"Young people today have a much wider taste in music than people did when I was growing up. I think the Bonnaroo-thing kind of represents that," said Warren Haynes, guitarist of The Allman Brothers Band and founder of jam band Gov't Mule.
Haynes has played the biggest musical festivals to date, including Woodstock. He's watched the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival "turn into a worldwide thing" and said he's "still here from last year."
"Its been interesting to watch it grow... Everyone knows Bonnaroo."
The 12th annual Bacchanalia gathering was held on Manchester's farm June 13-16, continuing its expansion from strictly booking jam bands to hosting more than 200 acts from just about any music genre you can think of. That diversity attracts ninety-some-thousand music lovers to camp out for one weekend each summer. While covering the event my new friends asked the same question, "How do I explain this place to friends back home?"
Festivals have been around since the 1300's but with the rise of online piracy and websites like Spotify most people would rather listen to their favorite artists through headphones than face 90 degree heat, on a giant farm, beside all that humanity. Those compelled enough to leave their air conditioners experience a music event like no other.
In his New York Times article, music critic Ben Ratliff praised the attentiveness of Bonnaroo's audience. Ratliff said there is "more general attention and respect" given toward Bonnaroo's performances than any other "enormous pop festival" he's been to, including Roo's West Coast antithesis, Coachella.
That level of dedication excited Sam Margin, lead vocalist and guitarist of The Rubens, before his first time performing on the farm.
"We were working in bars not long ago, hating our lives. Just this last year we started playing festivals and I don't know, this happened out of nowhere. Now we're at Bonnaroo — what the fuck," Margin explained on Friday.
Greyhill Advisors, an economic consulting firm, would also measure Bonnaroo's success. Greyhill found that the festival generates more than $51.1 million for Manchester's Coffee County each year, making it the highest-earning music festival ever. Each attendant has the option to either work shifts during the fest or chalk up $260-$1,000 for entry wristbands. Those making the trip, meander across 750-acres of privately owned farmland with zero police officers on site.
"The security is the best there too. I've been to a couple festivals where the security is breathing down your neck the whole time like they're Hell's Angels or something," said Adam Sedlak, festival nomad from Pennsylvania. Sedlak has been to Chicago's Lollapalooza, California's Coachella, Delaware's Firefly and NYC's Governor's Ball.
But things aren't completely wild as you'd imagine. Security rides around on horseback and will confiscate flasks, glass bottles, bowls and drugs if you fail to conceal them properly. The following group of friends from Ohio did not have that problem.
"In a matter of 30 minutes we had consumed more drugs than I did the entire time we were there," said one tall hipster.
"One minute we were sitting in the grass throwing glow sticks at passersby, and the next we were in the middle of The Other Tent… We danced till the sun came up... I woke up covered in glitter, without my clothes, but somehow I managed to still have my beer tent tickets in my socks."
LSD, MDMA, magic mushrooms, medical marijuana from California and Colorado, hash brownies, adderall, "cookie monster" and just about any drug you can imagine will make an appearance on the campgrounds. One school teacher bought mushrooms from a "guy in a banana costume" who couldn't find a way to beat the heat. The giant fruit passed out in the teacher's tent for 18 hours, "we thought he was dead."
Mark Moderalli, future Bonnaroo taxi driver, noticed the fairer sex finding their own ways to stay cool.
"I think I saw a dozen pair of tits. Seven painted and five bare. The first night some girl came up to me with her top off. She asked me what was up. I said 'you are clearly.'"
If drugs and nudity aren't your thing, the festival offers events for the sober and fully-clothed. 2013 marked Bonnaroo's first 5k race, a full yoga curriculum, art lessons, movie screenings and mindfulness sessions.
That balance left little to no aggression on the farm. When audience members became frustrated they skipped fighting and burst into song — usually the national anthem. Some fought heat exhaustion, I think, by shouting their favorite Christmas albums, "NSYNC," "Christina Aguilera." One girl shouted every lyric to "All I Want for Christmas is You" with a straight face.
Being in line is an experience in itself. You walk in, wait, then watch a sea of people pour around you, realizing it's bad because they're endless, but bearable when you adjust, eventually knowing you're more than just another piece of meat caught in the tide... The point is, Bonnaroo attendants find ways to make it work. Sunscreen, CamelBaks, straw hats and makeshift bandanas keep festival goers safe and relatively sane. Portugal, The Man's lead vocalist praised the Bonnaroo attendants when he said they're much more open to the elements than his audience at NYC's Governor's Ball.
"Honestly [Bonnaroo] is the best festival. We always have fun here… I've never played a Bonnaroo without mud, the people don't give a shit. They have fun," said Gourley.
I shared the same mindset with Kellie, the self proclaimed "cute photo-taking sidekick." Instead of hiding in the media tent, the coldest on site, we covered as many acts as possible. Making a strict schedule was unrealistic but we laughed at "novelty acts" Solange, R. Kelly and Billy Idol. Sure enough, they'd show up for guest appearances at two concerts. Beyonce's kid sister sang "Two Weeks" with Grizzly Bear, while Kelly and Idol made guest appearances at the Rock 'n' Soul Superjam.
The best acts came on after sundown, taking advantage of their light shows and the absence of that ungodly sun.
During The Japandroids & The XX, crowds chanted "The Star Spangled Banner." The Japandroids botched Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and The XX showed up 50-minutes late. The Japandroids recovered by playing "The House That Heaven Built." The XX apologized before telling fans it was singer Oliver Sim's birthday. A crowd of shirtless bros quickly responded — "Oh man, Oliver Sim! What a silky smooth voice," "Smooth as velvet."
DJ Derek Smith started his Pretty Lights set of hip-hop-electronic music and laser light show. Fists full of glow sticks were thrown from every direction and everyone kept talking about their LSD or Molly trip. I tried to find water but failed miserably. Bodies poured all around us — I was trapped in a fucking rainbow.
Purity Ring also killed their performance and light show. Small cocoons lit up every time producer Corrin Roddick knocked MIDI drumsticks against touch sensitive lanterns, vocals came from Megan James and the duet played two encores of "Fineshrine" for nearly 30 minutes without protest.
The weekend's hip-hop performers went all out for crowd interaction. Action Bronson's big ass jumped into the crowd, Kendrick Lamar had everyone screaming "where my motherfucking dominoes at" and Ohio's Moderalli was one of thousands of white kids singing "Martin had a dream," Macklemore had a fan's fur coat surfed to the stage so he could wear it, and A$AP Rocky crowd surfed, smoked a blunt and invited dozens of fans on stage. Killer Mike had his audience — most people members that screamed the national anthem — yelling "fuck Ronald Reagan" and "fuck the government." So what quasi-intelligent statement can I make sense of that with?
All Americans want change — but we have no idea how to get it. We just say "fuck it" and get drunk to good music... while the CIA listens.
Killer Mike's commentary on the NSA, "This week we learned that no dick pic is private. If they're gonna be looking — they can't arrest all of us, if we all do drugs at the same motherfucking time."
Other bands we caught up with: Father John Misty, Beach House, The Wu-Tang Clan, Django Django, Father John Misty, Matt & Kim, JD McPherson, HAIM, and Björk. Jack Johnson covering Mumford's "The Cave" and the Steve Miller Band's "The Joker" with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Jim James Rock 'n' Soul Superjam covering 70's tracks from Sly & the Family Stone, John Lennon, Curtis Mayfield and the Rolling Stones. Accompanying James were John Oates, Comedian Michael Winslow, Sly & the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham and Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard.
Howard also joined Bustle in Your Hedgerow, a Led Zeppelin cover band playing from 2:30 a.m. till sunrise. Hedgerow went mostly without a Robert Plant until Howard performed The Lemon Song hitting the genitals of audience members like a bottle of Cialis.
And yes, we saw Paul McCartney. He played "Something," "Yesterday," and other Beatles songs. McCartney also told a story about Jimi Hendrix shredding a solo in '69. By song's end, Hendrix was begging Eric Clapton to come on stage to tune his guitar. Clapton quietly shook his head from the crowd, "I ain't coming up there, man." And the Beatle was not only the first headliner to perform, but also the first to comment on the festival's aroma.
"Whoa, someone has some pretty good weed up front. What are you trying to do to me?"
The final headliner, Tom Petty, also brought up a good point.
"It smells really good at Bonnaroo, yanno? ...no, really it smells. I'd swear it was pot."
Moderalli would find the only confrontation I heard of throughout the weekend. At the festival's center, a naked male was faced down, with one arm around his back, and a knee placed on his neck, being restrained by eight Bonnaroo security members.
"I'm not sure if bath salts were involved," Moderalli said.
Besides that instance, the group mentality was unusually positive given the crowds, drugs and extreme weather. I swam through, bumped, stepped on and apologized to tens-of-thousands and the most I would get back was "you're fine, honey," "no problem, brother."
But our trip wasn't exactly perfect. During our drive to Tennessee, we came minutes away from this. After setting up camp we got lost, and I was jumping a 15-foot barbwire fence with an audience of cars cheering me — to get back inside the festival. Just an hour later, a storm threw our canopy onto our neighbor's pickup truck. Thankfully three separate neighbors quickly ran over, retrieving the canopy. We ruined an air mattress, Bob Saget complemented me on my nappy hair, banana residue smothered our DSLR camera — and all that madness flew pretty quickly.
Time definitely plays tricks on you at Bonnaroo — three hours pass like one. Many had spiritual moments — pin-balling against 750-acres will leave you mentally and physically spent but it makes you excited for music again — like the first time you scored music for free. The festival is a place to consider life, motion and how well your own character stacks up against it all — pending how conscious you were.
If you're the music snob that only listens to albums from the Summer of Love, then you're right — we've basically missed out on everything worth living for. But if you aren't, don't hesitate to postpone your shitty-job, compromising relationship — whatever ball and chain weighing you down — to be apart of the grandiose festival that makes you feel like you've never left.