Let’s be honest, here: Going into Bonnaroo 2010, I just wasn’t as psyched about the lineup as I have been in years past. Not a lot of headliners I thought I’d be particularly inclined to see, and not many personal favorites stopping in on a record cycle. And really, I thought Saturday would be something of a relatively uneventful bridge between Friday and Sunday. Sunday being the day, of course, one inevitably ends up utilizing a gracefully donated laminate to locate every bit of free shit available, wandering about the artists’ area whilst freaking out the talent with your heat-rashed ivory limbs and booze-spattered cut-offs.
I still got all of that stuff in, mind you, but I ended up seeing some genuine, bona fide icons doing their whole “inimitable badass” thing on Saturday. We’re talking about multiple “see them at least once in your life”-level, universally recognized and beloved geniuses, and the profundity of that kind of Bonnaroo experience hadn’t dawned on me when I was moping about hip, new, obscure artists not turning up as much as in years prior. Also, I learned so much about bros icing bros. The most sobering bit about this ridiculous “icing” game? The noble bro is iced alone. Once the Smirnoff is received, the recipient must solemnly and nobly consume it, no matter how addled or ill-prepared he may be. It's somehow both less stupid and more stupid than it sounds. Anyway, it’s Bonnaroo. Let’s make some questionable decisions![See our Flaming Lips slideshow here.] Up close, it was confetti blasts and mega-balloons that nearly knocked me from the scaffolding upon which I was perched. Not feeling the need to see The Lips’ renditions of Dark Side songs, I caught the back half of The Black Keys. Though I hoped to hear some new tunes from the four-piece lineup, Akron’s favorite sons closed it out with the familiar two-man format. Mostly Magic Potion and Rubber Factory stuff.
Having scored an artist’s pass I totally didn’t deserve by Saturday morning, I opted to skip the silly “line” thing at the Cinema Tent in order to watch a live feed of Conan’s set. While the band and Conan himself performed remarkably, I was pretty astonished at the conspicuous lack of cameos. When Coco busted out the “Seven Nation Army” riff on his trusty Strat, I thought to myself, “Ah. Here it comes. Jack White cameo.” No such luck. The rest of the Cream crew and I later spotted Conan and Andy Richter in the artists’ area, where gawkers mostly milled about him for the better part of an hour, too bashful to actually approach and too crass to go the hell away. Myself included.
In traditional 'Roo fashion, I thought I’d catch one sampling of reggae: the legendary Jimmy Cliff. Cliff’s band was overwhelmingly rehearsed and gifted, and even if they didn’t play anything from The Harder They Come while I was there, hearing Cliff’s environmentally conscious numbers amid shoals of dredheads was plenty entertaining. I will, however, relinquish critical analysis of Cliff’s set to Sean Maloney, who’s more of a reggae student and — given his mildly stoned dancing — seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself.
As I’d anticipated, John Prine was a haggard little badass with a capable, sharply dressed backing band in That Tent. Prine might slightly resemble a knotted, whiskey-soaked bit of cloth these days — and I mean that as a compliment — but his legendarily brilliant lyrics and somber, fixating trad-country tunes have only gotten better. Through the bulk of Prine’s set, Kris Kristofferson was standing near us side stage, grinning, cheering as much as anyone else and totally looking (at age 73) like he could kick my ass in about four seconds. Apparently, Kristofferson hopped onstage to do a number with Prine at the end of his set, but I had already headed off in search of who knows what. Should have stayed. “Fail,” as they say.
You’ll hear more on headliners Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z from other Cream Teamers, but I must say this: Sometimes you know that an icon deserves their icon status, but seeing said icon absolutely dominate an audience and captivate everyone within earshot really seals the deal. Jay-Z is, without a doubt, the most charismatic and enthralling MC I’ve ever laid eyes on, and anyone who’s ever doubted that Stevie Wonder is among the most gifted performers of all time can just go straight to hell.
Late night Saturday consisted of visiting virtually every corner of the festival grounds only to end up drunkenly guffawing at Gwar’s unbelievable props and “space baby-fucking” banter, and also giving myself to the temptation of public urination. If you can’t make water before several strangers in an open field at Gwar’s Bonnaroo performance as a zombie Michael Jackson is killed onstage, then where can you?
Sunday featured performances from three of Nashville’s own Road to Bonnaroo artists. Space Capone and How I Became the Bomb were inexplicably scheduled opposite one another, so I missed the blue-eyed crooning of the former, but the Bomb and Caitlin Rose both played sets that were among the best I’ve ever seen. Congrats are due all around.
So, there’s more. There’s always more. There are always bits regarding crowd interaction, drug consumption, bare breasts, Porta-Potty mishaps, sightings, kissin', personal injury, ingeniously disguised smuggling devices and drunken tirades that we modest scribes either spare you from or flat-out forget. Again, on accounta the drugs. This year, though, I learned to embrace big-name, iconic artists and their performances on my own terms, and to take something personally from those seemingly non-intimate productions. Or something. I don't know. Does that sound like a lesson? You have to learn something or experience a vision quest at Bonnaroo for it to count, right? I don't feel like "Apparently it takes me nine beers and a Gwar set to be capable of public urination" is enough of a lesson. Fuck it. It's just Bonnaroo.