For the first time in his life, Beatcomber is running without anybody chasing him. About a month ago, he trotted around his neighborhood heart trail, dismayed at the lung butter he coughed up and the strange euphoria that arose from the exertion. He's as shocked as you are that it's become a regular routine.
He had no idea, though, that all the exercise was inadvertent training for Bonnaroo, the fourth-annual, three-day, live music marathon in the Tennessee hills that wrapped up last Sunday. Beatcomber was warned the festival was an exhausting to-do. "Going to Bonnaroo is like getting a job," one well-wisher said with fear in his eyes. Ouch. So now the 'Comb is reporting to you in no exaggerated terms: People, this shit is like boot camp with a soundtrack.
Of course, it's the soundtrack that deserves emphasis, because anybody can tolerate anything for three days for a payoff this good. Wet weather, foul-smelling muck, and late-night Porta-Potty nightmares forced the 80,000 kids who swarmed Bonnaroo to work hard to have fun. But no rain, no gain, and the muddier it got, the more intent most were on making the experience a great one. Opportunities abounded across the festival's 700 acres -- from a disco arcade where you could bust a move while high-scoring on Dig Dug to a silent, headphones-only dance party to an interactive sonic sculpture garden to a comedy stage with laughmakers like Jim Breuer, Charlie Murphy, and Fred Armisen. Installation art, impromptu parades, several cafés, a microbrew tent, batting cages, and an open-air marketplace also kept people busy.
Of course, the 80 musical acts on the roster were a bonus too.
Though Bonnaroo is popularly known as a "jam band" festival, the savvy fan could easily have navigated between the two enormous outdoor stages and three massive tents -- along with smaller stages, 11 venues total -- without getting smacked by a single noodle. Hip-hop acts the Perceptionists and De La Soul, electronica artists the Brazilian Girls and Mouse on Mars, and DJs RjD2 and Krush commanded large crowds during the weekend, pointing to the evolution of the post-Phish scene as listeners open to other interests.
Bonnaroo promoters recently flopped with the Zooma Tour, a nationally traveling jam fest featuring former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio that was scrapped because of poor ticket sales. Still, expectations were high for Anastasio's Which Stage appearance on Saturday, which made its utter failure an even bigger buzzkill. After Anastasio leeched all the joy out of the Beatles' Abbey Road-ending suite -- "Golden Slumbers," "Carry That Weight," etc. -- he sheepishly invited American Idol second-fiddle Bo Bice to the stage. Bice played David Lee Roth for a cornball cover of Van Halen's "Panama," and the audience of some 10,000 Anastasio acolytes -- they'll half-joke that they're "gay for Trey" -- seemed stunned, even offended, at their shepherd's embarrassingly low standards.
Meanwhile, several thousand other Roogoers were relishing an opposite reaction a half-mile away at the Other Tent, getting their heads exploded by bombastic New York trio Secret Machines' massive space-rock and blinding light show. Along with art-rockers the Mars Volta, the Machines were one of many less traditional, anti-jam bands that highlighted the weekend. Both plied a psychedelic sound heavily influenced by early Pink Floyd and the more intricate, darker side of Led Zeppelin. But where Mars Volta was a high-intensity pressure cooker of manic guitars, wiry wailing, and hurricane rhythms, Secret Machines unfurled expansive soundscapes through measured restraint and simple, layered repetition.
Their show at Revolution on August 16 -- opening for Kings of Leon, the radio-rocking pop band that had throngs of barefoot hippie chicks jumping during their Saturday-afternoon set -- should be the local live music highlight of the summer. Or maybe that prize will go to the Volta/System of a Down doubleheader the following night.
But Mars Volta and Secret Machines weren't the only polarized performers of the weekend. Shuttling from the baby bird chirp of Joanna Newsom -- her solo set with a beat-up harp was one of the weekend's ballsiest -- to the Drive-By Truckers' shit-kicking, whiskey-swilling rawkout was a weird thrill. And seeing smooth popster John Mayer playing guitar in jazz legend Herbie Hancock's Headhunters 2005 would've been surreal if it didn't work so damn well. "It's not jamming; it's performing," Mayer told reporters of his on-stage interactions with Hancock.
Miami indie-folker Sam Beam also knew to differentiate between the two. His band, Iron and Wine, sported a couple of extra musicians to beef up its tranquil sound. "I'm gonna ride in on a unicorn," he joked earlier about roping in the volume-hungry crowd. Surprisingly, he didn't have to. The several thousand at his set at That Tent -- probably his biggest crowd ever -- swayed silently as Beam's quiet intensity held them enthralled and a single firefly bobbed over his head.
How many miles did Beatcomber walk between stages? How many bands did he see? How many beers, cocktails, shots, cigarettes, and, um, other stuff did he consume? After a dizzying three days, it's impossible to keep count. Right now, just typing is a monumental effort. And, of course, it's all worth it. Boot Camp Bonnaroo is one of those serious physical struggles that reaps unforgettable psychological rewards from unexpected places. If you can't have fun at the 'Roo, your attitude is way out of shape. Hit the gym and Beatcomber will see you there next year.
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