Frontier Psychiatrist

We Have To Go Back: Bonnaroo 2011

Posted on: June 17, 2011

What’s So Bad About Being Number Two?

For four days, my seven friends and I were residents of the city of Bonnaroo, population 85,000. This is our story.

We left DC at about eight in the evening, and drove through the night. Somehow driving over two states equaled 12 hours. Thursday was rough. We arrived at the campsite (“The Island”[1]) around eight in the morning just as the Tennessee heat gets switched on. The tents were pitched with minor hitches, but my sleep deprived and slightly dehydrated mind had serious issues comprehending the masses and the task at hand. Hours of sleep attempts ensued, but eventually we said “fuck it,” and began the 30 minute trek to Centeroo[2].

That night was more acclimation than enjoyment. “Ok, the School of Seven Bells is on That Tent? That means Best Coast is on The Other Tent. But what’s happening at This Tent? Who’s on first?” Best Coast was about as fun and  uninspiring as her record. I would have preferred to see Wavves, but just didn’t get moving fast enough. Jay Z’s latest protégé, who shares his prefix, J. Cole, put on a rousing set that ended up being more nostalgia than progress. Clearly without Jigga’s blessing, Cole wouldn’t have reached this point of pseudo-stardom, which is why crutches like Biggie’s “Hypnotize” helped the crowd stay engaged[3]. Lastly, we caught The Walkmen, but I actually fell asleep. Despite being bummed that I missed what was described as a great show, I was relieved to find that sleep can be found in the indie refugee camp. We stumbled home[4] and slept for 7 hours, the most I have gotten in a while.

Friday was unquestionably the best day. After a morning of grilling and chilling, we made it to Centeroo in time for a superb, throwback set by Justin Townes Earle. Armed with a fantastic band of a fiddler and stand-up bass (both female) JTE brought us back to the vaudevillian era with stunning three-part harmonies, fresh blues jams and seersucker. His tweed ridden closer of “Harlem River Blues”—an oddly uplifting gospel stomp about “washing your sins away” uptown—was a highlight of the whole weekend. Next, Stoner-metal veterans The Sword provided a much needed bottom and bite to the festival. Last year’s excellent Warp Riders, a science fiction metal opera, was featured heavily, but the most memorable moment was their hammering cover of ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses” while they all donned Blueblockers.

For the rest of the day, the What Stage was the place to be: a triple-bill of The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket and Arcade Fire[5]. As always, The Decemberists were spot-on, playing most of The King Is Dead, with well worn songs from Her Majesty, The Crane Wife and Hazards of Love thrown in. Despite the unfortunate absence of Jenny Conlee—their charming, spectacularly talented everywoman—due to breast cancer, Sarah Watkins formerly of Nickel Creek filled the void expertly. And Colin Meloy is sporting an awesome red beard. Continuing on the beard train, Yim Yames[6] and MMJ put on a cathartic two-hour set, their first on the main stage. With greasy long hair and Gibson Explorer guitars, MMJ look more like stand-ins for Coheed and Cambria than anything. Luckily for everyone ever, their soaring, reverb drenched rock and roll suits the setting Tennessee sun way better than any prog-emo band could dream of attempting. This was possibly the best set of the whole festival.

Before witnessing them live, I was told Arcade Fire put on a conversion-worthy show, which is what I need, because I have always been on the fence about them. Their 11 PM set was powerful, inspiring and uplifting, but alas, I still remain a skeptic. Their best songs (“Wake Up”, “Keep the Car Running”, “Intervention”, “Sprawl II”) are so moving live, it’s hard for the band to sustain that energy over their less well-written songs. Call me contrarian, but there is still something missing in many of the songs themselves, no matter how hard they play them.

The most epic day was rounded out in the most epic way: Bassnectar. As our group split—some to a weak Lil Wayne set, others to a sexy Big Boi set—two of us ventured into the madness of This Tent at 12:30 AM. What followed is pretty inexplicable, but entirely awesome. While Arcade Fire may have left me unconverted, I find myself at the verge of dubhead status, thanks to Bassnectar’s entrancing visuals and life-affirming drops[7]. Well, probably not, but sensory overload never felt so good.

Saturday was definitely the weakest full day, and when the holes in the line-up started to show. Or at least my regrets of missing shows reached an all-festival high. I chose dilly dallying over Old Crow Medicine Show, Man Man over Portugal. The Man, and The Black Keys and Eminem over Bootsy Collins and the Funk University, all mistakes.  Man Man was decent, but the sound at This Tent suffered at times, and greatly hindered the experience. We left early to enjoy an enthusiastic, otherworldly performance by Devotchka that featured a sousaphone, an aerial silk dancer and plenty of red wine. Bootsy Collins unfortunately graced the stage an hour and a half late, but supposedly made up for it by playing for a full two and a half hours. The Black Keys’ main stage performance was strong, encompassing moments of their long, sometimes diverse career, but ended much too soon.

To call Eminem’s performance underwhelming would be an understatement. I come from the school of thought that festival shows should never be an opportunity to flex your new material, and that is precisely what Marshall decided to do. As feared, Eminem failed to understand the purpose of Bonnaroo, and used his hour and a half set as an advertisement for his music videos, his new protégé (Royce Da 5’9”?) and his newish record. He appears even more washed up than expected, and the show was a harsh reminder that his best songs are already ten years gone, at least. Luckily, we had Girl Talk to round out the night in true blissful fashion.

Sunday was chaotic. The schedule was stacked, but in an almost inconvenient way. We chose the completist route and tried to get as much in as possible. A healthy dose of soul from Mavis Staples and her band roused us from any grogginess and her positivity drove all dark clouds away. Junip provided an airy, spacey soundtrack as we bounded down the filthy Big Ass Water Slide. Galactic immediately made me hungry for gumbo, which unfortunately I did not find. Iron + Wine got into the ‘roo spirit and jammed it out. It was Robyn’s birthday, which she celebrated by pulling out hilarious dance moves that made all the gay boys scream. Cold War Kids lacked the energy we needed to round out the day. Robert Plant looked like shit, but sounded pretty great, considering. He even covered “Black Dog.” The Strokes were hugely disaffected, and even less apologetic about their late appearance and early departure. Explosions in the Sky gave me chills and recalled repressed memories. Closing the festival for us was the Superjam ft. Dan Auerbach and Dr. John, which was about as messy as expected. Despite an often confusing set, the Superjam concluded the fest in maybe the best possible way, with Dr. John’s “Such A Night.” We didn’t stay for Widespread Panic, which may have been a mistake, but it gave us a chance to unwind together and get out while we still could.

Important things to know about Bonnaroo; it’s filthy, festering, sweltering, uncomfortable, sickening and awesome. The Manchester air—thick with humidity, dust, smoke, intoxication, great tunes and even better friends—felt refreshing and rejuvenating even to my asthmatic lungs. Even a few days later, I continue to ask myself: “Why can’t real life be Bonnaroo?” The shitty thing is that I can’t really find a satisfactory answer. The great thing is that 2012 tickets are already on sale. Let us mosh.


[1] For Future Reference: The campsite balloon numbers and campsite numbers on the map DO NOT CORRESPOND. Unfortunately members of our group learned that the hard way.

[2] What a terrible name. Sounds like they should have a recording of a theme park announcer: “Welcome to Centeroo. Please keep your arms, legs, drugs and bigotry to yourself at all times…”

[3] Hip hop, like nearly every other medium of pop culture has been swept in the vortex of reminiscence, perhaps even more so.

[5] God damn!

[6] Jim James

[7] Seriously, it was so good. He even dubbed out the Hawaii 5-0 theme song and the song that plays when Dumbo gets drunk.


1 Response to "We Have To Go Back: Bonnaroo 2011"

Happy Bonnaroo…WSP was off the hook…this is good stuff…Why cant really life really be real…Roo is magic…we take it back so we can come back next year 🙂

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