The neurons in my noggin are crackling like a bug zapper, deep-fried in Tennessee sunshine, vodka from a plastic bottle and decibel upon decibel of loud music. But dammit, I've still got a few of those neurons left, and that's a major, major accomplishment. Hell, I didn't even get that crazy this year — I have learned in my two previous trips to Bonnaroo that there is a certain level of over-indulgence that's awesome and a certain level that's awful. I erred on the side of pseudo-responsibility, which is sorta new for me but at no point was my proverbial mellow harshed — no hangovers, no injuries, no diarrhea or unplanned pregnancies. Hell, I probably spent more time watching music this year than I have at any previous Bonnaroo.
Of course, I didn't take any notes or pictures or do any of the journalisty things that alleged journalists are supposed to do when they are journalisting but I figure that's no great loss. If I can't remember your set without writing it down, it probably wasn't very good. Also, I figured it would be a little bit of revenge against all the publicists that had sent me bullshit emails during the ride down and worn my smart phone battery down before I'd even made it to my campsite. When my phone's screen started flashing purple and black squares instead the home screen I just decided that that was a sign from the festival gods to just kick back and chill.
BTW: Fuck you AT&T for a) making a shitty phone that gets twitchy in 90-percent humidity; and b) burying the option to turn off your shitty 3G service somewhere in the settings where I can't find them. Also, I'm totes pissed about the new rate plan, but that's a whole 'nother discussion.
This was the first year that I really took advantage of the camping side of Bonnaroo — I bought a tent, a cooler, a percolator for my grill and tons of my own booze. I gotta say it's quite the improvement over sleeping on the couch of the press tent and scrounging for sustenance. We were lucky enough to have scored campsites contiguous with a lot of Nashville folks campsites underneath large shady trees, basically transporting a typical night on the porch of the Mercy Lounge to a field in Coffee County for four days.
Also, when you're in guest camping you can hear the Which Stage really well, so if you, say, wanted to just sit in a chair and burn one while listening to the Lips play Dark Side without dealing with the monster crowd, you could. And I did. And it ruled. Although, conversely, I have to say I had a little trouble keeping my dinner down while Weezer played — if “Beverly Hills” doesn't make you want to barf, I don't know what will. Maybe it's because the last time I saw them was on the Pinkerton tour, but that band has become an absolutely awful parody of itself. Somebody needs to put Rivers Cuomo in a cryogenic freezer and thaw him out when there's a cure for what ever brain parasite causes albums like Maladroit.
The other fun thing about actually being prepared to spend four days outside is, well, cooking outside. Over the course of the weekend I heard somebody say that “Bonnaroo lets everyone do the things they love most” — for some that's walking around topless, wearing a stupid hat and eating paralyzing amounts of hallucinogens, for me it's cooking over fire with local food. That I could combine that love with my recent organ-meat fascination was awesome — a great huge shout-out Doug at Walnut Hill Farm in Bethpage for suggesting that I try cooking beef heart. I cooked it Peruvian style — thinly sliced, marinated in vinegar and chiles, skewered and grilled for about a minute on each side — and it was phenomenally tender and full-flavored. I also made a lot of grundle biscuits, but that's a story for another day.
Musically, I gotta send out a great big cosmic fist-bump to Geoff Donovan and Grimey for insisting that I watch psychedelic cumbia outfit Bomba Estereo on the Sonic Stage. I guess they usually have a ton of electronics and put on a big huge, high-energy assault on their audience, but the set I caught was almost the exact opposite. You could tell they were exhausted and lethargic and sweaty and really probably should have waited more than an hour to play a second set in the Tennessee sun, but even with all of those things being abundantly obvious, they were still one of the best live bands that I have seen in, um ... Christ, I can't even think of the last band I saw that was such a cohesive unit. Singer Li Saumet is an amazing singer, has a great rap flow and is one of the only performers I saw who had anything close to the amount of charisma that Jay-Z brings to the stage. Guitarist Julian Salazar had one of the best tones and some of the most subtle yet earth-shaking playing I've heard in a long time. Go buy their album NOW!
Jimmy Cliff's set was one of those moments that made me too happy for words. I had never set foot in the pit in front of the What Stage — I'm pretty strict about standing at the back of the crowd with my arms crossed, looking jaded — and I have never skanked in front of the other Scenesters but I quickly threw all my better judgment to the wind as Cliff kicked into his version of Cat Stevens's “Wild World” — it's a great song to start with, but when you add Jimmy Cliff's astounding voice and a veritable phalanx of top-notch musicians, it's enough to put some gravy on your grundle biscuits.
He also performed “Vietnam” off the excellent-yet-overlooked Beautiful World, Beautiful People, updating the lyrics to reflect the contemporary military boondoggle in Afghanistan. He played a bunch of classic ska tunes that I'm pretty sure were from the early Prince Buster and Duke Reid catalogs, but I was too busy with the aforementioned skanking to take notes. Also, the whole Spin ended up on the giant video screen, which was totes awkward. Thanks, crazy Wookiee dude and hula-hooping girl — if you hadn't looked so ridiculous they would have never pointed the camera in our direction. Now there are thousands of people have seen my weird knees and furry, sunburned beer gut. Way to ruin the mystery, assholes.
I missed the Nas portion of the Damian Marley & Nas set on Friday because I was way, way too captivated with their Distant Relatives Tour partner, German-based, Nigerian born singer Nneka. Combining Afrobeat, dub, R&B and hip-hop, Nneka manages to create a sound that is simultaneously familiar and totally foreign — like, distant-planets “foreign” more than distant-nations “foreign”. Nneka was so good I'd say that putting her on the Troo Music stage was one of the only serious fails on the part of Bonnaroo's curators — she should have played for more people, in a place where more people could have just walked into it. Damian Marley was OK, and just that — he might be the most talented of all the currently performing Marleys, but he still has rest on his father's legacy and songs to keep a crowd interested.
Jay-Z, on the other hand, destroyed it something vicious. While it was pretty much the same exact show I saw back in November — which incidentally was one of the best shows I've ever seen — when scaled up from a few thousand fans to tens and tens of thousand of fans, that show went from great to monumental. Jay-Z has a shit-ton of songs that even the least rap-savvy folks can sing along to and enjoy. Watching my rocker friends pump their fist to “99 Problems” like it was a Bruce Springsteen show after so much resistance to the idea that Jay-Z could pull off a headlining Bonnaroo set was super-duper satisfying. Also, a usually well-behaved, respectable local music critic took off his shirt and twirled it over his head during “Big Pimpin' ” — and when usually well-behaved, respectable music critics start taking off their clothes and screaming during a set, you know you're onto something. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Jay-Z is the single greatest performer of our generation. Even Brandon Jazz — one of the least hip-hop dudes I know — was won over by the Hova. It was a jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, face-melting spectacle just like you want and need out of a great big, giant show. I can't wait until he plays the Sommet, er, Bridgestone or whatever the fuck they call it. It's gonna rule so hard!
From what I've heard, I really, really enjoyed DC-based rapper Wale — I don't remember the specifics, but I guess I was lecturing the rest of the crew about how huge he'll eventually be. These are the sort of things I do when I'm drunk, not just a Bonnaroo thing. I think Attention Deficit was a great pop record, Wale is a really great writer and he's got a really tight band. Sure, it could maybe use more polish in the live arena, but sooner or later that dude is gonna have the kind of radio hit that'll send dude's great-great-grandkids to college — I'm saying four years from now, tops. Of course, I'm not exactly known for psychic abilities, so don't hold yer breath.
Other awesomeness included: seeing Savannah, Ga.'s Baroness ripping it up on Friday and then running into them in the beer tent on Saturday; sitting under our shade tree in guest camping and totally zoning out to the psychedelic Saharan sound of Tinariwen; and listening to Against Me! play “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” and realizing that all of us are in our thirties and not actually feeling old. The single most “Nashville” moment of the damn thing had to be sitting in the scorching afternoon sun, eating Dippin' Dots and listening to Caitlin Rose play the best set of country-rock I've ever heard her play while watching the clouds drift by. All the partying and debauchery is fun, but it's simple low-key moments like that that make Bonnaroo such a special place. Well, and the moments when Eric Lehning starts talking about “core values” — that was some seriously entertaining shit.