Radiohead and Revelation in Tennessee
Everything in its right place.
That was the shared feeling among a sea of some 80,000 assembled hippies, hipsters, freaks, fresh-faced college kids and free spirits on a muggy Saturday night last month while watching Radiohead in a cow pasture in Tennessee.Even Radiohead’s erratic lead singer, Thom Yorke – a man who at times views his fame as if it is a contagious virus – was having fun.”Now this is what I call a festival,” a grinning Yorke bellowed into the microphone in the middle of the band’s two-hour-plus, 28-song set. Indeed, the fifth Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival – by all accounts – was the music happening of the year. The four-day event in tiny Manchester, Tenn., brought in a reported $15.2 million – making it the top-grossing musical festival in the world.
Bonnaroo also boasted the most diverse lineup of any domestic festival this summer, shedding its niche status as a jam-band gathering with an eclectic lineup that included more than 80 major artists from all avenues of music.There were still plenty of jam bands to be seen, most notably moe, Phil Lesh & Friends and Oysterhead, featuring former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. But there was also a little bit of everything for everyone else.
In one day alone, it was possible to see quick-witted Chicago rapper Common, Seattle emo rockers Death Cab for Cutie, contemporary bluegrass stars Nickel Creek and rock legend Tom Petty. Still, before this year’s festival, a number of skeptics wondered whether the Bonnaroo experiment would work. Would Deadheads dig Radiohead? Would New York hipsters mesh with folksy southern-fried hippies?Myself, I was skeptical about other things – primarily whether it was really worth $500 to fly to Nashville in the middle of June to camp on a 700-acre farm with 80,000 other souls and poop in Port-a-Potties for four days straight. But I digress.
We converged from all points across the map. My college roommate Dan drove from Raleigh, N.C., his Subaru packed to its brim with a tent, coolers, chairs, blankets and food. Sara, another college friend, and her boyfriend Nate – a drummer in a band – drove down from Minneapolis with a grill, a camp stove, two more tents and more coolers. Another college friend, Julie, flew in from Connecticut after getting the weekend off from her nursing position at a summer camp.Sara and Dan – the resident music freaks of the group – cooked up the idea for the trip back in January when it was confirmed that Radiohead would headline the festival. We’d originally planned to go to the Kentucky Derby as a group for three days of gonzo revelry – but, as Dan said to me on the phone, this was Radiohead. This was the world’s most interesting live band, earlier rumored to be splitting up this past year, making their only festival appearance in the U.S. this summer. This might be the greatest show of our lives – possibly, our generation’s Woodstock.Plus Beck would be in Tennessee. And Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket – my favorite new band. I bought my plane ticket without thinking twice.
On the road into the Bonnaroo grounds on Thursday, we received a subtle reminder that we were still embedded in the heart of Bush country. Inside the main gates lay a sprawling tent city where hits of acid and bong rips could be used as currency, and women walked around in the open with only stickers covering their nipples.Outside, however, a young boy and his father were passing out what looked to be maps for the festival grounds but were actually pamphlets denouncing the festivities that would take place over the next four days.”God is watching you!” the packet read. “He sees all that you do, and when the time comes he will banish all sinners to the fires of hell. He will cast judgment on all of you!”
Or, something like that.Sara ripped up the packet, laughing.Once inside, the outside world – and all its rules, whether God’s or someone else’s – disappeared. Helicopters and small planes from nearby Nashville flew overhead during the festival’s four days, but they might as well have been from Guam. Garbage trucks picked up mounds of trash and left, but to where? There was no reason to care about what was going on outside those gates. What was going on inside was much more interesting. In the tents, we were the lucky ones – the fortunate souls with tickets to a utopia where everyone had been stripped of class status. The only people with more social capital were the musicians themselves.
As for the logistics that go into creating such a place, it’s befuddling. Bonnaroo, as best as I can describe it, is Woodstock – planned with military precision. None of the assembled legion of Port-a-Potties ever overflowed, at least to my knowledge. Stations for potable water, ice and hot showers were everywhere, as were medical tents, and general stores for basic necessities like bread, sunscreen and frozen pizzas. There was even a cinema, a broadband Internet village, an arcade and a coffee shop serving iced lattes.Even more surprising, we had an actual address during our stay in Manchester: Camp R2D2, located between West First Street and West Fifth on the festival’s grid of dirt roads. We were only a quarter-mile from the concert grounds and a 50-yard stroll to a cluster of Port-a-Potties. Our neighbors included a group of kids from New Jersey, who covered Elliot Smith songs – poorly – every morning on their guitars while they ate breakfast; a hippy from Kentucky, who brought his girlfriend and a batch of T-shirts to sell; and a group of college-age boys with a community bong but no toilet paper.
On Friday, it seemed like the prophecies from the packet the day earlier were coming true. Temperatures soared into the 90s in the midafternoon, with no cloud cover in sight. The humidity was unrelenting. Watching pianist Ben Folds – the witty, upbeat frontman of former alternative band Ben Folds Five – play in a packed field at the height of the afternoon, with no respite from the scorching sun overhead, I thought I might melt into the Earth.But, as became a common theme throughout the weekend, sacrifices had to be made.I traded 2 pounds of sweat to hear Folds do a hilarious cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” (“Dre did the lyrics; I wrote the music,” Folds joked). I clutched my bladder for an uncomfortably long hour just so I could see Nickel Creek perform up close. And I fought hunger pangs during Death Cab for Cutie’s searing set through favorites, both old and new.I also withstood an aching back and tired feet to catch most of Petty’s set – with special guest Stevie Nicks – then pushed on to see My Morning Jacket, followed by Common, who didn’t take the stage until nearly 2 in the morning.
Expectations for Radiohead had quintupled by the time the group was set to take the stage at 8:30 on Saturday night. With no other groups scheduled to play during their headlining block of time, and with nearly all of Bonnaroo assembled to see what was promised to be the festival’s pinnacle, the anticipation was smothering. Literally.As soon as Radiohead walked onstage, there was a surge from the back of the crowd that rolled to the front like a cresting wave. People squeezed into every remaining pocket of space left to be found on the trampled field, pulled by a force too powerful to escape.Yorke and mates Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway didn’t buckle under the pressure. Although, as sequestered as Radiohead remains as a band, who knows whether they even felt the collective weight hanging in the air? Maybe it was just humidity to them – just another gig, another sea of faces. Maybe they weren’t aware that the Bonnaroo experiment still hung in the balance.
Yorke’s candid, rousing comments – “We love you, too!” – pointed to the contrary, but who knows?The only thing of which I was certain after the greatest show of my life was this: The man and his young son on the side of the road had it wrong. They were, in fact, two exits past wrong. We’re all sinners. Every last one of us. But a cow pasture a sinner’s paradise? The portal to the fires of hell?
No. Not even close.Bonnaroo is none of those things. It’s much closer to heaven.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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