Exactly nine hours before my 6am flight from New York to Nashville, I got a text message from my traveling companion that read as follows "Can't find tent poles. Sleep in car?" That's how my 2009 Bonnaroo adventure began.
Having played the Bonnaroo game before, twice at that point, I knew "sleep in car" was probably not a good idea. So I got up off the couch, walked over to Wal-Mart, and purchased a decent-looking tent for about $80. Then I spent about an hour trying to figure out the best way to cram it into my suitcase .since US Airways was already charging me for one checked bag, and there was no way I was gonna check two.
Fast forward a bit ..we'll skip over the first flight, the layover in D.C., the second flight and land right in Nashville where it was overcast, and .you guessed it .hot. We grabbed our luggage and headed downstairs to the Alamo counter to pick up our wheels.
At this point, all the lights in the airport went out. When they flickered back on a second or two later, one of the nice ladies behind the counter turned towards the doors and in her lovely southern twang said "Oh my God! Look at it!" When I followed her gaze outside, I discovered that water was now falling from the sky in epic proportions. As the forecast had called for four full days of this, I just sighed and thought . "It's going to be a long weekend."
After driving for about an hour, including a quick stop at a local Wal-Mart (probably a better place to have made the tent purchase) for food and last chance supplies, we were approaching our exit .111. where we were met by the Tennessee highway patrol who directed all traffic to the end of the line .at exit 127.
Now in 2007, Sancho Panza and I waited just about 3 hours to get into Bonnaroo. In 2008 (after driving 17 hours bad plan) we waited 4.5 hours. So, in 2009 I was all the way prepared to see this massive line of traffic. What I wasn't prepared for was the fact that it took us EIGHT HOURS to get inside!!!
We made the best of the wait. We made friends with the large guy in front of us and the lesbian couple behind us (at one point they started fooling around .I think .that might've just been a boredom hallucination). We cracked a few PBR's. We played the Monopoly game I have on my iPod. We pissed in the woods.
When we got on line at noon, we were wondering if we'd MAYBE be able to catch Roger Allen Wade's set at 2:30. as 6:00 rolled around with no end to the traffic in sight, we were really upset that we were clearly going to miss a band called Delta Spirit's 7 pm set but then came the sole bright spot of the eight-hour ordeal the DJ on "Radio Bonnaroo" (the weekend's temporary radio station) came on the air and announced that Delta Spirit were having trouble getting into the festival (no shit!) and their set was being postponed to 12:45 am. Small favors I guess
We made it to the security checkpoint around 8:45. When the guy jokingly said "Okay guys were are the drugs?" he was met with blank stares and zero amusement. I told him that I had needed a men's room for about two hours, and if he spent much longer searching our car for drugs, weapons, and glass that wasn't there, I was going to piss all over his little security station. Wouldn't you know it .we were on our way about thirty seconds later.
We parked and hit the bathrooms and then in the dark began to set up the tent. When we made the decision to set up shop, it hadn't rained in about five hours. Quite literally the second we had the whole tent spread out across the ground, the skies opened up. If you've never set up a tent that you've never used before - in the dark, without instructions, in a thunderstorm - try not to.
On to the sound .
So, as I mentioned, we got to Bonnaroo around noon the first band that we got to see went on at 10 pm, and we missed a song or two at the beginning. That coupled with the rain made the mood as we began our Bonnaroo proper slightly less than jovial. However .as is it's nature .Bonnaroo had me feeling better within about ten minutes.
The Low Anthem is a group of three musicians, two guys and a girl, who on a song-to-song basis switch up what instruments they are using. They write these great, slow-paced moody, country(ish) soulful rock ballads, and while on the surface their sound should have been a little too mellow for the opening moments of Bonnaroo, their virtuosity and sheer spirit put a smile on my face for the hour or so that we watched them. The highlight was a tune called "Cigarettes and Whiskey" or "Whiskey and Cigarettes" .or something about smoke and booze .it was raining too hard to take notes gimmie a fuckin' break. Also, somewhere near the end of the set the main guy switched up his instrument again, and did a solo by whistling into a pair of cell phones that had called each other and therefore fed-back and echoed .that was cool too.
After The Low Anthem's set, we grabbed some food. At Bonnaroo 2008 we discovered two booths operated by "The Samosa Man." At three dollars a pop, these deep-fried all natural pockets of African deliciousness immediately became the main staple of our Bonnaroo diet. They come in six flavors (chicken, beef, broccoli, potato, etc.) and come with their own special hot sauce. Samosa Man sustained me in 2009 as well it's a much better deal and tastes better than a $5 slice of pizza. After wolfing down a pair of these tasty treats we watched some random dudes break dancing on what used to be called the Solar Stage (maybe it still is?) and then hit the info booth to find out which of Bonnaroo's 13 stages the Delta Spirit's late night set was going to take place on, and then headed off to see another band in the meantime.
Next up was The Zac Brown Band. My traveling partner asked me what they sounded like and I described them as Garth Brooks meets Dave Matthews Band kinda a sorta-jam band with a country flare. After seeing them perform, I very much stand by that description. Hi-energy, up-tempo, whatever you want to call it, Zac Brown has whatever it takes to whip a crowd into a frenzy, and did so after just a song or two. Originals like "Where the Boat Leaves From" and "It's Not Ok" mixed with covers of Charlie Daniels and The Band made for a fantastic and fun performance.
About an hour into Zac's set, my tent-mate elbowed me and said "So .are Delta Spirit going on in 5 minutes?" See, the lady at the info tent (2 paragraphs ago) had told us that Delta Spirit was going to be on at 12:30 on the same stage as Zac Brown (That Tent). It was clear that was not going to happen, but seeing as how Bonnaroo had seemed to be something of a logistical mess thus far, I decided to go see if the band was actually performing across the farm at "This Tent" and wouldn't you know it as I got there, they were wrapping up their first tune.
I sent a text message hurtling through space from This Tent to That Tent to let my compatriot know what was going on, and he made his way over. As Delta Spirit got going, so did the rain. By their third song, Bonnaroo looked like it was happening in the middle of monsoon season. Luckily I had bought and brought some hardcore rain gear, and stood just outside the tent, in the downpour yet dry all the same, and watched them rock the house. They played most of their album "Ode to Sunshine" and at least one cover, Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary Blues." Their no frills rock n roll which can be summed up by their lead singer's comment of "We know there are a lot of better bands than us here this weekend, but we really mean what we do, and we love you for coming to see us!" was the perfect way to close out the first night of Roo 09.
When we got back to our tent at around 2 am we found that we clearly had not set it up properly, and that it was full of about two inches of water from corner to corner. Exhausted and defeated, we slept in the car.
The next morning, we woke up around 9:30. which was a fucking miracle, because at all previous Bonnaroo's we'd attended, the heat of Tennessee in June had woken us up around 7. We had breakfast my buddy: a bowl of whole grain cereal .myself: a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a handful of Tostitos. And then we each embarked on a different mission which we both felt was necessary to make it through the rest of the weekend.
You may have noticed that I've kept my traveling companion's name a secret thus far, and this particular part of the story is the reason why. While I don't think he'd mind any of our friends who know that he went with me knowing the following information, the internet masses might be another story.
After breakfast, I began to deal with our tent while my companion set out to find himself some drugs. I spent about an hour reassembling the tent properly, and then getting all of the water out from inside. This painstaking process involved a single half-sized towel that my fiancé suggested I bring with me (at the time I didn't see why) being soaked with water, and then wrung out outside the tent over and over and over again. In the hour that I spent doing this, three different people came by selling pot .one guy came by selling Zoloft .two nice fellas offered to supply me with "rolls" (ecstasy) or "doses" (acid) .and one woman had "magic cookies." When my friend returned, he told me that he was unable to find any drugs .of course.
Drug free, we left our tent (in perfect condition) and headed into Centeroo (where the music happens) to check out our first band of the day.
Our first stop was at That Tent, which for the day was turned into the "David Byrne Stage" as Mr. Byrne had personally selected all of the acts scheduled to perform. First up was an all-female act from Norway called Katzenjammer.
I have three awards that I personally assign to bands I see at Bonnaroo. The first two are easy best band and worst band of the weekend. The third award requires a slight bit of explanation .The Manu Chao award. You see, in 2007 my buddy James and I went to Bonnaroo, and just stumbled upon a set by a guy named Manu Chao .who ABSOLUTELY stole the weekend! In 2008, a band called !!! (pronounced Chk Chk Chk) snuck up and kicked our asses .and won the second annual Manu Chao Award. So basically, this honor goes to the band that with no warning turned out to be absolutely fucking amazing!!! In 2009 there was no one even close to obtaining this award (which means nothing to anyone) after watching a performance by you guessed it .Katzenjammer.
Basically, what you get is four Norwegian women, all of whom sing at some point, and between them play .oh I don't know .twenty five different instruments ranging from trumpets, to kazoos, to a gigantic triangle-shaped bass and so on. At one point, whichever of the girls was on drums (they switch off song to song) was playing the drums with just her legs, and playing a mandolin at the same time.
All this multi-instrumentation is used to create a full, lush sound that seems to me like what would happen if you took blues-based rock and smashed it together with show tunes. It's great harmonies and bombast and storytelling that would work on Broadway, with a back beat and attitude that belongs in a broke down juke joint hidden in a swamp somewhere in Mississippi. When they're in your town don't skip it.
Moving on...while "That Tent" was David Byrne's tent on Friday "The Other Tent" was dedicated entirely to African music for the day. I headed off in that direction and got there just in time to catch the end of the Toubab Krewe's set which consisted of a very intense drum circle deal which really had the crowd going. It was pretty cool, and I wish I'd had time to see a little more of there deal but it wasn't in the cards.
I hung out at the Africa tent for the next few hours and caught a set by Vieux Farka Toure, a West African (I think .sorry if I'm wrong) guitarist who featured a very cool percussionist that played a gourd of some kind with his hands and some small sticks.
After that was bluegrass musician Bela Fleck whose latest project (which I first heard about in the Cinema tent at Bonnaroo 2008) involves tracing the roots of the banjo back to traditional African instruments. Bela was performing with Toumani Diabate, and while listening to them while sitting outside the tent in the sun I gotta say they sounded fantastic .on the other hand it was a little too mellow, and I moved on after a few songs in the name of staying conscious.
In the name of staying cool and un-sunburned, I decided to spend a little time inside "Yet Another Tent" a.k.a. The Comedy Tent .I know, I know it's not called that anymore but seeing as how it's new name is all corporate sponsored up, I'm staying old school.
In the comedy tent, which is supposed to be air conditioned but wasn't, I saw "Triumph the Insult Comic Dog presents Bonnapoo". This was basically Triumph (the cigar smoking dog puppet from the Conan O'Brian show) doing a few minutes of his shtick while introducing other comedians. He was funny more or less, they weren't. One guy, Kumail Nanjiani, was getting heckled by the crowd and then all of a sudden went crazy and started screaming at everyone to shut the fuck up before walking off stage claiming he was going to go kill himself. Triumph returned to the stage and said, "It's always nice to be hosting a show that has gone completely off the rails."
That moment, and when Triumph attacked and raped Ernie (as in Burt and) were not featured in Triumph's segment that aired on Conan's show the following week most of his other material was you can find it on Hulu it's pretty funny.
After Triumph, I headed over to the cell phone charging station (they only have one for 90,000 people) and waited on line for thirty minutes to charge my phone for twenty. Then it was back over to David Byrne's tent to watch a set by Ani DiFranco.
Fifteen years ago, when I had a blue mohawk and dog chain around my neck, I would have kicked you in the nuts and ran away if you told me you were taking me to an Ani show. The older, more mellow me really enjoys what she does, and had a good time seeing her for the first time. Her sound is more or less just straightforward folk with a staccato vocal delivery, but she has this really genuine quality where she just exudes life and energy that just makes her a pleasure to watch.
During her set, Ani told a story of being interviewed earlier in the day. She said that the reporter said that for a person of her stature, Bonnaroo had to represent a major point in her career and asked what Ani was going to do to make it special .her reply . "I'm gonna try not to fuck up too bad." Perfect.
I left Ani for a minute in the middle and tried to go see Al Green, but even though I got to where he was performing only halfway through his set time, he was done so I went back and saw the rest of her show, and then it was time to LEAVE the David Byrne tent .to go see David Byrne.
Yeah you read that right David Byrne curated a stage at Bonnaroo, and played at Bonnaroo but not on his stage go figure.
I didn't really know what to expect from Byrne. I kinda figured that he would do a bunch of his solo work that I'm not really familiar with and then do a Talking Heads song or two at the end. That didn't seem super appealing to me, but the only other act on during his set was The Beastie Boys and having seen them a few times before (and never really having been impressed) I decided to hang out and see what David had to offer.
What he offered was a few new songs that I didn't know, that all sounded pretty good, and a whole slew of Talking Heads songs that were amazing! From the second Byrne took the stage dressed head to toe in white (including his hair), he had complete control of both his band and his audience. When the choreographed dancing began it was quirky and weird and wonderful!
After hearing the all the tunes everyone knows "Once in a Lifetime", "Burning Down The House", "Take Me To the River", "Life During Wartime" and some great album cuts from Remain in Light (my personal favorite Talking Heads album) I could do nothing but shake my head and say to myself that David Byrne was at that point the highlight of my Bonnaroo which even with all the great music still to come, it remained.
As he was wrapping up his encore, I made my way over to the What Stage to find a spot for the first of Phish's two performances of the weekend.
When people heard that Phish was playing a "special late night set" starting at 11 pm, most folks assumed that they would play most of the night recalling their 1999/2000 performance where they played from 11 pm until sunrise without a break! That assumption along with endless speculation on various guest appearances during their "special set" both proved unfounded.
Phish's Friday night set ran just about the three hours it was scheduled for on paper, and featured absolutely zero special guests. They played a handful of new tunes, and a lot fan favorites from their studio albums .one must specify because the die-hard Phish fans that follow them around the country have a different set of favorite songs that the band regularly plays live but has never recorded in the studio .as a result, word around Bonnaroo that night and the next day was that the band had chosen to play a "set for newbies" and were pandering to the Bonnaroo crowd. I really can't be sure if that's true I just know that my feet hurt for the first half of the set so I left stole a folding chair from the beer tent went back and really enjoyed the rest of their set while off my feet.
The stolen chair was something of an epiphany. The next day I bought an $8 chair for $30 and proceeded to spend the rest of Bonnaroo in the most comfort I've experienced on the farm to date. Maybe I'm getting old but sitting down sure felt good.
Anyway, the night wasn't quite done yet. I wandered away from Phish during their second to last song and checked out the last twenty minutes or so of the best hip-hop group of all time, Public Enemy. I found out later that for the first part of their set, P.E. had played their classic album It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back from front to back .might be true might not for some reason Bonnaroo.com which has posted everyone's set list, does not include theirs. I saw first hand a handful of Flavor Flav antics, including a drum solo, and caught five or six songs before they finished up.
The last act of the night was one that I was really looking forward to. Gregg Gillis a.k.a. Girl Talk is .despite giant signs behind him when he performs stating "I am not a DJ" .a DJ. Specifically he's a guy that makes mash-ups you know, Salt-n-Peppa's raps over Nirvana's guitars using a bunch of computers. When he performs live, he insists on having no barricades between himself and his audience and invites everyone to dance on stage.
His interesting music coupled with what I'd heard was a really out of control party atmosphere made his set a must see, but the fact that he went on at 3AM, I was exhausted, and there were way too many people crammed into the tent he was performing in made the experience less than pleasant for me. The third time the people he allowed to join him onstage knocked the wires out of his computers and stopped the music, I decided to call it a night .I wanted to see the thousand or so balloons suspended over the crowd drop, but enough was enough.
When Sancho and I got back to our tent, which you'll remember we left in pristine condition that morning, we found that someone had apparently fallen into it and in the process snapped the tent poles in half rendering it useless. It was four in the morning when we settled in to sleep in the car again.
Saturday morning began with a surprise act (he was announced maybe the day before Bonnaroo started) who turned out to be surprisingly great. The act was billed initially as Ilo and the Coral Reefer All-Stars, but by show time, everyone in attendance knew that Coral Reefer would be fronted by it's regular leader, Jimmy Buffet.
Ilo, a young singer that Jimmy discovered in his travels around the world did do a couple of songs, but the show was really all about Buffet. He did a condensed version of his usual show which featured all the hits, "Cheeseburger in Paradise" "Love Song From a Different Point of View" (you know "why don't we get drunk and screw?") and of course "Margaritaville." There were also two standout covers, Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" and The Grateful Dead's "Scarlet Begonias." All in all, the hour or so that I spent with Jimmy Buffet was one of the best I had on the farm this year am I ready to declare myself a full-fledged parrot head probably not, but would I go check him out again on some future summer night why not?
As it turned out, Saturday became my lazy day at this year's Bonnaroo. As I mentioned earlier, in the name of comfort I bought myself an overpriced folding chair sometime that morning. I then proceeded to park myself in front of the Which Stage for something like seven hours. You see, there wasn't much that I felt I HAD to see, so there were two ways to go; I could wander here and there and see what I saw, or I could sit my ass down in one place, get some rest, and see what I saw.
So after Jimmy Buffet, I checked out a band called Heartless Bastards who do this really interesting mellow, moody, ethereal, art rock aaaaaaaaand, I fell asleep for a while.
After Heartless Bastards came Booker T and the DBTs who I managed to stay awake and watch.
You probably already know who Booker T is, but just in case he's a keyboard player who had a hit like forty years ago with an instrumental song called "Green Onions" you'd know it if you heard it. Since then he's worked on many projects including playing on the new Rancid album and the project at hand with the DBTs. The DBTs you may also know they're a modern southern rock band better known as the Drive By Truckers.
So the question is, when you put Booker T together with the Drive By Truckers, what do you get? The honest answer is simply, you get the Drive By Truckers with a really good keyboard player. It was a nice, low-key way to spend my lazy Saturday afternoon. As you may have guessed, the highlight was "Green Onions" that song's still funky and cool as ever. I remember thinking a song called "Potato Hole" was cool too, but I may have just liked the name.
Up next was one of my personal favorite bands, Gov't Mule. I've personally seen this band play something like thirty times, and honestly their 2007 appearance at Bonnaroo may have been the best of the bunch. That said, I was expecting a lot from their 2009 set unfortunately, I didn't get it.
On paper, the Mule's set list which contained originals like "Beautifully Broken", "Banks of the Deep End", and "Soulshine" along with a slew of covers by the likes of Radiohead, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2 seems like it would be great. However, whatever the magic is that makes a good show great just wasn't in the air that afternoon, and a good show just seemed mediocre. Even a guest spot by the leggy and talented (but mostly leggy) Grace Potter didn't get things moving.
Am I done with Gov't Mule? By no means. But all in all, their Bonnaroo 09 set was something of a disappointment, and not even close to the brilliant performance they gave in 2007. The difference in my mind seemed to be the difference between doing something special (3+ hour set with almost a dozen big name special guests and a bunch of new and different material), and just going through the motions (75 minutes of songs they've played regularly for years and one marginal guest).
When Mule wrapped things up, I ended my long residency at the Which Stage and decided to walk around a little bit. I hit up the Sonic Stage to see a little bluegrass in the form of Tony Rice Unit but the sound wasn't working very well, in fact at one point Tony just walked off the stage, so I just kept moving. I caught a few songs from Elvis Costello, who was performing solo (and shouldn't have been) and then saw a few songs by The Mars Volta which (exactly like when I saw them perform last year) all sounded the same and got annoying after a while.
At that point, I figured I might as well just head over to the What Stage and get a decent spot for that night's headliner, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I did so, but in the process ended up watching, and really enjoying, the second half of Wilco's set. I don't know their music well enough to tell you what I heard, but I can tell you that it was more intense than any of their studio stuff that I've heard over the years and easily moved the band onto the list of bands I'd like to hear more from and then see again.
Now it was time for The Boss. I've never been a big Springsteen fan. I really like the Nebraska album, and there are a handful of songs on the Greatest Hits album that I like to sing along to, but beyond that I've never really been interested. However, since Bruce had one of the exclusive headlining spots at Bonnaroo, he was the only game in town for three hours so I figured I'd make the best of it.
In my mind, Bruce's set was going to go like this: "Badlands" .five songs in a row that I didn't know "Glory Days" .three songs I didn't know ."Thunder Road" .four songs I didn't know and so on until he played "Born To Run" and said goodnight .and more or less, that's how it did go.
What I wasn't sure about was whether or not all those songs I didn't know would be fantastic or tedious, and after the "Badlands" opener, I got six songs to find out with. I found them to be decent, neither great nor awful, and enjoyed them. Then came "Johnny 99" dressed up as a rocker which was really good and right back into the unknown.
What came next was probably the most interesting part of the set. Lately, Bruce and the band have started taking requests in the middle of their shows. The way it works, apparently, is fans that are in the know bring signs naming the songs that they want to hear. At some point in the show Bruce heads out to the crowd and collects a handful of these and brings them back to the stage. It's a pretty cool idea and simultaneously keeps the band sharp and the shows fresh.
As Bruce was collecting requests at Bonnaroo, someone handed him a six-foot-tall cutout of Santa Claus which he immediately brought back to the stage. The Boss got on the mic and provided my favorite quote in all of my Bonnaroo experience, "It's too fucking hot for Santa!" The crowd erupted, and Bruce repeated his statement. More cheers. "You want Santa?" Crowd roars! Bruce turns to the band, shrugs his shoulders, and they break into their twenty-plus year old cover of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" complete with Clarence Clemmons providing "Ho Ho Ho's" on cue. It was the clear cut highlight of their set.
After that there were some more songs I didn't know and more of the big guns like "Thunder Road," Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," "Rosalita," "Glory Days," "Dancing in the Dark," and of course "Born to Run." When all was said and done, I had a great time watching the Boss, and would do so again .but I'm still not running out to buy any more of his albums.
Bruce finished up around midnight, and the choices for late night entertainment were Nine Inch Nails, Ben Harper, MGMT, and moe., all of whom I had seen before. MGMT didn't impress me the first time I saw them and I named Ben Harper's 2007 Bonnaroo set the worst of the weekend, so they were out. That left NIN and moe.
We watched a little of Nine Inch Nails from a distance, but when we realized that they were not using the (amazing) light show we had seen them with last summer, we moved on after about five or six songs. We checked out a little of moe, who were just doing what they do (and reportedly did it for six hours) and then headed back for another night of car sleep.
Sunday proved to be the opposite of Saturday. In the first six hours of the day, I stopped by sets by ten different bands. I saw a little bit of all of the following: Ben Sollee, The Lovell Sisters, Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue, Dillinger Escape Plan, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Nikhil Korula Band, High On Fire, Robert Earl Keen, Okkervil River, and Andrew Bird.
Truth be told, the reason I wandered so much was that nothing was really grabbing me. Mike Farris was doing a nice Gospel thing that was a nice way to start out a Sunday, and residing on the other side of the coin, Dillinger Escape Plan and High on Fire were both at That Tent which for the day was the Metal Stage.
High On Fire were great, but a bit much for my state of mind after four days standing in the Tennessee sun and four nights of sleeping in the car. Dillinger Escape Plan did nothing for me, and were probably the band I enjoyed the least of the entire weekend.
6:30 rolled around and it was time for Band of Horses. When the Bonnaroo line-up was released way back in February, this was the band I was the most excited to see, but in the four months that passed between the line-up announcement and the actual concert, I kinda got over it. They played a great set of their country-ish indie rock including all of the tunes I wanted to hear, but they didn't manage to get me out of my chair.
Back to the What Stage for the final performance of the weekend, a second set (which turned out to be two sets instead of one long one) was performed by Phish. To my ear, this second (and third) set was where the band seemed to stretch out a little bit more and jam some more and was a great way to wrap up a great weekend. The highlight was without a doubt the conclusion of the first half when the band brought out none other than Bruce Springsteen who sat in for "Mustang Sally," "Bobby Jean," and a really great version of "Glory Days."
At 12:30 am on the dot, Phish wrapped up "Tweezer Reprise" and Bonnaroo 2009 was in the books. That night we slept in the car one more time .while the masses around us partook in all the drugs and fireworks that the eight hour security line had missed four days earlier.