Bonnaroo, 2012 Recap
Article by: Erin Manning | Photo Credit: Bekah Cope | Posted: 06/12/2012
Skies were clear, temperatures approached perfection, and the stars aligned this year at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. In (all of) the past years at Manchester, Tennessee’s annual outdoor celebration, it has been understood that embarking on the Bonnaroo journey -- camping out and listening to music from Thursday to Sunday -- is like being in the Hunger Games. We essentially hurl ourselves into this survival scenario within an entertainment context, and we are left with no choice but to defend ourselves from nature. The blazing heat, the stifling dust, the chilly evenings, the 18-hours-of-walking-per-day (according to my friend’s pedometer) -- they can truly make or break a Bonnaroo camper. I made the mistake of falling asleep in my jacket, which felt good on Friday night when it was 50°, but the sweltering heat in my tent at 8 a.m. the following morning made me feel like a clam at a clam bake.
This is only the tip of the iceberg for some, depending on where your campsite is, the reliability of your cell phone service, how weather-proofed your tent proves to be, and how easily you sunburn. But we all do it. We sacrifice our physical comfort for the greater experience that Bonnaroo brings. The music, the people, the sights, the camraderie, and the sense of community are what make Bonnaroo what it is, and that is what sets it apart from other music festivals. Romesh Thavanathan, cellist for Hey Rosetta, very accurately described this while relaxing in the shade on Saturday afternoon. “We’ve played a 40,000 and 50,000 people festival before but no one stays there, so it doesn’t have the same sense of community. [Bonnaroo is] really incredible for that. People are here for the same reasons and because they’re excited for it. It’s really incredible.”
This was the first year for Thavanathan, but for many other bands, Bonnaroo has held a special place in their hearts for quite some time. Jason Huber of Cherub explained how he has been coming to Bonnaroo for years. “This is my seventh year. I’ve gotten to attend the festival in every way. I attended the festival at first, (I bought my ticket), then I volunteered. Then I got paid to work for several years [coordinating the volunteers]. But now, being able to perform at the festival is really, really cool. It’s special for me. Last night when I got to say ‘WHAT’S UP BONNAROO’ on stage...It was really awesome.”
The same goes for Keegan Dewitt and Jeremy Bullock -- the duo that makes up Wild Cub. Having acquired their performance slot through winning a Road to Bonnaroo series competition in Nashville, TN, both were especially grateful and excited to be playing Bonnaroo. Jeremy described their arrival, revealing how they were greeted by quite the welcome wagon. “I initially walked in -- it was our first ‘walk in’ to the Bonnaroo site, and I’m really taking it in, and I’m like, ‘There’s a ferris wheel, and food here,’ and it’s like completely different than I imagined. And then... FRISBEE. Right to the face.”
That appreciation and enjoyment seems to be the case with most of the artists who were playing, all commenting on how the festival crowd is a welcome change to crowds at typical shows. “It’s all music lovers that come and see the shows. You don’t always have to fight for the crowd. The crowd wants to see music and there’s so much great music around. It’s great vibes. There’s so much good music going on,” explained The Dirty Guv’nahs guitarist Michael Jenkins. Elaborating on those good vibes, Jenkins continued, “Bonnaroo’s crazy but it’s such a good spirit. Everyone is easy-going and it’s not, like, edgy at all. It’s fun ...”
And Jenkins must’ve been correct with that statement, considering the only complaint any of the artists ever made was about parking hijinks and disorganization. Oberhofer put things into perspective for us about what it’s like to play at a festival as a smaller, up-and-coming artist. “Just getting to the festival is not easy for bands...it’s always difficult. Unorganized. No one knows where to go or what to do. Once you actually get into the [festival], it’s a lot of fun,” explained Pete Sustarsic, the band’s drummer. “I feel like once you have a tour bus, people respect you more,” added lead singer, Brad Oberhofer. “When you have a tour bus, its like ‘These guys...I’d better respect these guys. They have money.’” But Oberhofer is content to ride around in Sustarsic’s mom’s van for the time being, (which is not a Chrysler Town & Country as I suspected, but a Chevy passenger van).
In fact, none of the artists we spoke with had much to say when it came to complaining about being taken care of at Bonnaroo. Rubblebucket leader, Alex Toth, nicely summarized the artist hospitality situation with, “Everyone is just so well-taken care of here. Everyone’s really happy. It’s nice. We don’t usually camp out at festivals either but we decided to do it because we knew it was gonna be comfortable. We just had the feeling.”
Not only were there limited complaints, but there weren’t too many items on their list of specifications or “utility items” that they needed to make it through the weekend. This was awfully surprising, considering how the artists roam around in the dust and heat like everyone else. (Granted, it’s in an entirely different area, but still.) Sustarsic mentioned gum as a necessity; Pujol showed us his personal guitar pedal, saying “[it] basically [does] what an amp would do. It has a graphic equalizer on it.” Arleigh Kincheloe of Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds had the most sensible item of all -- a pair of leopard-print rain boots, which were perfect for the muddy swamp that the Centeroo turned into on Sunday. Her brother, Jackson, also came equipped with a towel. “A sweat towel and a full towel,” he clarified.
Being prepared for the heat is definitely a little higher on the priority list for most. “My only pet peeve is heat,” Caitlin Rose said flatly, as she whipped out a paper fan. “If I don’t bring my vintage-ass fan I might just pass out.” Looking fair-skinned and freckly, sweet Sarah Jarosz listed, “definitely tons of water. I think the 5 Hour Energy [drinks] help. Some sunglasses. Ray Bans.” Even the Queen Diva herself, Big Freedia, didn’t have much to grumble about, mentioning, “I like to chew ice. It keeps me cool and hydrated.”
We discussed other things with the artists we interviewed, including bands that they hoped to catch playing, (the unanimous answer was Radiohead), pet peeves, and trashy sights. “On the drive here [through Knoxville], there was a firework-gas station-beer store. It’s called the Tennessee Alabama Fireworks Store.” (At least he didn’t see the Boobie Bungalow.) Cherub also described their favorite “trashy festival moment,” but that public defecation story was far too graphic to retell. Even after talking with everyone though, it was clear that after the logistics had been addressed, the main thing on everyone’s agenda was playing their music and winning over new fans. All of the artists were of one mind that the musical element of Bonnaroo was certainly their favorite thing about playing. “The most exciting thing for me is...really the challenge of picking up all of the new fans. (You know, if I”m playing a new festival.) And the challenge of performing in front of however many people is in front of that stage ... At the end of the show, they’re like, ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that. It was amazing. I didn’t know what to expect.’ I just want everyone to have a good time, dance on the floor and do what they do, express themselves. You know, being able to express themselves through dance and music.”
Yes indeed, when it comes down to it, it’s clear that to enjoy and value Bonnaroo, you have to ignore the weather and silly inconveniences and truly see Bonnaroo for what it really is: a music festival. Michael Jenkins of The Dirty Guv’nahs said it best: “The hard part’s picking which band you’re going to see.”