If you or someone you know ever went to a Catholic high school or college, you might be familiar with the Kairos retreat, but for all you pagans, it’s essentially a three-to-four-day retreat that is full of self-reflection, contemplation, bonding, EMOTIONS and all that other good stuff. It’s a known, unscientific proven fact that when people return from Kairos, they are inflicted with a condition that lasts anywhere from two days to two months:
It causes those affected to be overly joyous, sentimental, and completely at peace with the world; so much so that those around them even begin to resent their newfound overt happiness (because life is terrible, remember?).
I bring this all up because it’s been two days since I left Bonnaroo, and I’m still stricken with a severe case of what my friends have been calling a Bonna-high.
I have been outright radiant, bursting with a love for my fellow man and a dedication to minimize my needs in life in order to find true happiness. Frankly, it’s all pretty sickening for those that have had to deal with me in the impatient, calloused world of the big city, but I believe that beyond the music and beyond the fanfare, this feeling I’m feeling is what Bonnaroo is really all about because it’s what lasts afer all the other stuff ends.
And it wasn’t two minutes after pulling in to the gates of Bonnaroo that I was confronted with my first “Bonna-high” moment. A girl’s car had broken down while waiting in line to be assigned a parking spot and almost immediately I was recruited by a kind stranger to help push it out of harm’s way. With one good deed down, I was already feeling alive with positive karma.
Once the crew that I shared the 12-hour drive with and I found our camp site, we began interacting with our neighbors: two barely-21 girls from Alabama who were in a little over their heads, a young early-20s couple from Southern Florida who had converted their Enterprise Rental Van into a canopied tent and who immediately offered us drugs (I would eventually find out that later in the weekend the girl decided to sunbathe naked on the roof of the van to everyone’s surprise and to the men in my group’s delight), and, most importantly, two 20-something guys from Michigan named Kevin and Archie who would grow to be some of my favorite people in the world.
After only a few minutes, Kevin, who resembled a Mellow Gold-era Beck, began pontificating on the greater meaning of Bonnaroo, pointing out that this was our generation’s attempt at capturing the free-spirited magic of the Baby Boomers’ festivals of the ’60s and ’70s. By the time he was done explaining his logic, I was hooked on the concept that Bonnaroo would be my own personal transformative festival.
I was ready to be a better me.
It turned out I wasn’t alone though, as a palpable sense of joy, communal responsibility, and rarely-seen-in-life respect permeated the entire landscape. What’s funny about that kind of environment is that it’s contagious; one hour on a farm in Tennessee and I felt myself becoming nicer.
Throughout the weekend, I interviewed random festival-goers, asking them about their expectations and impressions about Bonnaroo as a whole and consistently their answers were about not just the music but the familial sense of friendliness that made this festival so great. A particularly crunchy Bonnaroo veteran told me that there is “a certain mentality that we try to harvest here,” and I actually understood exactly what he meant.
After walking through the gates for the first time and immediately hearing a new band that I made a note about to check out later (called Deap Vally), I waited for Purity Ring near the side of the tent where they would be performing. As I was pondering how far they had come since I had seen them at the back room of Black Cat a few years ago, an excited younger kid tapped me on the arm, a roll of toilet paper in his hand. Before I could express my confusion, he simply asked me if I thought it was okay if he threw the toilet paper into the crowd or if it would be “a dick move.” I was shocked that someone, even in his state of inebriation, would question how his actions might affect others.
Dave Applebaum, the lead singer of The Mowgli’s, later described Bonnaroo as a place where, “as long as you’re not affecting anyone negatively, you can do whatever you want,” and all I could think of was how this small, toilet-papered event was really a microcosm for how people believed they should act at Bonnaroo.
That Thursday night saw a chaotically vigorous set by Japandroids that set a high bar for This Tent-followers Alt-J to hit, but the English quartet were up for the task, as their set was one of my personal favorites.
Neighbors Kevin and Archie squeezed their way into the tight crowd with me, and we were rewarded with a performance that saw everything they do well on the album done even better live. The enthralled masses danced along to every beat and the spontaneous mass-pogoing during “Fitzpleasure” was one of the first chances I had to truly let myself go; it was absolutely freeing. Later, at yoga the next morning, my teacher would remind me that Bonnaroo was a place for a “full expression of self,” and this was the moment I was brought back to.
Following Alt-J, one of the girls close to me in the crowd told me, Kevin, and Archie that we should hang out with her and her friends. Not ones to say no to an offer like that, we ended up being ingratiated into a gypsy-esque crew from Tulsa, Oklahoma for the next few hours and basking in the enlivening energy of Bonnaroo.
And I realized that one of the funnest parts of going to a festival in the middle of nowhere is meeting people from places you never expected.
The nature of the festival itself means all Bonnaroo attendees are people that decided it was worth it to drive to a farm in Manchester, Tennessee, not shower for days on end, and camp on the ground in order to experience great music. Because of this, it means that most of the people I met were all pretty awesome.
The Tulsan gypsies eventually led us to hear the jams of ALO with special guest Jack Johnson (whose casual sponatenous fill-in for the aneurysmed Mumford and Sons was just so Bonnaroo), though their unfathomably long set eventually lost out to my need for sleep, and I made my way back to our tent site to call it a wrap on Day 1.
The excruciating temperature inside my tent around 9:00AM helped force me to go to yoga the next morning, which I told myself I should do anyway, but was something that would eventually become a pleasant routine for my mornings. They were lighthearted, fun classes and a great way to unwind in preparation for a long festival day. The teachers became karmic coaches as well, reminding me that I was in a special place and that I should take advantage of it.
With my chi centered and fully loving life, I then had to trudge over to the Press Tent for a “Press Orientation” which I wasn’t looking forward to in the slightest. However, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the festival organizers not lecture us, but instead reason with us to “bear with [them]” if something sucked, reminding us that “we’re all trying to work hard but have a good time,” and point out that we should all just “be nice and smile.” After then announcing Jack Johnson would be replacing an aneurysming Mumford and Sons and bringing him out to play a few songs for us, I left the tent smiling, but I was sprinting as I did it…
Reptar, the little band that could from Athens, Georgia, and a personal favorite of mine, were playing a smaller tent across the festival and I wanted to make sure I had a good spot to catch their show. However, I overestimated how long it would take to get there and arrived in time to catch most of their soundcheck.
I watched them make minor adjustments for about twenty minutes, and it was cute to see the band that once mastered the art of sloppy indie rock put so much care into their sound levels. It goes to show just how mature this band has become in the few years they’ve been together. But I wasn’t the only one excited by their presence, as the crowd’s energy and spontaneous “Rep-tar! Rep-tar!” chants seemed to surprise the overjoyed band. Lead-singer Graham Ulicny even remarked, “Wow. Ya’ll are really cool,” as he set up the stage.
When they finally got to playing, both the crowd and band erupted along to their frantic, warped style of celebration indie rock. Supported by a strong, tight horn section, it almost sounded like Phil Collins had been resurrected from obscurity to play conductor to a band who grew up on David Byrne. I was in heaven; the songs I already loved were fantastic and even the songs I didn’t like as much from their new record were presented with such force and talent that I was able to see how great they really were (and how badly whoever produced Body Faucet fucked up while trying to capture that live sound in the studio). After a high-spirited hour-long set, a grateful audience cheered for more (for naught), and I was ready to anoint them as my favorite act so far.
I had to decompress after all that though, so I retired back to the Guest/Press Area, which was my little sanctuary to unwind but also a great place to people watch. What was really interesting though is that even in that kind of place that defines exclusivity, there was an air of unpretentiousness. There were a few bubbly, doe-eyed girls that donned outfits and attitudes that leaned more towards Coachella than Bonnaroo, but as a whole it was a communal place where I met some great people. Just like in the other areas of the festival, strangers were quick to engage with each other and ensure that everyone was enjoying themselves. While lying in one of the hammocks there, I wrote, “Bonnaroo feels like a 4-day long sigh of relief.”
A brief reprise later, I met up with some of my crew to catch Local Natives along with the other swarms of people brave enough to take on the early afternoon’s unrelenting heat. But the band from Silver Lake used the heat to their advantage and really ignited a What Stage that I hear Trombone Shorty lit the fuse on earlier in the day. When they eventually played “Sun Hands,” there wasn’t a person around me that wasn’t dancing cathartically.
I followed that up with seeing Foals, whom my friend Catalina recommended to me after seeing them at Governor’s Ball the weekend before. She was dead-on when she said they weren’t to be missed live, as the somewhat restrained bursts of energy on their records were unleashed in full force in person. Their lively set invigorated a crowd thankful to see this band in a (relatively) small tent and not on a larger stage that they could have easily handled and probably will take on sometime in the future.
But after Foals I felt the first lull in the Bonnaroo crowd.
I could see that people, while excited and completely content, were starting to fully realize the test of endurance ahead of them. Bottles of water were being bought instead of beer and the random oases that adorned the festival grounds were starting to be more heavily populated. Feeling it a bit myself, I decided a quick power nap under a tree would do me well, and I embraced the opportunity to sleep outside in public, knowing that I, and my stuff, would be fine. As I drifted off, it was the very un-Bonnaroo Kanye whose lyrics popped in my head: “Man, why can’t life always be this easy?”
I woke up about 30 minutes later sufficiently rested with only one magical name in my schedule and on my mind:
If Neighbor Kevin’s Woodstockish metaphor had any legs, Sir Paul’s performance strengthened them. With a boyish charm and a British swagger rivaling Austin Powers’ dad that catapulted him onto my ‘5 People I’d Love To Have Dinner With’ list, Sir Paul burned through a three-hour, three-encore set that had multiple people in the crowd around me exclaiming joyously, “Oh my God, this is actually happening!” And when he shouted, “Oh, look at all the lovely people,” to kick off “Eleanor Rigby,” my favorite Beatles song, I found myself screaming the exact same thing.
His setlist was equally entertaining for casual Beatles fan as well as the diehard McCartney-ites, and McCartney brought them all together with a literally explosive set that lit up the night with gratuitously perfect flames and fireworks. Arguably the most famous Beatle had given his stamp of approval on Bonnaroo 2013. We were the next generation of free love (with birth control though).
At a press Q&A the next day, the lead singer of the Mowgli’s described Paul’s performance as “Communion with eighty-thousand people,” and if you were there to hear him close with the medley to Abbey Road, you get it.
After that, The xx, Pretty Lights, and Animal Collective gave the strong, unremarkable sets I expected from them, but by the time Animal Collective’s raucous two+ hours of playing were halfway through, I had to retire to the relative comfort of my tent. I still had two long days of Bonnarooing ahead of me.
After my morning yoga retreat that day, I succumbed to trying out the guided mediation that followed it. The steady voice of the meditation leader made sure to let me know, “I am not of this body; I am not even of this mind,” so I got that going for me, which is nice.
Having left my corporeal self behind, I was then blessed to see a three-song, stripped-down set from Portugal. the Man in the press tent, which gave me a nice perspective on their new album Evil Friends. The power they brought out of just simple percussion and group harmony was only diminished by the fact that all the band members were sporting shit-eating grins at their current position in life. Afterwards, when I remarked to lead-singer John Gourley how much I enjoyed it he enthusiastically asked, “So that was cool?” before quickly celebrating with an ecstatic, “Awesome!”
I then made it over to Solange, who was a nice wake-up to the sleepyheaded festivalers trying to shake off a late Friday night. Her performance was warm enough to meld with the heat but relaxed enough to keep the audience contentedly grooving without killing themselves.
After Solange, I had some time to kill and was going to meet up with my friend Kat in the beer tent when I heard a rousing cover of “Burnin’ Down The House” being played somewhere nearby. Being a big Talking Heads fan, I couldn’t not follow the sound, and eventually I ended up at the Sonic Stage where a group that my schedule called Kaleidoscope Space Tribe was destroying a Talking Heads cover set.
With technical mastery and uncontrollable passion, they burned through hits like “Life During Wartime” and “Once In A Lifetime” (which I relished getting to hear performed live) and eventually closed their set with a boisterous “Psycho Killer” that had the entire crowd belting along. I was ready to anoint this band the next big thing when the lead singer thanked the crowd and announced that they were, in reality, and much to my surprise, Walk The Moon.
Walk The Moon!
The band who had ridden a solid single and decent follow-up into a realm of commercial indie-pop stardom that caused my cynical self to give up on them as anything to take seriously. I was so flabbergasted that the next day when I ran into their bass player on the fields, I apologized for not giving them enough credit and thanked them for being my favorite surprise of the weekend. It was all very Bonnaroo of me.
But then it was time to run again, as I had an important date that I wouldn’t let myself miss.
One of the bands I was looking forward to most was a group that I had written about for my first Tunes You Should Fucking Know article ever, Tiny Victories. They are without a doubt one of my favorite bands out there today, and I was giddy at the aspect of getting to hear some of the most played songs on my iPhone in all their live glory. They were playing Cafe Where, which according to my map was a venue somewhere near the outer boundaries of the field near the main stage but in reality was just a small tent tucked in between concession stands and restrooms.
I felt insulted for them, as the tent was a quarter full, and most of those people were just there to enjoy sitting in the shade, but if the group felt slighted, you would never know. They played a phenomenally powerful but fun set that I am sure will be overhyped by Bonnaroo 2015 promoters when they discuss the band’s ascent from a back tent to a more prominent position in the future lineup.
Lead-singer Greg Walters has found an unrestrained comfort with his singing and showmanship that elevates every song in their catalogue, and since he cut his signature long hair into something a bit more aggressive it’s easier to notice just how intense drummer Cason Kelly is while playing; it’s infectious to watch and keeps Greg from looking like just a guy with a microphone and tons of electronic equipment. While I’m pretty sure my friend Kat and I won the award for ‘those fans’ as we danced and sang along like no one was watching, after their too-brief 45 minute set, it was apparent that they had won over a few new fans curious to know who was behind the great music bellowing from the hidden tent in the back.
I William Millered my way backstage with Greg and Cason and caught a bit of Bjork’s set with them, but eventually we parted ways so that I could check out A-Trak, whose heavy ebb-and-flow dance beats were a great transition into a night that was stolen by the infamous R. Kelly.
Robert’s epic set began with him appearing on top of the Which Stage and taking a crane down to the main floor below him. It rattled through every hit and guest verse he has ever had, and it even featured a slew of doves being released during “I Can Fly.” A million pee jokes might have been made throughout the weekend before his set, but afterwards, the only thing people could say about R. Kelly was that that man could sing. Then, just to canonize himself further, he immediately followed his set with an appearance at the Bonnaroo Superjam that featured Jim James, John Oates, Billy Idol, and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard… I know.
Empire Of The Sun’s bizarrely-dressed stage performance closed out the night, but they mercifully played “Walking On A Dream” early enough that I got at least a few hours sleep before crawling to yoga the next morning.
I’m lucky I stuck with my yoga routine on the last day because it meant I was up early enough to catch Lee Fields’ brilliant performance to open up the What Stage on Sunday. The 62-year-old soul singer brought the midday crowd to its knees with a set that felt like a sermon being delivered by James Brown. It was also during that set that I heard my favorite, “Did you hear what happened at _____’s performance?” rumor, which involved Kim from Matt and Kim supposedly paradiddling her snare mid-set, if you know what I mean. And because that is just the perfect Bonnarumor (really proud of that one), I refuse to find out if it is true or false.
From there, I meandered back to the Press Tent to watch a television capture Macklemore traversing around a stage in a Tennessee Bobcat fur coat that he had received from one of the tens of thousands of screaming fans in front of him. I’m sure it was a fun place to be, but as someone who hasn’t drank the Macklemore Kool-Aid, I was glad to be enjoying a cold bottle of water in a shady tent instead. While I’ve heard from a few people that he was a highlight of their weekend, I took the opportunity to jot a few notes down, enjoy joints handed to me by strangers, and kill some time before another event I was eagerly looking forward to: a screening of The Way, Way Back, the second film written by The Descendants-scribing Jim Rash (aka Dean Pelton of Community) and Nat Faxon (sadly aka Ben from “Ben and Kate”).
Having recently heard that Jim Rash had written “Basic Human Anatomy,” my favorite episode ofCommunity from last season, I was eager to see what he could do with a full movie. The result was a film so well cast that it was fun to see who was the alpha dog in scenes that featured Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Rob Cordry and Amanda Peet sharing a screen and so well-written that the few admitted tears that escaped my eyes as the credits hit were only slightly embarrassing.
It delicately captured the intricacies of being a young teen who is dealing with the very real fear of missing out (despite how much the abbreviation FOMO has diminished its cripplingly impactful power) while also trying to make sense of the crumbling, not-so-innocent world around him. It’s immediately on my list to see again once it comes out in theaters July 5th. And while the movie itself would have been a highlight of my Bonnaroo experience, it was the humorously sincere Q&A that Rash and Faxon did after the screening (which saw me doing my best attempt at acting cool while nervously asking them a question) which heightened it to something else altogether.
Riding that high, I swung back by the Press Tent to charge my phone, only to eventually strike up a conversation with a Consequence of Sound writer named Amanda Koellner, who whisked me away to stand in line with her and her friends in order to see David Byrne and St. Vincent up close and personal.
When the two artists took the stage, along with a forceful brass band backing them, they cut through a sharp set punctuated with tracks from their collaboration album Love This Giant, St. Vincent standards, and Talking Heads favorites. The brass band gave every song a welcome taste of raucous funk, but professionalism dominated the set, with the only thing tighter than the music being the intricate choreography of those onstage.
Conducting the brilliant stage show and haloed by perfectly subdued lighting, David Byrne seemed like the alternative, happy ending to “Losing My Edge’s”contemplation about how to age gracefully with the scene. As the newly-blonde Annie Clark played her part to perfection throughout the set, I whispered to one of the people I had been in line with that it reminded me of Professor X and Jean Gray. He smiled, but shook his head; “Nah man, that’s Magneto and Mystique up there.” And with that, he had stumbled up on the best nerdy music analogy during all of Bonnaroo.
From there, it was a quick trek over to hear Tom Petty close down the festival. The timeless Floridian and his Heartbreakers jammed through crowd-pleasers, deep-cuts, and covers that left every festival goer with a pleasant taste in their mouth as they frolicked back to their tents and RVs one last time.
As I made the walk myself, it felt like Christmas Day; anyone and everyone I encountered exclaimed, “Happy Bonnaroo!” before traipsing away into the dark.
Finally, I made it back to camp and debriefed with my car-mates and neighbors about the spectacular weekend we all had. We swapped stories and I couldn’t help but notice how there was a universal theme of friendliness, carefreeness, and love that ran through all of them. Bonnaroo has something for everyone — they even showed the two NBA Finals game that took place during the weekend, which I highly appreciated — but at its core, Bonnaroo is, as another interviewee told me, “a place for people that just truly love music.”
I’m sure eventually the daily grind will wear me back down, and I’ll deflate to my semi-misanthropic self. But for right now, life is too short and too good to not embrace everyone and everything around me. I’m hoping this Bonna-high will last a while and that I truly act on this revitalized sense of self, but if it doesn’t, that only means that I will have to go back and experience it next year.
Bonnaroo is a festival, vacation, and, as my friend Stephen Wunsch put it, “a truly freeing experience” that I hope everyone gets to enjoy one day (or before it becomes Coachella…).
Originally posted on Brightest Young Things on June 19, 2013