Bonnaroo Behind the Scenes: A Strange Universe

Editor’s Note: Reptar guitarist Jace Bartet (pictured below) recently filed a series of behind-the-scenes reports from Bonnaroo. Below is his final transmission. Catch Reptar at Flagpole‘s AthFest showcase at the Georgia Theatre this Friday, June 21.

Photo Credit: Kaden Shallat

R. Kelly

All the hoo-ha about the limited potential of the artist to engage the audience at music festivals helps explain why electronic music has thrived in the expansive environs of festivaldom. Electronic music can be readily tweaked and catered to the vast array of music festival sound systems in unique and more direct ways than rock music, in real time. On Saturday, Death Grips (sans drummer Zach Hill), Bjork and Boys Noize all commanded the crowd as well or better than most rock bands I witnessed over the weekend, with minimal live instrumentation (it might sound flippant to call Bjork’s set “minimal,” considering the 30-odd-piece Icelandic choir that accompanied her on each song, though most of the rest of her music was digitally sourced.)

The presence of Bjork on the field’s largest stage near sunset was a particularly heartening signal that the folks behind Bonnaroo have their hearts in the right place when it comes to supporting talented and exciting artists. She offered almost no concessions to traditional pop, only breaking out anything with an easy beat in the set’s last third or so; nor did she allow her set to be broadcast on the stage’s large screens, filling them instead with visual art narratives.

Boys Noize’s set was fascinating to watch up close. The German producer manipulated lots of knobs and faders among a plethora of devices, but his actions were largely absent from meaningful, perceivable connections with things happening in the music. The crowd was excited all the while, though, proving the worshipfulness of the bass frequency, especially as there wasn’t any room for anything I’d consider “dancing.” There’s nothing wrong with a bunch of white people jumping straight up and down, but it has never looked particularly soulful to me.

R. Kelly, however, did have a full live band, and his performance Saturday evening was the set of the weekend for me. Kicking things off with “Ignition (Remix),” easily his biggest hit, while hovering above the stage on a crane illuminated by spotlights as a large choir in full church robes took the stage to accent the song’s melodic highlights (you know, “Toot toot/ Beep beep”) was exactly the kind of bombast I had expected (and wanted) from the deranged “King of R&B.” For the next 90 minutes, he medleyed a highlight reel of his best-known material, breaking only to sing a capella improvs about how sweaty he was, how “It’s so many fine-ass woman up in here,” and, near the set, how he had, indeed, taken no breaks (though there were a handful of moments of clear lip-syncing, but these were minor.) I thought, said, and did nothing intellectual during his performance; all for the better.

By Sunday, my skin felt composed of hand-made paper, and my shirt collar had turned a weird ochre color from grime (despite showers.) A bunch more bands played. It was a disorienting day: to my vast surprise, Savannah’s Baroness, whom I haven’t seen in about five years, kind of sounds like Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ now; Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros must have played for about 20,000 people, maybe more, a staggeringly vast crowd; I seriously thought for a moment that I was never going to be able to escape them on my way to catch Swans across the way, who 30 years into their career as one of music’s heaviest genre-less bands were every bit as esoteric and emotive as Bjork while sounding kind of like a concrete mixer filled with demons, though whirling for only about 200 people by the end. There’s no way it wasn’t the most abrasive and guttural performance in Bonnaroo history. 

Tame Impala, whom I had only first heard of about two months ago, easily played to the largest crowd of any side-stage band. I couldn’t see them at all. David Byrne & St. Vincent were absolutely elegant; I was admittedly a little giddy that they broke out a handful of Talking Heads songs, particularly “This Is the Place.” The line between being a “tertiary artist” and just a regular attendee felt nil at this point in the weekend.  I was starving and disheveled by the time we drove into the night to make headway toward our club gig the next night in Asheville (sorry Tom Petty.)

Bonnaroo is a strange universe: too much of everything, and weirdly not enough of anything.  Stranger still, I feel that this dichotomy, though extremely expressed at Bonnaroo, is perfectly in line with the way many of us experience 21st Century life. Trying to navigate one of the nation’s largest entertainment festivals was sometimes a lot like trying to navigate the Internet (or, for the addiction-prone, merely having lunch) in any kind of focused way while a dozen bits of media are “notifying” you at any given moment. You see friends and you give them a hug, reminiscent of clicking “like,” and then moving on. Attractions become distractions.

It would be easy to assume that I’m just grasping at straws here, although doing so would undermine a distinction that I find important to (at least my own) modern mental health: the virtual world is not in fact a seperate reality distinct from “real life” (I loathe the acronym “IRL”), but just another, tangible part of it that we have a responsibility to perceive and interact with accordingly, and that can be taken as seriously-or not-as one may wish. Ultimately, such was Bonnaroo, and somehow I know I’d do it again, so long as there was a nice shady tree to camp under.

Previously: The Paul McCartney Zone; Let’s Get Tertiary