You stop someone on the street, tell them they you’re driving 12 hours to a blisteringly hot farm in Tennessee where you can sleep on yoga mats, eat camp food and get burned for four days, they’ll probably think you’re crazy. Tell them you’re going to see Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Skrillex, Kendrick Lamar, St. Vincent, Major Lazer, Blackstar and many more, they’ll probably hop in the car then and there. If you’ve been, here’s my list of how to make the most of the weekend. If you haven’t, here’s a list of how not to die.
1. The DJ/Electronic acts are some of the best throughout the weekend.
There were a couple artists over the weekend that were pleasant surprises – three of them were electronic acts.
Big Gigantic DJ/Producer and Saxophonist Dominic Lalli and live drummer Jeremy Salken had an awe-inspiring performance, aided by Bonnaroo’s nearly-flawless speaker system (see Childish Gambino). It was so carnal, the musical equivalent to shooting RedBull strait to your veins. They were a different beast from the last three times I saw them.
Major Lazer, formerly made up of Diplo and Switch now just includes the former. Maybe it was Switch’s absence, but like Big Gigantic, Major Lazer brought a different performance to Bonnaroo. Diplo asked all the women to take off their shirts and played a “Get Free” remix that maintained it’s understated appeal while adding a drum and bass kick for people to get down. Donning his usual white wife-beater, Diplo was crazy as ever.
“Skrillex killed it” was a circulating phrase among the attendees to the Which Stage early Sunday Morning for the quirky producer’s 1:30 am 2-hour set. Sonny Moore didn’t just spin his usual Benny Bennassi “Cinema” and Avicii “Levels” remixes – even though those were sick – but he explored some more indie electronic DJs like Baauer with “Harlem Shake” and a track from Hudson Mohawke, half of the rising duo TNGHT. Moore towered above the crowd in a raised platform that resembled a Star Wars X-Wing, bouncing and yelling, putting on more of a show than a set.
2. Walk around the festival: the entire campsite area, not just Centeroo
Bonnaroo is simply a different beast than any other music festival. It shares the overnight camp-out mentality employed by Coachella but it adds an extra day. Yes, Indio, CA might technically be further from ‘civilization’ but the mindset is still a desert near LA, not a deserted farm in Manchester (nowheresville), Tennessee. Superfly – the company that runs Bonnaroo and Outside Lands – builds a small, 80,000-person city on this rural farm, pulling people from all over the country and world. Beyond exploring the center area (cleverly dubbed “CenteRoo”), a cool, nighttime walk through the vast expanse of shaded structures, propane grills and foldable chairs is a must.
3. Camelbacks, Tank-tops, Bandanas, Sunglasses, Snapbacks, Kaleidoscope Glasses, Disposable Camera
There’s a certain code at music festivals that lets attire be as wacky, lax, practical, impractical and every spot in between. Bandanas are pretty much standard wear across genders. If not for the hippy vibe they give off, use them to ward off the constant swirls of dust.
If you want to stay hydrated, Camelbacks are the way to go.
If you want to stay cool and get an “I went to Bonnaroo” tan (burn), tank-tops are a must.
Disposable camera’s are the perfect way to remember a festival. They have that built-in nostalgia factor due to the film (and the apparently lack of control you have over camera quality) and they’re virtually indestructible.
The kaleidoscope glasses aren’t a necessity, but enhance some performances in unimaginable ways.
4. Watch out for scammers: if they’re selling everything, you probably don’t want anything
It’s not hard to spot the festival-goers who aren’t really there for the music. Whether it’s “Bonnaroo 2012” coffee mugs or a smorgasbord of drugs you’ve never heard of – nor want – these patrons are out for the quick buck. Find the genuine music-lovers, the people who put Skrillex on hold to watch the end of ?uestlove and D’Angelo’s historic Superjam, the ones who live in the present and for the music.
5. Don’t buy bath salts
6. Van Halen cover bands might actually be Van Halen cover bands
If you thought shoddy graphic design and a class rock cover band persona would be the perfect front for a surprise 2 am Phish show, you would have joined thousands of disappointed fans in the That Tent on Saturday night. Now, not only were your hopes dashed and you missed the dark prince of dubstep’s set, but you spent two hours waiting, listening to Unchained, “The Mighty Van Halen Tribute.”
7. Don’t plan your schedule around hype
Even in recorded music, hype surrounding a band does not translate to anything lasting. Uncertainty is magnified when the band has risen to fame quickly, the live show can be a pretty jarring experience.
After their stellar debut, Boys & Girls, I was expecting nothing less than fantastic from Athens, AL band Alabama Shakes. Kendrick Lamar had procured this southern rock band a giant, eager crowd, who had chosen the live music of Shakes over the electronic styling’s of Big Gigantic and Mimosa, which were scheduled for the same time. Even during their most famous song, “Hold On,” they didn’t want to be involved and the audience seems more interested in filming via camera phones rather than dancing along – displayed by this high quality recording of the performance. The only member who showed even a little bit of soul – something imperative for blues-rock – was their frontwoman and guitarist Brittany Howard. But throughout the performance, even she seemed to be going through motions rather than enjoying the set. I left halfway through to see what Big Gigantic had been cooking up at That Tent.
The horror story from Alabama Shakes isn’t meant to scare you from seeing an artist based on their recent success. Danny Brown put on an early evening show at This Tent that filled his hype-cup to the brim – with some foam spilling over the sides. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – clad in electric blue, yellow and pink suit jackets with “JR” sewn into the back – had the whole audience bopping along to their light indie-pop.
Just be wary of where you spend your time in CenteRoo, because every time you’re seeing one band, there’s someone else who’s putting on an amazing show in another tent.
8. The headliners deserve their spots
Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a 2-set Phish show are already worth the $250 ticket price of Bonnaroo. So just because some new, hot band bleeds into their set (Foster the People for Radiohead and Fun. for Phish), don’t miss a second of the headliners. Of course they’re supposed to be the best, but with all that pressure, it seems like they almost can’t be.
Radiohead was strikingly ethereal, producing an incredible pure, cleansing sound. The eight screens displaying close-up high-definition shots of everything from Jonny Greenwood’s hands to Thom Yorke’s eyes only enhanced the performance.
Red Hot Chili Peppers danced lithely between their new tracks and old hits. Kiedis dropped 20 years off his age for two hours. Flea was all over the place – his normal self – making long-winded speeches about the other talented musicians at Bonnaroo and supporting live music in general. And even though Josh Klinghoffer is no John Frusciante, he held is own surprisingly well (except for the “Californication” solo, he should have just copied Frusciante on that one).
Phish was insanity in concentrated form. I’ve never seen more happy faces – both on the musicians and the audience – then at that show. Even avid Phish phans we’re saying the show had a special energy. The palpable excitement from the 80,000 fans – most of whom probably didn’t take a shower the entire weekend – after the 1-2 punch openers in “Down With the Disease” and “Funky Bitch” exploded when Kenny Rogers came out to sing “The Gambler.” Even Phish’s famous glow-stick wars seemed crazier than normal; there were times when minutes would pass and the waves of glow-sticks wouldn’t stop. Trey, John, Mike and Page closed down the festival on the best note possible, reminding the fans they are nothing without them.
9. Don’t get mesmerized by the fedora-wearing 45-year-old man with lights on his fingers
Just remember, the artists plan an insane lightshow that syncs perfectly with their music. As much as you’re trying to convince yourself that some up-close finger-fluttering is just as – if not more – impressive, it’s not. Definitely stay open to meeting the amazing people that attend these festivals, but enjoy the shows in their full form.
Bonnaroo is not only a test of human character but of human endurance. Pheidippides would run the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens a hundred times before he would set foot in that waterless dustbowl. The distances get longer and longer as the day goes on. The only energy you really use doesn’t come from sleep but from the ubiquity of music in CenterRoo and the multitudes of campers having a good time. Everyone’s in the same boat, offer water to those who need it, refill whenever possible and have the best time of your life.
11. Bonus: See Bon Iver whenever possible
I have never been a part of a more emotional, tight performance.