we walked past was totally different from the singer I remember though. He's um, aging well, and now looks like a tucked, tanned, twinkly Hollywood Santa Claus. He still has those intensely blue eyes, and as he sparkled in the sun I managed to speak, saying simply, "hello sir!" Not my most eloquent moment, but he smiled genuinely as he kept moving towards backstage.
It's hard to say this about a band I love this much, but they were a little boring onstage, and I stayed out of loyalty as my friends went on to the next show. Things definitely picked up with a blazing version of Wincing the Night Away's "Sleeping Lessons," which may be one of the strongest first songs on an album, ever. The set dragged on a bit longer, and I kept looking back towards the bright lights of Fun playing a packed What Tent behind me, torn. This was front row at The Shins, but the crowd at the other show certainly did seem like they were having more, well, fun. I opted to stay until the end of the set, Mercer and Co. closing with "One by One All Day" off their first album, Oh Inverted World. If I'd realized this was my last chance to walk through the farm I probably would have left; immediately after the show, security started clearing Centeroo, urging the crowd into the What Stage with security on horseback. I guess it's better I didn't see this though, because it seems like a jolted ending to the laid back tone of the festival.
With some extra time before Phish's four hour set, I decided to stop briefly to check out artist hospitality. I sat looking around at the scene, more crowded than it had been at any other time of the weekend. I noticed Fogell standing in line without his entourage at the same time I noticed The Antlers sitting directly next to me. I tried to decide which conversation I wanted to have more, asking the actor what is favorite show was, or telling the band how awesome they are; I opted to talk with the Brooklyn rockers. Peter Silberman was incredibly nice, and as he stared at me with some of the bluest eyes I've ever seen, we talked a bit about that Orlando show and the difference playing to a crowd like this. Definitely a high point out of a weekend of highs.
As I came up through the backstage entrance to the What Stage, I could hear Kenny Rogers singing "The Gambler"with Phish. I hadn't been in a hurry to see the band until now, but I rushed up trying to catch the song before it ended. The area in front of the stage wasn't too crowded, though everyone was standing in ankle-deep water at this point. I found myself wishing the rain would really pick up so everyone would be dancing in the mud by the end of the set.
I've only seen Phish once, years ago, but it was on a rainy night just like this and it seemed fitting that the festival would end with a band playing the way I remember first seeing them. Though I'm not a huge fan, I figured I owed it to the Phish fans I know, to step back and give Phish a chance…and it was beautiful. I remembered being swept away by the band so long ago when I couldn't have been much older than this crowd, and found myself hoping they had the same sense of excitement at seeing them play for the first time.
The band ended about 15 minutes earlier than scheduled, missing their firework finale. As we walked away the light show exploded right on time, signaling the end of the festival without musical fanfare.
We wandered through the after-parties backstage for a while, stopping at another crawfish boil with flowing free beer and pulled pork sandwiches. Returning back to our RV area, I ended up at a Girl Talk dance party with our neighbors and their animal print leggings, while staff raced golf carts around in the mud heading from party to party until dawn.
MONDAY, JUNE 11
I woke up a little sad knowing this was our last day before heading back to reality. After cleaning up, I wandered around a bit through the muddy areas backstage in the drizzling rain, not quite ready to leave. It would've been nice to see the now deserted farm, but security had everything locked down; I just watched the crews backstage wrapping up their weekend. With not much else to do, we said our goodbyes and headed back on the road through the gorgeous Tennessee scenery. Within moments of getting on our flight home we were sound asleep; emotionally satisfied and completely exhausted.
My week at Bonnaroo was a much needed break from everything at home, and I think it's the same for everyone who attends the festival. Aside from the stunning performances each person brings something unique to their time at the farm, making the experience that much more memorable. I asked a lot of people on Sunday about the moment that stood out throughout their weekend. For me, just being surrounded by people who genuinely care about music and never once having to explain anything about a band was refreshing and comforting. The sweetest description I heard though, was from a friend who thought the Red Hot Chili Peppers set was her favorite moment. She said "It wasn't just the band, though they were great. What mattered was being surrounded by my friends and family, and sharing this moment with them."
Well put, girl. That's what Bonnaroo is all about, no matter what type of wristband you're wearing.