All words: Andy Johnson, then Stephanie Breijo
All photos: Stephanie Breijo
Somewhere around Bristol, I almost died.
I wasn’t attacked. I didn’t overdose. Nor did I run afoul of a hooligan tripping on bath salts. The 11-hour overnight journey from DC to the middle of Tennessee taxes the mind. I agreed to drive the night shift so my buddies could rest. My brain, wired on energy drinks and Baked Lays, was lost in concentration listening to Hot Chip’s new album. While reaching for another chip, I glanced up and I saw a pair of eyes staring at me.
The phrase “caught like a deer in headlights” exists for a reason. I swerved, narrowly missing the buck. My passengers awoke to the car spinning counterclockwise 170 degrees, facing about a dozen headlights approaching us.
If I hadn’t been speeding on I-81, coasting by truck after truck in order to make good time to Manchester to secure a prime camping spot for America’s hippie-cum-commercial music festival, I would be dead. My corpse splattered on pavement in southwestern Virginia. My existence extinguished because some dumb animal decided to run out in the middle of the highway, causing yours truly to overcompensate, ricocheting my Camry off a semi, ejecting its three passengers into the median.
But there were no cars nearby. The guard rail was several feed away. We survived. Three hours later we were at a Waffle House. This incident would be the only negative one of the most wonderful weekends of my life: Bonnaroo 2012.
The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival takes place one weekend every June. Thursday is the introductory day. 80,000 visitors arrive, set up their campgrounds, meet their neighbors and begin ingesting a wide array of illegal substances. Sure, you don’t have to use drugs to enjoy Bonnaroo. You also don’t have to eat pizza in Brooklyn or drink beer in Germany. As Canadian philosopher Aubrey Graham once said, you only live once. Not only did our president love drugs, his “choom gang” developed an entire culture around smoking. The fact that one of my friends is named Molly led to fun encounters throughout the weekend, especially when shouting her name in the middle of a crowd.
Bonnaroo is really fucking hot. We were lucky the temperatures stayed in 80s and low 90s. Because I’m not dumb, I didn’t get a sunburn. Still, spending multiple hours in ninety-degree heat isn’t pleasant. You will sweat. 80,000 sweaty people results in 80,000 smelly people. Showers are available if you get too beasty, but I prefer to let my natural musk waft. I also didn’t get laid at Bonnaroo.
This was my third Bonnaroo and I noticed major improvements. It only took twenty minutes to reach the campgrounds instead of a horrible six hour wait parked alongside the interstate. Additional port-o- potties were added throughout the campground and were cleaned nightly. It was wise of the promoters to add several water stations so dehydrated concertgoers could fill up their Camelbaks and water bottles. Remember kids, hydration is the key to success.
The comedy tent was also pushed farther back into a previously inaccessible area, providing more green space for hippies to twirl in circles. More grass also meant less dust clouding the afternoon sky. A giant water slide made an appearance. The beer was a buck cheaper. The marijuana was more potent. The grilled cheese was even cheesier. Almost twelve hours after starting my trip from Arlington, I was finally ready to enjoy live music.
Danny Brown (This Tent 7:00 pm): Danny Brown is a filthy rapper from Detroit. He dresses flashy, raps in a nasally pitch, and dyes & straightens his hair (or wears a wig?). His favorite pastimes include drugs and going down on white girls. Some lyrics: “You can hear that asshole whistle,” “Give me head for free,” “If it’s smelling sweet, I’ll lick it for a hour / And even it’s sour might lick it in the shower,” and personal favorite, “Still fucking with them freak hoes / Stank pussy smelling like Cool Ranch Doritos.” He ended his set with the crowd chanting the rousing chorus of “And I smoke blunt after blunt, after blunt, after blunt, after blunt, after blunt.”
Verdict: Danny Brown is now my favorite rapper. 4/5
White Denim (Other Tent, 8:45 pm): Playing Thursday at Bonnaroo can be a gift and a curse. Because Thursday is the first day of the festival, it consists mostly of smaller acts. There are no acts booked on either of two major stages. However, less competition means curious concertgoers are not locked into a schedule. I was lucky enough to catch Austin’s White Denim at Rock N Roll Hotel last year and insisted to my friends that we prioritize them over speedrapper YelaWolf and what-the-fuck-ever Moon Taxi is. The quartet did not disappoint, extending their songs into multiple jam sessions. The audience was confused. This was not “jamming” in the Phish sense. You couldn’t dance to the shifting, progressive beat. Each ”song” lasted about three minutes before transitioning from “Shake, Shake, Shake” to “At The Farm” to the aptly named “Drug.” I think they may have even had a ska song. If White Denim were booked on a Friday, they might not have attracted a crowd, but their excellent opening night set was a prime example of an upcoming band blowing minds and converting new fans.
Verdict: I bet next time they’ll get a bigger stage. 4/5
Phantogram (Other Tent, 10:15 pm): I’m a fan of The XX. Their debut album might be my favorite album released in the past few years. I love their new song. I can’t wait for them to tour. I mention The XX because Phantogram sounds just like The XX, except shitty. Every song sounds like a remix of the X-Files theme. They sounded artificial, overcooked and flimsy. I consider Phantogram the Domino’s Pizza of dream pop.
Verdict: The weekend’s first disappointment. 1/5
I skipped out on the buzzy Alabama Shakes and jamtronic act Big Gigantic to get some sleep. I was exhausted from Danny Brown’s ridiculous raps about cunnilingus and stale tortilla chips. Besides, I was still shook by such a traumatizing event—Phantogram, not the deer. Friday morning, I equipped myself for the first major day at the festival. I had plenty of water, several Cliff Bars, and a newly purchased glass snake that I purchased from a vendor on Shakedown Street. A media wristband gave me get access to an air-conditioned tent, plenty of water and access to the side stage so I didn’t have to mingle with you nasty peasants.
Tune-Yards (This Tent, 1:45 pm): Some people compare Tune-Yards to Fear of Music-era Talking Heads. They mention the use of polyrhythm and non-Western melodies. These people are dumb because Fear Of Music doesn’t sound like a garbling mush of saxophone, ukulele and bullshit. No, I’m will not spell her name in the dumb MySpace way—I have a degree in English and I pay my taxes so I will spell her name like an adult should. Tune Yards is music for people too busy to seek out interesting new bands and latch onto whatever the quirky act of the moment is. I read that Andrew Breitbart had a heart attack while jogging to Whokill. I don’t know if this is true, but I want to cultivate this rumor.
Verdict: If you like Tune-Yards, chances are you’ve probably dressed up as a Wes Anderson character for Halloween. 1/5
The Avett Brothers (What Stage, 5:00 pm): If you were a hot girl at Bonnaroo, you were probably at the Avett Brothers set. I can’t stress to you enough the incredible gender disparity present near the front of this massive stage. The quintet played a set touching upon hits from their entire discography, including “I And Love And You” and “Murder In The City” from The Second Gleam. Kudos to the group for pulling off an impressive a capella version of the traditional “Down In The Valley To Pray.” Some girls complained that their newer songs, like “Kick Drum Heart” and “January Wedding”, were straying too far into the pop territory and away from their country roots. I disagree. Considering their current status—bunch of good looking southern dudes making catchy country-pop music for overly romantic introverts who like scruffy guys—they’re one well-produced crossover hit away from being full blown rock stars. I’m kind of bummed they didn’t play “Shame”, but so it goes.
Verdict: Seth Avett was the only celebrity I met during the entire festival. I poured him a beer in the media section. He liked my iPhone case. I was envious of his vest. He’s a nice guy and I am pleased his band is a success. 3/5
Ludacris (This Tent, 6:45 pm): Why the hell would you put a multiplatinum rapper playing under a tent instead of a bigger stage? Is Ludacris not a bigger name than Feist or Rodrigo y Gabriela? Luda is an awesome pop-rapper with an underappreciated array of hits: “Area Codes,” “What’s Your Fantasy”, “Act A Fool”, “Rollout.” He’s earned a bigger stage. In the three Bonnaroos I’ve been to, this was the most crowded I’ve ever seen a tent, surpassing a nuclear-hot MIA and a late night Tiesto set. Ludacris was also the only arist of the weekend to have a stripper pole on stage.
Verdict: Luda was hilarious and I can’t wait for him to go on a proper tour, but it was just too hot and crowded to enjoy the set. 2/5
Radiohead (What Stage, 10:00 pm): Radiohead is my favorite band so understand that I was in awe for two-and-a-half-hours. Their 2006 Bonnaroo performance is considered one of the band’s best shows, if not The best. Everyone was anticipating a repeat performance of the legendary 29-song set. Throughout the day, there was a buzz in the air about what they would they play. The quintet has been on tour since March, occasionally dropping older gems like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and “Go To Sleep” into their sets. They’ve even performed a few new songs on this tour, like “Identikit.” Considering they played a 14-year old b-side at their recent Verizon Center concert, I was prepared for anything. It wouldn’t be illogical to hope they’d some older hits, say “Exit Music (For A Film)”, “2+2=5” or rare performance of their very first hit, “Creep”.
Radiohead didn’t play 29 songs. They only played 25. Ten songs were from The King Of Limbs and subsequent singles. This album was met with some controversy from fans, but each of its songs—“Feral”, “Lotus Flower”, “Bloom”—sounded vastly improved live. It might have been the acid, but “Werid Fishes/Arpeggi” was a doozy and the opening twang of “I Might Be Wrong” massaged my brain. The light show was a tremendous victory of mankind’s engineering: a thrall of warped electric energy. Individual cameras focused on each of the members, rotating flat screens broadcasting their distorted images.
Thom Yorke taunted the crowd for having to sleep in the dirt. He gave shoutouts to Jack White (who he mysteriously claimed the band met with the prior day) and fellow headliner Red Hot Chili Peppers. He even gave his best Clay Davis impression, uttering “Sheeeeeeeit” prior to their encore. An extended version of “Everything In Its Right Place” turned the field into a rave, awash in a sea of glowsticks and marijuana puffs.
The band closed the second encore with “Paranoid Android,” sating their rabid fans’ need to hear the band rock out just one… last… time. Yes, it would have been good to have heard a song from The Bends and I was a bit crushed that my dream of Jack White ripping through “Just” or “Airbag” to close the show would not come true. Instead of a legendary Radiohead show, I had to settle for merely a fantastic one.
Verdict: I saw my favorite band up close on a beautiful night with my best friends with wonderful drugs. All I could think is, “This is really happening.” 5/5
Major Lazer (12:00 am, This Tent): Late night Bonnaroo is always a hoot, everyone all gonked out on uppers, buzzing from the headlining set. Major Lazer, a side project of super DJ and Twitter favorite Diplo, brought a friendly version of dancehall and reggaeton to Tennessee, at one point dropping the Beastie Boy’s “Intergalactic” in honor of the dearly departed MCA. As I was leaving to catch Black Star, a guy offered me a bump of a white powder. I turned him down. I told him I only do fair trade drugs.
Verdict: I kinda wish Diplo would retire the “Pon de Floor” beat, but Mahjah Lazah is lethal. 3/5
Black Star (12:30 am, That Tent): As rappers are wont to do, the rap supergroup consisting of DJ Hi-Tek, Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) came out late but orchestrated a tight set, running through most of the songs off their only album, adding Kweli classic “Get By” into the set for good measure. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the trio work at last year at Rock The Bells, so I chose to regroup for Flying Lotus rather than get buckwild in the tent. Be assured that even though the group has not released a new album in over a decade, Kweli and Bey still play off each other well, leading the crowd through “Definition” and “Re:Definition.”
Verdict: Best alliance in hip-hop, but I’d like to hear some new songs already. 3/5
Flying Lotus (2:00 am, That Tent): If I wasn’t completely in love with Radiohead’s set, Flying Lotus would win the award for best performance of the festival. It was so dirty that three days and six showers later, I remain unclean. I was familiar with the LA-based Flying Lotus, but his albums are an eclectic mix of jazz and IDM. I was expecting futuristic wonkery and bizarre beats. My friend, this was no Jetsons set. FlyLo proved himself to be a very skilled DJ who knows how to tear apart a late night audience.
He was a bit frazzled as Black Star’s set ran late, but in between taking whisky pulls on stage (and occasionally stopping the music to playfully demand more libations from the ‘Roo staff), he put on the best performance by a DJ I’ve ever seen. Some of the beats: “Yonkers,” “Idioteque,” Clam Casino’s “I’m God”, and an ill remix of “Niggas in Paris” in which he manipulated the bouncing beat in a manner that can only be described as wizardly. Like at Major Lazer, “Intergalactic” was dropped and white people rapped horribly, but it was Jackson 5’s “One More Chance” that boosted the crowd’s energy level. His set was so based that the crowd demanded an encore, to which FlyLo obliterated Bonnaroovians with a vicious dubstep remix of Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint.”
Verdict: Sometimes you want to dance… and sometimes you just want to go hard as a motherfucker. 5/5
Big Freedia (Other Tent, 3:15 am): I understand it was my duty to attend Bonnaroo and report back my findings. But some things are just hard to explain. As my friend and I left Flying Lotus in the wee hours of the morning, we were still awake and bored. In the distance we heard a hyperenegetic 4/4 beat and a voice going “Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.” Confused, we approached the sound and were witness to an absurd spectacle.
Big Freedia, a transvestite and pioneer of the sissy bounce genre, was on the stage with several large-bottomed black women in leotards sticking their butts out and wiggling them as fast as possible. I could not believe my eyes. Was I tripping? Freedia and her minions dragged audience members on stage, stripped them to their underwear and made everyone booty-dance to “Azz Everywhere.” Sample lyrics: “Ass everywhere. Ass everywhere. Ass, ass, ass everywhere. I see ass over here, I see ass over there, I see ass everywhere.”
One guy started to do naked push-ups. I tried to glean some information from other glass-eyed audience members about what the fuck was going on to no avail. They were too busy wobbling. As my pal and I walked retired to our campsite, Freedia continued to go hard. In the distance, I heard a song that sampled “Rock Around The Clock,” a sixty-year old rock’n’roll mainstay now serving as the groundwork for a bounce song. I never thought Bill Haley would become hip again. If the future has arrived, I for one welcome our booty popping overlords.
Verdict: I’m still not sure 100% sure this happened. 4/5
You never get much sleep at Bonnaroo because of the blasted sun. I tried to explain to the rest of my campmates about Big Freedia but I gave up. I consider myself a pretty effective communicator, but I lacked the talent to properly encapsulate what my dented mind absorbed. The phrase “ass everywhere, ass everywhere” still haunts my subconscious. I left the heated crater of the general admission campground for the luxury of the media/guest area, snoozing in a hammock while my iPhone charged. I was initially peeved with Sprint’s non-reception, depriving me of hanging with friends from other states. But I became to enjoy being separated from society. Politics don’t matter at Bonnaroo. The news cycle was paused. It was a challenge to Tweet, check sports scores or even text message a friend, “Where you at?” It is so relaxing to just give up control and let yourself live without the burden of technology.
Battles (This Tent, 3:30 pm): Math-rock is a bastard to dance to. It needs to be 4/4 in order to properly work that ass. However, Battles, a supergroup within the genre, manages to pull off the feat. Augmented by video screens of singers (Battles’ vocalist left after the recording of their first album), the trio was hard at work playing hits such as “Atlas” and “Ice Cream” for a tired Bonnaroo crowd. If you couldn’t dance to Battles, you at least nap to it.
Verdict: I ran around without a shirt on waving an American flag shouting “America, fuck yeah” throughout the set. One guy didn’t give me a high-five. I called him a fascist. Prove me wrong. 3/5
SBTRKT (This Tent, 5:15 pm): SBTRKT was one of my most anticipating acts. As the audience was filtering out of Battles to go catch Flogging Molly or Santigold, I shouted to the moving herd, “Either dance or get the fuck out!” I’m pretty sure I was drunk on bootleg moonshine, but sure enough, my obnoxious hollers got the non-dancers the fuck out of the tent.
Pronounced “subtract”, the post-dubstep masked duo consisting of producer Aaron Jerome and singer/ keyboardist Sampha started late due to technical difficulties, but all was quickly forgiven. Every song sounded amazing, flooding the tent with powerful bass. Perhaps SBTRKT would have been even better in a late night tent, but the time didn’t matter as hits like “Right Thing To Do” and “Something Goes Right” got the crowd moving. I was hoping for a live collaboration with fellow Roo-artist Little Dragon for standout “Wildfire,” but the Drake remix was a more than adequate substitution.
Verdict: Fuck a James Blake, SBTRKT is best post-dubstep artist in the game. 4/5
Red Hot Chili Peppers (What Stage, 10:00 pm): I haven’t listened to the Chili Peppers in years, so I was surprised with how many hits they have. “Scar Tissue!” “If You Have To Ask!” “Under The Bridge!” Their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” may be twenty years old, but it sounds as raw as it was when the first Bush was president. I’ve had a soft spot for Californication for since my high school days, and I was pleased to hear them play its title track. The lyrics of “Cobain can you hear the spheres / Singing songs off station to station” bubbled up from my subconscious, and I was unable to contain my adolescent glee. “Give It Away” and “Suck My Kiss” remain bangers, even if the group no longer prances around with socks on their dongs.
But sweet Christmas, the post-Californication songs are super crap. I dare you to justify “Dani California.” It’s awful. And don’t say that it’s fun to listen to, because we both know that it’s not. You are not allowed to rhyme Mississippi with hippie; I won’t allow it. It pains me to think that an adult man sat down in a room to pen a song titled “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie.” Flea, of course, remains a badass bassists. His mannerisms were a pleasure to watch. New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer can rip with the best of them, but the band seems to have turned away from its roots and into VH1 shlock since resident weirdo John Frusicante departed in 2009. When Parliament sang, “Give Up The Funk,” they didn’t expect that a band would actually go through with it.
Verdict: So you can play “Throw Away Your Television” but not “Soul To Squeeze”? Fuck that. 2/5
Superjam (This Tent, 12:30 am): Who was it going be at the superjam this year? We already knew that Questlove was going to be there, but considering the potential players attending the festival—a surprise performance of Flea and Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace? A Beastie Boys tribute? Jack White and Questlove? (I really wanted to see Jack White this weekend)—it was a genuine surprise that soul singer D’Angelo was the special guest alongside other members of the Roots and affiliates of Prince & The Revolution and The Time.
Needless to say, it got real funky real fast. The group covered Jimi Hendrix’s “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)”, Led Zeppelin classic “What Is And What Should Never Be” and Parliament’s “Hit It and Quit It.” For only practicing for six hours (Questlove turned down applause for an encore, claiming they ran out of songs to play), the supergroup was powerfully tight. I didn’t stay at the set that long, but D’Angelo, performing his first show on US soil in 12 years, still has the pipes. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us.
Verdict: When I told my friend that D’Angelo was the surprise guest, she asked how his abs were. 4/5
Skrillex (Which Stage, 1:30 am): I purchased a light-up wand from a vendor prior to coming into Centeroo. This flashing piece of plastic was vital to succeed in my quest to rave my way to front of Skrillex, all the way to the guard rail. I’m not a fan of Skrillex’s music. It reminds me of when my modem used to dial-up America Online. But, you only live once. If you want to know what it is like to be in the middle of Skrillex audience at two in the morning in a farm in Tennessee, I’m your man.
Golly, his concert was loud and obscenely crowded. Only Radiohead and Ludacris drew larger crowds. I pretended my wand was an laser sword, managed to part through the audience of neon, nubile youngsters, freaking them out with illuminated chops. Everyone was either on ecstasy or trying to buy some. Skrillex DJed in a spaceship. His drops were titanic and continuous. It was great. Yes, I left a superjam featuring critical darling D’Angelo to go see a midget play brostep. And he fucking killed it.
Verdict: I raved my way through a filthy dubstep pit and survived to tell about it. I don’t recommend it. 3/5
GZA (This Tent, 2:30 am): GZA, arguably the best lyricist of the Wu-Tang Clan, was a great late addition to the Bonnaroo schedule, which contained too many pop rappers for my taste. Backed by Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma, the Genius put on a greatest hits performance, nailing many songs from his magnum opus Liquid Swords (“Cold”, “I Gotcha Back”, “Cold World”). Of course he included the requisite ODB ode with a cover of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya as well as a solid rendition of the Wu classic “Triumph.” I was disappointed that he couldn’t get another clan member to get make the trip out to the farm—I doubt that Killah Priest’s schedule is so tightly booked—but Groupo Fantasma loosened up GZA’s icy flow and kept the crowd going until the early morning.
Verdict: “And the GZA, the G is just the Genius, he’s the backboune of the whole shit.” 3/5
Unchained: The Mighty Van Halen Tribute (That Tent, 4:00 am): Is this a joke? You have SBTRKT and Mogwai and Puscifer and all these awesome bands performing on Saturday and you hire a cover band to perform in a prime late night spot? Someone must have blackmail on the promoters. At least have Big Freedia play again. Ass everywhere. Ass everywhere. Ass, ass, ass everywhere. Catchy, isn’t it?
Verdict: I didn’t drive 11 hours and not die to hear “Hot For Teacher.” 1/5
I don’t remember what time I got back to my campsite. It must have been 5 in the morning. An early morning rain moistened the campground. I talked with two strangers, also involuntary insomniacs, until the sun was up. We drank beer, talked about our night, shared stories and had some laughs. I will never see these people ever again. And I’m kind of glad for that. I only needed these people for was one night, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. After passing out for a few hours, the sun protected by overcast clouds, I collected my supplies and my mind for the final day of the festival, one scattered with many conflicts.
The Beach Boys (What Stage, 3 pm): Finally reunited after an acrimonious divorce, I admit it was real weird to be seeing, of all bands, rhe Beach Boys at Bonnaroo. The juxtaposition between their syrupy melodies and what was going on literally every blanket around me was comical. Moreover, it was somewhat ironic that such a sunny group was playing on a cloudy day. But stacked with fourteen musicians on stage, the group played an incredible array of 31 songs that go all the way back to the early
sixties. The nostalgia was overwhelming: “Little Honda,” “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” “Be True To Your School,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” God Only Knows.” Each one was so lovely and reminded me when my Mother used to drive me around Williamsburg in her minivan, the radio affixed to the oldies station.
Mike Love and Brian Wilson shared lead vocals, trading off songs and always staying in harmony. I may have been moshing to Skrillex 12 hours earlier, and songs about the beach and remaining honest to your alma mater are definitely dated, but in my opinion the biggest drop of the entire weekend was when the final chorus hits in “Good Vibrations.” The original womp.
Verdict: My friend tried to leave the set early and I stifled her by saying, “This is the only time in your entire life you will ever hear ‘Sloop John B.’” 3/5
Bon Iver (What Stage, 5:30 pm): How did Bon Iver get so popular? A few years ago, the dude was chilling in the woods. I saw this cat open for Black Mountain at Rock N Roll Hotel. Now he’s hanging out with Kanye and sub-headlining Bonnaroo’s main stage. Needless to say, Justin Vernon is now a bona fide star. In concert, Bon Iver transforms their smooth folk into beefy, extended pieces complete with soaring guitar solos backed by a ten piece band. I underlined the word “spine-tingling” three times in reference to “Holocene” in my notebook to reiterate how tingly my spine must have been at this moment. His silky falsetto was on point on “Skinny Love” and image of the sun going down over Manchester as Vernon’s auto-tuned voice soared through the yacht rock of “Beth/Rest” is unforgettable.
Verdict: One more monster album and he’s gonna be a headliner. 4/5
The Shins (Which Stage, 6:30 pm): I’ve been ambivalent toward The Shins since the beginning. Their new album Port Of Morrow is a step up from their previous release, so I was curious about what they sound like. I may have arrived at the Which Stage at a bad part of the set, because their new songs were duds. I thought James Mercer might act a little more lively at Bonnaro, but I was wrong. I wanted to hear “New Slang” and “Kissing The Lipless.” I’d even settle for “Simple Song.” The Shins sounded nice, but I needed more force after sitting through the Beach Boys and Bon Iver. In other words, I wanted The Shins to shut up and play the hits.
Verdict: Why the hell did you stack The Shins against Bon Iver, not to mention Fun. and Young The Giant? Real kick in the dick there, Bonnaroo. 2/5
Phish (What Stage, 8:00 pm): Phish fans are the most devoted fans of an artist that I know. They truly love the band. Some have seen Phish over 100 times. I remain mystified how anyone could see any band one hundred times. Nevertheless, there was a noticeable divide at Bonnaroo between the concertgoers who liked jam bands and those who didn’t. This is not to say that someone can enjoy both, but it’s telling if you chose either Umphrey’s McGee or Flying Lotus for your Friday night entertainment. After Bon Iver’s stunning performance, many began to file out of Centeroo. I asked someone why they
planned on leaving instead of enjoying Phish’s four-hour set. They said they don’t listen to jam bands. Well, neither do I but there I was, ready to experience something out of my comfort zone.
Each jam band has its own type of sound. For example, the Disco Biscuits skew toward the electronic and the String Cheese Incident is folksy. Phish is funky. It’s dumb music you can dance to. The songs alternate between moments of “crunchiness” (inconceivable, rapid guitarwork) and “chillness” (slower, bass-oriented grooves). Songs segue into each other and can last over twenty minutes. The light show is phenomenal, featuring hundreds of lights and massive ovals. Some shows even have the band perform while jumping on trampolines. To my knowledge, Phish’s lyrics really don’t make any sense, but this depth is not important. These are chants. Attending a Phish show is a ritual.
Phish shows are a place to let your freak flag fly. Life can be cruel and harsh and perhaps there’s a hidden sadness present in the knowledge that your life isn’t going to turn out the way you want. At Phish, you can wear weird shit and dance to groovy songs and experiment with recreational chemicals in a sound environment with friendly acquaintances. Drug use dampens memory, thus the need to swap soundboards. Perhaps if you listen to the song again, it might remind you of a past memory. I might be over thinking this. Maybe Phish fans just want to relive the fiery ending of “Character Zero” once more.
It took me a while to understand how Phish came to be so popular. The band can easily sell out arenas and has hosted its own festival, without any MTV or radio support. Their fans swap bootlegs and reminisce about past shows. Each Phish show is a unique experience. The band never plays the same setlist twice. It encourages audience participation. Covers of popular songs are common, as are occasional drop-ins by special guests. Glowstick wars are rampant throughout the set. Fans set glowing lanterns into the sky during the performance. Bowls are openly shared. Bizarre costumes are worn.
Every girl shouts her love for Trey.
I don’t really know the names of the Phish songs so I can’t really compare it to other Phish shows. I do know it was awesome that Kenny Rogers came out to perform “The Gambler” before 50,000 fans. The cover of TV On The Radio’s “Golden Age” was a delight and an extended version of Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” featured a guitar solo by singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio that was so face-melting, it robbed me of any cynicism I had about Phish. I now know that “Tweezer” is always accompanied with a reprise. YEM is an acronym for “You Enjoy Myself.” Wilson is a traveler who becomes the ruler of the mythical land of Gamehendge. And if you have a smile on your face when Phish performed “Rocky Top” in the cool Tennessee rain, perhaps next time you just need to get a little bit higher. After all, you only live once.
Verdict: I adore Radiohead, I can name you every song in their catalogue, but a Radiohead show will never be as raucous as a Phish show. 5/5
A note/so many more photos from your freindly neighborhood BYT photographer–
While their festival antics are significantly less, um, illegal than at their own headlining shows, Black Lips are sheer garage punk energy. Above all else, they’re fun. In fact, I’d wager they’re the most fun of any band at Bonnaroo this year. These are the guys you want to stay up all night with, setting dumpsters on fire, pouring shots of liquor into your mouth straight from the bottle (and, in fact, the front row did get a taste of that last one after their set). I ran into Ian in the crowd for Beach Boys and not only are they fucking awesome onstage; they’re total sweethearts to boot.
I was pleasantly surprised by these guys, though I’m not sure what I had been expecting; my entire group of friends was raving that Little Dragon was a must-see for dancing your ass off. Yet try as you might, no one–no one–dances harder than their Swedish-Japanese lead singer, the spritely Yukimi Nagano. She hops her tiny frame back and forth across the stage, jump-dancing in time with the shake of her tambourine, while the whole crowd twists and bops to the group’s indie electronic. Great surprise + new girlcrush. Thumbs up all around.
If you’re in D.C. and reading this right now, you’re damn lucky these guys are coming through town this month. Lead singer who sounds a little like Bjork matched with a backing horn section paired with ska-like Grizzly Bear-esque arrangements gives most Bonnaroo groups a run for their money. But wait, there’s more! Throw in giant robot puppets dancing through the audience, crowdsurfing/trumpet-playing, a giant rainbow tent/conga line and you’ve got yourself one of the most fun performances at the festival.
If you missed this, you fucked up. Alice Cooper fucking nails it. He nails it like he nailed that corpse rag doll onstage, and you missed it. You also missed a guillotine beheading the metal legend himself, his dozen-or-so costume changes, a giant Frankenstein’s monster puppet, an undead backing band, one of the best legendary performers still alive covering Pink Floyd, a studded leather vest emblazoned with “DISCO SUCKS” and “SCHOOL IS A DRAG” patches, a metal cover of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” and so much goddamn more. You really screwed the pooch on this one.
Honestly, this was just a ton of fun. If you didn’t go to Bonnaroo and you’re reading this in D.C., you just missed them there too. So now you’ve really fucked up, haven’t you? Maybe next time, eh?
Taking a break from the dancing, the rapping, the metal, the mushroom fountain, the endless supply of every vice imaginable (etc.) is an eventual must if you want to stay sane at Bonnaroo. I’d missed Laura Marling on her last trip through the District so I was thrilled to catch her set which still somehow managed to feel intimate–a unique feat at one of the largest music festivals to ever exist in our country. The sad, emphatic vocals soared over a banjo, a cello, a guitar and standing bass, silencing a rowdy crowd to its knees.
Of course, when you’re not taking one of those much-needed breaks from any one of Bonnaroo’s high-energy acts, it’s crucial to get your geek on. Enter Childish Gambino, the only rapper who’s compared vag to a Batman supervillain. Adorable, frenetic and great with his tongue (did you catch that freestyle?), his set was a clear highlight. Glover ran through his hits, his earliest material from his very first mixtape, new songs, and due to technical difficulties, we got to hear “Freaks and Geeks” twice. (High fiving life right now.)
BEN FOLDS FIVE:
But far and away, one of the greatest sets I’ve ever witnessed was Ben Folds Five–the remarkably formative trio from my adolescence, whose Bonnaroo set marked their second show together in 12 years. You can imagine my glee when Folds told the audience, “We’re only playing old shit” before launching into “Jackson Cannery.” They closed with “Underground,” and their encore (yes! an encore!) was “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.” Of course they played “Brick,” but I was more thrilled to hear “Where’s Summer B,” “Fair” and “Alice Childress,” shouting out every single word to, literally, every song they played. In fact, after my company had left to catch the start of Bon Iver’s set, I found a Ben Folds Five enthusiast/singing partner in a middle-aged hippy man with long hair, who seemed equally thrilled to find someone to join in shouting the lyrics to “Song for the Dumped.” All hail Ben Folds Five, forever and ever amen.
Plus, you never know whom/what you’ll run into:
(Like these fucking pros at life!)
(There’s never a shortage of body paint!)
(You can see some real winners!)
(And graffiti of someone jerking off The Boss!)
(There are tons of amazing tattoos!)
(And laughter! And feathers!)
(You can run into some of your favorite acts!)
(Like Ian St. Pé from Black Lips!)
‘Til next time, keep up the good work.