Festival Season: Four days at Bonnaroo

Patti Wenzel and her 18-year-old daughter spent four days in the Tennessee sun at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
June 12th, 2012 |
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(Photos: Patti Wenzel)

After obtaining press credentials for Bonnaroo 2012 in Manchester, Tennessee, I decided to take my 18-year-old daughter along as my intern. I thought I would be out-of-place, but much of the music I grew up on is represented in the chords and rhythms of today’s artists.

If you’re not familiar with Bonnaroo, it is a music festival held each June for the past 11 years in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Mainly featuring alternative music acts, this year the big headliners included Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beach Boys (on their 50th anniversary tour), Alice Cooper and Phish.

Festival officials estimate attendance at close to 100,000 over the four-day festival. Many camp on the farm that hosts the festival, and every imaginable body shape is on display in the Tennessee sun. And if it’s not on display, it is covered in some of the craziest get-ups imaginable.

There are many hands-on projects for attendees to do as well. Some learned renewable gardening skills, yoga, drum making and dance. This makes up the Grateful Dead nation part of the fest.

Bonnaroo has five “main” stages, a few minor stages and other impromptu stage set-ups. You can sit and listen from the back of the audience or brave the crowds and dance in the front. There is a laid-back vibe with hippie shops, artists and music for everybody.

There is a small corporate presence on the grounds. Garnier Hair Care has a booth where you can have your hair washed and styled for free; and Fuse TV had a building with phone chargers and Wi-Fi. Miller Lite also had a small stage along with the beer concession.

So here’s how our four days in the Tennessee sun unfolded.

Day 1: My daughter Katie and I woke up early and packed, but later discovered I forgot to throw in a sweatshirt, socks or pajamas for the trip. Wouldn’t be too bad if the Tennessee valleys didn’t get cool and damp at night. Katie worked with me to put up the tent even though we had no clue what we were doing and we arrived after nightfall.

Despite our late arrival, Katie insisted on bumming around the festival. We marveled at the crowds, especially the guy with an epic white-man fro and Fu Manchu ‘stache. We both laughed at the lameness of henna tattoos, and really laughed at a glass booth where a man selling glass sexual “aids” danced to an obscure band while eating tasty apple cider mini-donuts.

Day 2: I tried my hand at making fruit Pudgy Pies on the grill for breakfast. Not bad, but my allergies were bothering me and I told Katie I would rather go home. She insisted we stay since she wanted to see Radiohead. Secretly, so did I.

So off we went to Centeroo, the center of the Bonnaroo universe. We checked out some of the artists, took pictures of the more “colorful” characters on the grounds and went to a few tents to listen to the bands. We found a nice patch of grass to listen to Katie’s choice, Two Door Cinema Club, but couldn’t see the band.

And of course we did some shopping. We both purchased tie-dyed headbands, Katie picked out a tie-dyed wrap skirt and I bought a small blue pottery shot glass, bargain priced for $4.

We tried to see Aziz Ansari at the Comedy Stage, but the line we were in was for guests who already had tickets for the 4 p.m. show. No wonder we were able to move so quickly to the head of the line.

Plus we ate. In less than four hours we had eaten two fajitas, part of a muffaletta sandwich, a frozen Baby Ruth Mocha, unlimited amounts of water and a mango lemonade. The food booths all offered freshly made food and Bonnaroo invited food trucks from the region to park on the grounds.

Katie went to see Ludacris, while I opted for a nap and shower. The water was cold, and the cleanliness of the showers left a lot to be desired. However, the $5 charge was worth it to rinse two days of dust and sweat on me, but I didn’t take another shower until I got home.

After Ludacris, Katie returned to Camp TCD to pick me up for the Radiohead concert, WHICH ROCKED.

They played many of their classics, a lot of material from last year’s release, The King of Limbs, and some new material. Some in the audience were upset and yelling that they “didn’t come to hear the new stuff,” which I found off-putting. If you like the band, you’ll like the new stuff.

Katie often tells me she doesn’t like to talk to people. So obviously I brought the wrong Katie with me, since she was talking fellow festival-goers all weekend long. The two groups of 20-somethings we sat with were pleasantly surprised that mom was at Bonnaroo. They told Katie that her mom is pretty cool and she agreed. A pretty high compliment.

Day 3: After sleeping in later than usual, I went down to the press tent for some early morning work, and was looking forward to seeing Red Hot Chili Peppers that night.

Unfortunately, the Peppers were less than stellar. The sound was poorly done for the outdoor festival, so many of us listening from up on the hill heard only muffled solos and very little of Anthony’s Kiedis’ vocals. Plus, they group played a lot of new material or just jammed. The talk among the sea of attendees following the performance was one of disappointment.

But the day ended well for me. I saw Alice Cooper live! He entered the stage from a giant web-like structure dressed as a Black Widow spider. Katie bugged out from Alice early and hooked up with another new friend to take in the Skrillex performance. Skrillex is one of the biggest names in Dubstep, a musical movement that emphasizes bass drop outs and syncopated drum lines. She said it was awesome and glad she stayed up until 4:30 on Sunday morning for the entire set.

Earlier in the day, we went to Centeroo to see Flogging Molly at That Stage. Katie left to get as close as possible, and as the crowd shifted forward, I was pushed to the back row.

I took that as my cue and headed down to What Stage where the Punch Brothers were playing. YOU MUST LISTEN TO THIS MUSIC. Alt, bluegrass, finger picking, rock and blues all rolled into one. Plus, they dress pretty damn sharp.

Day 4: The day started early when Katie arrived back at the van/tent compound soaking wet from the rain that had been falling for two hours. I was oblivious since I had been sleeping since the end of the Alice Cooper set.

We sat and laughed at the idea of having to clean up the muddy mess of coolers and the tent, but we did grab some z’s before tackling the packing. But once at it, it went smoothly and we decided that being drenched all day in the Tennessee humidity and grass would not be pleasant. So off to Milwaukee it was.

So, how did the adventure go? I learned I’m not much of a camper. Camping to me still refers to staying at a Motel 6 with no room service or pool. This was like living in the dark ages. Katie spent a lot of time laughing at my lack of camping skills. We even bonded a bit. She had a good time, even with her mom. We talked about a lot of different things, tried new foods, listened to some new music (for each of us) and came out no worse for the wear.

I was skeptical when I arrived, but I enjoyed the Bonnaroo experience. So did Katie, and now that we have first festival under our belts, we are experienced Bonnaroovians.

See more photos from the festival in the slideshow below, or view them on TCD’s flickr page here.

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2 Responses to “Festival Season: Four days at Bonnaroo”

  1. Patti Wenzel says:

    John,
    Sorry we wimped out from the rain and mud! Plus, I’ve seen Phish and if I want to see them again I have an excuse to go to Bonnaroo next year, since they always seem to be the last act of the festival!

    [Reply]

  2. John says:

    You didn’t stay for Phish?

    [Reply]

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