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The Psychedelic Kaleidoscope of Overpriced Food and Water, or, Bonnaroo at -$100 a day
I'd never been to Bonnaroo. So when an old friend from New York called me up at the last minute, just a few days before the show started, I did what anyone else would do.
"Hey," she said. "We're volunteering at Bonnaroo and we need an extra person. Free tickets, all access, plus they pay you for the work you do, and you don't have to work during the weekend, so you can see all the bands."
"When do I have to be there?" I asked.
"I'll see you in five hours," I said, hung up, and started packing my suitcase.
Though I'm not big on the jam-band scene that serves as the core of the music festival, in recent years the lineup has included great newer bands like the Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes and the Polyphonic Spree as well as legends like Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello. This year, the lineup included the White Stripes, the Flaming Lips, the Decemberists and Wilco, some of my favorite modern artists, as well as bands like Tool, the Police, Franz Ferdinand and Ben Harper. Of course, the standard jam bands were still there -- Gov't Mule, Widespread Panic and the String Cheese Incident among them -- but I had a schedule, so I could arrange to be on the diametrically opposite side of the park when they played.
Our 12-hour, all-night shifts took a toll on us, but I felt really bad for the guys and girls who had to work the all-day shifts -- all work was done outside, mostly standing and directing traffic, and in the afternoon the heat and sun could get nearly unbearable.
We were lucky, though. We were provided as much water as we wanted. Regular concertgoers had to pay a surreal $5 for a single bottle. (Food was even more outrageous. The food selection ran from salted pretzels [$5.50] to gourmet food like Thai curry and lobster [you don't even want to know.]) This on top of the $250 admission price kind of cracked the whole free-spirited hippie-festival fašade, but no one seemed to mind.
But the thoughtful and now insanely rich Bonnaroo owners provided ways for concertgoers to escape the heat and the dust -- ways like the Centeroo Fountain, a non-stop mini-water-park which offered several services at once: it was A) an easy way to cool down and get some soothing moisture in your lungs, B) an alternative to $4 showers and C) a way for free-spirited hippie girls to get some photographers to come by and take pictures of them topless. I'm sure their motives were completely pure -- but I started to doubt it after a conversation with one of the girls, who was covered in body paint.
"I'm charging $2.50 to take pictures of me," she told me.
"So this isn't so much a free-spirit thing as a 'Give me money and attention' thing, right?" I asked.
And every dead feminist rolls over in her grave.
Day One: Friday
Most of us were too tired to have much fun tonight, after the 12-hour marathon work sessions, and it might have hampered our enjoyment of the first night. But I doubt it. I think the Friday lineup was just terrible.
The first-night headliner was Tool. I'd suspected they might be a little too dark and heavy for the audience, and I was right. No one really seemed into Tool. Tool also seemed a little depressed, maybe because they knew they had to play Cape Girardeau the next night. They plowed through a bunch of new songs and a few old ones, pulled a few of their quasi-mystical stage show moves, looked like they really had to go to the bathroom and left the stage after maybe an hour. It was a weak start to the weekend, especially after a day of terrible second-rate bands like Brazilian Girls and RX Bandits. Advice to future Bonnaroo attendees: skip the first day. And please stop paying attention to Tool. You're just perpetuating the myth that Tool still matters.
Day Two: Saturday
On the second night, everyone was going to see the Police, currently in the middle of a highly publicized reunion tour. Everyone except me. I couldn't care less. I just wanted to see the Flaming Lips, who went on one of the smaller stages immediately after the Police finished. Unfortunately, I had to meet with my friends, who had conveniently located themselves in the very front of the gigantic crowd for the Police at the What Stage, the festival's very large main stage.
My disinterest in seeing the Police is this great: in less than five minutes, I managed to maneuver from the back of the crowd to the front, by the stage, and find my friends. I expected to be back out the other side in five more minutes and to the rapidly growing crowd for the Flaming Lips (still three hours away), but at that moment, the Police came out on stage, and the audience pushed forward in one huge surge. I was trapped.
So I tried, in vain, to enjoy the show. No one else seemed to be, though. They were mostly concerned with pushing forward to get closer to Sting, which made sense, because even from the front of the crowd, the band were tiny, geriatric ant people. They might have been automatons for all I could tell. The only alternative to someone who actually wanted to watch the band were the massive video screens, but to me, watching a band on a TV screen while they're playing kind of defeats the purpose of a live band.
I finally made it out of the crowd for the Police and met up with some other friends in front of the Which Stage for the Flaming Lips show. The Lips were ready to play a full hour before their midnight timeslot, and came out to treat the crowd to a cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" as a "sound check."
If you've never seen the Flaming Lips, there's no way to explain how much one live show can affect you. Their albums, like last year's "At War with the Mystics" and 2003's "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots", are the best of psychedelic, sweet, operatic pop. But it's nothing compared to their stage presence, which redefines the word "life-affirming": brilliant light shows, beautiful melodies and a giant spaceship descending onto the stage P-Funk style while lead singer Wayne Coyne walks atop the audience in a huge rubber ball. After two encores, the dazed, permanently changed audience exchanged numerous group hugs with people who had been complete strangers a few hours ago, and went off to party the rest of the night away with a new sense of companionship and camaraderie.
Day Three: Sunday
The heat and the dust had finally gotten to all of us. Sunday was the last day, and it drug on to the point that not even a splash in the fountain or a stay in the smoker's lounge could revive us. Fortunately, the White Stripes and the Decemberists were there to solve all our woes.
I've seen the Decemberists before, and it was one of the best live shows I've ever been to, not least because the band let me get up on stage and tell a cheesy joke between songs. The "hyper-literate prog-folk band," as Stephen Colbert sorta described them, encourages audience participation during their over-energetic sets: lots of hand-clapping and singing along and sitting down and standing up. The perhaps-too-high crowd didn't really seem into that, but frontman Colin Meloy floored them nonetheless with a duet with soul legend Mavis Staples on "The Weight," that old song by The Band.
Fresh from the release of their new, brilliant album "Icky Thump", the White Stripes finished up the night on the Which Stage to a crowd that included pretty much everyone at Bonnaroo. The supposed closing act was Widespread Panic, but everyone who didn't come to listen to jam-band music (i.e., me) stuck around for the loudest band to take any stage this year, and maybe the loudest live show I've ever seen. In an uncharacteristic moment of sweetness, Jack White took a few minutes in between songs to help some sappy sucker deliver a marriage proposal to his girlfriend. Awww. Now play "The Hardest Button to Button", guys.
After the White Stripes, those of us still conscious packed our things, left the regrettably comfortable staff tents and returned home. It was a bittersweet moment: bitter, because I'd made a lot of amazing friends, seen some great music, and done some really wild and bizarre things; and sweet, because I would now be able to begin the long, painful recovery process.
BEST ACTS AT BONNAROO: The Flaming Lips, Damien Rice, Gogol Bordello
WORST ACTS AT BONNAROO: The Police, Tool, Any Jam Band
MOST FUN PLACES AT BONNAROO: The Fountain, The Smoker's Lounge, The VIP Camp (But you couldn't get in, so ha!)
MOST EXISTENTIALLY DISTURBING PLACES AT BONNAROO: The Fountain, The Body-painting area, Shakedown Street
BEST PERFORMERS OVER 70: Ralph Stanley, Charlie Louvin
WORST PERFORMERS OVER 70: Sting