By Ryan Hadfield
It had been a long day in what would be an even longer weekend. “Blake Griffin! Nice uni, man,” a girl in her young 20s with brunette hair said to my buddy Ross. “Thanks,” he replied. She squeezed by him, then me, and snarkily admitted, “Actually, I just said that so I could get by you.”
“Well, 'Excuse me,' could have worked too,” I thought to myself out loud. Nearby, an older man in his 40s laughed in approval. Normally, I would feel vindicated by the support, but then again, normally,I’m not around grown men wearing rainbow-colored snuggies. Alas, we had arrived. We were at Bonnaroo.
The four-day music festival held in Manchester, Tennessee is in its 12th year of existence. While 90 percent of the artists are described as “indie rock” bands on their Wikipedia pages, the festival has a wide appeal. There are rappers, comedians, DJ's, soft rock bands, goth-rock groups, pop artists, and even special screenings of unreleased movies (Kristin Bell was on-hand for an exclusive premiere of her new movie, Hit And Run). Let’s put it this way: Alice Cooper, Kenny Rogers, and the Beach Boys played at the same festival as Ludacris, The Roots, and Dispatch. Eclectic doesn't even begin to describe the scope Bonnaroo had to offer.
Covering Bonnaroo was a lot like watching the television show The Wire, not because of the ubiquitous drug use (although that is a commonality of both entities), but because Bonnaroo is a field trip into a world I knew existed, but never had experienced.
So, I grabbed my buddy a press pass and we drove 15 hours, propped up a tent, and soaked the festival in. Here are six takeaways detailing impressions from The Farm.
Any story needs a setting, and Bonnaroo's is on a farm, which sounds pristine, but truth be told, is actually medieval. Being on The Farm with no cell phone reception and 80,000 people trying to access the WI-FI connection makes a concert-goer appreciate how far we've come as a society. And if that doesn't do it, we can all agree that consciously instructing yourself not to look down while using porta-potties for four straight days will.
The snarky demeanor in the beginning of this review fails to epitomize the communal atmosphere at ‘Roo. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not hopping on Facebook and tossing friend requests anyone's way, but I could see how people connect through their time at The Farm together.
Upon arrival, Ross and I slapped our tent together, and noticed one of our neighbors, Jamma, was having difficulty getting his set up. Another neighbor, Shane, came by and spent a half hour helping him out, Ross and I chipped in too, and a third party offered their spare tent to use for the weekend when we realized Jamma was missing a few pieces. No one is winning a humanitarian award here, but still: seeing people-helping-people is always refreshing.
...Hierarchy of Rappers
This year's lineup featured three rappers at very different stages of their careers. Kendrick Lamar, who performed opening night, is Dr. Dre’s next protégé, and his first studio album set to be released in the next few months.
Any time Dre introduces a phenom, anticipation broils in the rap community like they're are a group of single 33-year-old women gearing up for a Real Housewives marathon. His history grooming successful artists speaks for itself and includes both Snoop Dogg and Eminem. (The sports equivalent of this would be if Bill Belichick mentored Peyton Manning before TMZ Tom Brady took over the helm for the Flying Elvis.) Lamar came as advertised, delivering a solid performance, but there was something missing.
Two days later, Childish Gambino (aka actor Donald Glover; double-aka Troy from Community) performed in front a massive crowd. Gambino’s set was better than Lamar’s, but again, something was missing. (Or maybe, whenever he rapped about doing drugs or having orgies, I couldn’t help but wonder if Abed would be involved).
The Friday between these two sets, I pinpointed what these two rappers were without, and it came from an unlikely source – Ludacris. To say Luda Nation was in full effect is like saying social media is gaining steam. Ludacris garnered a massive audience while playing at one of the smaller stages, and while the other rappers spent the better part of their sets touting that they were “the best in the game,” Luda’s intent was to simply entertain. He proved that letting songs speak for themselves exemplifies real confidence. He played a medley of the 56 singles (a rough estimate) he’s made cameos on in the last decade, then ripped off a few of his own gems such as “Moneymaker” and “Roll Out.” I have nothing to add except: Do you, Luda. Do you.
…Decisions and Omissions
Part of what makes this country great is the freedom of choice, and I make a lot of dumb choices with that liberty. Friday night, I enjoyed a vigorous set from Foster the People, but little did I know, it came at the cost of watching Radiohead. Technically speaking, I saw Radiohead, which is to say I was in the same half-mile radius as the band while renowned singer Thom Yorke belted out his cathartic lyrics.
The following night, I caught the first half of Dispatch, looked over to Ross, who pointed at his watch, and we accordingly bolted over to the main stage to position ourselves for The Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's a weird give and take -- you win some and you lose some -- that's part of any good lineup, and ultimately, sacrifices have to be made. So, I missed Dispatch perform “The General," a song that without fail, legions of college students drunkenly recite at keggers a few hours before making terrible decisions, but that allowed me to witness....
...The virtuoso of all virtuoso performances: The Red Hot Chili Peppers
We've all been there: You're at a show, everything is golden, the band is delivering the goods and suddenly the lead singer peers out to the sea of people and says one of the following: 1.) “Alright, for those who supported us since day one, we're going to play a few old jams!” 2.) “I think it's time to unveil some of the new stuff we just finished writing!”
Look, there's nothing wrong with either option. The first rewards fans for appreciating an artist's entire catalog, and the second is usually an exciting preview of what's coming up in the band's future. Far be it for me to be critical, but each option alienates the middle man to some degree. And although it's the band's prerogative to play what they want, there is something to be said for leaving the obscure and novel behind, and staying in your lane. That's what the Red Hot Chili Peppers did during their headlining set at Bonnaroo Saturday night.
The Chili Peppers played hit after hit (after hit). The two-hour set was devoid of a let down. “Give It Away,” “Scar Tissue,” “Under the Bridge,” “By The Way” – you name it, they played it (the sole omission being “Soul to Squeeze” which personally killed me, but whatever). It felt like the newly-inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famers were at the intersection of contemporary relevance and appreciated longevity, which made them perfect candidates to headline ‘Roo.
More impressive was the widespread satisfaction evidenced by the gleeful expressions of the audience as they dispersed. And this makes sense, the Chili Peppers' sound is tailored for the average Bonnaroo attendee. In short, they're musical savants with a unique style that (somehow) still appeals to a universal audience. So while Flea flashed his improvisation skills on bass in between songs, fans patiently waited because they knew the payoff was coming with one of the Chili Peppers’ hits.
The trajectory of a musician's career is difficult to read. Unlike other forms of entertainment (like sports or acting), an artists' precipice is tough to foresee just as their ascent is impossible to predict. You never know when the creative gene will dissipate, but what's remarkable about the Chili Peppers is that I'm not sure if they've even reached their prime.
...Skrillex and the Silent Disco
After the Chilis dominated my ears for 120 minutes, I tried consuming DJ Skrillex. It was loud, bright, and scary. The set reminded me of the opening scene of Blade (fast forward to the 1:15 mark), right down the fact that I’m certain there were vampires present.
I decided to stroll over the silent disco. What is a silent disco, you ask? Well, they give you a set of headphones that are connected to the live DJ playing, and you dance with others. It’s totally strange from the outside view, but completely glorious. And remember, as ridiculous as it looks, we’re at the same place where dudes in their 40s are wearing Barney pajamas. By nature, weirdness is just another day at Bonnaroo.
(Note: For a full breakdown of the musical sets, check out the review from Consequence of Sound, which I contributed to.)
Photos by Ryan Hadfield. Top: Ludacris amps up the crowd. Middle: Childish Gambino. Bottom: Inside the silent disco tent.
About Ryan -- Ryan Hadfield is a writer for WEEI.com, predominantly covering the Boston Celtics and hosting a media podcast. He is currently working on his first book,The 25th Year: 12 Months of Suspect Choices and Strange Events. Follow him on Twitter@R_Hadfield.
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