Every year, Bonnaroo tells the story of America in four days. People come to a 600-acre farm in Middle America hoping for the best but not knowing what to expect. Massive amounts of dollar bills are exchanged, people get drunk, friends are made, and on Monday you have the worst case of Mondays this side of Mike Judge’s imagination.
Bonnaroo offers everything for everyone. You can watch the World Cup while eating a grass fed hamburger and drinking a microbrew. You can watch Skrillex, Damien Marley, Robbie Krieger, Mickey Hart, and Big Gigantic jam at 3 AM. You can cross dress, watch Dumb and Dumber, spray paint, skinny dip, people watch, or eat gator. The one thing you can’t do is text your friends and expect it to go through. Fests in L.A., Austin, and New Orleans offer a lot, but you can’t walk back to your RV at 6 AM listening to world-class bass drops. They have noise ordinances. Bonnaroo does not and it really doesn’t have any rules at all except for Be Kind, Have Fun, and Radiate Positivity. Bonnaroo is freedom, and therefore Bonnaroo is America.
2. Sensory Overload
There is so much to do that it can overwhelm. From noon until 4 a.m. there are usually four or five bands playing and they are all good. There are food trucks, water slides, and comedy tents. You can find the perfect place to triangulate metal, rap, and jam coming from three different stages. You can take a dip under the giant fountain or hide under a rainbow parachute pretending you are at summer camp.
Bonnaroo is infamous for its purposeful disorganization. The stages are named What and Which. This Tent or That Tent? No, The Other Tent. At first you can’t find anything and then you realize that as each night goes on the schedule becomes little more than a suggestion.
I paced myself. On Friday and Saturday I sat under the beautiful canopy and watched the World Cup with hundreds of fellow fans. I went back to the RV for an hour of air conditioning even though it meant missing Arctic Monkeys and Cut Copy, two of my favorite bands. I also stayed out until 5 a.m. watching Kaskade’s world class drums and bass performance, getting blasted by confetti, and walking home at dawn to find my friends still awake and ready to recap the day before catching a few precious hours of sleep.
3. SO Much Music
I thought I knew who I wanted to see, but it all changed. Early evening bands played headliner worthy sets including Chromeo, Phoenix, and Avett Brothers. There were unexpected finds like the hectic revival punk of King Khan and the Shrines and the dark lonely magic of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Cake, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Lucero were old favorites. The one set that disappointed me was Disclosure. My expectations were too big for a set that sounded exactly like the album.
4. The Headliners
In 2008 Kanye cried like a baby because he wasn’t headlining (Pearl Jam was), came on stage over three hours late, and played for 45 minutes before quitting because light shows don’t work so well at dawn. So Bonnaroo as an entity hates Kanye West and Kanye West hates Bonnaroo. So why did he headline? Not for money, love, or redemption. He wanted hate sex. And he got and gave it as good as the real thing.
He came on stage late and left early. He started his best songs and then stopped then after a few seconds to rant. “Cut the track! Where the press at?!” He played half the show in a mask and did not even have the video screens on, so no one could see him. Of his ninety minutes, he spewed venom at his perceived haters, the press, and Bonnaroo organizers for at least thirty. He is the Anti-Bonnaroo. But because Bonnaroo is run by hippies they would probably say he is the yin to their yang.
Jack White played a hometown, top of his game, legacy performance. He played early White Stripes songs like “Hello Operator” and “Astro” worked in a Led Zeppelin cover, promoted Lazaretto, and closed things down with “Seven Nation Army.” He played 26 songs but it seemed like 40, because he used every opportunity to play mind-bending solos and also used the microphone for more than just singing. He whined about Rolling Stone, shouted out Detroit, and told us to love our mothers.
When Elton John was announced as the headliner I was bemused and disappointed. I was hoping for Daft Punk or The Rolling Stones at the top of the bill. But I did not leave disappointed. Elton put on one of the most professional, crowd-pleasing shows I’ve ever seen. Because there weren’t late night sets to prepare for, the What Stage was packed, but of course it was amiable and easy to get around.
Bonnaroo peaks on Saturday because everyone is in the flow yet still energized. By Sunday afternoon, everything is gravy. Elton was the festival’s denouement. And I did not realize how many of his songs I know. His band is obviously amazing and he surprised everyone by playing “Tiny Dancer” early in the set. With that out of the way, we were free to sway in the night breeze with our friends, drink one last beer, and start planning to come back next year.