Bonnaroo may not be real life, but that doesn’t make it any less stressful. Every year, 80,000 (approx.) crazies rage or mosey their way down to the farm in Manchester, Tennessee for an assumed relaxing period of both chill and weird. While it is a welcome vacation from commuter trains, twitter (sorry, boss), landlords and sitcom reruns, Bonnaroo is far from a beach getaway or a recharging weekend in the woods. Fortunately, the amazing performances and overall great vibes always win out in the end, and this year’s unbeatable lineup did not disappoint in the least.
The stress of Bonnaroo set in early in the week, as it mixed with the excitement and anticipation. After jamming a full week of preparation, work and writing into three days, I was already spread thin as we packed the car Wednesday evening. Our unruly 14-strong Bonna-crew (oof) was traveling from several metropolises across the country, so we decided to meet at Manchester’s Wal-Mart/Shanty Town early Thursday morning to use the back entrance together. Immediately, there was an unfamiliar feeling: we were the only ones on the road. Breezing through what once took hours in minutes, we arrived at an empty checkpoint, and welcomed by frowning, sexist and likely broke deputies. A highly intrusive drug search of our vehicles and male travelers was followed by barking of orders from inept Bonnaroo staff in our virtually open campsite (Pod #10). Things just didn’t feel right. Throughout the rest of the weekend, our group battled illness, fatigue, annoyance and dirt with varying levels of success.
Then again, the highs of Bonnaroo are enough to put a smile on even the most sour, sick and stressed attendee. The combination of one of the best festival lineups in the last 10 years and immaculate summer weather has certainly made this an event for the history books. As a more-than-frequent concertgoer, I was blown away by the professionalism of the performers and the pristine sound quality that stayed consistent throughout the weekend. Ear drum splitting acts like Mogwai and Flying Lotus sounded just as fantastic as quieter, more nuanced groups like The Infamous Stringdusters and City and Colour. With bands as basic and quintessentially Bonnaroo as Phish and Rodrigo Y Gabriela up against other more ballsy and rewarding picks like Pelican, Danny Brown and White Denim, the Bonnaroo bookers did an absolutely fantastic job of providing a breadth of options for virtually any attendee.
As you can tell, my last experience at Bonnaroo has left me quite torn. First, there is no doubt in my mind that Bonnaroo is the best festival in the country, with the most comfortable grounds, unmatched vibes and best bands. But just because it’s the best festival, that doesn’t make it the carefree fairyland the advertisements or Ferris wheels would have you believe. A rigorous and exhausting weekend of live music with those crazy enough to join, is just that: rigorous and exhausting. But it’s also incredibly rewarding. It wasn’t until we were jamming through Phish’s excellent, carefree and glowstick filled set that I realized the true power of the fest. It’s not about the drugs or the food or the camping or the dust: it’s about loving the best music with your best friends. And there’s absolutely no one who could argue with that.
While I’m not 100% in for next year, the positive experiences of Roo 2012 keep playing in my brain. Now if only I could get that vacation.
Full List of Shows Attended (Bold indicates highlights)
-Mariachi El Bronx
-Danny Brown – Detroit’s The Hybrid Danny Brown definitely put on the best hip hop show of the weekend, complete with organ-rattling beats and endless allusions to oral sex. Both a true showman and a no-bullshit artist, Danny Brown is the perfect example of where a hip hop show can be great, even if you’re not entirely familiar with the performer’s material. You won’t find any grating “best rapper alive” talk here (looking at you, Kendrick Lamar.)
-White Denim – How could I possibly miss the #1 FP psychedelic album of the year in the flesh? Austin’s White Denim are pretty much the ideal Bonnaroo band, with facemelting solos and shifting blues basslines. All jam bands, take note.
-The Infamous Stringdusters
-Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – Brooklyn’s Sharon Jones is a queen among girls when it comes to soul throwbacks, which seem to be coming from virtually everywhere these days. This former prision guard knows how to get an early crowd shaking in the heat on the mainstage (What?), not to mention her impossibly tight backing band.
-The Avett Brothers
-Rodrigo Y Gabriela and C.U.B.A.
-Radiohead - Duh. This was my first live experience with Radiohead, and my excitement can not be overstated. The kings of avant garde rock (and pretty much everything in between) delivered in ways that are inexplicable. Let’s just say that at the end of their 25 song set, my face was not dry and that I finally understand The King of Limbs.
-Flying Lotus – Despite not playing much of his own music, FlyLo basically played one of the best DJ sets imaginable. By tweaking new-classics like “Hands on the Wheel” and “Niggas in Paris” with his now-trademark woozy, hyper jazz sound, FlyLo basically blew every other electronic act of the weekend out of the water. This is an absolute must-see show, unfortunately the video doesn’t capture the bass.
-Pelican – By far the earliest show I attended all weekend, Chicago’s post-gods rocked That Tent at 12:15, and I don’t regret it in the least, despite losing serious steam at the end of the evening (I slept through the entirety of RHCP). I was nervous that these dark masters would have to change some of their sound to fit the beautiful weather, but they managed to put a dark, virtuosic cloud over the rest of Saturday. That said, they desperately still need a new drummer.
-Battles – Surprisingly, Battles are a perfect choice for Bonnaroo. Part prog rock, part dance party, Battles rocked This Tent with cuts off last year’s Gloss Drop as well as some old favorites off Mirrored. I hope to look that good in a lavender button up, one day.
-Red Hot Chili Peppers
-Superjam ft. ?uestlove + D’Angelo – The Superjam is a Bonnaroo staple, and this year did not disappoint. Led by the enigmatic ?uestlove and the returning D’Angelo, this year’s Superjam took us through some amazing rock moments like Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be”, Hendrix’s “Have You Ever Been?” and The Beatles’ “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”. My only old man complaint is that it was so damn late, although that’s what I get for entering the fest at noon.
-Gary Clark Jr. – I haven’t listened to much Gary Clark Jr., but I certainly will now. Sure, Bonnaroo 2012 had some pretty fantastic axe-men, but Gary Clark was certifiably the most rock and roll of all. Fortunately, you have plenty of options to see him this summer, as he’s playing nearly every festival.
-The Black Lips
-City and Colour – Dallas Green (former vocalist for Alexisonfire) is a sensitive guy that I can get behind. With a silky smooth voice and Neil Young-esque folk, this Canadian brought every chick in the crowd to their knees. That isn’t meant like it sounds.
-The War on Drugs
-Ben Folds Five
-Phish – Amazing. Although I only was able to attend about an hour of their four hour set, Trey and bros effectively won me over as a fan. Although I can’t name five Phish songs, I always expected them to be a great live band. Thankfully, I was right. Extra points for bringing out Kenny Rogers.
Peter Lillis is Managing Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He’s forgone a recovery period. All images are his. He wishes he could attend Brooklyn’s Northside Fest this weekend with his FP bros, but he just might collapse. This piece was named “Freshly Pressed” by the WordPress staff on June 13, 2012, chosen out of more than 900,000 posts on the blogging service that day. FP, we made it.