Peace, love and mud at Bonnaroo
Gliding comfortably under the mainstream radar, the Bonnaroo Music Festival has become the most successful music festival of its kind, in its time. The third annual Bonnaroo, held last month on a 700-acre farm in rural Manchester, Tenn., 60 miles southeast of Nashville, drew a sell-out crowd of 90,000 people to see 80 bands.Often likened to the original Woodstock, Bonnaroo has been praised for its peaceful vibe, conscious approach to the environment (recycling and composting programs) and its boost to the economy of Coffee County, Tenn. (According to producers Superfly Productions, last year’s festival generated $11.2 million in regional revenue, and the festival donated over $80,000 to local causes.) The word Bonnaroo is Creole for “good times”; New Orleans music icon Dr. John titled a 1974 album “Desitively Bonnaroo.”This year’s Bonnaroo was heavy on jam-type bands, including The Dead, moe., Gov’t Mule and String Cheese Incident, but also included Bob Dylan, bluegrass act the Del McCoury Band, punk singer Patti Smith and Afro-beat singer Femi Kuti. There was a comedy tent. A Mardi Gras-style parade was led by “American Idol” star William Hung, who sang Ricky Martin’s “She Bang” and Elton John’s “Can’t You Feel the Love Tonight?” There was even a daily newspaper printed on-site, the Bonnaroo Beacon. (Sample headline: “Wetlands,” a reference to both the days of rain this year, and the defunct New York City music club, an early progenitor of the jam scene.) The closing act was Trey Anastasio, best-known as the frontman of Phish, whose opening set featured the backing of the Nashville Chamber Orchestra.Bryan Welker – Basalt resident and business owner, hard-core jam-band fan and cub photographer – attended this year’s Bonnaroo. Through the 80 acts and the two Saturday and Sunday rains, the 28-year-old Welker captured these images and relayed these thoughts about Bonnaroo 2004 to Aspen Times Arts Editor Stewart Oksenhorn.On the practicalities of photographing Bonnaroo: I started out with 30 bands I had to shoot. But logistically it was impossible just to get from one place to the next. A half-hour into the first day, I cut my list in half and just hoped I could even get to those bands. Plus, I was on vacation and wanted to hang out with my friends and my wife. It was a 15-minute trip from one stage to the next, and if you didn’t get to the photographers’ escort 15 minutes before the band started, you didn’t get to shoot. I ended up shooting 14 bands.On the layout of Bonnaroo: There are six stages – What Stage, Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent, the Other Tent and Another Tent – and two of them were huuuge main stages, about 8 feet off the ground. It takes away some of the intimacy from a show, especially for a photographer, when it’s that big.Favorite image: The Mud Kids. That captured the whole essence of Bonnaroo. It was Sunday afternoon. Everybody had been through a Friday of intense heat and humidity, and Saturday’s pouring rain turned it into a 500-acre mud pit. But it was the spirit of the Bonnaroo, these two kids. What do you do when someone throws you lemons? You make lemonade. When you’re surrounded by mud, you wallow in it and hug. You want to know what Bonnaroo 2004 is? It’s this.That shot could be Woodstock ’69. It’s nice to know that spirit is still alive, that the scene we all support gives something back to us.Words of wisdom for future Bonnaroovians: I had an RV with air conditioning and a shower. So the Mud Kids’ experience wasn’t my experience. My advice is if you do Bonnaroo, get an RV. If I had spent three days outside, I wouldn’t have been very happy.Favorite act: David Byrne, far and away. [The former Talking Heads frontman is scheduled to perform at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival in September.] I expected some old guy sitting there doing his old Talking Heads songs. Instead it was a professional musician and showman.On the overall vibe: I wasn’t at Woodstock. But did it feel like the hippie/peace/love movement vibe? Absolutely. If you look at Woodstock ’99, where there were kids looting and burning the grounds – that was never going to happen at Bonnaroo. People weren’t there to do that. [Bonnaroo 2004 was marred by two deaths, which have been tentatively linked to sweltering heat and drug use.] Chris Robinson [former Black Crows frontman, who appeared at Bonnaroo with his New Earth Mud] said at a news conference he was upset that police were randomly searching cars as they entered. The cops said they were looking for guns and explosives. Chris said, how many hippies do you know who carry guns and explosives?On Bonnaroo and the jam-band scene: There was a lot of talk about, “Is it getting to be where this is the mainstream, and is it going to become the ‘pop’ scene?” Bonnaroo is making a lot of money while the music business is struggling. The question was posed at a press conference, “How much longer can this go on? The jam-band scene has always been pretty much underground; can it stay that way?”But that wasn’t the feeling in the music, in the crowd, on the festival grounds. They made you feel like it’s not about the money. There’s free medical, free water. Once you bought your ticket to get in, you could get by on minimal money.Final thoughts: I have to say, the whole experience was overwhelming. There were so many bands. I think I prefer going to see one band at a time, so you can concentrate better. When we came back to Aspen and saw Medeski, Martin & Wood at the Jazz Aspen June Festival, I turned to my friend Aron, who had gone to Bonnaroo, and said, “Did you catch these guys at Bonnaroo?” He looked at me and said, “These guys were at Bonnaroo?” That sums it up.I don’t think I could go back. I’m glad I experienced it.The kids in tents – I don’t know how they did it.
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Snowmass Tourism’s Allie and Sara walk us through the rest of the year’s events in Snowmass Village.