Eye on the Scene

Bats in the Barn: Bonnaroo

It was Elijah who prayed that it did not rain/ He prayed; and the rains came again â"â“Rastaman,â” Bunny Wailer

I ought to write a book about all the things I didn't do at this year's Bonnaroo. For now, this will have to do. As with jazz, try to play between the notes.   

DAY ONE (Wednesday): My nerves are frayed from learning to drive a rented RV by driving it to Bonnaroo. We set up in a vast caravanserai in the dark, wishing to trade our tiredness for drunkenness. I can wait; it is only Wednesday night and nothing has started yet. A kind of preview springs up in the Wal-Mart parking lot that is one of our many stopping points along the way down from Knoxville as we assemble our wagon train. The asphalt acreage in front of the big box store was a major, impromptu rallying point. Mother, may you never see scores of people in chaise lounges, drinking beer and smoking dope in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Drums, cowbells, flutes and didgeridoos are going and dreadlocks flinging at a Deadhead-like assembly of youngsters under one of the few trees. There are even â“No War!â” signs popping up. As I walk over to check it out, it finally registers that someone is yelling â“Hey! Asshole!â” over and over and it's getting louder. My defenses finally kick in and I wheel around to meet my tormentor. A gigantic samurai is bounding between cars right at me. He wears checkered suspenders; his hair is pulled up in a scary topknot. Thank Christ â"it is only my good friend Phil Pollard , followed closely by Geol Greenlee , Rachel Parton and Nathan Barrett (of the Band of Humans )â"offering me an official first welcoming salutation to Bonnaroo.

A couple hours later, Wal-Mart security sends out a poor little man with a bullhorn to shut it all down.   

DAY TWO (Thursday): I must leave the grounds to retrieve my â“Guestâ” laminate which, ostensibly, I obtained due to having some kind of status as a journalist-without-portfolio. As the least little mission does at Bonnaroo, this turns into an adventure. First, there is no clear-cut way to leave once you're in unless you already have, shall we say, â“letters of transit.â” I squeeze aboard a local motel shuttle that is only missing baskets of chickens on the roof and a drunk accordion player to replete the increasingly Third World aspect of things. I manage to get to the Manchester Holiday Inn to get my VIP credentials. Nowâ"how to get back? The magical amulet hanging around my neck now doesn't come with a chauffeur. Ah, is that Ed Richardson walking up to me with a big grin on his face? I offer to carry his musical cardboard box in my lap if Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes can find room for me with them. Todd Steed , Dave Nichols and Ed are to be joined by Dug Meech later, so there's room for me in Dave's truck, and after we negotiate the steadily intensifying traffic gridlock in front of the Holiday Inn, I find myself in the Guest/VIP/Artist encampment. There are so many Knoxvillians in this cantonment that I will return to several times in a kind of exhausting, running game of social Whac-a-Mole.

The farmer's boots I wore when leaving that morning to get my press credentials prove inappropriate for hiking back home. I spend the rest of the day nursing blisters and an inflamed metatarsal. Regrettably, this forces me to miss a performance by the boys who gave me a ride back to the front. I am told later that that show by the Dopes was the official gathering of the Knoxville clans.   

DAY THREE (Friday): It is the second full day of the festival and I've yet to actually listen to a band. My inaugural listening party is such an unexpected and undifferentiated pleasure that no other show I attend quite compares. And I don't even like jazz. But my good friend Nelda Hill , whom I encountered in â“Knoxerooâ” yesterday, has successfully browbeaten me into attending the Robert Glasper show with her at the Something Else lounge. Something Else is a miraculous facsimile of a dark, wood-paneled, air-conditioned chic nightclub set up in a tent in the middle of a Tennessee pasture. It is a transforming experience: Glasper works like a scientist at his grand piano, even somehow making some mad mathematics out of the bad string that can't be fixed. Not on a grand piano in the middle of a Tennessee pasture. But of the stellar trio, it is drummer Chris Dave who captivates me with his quirky, melodic style on the skins. He is so fluid, his rhythms so layered, that his trap set seems to be speaking. I am not high, by the way. Not yet. Nelda recognizes Dave, too. It turns out the young fellow from Houston has performed with Donald Brown at the Knoxville Jazz Festival, of which she is a primary organizer.

From the cool Something Else lounge, I go to see Lily Allen at the mid-sized venue nearby called This Tent. The delightfully potty-mouthed London ska-tart is having the time of her life. So are the three or four thousand skankers within earshot. The petite singer in a flouncy '50s style prom dress leads a big horn band along, waving an empty Jagermeister bottle and joyously proclaiming one moment that â“Tennessee is FUCKIN' 'OT!â” and then that â“Tennessee is FUCKIN' KEW-ULL!â”

On the recommendation of Randall â“Ramblin' Manâ” Brown , attending the Allen show with his charming fiancée, my wife and I go next to hear Manu Chao 's wild fusion of several Latin and Caribbean styles. It doesn't seem to matter to the Anglophonic majority in the crowd that Chao's beat-heavy, electronica-nuanced anthems are sung mostly in Spanish. And it is angry, but it is a kind of happy-angry and that suits me just fine. I want their records. Thank you, Mister Brown.

A strange cacophony joins the swirling throng in the increasingly dusty infields of the various venues (imagine several interconnecting baseball diamonds) and I finally learn what Mister Pollard's new musical venture, the Bonnaroompah Band, is all about. As I should have known, it's the same people who comprise the Humans, The Bearded and some of Christabel and the Jons and other bands, but playing all your favorite rock hits in a kind of marching band-cum-polka format. So here comes Phil in tophat, megaphone and marching drum leading Geol Greenlee on accordion; Rachel Parton on piccolo; Nate Barrett on parade bass drum (with megaphone attached); and Kyle Campbell on tuba (alternately: Jon Whitlock on parade drum; Dave Nichols on trombone; and Sara Schwabe in a dirndl). They take over the Brooer's Festival tent, which is even more sweltering inside than it is out in the blazing midday sun.   

Polka till you puke, is what I always say.

Angel and the Lovemongers are playing at the Troo Lounge, one of many intimate venues set up to showcase new and lesser-known acts. The underground pop icon known as â“Beatle Bobâ” is juking around right in the Lovemongers' faces as they run through a hot workout with their original rootsy rock. It is said in some circles that you've arrived if â“Beatle Bobâ” (so called because his hair and clothes ape the â“Hard Day's Nightâ” style) turns up at one of your performances and twitches around like a lonely spaz in front of the stage. Thus Spaketh Beatle Bob.

Tool ends the night; the missus and I decide we no longer care to compete with 20,000 people on a couple of acres of ground to listen to a band. This especially applies to oppressive sludge like Tool but even extends the next night to eschewing my beloved Police and half a dozen large venue bands I would normally want to hear. We thoroughly enjoy Sting and the boys from the comfort of our camp a half-mile away.   

DAY FOUR (Saturday): â“Love is My Religion,â” sings Ziggy Marley , torchbearer for his father, St. Bob . It is so good, I am weeping. It is a sunconscious moment at What Stage, the stadium-like alpha performance venue at Bonnaroo. Later in the day, I wander back and forth between creepy, smarty-pants Ween and those rockin' Scots in Franz Ferdinand , taking refuge, mouth-breathing and stupefied by the enormity of all. It's just all too much. As I inhale another $6 Bud, the kilted man who was waving the Scottish saltire in Ferdinand's face marches past my table. The cross of St. Andrew slung over his shoulder and an expression like he's the last man standing at Culloden. The vastness of the setting and the worsening dust situation caused by the ongoing, record-setting drought makes it hard for a history boy like me not to see things in military or biblical terms, you know. Actually, it's getting hard to see anything period, thanks to the choking dust created by the steady pounding of the dry fields by Bonnaroo's 80,000-plus attendees.

The dust is so bad from Saturday on that most people are wearing bandannas across their faces like Sandinistas. It still gets into the body and the asthma-cough is ever-present coming from the campsites. One of my campmates announces that a certain repellent mucosal discharge that appears in the nose is known as â“bats in the barn.â” For those concerned about delicacy, this is the least of your problems at Bonnaroo. Nevertheless, no one wants rain. Not during Bonnaroo. We'll settle on what good the water trucks do, even though the result sometimes seems to simply create even more primitive conditions for pedestrians. With the copious droppings from the completely unnecessary mounted security force, the resulting footpath is sometimes downright medieval. Especially along the noisy vendor strips known as â“Shakedown Streetâ” (which mainly refers to the official vendor community: there is, however, a burgeoning township of unauthorized shops springing up in the outer camps one might call â“Little Shakedown Streetâ” to distinguish from the Centeroo businesses). Along these fulsome precincts, one nearly expects some toothless harridan in an upstairs tenement to shriek â“gardez looâ” as she throws a pan of the morning slops out the window.

I am determined to see The Flaming Lips that night. Of my group, I am the only one interested in seeing this wizardly cultural phenomenon. After making a particularly poor timed pharmacological choice, and already knowing I no longer enjoy gigantic scenes, I find myself under a tree getting frightened by the heavily memed crowd of fans showing up in bunny, dragon and frog gear. I am alone in a crowd of many thousands of people who are in on the joke. I try to talk to someone else but my words are melting. There are way too goddamn many balloons.

Thank god for the Troo Lounge where I relax a minute or two with Tin Cup Prophette . The Athens, Ga. band is intriguing, but I can't get psychically centered. I flee for camp. My route takes me by the tiny, underpowered Solar Stage where the Gypsy Hands girls are channeling all the energy needed. Familiar faces and good vibes do wonders for me. Claire Metz 's fireballs provide all the lightshow I can synaptically process. The Gypsies provided sanctuary on a Bonnaroo Saturday night under remarkably similar circumstances a year ago. Angels with torches, they are.

DAY FIVE (Sunday): Even though my blisters have blisters, this is the day I am most determined to tromp around as much as it takes to catch my beloved Knoxville bands. I hear Christabel and the Jons just rarely enough to be able to sense their incremental step up to being an undeniably world-class act. The work has been done: all Christa DeCicco needs now is for fate to smile. As if the Jons weren't already a perfect hotel lobby band from the '30s, they've added bassist Mischa Goldman 's wife, Valerie Sanders , who brings along some crisp doo-wop backup singing and the apparent ability to play a different instrument on every song. A couple of hours later and Dixie Dirt is in the same venueâ"the Blue Room café, which sits across the prairie from What Stage where Ratdog seems to be playing all day long. Today's Deadheads follow Ratdog, Bob Weir 's post-Dead vehicle, so it's important that you picture thousands of the most generally very pleasant, lovable, positively vibrating hippies you could ever imagine. The very back end of that crowd verges onto the Blue Room's area of aural influence. And instead of the happy noodling of Ratdog, there's this hungry, skinny quartet from Knoxville playing some of the prettiest, most heart-broke music you'll ever hear performed with heavy ordnance. It's opera from the rooftops where there's no anesthesia. What a study in dynamics: Kat Brock as the tortured darling and Angela Santos as the tough anti-hero of this play. Journalists shouldn't use superlativesâ"but I'm going on record as saying pound for pound, Brock is the finest rock squaller to have ever lived. From their little perch in the background, Dixie Dirt gave Ratdog a good kick in the ovaries. And the Ratdog kids at the back of the hippie crowd who ended up getting hit by shrapnel from Dixie's sonic grenades seemed to love every blow.

I missed the Westside Daredevils , the Tenderhooks and Jescoe and am determined to catch homegal Jennifer Niceley . She's back at the Solar Stage. The Band of Humans are set to play there around dusk as well. So, a final march across Centeroo puts us at that little outdoor, sit-on-the-ground venue. There's hardly a crowd, but those on hand love Niceley's sultry, jazzy ballads about sycamore trees and dark eyes. Indeed, I can't help but think of Steven Foster being a muse for this young, albeit veteran performer I've somehow managed to never see before. It's as if Foster's great grandson had a daughter with Billie Holliday and that girl had a kid with Chris Isaak and they named her Jennifer Niceley. Well, you see where I'm going with it, anyway. Niceley accompanies herself on electric rhythm guitar with guitarist Jim McMahan providing melodic fills and buzzy summery ambient sounds behind her.

By the time my old friends in the Band of Humans take the stage, the dust is so bad it actually may be partly responsible for the sound problems deviling Pollard and company as they gamely work their way through their final set at Bonnaroo '07. The Humans close with Pollard's new composition, a musical version of Suttree . The homage to apocalyptic writer Cormac McCarthy is appropriately ghastly: It lilts along merrily as the crowd thins and the dust thickens and the Bonnaroo cannon fires smoke rings into the reddening, westering sky.

DAY SIX (Monday): Having wisely pre-packed during the show by what a friend calls â“Whitebread Panic,â” we are able to strike camp and leave ahead of the main exodus Monday morning. Among the many things hanging in the air this past week, there is a forlornness that comes at the end of every party and is amplified many fold by the magnitude of this majestic event. By god, the scale of this thing is indeed like the movement of a vast army. It is biblical. To reinforce that notion, I notice a strange outrider among the bleary-eyed, drifting multitude around our camp. It is a dirty, older model VW bus and it seems to be patrolling the lanes connecting the camping grids. â“Prayer Breakfast!â” and â“Come Pray with Us!â” is spray paintedâ"badlyâ"on the side panels of the dinged up little van. Undoubtedly on the lookout for easy pray among the spiritually addled stranded in the backwash of the party.

On the way home, sweet, sweet rain finally falls.     â" Jack Rentfro


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