Four Vignettes From Bonnaroo

Every summer, 70,000 people gather on a desolate farm lot in Manchester, Tennessee for the Bonnaroo music festival and turn the area into something special. Stages are built, thousands of tents are propped and suddenly there’s a thriving microcosmic city full of markets (both legal and black), burnt out people and good music. Cramming a hundred small, memorable experiences into one weekend is exhausting, but it happens to all attendees. You will always leave the festival with stories to tell. I could write about dozens of experiences that I had at Bonnaroo X, but these four are the most memorable for me.

The Wavves and Best Coast Sets

I felt like this set was going to define my experience. It was to be my first show of the weekend and a bad one from Wavves could have easily soured my mood for the rest of the trip. I thought that it could go either way, but I was hoping for the best. King of the Beach was one of my favorite records from last year, so the bar was set pretty high.

The tent was packed. Way more packed than I expected for a Thursday night show. With 20 more minutes to go, there was no room inside it and people were standing around its perimeter, hoping to get a view. I was arm to arm with the people around me. When the band came out, Nathan Williams looked flabbergasted. It was the kind of look you get when you see thousands of excited people staring at you, waiting for you to do something that’s going to make them scream and dance.

The band started and intense sighs were released. They were good. Really good. Way better than I expected, even. For an hour the tent was a rippling mass, all fist pumps and body spasms. That look stayed on Williams’ face the entire time. I had my own moment of surprise when they played “To the Dregs”—that’s a song I love, but one I listened to so often that it had to be retired and eventually was forgotten entirely. Everyone around me instantly started singing it, but it felt huge, as though everyone in the tent was.

Coming off of this, I quickly bounced over to the tent Best Coast would be playing at. These two acts go hand-in-hand for several reasons, but I’ve never been attracted to them like I have been Wavves. I have conflicting feelings about their record: it’s catchy, but the boy-crazy content gets really old.

As before, this tent was filled to the edge and beyond. People screamed when Bethany Cosentino came on stage. There were some dreamy-eyed boys next to me who would chat and giggle between songs; I assume they were talking about how cute Bethany is. She oozed charisma and played pretty much everything you would expect: “Boyfriend,” “Sun Was High,” “Crazy For You.”

Unlike the Wavves set, where people were trying to push their way in, people here walked out between every song. They were noticeable departures, as we were able to take a couple steps forward each time. People left the most when she introduced a couple new songs. Even the two giggling boys walked out before the end of her set. I felt bad for her, but I’m not entirely sure why.

The Big Boi and Ratatat Sets

Shortly before the Arcade Fire stopped playing, I decided to go all out and stay up late to catch Big Boi and Ratatat. I shuffled in the dark for the 5-hour Energy shot I stashed in my bag and, upon finding it, drank it quick. I was worried it would taste bad, but it turned out to have a pleasing, nondescript berry flavor. After a 12-hour day full of constant walking, standing and 93 degrees in the Tennessee sun, the energy shot didn’t actually provide energy, it just kept me from being comatose long enough so that I could do what I wanted.

I made the trek across Centeroo to find a bathroom, stock up on water and get to the tent they’d play at. By this time it was about 1AM and the breezy night felt nice. It tried to lull me, wanting to keep me out in the open so I could be cool and lay on the ground, but still hear music from outside of the tent. Somehow I managed to get a spot near the front of the stage. It probably had to do with Bassnectar starting earlier at the next tent over—his giant neon sign lit up the tent and, as he started playing, from a distance I saw someone throw what must have been a fistful of glowsticks over the crowd, towards the stage. It looked fun.

Big Boi came out with a full band which included horn players and dancers. Occasionally throughout his set he would invite girls from the crowd to go on stage and dance. Based on a conversation I had earlier in the day, the idea of yelling “where da white women at” entered my head for a second, but the thought of it alone was sufficient enough. At some point, possibly between “B.O.B.” and “The Way You Move,” I realized that I really had to piss. My body’s inability to keep up with me was distracting, but I wasn’t going to let it get the best of me. I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? Urinary tract infection? Maybe my body would re-ingest the urine? I just knew I wasn’t going to miss Ratatat.

The 45 minutes between their sets was the most excruciating part. A joint was passed around, but didn’t help. I considered the consequences of pissing myself. I was only wearing swimming trunks, so it’d be easy to clean up. It would probably get on my shoes, which would be harder to clean, but that’s why I brought a backup pair. It might splash onto the people around me. That one was harder to justify. I also thought about pissing into an empty plastic water bottle, but I didn’t want to be referred to as “the guy who pissed in the water bottle at Ratatat” by anyone, anywhere.

(Just before Ratatat started, some guy near the front threw up and had to walk out. I think anyone who saw this now thinks of that guy as “the dude who threw up at Ratatat.” Seeing this made the decision to hold my bladder even better. We kicked sand on the puke so no one would step in it.)

It was a relief when the band came out. It was a welcomed distraction; not only from my enormous bladder, but from everything. Suddenly this band made sense. I’ve never really liked their music — I’ve always thought that it all sounds the same. The context of this show — with multiple projectors and flashing lights on stage, with some fun, tired and easily excitable people near me, with the loud drum claps and synth/ guitar riffs blasting a few feet from my face — allowed me to take something new from them, something I really appreciate.

The pressure in my bladder mounted and I could feel it aching. I had to step out before their set ended to find a port-o-potty. I walked into the first open one I found, regardless of how dirty it was (and at almost 4AM, they were the shittiest I had seen yet). Inside, there were two areas for catching bodily material/ fluids: a urinal trough on the left and a toilet in the center. Someone had pooped in the urinal trough and others had pissed on top of that, causing it to clog with the shit. I could barely see this in the darkness, but the moon shone through the vents just enough. It all smelled wretched, like I fell into a sewer. I made note of this and shook my head as I relieved myself in the toilet, feeling my bladder empty and the pressure that it was putting on my other organs release.

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