Backstage in South Florida: Lessons Learned from Bonnaroo

Lee and that guy Frank from "30 Rock" grooving at Bonnaroo
Lee and that guy Frank from "30 Rock" grooving at Bonnaroo
Photo by Alisa Cherry

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares observations, insights, and updates relating to South Florida's musical environs. This week, random thoughts about one of the greatest festivals ever.

My first visit to Bonnaroo continues to resonate days after those final notes from Phish began fading away. The shows were terrific, of course, but there are certain lessons I learned that have had an equally emphatic impact on my attitude, observations, and general thoughts about how music impacts our lives and fits into the general scheme of things. Here are a few revelations that come immediately to mind.

* Tennessee is a great place for Bonnaroo -- and really any music festival -- for a variety of reasons. The people are civil and genteel and always eager to assist. One evening, after an especially long afternoon, my wife Alisa was wandering the grounds when a young woman approached her and asked if she needed help finding her way. She was fine, but it was the thought that counts. It's also a great state for music, whether the destination is Nashville, Memphis, or the city where my wife and I will someday retire, Knoxville. In fact, the majority of our friends up there are musicians. And it's beautiful, what with its mountains, rivers, and sprawling expanse of green spaces.

Plus, unlike Florida which seems to run its roads based on greed, there's not a single toll booth to be found anywhere.

* I love the festival experience because it reminds me of that communal feeling music so often inspired back in the day. Everyone's there to have a great time and enjoy bands that are often difficult to catch outside the major music markets like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or L.A. We've been to several music festivals in recent years, and each has its own flavor and distinctive niche, but Bonnaroo is special due to its diversity. Where else can you find an event that gives headliner status to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice Cooper, Phish, Kenny Rogers, and the Shins, all in the span of a few days?

Of course, that wealth of riches brings its own challenges. Oftentimes, you find the bands you've most looked forward to seeing are playing simultaneously on competing stages, and since sets often tend to be shorter at festivals, a choice to see one act will necessarily preclude the possibility of seeing another. My greatest disappointment was the fact I missed Bon Iver, The Civil Wars, and Jack Bruce's new band Spectrum Road. It's hard to avoid this predicament at any festival, but it was especially acute at Bonnaroo. So many artists, so little time.

* I can now scratch this visit to Bonnaroo off my bucket list. Never mind I was older than many of my fellow festival-goers. Or that several people called me "sir." I got enough high-fives to make me feel included. And plenty of these too: "Bonaroooooooooooooooooo!!!!"

* The festival crowd is especially well-attuned to new music. Of course, it seems only natural that anyone inclined to be a fair aficionado would be a music obsessive as well. But what was surprising to me was that even the least-known artists seemed to have their loyal legions and core devotees. Who would think that someone like Robert Francis or War on Drugs would have people singing along and eagerly anticipating practically every song? Or that despite the multitude of venues, each would still be packed? You might find the Red Hot Chili Peppers' show attracting tens of thousands of people, but step over to a smaller stage to see We Are Augustines, and that show is jammed as well.

Likewise, there's little divide, be it due to age or genre. Kenny Rogers was shown a lot of love. The Beach Boys proved that the songs they first sung 45 years ago still rekindle those same good vibrations all these decades later. Alice Cooper, at age 65 still purveys his usual shtick, and it's still as entertaining as ever. Those acts, combined with the dozen of baby bands and the wide array of genres -- rap, bluegrass, modern rock, and classic rock, included -- made this particular festival as eclectic as any one could imagine.

* For all the good vibes and sweet sentiments that Bonnaroo embraces, there are plenty of greedy people still seemingly intent on exploiting that beautiful scenario to their advantage. Like the police department in a certain Georgia county that set up a string up speed traps, knowing their highway would be a popular route with festival attendees heading north from Florida. Easy money, especially considering that the average speeding ticket will net local authorities some $283 per victim. I should know, I was one of those they netted, even though at the time I was caught I was merely speeding up so I could shift out of the left lane.

Interestingly, there are no police on the Bonnaroo premises. And no one even identified as "Security." Those in charge are simply called "Safety."

Then there's the dubious pricing policy found at the hotels surrounding the festival, where management jacks up their rates by one or two hundred percent to cash in on the crowds. ("Seriously, $200 a night," I asked the clerk at the Super 8 where we were staying. "Is this just for folks going to Bonnaroo?" "Yes," she replied. People who were just passing through got charged the regular rate.)

* Festivals are both invigorating and exhausting. Festivals are exciting, and yet can also be intimidating. Festivals allow you to be yourself, but they can also make you feel part of a community. Festivals give pause for reflection, but they also place you in the midst of the masses. Festivals offer a chance to chill, but the trek from stage to stage can also provide a physical workout. Festivals allow you to gather your friends around you and make many more, if you're so inclined. In short, festivals can be whatever you want them to be.

Much like life itself.


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