Ok, so the first thing you need to understand is that no matter what anyone has told you, no matter who you talked to whoâ€™s been to Bonnaroo five times before, no matter what you think you know, you are not prepared for the heat. Youâ€™re just not. There is no way that any words could make clear to you the stifling, excruciating, blood-thinning, skull-crackling heat. This whole paragraph is essentially useless. You should still go â€“ Bonnaroo was amazing â€“ itâ€™s just important to know that you wonâ€™t be prepared.
The campground surrounding Great Stage Park in Manchester, Tennessee consists of acres and acres of farmland cordoned off into â€œpodsâ€ of cars and tents, loosely connected by makeshift â€œstreetsâ€ â€“ grassy paths, complete with actual street signs (I was at the corner of Walnut St. and Pete Rose Way) that wind their way through the campgrounds and ultimately converge at the main concert area, dubbed Centeroo. You put up your tent right behind your car, and you start making friends. To my left was a middle-aged festival lifer equipped with a jovial attitude and enough stories to fill every searing morning with conversation (six Lollapaloozas, ten Summer Camp Music Festivals, and memories of the original Grateful Dead aside, it was still his first Bonnaroo). He was traveling from Chicago with a BMX biker who turned me on to a killer jazz show my second day there. To my right was a quartet of Northeasterners who had met online, via a rideshare site, but had gotten to know each other fairly well during their 17-hour drive from Vermont, Connecticut and Boston, respectively. It was the kind of heat that fosters community and creates fast alliances, which was a fortunate development for me as I began to sweat bathtubs, became badly dehydrated within half an hour of arriving and got sick right in front of my tent. The kindness I was shown next by ostensible strangers was my first clue into the kind of atmosphere that Bonnaroo would present. As one of them, a childcare professional back in the real world, held an ice pack on my neck and a fan to my face, another brought me a frosty Gatorade from his car. They kept an eye on me for the next hour, and eventually I recovered, but that sense of communal living and everyone looking out for each other would remain for the entire weekend. Musically, Bonnaroo has grown into a much more inclusive, eclectic event than it was when it began, but the hippie values at its core are still very much intact.
Bouncing back with vim and vigor, I made my way to Centeroo for the first time and kicked off my virgin Bonnaroo experience with experimental California songstress EMA. Stalking around the stage in red shorts and a baggy Mickey Mouse t-shirt, she commanded every eye under her enormous tent, dropping Karen O-caliber shrieks down into breathy, sensual crooning at the drop of her black fedora. More than just a powerful frontwoman, she regularly picked up a guitar and joined her electric violinist in strident, improvisational noise jams. Wearing her allegiance to the L.A. underground on her sleeve, Erika M. Anderson exudes the kind of legitimacy that Lana Del Rey can only effect with Photoshop. She set the bar early, and she set it high.
Next up was Mariachi El Bronx (also from L.A., go figure), an eight-piece powerhouse of high-energy Latin fire. With the dense, stampeding texture that arises from three acoustic guitars being strummed simultaneously, they carried the audience on a wave of sound that crested with every sun-bright trumpet solo and riptide violin run. Somehow, an actual conga line formed, encircling a decent-sized crowd of people while still operating in the midst of a much larger throng. No one complained or seemed worried about losing their spot close to the stage â€“ it was just one of the many random, joyfully spontaneous things I would see occur in accordance with the spirit of this storied festival.
A sub-par funk/jam band called Orgone took the stage next, inspiring me to go exploring. Dotting the trails between the numerous different stages and tents of Centeroo were a cornucopia of vendors offering everything from hand-made clothing to hand-blown glassware to hand-carved stash boxes, as well as a globe-circumnavigating variety of food stands ranging from pizza and barbecue to alligator po’ boys and (scrumptious) samosas. Literally any kind of food you could imagine eating here in Athens, and a few youâ€™d be hard-pressed to find, was available, albeit for a minimum of $7.00. That was the one truly disappointing aspect of this entire enterprise, truth be told. $7.00 for a slice of pizza makes Six Flags and Sanford Stadium seem downright reasonable. Where were the hippies when this was decided?
I closed out the night at The Solar Stage, a fairytale contraption of leafy canopies, tree stumps and log benches arranged lovingly at the feet of a wooden stage run entire on solar power. It wasnâ€™t the biggest or the flashiest part of Bonnaroo, but it was without question the most serene â€“ a place where you could relax, see a chill show, and never have to worry about an overwhelmingly large crowd. For me, that chill show came at the hands of Dub Kartel, a ten-member-strong, traditional dub/ska outfit with a lot of heart. Trumpet, trombone, sax and melodica solos filled the mercifully cool night air, and occasionally a woman would take the mic and sing soothing reggae mantras in an island alto. I was on the fence about staying up for MiMOSA, and Dub Kartel essentially decided for me, lulling me into a dreamy yawn-state and nudging me gently toward camp with a tropical breeze at my back. I knew Friday was the real monster, and sleep would be in short supply, so I called it a night, crawled into my tent, and slowly began melting â€“ fusing bodily with the hot plastic of my fast-deflating air mattress.
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