One of the most immensely satisfying experiences a music fan could ever hope to experience. One of the most physically and emotionally draining tests of endurance you could ever hope to survive. A chance to interact with and befriend like-minded music lovers from across the country in celebration of some of your favorite acts, large or small. A chance for "bros," "wooks," and stoners to ingest drugs and booze at an astonishing rate. An intentional celebration of environmentalism, music, love, and hedonism. An accidental explosion of heat stroke, dehydration, and overdosing. All of these contradictions (and more) sum up the crazy, magical, frustrating, and potentially dangerous world of the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. The celebrations may have ended Sunday at midnight when Phish's exhausting four hour set finally drew to a close but it wasn't 'til today that our bodies and minds have recovered sufficiently to even begin to capture the madness that swept over those 80,000 people on that 700-acre farm.
Baeble Music had several feet on the ground for this year's festival. Our managing editor, Joe Puglisi, was there in an official press capacity while I was there trying to capture the essence of Bonnaroo from the perspective of a music fan who paid for their ticket, was sleeping in a tent the whole weekend, and didn't have any of the perks or amenities the press people were receiving. With the exception of drug use (and let's face it, that's become an integral part of the Bonnaroo experience for many, many festival goers), I tried to experience as much of the Bonnaroo experience as I could. What I ultimately walked away with from the festival was an overwhelming sense of contradiction and dueling dichotomies. Never in my entire life have I simultaneously been so happy and so miserable. Maybe some of the drugs that were being passed around like candy (and since I saw LSD-laced Sweet Tarts, it actually often was candy) would have alleviated some of the physical misery I was experiencing by Saturday.
No two Bonnaroo experiences will be the same so perhaps it's futile to try and capture the essence of the dream-like and fluid nature of the festival, but from the moment my car arrived in the hour long traffic to get into the festival grounds Wednesday evening and another hour to get a parking spot (which was hours and hours less than the people who showed up Thursday), there was an inscrutable yet tangible change to the energy in the air. Bonnaroo advertises itself as a community and 99% of the time, that's true. People were helping strangers erect their tents. You shared your water, beer, pot, and food with those in need. This was my first music festival ever, and perhaps other festivals also foster this sense of group responsibility, but in my entire life, I had never seen so many people in one place who were intent on making sure every last person had enough basic supplies to get through one of the most taxing experiences a person can pay hundreds of dollar to endure.
Though I didn't partake, I used to live with a drug dealer. I thought I was prepared for the massive drug use going on at Bonnaroo. I wasn't. It's not that I was bothered by the drug use (I walked around for most of the weekend with a serious contact high), but I was shocked by how open and not subtle it was and how little the Bonnaroo staff gave a shit once you were inside Centeroo or the camp grounds. If you were in a crowded tent or stage area waiting for an act to start (or in a middle of a particularly obvious act that would encourage mind-altering drugs), 66% of the people around you were lighting up pipes, chillums, and bongs to smoke reefer (does anybody still call it that? It's my favorite word for pot). And then, they would pass their smoking implement to whoever around them that wanted a toke. Drugs had less value than water in terms of people's willingness to share it with complete strangers. It was an astounding phenomenon. At any given moment, you were either looking at the stage through a thick shroud of dust (because by Saturday, most of the grass, the kind you walk on not the kind you smoke, had been ground down to dust) or you were peering through a hazy cloud of ganja smoke.
I'm a bit of a socially awkward person, and unless I had a +1, I spent many New York shows in awkward silence waiting for acts to start or in between openers and headliners. It made bands I didn't know an almost unbearable experience. Maybe it was all of the mood alterers coursing through everyone's systems or the just the magic of the festival itself, but, only the most reclusive and unpersonable people didn't wind up chatting with complete strangers while you were experiencing downtime between sets. Discussing everything from what songs you were hoping to see the next act play, what your favorite acts had been thus far, where you were from, what you did for a living, and a whole litany of often unconnected themes, Bonnaroo spontaneously (and with no direct action from the festival runners) created a forum for music lovers to truly connect with other passionate people, and had it not been for those conversations, the waits for sets would have likely killed me in that omnipresent and torturous Tennessee sun.
For all of the fun that Bonnaroo can be, it can also be exhausting, painful, and a threat to your life. Prior to this year (I'm not sure if there have been any reports about deaths at this year's Bonnaroo), there had been ten deaths in the ten years that the festival had existed. I watched countless people drop like flies in the Tennessee sun. If you were waiting in line to get into the pit area (the closest fan area to the stage that is gated off and cleared in between sets) for one of the two main stages, you were going to hear people yell medic at least three or four times because someone in their party (or around them) finally gave in to the sun. I had to watch security people wrestle down those whose drug experienecs went too far and began having hysterical fits because their "trip" turned south. It literally took five guards to hold down one festival goer who was experiencing full body seizures and screaming uncontrollably about his own death when his acid trip took a horrible turn for the worse. If you take the right precautions (drink plenty of water, apply liberal amounts of sunscreen, rest often), you can survive Bonnaroo fine, though you'll still feel the need to sleep for a year when the festival is done. However, one misstep in keeping yourself hydrated and protected from the sun, and you're gambling with serious health risks.
With the exception of Sunday (where I idiotically thought that heavy cloud cover and intermittent rain would protect me from the sun and therefore didn't apply sunscreen), I took all of the right steps to protect myself. I drank enough water to drown a fish. I bathed in sunscreen. I placed myself in the shade whenever possible. Yet, I still find myself even today feeling like someone beat the holy hell out of me. I wound up missing the Superjam (which featured 90s R&B icon D'Angelo making his first United States concert appearance in over a decade) on Saturday because I was limping so badly after the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert that I was nearly crying on my way back to my tent. I took my boots and socks off to discover that my ankles were bleeding and the next day my feet were so swollen that they wouldn't fit in my tennis shoes. I heard similar anecdotes from festival goers on Sunday. Even on the days I remembered to apply plenty of sunscreen, if I missed even an inch of skin, that particular section of my body hurt like hell for the rest of the weekend and managed to make sleep nearly impossible. However, it got so hot in the tents that it was virtually impossible to sleep past 7:30 or so because you'd wake up drenching your sleeping bag in sweat with no chance of snoozing.
If you think you'd be better off wearing the Urban Sombrero
than the Himalayan Walking Boots
, you'd better mentally prepare yourself for the hygiene clusterf*** that is Bonnaroo. Whether it was the atrocious conditions of the porta-johns (at least in the camping area. They were better maintained in Centeroo) or the thick coating of dust that covered every inch of your body, car, and tent, I've never felt more disgusting in my entire life. When I woke up on Sunday, I was covered in so much dirt, dust, and mud that I looked like I was auditioning for a remake of The Jazz Singer
. There were disgusting showers that you could pay $7 to take, but a lot of people just wound up bathing in the fountain. You could literally see people with shampoo, soap, and conditioner in the giant Centeroo mushroom fountain. I don't even want to talk about the number of times I thought I was going to pass out from the miasmic stench of the porta-johns (and my outdoor allergies meant I was congested the whole weekend so I can only imagine what people with full access to their olfactory senses were experiencing).
While I was impressed with much of the higher-level organization of the festival (they had managing traffic down to a science as well as getting people to their proper parking area), Bonnaroo needs to make significant strides in maintaining order at the main stages. As mentioned earlier, there are pits at the main stage for the bigger fans to wait in to see their favorite acts. After each show, the pit is emptied and people who were waiting in line for the next act are admitted. That's a great idea in theory because it keeps some people from staying at the main stage all day and it keeps the smaller stages/tents a little emptier as people have to miss other acts in order to wait in line for a pit for hours and hours. The problem lies in the implementation. Unless you are in the very front of the line (like I was for Bon Iver), there is almost nothing keeping people from cutting in front of you. The security does nothing to stop them and won't remove someone even if twenty people complain. The lines perpetually got wider at a faster rate than they got longer because people would merge into the lines rather than actually go to the back.
This phenomenon kept me out of the pit for Radiohead because of the sheer number of people cutting once they opened the pit gates. I was actually the person at the pit rail when they stopped letting people into the show, and I had to watch Radiohead from the worst view imaginable (all while it was too crowded for me to leave and try to get a better view on the hill and I watched dozens of people jump the fence into the private VIP area as the security guards gave up on trying to stop them). For the most part, Bonnaroo is an awesome community of music-lovers but because of the inability of the security team to manage lines, it became a dog-eat-dog world to get the best possible spot for What Stage acts. While I understand that there is only so much Bonnaroo can do in this regard, Bonnaroo needs to come up with a better system for rewarding the people who actually follow the rules and wait and a system to discourage people from cutting line and trying to show up for the pit for bigger acts at the last minute.
All music lovers should experience Bonnaroo at least once in their life. I made up excuse after excuse in years past to not attend the festival (money, not knowing anyone that was going, travel, etc.), but now (line-up pending), its virtually guaranteed that I'll try to make it back next year. Despite all of the stress, physical misery, and frustration that I experienced that weekend, it was worth it because of the sheer volume of great artists I finally got to experience live. You just have to arrive knowing just how crazy the Bonnaroo experience can be. Be sure to come back tomorrow when I recount my top ten sets that I caught this year for "Roo With a View Pt. 2." I think you'll be shocked by the order that some of these acts wound up being in.