Many of us have heard talk of, fantasized being at, or even actually experienced three days of peace, love, and music that was the original Woodstock. I know I have visualized the field full of long haired hippies dancing in the sun, wondered what it would have been like to sense the peaceful vibe that must have rolled through the air, and feel the incredible music that came out of that entire scene. But, the opportunity to ever experience something like that again seemed virtually impossible.
However, for the past three years, tens of thousands of peace-loving music fans have descended upon 650 acres of Tennessee hay-fields to have a musical experience that resembles the original. This year saw 90,000 plus music fans of all ages roll into Manchester, TN for the 3 rd Bonnaroo Music Festival. As the line of traffic snaked up the highway, the excitement and magnitude of the event became increasingly evident in the shouts of Bonnarooooooo! Sweaty music enthusiasts, mostly in their 20s (although I saw every age imaginable from tiny babies to elderly couples walking hand in hand) sat in standstill traffic while the gates slowly processed tickets, gave out wristbands and sent the cars, RVs and vans into the massive campground. Long haired, bearded guys and gypsy-like girls walked the side of the road looking for extra tickets to the sold out event, while friendly locals sold ice cold water and sandwiches from road side stands. If this is how it all starts, what awaits inside?
Music,comedians, and community - thats what.In four tents and on two stages, over 70 bands and artists came together over three days to create something more than a mega-concert, they created a full musical happening. Many of the artists, like moe, Galactic, Trey Anastasio and The String Cheese Incident were part of the jam-band scene, which featured an improvisational rock style. Theyve created their fanbase by staying away from the big record companies and relying on their fans and the music sharing communities to get their sound out.
As in past years, legendary bands and artists were abundant and shared these stages with lesser-known, but certainly not less talented groups and soloists. While looking at the three-day schedule, it was impossible to see and hear everything. Bonnaroo definitely teaches you to pace your musical appetite. You could listen nonstop from noon until four in the morning.
And talk about diversity! The variety of music was exceptional. Not only were the jam bands here, but outstanding bluegrass music such as the Yonder Mountain String Band, Del McCoury Band, and Sam Bush (who recently came to the Dame and gave a great show.) I got my blues fix by seeing Los Lobos and the incredible guitar playing of Taj Mahal. Legendary folk and rock storytellers filled the menu as well. In a gratifying moment, I stood close enough to Ani Difranco to watch her fingers on her guitar and watch her elegiac lyrics leave her mouth. The day before, I had stood and looked over the huge crowd of all ages listen to Bob Dylan and wondered if it could get much better. But when you look at the schedule and know that Steve Winwood, Dave Matthews, David Byrne and legendary reggae artist Burning Spear are soon to hit the very same stage
you realize that yes, music lovers there is a Santa Claus.
And what about those unusual zen-like musical moments when you discover something new that you love? I kept hearing about this band called the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra and had thought What a great name. But, who are they? I had just finished climbing around in the mud from the previous nights rainstorm to see Burning Spear and wandered over to the second stage. There, I found 10 gentlemen in 1920s style suits,some of them blowing horns, giving a tear-the-house-down performance. There wasnt a still person within earshot of these fellas from Tokyo. Their mixtur of Jamaican ska, jazz, punk, and big band was the icing on the cake of my musical carte du jour.
But it wasnt just the music that had the hot, sunburned crowd engaged. There were a profusion Roofestivities to keep even the fussiest attendee happy through scorching sun, downpours, and every variety of mud you can think of. You could sit in the shade at the cinema tent and watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or The Big Lebowski or wander the shopping village to find enough artisan goods to make anyone feel like they just hit a major art fair. I was entertained and laughed at the traveling street performers. Its not everyday you get to watch guys on springy stilts jump way up in the air. There were vintage arcade games to play, batting cages, and even an air-conditioned comedy tent that featured major acts like Louis CK, Todd Barry and Comedy Centrals Upright Citizens Brigade Improv group. I was also quite thrilled with the Brooers Festival, which featured national craft breweries. I love New Belgiums Fat Tire (which you cannot get east of St.Louis) and enjoyed a few during those three hot days.
What can you say about the experience that was and is Bonnaroo? Bonnaroo is Creole slang that roughly translates into good time. Id say that I left those hayfields in that sleepy town with leftovers of just that.