By Josh Kraus
Try mentioning to a Bonnaroo vet that you’re thinking of attending the festival for the first time, and they will immediately assume a demeanor of responsibility and slight superiority.
“First time going to the Roo?” they might say. “Keep hydrated and don’t talk to anyone whose beard is longer than their hair.”
It’s as if going to Bonnaroo for the first time is akin to losing one’s virginity or driving stick.
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But the truth is Bonnaroo is like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book with the page numbers missing. There are infinite and sometimes nonsensical ways to experience the festival. Some people stay in Centeroo the entire four days, sleeping in the mist tent. Others spend the majority of their time playing beer pong on the roof of their RV. There are those who view the event as a music festival with drugs, and others who think it is a drug festival with music.
I approached the event with the preparation of a boy scout with a bad case of OCD. Rain gear, check. Head lamp, check. All in one sun screen/mosquito repellant/aloe, check. I prided my meticulous scheduling of the acts I wanted to see. For example, on Saturday I would leave Of Montreal sharply at 6:15pm to catch the beginning of Wilco, after which I would rush across Centeroo to see the tail end of The Mars Volta. Springsteen would be next, followed by Yeasayer, and I would top the night off with a celebratory dance-a-thon courtesy of MGMT. Then I’d head back to my tent for a peaceful night of pure REM sleep.
But despite my rigid outline, the moment I arrived my plans shattered.
Bonnaroo is an exercise in excess, and I have truly never experienced such a blitzkrieg on my senses. Blistering heat and relentless rain made the daytime resemble a mud-infested sauna. Smells of gyro stands, beer and marijuana assaulted the nostrils. And music emanated from every pocket of air. To my knowledge there is no place on Earth that contains as much concentrated music as Bonnaroo. You are literally bathed in guitar chords, snare drums and bass notes. And it isn’t just the artists making noise. Boom boxes are constantly blasting tunes, and nomadic guitar players wander the 650-acre farm playing everything from voodoo reggae to straight-up blues. I passed drum circles, flute players and belly dancers.
I felt like I was an early explorer first discovering a new and exotic land, where a true collective conscious lived and breathed. This was a land where if enough sweaty people banded together and chanted “let us in!” the security would oblige. This was a land where a joint in one hand was as commonplace as a cell phone. This was a land where the freedom of the sixties still reigned, with the occasional frat boy scattered among the hippies.
I can and have talked about Bonnaroo endlessly, but I have chosen these highlights from the mass of good, bad, and confusing moments I experienced to share.
Three Best Moments:
- Of Montreal: Kevin Barnes led the crowd through a heart-racing hour-and-a-half set, complete with twisted yet mesmerizing vaudeville-like performers weaving in between the band members. People wearing jump suits, gas masks and pig-faces pranced around the stage, while the band played favorites of mine including “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger,” “The Party’s Crashing Us” and “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” Also, I remember glimpsing a dinosaur with enormous arms slinging rubber balls into the crowd.
- Man covered in grapes: There is nothing more to be said. The man was just covered from head to toe in purple, juicy grapes.
- Fire breathing snowman: I went to Centeroo late the first night and discovered a huge crowd circling what appeared to be a massive, moving steel snowman with flames shooting out of every opening. As I moved closer, feeling the mind-numbing heat dance across my forehead, I saw that people were perched on raised seats jutting out from the snowman’s base. The people were using their bodies to rock the structure back and forth, like a giant, flame sputtering seesaw from hell. I was positive that at any moment, an unsuspecting audience member would be flung into the beast; a human sacrifice for the Bonnaroo gods. Needless to say it was fascinating.
Three Worst Moments:
- Rain and hotdogs: A few hours after I arrived Thursday night I found myself saturated with rain as I huddled over my Coleman camping stove, pathetically flipping hotdogs which soon turned to sopping brown sponges. It doesn’t seem too terrible, but boy was I hungry for those hotdogs.
- Traveling alarm clock: On Saturday morning my girlfriend and I were woken from our slumber by a man dressed in a turban and a jean onesie playing electric guitar. Apparently, he was traveling around the campsites promoting his self-recorded album, and when our neighbors purchased one, the man decided to root himself near their tent and play his entire output. But with lyrics like, “skins and heads, skins and head!” how could you not be charmed?
- Girl Talk: After witnessing an incredible show Greg Gillis put on at Lollapalooza last year, I was sure that his set at Bonnaroo would be mind-blowing. Unfortunately, it just blew. To be fair, it really wasn’t his fault. The tent he was performing at was riddled with technical problems, some of which I heard at Santigold’s show. But when your only instrument is a laptop, it’s difficult to play off any errors. A number of times, Girl Talk’s signature pop-music fused beats would cease abruptly, which is not something they normally do. Instead of pausing and letting the crowd know what was happening, he shouted “How we doin’ Bonnaroo!” into the strangely silent air. But after the third time this happened, I got fed up and left. I heard the rest of the show was amazing, which is what really makes this a worst.