My sixth consecutive year attending Bonnaroo came to an end almost two weeks ago and like all previous years it was a blast and over way too fast. It was amazing how quickly the weekend went and by the end of the event, I found myself thinking that a major festival like this is little more than sensory overload and it can be hard to describe what was seen or experienced. Shows ran together and it became easy to forget how the sequence of each day went. So while I will attempt to capture my experiences and all the acts I saw here, I’m sure I will neglect to include some memorable moment or revelatory observation that no doubt crossed my mind. Maybe next time I should take a notebook or something just to jot things down.
We had a very large crew this year that included a ton of family members. Uncle JB made his regular appearance as did his two sons, John and Shea, but the big addition to the group was JB’s wife and my aunt, Gail, who actually almost bailed at the last moment. Two other cousins, James and Johanna, made the trip as did JB’s buddies Marty and John. We left early on Wednesday morning and eventually met up with some other friends as well as some more family members including my uncle Billy and his kids Dan, Kevin, and Lauren from New York. Lauren’s friend Stephanie also came. It was almost like a family reunion, and come to think of it, Bonnaroo is a great place to have one, especially if everyone is down with the music as we all were.
They opened the gates at 7:00 Wednesday night but it wasn’t until 9 that we got in line. Our wait was a short one though as we entered the venue and parked our RV around 11:00. This gave us plenty of time to set up our campsite and to get a good night’s sleep which is typically a rare event on the Wednesday night before the festival. The other great thing about this was that it allowed us almost an entire day on Thursday to just hang out which was probably the longest period of pure socializing we had all weekend. We played all kinds of games, had some beer, ate some food, and listened to tunes. JB’s buddy O’Reilly had some excellent speakers set up and we took turns playing DJ throughout the weekend. Our RV was parked right next to one of the main roads and right across a set of port-o-potties which meant a lot of people were subject to our musical selections, and the cool thing was that many people who walked past us seemed to sing along or dance to the music we were playing. Before the weekend was over, we would receive all kinds of compliments.
I was also sending text messages back and forth with a few friends who were making the trek separately. My friend Vanessa was coming from the Boston area with her roommate Gwen and my friend Mishka was coming from New York with her friend Tara and a few others. I originally thought it would be easy to meet up with them if we kept sending text messages but I soon realized this was going to be more difficult than I thought. I sent them both messages on Thursday morning but I did not hear back from them until much later that day. Apparently, my amazingly awesome iPhone is rendered quite finicky at Bonnaroo.
Eventually the day moved on to where it was time to head out to catch some live shows. We hadn’t seen one band yet but it felt like the weekend was already half over. I’d have to go ahead and say that this was the best Thursday I’ve ever had at Bonnaroo. This was capped off by a phenomenal spaghetti and meatballs dinner that was basically unheard of before this year. Having my aunt Gail there was awesome enough, but it got even better when she decided to cook us all a big meal before we left. It might seem fairly simple to you, but believe me, it was a big deal. For someone to cook a full blown meal in that small “kitchen” in the RV was quite a feat. And it was delicious. Actually, I’m not even sure if it was on Thursday or Friday that she cooked this meal, but it is certainly worth mentioning.
1) The Futurebirds:
The year got off to a good start with a set by a little known band from Athens, Georgia. I chose to see them because while during my research, they seemed to be the best of the choices available. Sometimes that’s just what you have to do as invariably there will be times when you aren’t dying to see any of the acts playing and while many take these times to relax, hang out, ride the Ferris wheel, shop, etc, I make sure I’m checking some band out. This is when I stumble upon something great and have an amazing time. The band was pretty solid playing a mix of country and rock tunes and they emphasized those sounds with the addition of a banjo and slide guitar. They didn’t blow me away, but they were a lot of fun.
2) Freelance Whales:
Going into the festival, I was excited to hear this band that includes five multi-instrumentalists who play an indie/folk/pop type of music that almost always includes the xylophone. I love seeing bands whose members constantly change the instruments they’re playing. It shows a level of talent that many bands do not have. Most bands and artists specialize in one or two instruments but when you have a group that specializes in three or four each, well that’s something unique. I particularly liked the box accordion and the prominent sound of the xylophone in several songs. At one point, one of the members played the xylophone and the bass guitar at the same freaking time! Never saw that before. This went down as one of the two best shows that I saw on Thursday night.
3) Best Coast:
After Freelance Whales I tried to catch the end of Karen Elson’s set who happens to be Jack White’s wife (actually, I later learned that the two announced their divorce the next day. Jack White is just severing all kinds of ties this year). I knew she was a model but was not aware that she was a musician as well. I thought I would be able to see a few songs but she was just ending as I arrived, meaning that she cut her set short about fifteen minutes. Now artists may need to do this for one reason or another, but why bother advertising a set that is supposed to last an hour when you only do 45 minutes? For dudes like me who try to see a lot of acts, this can get annoying. At any rate, I headed over to check out the set by Best Coast whom I was familiar with and while I do enjoy the album they put out last year which is chock full of 50’s style pop songs with a distorted, low-fi twist, I have to say that this was probably the most disappointing set of the weekend for me. They just didn’t sound good. At one point the lead singer made a comment about people not looking like they were having a good time. Think she wondered later if that was because they sucked? I think that is bound to happen sometimes. With today’s technology and production heavy albums, it can be hard for some bands to put on a good or comparable live show. Sometimes the live sound is just way different and less enjoyable than the stuff created in the studio. I toyed with the idea of trying to give them more of a chance, but my mind was made up. I was off.
4) School of Seven Bells:
As soon as I arrived at this set, I wished I had been there from the beginning. I heard a little of their stuff before leaving for the weekend and I thought their atmospheric rock/pop sound was interesting enough to check out. I only saw a few songs as they closed their set but to me they seemed much more polished and enjoyable than Best Coast.
5) The Drums:
My other favorite act of the night was by this group of Brooklyn pseudo-Smiths wannabes. I just found all of their songs to be upbeat and catchy and for a band that I’ve never heard of, it was a lot of fun getting into their music right away. Probably the most striking aspect of their set was the dancing styles of the lead singer which seems to deliberately trying to channel the 80’s. Very good set from a band I would like to get more into.
6) Sleigh Bells:
Earlier in the evening, I made a phone call to JB, which didn’t go through, as many calls didn’t throughout the weekend, and after a few rings a plethora of text messages came through that most likely went back to the beginning of the day. Vanessa and Mishka were texting me their various locations throughout the day and who they were seeing. It was at this moment that I realized I could not receive a text message unless I made an outgoing call. Not sure why the iPhone was acting such a way, but it’s basically how I had to operate throughout the weekend. Anyway, I had somehow managed to connect enough with Mishka to secure a meeting place for Sleigh Bells who played right after the Drums. I had a pretty good spot and decided to stay there to wait for Mishka. As soon as the Drums left the stage the crowd started plowing forward to get closer for Sleigh Bells. I soon found myself in what would turn out to be the most crowded shows of the weekend and one of the most crowded of my life. As people pushed past me I tried to keep my position as it was since the further I got up, the more crowded it would no doubt be. After a few minutes of trying to just remain standing, I heard Mishka’s voice call over to me. She was just a few people over so I made my way to meet up with her and her friend, Tara. We talked for a bit and the show began which was very loud and included a huge number of flashing lights that came from behind the band making it very difficult to see them. People were dancing and going crazy and we were just trying to stay alive. I was able to make out the setup on the stage which was basically a series of giant speakers. No guitars or drums or keyboards, just a huge set of speakers. After about four or five songs we decided to make our way out of the tent to get to a more comfortable spot. The amount of feet I stepped on and people I bumped into was too many to count. Although Mishka and Tara started off right behind me, it wasn’t long before we were separated and by the time I got to an area that was merely somewhat devoid of mass amounts of people I had lost track of them. After a few moments they made their way through the sea of people unscathed. We stayed outside the tent for a bit before they went back to their tent. I stayed for the rest of the show and while I enjoyed it, it turned out to be not as fun as I would have liked. The lead singer’s voice wasn’t all that great when I was able to hear it over the blaring beats coming from the speakers and I’m also just not a huge crowd guy. Maybe I’m getting old or maybe I’m not cool enough but being in a huge crowd like that is just not my idea of a good time. Overall it was a decent set. I’m just glad we didn’t get hurt.
7) Childish Gambino:
Sometimes a band gets notoriety just because of its members. Childish Gambino is fronted by comedian Donald Glover who is best known for his role as Troy on the NBC comedy “Community” (which is a really good show by the way). I’m not saying Gambino isn’t good or that they’re only out there because of its famous member, but I’m sure that has helped them accelerate their career. Glover also put on some comedy shows throughout the weekend but in the six years I have attended Bonnaroo, the only comedian I’ve seen is Chris Rock and that’s only because he played the main stage and there was no problem getting a spot for that set. The comedians perform in the comedy tent which requires you to wait in a long line and miss some dope music. So every year there are some great comedians, and I always pass. But I was glad I got to see Gambino which is a hip-hop outfit. By this time in the evening I was pretty tired and only stayed for about four songs. What I heard I liked and what was most noticeable was Glover’s crazy voice which at times reminded me of Nicki Minaj. It was almost a panicking sound. I wished I was up closer and that I wasn’t so tired, but by this point I had enough and turned in for the night.