My First Bonnaroo: Day Two of My Daily Diary

Lee and Alisa: Still Bonnaroo virgins
Lee and Alisa: Still Bonnaroo virgins
Photo by Alisa Cherry

It's day two here at Bonnaroo.

And I don't feel like getting out of bed this morning...

I'm already exhausted, but we have our first full day of Bonnaroo ahead of us. So we duly arise and head to the press tent for a basic introductory course on the dos and don'ts of press etiquette, as conducted by the good folks from Big Hassle Media, who, contrary to what their name implies, do everything possible to ensure our attendance is hassle-free.

Unfortunately, they can't prevent an internet outage that continues to plague not only the media folks but the entire area, it seems. Ah, but one can't fight Mother Nature or, for that matter, modern technology. And who says we live in an age of instant communication? Not the folks of Manchester, Tennessee, that's for sure.

Our official orientation also provides us with some impressive statistics -- as well as an appropriate pep talk -- all focusing on the inherent attraction of Tennessee. There's great music, fascinating history, and beautiful scenery. We're told that attendance at Bonnaroo elevates it to the state's seventh-largest city with some 80,000 people in attendance. More on that later.


Shahidah Omar
Shahidah Omar
Photo by Alisa Cherry

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Happily, we're here to enjoy the music -- all kinds of music, beginning with Shahidah Omar, whom we find at the Miller tent, weaving an exotic blend of soul, ethereal arrangements, and rousing anthems, all at a fevered pace. Her multi-octave voice soars to a high register, and despite a relatively sparse crowd, she's greeted enthusiastically by all in attendance. One song in particular, "Stop the War," resonates well with the crowd, its title a clarion call reinforced by a mighty surge that only heightens as it reaches its thundering climax. There seems little doubt that more will be heard from Omar as the weeks and months go by.

By the way, it turns out that her husband is J.B. Smoove, the guy who plays Larry David's crazy sidekick on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he's clearly visible videotaping the entire performance. One can only imagine that next season on Curb, we'll find him saying something like, "Hey, Larry, you got to see this lady. She's hot, Larry. Yes she is! I'm telling you, Larry, she's something else!"

We next venture over to catch the Dirty Guv'nahs, local favorites from nearby Knoxville, who perform a rousing mix of Southern soul and rugged retro rock that sounds like vintage Exile on Main Street, with a Hammond organ providing era authenticity. Several songs stand out: "Halfway to Birmingham," "3000 Miles Between Us," and a heartfelt take on "Angel From Montgomery" that gives John Prine's original rendition a run for its money. Honest to goodness, y'all! A pair of topless women can be spotted up-close to the stage, no doubt giving the Guv'nahs extra incentive to provide a great performance, leading me to keep my eyes on the stage despite my inclinations to do otherwise.

We grab a bit of lunch and sit at one of several tables strategically placed around the site for extra convenience. A nice lady of Japanese heritage asks if she can sit with us and immediately strikes up a conversation. She begins by raving about Coachella, which she recently attended and where she says she caught the Buzzcocks, whom she couldn't stop swooning over. She also remarked that Bonnaroo seemed much more inclusive agewise. At Coachella, they were all barely out of college, it seemed, she insists. "Yes, I'm barely out of college myself," I reply, wondering if she'll notice our own age divide. She lets my remark pass without comment. After all, the Japanese are noted for their exceptional manners.

The Infamous Stringdusters
The Infamous Stringdusters
Photo by Alisa Cherry

The Infamous Stringdusters have remained a personal favorite ever since we first saw them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival several years back. On day two of Bonnaroo, they rocked the Other Tent (yes, Bonnaroo venues are given simple, descriptive names that still allow for confusion) and put on a show that equated to one continuous burst of effusive bluegrass energy. A six-man band that uses old-time instruments such as dobro, banjo, stand-up bass, and fiddle, they're frenzied and ebullient beyond compare. "It's quite a phenomenon, this string-band thing," they suggest. "We don't know exactly what it is, but we're happy to be part of it." And part of it they are, trading licks and leads with a frenzy that's truly dazzling, inspiring an enthusiasm that's shared between artists and audience. An all-too-brief set includes several standouts, "Power of Love" and "Get It While You Can," among them. Not so coincidentally, those two titles seem to sum up their show as a whole.

Katie Herzig
Katie Herzig
Photo by Alisa Cherry

Part of the challenge at Bonnaroo is navigating the distance between venues, which, due to its sprawling size, provides an extra level of difficulty when it comes to catching all the acts as intended. We made a strategic decision to exit the Other Tent and return to the Miller Stage to see Katie Herzig, another favorite of ours from a past Cayamo Cruise a couple of years back. Here, she proved as enticing as ever, using a deft four-person backup band for her slightly left-of-center fare. A version of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" proved dazzling indeed, each of her two female accompanists perfectly replicated the various vocal effects that accompanied the original. "You guys are so adventurous for being here," Herzig says, referring to her girl-group harmonies and quirky arrangements that still manage to rock to a real crescendo. Happily, the Miller Stage proved easily accessible in terms of getting up-close and personal. Aside from the fact that it offers giant cushions and comfortable wooden lawn chairs, it's far easier to get a stage-side vantage position. Consequently, any act that plays there is bound to be an easy choice.

Sam Bush
Sam Bush
Photo by Alisa Cherry

Then again, Bonnaroo is all about choices, given the number of acts and the fact that so many of them play on competing stages simultaneously. And one has to realize that despite all the planning and strategy initially concocted, in practice, it's going to be impossible to catch everyone that we want to catch. It won't even be close. Not by a long shot.

Still, Sam Bush is a must-see, given that we first witnessed him at Telluride, and indeed this Telluride vet seems to generate as much adulation here as he did there. Tennessee is his home state, after all, and while he might have been offered a smaller stage here at Bonnaroo, there's little doubt he still rules the roost. Curiously, he started his set with what sounded like a kind of Celtic stomp before launching into a series of extended instrumentals that dazzled with changes of tone, time, and texture. Most fittingly, however, the high point of his set was his tribute to the late Earl Scruggs, to whom he dedicated an exceptionally spirited take of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Likewise, three originals -- "Love You Forever," "Ride That Bluegrass Train," and "How Did We Get This Far?" provided some surprisingly reflective interludes prior to his unlikely but surprisingly effective cover of "Norwegian Wood." Who would have thought?

That's when our plans went awry. Alisa joins the photo contingent to shoot pictures of the upcoming Avett Brothers show. Being that the band is another of our favorites, I venture off to get a good vantage point in the pit to the left of the "Which" stage. By the way, the similarity between the stage names can be confusing. After all, the Which Tent boasts a giant illuminated question mark above it, leading most people to initially believe it was the "What" stage. Consequently, I'm still confused. Which is not What, and What is where the Avett Brothers were playing. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that until a band called Afrocubism finished its set about half an hour into what was supposed to be the Avetts' show, and only then did I realize I was in the wrong locale. Happily, though, the mistake gave me an inadvertent opportunity to see a band I might not have otherwise opted to enjoy, a big band that lives up to its name through its fusion of world rhythms, hypnotic melodies, and an enduring enthusiasm that captures the hearts and delight of its young audience.

"Bonnaroo!" one young lady exclaimed, giving me a high five. Indeed, that's the kind of festival this is, one that makes the good vibes all but impossible to resist... Or, for that matter, to get caught up in.

Unfortunately, that energy can also be a stumbling block when it comes to getting close to the stage where I found the Avetts well into their performance. Gone are the days when they were semi-accessible. Now they're playing the same place the Red Hot Chili Peppers will hold court tomorrow night, and the possibility of getting any closer than what seemed a good half-mile away is all but dashed from the get-go. This proved to be my single biggest disappointment of the festival, and there's no way I'm consoled by watching their set on the giant screens either. I pause to hear -- hear and not see -- a couple of Avett favorites, at least as much as I can make out from my distant vantage point, and then retreated to the safe haven of the media area to contemplate my next move.

At this point, I'd lost Alisa. I had no idea where she'd alight after her photo duties, and I had no way of catching up to her even if I did know. Cell phone service was spotty at best, and my phone was dying anyway. Not that she would hear her phone ring. What's more, my texts weren't going through either. I figure she'll return to home base here at the media center, but I have no way of knowing for sure. Losing my mind is one thing. Losing my wife is quite another.

After an hour or so of pacing between the media tent and the media trailer, Alisa eventually showed up. We hugged... Repeatedly... And then planned our next move. Alisa made the decision we should catch Feist, and here again, it seemed the better part of Bonnaroo had made the same decision. Feist obliged the sprawling crowd by beginning her set rocking out on guitar, thrashing away to the sole accompaniment of her drummer like a female Jack White in full throttle. Despite her soulful singing, she turned out to be way more rocking than on record and far more feisty (pardon the pun) as well.

"People in the back," she shouted. "Are you just eating funnel cakes, or are you watching the show? Those of you in the middle, are you just passing through and trying to decide if you'll stay? You, the dedicated ones up-close... Thanks for coming!" She received a rousing response from a crowd she's clearly captured early on, and indeed, her performance became one of the most rousing events of the afternoon.

Of course, when you have a crowd of 80,000 people, rousing would seem to be the operative word anyway. No stage, no matter how small, fails to draw a crowd, and the larger venues draw massively, even when there's a divide between two or more headliners. As we stumbled through the masses, the number of Bonnaroo attendees seemed to have grown exponentially. "Where did all these people come from?" we wondered aloud. Indeed, we seemed stuck in a human traffic jam of massive proportions with no escape in sight.

Still, Bonnaroo isn't as much about the music as it is about the experience, or so I surmise. As a result, we opted to return to the Miller Tent, where we knew we could at least be afforded a measure of comfort. Besides, Sara Watkins was playing there, and given her low-key ambiance (she plays fiddle to the sole accompaniment of her brother Sean on guitar), it gave us an opportunity to chill for a while. Her show was stripped-down to the max, which makes her take on "I Remember You" especially poignant.

In truth, it was the most laid-back gig we'll see at Bonnaroo, not a bad thing considering the frenetic pace of the preceding afternoon. And Alisa was feeling ill as well, an unfortunate turn of circumstance, as it forced us to miss Radiohead, the evening's headliner. Then again, the question of proximity might have eliminated that possibility to begin with. We made Foster the People our final concert of the night, their polished pop and professional posturing providing another diverse entertainment option. To me, they sounded like a throwback to '80s Brit rock, kind of like a deliberate fusion of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. They seemed a bit twee to me, what with their strutting singer and multiple array of keyboards.

We soaked up the entertainment and then drifted back to our car.

Another day at Bonnaroo is history.


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