Ten years after its inception, Bonnaroo has blossomed into a Tennessee cultural cornerstone 



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"Every year it gets better and better," says Deprez. "[Superfly and AC] listen to our feedback. They ask for feedback after every festival. It's just getting more and more coordinated and streamlined, and we work well with them."

Vending at the festival — where Deprez and daughter Coral Kenies head up an eight-person sales staff — makes for a quarter of her annual income, she says. Such is the case with hundreds of food, crafts and product vendors who pay thousands for temporary real estate in Centeroo, the main stage vicinity and the outer general campgrounds, colloquially known as Tent City.

Not all of the merchants at Bonnaroo (and in Tent City especially) go through the process of filling out vendor applications and paying their 'Roo dues, though. Take Peter, a 33-year-old Manchester native who's attended the festival each year and worked at most of them ... as a drug dealer.

Peter tells the Scene that, though he only attends Bonnaroo as a music fan nowadays, his MO in previous years was something along the lines of cutting an ounce of cocaine with an ounce of creatine (the stuff body builders like) and flipping it on "Shakedown Street." "We used to make a ridiculous amount of money in a day or two without even trying," says Peter. "Five grand just by walkin' around for a couple days."

He says that Shakedown, a thoroughfare leading on-foot festivalgoers to Centeroo's main gate, is essentially an open-air drug market, where marijuana, LSD, Ecstasy and magic mushrooms are top sellers. "It's a free-for-all," says Peter. He claims police intervention is of little concern to his colleagues, and goes on to explain that while patrons of the Bonnaroo drug trade are likely to encounter some unsavory characters in Tent City's festival ghetto, the "lot rats" are on their best behavior in the confines of Great Stage Park. It's an unwritten law that you don't stir the pot. "I've never really seen a fight out there," he says, "You'll see more fights at your typical concert at Bridgestone [Arena] than you will in three days at Bonnaroo."

"Percentage-wise, we're very low on arrests," Pennington adds. "Obviously there's drug use at NASCAR or at any other large event, but we don't have that big of an issue with it."

"I don't think anybody in Manchester is oblivious to any drug thing," Peter says. "Because there is a large meth problem there, the last worry on their minds is kids eating acid and Molly [the drug MDMA] and going to shows."

A lot of the drugs sold out in Tent City are fake anyway, Peter adds. "There's probably an unspoken 'buyer beware' rule. You know, you're at Bonnaroo, what do you expect? Especially when Phish is there." He says that by broadening its lineup the past six years, Bonnaroo has put a dent in drug activity at the festival. "I'd say that the drug scene has gone down. It's not a jam-band festival anymore. You go to a Phish show and most people are gonna be on drugs. Red Hot Chili Peppers, not so much."

The festival's most noticeable evolution is demonstrated by its lineup. What started out as a Southern post-Y2K Woodstock dominated by general jam-band fare (Widespread Panic, The Dead, et al.) has gone on to host headliners like Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Kanye West, The Police and Eminem. Last year one of the festival's tent stages even featured crass California pop-punk troupe NOFX, who once penned a song celebrating the death of Jerry Garcia. In between Phish and their aesthetic adversaries in NOFX, there is a music-lover's mosaic of genres encompassing dubstep, reggae, heavy metal, bluegrass, country and hip-hop.

"It was a calculated natural evolution," Farman says. "We wanted to continue to program the festival for the audience that embraced it right off the bat, but we also wanted to continually bring in new people." That evolution was transparent, though. And naturally it was met with some unrest in Bonnaroo's core community. "When we [booked] Radiohead in 2006, there were certainly people who thought we were heretics," Farman recalls. "It's kind of funny to look back on it now because they're almost, like, the perfect act for Bonnaroo."

Peter says some in the jam-band community have turned on Bonnaroo because of "hippie nonsense." "Every year you hear, 'I heard MTV bought it.' It's like an ongoing joke. Your real fans who really love Phish, love the Dead — they love music in general. And so they love Bonnaroo regardless, because it is so eclectic."

Inarguably, Nashville's CMA Music Festival (see story on p. 61) is a less eclectic affair. Nevertheless, the 40-year-running, multi-venue country music marathon will bring over 400 artists and crowds of 75,000-85,000 to downtown Nashville this weekend. As Bonnaroo is to Manchester, CMA Fest is a massive boon to the local economy. Last year the event reeled in an estimated 30,000-40,000 tourists — tourists who booked 120,000 room nights at local hotels, according Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau head Butch Spyridon.

But what does that have to do with Bonnaroo?

"[CMA] gobbles up most of the hotel rooms and airline seats," Spyridon tells the Scene. "So we're not able to maximize the benefits from Bonnaroo. ... A lot more could come out of Nashville if it wasn't already tied up, both in materials and manpower."

Just ask Ed Dilks, production coordinator at SIR's Nashville location, where — when he spoke with the Scene a week ago — the hallway was already full of Bonnaroo-bound equipment. Dilks says the facility's role as Bonnaroo's primary gear provider drastically limits its ability to meet any CMA demands.

"Bonnaroo is our baby," he says. "We do bits and pieces of [CMA], small invoices. ... [And] we don't understand why all these festivals have to happen at the same time, because, man, it makes it nerve-wracking on our end."

Such is not the case for CMA Festival itself. "[Bonnaroo] doesn't affect us at all," Country Music Association CEO Steve Moore tells the Scene. "It's a totally, completely different group of fans that come from across the United States, as ours do. So it's really a non-event to us. ... But I think the state officials wouldn't mind it being a different time."

He's right.

One of the first orders of business on Mayor Karl Dean's recently revamped Music City Music Council's agenda was to push to stagger CMA and Bonnaroo on separate consecutive weekends. Spyridon says the council has begun talks with the festivals to keep them separated. While a permanent solution is yet to be met, Spyridon says that next year, "by good fortune," the two festivals will transpire on different dates — with CMA happening June 6-9 and Bonnaroo slated for June 13-16. It's a change he'd like to make permanent.

While Farman says that to his knowledge, Bonnaroo hasn't made any firm decisions on timing for next year's festival, he's open to the separation. "In general, there's a friendly relationship with the CMA people," he says. "If it's advantageous for everybody to do it on different weekends then [we'll consider it]."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

Check out our Bonnaroo picks here.


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