At some point during last week's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, everybody did the zombie walk. After days of drug-amplified dehydration and exhaustion, the zombie walker shuffles forward, eyes and mouth half-open, often leaning to one side and stumbling a few steps while allowing the weight of a backpack or water jug to carry him/herself toward whatever destination the reptilian brain has chosen.
Here, the destinations were plentiful and loud--the wife and I heard more than a dozen great acts, with highlights such as Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint sharing a stage, Sonic Youth's fierce improvisation and My Morning Jacket's awe-inspiring psychedelic Southern rock (the colors, man!). We fought our way to within 50 yards of the stage for Beck's loose and fun puppet-augmented set, then held our ground for the highlight of our year: Radiohead. As hurled glowsticks arced through the night sky, the packed crowd went nuts over two and a half hours of anthems such as "The Bends" and "Karma Police" and new songs such as "Arpeggi"--and would've gladly taken two and a half hours more.
Perhaps the most surreal attraction was the NBA Finals' fifth game in the cinema tent, where filthy, Caucasian-dreadlocked revelers squatted to watch hoops on a pristine DLS projection screen. The Miami-loving crowd began a "Heat in six!" chant after the final buzzer--perhaps it proved the existence of telepathic phenomenon sometimes reported in hallucinogenic drug experience.
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In spite of my Mavs allegiance, the communal experience was as meaningful as the music. Bonnaroo began as a jam-band circle jerk, but this year's festival included many noodle-free dishes. That diversity could have been tense, with 80,000 fans from very different rock subcultures gathering in 90-degree heat for four days without showers. But during our burial in chalky dirt, the grit wore down our soft flab and sanded our rough edges. We emerged and saw ourselves for what we were: a tribe of walking dust, a caravan of spice traders, witch doctors, glass blowers, musicians and spoiled college douchebags. United by the experience, we trickled off the trampled fields by RV, junker car, SUV and, of course, zombie walk.