MANCHESTER, Tennessee — It takes exactly 2,378 alternately dusty and muddy steps to travel from the end of Camp Austin Powers to the main gate at Bonnaroo, more than a mile of dirt-caked tents and gravel roads, of dreadlocked good-time dudes hawking all manner of glass-blown accoutrements and girls wearing raggedy dresses. It's a voyage of sunbaked unpleasantness, through dingy campsites and lines of Porta-Potties, across mountains of overstuffed trash bags and down into "Shakedown Street," a sort of countrified Calcutta packed with red-faced vendors selling tapestries, even more glass-blown accoutrements and "organic earplugs" (which are actually rocks).
And it's a trek happily taken several times a day by the maniacs who choose to camp out (in sites with really goofy names) at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts festival, a four-day celebration of sprawling live sets, crunchy communal vibes and poor hygiene held on 700-acres of farmland in Coffee County, Tennessee. (Click here for photos from the show.)
To attend Bonnaroo is to suffer happily. To be dusty and dirty beyond belief (or, when it rains, wet and musty), to be sunburned and uncomfortable and tired times 10, but not let any of those things bother you in the slightest. To dance like an idiot and party until 6 in the morning, then unzip your sleeping bag and do it all over again, all in the name of good vibes and in the spirit of your hippie forefathers (who just may be sleeping in the tent next to yours).
But for the first time in the festival's five-year history, there were rumblings that this year's 'Roo signified an end to all those good times. When organizers announced the initial lineup back in January, the usual suspects where there — Phil Lesh, moe., Bela Fleck and the Flecktones — but entrenched firmly on the list were a host of artists that seemingly had no connection to the fest's jam-heavy past, including British art-rockers Radiohead, indie fave Bright Eyes, genre-defying acts including Beck and Cat Power and (gasp!) even Death Cab for Cutie (see "Radiohead, Beck, Death Cab, Elvis Costello Playing Bonnaroo").
And many of the fest's faithful were less than pleased.
Event organizers tried to assuage them by explaining that they were just trying to put on the best festival possible, and that booking mainstream acts was a way to provide U.S. music fans with a multi-day fest on par with Glastonbury or Leeds. And their audience seemingly agreed, snapping up 80,000 tickets for this four-day edition. But when talking with fans on site, two things became abundantly clear: Bonnaroo 2006 either marked the beginning of the end or the beginning of, well, a new beginning.
"I was more hesitant this year because of the lineup, because I realized they have to have someone big to headline it, but last year was Dave Matthews, not Radiohead," Kumar Jensen, a 17-year-old from Yellow Springs, Ohio, said. "The feeling here seems different this year, too. It was more lively last year — people got into it way more. This year no one really seems that excited."
Others, however, didn't let it get them down. "I don't know, at first I cringed because I was worried that the environment was going to be totally different, but I've had an awesome time," Veronica Walton, an 18-year-old from Indiana laughed. "They have to make the festival successful, and I don't think they made it incredibly mainstream. I don't know how much I like Death Cab for Cutie, but I do like Beck."
And that dichotomy was readily apparent throughout the weekend, as sets by Beck and Death Cab were greeted with strange curiosity (somewhat fitting for Mr. Hansen's performance, which featured puppets, the world's largest boom box and dudes rapping in grizzly bear costumes), while more traditional shows — including the festival's annual Super Jam, which saw Trey Anastasio noodle around with Mike Gordon (dude, that's half of Phish!) — were touted by many as the highlights of the festival.
But there were many more high points. Getting assists from Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty rumbled through a hit-packed Friday night set, while later that night (or, technically, early the next morning, since they took the stage at midnight), Bonnaroo mainstays My Morning Jacket delivered a reverb-heavy performance. Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley and Cypress Hill made High Times aficionados howl with glee, while nearby Les Claypool goofed his way around the stage. The Streets played riffs from fellow Brits the Arctic Monkeys and provided plenty of party-up material (at the close of the set, MC/mastermind Mike Skinner ordered a concertgoer to down the remnants of a bottle of brandy and then crowd surf). The Balkan Beat Box — an eight-man klezmer/gypsy/ska act — had the crowd bouncing. And Matisyahu turned in a star-making mixture of dreamy dub and ragged reggae.
For their part, Radiohead did what they do best: perform intricate and icy anthems of angst and outrage, with the passion of a lunatic and the precision of a machine. During their two-and-a-half hour set, they dipped deep into the well ("Street Spirit" and "Fake Plastic Trees," from 1994's The Bends), played the anthems ("Paranoid Android," "Karma Police") and even strutted out several new numbers ("Arpeggi," "Nude"). And overall, the audience seemed to get it, thrusting lighters aloft, chucking glow-sticks into the air and grooving to the often glitchy rhythms.
The vibe was hampered a bit by pesky technical difficulties, as midway through the band's set, the giant video screens flanking either side of the stage conked out, leaving most in the crowd to stare at a very tiny Thom Yorke who was very far away. But even that couldn't sap the enthusiasm of the crowd, and it was a telling reminder of just what makes Bonnaroo so great in the first place. It's not the location or the performers or the laissez-fair approach to, um, party aids. It's the fans.
Because truly, it probably wouldn't matter if organizers booked Mötley Crüe to headline the 2007 edition of the fest, kids would still show up. They'd still make do, still do what they do best (groove for hours on end, play Frisbee, wear sarongs), and have a great time doing it. Anyone who had feared that Bonnaroo had gone mainstream needed only walk the festival grounds after midnight, as performance-art pieces popped up on the fringes, parades of girls in fairy wings and guys in vegetable costumes made their way through the darkness and kids slept peacefully on the ground or underneath trees, all while fireworks lit the night sky and a giant Ferris wheel slowly creaked in the distance. It was a strangely-serene-yet-sorta-scary experience, no doubt the kind of scene that Bonnaroo vets talk longingly about: vaguely ridiculous and likely chemically aided, but still amazing and pure and freaky beyond belief.
Because honestly, if your scene has been invaded by art-rocking Brits and Death Cab for Cutie, and you have to walk more than a mile just to sleep in a filthy tent, it sort of makes sense to dress up like a carrot and traipse through a farm in rural Tennessee at 4 a.m. Whatever makes the suffering sweeter.
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