“It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. You'd wake up in a concert and think, Wow how did I get here?” - John Lennon
Strange things happen at Bonnaroo every year. To be fair, a million strange things probably happen there every year. I’m talking about big-strange, like a famous hip-hop artist creating a world-wide kerfuffle when he starts six hours late, or a headliner dropping out. This year, the big strange thing was the moon, the full moon on Friday the 13th. It turned out that it didn’t really make much difference, but that didn’t stop us from wondering about it, this strange astronomical occurrence which won’t happen again for 35 years, and the first full moon to fall on a Bonnaroo since 2003.
The one case of bad mojo I heard about was when a good friend of mine lost her entire Bonnaroo bag, including a camera with a year’s worth of photos, driver's licenses, credit cards, $500 in cash, and other heart-felt possessions to a sneak-thief, who came into their tent while they were sleeping on Thursday night.
Bonnaroo is a strange blend of all that's great and weird and not-good in human nature and our camp was surrounded by hard-core, up and coming music and media enthusiasts.
One neighbor was an "electronic break hip-hop" artist from Knoxville, who goes by the name Half Deaf, appropriately so, as he’s deaf in one ear. His persona is part and parcel of a non-stop spoken-word preamble that seems to have no beginning and no end. At times conversations with Tyler McClure (Half Deaf) evolved into demonstrations of his raps. They’re clever, opinionated, apocalyptic & zombiesque. You can find his music at halfdeaf.bandcamp.com
One of the more interesting stories from Bonnaroo this year came when Half Deaf was standing in VIP at the rail about 5 feet from the giant sub-woofers waiting on Kanye's performance to begin. Pre-concert music was booming Pink Floyd's "Time" when Roger Water's low "D" bass note hit and Half Deaf felt something strange happen in his mouth. He moved his tongue around and then spit one of his fillings into his hand. Bonnaroo’s enormous bass had vibrated his filling loose. If you want to know the sound potential at Bonnaroo on the main stage, this is it.
This year we jokingly came up with the 15 stages of getting ready for Bonnaroo, at least 4 of which were "Go to Walmart." After our last Walmart trip, we set out for Manchester Wednesday evening, gaining an hour as we neared. Going Wednesday rather than Thursday had benefits, the biggest being a seamless, no-traffic drive and hassle free check-in.
We arrived in Guest camping Wednesday night at 10 p.m., our home-away-from-home, a tiny patch of Bonnaroo’s 800 acres. After setting up camp in the moonlight with the help of lanterns and headlamps we ventured out to explore the deserted grounds that would soon be crawling with people by the thousands. With a little creativity, we found a way into fenced in Centeroo (the 80-acre epicenter of stages and vendors which becomes its own city) while it was still closed and spent a few hours exploring it in the cool night air under a nearly full moon. We marveled at the amount of work and planning that goes into a festival of such mammoth proportions and the financial impact on Manchester, Tennessee. At one point our conversation devolved into a mathematical discussion of how many port-a-potties 90,000 people need, and how many thousands of tons of said waste must be removed.
We were both struck by how beautiful and quiet it was. Even though we've both been to Bonnaroo many times, Fil's 9th consecutive year and Katie’s 6th, it was serene, wandering in the quiet and calm before the storm. The only people there were stacking beer and setting up features, and the only sounds were muted, distant conversations and the humming and beeping of trucks and fork-lifts.
We worked our way through Centeroo and out into General Camping, where we found thousands of Bonnaroovians taking advantage of early entry, with cars streaming in and early-arrivers already flooding Main Street, shopping, eating, gawking at each other and occasionally bursting out in spontaneous chants of “Bonnarooooo”.
The name Bonnaroo takes on strange and wonderful meanings while you live in the suspended reality of the festival. Bonnaroo the name comes from an album title by Dr. John, meaning something near “Fantastic.” It’s taken on a life of its own at the festival. It’s a greeting, an affirmation, and occasionally a howl of that can mean you’re happy or just feeling free.
The weather this year felt just right the first few days. Ample cloud coverage broke up the harsh sun and a constant breeze cooled our skin. The grounds and streets were wet and muddy from earlier rains, and sometimes a gentle mist would cool things down even more. Being a camper at Roo is a non-stop push of body and mind, and we relished every bit of coolness the weather had to offer and took time to eat well in preparation for the long nights of music, dancing, and mingling ahead of us.
Elton John was the biggest reason we wanted to go to Bonnaroo this year. Elton closed the festival Sunday night this year, with a 2.5-hour, one-hit-after-another set. This was a spot which in the past was held by Widespread Panic and Phish among others. Elton John’s presence this year made for a unique Bonnaroo.
On Thursday night, Elton was still three nights away. We made a collective decision to take it slow and easy. Katie and I did Bonnaroo together in 2007, the year of the Bonnaroo dust bowl, when people were going to the hospital with heat stroke and lungs clogged with dust.
The lineup this year didn’t bowl us over. Usually it’s all about the Headliners. Having Elton there was great, but the other headliners were repeat performers. I’ve seen Jack White four times, The Flaming Lips seven times, Kanye once. If this is your first time at Bonnaroo, or any festival at all for that matter, it’s not that big of a deal, and this might even be your perfect lineup, but if you’ve been to a lot of festivals, you see a lot of acts over and over. This year it felt like there was a missing headliner.
To be fair though, both Jack White and the Flaming Lips proved that repeat performer doesn’t mean same-old, same-old. They both put on excellent shows.
As Wednesday turned into Thursday, I had a realization. I tend to be fairly closed about new music, which doesn’t mean I’m not open to it. I just have to hear it live before it grabs me. Walking around overhearing the limited lineup on Thursday, we kept getting drawn in by smaller acts. Not just on the big stages, but in This, That and The Other tents.
Thursday held a lot of new music, and we were excited to take it in. It was packed with less mainstream acts that held their own. Being a music critic is almost as inane as being a music photographer. Music is completely subjective, one man's trash is another man's treasure, and there’s no such thing as music photography although that’s never stopped me from shooting.
We were sometimes disappointed, other times stunned. Always missing some (a given since there are 8 stages, all with simultaneous shows) the shows one or both of us relished Thursday included Ms Mr., Cherub, Parade of Lights, The Weeks, Banks, and J. Roddy Walston and the Business.
The one that really stunned was J. Roddy Walston and the Business. They’re local favorites and the energy they both gave to and pulled from the crowd was amazing. Fans filled This tent to overflowing as they tore the place down with a sweeping convergence of sound and light in their late evening performance. Their music is ridiculously high energy Southern-tinged rock with hints of gospel and country.
We both loved the show and took the words in their last song of the set “Take It as It Comes” through howling vocals as a guiding principle for the upcoming days.
Jam Bands were noticeably absent this year but Friday’s music included a daylight performance by Umphrey’s McGee, who played the What Stage.
With an hour break between sets on the main stage we missed most of Janelle Monae and heard the Seattle-based indie folk-rock band The Head and the Heart who pulled off a heart warming and distinct set.
Ready for some electronic music, we next made our way to the Canadian electronic “Powwow Step” trio at That Tent. At “A Tribe Called Red” we received our daily dose of bass and crowds worked into a peaceful frenzy. At dusk we got to Which Stage just in time for Phoenix, a rock band from Paris, France.
Similar to the Thursday night with J. Roddy, Phoenix wowed fans with a non-stop set and a huge screen that made the stage appear to be an endless corridor of pillars and rooms. By now we’ve literally walked and danced our way through the day, it’s 10 p.m. and the night is just getting started.
As weird things go, our next artist is calling on the ghosts of Bonnaroo past. Kanye West is here, the polarizing character, the self-anointed genius who invariably is either loved or not. I’ve heard the genius declaration from a lot of people, not just the man himself, but I was skeptical so I listened to his music, I mean, really listened to it for the first time and it does hold genius.
His last appearance at Bonnaroo was full of misery and recriminations for everyone, including his fans. They waited for hours to see a phenomenal light show, turned moot by the appearance of the sun. This was followed by months of finger pointing and crossed stories about what really happened.
On Friday night though, the crowd was filled with every rainbow hue of Kanye opinion. If I am indeed a music critic, then Kanye’s performance at Bonnaroo on Friday night left me critical.
He showed up 20 minutes late, left 10 minutes early and treated his back row fans to a video image of himself so distorted it was unrecognizable.
Halfway through his set, he stopped and went on a disjointed 15-minute tirade where he compared himself to Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison and declared himself the “Number one rockstar on the m_f planet.”
This is a pretty big statement to make in front of 90,000 hard-core music lovers. Jimi, whose creativity flowed through a left-handed stratocaster and who set rock and roll, his guitar and the imaginations of a billion people on fire. Then there’s John Lennon, who’s still loved and whose band sold 5 million songs and a million records in two short weeks on I-Tunes store 31 years after an assassin’s bullet took his life.
The next night, I had the pleasure of meeting Robbie Krieger, guitar player of the Doors and the last surviving member. I thought about Ray Manzarek, ¼ of the musical genius that was the doors, who considered himself a bad piano player, but played keyboards with his hands and bass with his feet and wondered how he would feel hearing Kanye compare himself to Jim Morrison.
Genius or not, Kanye came back to Bonnaroo and took the stage in front of thousands of people, most of whom probably spent three or four days' wages on a ticket, who planned, sweated, waited in line, fought crowds and heat only to have one of the headliners keep them waiting.
His entire set was missing any form of instrumentation. There may have been a keyboard on stage, it was hard to tell. It's strange to me, hearing him compare himself to someone like Jimi Hendrix, when he's doing Karaoke of his own music in front of almost a hundred thousand people.
In Jay Z’s Madison Square Gardens set in “Fade to Black”, there were so many musicians on stage it was crowded. That’s how you speak to music fans. That’s how you show them you love music.
I guess that here (in my own rant), I’ve come to the conclusion that the one thing missing from Kanye’s show was gratitude, gratitude for what he’s got and the respect of his fans that should come with it. Gratitude doesn’t seek attention because it doesn’t have to. Gratitude acknowledges the truth, and it comes back a hundred fold. It doesn’t nit-pick, and it doesn’t play tar-baby with a press that loves to incite drama and sensationalism.
Kanye broke one the cardinal rules of the Bonnaroo Code, which is “Radiate Positivity.”
It’s corny, but so true. You brought down the entire tribe, Kanye.
If your music is genius, then be genius enough to let it be about the music. If your music is what you say it is it will speak for itself. When you stop doing the one thing they love about you to go negative, you lose, they lose, and your music, whatever genius it does hold, is just lost.
We drifted away from Kanye to explore the rest of the evening. We caught Ice Cube, who thrashed the Which stage with his classic rap, much to the delight of just about everyone. We caught the first part of Superjam in the Other tent, with Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and lots of special guests including Chaka Khan, Andrew Bird, Karl Denson and Bend Folds.
We had to catch Skrillex this year. He closed Which stage with a late night set, and, yes, we’re both a bit older than the EDM crowd, but we managed to stay up late enough to enjoy some of it. Sonny Moore, AKA, Skrillex, landed on stage in a day-glo UFO ship, and was overwhelmingly, well, EDM. It pulls the energy out of the crowd, and they love it. What else is there?
By this time, we were exhausted, and wandered back to the tent to pass out under the Friday the 13th full moon and slept like babies with ear plugs in our ears.
By Fil Manley firstname.lastname@example.org & Katie Hall
The Bonnaroo 2014 Lineup included
Elton John, Kanye West, Jack White, Lionel Richie, Vampire Weekend, The Avett Brothers, Phoenix, Skrillex, Arctic Monkeys, Frank Ocean, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Kaskade, Wiz Khalifa, Damon Albarn, Neutral Milk Hotel, SuperJam: Skrillex and Friends featuring Big Gigantic with special guests Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, Robby Krieger (of The Doors), Zedd, Mickey Hart, Janelle Monáe, Joel Cummins, Warpaint, Chance the Rapper, Mike Einziger, Ruby Amanfu, High & Mighty Horns, Thundercat, and more, SuperJam: Derek Trucks featuring Chaka Khan, Taj Mahal, Eric Krasno, James Gadson, David Hidalgo, Willie Weeks, Nigel Hall, Ryan Zoidis, Eric Bloom and Adam Deitch with special guests Andrew Bird, Susan Tedeschi, Karl Denson, Ben Folds and more, The Bluegrass Situation SuperJam hosted by Ed Helms featuring the Lonesome Trio, Dierks Bentley, Sarah Jarosz, Lake Street Dive, The Black Lillies, The Lone Bellow, Robert Ellis, Della Mae, Bryan Sutton, and Dave Johnston of YMSB, Disclosure, Cut Copy, The Head and the Heart
, Zedd, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Funkiest Dancer, Chromeo, Broken Bells, Tedeschi Trucks Band, James Blake, Bobby Womack, Umphrey's McGee, Ice Cube, Ben Howard, Slightly Stoopid, Fitz & The Tantrums, Cake, Janelle Monáe, Grouplove, Amos Lee, CHVRCHES, Cage the Elephant, Die Antwoord, Craig Robinson & The Nasty Delicious, Drive-By Truckers, Andrew Bird & the Hands of Glory, Mastodon, Capital Cities, Taran Killam & Friends
, Jake Bugg, Chance The Rapper, Dr. Dog, Yonder Mountain String Band, Hannibal Buress, John Butler Trio, Down n' Dirty Hosted by Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer, Little Dragon, T.J. Miller, City and Colour, The Glitch Mob, The Naked and Famous, Phosphorescent, Washed Out, Danny Brown, Warpaint, Sam Smith, A$AP Ferg, Darkside, Seasick Steve, Shovels & Rope, Lucero, Real Estate, Carolina Chocolate Drops
, The Wood Brothers, The Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar, with special guests Billy Martin, Marc Ribot, DJ Logic and Shahzad Ismaily, Pusha T, Rory Scovel, Meshuggah, Poliça, DakhaBrakha, Goat
, ZZ Ward, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Blackberry Smoke, MS MR, First Aid Kit, Sasheer Zamata, A Tribe Called Red, Omar Souleyman, Brooks Wheelan, The Bouncing Souls, Greensky Bluegrass, Ty Segall, Sarah Jarosz, Vintage Trouble, Okkervil River, White Denim, Jonathan Wilson, Seth Herzog, J. Roddy Walston & the Business, Robert Delong, Cloud Nothings, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Valerie June, King Khan & the Shrines
, Cherub, BANKS, Emily Heller, Break Science, The Black Lillies, The Lone Bellow, Caveman, Big Sam's Funky Nation, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, La Santa Cecilia, Classixx, Allah-Las, Cass McCombs, Vance Joy, Haerts, Those Darlins, Deafheaven, Lake Street Dive, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, The Wild Feathers, The Preatures, Brad Williams, Ryan Belleville, DJ Equal, DJ Logic, Full Service Party, Holden, Jared Dietch
, Jonathan Toubin, Le Chev, Quickie Mart, Solu Music, Tiki Disco, The Weeks, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Foreign Fields, Tim Baker & Adam Hogan of Hey Rosetta!, Ásgeir, Animals As Leaders, Arc Iris, The Black Cadillacs, Black Pistol Fire, Blank Range, The Bots, Bronze Radio Return, Bully, Cayucas, Desert Noises, Diarrhea Planet, Donald Cumming, The Dunwells, ELEL, Empires, Fly Golden Eagle, The Futures League, The Griswolds, High and Mighty Brass Band, Hunter Hunted, James Bay, Jamestown Revival, Jennifer Sullivan, Jeremy Messersmith, John & Jacob, Kansas Bible Company, Kevin Devine, Kins, Lily & the Parlour Tricks, The Lonely Biscuits, Meghan Tonjes, Monster Truck, The Orwells, Parade of Lights, PJ Loughran, Roadkill Ghost Choir, Royal Canoe, Royal Teeth, The Saint Johns, Sam Hunt, Skinny Lister, Speedy Ortiz, Streets of Laredo, Syd Arthur, The Unlikely Candidates, Wild Child, Willy Mason