"I have never been to a festival that was this disorganized," remarked the young man sitting across a cluttered table in the canvas tent that served as a press conference room. Power cables spidered out from a haphazard assortment of power strips and surge protectors tapped into whichever electrical outlets were still live as reporters tried in vain to post blog items on the underpowered Wi-Fi signal.
His complaint was that, after making his way from Brooklyn to Manchester, Tennessee, he had to spend $8 on a few cents' worth of eggs, tortilla and cheese, but it applied to countless other inconveniences.
It was a surprising lack of hospitality, but it forced us to adapt—and that disorganization and improvisation is what makes Bonnaroo what it is: four days of peace, love, music and anarchy.
Bonnaroo began in 2002 as an enormous jam-band festival, but has expanded its appeal to mainstream rock fans and discerning indie-rockers. This year's festival seemed evenly divided between mainstream fare, indie-rock and jam-band shit. Wilco blurred the lines between the three, indulging themselves with plenty of Nels Cline's wiry, dissonant soloing. And while they played several favorites from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—the album that best showcased Jay Bennett's multi-instrumental studio wizardry—singer Jeff Tweedy made no mention of the recently deceased former bandmate. None that I heard, anyway, although I missed a few songs because I couldn't pull myself away from Of Montreal's set of trippy space-disco rock once I got close enough to enjoy the bizarrely costumed dancers.
Another highlight was David Byrne's amazing, career-spanning set, accompanied by a white-clad, instrument-switching band and choreographed dancers. Hearing thousands singing along with "Once in a Lifetime" was a magical moment. The jam-band vibes seemed to rub off on some unlikely suspects; the Beastie Boys set was full of funky instrumental noodling and reinterpretations of the band's hits, with new samples, riffs and rhymes to freshen up the classics.
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For me, the biggest disappointment was Bruce Springsteen's Saturday set. I'm no superfan, but I respect him and love some of his songs. But even though it was my first Boss show, those rote stage moves like sharing the mic with Little Stevie were just tired. A close second? Raphael Saadiq, who also performed Saturday, but spent more time exhorting the crowd to make some noise than actually singing; his band sounded great, but would have sounded even better if they didn't stretch out the ending of every song in a cheap bid for applause.
Later that night, though, Nine Inch Nails provided a welcome dark counterpoint with a smoke- and strobe light-bathed set of malevolent industrial arena-rock, heavy on the old-school songs and closing with "Hurt." MGMT's melodic and fun set of dance-pop was also a hit—and surprisingly packed considering it didn't start until 2:15 a.m.
For better and for worse—but mostly for better—the jam band-oriented, freethinking, anti-authoritarian neo-hippie vibe remains, even as Bonnaroo draws non-hippies. It's evident in the campgrounds, where strangers befriend each other over shared beers and joints, blaring music and randomly firing off bottle rockets. It's evident when a security guard finds a marijuana pipe in your pocket during a pat-down, hands it back and says, "Just keep moving." It's evident when Snoop Dogg leads the crowd in a hearty chant of "Fuck the police!" and follows it a few songs later with the closing sentiment that "All you need is peace and love," without seeming incongruent.
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If anything, the "Fuck the police!" chant felt unnecessary; in fact, the police were hardly seen in the festival grounds. Coffee County sheriff's officers sat on ATVs near entrances, but only watched the stream of people walking to and from the concert, a weird parade almost as entertaining as the music. Mounted police patrolled the roads leading to the camping areas, but kept a respectful distance from the tents. I never saw a single officer bully anyone to assert his or her authority. The cops I did see seemed well aware that hassling people with penny-ante charges would only create a hostile environment—and ultimately cause far more harm than good.
I couldn't help but think of how different things would be if a similar event were held in Dallas.
On our way home, we stopped in Memphis for barbecue at a joint on Beale Street, where bars sold 32-ounce beers in to-go cups. It made me wonder how much livelier Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville would be if the TABC and police and residents' associations didn't try to prohibit people from doing what they go to those areas to do. By contrast, we've revoked private property owners' right to let their guests smoke, given police the authority to strap us down to draw blood, created teen curfews and put up police cameras on every street corner. Hell, we've sent SWAT teams to bust up poker games. Yet elsewhere in the South, a city can sell enormous beers right on the street without collapsing. And 80,000 people can overrun a farm for four days to enjoy music, chaos and each other's company.
It was disorganized, sure. Dirty, hot and lawless too. But I wouldn't have it any other way.