I Might Be Wrong: Go to Bonnaroo, if only onceBy Colin St. John | February 17th, 2012 | 4 comments
In one of the best bits from his stand-up special, “Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening,” Aziz Ansari recounts a trip to (and at) the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. He hits upon many points, saying he loves performing at music festivals and describing Bonnaroo as “indie-rock stuff and, like, hippie stuff coming together.” On the latter genre front he was baffled by an artistic attraction called “The Sonic Forest” before he was aided by, ahem, some fungal friends. Ansari’s experience with aural woods is an apt analogy: The festival in the middle of nowhere (Manchester, Tenn. is the closest “city”) might look like a foolish enterprise from outside, but once you get in–and maybe imbibe a few chemicals–it might just be “the best thing ever.”
Ansari, unsurprisingly, is headed back again this year and is part of a lineup that rivals any other large festival this summer. (For my money, Sasquatch is tied with Bonnaroo for first with Coachella coming in at a close second. Your move, Perry Farrell.) Big names like Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beach Boys join critical darlings St. Vincent, Battles, Mogwai and Kurt Vile. And, right, the jam band crowd gets what they’re jonesing for with appearances by Phish, Dispatch, the Word and Umphrey’s McGee. Far out.
I went to Bonnaroo in 2009 and I’d take the Pepsi Challenge with its lineup over almost any year and gathering: Phish played two nights (it turns out I like them) and Bruce Springsteen, the Beastie Boys, Wilco, Snoop Dogg, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear and on and on appeared. It was the lineup that got me and two pals down to Tennessee but the experience, itself, is what I really remember.
Bonnaroo is one of those ordeals that is only that much more rewarding because it’s a hassle. You either have to drive forever, or fly into Nashville or Chatanooga and then drive less-than-forever but way more than around-the-corner. The weather is, as you’ve heard, balmy as all get-out. We were “fortunate” enough to arrive during a gigantic thunderstorm so the weekend was cooler than usual but still somewhere between a sauna and John Goodman’s armpit.
You sleep less than a medical resident. One night after an extremely late set by Nine Inch Nails — Bonnaroo’s remote location allows for many opportunities that a city-central Lollapalooza or its ilk can’t — I think I got an hour or two of shuteye before the 7 a.m. tent bake-out. This was the result later that afternoon:
All of the sun, heat and sleeplessness — there’s a reason “LSD-driven drum circle” isn’t an option on your alarm clock — add up. Especially when you drink beer for 12 hours a day. By the final night, my knees kept buckling and the three of us opted for a hotel on the way back to Chatanooga instead of another night of camping. If this all sounds like a nightmare, it’s not. It’s just a test that I haven’t experienced at any other festival I’ve attended. You have to be physically ready to party for three or four days and, if you’re smart and have the cash, you’ll do so in a hotel room across the highway or an RV with air-conditioning.
Which reminds me: we befriended some fellows who had a house-on-wheels complete with a refrigerated keg. Sitting around with strangers for a few hours and having some laughs reminded us all why so many people love going to these huge fests: a sense of jovial camaraderie. And there are hardly any places on the planet that are more community-oriented than Bonnaroo.
That night, Phish opened its set with “Chalkdust Torture,” Trey Anastasio asking, “Can’t I live while I’m young?” It’s a widely quotable lyric in a catalog with a dearth of them, but rang especially true to me that weekend a few years ago. Later they covered AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and reminded some that there have been a few deaths at the festival in its recent history. (I, myself, saw some bros conking out at the Animal Collective set; I hope they made it.) But, if you think you’re young enough — at least at heart — to live through what I, at the time, wrote was the “craziest goddamn music festival I’ve been to,” it’s worth the trek. At least once.