Updated: Mar 28, 2020
It is only a rare occasion when one experiences that feeling of stupefaction - wondering if that skinny pale white guy covered head to toe in sparkling green body paint wearing nothing but a pink tutu and two half coconut shells covering his breasts kicking up a small dust storm dancing to Latin beats in the southern heartland of America was a real or a chemically induced vision. Such imagery is far more palatable when shared with others, if only for giving a sense of comfort that others admitting to having witnessed the very same spectacle somehow lends it credibility, an aura of realism to the entire surreal experience. Or so you would believe as you try to satisfy the insatiable hunger for any high-sodium and over-sweetened food.
Perhaps my sense of fashion remains dull and conservative; personally I found the coconut shells to be a tad over the top. But one weekend a year, whether for the lack of sleep, heat stroke, dehydration, or the continuing quest to find a port-a-potty with some remaining scraps of unsoiled toilet paper, nothing seems to be ordinary, only extraordinary. Every year, the second weekend of June marks the annual migration of the genus hippie-sapien from all corners of the North American continent to its breeding ground near Manchester Tennessee. Here, the hippies partake in the traditions of consuming unscrupulous amounts of funnel cake, indiscriminate hugging, dancing as a means of avoiding falling flat one’s face, managing to avoid all sorts of unseen obstacles while tripping on acid and dousing one's body patchouli in an attempt to cover up having a lapse in personal hygiene that began three festivals earlier. Bonnaroo is truly unique. It is more than just a huge festival; it is an intimate community where you bond with everyone, sharing a common love, even with that girl that you just met and admits to having just shat her pants as the sun rises over an endless sea of tents. And I swear that is true. If the third time is a charm, I must admit I had my best Bonnaroo experience yet, much to credit of all those who shared it with me. I have left out their names to protect their privacy.
After four magnificent days of music, community, scorching heat and dust being blown up places where my body is usually less exposed, about the only part of this experience I may miss till next year is that wonderment of what that port-o-potty I just sat in the actually would look like if it wasn't so dark. As much as I would love to share the details of the entire trip and experience, including the 900-mile, 16-hour drive each way with details of each pit stop at Cracker Barrels across five states, a lack of time augmented by some hazy and dusty memories preclude my diving in with too much detail, along with a bit of consideration for not wanting to bore the shit out of you. If having read up to this point has managed to keep your interest piqued, or you simply imagine there is a point to all this madness, well I wish you well with such false hopes. But still, if you care to know a bit about the sense of urgency I feel every mid-June that brings me and another 80,000 or so folk down to this wasteland, read on (or just take a look at all the pictures I amassed of myself embracing topless women in the course of only a few days).
Bonnaroo is first and foremost about friendship. As sappy as it may sound, I can not imagine attending this festival these past 3 years without having Hillary there by my side. This year I even left the French Press at home so she could not deride me when I claim to have "roughed it" out there in the wild, and my feeling of being one with nature. Sixteen hours of driving is enough to make you start looking at the beauty of the Appalachians and wonder just how likely they are to find the body in that ravine, every now and then. The truth is that sharing the experience from start to finish is really what it is all about. Well that and the fact that while the scorching heat would probably help the body decompose quickly enough, did I really want to be driving the entire way back by myself?
Hindsight, it was still days before I would meet the gorgeous hippie that abandoned a modeling career in Paris for selling grilled cheese out of the back of a psychedelic painted van. I made a decision with the limited knowledge I had at the time - one small regret. Arriving at the campgrounds late Thursday night and ushered in to our parking space amongst the tens of thousands of cars, we decided to abandon the immediate task of setting up our tent and instead headed down to Centeroo, where all the officially sanctioned activities take place. We caught the latter part of the Tea Leef Green show and then ran over to see the Rodrigo y Gabriella show which simply blew us both away. It was an amazing first night, having been introduced to these two Mexican classical acoustic guitarists tearing it up for the crowd with their heavy metal tunes. Yes, indeed, I am fully aware that I have just used "classical acoustic guitar" and "heavy metal" in the same sentence. Just think of it as a romantic fuck. Same thing. If you don't believe me, check them out on YouTube for yourself. Returning to our camp site, we embarked on the task of setting up our tent while fighting total exhaustion. The efforts were made that much more difficult by the skinny drunk white kid from Alabama that decided he would be ever so kind as to help in this effort. I doubt even Viagara would helped him erect anything in his current state. I am still not entirely sure what was going through the kids' head, if he was convinced he was being helpful, or holding a tent pole was the only way he knew of to keep himself balanced in his current state. Whatever his intent, we managed to set-up camp despite his assistance and we were soon off to sleep, in what would be our humble abode for the next four days. Oh, and we helped direct our new friend back to another tent, did not really matter if it was his or not by that point.
The day at Bonnaroo starts when the heat becomes so unbearable, you can no longer sleep. Opening the sides of the tent to allow the per-chance of a breeze pass through brings little relief, but does bring in strangers curious to know if you are aware that you are lying in the nude. While I appreciate the public service announcement, truth be told, I usually am fully aware of when I am nude, especially when it is in public. But in this heat, you don't really care. I was lying on the floor of the tent trying to find some relief, some shade and cooler air while passing in and out of varied states of consciousness. This year, the annoyance of the heat was overshadowed by the girl in the tent next to us who’s exuberance to share with us all, and when I say all I mean everyone at the show that did not suffer from complete loss of hearing, how everything "fucking rocked". It's listening to that positive outlook on life at 6am that gives you a real sense of sympathy for people convicted of aggravated assault and a pretense for justifiable homicide. But I imagine little white Jewish boys from the north do not fair very well in the penal system in Tennessee. To name just a few of the more memorable acts we caught this year along with Tea Leef Green and Rodrigo y Gabriella, there was: Brazilian Girls, Kings of Leon, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Manu Chao, Tool, String Cheese Incident, DJ Shadow, Ziggy Marley, Fountains of Wayne, Xavier Rudd, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, Franz Ferdinand, The Police, Gov't Mule, Sasha & Digweed, Wolfmother, Bob Wier and Ratdog, The Decembrists, The White Stripes and Widespread Panic. Of all these shows, I have to just point to the Saturday night Gov't Mule and the later Sasha and Digweed shows as the highlight of the entire trip. What sets these apart is how the artists succeed in connecting with the audience at the most intimate level. And if that is at all not understood, my sympathies. The Gov't Mule shows at Bonnaroo are notorious for big surprises. And Warren, Danny, Andy and Matt did not disappoint. They were joined onstage by Bob Wier, Hot Tuna, Lewis Black, Michael Franti and others. But when John Paul Jones, bassist and keyboardist from Led Zeppelin, joined to cover some classic LZ tunes from the past, the crowd went wild. And when it was all done, over three hour later and the dust had settled, after covering Black Sabbath's mantra War Pigs, the crowd sluggishly started to disperse without any regard for having danced and rocked out for so long. It was now 3:30am. As I began to exit the stage area with the others, suddenly we heard a faint sound of keyboards. I immediately knew Danny had taken the stage alone, and indeed he had come back, only to soon be joined by the rest of the band as they broke in to one final song for us all, Soulshine! Everyone embraced, strangers hugging strangers, everyone connecting in one chorus as we sang the words at the top of our lungs along with Warren. Again for one last moment we were one. Borrowing from our neighbor, I walked away afterwards, turned to Hillary and just said that show "fucking rocked”!
But there is no sleep for the weary, and we headed over to catch Sasha and Digweed. It was now close to 4:00 am and we expected to dance for a bit. A bit ended as the sun rose above and the pain of having danced for the past 12 hours started to set in. Though they were expected to spin till only 3:30 am, the crowd would just not stop. And despite temperatures dropping and others huddled for warmth in blankets and hooded sweatshirts, I was wearing nothing but shorts, relying on dancing to keep me warm. The crowd would not let these masters of spin break, and Sasha and Digweed obliged, playing on and on and on. We finally arrived back at our tent well past 7am. Exhausted, we passed out till the sun and heat woke us two hours later. A lot of the details from those days in Tennessee remain hazy. But still there was so much more we enjoyed and experienced, I am pretty confident there was. Throughout it all, one thing I do recall with clarity and consistency was my smiling partner. Expressing such a sense of happiness to be a part of this experience again, immersed in the things that I so enjoy and most of all sharing that with someone so special and another 80,000 is really what Bonnaroo is about, at least for me. Thanks for letting me now share that experience with you. And should anything I have written here inspired you to take a long strange trip to Tennessee next June, well then just hop on and join us. Got to let your soul shine, shine till the break of day!