When the opportunity arose to attend my first Bonnaroo, I imagined long-haired flower children swaying to music, earth mothers cradling their bare-footed offspring, and some manifestation of peace, love, and grooviness for all. However, the reality of the festival was not quite what I had expected. Instead what I found over the four days in Tennessee was hordes of stoned kids, spirit-crushing 90-degree weather, and $5 slices of pizza.
I may not have had the best time at the festival, but there was a silver lining to the clouds missing from the light blue sky. What matters most at any festival is the music, and it was in the band’s absorbing sets that I was able to take refuge from the heat (although the air-conditioned press tent didn’t hurt either).
Though I fear this may have been a onetime experience, I did get to see some amazing performances down on the farm that could not have been replicated anywhere else. As for next year, I hope New Jersey’s All Points West gets their act together so I can enjoy both a festival concert and the comfort of my own bed.
• NEON INDIAN
When Neon Indian (Austin’s Alan Palomo) took the stage Friday, his 70s synth pop and 80s stallion guitars sent a literal chillwave through the steamy Tennessee night. The retro dance tunes, frosted by Palomo’s glacial voice, created a dance party that got kind of rowdy. As the band played “Deadbeat Summer,” four topless girls in full Indian headdress rushed past security to take to the stage, dancing with each other while a surprised Palomo just went with the flow. Anything goes at Bonnaroo, and why not? It made for a good party.
• REGINA SPEKTOR
After seeing Regina Spektor perform, I have a total girl crush. Wearing her signature blood-red lipstick, Spektor chirped like a bird as she tickled the piano. Her bouncy tunes, mostly off her new album, Far, had (the mostly female audience) dancing. Spektor’s angelic voice is transfixing, and her performance was pitch perfect, but it was really her personally that smote me. Spektor had some problems with the tuning on her piano early on in the performance, but instead of being phased by the setback, she kept up a running dialogue of sweetly delivered jokes. When slipping up early on, she crowed, “How do you guys do it? My brain is fucked and I’ve only been here for like a few hours… You’re like heat superheroes!” Then when someone came on stage to tune her instrument mid-performance, Spektor meandered to the microphone at the front of the stage, “Hey, have you guys heard the one about Bonnaroo?” she giggled, “Just kidding. I don’t know any Bonnaroo jokes.” As amazing as it was to listen to the fully trained concert pianist deliver her springy pop tunes, I could have just as easily watched her adorable stand-up routine for an hour instead.
The last band I saw play Sunday night was Phoenix (deciding to forgo Dave Matthews for the prospect of civilization and hot showers), and there could not have been a better note for the festival to go out on than with the French electro-rockers. As the sun began to set, the dusky blues, vivid pinks, and brilliant oranges that painted the sky seemed to be reflected in the band’s bright keyboard-synth melodies. Playing most of the songs off their current album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the crowd went crazy as they opened with the yo-yoing “Listomania” and closed with “1901,” the popular single featured on a Cadillac commercial. With a panel of flashing lights behind them, Phoenix lit up the approaching darkness with their dazzling indie pop.
• THE NATIONAL
Possibly the best performers all weekend, The National were both epic in sound and 100% invested in their fans. Lead singer Matt Beringer interacted with the crowd, bantering with the audience in between songs and at one point offering wine from his own cup to those standing in front. Beringer managed to make the outdoor festival atmosphere intimate, as his dark voice serenaded thousands with ballads like “Fake Empire” and “Start A War.” Beringer also took a more hands-on role when backed by horns, violins, and massive guitars, as he bounded off the stage and ventured into the audience. Forging ahead blindly with his microphone, he danced, sang, and crowd-surfed with fans in the pit during “Squalor Victoria” and “Mr. November.” When performed live, the moody music of The National was heroic in scale, rivaling any of the more classic rock performances at Bonnaroo.
There are only a few things that can make me feel like a 13 year old again: the smell of the perfume I wore in middle school, looking at my collection of Jimmy Fallon posters, and listening to Weezer. During their Bonnaroo set, Weezer played el-scorching rock, especially with Blue Album favorites like “My Name is Jonas,” “Surf Wax America,” and “Say It Ain’t So,” with appropriately heavy guitars and lead singer Rivers Cuomo’s trapeze vocals. At age 40, however, Cuomo isn’t quite the picture of a rock star; his stilted, floppy Muppet moves gave him a childish quality that enhanced the band’s nerdy appeal. Yet as immature as Cuomo was, something for which he has been criticized in the past, I think I was even worse, screaming like an adolescent at an *NSYNC concert when the band launched into “Buddy Holly” for an encore.
• AZIZ ANSARI
Getting a ticket into the comedy tent was nearly impossible, which is why I missed Conan O’Brien, but seeing Aziz Ansari more than made up for it. Ansari’s relatable delivery and material made for an extremely funny routine during which he talked about an addiction to Wikipedia, dating troubles, and Twitter wars. For an encore, he came back on as crowd pleaser and original character Raaaaaaaady (yes, with eight As). The egomaniacal character, created on film in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, did impressions of himself receiving oral sex in different locations, but it was when he took audience suggestions that mockery turned to sage advice. When someone yelled out port-o-potty, Ansari quipped, “If a woman offers to suck your dick in a port-o-potty, do not put your penis anywhere near her mouth. That’s Raaaaaaaady’s Bonnaroo advice.” Wise words.
One of the most surreal sets all weekend was definitely Virginia metal band Gwar. Although I’m not big into the trash metal sound, when I heard Gwar was playing the festival with their theatrical anti-authority personas and bloodly stage show, I knew I had to see them. And they did not disappoint. The band of space aliens claimed they came to the earth in search of crack cocaine and, on their quest, managed to literally eviscerate famous pop culture figures such as Michael Jackson, President Obama, and a live Margaret Cho on stage. Getting the audience to chant “Margaret Cho is a ho,” the comedienne, who was performing in the comedy tent for the first two days of the festival, joined the band on stage and proceeded to fellate lead singer Oderus Urungus, being sprayed by… fluids. Gwar’s whole performance was messy, with tons of blood and guts spraying out onto the audience. They successfully managed to be totally inappropriate, whether it was showcasing lewd sex acts on stag (like the reanimated corpse of Michael Jackson penetrating a baby) or committing quite possibly treason when killing a doll representation of the President onstage in an effort to procure his crack. Obviously not for the faint of heart, Gwar can only be taken so seriously, and the nouveau-shock rockers definitely put on a good, albeit weird, show.
• THE AVETT BROTHERS
The Avett Brothers jangling country music and good ol’ boy harmonies were the perfect soundtrack for the Middle American farm, but it wasn’t until dark clouds rolled in overhead when the set became truly electrified. About halfway through their banjo strumming, it began to rain for the first time all weekend. As the drops pounded our bare shoulders, the fiddles took flight while sun-stroked concertgoers sprang up, clapping and do-si-do-ing to the music. The downpour, which only lasted about two songs, was one of the best moments of the festival, and though lightning never struck, there was an electric energy surging throughout the audience, as people began to shout out, “Hey, I’m finally taking a shower.” By adding one part folk harmonies and several drops of water, The Avett Brothers whipped up the tastiest old-fashioned Southern jamboree.