MANCHESTER, Tennessee — If you're reading this, it probably means that I survived the dust and the djembes of Bonnaroo 2007 ... that I somehow made it back to my campsite night after night, that I didn't expire due to heatstroke or dehydration or bug attack, and that — by some higher grace — I wasn't killed by an overdose of my own New York-bred cynicism.
By now, you've probably heard a lot about Bonnaroo: that it's a hippie festival where no one showers and the air is heavy with patchouli and pot smoke, that it's a vaguely creepy (and sorta hilarous) commune with jam bands noodling on long into the night and kids selling — ahem — sundries out of the back of dusty VW buses.
And, of course, all of that is true: Bonnaroo is, in a sense, a very crunchy stereotype theater. But if you're willing to look past all the peasant dresses and dreadlocks, and if you're not too shy to immerse yourself in it (as I did — catch even more about the bands and my hot, rocking, smelly weekend in this here blog), you'll realize that the festival is probably the best in America: an honest, snark-free celebration of music and music fans. It's also a well-oiled, clean-burning machine (seriously: 80,000 fans separating glass bottles and metal cans from their campsite trash!?!) that has, over the past few years, made a subtle but determined decision to become the best summer fest in the world.
Last year, 'Roo organizers decided to shake up the fest's jam-band connotations by bringing in a few ringers — namely Radiohead — plus a host of completely un-jammy acts like Beck, Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes
(see "Radiohead Marathon, Beck Puppet Show, Partial Phish Jam Mix It Up At Bonnaroo") to raise their profile. And this year, they decided to pull out all the stops, scoring the coup-de-grace of summer fest headliners (the Police), plus Maynard James Keenan's murky and mysterious Tool, the mighty White Stripes, the critically adored Wilco and, in the interest of keeping it real for the jam-band set, Widespread Panic.
And those were just the headliners. Smaller stages (with aggravating names like the This Tent, the That Tent, etc.) were rocked and swayed by the likes of Lily Allen, the Hold Steady, Tortoise, Feist, DJ Shadow (who, if you were to believe his on-stage banter, chose Bonnaroo as the place to announce his retirement from live performance), the National, Girl Talk, Gogol Bordello and Galactic.
It was as diverse and massive a lineup as any festival around the world, one carefully planned to appeal to both 'Roo vets and newcomers alike. And appeal it did: The fest sold out all of its 80,000 tickets again this year — and everyone, from sunbaked junior Deadheads to junior account executives, partied and danced into the wee hours of the morning, worked the drum-circle circuit back at their dusty campsites and didn't seem to mind sleeping for only a few hours each night.
That dedication was both amazing and sort of scary, but when there's so much music to be heard, sleep sort of becomes an afterthought. For the first time, this year's festival featured a full lineup on Thursday, meaning that there were now four days of nearly nonstop rock to ingest.
But Thursday was still just a warm-up for the three days of serious action that lay ahead. Most got their heads on straight to watch Lily Allen bob and weave her way through a set of sharp-tongued pop, or a bit of nerd-tronica courtesy of Hot Chip. Then, as shadows grew long, the tough choices loomed: spooky avant metal courtesy of Tool, or the warm-and-fuzzy mandolin jams of the String Cheese Incident?
I chose both, admiring the sheer amount of glowsticks SCI fans lobbed skyward during a series of rapidly unspooled solos, then trekking off into the darkness to catch Tool build throbbing basslines into dark, proggy towers, with Keenan cracking jokes about "the marijuana and the LSD" and probably reveling in the fact that he just seriously fried some minds (though we'll probably never be sure, since Tool did no press and allowed no one to film or photograph their set).
Saturday was opressively hot (a recurring theme of the festival, for sure) but that didn't stop fans from bobbing to a spiky set from Franz Ferdinand or getting all goofy for Regina Spektor. And no one seemed to mind the soaring temperatures during the Hold Steady's early evening performance, which featured so much fist-pumping from the audience that even the band seemed surprised.
And by the time the Steady wrapped, things were really shifting into high gear, with hyped-up kids (and, presumably, their parents) pressed hard against the main stage security barrier to catch the Police's much-hyped set, which started out so promising — with a blast of the gong from drummer Stewart Copeland and an incredibly proficient version of "Message in a Bottle" — but quickly devolved into roughly 100 minutes of jammed-out, sorta ambient music with the occasional mega-hit sprinkled in for good measure. It's not that the Police weren't technically sound — they were — it's just that they never really connected with the Bonnaroo crowd, and it didn't help when Sting surveyed them all and decided that they were "80,000 Tennesseans." And all that happened before the Police decided to cut their set short about an hour — which is about as close as you can get to a sin 'round these parts.
But the Police's shortcomings only opened the door for a host of other acts to swoop in and steal the night. Girl Talk cracked open his laptop and delivered a sweaty, super-fun set, and the Philadelphia Experiment — a jazzy side-project of the Roots' ?uestlove — made things cool and funky. But the night belonged to the Flaming Lips, who landed a spaceship onstage, then — flanked by an army of dancing Santas and Martians, and bolstered by their usual assortment of eye-melting live show tricks (dry ice, streamers, hundreds of balloons) — delivered an impassioned, ragged and downright joyful set ... the kind that makes you forget that frontman Wayne Coyne's voice has been shot since about 2003.
With so much energy buzzing in the air on Saturday, it's no wonder Sunday had such a low-key vibe. Most began packing up their campsites by midday, and as the sun began to set on the dusty fields, roughly one-fourth of the previous night's revellers were long gone, which is a shame. Why? Because they missed probably the best sets of the festival: First from Wilco, who injected spacey ambience into their threadbare tunes, and then from the White Stripes, who tore through a thunderous and squealing set with delightful abandon, making more noise than a two-piece should legally be allowed to.
The last band of the fest was venerable jam pioneers Widespread Panic, but, to be honest, by the time they took the stage, I was spent: too much sun, too much sound. But still, it was a blast. Four days of good times and grime. Is it the best festival in the world? Well, that's a discussion for another day. All I know is that myself — and 80,000 like me — had a blast, and I made it home in one piece.
Isn't that enough?