There is a moment of realization, an epiphany of sorts, which occurs to every person who turns off I-24 in Manchester, Tennessee, to enter a 700-acre farm in the heat of the summer. Maybe you have traveled seven hours in the back of a Hyundai hatchback with inadequate space for a young child, much less a college student and a week’s worth of camping supplies. Maybe you packed enough to sustain yourself on the back of a motorcycle and rode from California, with a breakdown in Texas being the only true hindrance. Maybe you had it worse than that. No matter the circumstances, at some point between the security check and the parking of the car, the moment comes: “I am at Bonnaroo. This is it.”
The 2012 version of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, held annually in a city of 10,000 people, was sure to elicit that kind of response from all of the estimated 80,000-100,000 attendees. The headliners were sure to be killer, and the rest of the acts appeared set to impress as well. Best of all, perhaps, was the fact that, unlike during my previous trip to Bonnaroo in 2010, the temperature was not going to approach triple digits. So confident had I been in the prospect of extreme heat, in fact, that I did not bother packing anything with long sleeves and only had a light fleece blanket for the nights, which ended up dipping to the 50s and woke me up, almost on the dot, at 5 o’clock every morning. That was a lesson in preparation and assumptions, courtesy of Mother Nature.
Having fulfilled my volunteer obligation on Thursday, the first show my friends and I went to see was K. Flay. The spoken-word introduction to the first song by the female rapper was entertaining, but after a few minutes we decided to move on to The Dirty Guv’nahs, who were far more appealing to our musical sensibilities. Their brand of southern rock may have conjured images of the Allman Brothers Band post-Duane, and they excited the crowd with several displays of intricate guitar work before concluding with a cover of “Hey Jude” that borrowed more from Wilson Pickett’s cover than from the Beatles’ original. Rousing in either case, of course.
Kendrick Lamar was the next show on our agenda, and the young rapper delivered a high-energy set that acted as an excellent set piece for the rest of the weekend. The show not to be missed on Thursday night, however, was Alabama Shakes. Brittany Howard’s vocals pulsated throughout This Tent, getting the crowd bobbing to a string of songs that included the single “Hold On” and the namesake of their debut effort, “Boys & Girls.” The group, which sounds eerily like Janis Joplin ditched the Holding Company for the Bar-Kays, rocked the crowd until after midnight before closing with “Heavy Chevy.” Desperate to catch up on as much sleep as possible, we returned to our campsite with the same vigor with which a restaurant patron goes to the restroom following the appetizer. Our palates were whet, and we thought we were ready for what was to come.
What came, of course, was the aforementioned near-frostbite at 5 in the morning followed almost immediately by full-on greenhouse effect inside our tent which caused the abandonment of blankets and superfluous layers of clothing. Unable to sleep past nine in the morning, much time surrendered itself to endless Frisbee tossing and vain attempts to light charcoal. When we finally ventured to Centeroo, the main concert area, the first full show we took in was that of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, whose soulful timbres brought listeners back to the 1960s. The band, a seamless extension from Alabama Shakes the previous night, was extremely tight and carried a feel-good atmosphere with them throughout their performance.
Next on What Stage was the punk-grass outfit the Avett Brothers. The group, hailing from Concord, North Carolina, and led by brothers Seth and Scott Avett, has built a reputation on their blistering live shows, and this was no different. They sent the audience into a sing along-induced frenzy with live staples such as “Will You Return?,” “Paranoia in Bb Major” and “Laundry Room.” The Avetts also included two covers in a tribute to the recently-deceased Doc Watson, “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” and “Down in the Valley to Pray,” before closing with the seemingly million-beats-per-minute “Talk on Indolence.”
Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, delivered an excellent set in That Tent which included the baroque-dancepop hit “Cruel” and “Cheerleader.” The most highly-anticipated show of the night for most, however, came when Radiohead walked onto What Stage at 10 p.m. and blazed their way through “Kid A,” “The Daily Mail” and “Karma Police” before engaging in two encores, the last of which included “Reckoner,” which Thom Yorke dedicated to the next night’s headliner, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “Paranoid Android.” The video screens surrounding What Stage, which typically focused on one entire performer or a section of a group, instead showed extremely zoomed-in shots of, for instance, Johnny Greenwood’s guitar or Thom Yorke’s mouth. This disregard to help the audience in the far reaches of Centeroo to see anything seemed like such a Radiohead move, however, that we were not even angry. How could we be? The group met our expectations and then some, and their live presence was big enough to fill all of Coffee County and beyond.
A quick stop by The Word, which featured Robert Randolph and the North Mississippi Allstars, yielded much enjoyment, and though most of the audience was older than the stereotypical Bonnaroo attendee, there was a place for everyone at Randolph’s dinner for the soul. His virtuosity on lap-steel guitar was in full effect, and seasoned keyboard player John Medeski complemented the gospel-influenced song structures that seemed to serve exclusively as frames inside which to jam extensively.
Black Star, the hip-hop brainchild of Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), raised the proverbial roof off That Tent with a set list that incorporated songs from both Black Star albums to date. The collaboration played to each MC’s strong points, as the Kweli’s ebb balanced nicely with Bey’s flow, as has often been the case in the last fifteen years.
Following Black Star was the final performance of my night, that of experimental Los Angeles DJ Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus. Alice Coltrane’s great-nephew shaped his way through selections from Cosmagramma, including a powerful take on “Zodiac Shit” which mesmerized the crowd and gave the hearts of everyone nearby palpitations. Ellison’s perhaps surprising stage presence was on display as well, in one instance playing through an entire verse and chorus of the Jackson 5’s seminal Motown hit “I Want You Back,” with which everyone sang along before he spun it into a separate web altogether, and, on a different occasion, pausing mid-track with a simple request: “Whisky…I need whisky…”
Two days gone, and I already felt like I had journeyed a thousand miles. I certainly looked that way as well, with mud and dust coverage reaching a peak on my legs and no proper means to shave. There were a few issues with the event up to that point as well: first, the scanning wristband system which Bonnaroo has only recently employed seemed to have caused tremendous delays in the lines going into Centeroo, so we had to adapt to that if we were going to arrive on time to desired shows. Second, a common problem with any reasonably-sized festival is concurrent sets of acts one desires to see. Third, we were wholly confused with stage and tent names. It did not seem as though we would be able to ask where an act was performing without getting a question in return. Finally, we were running low on Pop-Tarts, and we had forgotten bag clips to close our bulk Frosted Flakes. Somehow we would have to navigate our way through these crises because there were two full days of music ahead, and because we would not get adequate sleep to deal with it in an appropriate fashion, we knew better than to worry and instead enjoyed the comfort of our dirty, dewy mattress pads.