Into the Tie-Dyed Belly of the Bonnaroo Beast: Day One

At the ripe old age of 32, I assumed I’d never make it to Bonnaroo—or at least not fully participate in the festival, by which I mean camping every night and hanging around for the duration of the event. For one, I’d written off the festival as one that caters to a segment of the music-listening population that doesn’t intersect with my tastes. And the idea of camping out for four nights, exclusively using portable toilets, not showering regularly, and battling the sweltering heat (and maybe rain) didn’t appeal to my apparently somewhat dainty habits. Nevertheless, when the opportunity arose to attend the festival as an emissary of our beloved Flagpole Magazine, I figured, what the hell. Ten full years into its existence, I was excited to take the full plunge and make the trip up to Manchester, Tennessee, tent and toilet paper in tow, for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

Bonnaroo is held on a 700-acre farm in mega-rural Tennessee. Festivalgoers camp in adjacent fields, usually right next to their cars, and walk to the festival proper. Inside the festival walls are several stages featuring dozens of bands over the course of four days (Thursday through Sunday). Bonnaroo started back in 2002 and was an instant hit with fans of so-called “jam bands.†Over the years, though, the festival has made what seems to be a conscious effort to reach a much broader fanbase. While the festival still caters to its bread and butter—jam bands—modern day Bonnaroo festivalgoers will be treated to an eclectic bunch of music. And really, over the four days of the festival, and the almost three miles of festival grounds, there is a little bit of something for everyone.


Like, for example, Phantogram. Phantogram is a man-woman duo from New York. They play a danceable blend of electronic and pop music. Their 2009 album, *Eyelid Movies*, was generally well received. After we were directed to our campsite and set up our tent, we hustled immediately into the festival for our first act of the next four days. The venue where Phantogram was performing (“The Other Tent,†as it’s called) was slam-packed for the performance, which surprised me, as I didn’t think Phantogram was that popular. On the other hand, this was the first night of the festival and there wasn’t much competition. Whatever the reason why the venue was so packed, it meant that we were unable to see the stage. To make matters worse, the ground surrounding this particular venue slopes at inopportune times, and we found ourselves on the wrong side of just such a slope. The sound still reached us, but there is something odd about attending a show when you can’t see the performer. Normally we might have pushed our way up closer, but the crowd was very dense. We stuck around long enough to hear my favorite song by the group, “When I’m Small,†before departing. Disembodied live performances are just not my thing.

Alabama Shakes

We fared much better at Alabama Shakes, which—again—surprised me. I would have guessed it would have been harder to see Alabama Shakes than Phantogram, given how much Alabama Shakes have been blowing up lately. I first heard Alabama Shakes—then known as The Shakes (they had to change their name due to a potential trademark dispute)—almost exactly a year ago. At that point, they were playing tiny venues to tiny (but growing) audiences. Even then it was obvious that the band would reach a broader audience, although nobody could have predicted their meteoric rise to national prominence. I saw them at The Earl in Atlanta in September of that year, and in the few months since I’d first heard about them, they were already a buzz band. I was impressed that they drew a couple dozen people at the show at The Earl. Of course, almost immediately after the show at The Earl the group rocketed into the stratosphere, where they still reside. My prediction is that Alabama Shakes play the Grammys next year.

Most of the people at the Alabama Shakes show at Bonnaroo were there to witness this band they’d heard about from their friends. Many people in the audience knew the lyrics to the songs, and not just to “Hold On.†The Alabama Shakes are still figuring out their on-stage personas. Their set at Bonnaroo was good, and the group’s songs are great, and the lead singer, Brittany Howard, sings great live, but I still think they need a little bit more on-stage charisma and swagger. Brittany didn’t talk much during the performance. Throughout the festival, I did see several people sporting Alabama Shakes shirts and carrying around Alabama Shakes vinyl. I’m very curious to see what happens to the Alabama Shakes, and especially how they fare on their second record. For now, though, Alabama Shakes is a legitimate band with good songs—they fit right into this classic soul revival thing that’s currently popular. However, to achieve true longevity in this industry, they will need to evolve beyond that genre to remain relevant.

Up to this point in the festival, the crowd was pretty much what I expected except more so—a lot of tie-dye, a lot of hula hoops and the constant aroma of high quality weed. The festival ground was immense, replete with food trucks, food booths, merchandize booths, beer tents, water slides, a build-your-own drum tent, yoga center, two Ferris Wheels and lots and lots of glow sticks. I mean, several tons of glow sticks. Really, a trip to Bonnaroo is almost worth it just for the people watching. Bonnaroo is clearly more than a music festival, it’s a full experience. Like summer camp for music (and drug) fans. And everyone appears to be in a good mood. Usually at mammoth festivals, you have fights and people behaving like jerks. Bonnaroo—and this is a credit to the jam band fan mentality—is a friendlier place. Weirdness is embraced. So long as you dig what you’re doing, other people dig it too. Even the guy wearing the pink tutu with his junk hanging out.

By the time we were ready to head back to our meager tent, it was actually quite chilly. Apparently Manchester, Tennessee in June is like the dessert: hot during the day and cold at night. We weren’t really prepared for such cold, but huddled in our tiny tent nonetheless as the sounds of the festival continued outside.

More on Day Two tomorrow.