I am a 49-year-old father with a son who lives for music. Rarely do we have a discussion that does not revolve around the next great band playing at the Music Farm, Village Tavern, or one of Charleston’s other music venues. Prior to Bonnaroo, the only music festivals I had attended were the 5,000 patron one-day Warped Tours. In a moment of weakness, I consented to chaperoning my 16-year-old son’s attendance at the festival. Then the fun began.
Bonnaroo is an 85,000-plus person four-day music festival, thrown each June in the middle of a 700-acre dust farm in rural Manchester, Tenn. With 60 acts a day on 11 stages, this free-spirited festival, in its sixth year, offers one of the greatest collections of artists imaginable. From legendary Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who jammed with everyone, to the reunited Police; from perennial jam band Widespread Panic to the up-and-coming Mexican guitarists Rodrigo & Gabriella, there was something from all genres. It was this experience I chose to start a bonding experiment with my 16-year-old son as he began his last year under my roof. Or was it another situation of mid-life crises?
My main pre-festival fear during the months leading up to Bonnaroo was that I would inhale second-hand smoke, pass out in the middle of the outdoor hippie mall, be robbed blind, stripped naked, and infected with some type of disease that would prevent me from coming home. I did not have any facts to support this fear other than I did watch a documentary on the original Woodstock during one of my recent stays at a Holiday Inn Express.
Ninety percent of the participants camped on-site, from the first-class VIP section for RV and campers to the various refugee campsites spread out on the 700-acre farm. Some sites were located miles from the musical stages. My son and his friends arrived early the first day and were rewarded with a camp site next to the entrance gate. The only main drawback was that when it gets hot — and it was hot all four days — their only recourse to cool off was limited to soaking at a communal regurgitated fountain, or lying with all the passed-out patrons under the site’s few trees. I opted for an off-site hotel room. Yes, I am a wimp that needs hot showers and a non-communal toilet for my daily vestal.
Amazingly, my hotel was very quiet. Completely booked by Bonnaroo patrons, I was expecting hard-core festival junkies that should have been sleeping in their bowls of cereal, as testimony to the previous nights events. Instead, I was met at the hotel’s continental breakfast each day by the group of caffeine-addicted middle age folks like myself. The last cell phone contact with my son, as out of ten boys none of them brought a cell phone charger, was to bring ice and money.
I eventually found my son and friends as his cell phone was dying. Now we had a reference point. After 24 hours and one night’s events, they were hot, tired, hungry, dirty, and believe it or not, glad to see me. They quickly made use of the ice and my cell phone (I had promised various moms that I would make them call home each day). It became apparent after sitting with them for thirty minutes that I was over staying my welcome and cramping their space. With a feeling of minor accomplishment and fear, I left to attend the event by myself.
Walking in the heat and dust, looking at the list of over 100 bands and groups provided in the schedule, I realized I recognized less than 10 of the bands that were playing. My festival coach, a co-worker with festival experience, had recommended various groups to see. What was I going to do for the next three days by myself? The bonding experience was turning out to be a survival test for a middle-aged man.
Since this was supposed to be about understanding my son, I started with the few suggestions I was able to solicit from him. It appeared they did not want me to bump into them in the mass of 85,000+ participants. Over the last year, I had heard a variety of music emitting from my son’s room. A lot of it consisted of screaming with in-comprehensible words. I was pleasantly surprised that the Cold War Kids and Uncle Earl played music with lyrics I could understand and that made sense. No was no fighting or pushing, and the cannabis smell was very light. Of course, it was only 2 p.m. The night people had not arrived.
I latched onto to a group of Woodstock survivors. You could easily tell them from their tattered Woodstock T-shirts and grey hair. Throughout the weekend, I traveled from group to group with an endless number of new friends, all with opinions of what groups to see.
The only rain during the four day event was a light sprinkle during Kings of Leon’s set. The sky started to look menacingly black, and all I could envision was naked people playing in the mud as the music played, a scene I remembered from the Woodstock movie. Of course it was so hot that the drops evaporated seconds after contact.
The Roots, with its brass section, had the crowd dancing. I could understand the lyrics, and the music was great. This was supposed to be a hip hop group? Where was the violence and references to drugs and hoes? Their rendition of Dylan’s “Masters of War” was one of the few attempts by a group to make a political statement.
There may have been some political statements in Tools’ lyrics. However, as a first-time listener, who could tell? I was not the only person having problems with the words. The sign expert that was presenting the show to a couple of deaf patrons said that the words she had been provided did not match what they were singing. It was as if they were making up the words as they went.
I was concerned that my son and his friends were alone, out there in the 85,000+ mass of sun and other draining additive-soaked festival-goers. My concern grew the first time I saw bodies being carried by teams of paramedics. A visit to one of the medical tents confirmed that over 600 patrons had been treated for various ailments on the first day. (There was only one death on-site during the four day festival. Considering that Bonnaroo was the fourth largest city in Tennessee during that period, one death sounds pretty low.) The music went on until 3 a.m., with John Paul Jones, Ben Harper, and the drummer from the Roots jamming together on a collage of Zeppelin tunes.
With one day under my belt, I was a Bonnaroo veteran. Meeting up with the boys the next day, we exchanged stories and opinion of the previous day’s events. Maybe this bonding experiment was working. Of course, I had to look past the collection of beer cans that littered the site. We sat as a group comparing the different groups we had seen. I made sure the boys called their Moms, brownie points for me. Upon receiving their intended game plan, I once again felt like I was encroaching on their space and alone, braved the 85,000+ plus crowd.
This being the third day of the festival, all of the straw laid to keep the dust in check was gone. The resulting effect was a never ending thick cloud of dust that kept getting thicker as the festival progressed.
I sat through a two hour set by Hot Tuna, waiting in vain for an acoustic version of “Hesitation Blues.” It did not happen. However, my disappointment was quickly replaced by shear euphoria during Ziggy Marley’s and Ben Harper’s sets. With revved-up crowds all around me, they jumped from reggae to rock, blues to Carnival-like displays that would appear without warning.
One of the great opportunities of the festival were the guest appearances of various artists, jamming together on classics. When Ziggy joined Ben Harper for a song, the conversation as to what to play appeared to be: “Hey Ben, lets play one of your songs.” “Nah, Ziggy, you’re my guest, let’s play one of yours.” “Hell, Ben, let’s just play one of my Dad’s,” and with that the duo kicked into “Stir It Up”. With the song, a blue blanket of smoke filled the 80,000+ packed fields, acknowledged by Ben Harper as the greatest peace cloud he had ever seen.
For all the anticipation that day about the Police, all I can say is Sting has one set of lungs for a 55-year-old rocker. Playing all old tunes, it was a stroll down memory lanes with songs that I actually knew the words to.
After midnight, with the night people in attendance, I was herded to the Flaming Lips set. It started with the lead singer arriving in a bubble as he walked over the crowd when the Mothership landed. During the middle of the special effect performance, the music stopped and the lead signer started into an irate political tirade. Interestingly, the crowd was not happy. Maybe it is really all about the music.
Sunday started off hot. With no humidity to hold down the dust, conditions quickly moved to unbearable. As it was Father’s Day, I made a point of extending my visit to my son’s tent village, welcomed or not. Despite the organizers’ best efforts to recycle and go “green,” the grounds themselves resembled a trash dump. To combat severe dust clouds, festival-goers used various varieties of bandannas and shirts to prevent clogged lungs. I made a point of offering my charged cell phones to all of my son’s crew and their neighbors, shaming many of them into calling their dads. I was amazed how many of them were only able to talk to answering machines. And then there were the few that said they did not want to talk to their Dads. It was a sobering event, but sparkled with the few smiles, especially from the daughters that were able to get through.
It was now the third day of the event. My son and crew had not had a hot meal or shower in three days. They were sun-charred and one step away from joining the unconscious bodies that littered the farm. I had planned on driving back that day, but grew concerned when I heard of their plans to drive back to Charleston that night after Widespread Panic closed the festival. A quick reality call to my wife amended my travel plans. I strongly recommended to the group; OK, suggested under the penalty of being grounded for the next 12 months, that the boys all meet me at my hotel room for a shower and a couple hours of sleep before traveling home. They were zombies, going through their festival routines as if I was not there. After establishing a plan, I once again ventured back out alone, into the masses.
For the first time of the festival, I made it to the front section of the stage and started the day with a set by Wolfmother, an Australian Led Zeppelin-wannabee. Seeing the power of a show from all the way up front glued my shoes to the ground for a great performance by the Decemberists. It was a mind blowing experience to look back from the front, over the crowd, a length of two football fields packed with every dirty, tired patron in attendance.
The Decemberists were followed by the White Stripes. Many of the up front patrons had been standing in place for three hours to secure their position for White Stripes. We all watched Jack White and his sister Meg provide some of the most heart-thumping music that I had ever experienced from a duo.
Bonnaroo is fast becoming, if not is, the premier summer party destination. It is incredible that they can give attendees from six generations something live to listen to. From legendary to young artists, jazz to hip-hop, jam-band to main stream, there’s something for everyone. As a middle-aged parent, my music world has been turned upside down, expanded and thrown back at me. I am not only intrigued by the music I experienced this weekend, but left with a burning desire to know more about the groups, their backgrounds, and when I can hear them live again, this time in a controlled environment.
This was definitely the right step in appreciating my last year with my son under my roof. It has created a fundamental change in my outlook on my son and life. You don’t need to sweat the small things, like worrying about finding the hotel where your room is located, occupied with hundreds of partying yuppies. There was a great sense of victory on Monday night at the completion of the experience, when my son and I sat down with his mother to discuss our various ventures in the momentary normality of our home.