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Then Jefferson Airplane sang theline “Ain’t it amazing all the people Imeet,” it came within the context of asong that was both anti-establishmentand unifying in its scope. The gist wasthat the more subversive the context, the moreinteresting the people are that it attracts.It’s important to remember this at BonnarooMusic and Arts Festival, the largest in the countryand arguably the most popular festival of its kind.The 2009 festival was not my first, but it didmark the first time I attended as a member of thecredentialed press, giving me more access than Ihad ever enjoyed, though probably less than youwould think.
Bonnaroo has featured many great acts over theyears — this year alone I saw Bruce Springsteen,Phish and Trent Reznor’s NIN swan song — butit wouldn’t be what it is without the faithful fanswho camp out all weekend long, year after year.
When you pack more than 75,000 peopleinto an area that’s only a little larger than onesquare mile, there’s bound to be plenty of uniqueinteractions among multifarious personalities,motives and missions. You’ll run into famouspeople everywhere, dirty people even more often,the occasional nudist and maybe even a puppet.
The following list doesn’t cover every type ofperson that convenes on the Manchester, Tenn.farm for that weekend in June, but it does touchon the ones that you’re most likely to encounter inthe pursuit of shared musical fulfillment.
Since the days of Hesiod, humans havebelieved that great works of art and literaturecan spring from anyone given the properinspiration. While the poet’s inspirationallegedly arrived in a more anthropomorphicform, one’s physical surroundings are fullycapable of serving the same purpose. It’sinevitable that in the course of walking thefestival grounds, you’ll come across someonecreating something from nothing. Yes, theMuse of Dance is certainly the most prevalent,but closer examination of the outlying areaswill reveal someone filling pages of a notebookor painting on canvas. When the momentstrikes and the proper outlet isn’t readilyavailable, however, it just might spill overonto someone else. Such was the case duringthis year’s Grizzly Bear performance, when Ifound my notebook snatched from my pocketand in the hands of someone with somethingso important to say that it couldn’t wait (seeabove). Sometimes, it doesn’t even need tohappen between the stages. Sometimes, itcan happen on stage as well. A rare, worldlyand utterly ethereal live performance by BillLaswell’s amorphously psychedelic worldbeatact Material on a Sunday afternoon in 2004resulted in an acrylic painting of Buddhaby artist Jason Alberto Garcia. As Laswell,Buckethead, Hamid Drake and Karsh Kalesent waves of Indo-Persian flavored funkfusionthrough a tired crowd, Garcia laboreddiligently at the back of the stage to capturethe indescribable energy of the show on hiswooden canvas. The painting itself would go onto sell almost immediately afterwards.
Triumph the Insult Comic Dog
Technically, this was the first year that Triumph would make an appearance at Bonnaroo, but he was nearly impossible to avoid.Anyone who saw the summary of his fine work on the June 19 episode of “The Tonight Show” knows that no one was safe fromthe sardonic wrath of him and puppeteer Robert Smigel. He was in the campground, the press area, vendor booths, up front forSpringsteen and on stage with Neko Case singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Though I was never unfortunate enough to havestumbled directly into his clutches, my first encounter with him was rather surreal. I was walking back into the press area onFriday afternoon for an interview when I walked past Tunde Adebimpe and Jaleel Bunton of TV on the Radio standing in front ofa camera crew. It seemed rather innocuous, until I noticed Smigel kneeling down in front of them with a script in one hand andthe other raised in the air. It took a moment to register what was transpiring since I didn’t see the Triumph puppet right away.Kind of like Tom Cruise, he’s a lot smaller when you see him in person. Of course, it was also the moment when Triumphwould hilariously ask the band members to describe their music, keeping in mind that “suck” was already taken by theDecemberists. Is that a Decemberists reference? Surely, the next person you see at Bonnaroo must be…
The origin of the hipster element at Bonnaroo can be traced to a singleband: Radiohead. Yes, Rilo Kiley and Franz Ferdinand did come the year before, but I’m talking headliners, the big draws. That moment was a major point of contention for the hipster community, as many wereforced to disown the band after fears that Radiohead would gain wideracceptance were realized. Since that time in 2006, the Great BonnarooHippie/Hipster Schism has advanced largely in favor of the latter. As the crunchy ones waned in numbers from the festival’s ever-increasingmainstream appeal, the presence of ironic T-shirt vendors heralded the arrival of a never-before seen demographic. Headliners drifted ignominiously from the jurisdiction of the free-range wookie to that of the skillfullycolor-coordinated and pleasantly-scented music festival participant. Umphrey’s McGee and Particle gave way to the Yeah YeahYeahs and Broken Social Scene. They don’t necessarily pose a threat, however. They don’t do anything, really, except theirbest to stand out in a crowd, even if that means donning the most garish and unconventional wardrobe in the middle of a 700-acre former pig farm. How can you be sure the person you’re dealing with is a hipster? One dead giveaway is the presence ofa scarf in 90-degree heat, but throw in a houndstooth jacket and porkpie hat and you’ve hit DEFCON 5.
They aren’t just large, hairy bipeds from the Star Wars series who communicatethrough an incomprehensible series of grunts, but also large, hairy bipeds prevalentin the festival scene who communicate through an incomprehensible series of grunts.And also, they usually have weed. Yes, George Lucas did spell it with an extra ‘e’ atthe end, but the transitive properties of the internet have bestowed upon us this newer,sleeker spelling to describe the nomadic festheads who exist outside of conventionalsociety. Even though their numbers have abated in recent years at Bonnaroo, the 2009edition experienced a renaissance thanks largely in part to the inclusion of two nights ofPhish on the bill. They’re mostly grungy and dirty from being on tour all year, smell asif they’ve been sleeping on a pile of cigarette butts and are usually pretty whacked outon whatever intoxicants they’ve managed to procure. When they aren’t fighting withpigeons over a half-smoked Kool, they swoop in from thin air on people coming out ofthe food vendor line like Snoop Dogg in Half Baked. They’re generally untrustworthy,as living like a transient tends to make one, and any unattended coolers, chairs, clothing,etc. immediately become their own. Still, they’re generally more lazy opportunists thancareer criminals. Judging from the safety personnel spotted riding around in golf cartshuffing nitrous balloons during the Bonnaroo late-night scene, they’ve managed to cleanup enough to infiltrate the festival power structure at a yeoman level.
Nothing says bromance like eight dudes from the Iota Kappa Pi house at AbrahamBaldwin Agricultural College packed into a six-person tent for the weekend. Tothe credit of the collegiate Greek community, they have been there since the verybeginning and still maintain a strong presence eight years in. Along with the (genuine)hippie community, they constitute half of the Romulus and Remus of the festival andjust like in Roman mythology, the latter didn’t stick around long enough to witnessthe heyday (even if “heyday” is a complete matter of perspective). They mostly camefor two nights of Widespread Panic in the inaugural year and with five more nightsof their avatar closing out the main stage since then, the annual trip to Manchesterhas become house tradition. With a keg of PBR iced in the back of the Land Rover,they are often vilified for chronically paying no heed to the recycling and compostingnorms ingrained from the beginning. Camping beside a group can be a blessing or acurse, depending entirely on your point of view. On one hand, they’re quick to offeryou a beer at any time, usually starting at nine in the morning, and trustworthy enoughto keep an eye on your stuff while you’re gone. On the other hand, sometimes keepingan eye on your stuff involves getting hammered and crashing into your tent, usuallywhile you’re asleep inside of it.
Hunter S. Press
Covering Bonnaroo as a member of thepress is not only a great honor with a little bit offun on the side, but a lot of hard work. Betweentrying to see as much music as possible andhunting for a story amidst it all, a lot of miles(and blisters) will be logged on foot. That is,however, primarily for the mission-orientedtypes. Others are there just to join the party.They come in both writer and photographerflavors and while the writers may blend in souncannily with the typical reveler that they’revirtually indistinguishable, save for the notepadin one hand, the photographers are moreeasily spotted. Only at Bonnaroo can you goout shirtless with huge, baggy pants and anoversized, fuzzy top hat and no one so much asbats an eyelash in your direction. Try hangingthree $2,000 cameras with $6,000 lensesaround your neck while wagging a mediawristband about and all of a sudden you’re inbusiness. These guys know they’re there to dosomething, but whatever it is becomes blurrierand blurrier as the weekend wears on. Chancesare they shoot for some newly-hip West Coast glossy still coasting along on that unlimitedstart-up capital, which explains why they’rena’ve enough to give someone like thisresponsibility for such expensive gear. Bythe time Sunday rolls around, they’ve taken150 pictures of people passed out on theground and tried to point a 300 mm lensat themselves and the new friends theymade at the Girl Talk show. Thewriters, on the other hand, fill upon contraband and consequently,their notebooks with unintelligible,stream-of-consciousness observancesthat seemed perfectly rational anddownright profound at the time.
Plenty has been said about the liberatingfeeling that comes with the festival scene andnot much has changed in that regard withBonnaroo. The image of a topless, middleagedwoman and her four-year-old daughterwith matching body art the very first year will forever be burned into this writer’s memory. Yet, full and semi nudity have nearly becomeclich’s out here, as it just doesn’t commandthe attention that it used to. It has become so casual at Bonnaroo nowadays that one would barely bat an eyelash at it, which has fostered anew breed of attention-seekers. Sure, there areplenty of women that get dolled up in glitter and paint who do it for the glamour aspect, but there are also the occasional intrusive andmalicious types whose good time involvesplanting their junk where it doesn’t belongand putting the creep-rub on the unwittingpasserby. It ends badly more often than not forthem, however, as stories of them leaving onstretchers at either the hands of overworkedsecurity or fed-up attendees abound. The bestbet for the pasty, hairy, overweight guys thatend up in that predicament is to just leave theshorts on and save the exhibitionism for thebeautiful women. Bonnaroo will be that muchbetter for it.
After performing on every stage at the festival with three different major bands and as asolo artist, Warren Haynes has ascended to a level beyond that of being just a mere musicianat Bonnaroo. He became the standard bearer for live collaboration the at 2003 festival byplaying a full set with the Allman Brothers Band and a commanding solo performance on themain stage, in addition to appearing as a guest performer with more than a half-dozen otherbands, including Galactic, Widespread Panic, moe. and the Funky Meters. The followingyear he headlined as a member of the Dead and played the main stage with his own band,Gov’t Mule. Since then has built a devout following across a diverse array of music fans. Ifhis incredible guitar skills and powerful vocals aren’t enough to draw attention, then surelythe fact that he sets up shop right in the middle of the campground might. Haynes has alwaysbeen a musician of the people and always one with time to stop and talk to anyone at any time.So much, in fact, that former Asheville mayor Charles Worley declared Dec. 18 to be WarrenHaynes Day.
The Guy Without A Ride
It starts early Sunday morning and peaks sometime around the late evening. I’m talking aboutstrangers asking other strangers for rides home, of course. Getting there is priority number one,obviously. As such, not everyone gives the same attention to their exit strategy — bringingtheir own vehicles for instance. Many are up front with it and actively ask every person theywalk by if they have room, where they are going, etc. Others just hang a cardboard sign aroundtheir neck and enjoy the last day of music while hoping for the best. Those that aren’t fortunateenough to get a bite wind up along I-75 and I-24 with nothing but the backpacks they arrivedwith, living by the mantra “Have Thumb, Will Travel” (see also: the Wookie). Usually, thosetypes find themselves in the company of smokies without the same sense of compassion thatwilling ride-givers may have. But then there are those who hitch merely for sport. There’s acertain adrenaline rush that accompanies putting oneself at the mercy of the wide open roadwith a destination in mind and there are entire online forums dedicated to that kind of thrillseeking.
The Legend of Beatle Bob grows ever deeper. They say that he’s been to aconcert every day since 1996, but the tales surrounding the 58-year old St. Louisnative named Robert Matonis seem to match that of Chuck Norris and Bill Braskycombined. He’s a living testament that with little more than a mop top, a sillyyet completely recognizable dancing style and an endless wardrobe of veloursuits from the 1960s, anyone with absolutely no prior connection to the musicindustry can still fully integrate and assimilate themselves into VIP status andvirtually unlimited access. Yet, like a middle-age muse, his presence signifies thatone is undoubtedly at a great show. He’s more or less taken over as a do-as-hewillemcee at the three Bonnaroo tent stages, introducing acts such as Cage theElephant, Robyn Hitchcock, Robert Earl Keen, Merle Haggard and AlejandroEscovedo just this past year. There are two inalienable truths when it comes toBeatle Bob. First, he’s guaranteed to give an exuberant, yet somewhat awkwardintroduction to whoever is coming on next. He’s definitely not a pro and hissometimes unfortunate choice of words is all too telling in that regard. Second, hewill hang around the side of the stage and dance like a demented a-hole. It’s justwhat he does. While he might be a source of amusement for Bonnaroo attendees,the music fans of St. Louis are decidedly less pleased with his presence. There’seven a site at the address www.beatlebobsitdown.com where people can sharestories of where and how they were rubbed the wrong way by the guy. Judging byone story of cookie thievery, his antics aren’t always so innocent, but how historyultimately judges him may be decided in the upcoming documentary Superfan:The Lies, Life and Legend of Beatle Bob. !