San Pedro, CA, July 13th, 2014-I left North Carolina on a Greyhound from Wilmington headed towards Roanoke, VA. It was a 14 hour ride but it was overnight and really not that bad, to be honest. People complain about the bus but they’re air conditioned, some have wifi and all have a bathroom. You do have to share a little personal space but it isn’t bad at all. I was on my way to what would be one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. Bonnaroo is a 4 day music and art festival in Manchester, TN. I’d never been to a festival before and was a little anxious to get started. I was also a little bit nervous. I was running out of money and didn’t have much work in the future, so taking off to TN was a little more risky than I’m used to running.
My tribe (and hereafter known as The Tribe) for Bonnaroo was Courtney, Kyle, Journey, Gwen and myself. I met them all except for Courtney on the night before we left or on the ride the next morning. It was a five or six hour drive from her place in Salem, VA to the farm in Manchester where they hold Bonnaroo. It was at the end of one of the most beautiful rides I’ve been through.
The Smokies and the Blue Ridge mountains aren’t like the Rockies. There is a muted and understated majesty to the way they meander through VA and TN. I was there in early June so everything that could be growing was growing. I have never, in all my life, witnessed seas of green that were so alive and vibrant. The hours stretched on but I was too busy watching the world go by to notice. I find myself in awe of nature everywhere I go. It’s hard to express how impressive it was and I’m glad that I got some pictures.
The bluegrass was pumping as we chewed up the road. Once we got to Manchester we made a few stops to stock our coolers with tasty libations and found the entrance to the VIP campsites. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a mass of people, tents, tarps, hammocks and autos in one place. The campsites dwarf the actual grounds and from what I understand, some of the general admission sites are more than an hour’s walk from the actual venue. The only downside to having VIP tickets was the guilt you felt when somebody from general admission campsites started talking about the showers and bathrooms. I was grateful just to have a usable bathroom with air conditioning and showers that were pretty comfortable. It was easy to be comfortable if you’re used to camping at all. There weren’t very many bugs and it didn’t get unbearably hot while I was there.
We set up camp, polished off some drinks and I headed into my first music festival. If the plan was to succeed in losing my friends and wind up lost, I completed the mission flawlessly. I wandered, alone, in a sea of around a hundred thousand people. They were an endless expanse of glowsticks, body paint and happiness. I have never been to an event this large but I’ve also never seen so many well behaved people. It would be interesting, considering how much partying was going on, to see what the crime statistics were. For four days, we were the fourth largest city in Tennessee.
That first night, there wasn’t much music going on that I was intent on seeing. It was more about familiarizing myself with the grounds and seeing the insanity that is Bonnaroo. I stayed with my friends for a little while and then I have to admit that I meandered away to scout the place for myself. Bonnaroo is held on a 700 acre farm in Manchester, TN. The size of the festival is a little bit confusing at first. It’s large enough to handle 4 days of camping for 90,000 estimated attendees in 2014.
I wandered the grounds for hours while catching music and new friends. I wasn’t sure how to get back to the campsite but I knew that if I got out and about on that first night and got lost, I would find all the landmarks I needed and eventually get my bearings. When I got tired of the party (which goes 24 hours a day for four days) I started my way back to the campsites. I must have wandered for another hour before I finally saw home. I caught up with the people at “home” and laid out on my bedroll. One thing I can guarantee is that I’ll sleep well if I’ve been walking all day and left to my own devices. In fact, I admit with a grin that my camp mates were jealous of my ability to lay down and get to sleep. My advice is to sleep hard and often at Bonnaroo, you’ll need the rest and your body will thank you.
The problem with getting to sleep before anyone else, is that you’re up before everyone the next morning. That did give me the opportunity to start drinking water and beer in large quantities before my new tribe even woke up. If I didn’t mention the fact that this is a four day camping party, let me take this opportunity to enlighten those of you who haven’t been to something of this nature. Bonnaroo is the best party I have ever been to. Nobody has anything else to do but enjoy themselves and the music. It takes on the characteristics of a four day holiday weekend. It is a Fourth of July-ish, Halloween-like, Thanksgiving. It is an early summer celebration of how unbelievable four days can be.
The “Bonnaroovian Code,” which was never written specifically, but has sprung from necessity and optimism, consists of 6 basic ideas. They are prepare thyself, play as a team, radiate positivity, respect the farm, don’t be “that” guy or gal and to “stay true to the Roo.” They are alarmingly effective and otherwise there isn’t much as far as “rules” go. In fact, the night before, The Tribe and I went on the Ferris Wheel and saw a man get naked at the top of his ride. I’m not sure how the folks who rode in that car later felt about it and I’m very glad that I got onboard a different car, just before or just after he was seated. He stayed in his birthday suit and even took some pictures with people for a little while afterward. I don’t doubt, though, that the experience that guy had that night will be a memory he smiles about for quite some time and that’s the idea. You should actively seek to have fun and make memories with people. It’s not an atmosphere of “NO!” and more of a “YES!!!” doubled up with a laugh, a smile and a hi five. People lose their minds but they do it in a manner that promotes smiles and positivity, so losing your mind for a bit is completely acceptable. It is, at its core, a marathon celebration of music, art and life.
Once The Tribe began to wake up, Kyle cooked us all French toast. Having breakfast and drinking lots of water is the best way to start a day. We didn’t have coffee so I wandered off to find some. The first band I actually stopped and watched on Friday was La Santa Cecilia, a Los Angeles based Mexican-American band. I have a rather huge affinity to accordions when they’re played well and these folks had me for a little while. I caught the tail end of Big Sam’s Funky Nation on the way to see Umphrey’s McGee on the VIP mound with The Tribe. I caught Andrew Bird & the Hands of Glory, The Naked and Famous and a little bit of Vampire Weekend before I headed back to the campsite for a little rest. At 12 am Saturday, I was deeply entrenched in the VIP section in front of “Which Stage” with some of The Tribe. That’s when Ice Cube took the stage.
I’m not a gangster and I’m not the world’s biggest rap fan either but Ice Cube is an icon of the 90s that isn’t lost on me. I’ve listened to his music for 20 years. To have the chance to see him perform it in front of me was not something I’ll soon forget. I had skipped Kanye West to ensure that I had the right spot for Ice Cube. It was a good decision. I caught a few songs of the “Superjam” that included Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Chaka Khan and Taj Mahal in “That Tent” before calling it a night. Skrillex was the soundtrack for the walk back to my bedroll for the night. It was a good day.
The campsite was a great place because of the people that I got to share it with. The Tribe was such a good mixture of people and I couldn’t have asked for better people to accompany. We had a great place to decompress after 12 plus hours of music and partying. It wasn’t difficult for me to get some sleep and I was up again the next morning at around 9:30 or so. I started to drink water and beer and got geared up for the day. We had French toast again and our neighbor shared some instant coffee packets with us.
I walked around the festival a bit and got to see the High and Mighty Brass Band doing a set while marching to the stage. I followed the procession with about 30 or 40 other folks along the way for a bit and then meandered over to the main stage to see Seasick Steve. When his set was finished I had just enough time to walk over and see The Bouncing Souls before ensuring myself a good spot in front of “Which Stage” to watch Cake, another personal favorite due to the trumpet. I walked to a different stage when they were finished and got to see the end of Grouplove’s set before I settled in to watch Slightly Stoopid.
It’s crazy, now, to think about how much great music there is at Bonnaroo. It makes me feel more than privileged to have had the chance to see and hear it all. It’s rare to see more than one incredible musician or band in a day or night, so having non-stop music for 4 days that’s made by the biggest and best musicians in the country is a serious treat. It was my first time seeing Stoopid play, despite the fact that I’ve been listening to their music for a little more than a decade and afterward I headed back toward the VIP mound because I knew that another treat was coming up.
I got to the mound and looked for The Tribe. I couldn’t find them and I was anticipating catching the next bunch of tunes with them. I scoured the hill and still didn’t find them. Finally, when Lionel Richie came out, I decided that it would be better to see the performance without them than miss it looking for them. I found a spot in the grass and watched a master entertainer take control of tens of thousands of people. He went through so many hits it was stupefying. Music from both The Temptations and his solo career pumped out of the speakers that lined the stage as he played and sang the songs right there in front of us. I wound up finding a couple of people from The Tribe and going to watch The Flaming Lips, which is one of the most visually stunning things I’ve ever seen. The day was winding down for me and I was starting to feel like I had been partying and watching music for three days, so before they were finished, I had started back to my bedroll. I made mention, several times, over the course of the festival that I was going to remember the smells of the place the best. I know that it might seem strange but there were so many distinct smells. Hundreds of acres of cut grass, the smell of the tens of thousands of people, the food, the drinks, reefer constantly wafting around and yes, even Port-o-Potties. Bonnaroo is what a party smells like. It’s reminiscent of ball games or holidays, like I mentioned earlier.
Sunday was the last day of the festival and the peak of the experience for me. I won’t lie, I was a little wasted all day long. I saw Carolina Chocolate Drops and Yonder Mountain String Band before I caught up with The Tribe and we headed to the main stage and the VIP mound to take in my two favorite performances of the whole weekend. The Avett Brothers are a North Carolina band that plays a bluegrass and rock fusion. I’ve been listening to them since my cousin Sherry (who helped me drink in Harrisburg and who I crashed with on Christmas Eve) introduced me to them a few years back. Their music is easy to listen to and relate to. They construct songs that are incredibly insightful and inspiring. They were part of my playlist when I did my trip down the ICW from SC to Miami a couple of years back and I still listen to them regularly.
After they finished their set, The Tribe and I stuck around the mound and got ready for Sir Elton John to take center stage. He began and continued for two hours with songs that almost everyone could sing every word to. It’s difficult to conceive of two hours’ worth of hit songs but he has them. He played everything that I wanted to hear and more. It was literally from one “favorite” song to another. I remember looking out at the crowd in the middle of his set and just watching. There was 90,000 people in front of me. They were a sea of smiles and happiness. It dawned on me then just how large and how impressive Bonnaroo actually is.
It was more than a party, it was almost a hundred thousand people coming together just to celebrate being happy. They come with only the expectation that it’s going to be a good time. The fact that everyone is so accommodating and happy to be friendly comes from the idea that we actually can all get along and accept each other for who we are. Buy your tickets and go, folks, because you can’t get what happens there anywhere else. They have something for everyone, no matter who they are. From classic rock to dubstep, from Motown to Meshuggah, from blues to bluegrass to funk and soul, music fans from all different sides of the spectrum will be pleased. The people watching alone is worth it but the entire thing can’t be quantified by a ticket price or number. Thanks, DocRoc and The Tribe, until next year.