“I am pretty wired on coffee right now….” uttered Bassnectar (aka Lorin Ashton) as he stood on the back of a golf cart taxi he arranged to whisk himself, my lovely Tennessean hostesses and me over from the backstage area behind This Tent where he was scheduled to play from 12:30am-2am on Friday night over to Which Stage to catch the beginning of the Flaming Lips much anticipated “Dark Side of The Moon” performance slated to start at midnight.
I couldn’t help but ask if the caffeine coursing through his veins would bode well for the listener later on when he played. “I think it might”, said Lorin with a twinkle in his eye.
As we jumped off our “Bonnarig” we carefully squished our way through thousands of waiting and literally glowing Lips fans. We found a spot embedded in the middle of the crowd to catch the opening songs. My first night at Bonnaroo was coming alive with a BANG!
Known for his fastidious approach toward all aspects of his music production and for boombastic live shows, (the Bassnectar crew have even taken to hauling a custom made PK Sound System complete with its own trailer around the country during their most recent tours) Lorin spoke candidly as he weighed which way he should go with his genre-bending force of sound that night as we waited for the Flaming Lips to come out. “Any requests?” he asked as we waited. I was hoping for the Metallica “Seek and Destroy” remix I’d heard made an epic debut at Coachella back in April. My wish came true a couple hours later.
When the Flaming Lips took over the stage madness ensued. The visuals and volume were on an otherworldly scale. Syd Barrett would have flipped for this! Our eardrums and eyeballs were happily hijacked.
Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne stated that he believes Bonnaroo creates the right setting to do Pink Floyd live. “We did it at the New Year’s Eve show just knowing everybody’s gonna be taking acid, staying awake until five in the morning. We might as well just be jamming on some freak-out music,” he says. “I don’t think it’ll be that much of a stretch to think Friday night at 2:30 in the morning at Bonnaroo would be that much different than being in Oklahoma City on New Year’s Eve. I’m sure people will be having their own party while we play this space rock or whatever. In that sense it’s perfect for that.”
Everybody’s gonna be taking acid? Hmmmm…..Not sure of the statistics on that but one thing is certain, it certainly was possible to feel the effects without ingesting anything at all.
Prior to this incendiary Friday night line up, I had spent the day relaxing in a totally set up, fully stocked and cozy base camp thanks to the sunny Southern hospitality provided by my host Julie, her brother Mikey and his girlfriend Misty. We were situated in the Marsellus Wallace campground which was a fair distance from the festival stages and required a great deal of stamina to get back and forth from if not hailing a $5 per person Bonnaroo taxi. The heat was stifling with few clouds providing relief. I am a seasoned festival goer but this was my first ‘roo. I am hard pressed to recall one day at Burning Man (which takes place in high summer in Nevada’s Black Rock desert), Lightning in a Bottle, The Eugene Country Fair, or Woodstock 1994 or 1999 that equaled the sizzle factor of the 2010 Bonnaroo event.
During the day, we chowed down humbly on grilled chicken and shish kebabs and drank plenty of water (and I suppose a little booze, too….) and headed out around 3:30 to walk over to the Troo Music Lounge to see Nneka and her band perform. This was a definite musical highlight in terms of the 2010 lineup. Nneka Egbuna, a Nigerian-German hip hop/soul singer who has grown in popularity largely through word of mouth put on a very moving performance. Her connection with the Troo Lounge audience—which was pretty small by Bonnaroo standards—was absolutely inspiring.
The earnest delivery of my favorite song of hers, “Heartbeat,” brought goosebumps to my arms and legs despite the temperature. She balances tenderness and anger in her vocals through the most intense facial contortions. Nneka hits notes that come straight from her heart before they pass through her blessed pipes. “Heartbeat” cries out to be remixed liberally and pumped out loudly over worldwide dance floors. It is truly anthemic.
I carried the uplifted feeling Nneka’s set instilled in me backstage to go scope out the Media Relations area. RIGHT off the bat I brushed shoulders with Wayne Coyne. He wore a crisp white shirt with blue denim detail that was slightly wilted from the heat. This only added to his bohemian charm…Coyne is straight up handsome! He was flanked by a couple of individuals whose presence somehow prevented me from asking him for a hug. This man is my generation’s Willy Wonka, Timothy Leary and even a little Bob Dylan all rolled into one. He’s a modern folk hero—a little bit country and a whole lotta rock and roll… he’s an Oklahoma twister that leaves the suction of horses and houses behind in favor of engulfing star power to spew back out over the adoring masses. Wayne Coyne is a vortex of talent and energy… an intensely bright light. I should have asked for that hug!!!
I saw Nneka’s band members go by on a golf cart and like some crazed devotee I started shouting tidings of love and gratitude their way. I was moved by each and every one of their songs. Then, about an hour later, I saw the same Nneka band mate I had made eye contact with as he rode by in line for something to drink in the Artist Hospitality section. We chatted a bit. As it turned out his name is Gary and I believe he’s Nneka’s drummer, though this is surprisingly difficult to corroborate on the internet.
Gary explained when I asked where he came from that he hails from the Bronx and met Nneka while living in Hamburg. Now he’s touring extensively with her and has all sorts of summer tour plans lined up. I got my picture taken with him before moving on.
I was dragging a bit from the heat at this point and I decided it was time to hunt down some of the new Ben and Jerry’s Bonnaroo Buzz ice cream I heard was being served throughout the festival. It was rumored to be complimentary!
Taking a page from the eclectic mix of music at Bonnaroo, together Ben and Jerry have concocted an equally unique and delicious combo of flavors for The Buzz—LIGHT COFFEE & MALT ICE CREAM WITH WHISKEY CARAMEL SWIRLS & ENGLISH TOFFEE PIECES. It was just delicious. I do hope I’ll have the occasion to taste it again.
After the backstage round, I lined up for a turn on the Ferris wheel with my good friend and got a chance to survey Bonnaroo from an aerial perspective. We were marooned at the top of the ferris wheel for a few minutes with our carriage swaying in the breeze. The feeling up there was slightly discomforting so to calm my nerves I focused on the view. The land was absolutely gorgeous.
I learned that in 2007, Superfly Productions and A.C. Entertainment, producers of the annual Bonnaroo Music Festival had finalized the purchase of the bulk of the festival site in Manchester, Coffee County, Tennessee. I was now high above looking over the expanse. In 2007, the festival producers became the owners of about 530 acres alongside Interstate 24 purchased from landowner Sam McAlister. Bonnaroo has long-term leases with owners of 300 additional acres at the site. This purchase seems to allow more liberties for festivalgoers, artists and vendors alike. If asked whether or not there were shenanigans of the psychedelic sort at play during my three days in attendance at the festival, I might reply, “Are there chiggers and ticks in the tall Bonnaroo grasses?” Or, I might just take the Fifth Amendment and keep quiet. If you really want to know, you’ll just have to go.
Saturday was the apex of the festival.
The double-whammy of Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z provided a couple of check marks on my personal bucket list.
A possibly drunk and positively sunburned (as in lobster red) Conan O’Brien enthusiastically introduced Wonder as the genius he most certainly is. After the warm prelude Conan said, “Hold on…I have to go get him…” O’Brien then ran off stage and a good twenty minutes (perhaps it was not quite this long but felt so due to the suspense and the anticipation) went by before Stevie came out in a fresh long white cotton shirt with grey stripes and paisleys. He looked ultra cool and comfortable in the still warm early evening light.
As he walked onto the stage he was ushered by a couple of men who seemed to be radiating gratitude at filling the role. As the crowd erupted in whoops, hollers and applause, Stevie Wonder walked on, wailing on the keytar and then launched into a set of solid gold hits with a precision best described as supernatural.
Nobody did it better at Bonnaroo and the response from the festival crowd was a collective expression of like-minded appreciation.
Musical highlights from Wonder’s set were “Higher Ground,” “Superstition,” “Living for the City,” and “Ma Cherie Amour.” His voice was as sharp as a tack and mystically youthful. In perfect command of his band, Wonder called out key changes and danced in time to his own sounds.
Looking out over the crowd watching Stevie Wonder, I was reminded why I came to Bonnaroo. To experience this kind of collective joy through the appreciation of live music is to truly live life to the fullest. Giving back to the artists who give us so much of themselves is possible through the support of such an event. Participation is all it takes to feel connected in this way. Can 75,000 people be wrong?
As the realization hit me after Stevie Wonder’s set, I got separated from my crew. I was overwhelmed by the desire to take a nap under a tree with a bunch of strangers doing the same thing. This is another great part about the Bonnaroo experience — if you’re feeling faded, pass out anywhere you’d like without getting arrested. There are bodies all over the place, so just watch your step as you seek out your resting spot.
When you wake up, who knows what the next adventure might be!