Bonnaroo At The End Of The World: The Healing Game Goes On

Chance the Rapper, U2, Tegan & Sara, and more bring a message of love to Tennessee

By David Dark and Dorothy Day Dark

There are times when rock and roll is a fight on behalf of human consciousness. There’s silliness and unreasoning rage and libido and beats (and, very often, an accompanying thoughtlessness that pays no heed to people nearby). At the core of it all is the super-aliveness that might persuade us to not throw in the towel, to not hurt anyone, to somehow let love rule.

Consider Bonnaroo. It is, admittedly, a beast in which Live Nation Entertainment owns a controlling stake, but it’s also what love looks like in public for thousands of people each year. Those plates and cups and napkins — every last one of them — are for real compostable. No one ordered the man in the golf cart to pull over and ask a young stranger with a towel and a toothbrush if anyone’s ever told him he looks like Harry Potter. There is no mass email that directs people to take time off work and lay down hundreds of dollars to dress like extras in Duran Duran’s “Union of the Snake” video and administer high-fives unto people they don’t know in a place where, to borrow a Daft Punk lyric, music’s got us feeling so free that we can celebrate and dance so free.

In this sense, Bonnaroo is a for-profit operation that also houses, for more than a few, a social experiment in lifting up the potential of community, a structured instance of humans coming together and loving themselves and their neighbors to the best of their ability. It’s a four-day-long practice in empathy and hope and relationship, and as a species, we need it now more than ever. It may be a muddy, sweaty, and sometimes drug-addled mess, but as we’re reminded each day, there’s a denial cult in power that won’t be made to see or admit that they’re peeing in everyone’s drinking water, busily looting what’s left of our general welfare (climate, land, arts, education, infrastructure), and cosigning the toxic whims of a madman in psychic freefall. Given the taxpayer-funded wave of mutilation coming out of Washington, we’ll take Bonnaroo. We need a reminder that robust expression, candor, and artfulness can be a means to hope no matter the circumstances. We need a beacon, and Bonnaroo delivers.

Have you ever been made to feel as if you don’t, and may never, fit? There may yet be a balm of Gilead for you, and it might arrive — as it did for us — in Tegan and Sara's set, when they address all manner of lost loves: “You never really knew me, never ever / Never ever saw me, saw me like they did.” Songs like “Goodbye, Goodbye” come to life in new and unexpected ways when sung together in crowds, crowds who desire and seek out safe spaces that occasionally transform into brave ones, for hearts that might otherwise feel hopelessly out of sync. These days, “Shock to Your System” can seem like a form of group exorcism, a desperately needed ritual these days.

“Honesty is like a kiss on the lips,” Lucy Dacus of Richmond, Virginia, sang at an early-afternoon set. “I don’t believe in love at first sight, but I might if you looked at me right.” Her song “Direct Address” speaks to themes constantly recurring throughout the festival: beauty and desire. Tegan and Sara introduced “Stop Desire” as a song about what to do when you find yourself wanting to make out with someone within minutes of meeting them. How do we channel our desires non-destructively and remain true to our hearts, to what we perceive and know? What do we do with the anxiety that accompanies the hope to be seen, heard, loved and touched? The hope of dwelling righteously within the human barnyard was being beautifully addressed — in song and spectacle — around every bend. Incidentally, we have a new entry to the annals of jams in which human beings are invited — with wit, tenderness, and devastating discernment — to at long last level with themselves, in Dacus’s “Strange Torpedo” (“You’ve got a mind of gold that you keep secret / I gotta hope that one day you’ll use it”).

A perceptible curriculum on how to be better adults was under way. It will perhaps come as no surprise to hear that this pattern was repeated in Chance the Rapper’s set, which included The Social Experiment track “Sunday Candy,” in which Chance decrees himself the accomplished thesis of his grandmother’s prayers alongside Jamila Woods’s chorus of admonition (“You gotta move it slowly / Take and eat my body like it’s holy”). Halfway through the set, Francis Farewell Starlite appeared to perform “May I Have This Dance,” and the two men did a choreographed dance together alone on the stage. At one point, it was as if Chance was sending up a trial balloon by teasingly measuring the crowd's response when he replaced “Music is all we’ve got” with “Jesus is all I’ve got.” He conjectured aloud that his Bonnaroo mainstage crowd was larger than what Kanye drew there, and, with the same brashness, he moved further in hazarding a certain risk, just before “Finish Line,” with a question to the crowd: “Can I ask you a personal question? Do you wanna go to heaven? Make some noise if you wanna go to heaven!” Given the deafeningly affirmative response, perhaps he’d earned the right to undo a dichotomy or two. He might reign as the King of Bonnaroo if he hadn’t already warned against such thinking: “Don’t believe in kings, believe in the kingdom.”

We also got the sense of Bonnaroo as a great leveler of people in the most heartening way by just talking to other attendees. While sitting among the hammocks in a wooded sanctuary called the Grove, we met a married couple named Chris and Veronica Long. Chris is a musician from Little Rock, Arkansas, who is pursuing a career in the industry with Veronica's loving support. After he played us a song that he described as a love ballad from a burrito to a girl, the question of what Bonnaroo means arose. They talked about passing time in Nashville in the hope of working their way into the songwriter community there. They signed up for a raffle to get Bonnaroo tickets, and Veronica won. As Chris said, “Bonnaroo is knowing you are in the right place at the right time for all the right things to happen.” Indeed, Bonnaroo felt like the right place to be, surrounded by music that people believe in, people who believe in you, and an energy that comes about naturally when people gather in the name of art and love.

“I know the money don’t really make me whole,” Noname rap-sings on “Yesterday,” from her debut album, 2016's Telefone, and also on the This Tent stage. The wisdom of this mantra concerning money, its impact, and wholeness took on renewed import later, as U2 took the stage for the first American festival headlining appearance of their entire career. Bonnaroo can provide an audition space in which someone like Chris Long might vie for a patch of ground in pop culture consciousness, but it’s also a place where the all-time greats can re-up and assert themselves anew. For U2, we can lovingly admit, there were likely many in the youngish audience for whom they were primarily that band whose album once appeared in their iTunes without their consent.

But here they were, taking the stage as the Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” played on the PA. The giant screens offered no images or flashing lights as the band dropped “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” upon us. And before inviting the “No more! No war!” call and response, Bono widened the umbrella of conscience by inviting the audience to mourn the deaths of people in London and Kabul. From the looks on the four men’s faces, it was a ways into their set before they felt fully confident that they were pulling it off — but they really, really did so, in a deeply mutual exchange of social uplift. The Joshua Tree, performed in its entirety, took on renewed significance as a voicing of the psychic struggle of exiles, immigrants, nationalists, and traumatized souls on every side of our military-industrial-incarceration complex.

Late in the performance, Bono observed that what elected officials fear most is the power of mass movements, and he set out a proverb: “People shouldn’t fear their government. Governments should fear the people.” And as the faces of famous female activists and celebrities (Pussy Riot, Maya Angelou, Ellen DeGeneres — "Women who stood up or sat down for their rights, women who insisted, resisted, and persisted") appeared on the screens during “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” a picture of U2 as lifelong cheerleaders for social justice began to emerge. All of this from four aging gentlemen still trying to offer their best creative selves to anyone willing to listen.

A similar spirit of generosity could be felt from many an owner, cleaner-upper, caterer, volunteer, organizer, performer, and ticket-paying participant of and within Bonnaroo. The festival is characterized by hard-won humanness, a solid manifestation of the people’s republic of rock and roll. This was asserted on the screen of the mainstage throughout the festival, with poetic offerings from Dr. Seuss and Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, and perhaps most meaningfully, just before U2’s set, we spied the scrolling of Sherman Alexie’s poem “The Powwow at the End of the World.” Like Seamus Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience,” or Derek Walcott’s “Love after Love,” it’s an eschatological vision likely fit for a lifetime of meditation. But it seems like a meditation on memory and forgiveness, and how healing happens (or might yet happen) in a world of violence and forgetfulness. In the name of whatever you call holy, we urge you to take in the whole thing, but have a look at this passage that was in view at Bonnaroo:

One story will teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance.

May we live up to, and into, all such redeeming liturgies amid the hatred and haste of our nervy news cycles. Amplify thoughtfulness everywhere.

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