(Photo Credit: Kirsten Spruch)
"Peace. Love. Seatbelts. Buckle up and be safe."
For anyone driving on I-24 West from Chattanooga, those words hung over the interstate. And whether they were a playful welcome or a passive aggressive warning about seatbelt laws, the Tennessee Department of Transportation had no illusions about what was heading their way. Bonnaroo 2016: The Dead Have Risen...or my personal favorite, Bonnaroo 2016: There Will Be Bud.
The women were high school friends attending different colleges across the Deep South. There were four of them, and with the exception of one girl who was still 19, they were all 20. They were sitting beneath a tarp, eating potato chips and M&Ms. They'd already smoked several joints, passing the grass back and forth as they talked about college and which bands they wanted to see this weekend. It was Thursday, and they didn't know many of the bands playing that day, but they were excited for Papadosio whose music they described as a magical fantasy adventure before they'd even gotten stoned. They also wanted to catch Vulfpeck and The Floozies but it was clear that they weren't as high a priority and the girls were already discussing coming back to the tent after BORNS so that they could just drink instead. They began to passionately debate whether or not the boy they'd met the evening before was "cute," "nerdy cute," or just "nerdy."
That was when the blonde man in his late 20s with a thick beard and a top knot approached their tent.
He wasn't the first drug dealer to stop by their campsite. Someone had been by peddling acid before, and they'd watched their neighbors purchase some potent kush from one of countless dudes in a Grateful Dead t-shirt just five minutes before. This gentleman didn't have Lucy. And he didn't have weed. He had magic mushrooms. They were ground up. The girls had never seen shrooms that were ground up before, and they were skeptical that the drugs were real. But they'd been hell bent on getting ahold of shrooms that week, and it's hard to say no when the drugs come to you. They each bought an eighth with the intention of taking half that night.
At 4 PM, two of the girls took their shrooms by just swallowing the ground up powder like medicine. The other two took theirs at 5 by cooking it into a grilled cheese sandwich to mask the taste. They said they couldn't taste it until they got to the end and had a ball of dough that they called mushroom bread. The first two girls began to trip as the girls were cooking their grilled cheese. One was in an ecstatic stupor. The other began to cry. They left before their friends finished eating their drug-laced food. It was hours before they saw their friends again.
There are three types of Bonnaroo experiences, and they are equally valid.
You have the kids who are there for the music and damn near nothing else. They have a tightly planned schedule. They know all of the songs by all of the bands that they're seeing. They'll wait hours to get into the pit at the main stages for their favorite artists. As they wait in the shade of the smaller tents between sets for the more obscure acts (that can be the most personal and intimate shows), they geek out over the music they love with their fellow obsessives.
The second group are the kids who know the headliners (or at least one or two of them) and some of the bigger bands on the undercard, but mostly they're on the Farm just to enjoy music in a broader sense and hang out with their friends. They'll probably drink. They'll probably get high. But they rarely get out of control.
And then you have the hedonists. These are the people who look at Bonnaroo as a chance to listen to music, but more than anything else, it's a chance to ingest every possible chemical from booze to THC to LSD to psilocybin to Molly to whatever the hell else they can get their hands on. And in the campgrounds, those chemicals flow like water. On Wednesday and Thursday, it's impossible to walk more than five feet without hearing someone selling or asking if other people are holding. You will see the hedonists throughout the weekend. They'll be decked out in full body paint. Some of them will seem like zombies, shuffling through the Farm with an almost total lack of awareness of where they are or what's going on around them. There's a good chance one of them will be streaking. It's not Bonnaroo til you see a guy running through camping with his dick flopping in the breeze.
As great as the bands are at Bonnaroo (and this weekend we'll be graced with performances from LCD Soundsystem, Pearl Jam, the living members of the Grateful Dead with John Mayer, Haim, Tame Impala, M83, and many more), Bonnaroo is as much defined by the moments before, between, and after the sets as it is the bands you see. It's watching the hippies hula hoop as the sun sets. It's trying to decide which breed of "bro" the guy who just walked by you is...you know the one. The one in a baseball cap, skinny jeans, and a bootleg t-shirt with the cover of Bruce Springsteen's The River while sporting a mustache that would normally signify work in the adult entertainment industry in the 1970s. It's the friends you make as you're setting up your tent because you were physically incapable of doing it yourself. It's the endless sea of cute girls in their summer clothes that is essentially infinite because Bonnaroo tends to draw nearly 100,000 festival goers (though rumors persist that this year's attendance is significantly less than usual but more thoughts on why that could be the case later this weekend).
And on a Thursday that (mostly) saw a deficit of buzzy smaller bands, it was a perfect chance to observe the social economy of Bonnaroo at work...and also to give myself one of the worst sunburns of my entire life despite lathering enough sun block on me to keep pro wrestler Sheamus safe in the Sahara at high noon. There are few things in life as entertaining as sitting beneath the shade of a tree near one of the tents and watching the festival-goers coming and going and thinking to yourself that you have no idea how middle-aged folks survive Bonnaroo since you're 27, and it's already worn you the fuck out despite the fact that it's just the first day.
In a weekend that will see Pearl Jam celebrating 25 years as a band on the 15th anniversary of Bonnaroo, it's difficult to imagine that anyone will put on a better grunge performance than Bully. The Nashville alt-rockers made waves last year with one of the most talked about residencies at SXSW and then the release of what may have been last year's best straight up rock & roll record, Feels Like.
Though there are other members of the band, Bully is defined by the presence of frontwoman Alicia Bognanno. Last night's set was the third time I've seen Bully since April of last year. With her wounded howl and the rare mixture of a ferocious snarl and total unguarded emotion, Alicia Bognanno is the next evolution of our Cloud Nothings/Japandroids revival of hard rock with brains and heart. When she screams "I remember. I remember my old habits. I remember being too fucked up. I remember throwing up in cars," she hits with an honesty and directness and self-aware pain that I'm not sure hard rock has seen since Kurt Cobain.
When Bully took the stage, it was unlikely that many in the audience knew the band who in NYC have played Baby's All Right (about 200 people) and Music Hall of Williamsburg (about 800), but by the time Alicia Bognanno and company finished shredding through "Trying," it's hard to imagine anyone in that crowd forgetting them.
Twin Peaks hit the same stage afterwards, and although nothing was going to match Bully yesterday for introspective, visceral angst rock, Twin Peaks weren't going down without a fight. They're a prototypically Bonnaroo band. Their fuzzy psych rock was a great chill-down from Bully without losing the head-banging riffage, and when they sang a song about eating mushrooms, they asked how many people in the crowd were partaking of that particular vice this weekend, and if the crowd's response was any indication, plenty of folks were indulging as well. And while the synth pop of BORNS afterwards seemed like a weird change of pace for the stage, he drew the biggest crowd of the evening by far.
Today, Bonnaroo offers a host of performances that should be suitably kick ass for both casual music fans and the most dedicated music lovers. Kamasi Washington should satisfy all of the jazz heads in attendance and for those who are up late enough, Blood Orange will bring you the best of old-school R&B. CHVRCHES, St. Lucia, and Misterwives, are can't miss for all of the indie pop fans at the Roo. And, of course, LCD Soundsystem and Tame Impala will be here to remind us what we love about rock and dance music til the wee hours of the morning.
It's gonna be a great Roo everybody. Hope you're enjoying it as much as we are.