the curmudgeonly guide to the largest grossing independent festival in the U.S.A.

My wife urged me to check my email from across the living room this February.

The new Bonnaroo lineup had been announced.

As music fans and residents of Tennessee, we have ample opportunities to participate in a variety of music events; some mundane, some historic. Bonnaroo is one such opportunity — and it can be mundane, or historic; sometimes, both. The 2006 Bonnaroo lineup sounded tempting as she started rattling off the preliminary roster:

World Party. Seu Jorge. Dungen. Bettye Lavette. Oysterhead. Steve Earle. Sonic Youth. Elvis Costello with Allen Toussaint. My Morning Jacket. Amadou & Miriam. Doctor John. Mike Doughty. Son Volt. Radiohead.

A 700 acre patch of land in rural Manchester, Tennessee undergoes a transformation once every year.

Much of the time, you could not differentiate Sam McAllister’s gentleman’s farm from any other, but come the third weekend of June, the rolling hills and thick prairie grass of this land gives way to the Bonnaroo Music Festival, reportedly “the largest grossing independent music festival in the country.”

Drawing its name from the 1974 Dr. John LP Desitively Bonnaroo, the Bonnaroo Festival may not be the household word that Woodstock is, but its popularity has steadily grown in five short years. Even in its first, it was a victim of its own success, drawing over 70,000 — overwhelming the expectations of many, and over-running the public resources of Manchester, Tennessee. This success was borne out without saturation-style marketing and advertising campaigns, relying instead upon word-of-mouth. The audience, traditionally, has been that of the “jam band circuit.” Phish, Trey Anastasio, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Widespread Panic, Galactic, String Cheese Incident, and Dave Matthews Band have been regulars for this festival since its inception in 2002.

In 2006, the buzz was that the promoters were going to emphasize eclecticism and — while still featuring the jam bands that have been its core draw — to invite a wide variety of international, jazz, and indie acts to participate.

So, the question was, “Do we go?” There was some hassle, and it costs a considerable bit to go, too. It looks worth it, though. Browsing the list, Radiohead alone sealed the deal.

It was a lot of fun last time. In 2004, we were drawn to Wilco, Yo La Tengo, Los Lobos, and Camper Van Beethoven.

Pondering options ... do we want to camp? (One could camp onsite for no additional charge, and then there were RV, VIP, and hotel packages besides.)

Camping may sound OK, but the idea of being wedged in among tens of thousands in the blistering summer heat didn’t sound very appealing — especially considering that showers and bathrooms were both primitive and less than private. We opted for a hotel package. Our experience with that was pretty good last time, aside from getting to the festival on the first day.

Accessing the venue is, by and large, the single biggest logistical nightmare.

Traffic is the proverbial golf ball through a garden hose. 80,000 people come down one of two interstate highways — I-75 from the east, and I-24 from the west. Two state roads interconnect these, but virtually all traffic eventually crosses Route TN-55 at a vaguely improved, two-lane farm road.

(Here’s what it looks like from the air. The area immediately south of New Bushy Branch Road and east of I-24 is pretty much the grounds.)

Why here? Largely due to the ill-fated Itchycoo Park Music Festival in 1999. It featured Starship, Styx, Grand Funk Railroad, Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, The Nelsons, Rare Earth, Firefall, and Christopher Cross. Perhaps not surprisingly, this Jurassic Park of 70s AOR failed to draw, but significant capital went to establish a number of facilities. Bonnaroo’s promoters, AC Entertainment of Knoxville, TN and Superfly Entertainment of New Orleans, LA, would exploit these facilities.

At the appointed weekend, we set out for Bonnaroo late Thursday evening. We focused on the concert schedule, and inked up an ambitious itinerary. We staked out the most important shows to each of us — ones for which we would find very hard to find compromise. My pick in the triage exercise for Friday was World Party, and hers was Oysterhead. By the time we had made our way down, it was late, and we opted to get up early so that we could hopefully catch the first show.

Last time, it was almost disastrous. We had seen the queue of traffic down TN-55 on Thursday night but wrongly assumed how long it would take to access the venue. We were going by 9:00 a.m., but moved scarcely 4/10 of a mile in the next three hours. We got to a point where we could ditch our car, pack up some water and necessaries, grab the tickets, and hoof it the rest of the way in, which took under half an hour. Once we got to the grounds, though, no one took our tickets. We wound up running into security and explained how we had gotten as far as we had, and further complained that the one show we had really wanted to see was about to start. To their credit, the grounds manager took us aboard his ATV to get bracelets — and then he dropped us off in time to grab a patch of ground so we could see Wilco (featuring Nels Cline for about the third time).

But this year? We sailed into the grounds. Finally, someone figured out how to get more golf balls through the hose — use a bigger hose. Now, instead of forcing everyone through 2 gates at a single two-lane checkpoint, traffic was brought onto a swath of land where many more gates were set up. We were parked and ready to get into the venue hours before show time, rather than minutes before.

Everything revolves around the main area, called Centeroo. This is the center of commerce, of food, of water, and of shade for the next few days. This is where most of the “side” performances are held. The stages bear quaint names. There is the What Stage, the Which Stage, That Tent, This Tent, That Other Tent. This theme appears somewhat cryptic at first, until the first time you try to coordinate a meet-up, or to give directions as to your next destination.

“Meet me at that tent.” “Which?” “No, that tent.” “You mean this tent?” “No, I mean that other tent.” “What tent?” “No, that tent. I think ‘what’ is actually a stage.” “Where’s that band going to be?” “This tent.” (After a few rounds of these “stoner humor” exchanges in the 90+ degree heat, the impromptu Abbott & Costello sessions wear thin.)

These tents are vast and vaulted, and the sight lines are great. They are open on three sides, and functionally, they provide some of the most ample shade on the grounds. There are a number of scattered, ancient oak trees that stand on the site which become magnets for those seeking relief from the oppressive heat. Shade is at a premium at Bonnaroo.

This year, it’s unusually dry, although it has been usually hot. The straw grass is obviously freshly planted — it appears in loose, regular rows, like a balding man with a bad set of plugs. The ground is composed of a simple admixture of (1) dry clayey soil and (2) cow shit in various stages of decomposition. Owing to a shortfall in rainfall, the immediate surface of the ground was mostly a very fine, dry powder that kicked up in clouds as people tromped over it. This cloud got more evident as the human traffic on Centeroo swelled to its peak of 80,000. A brownish, powdery, choking haze thickened as the day progressed, and people started wearing wet rags over their mouths to protect themselves from inhaling this aerial funk. (The only thing possibly worse: Adding a soaking rain to the mix, as in 2004. Then, heavy rains on Saturday turned the entire grounds into a mushy, pasty goo — the consistency of which depended on the depth of the substrate and the odor of which was highly dependent on the age and decomposition rate of the cow shit thereto.)

This year, we are there too early; few of the vendors have opened up shop. There is a tent serving coffee, and that’s a wildly going concern at 9 a.m. Across the way, there’s a large group doing yoga. Not far from them, there is a tremendous display of aluminum cans crushed into a bale, which is approximately 4' cubed. One of these is reported to weigh over a metric ton, and supposedly represents a single day’s usage last year. Chuckling to myself, I get the first whiff of cannabis smoke just as I wonder aloud, “Gee. You gotta wonder how big the bale of marijuana representing a single day’s use at Bonnaroo would be.”

Even I concede that such consumption is a good thing. With 80,000 people jostling amongst one another for position in front of the stages, especially in less than ideal temperatures, pot is probably the most effective peace-keeper, and it is omnipresent.

Yet, make no mistake: There is a very visible public safety presence. The police, for that matter, do their jobs efficiently. National Fire & Rescue Magazine quotes 2004 statistics: police confiscated 84 nitrous oxide tanks, over 100 pounds of marijuana, and 12 pounds of psilocybin (although according to The Manchester (TN) Times, there were 50% fewer arrests in 2006 than in 2005).

Outside of the grounds, the Tennessee State Patrol, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and adjacent jurisdictions see considerably more activity during Bonnaroo. These agencies coordinate to make sure that traffic flows smoothly into the site and does not disrupt the normal flow of interstate traffic. For the first few years, this was an incredible headache; traffic jams extended more than 50 miles.

Much of these headaches have been alleviated, and no chances are taken with the safety of participants. The concert promoters take pains to make Bonnaroo a safe experience. There are “Bonnaroo Ambassadors” set up throughout the campground, for example — and all are staffed 24/7 with EMS, security, and Bonnaroo reps. Large, numbered weather balloons float over these sites, and are clearly illuminated at night. Coffee County — the jurisdiction in which Bonnaroo takes place — allocates 28 sworn officers and 18 reserve officers to supplement the Manchester police force, as well as the 70 private mounted security hired by AC Entertainment. The Hillsboro Fire Department allocates a full-time staff of eight firefighters and four trucks onsite, while a volunteer staff runs 24 hour shifts among four other trucks. Coffee County EMS adds extra ambulances, and has 26 full-time employees and 15 part-time employees on location. All surrounding counties are on heightened alert. Medevac helicopter transport is available.

We wander over to Which Stage to catch World Party, and we see a huge tie-dyed banner, splashed with the Bonnaroo logo, saying, “THE MANCHESTER CHAMBER OF COMMERCE WELCOMES YOU.” I thought that perhaps this was another bit of stoner humor, but the people hawking $5 Bud drafts and $3 bottled waters were, indeed, from the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Later, I would meet the Manchester Arts Commission as well, but not before being favored to a beautiful, melodic 3-man acoustic set led by Karl Wallinger. World Party ran through a set of some of their most popular songs, which were instantly recognizable, even without the layers of production which typically characterizes their sound.

A relaxing hour sped by, and I started shuffling the schedule and maps. I knew that Seu Jorge was going to play soon, so I suggested that we beat it on over there. When we arrived, the tent was overflowing. There was not a bit of room on any of the three sides. We gamely tried to find a view as Jorge took the stage, playing a Brazilian Portuguese version of “Rebel Rebel” on his nylon-stringed guitar (made famous in Steve Zissou’s The Life Aquatic). Standing and straining for sight lines, we found none. My wife headed towards the shade, and I gamely make an effort for a couple more songs. Dissatisfied, we circle back and consider our options for the rest of the day.

Looking at every stage, it is apparent that every one of them is in the same state as this. Now, it’s a decision whether to suffer through the bad crowds for mediocre offerings, or to go suffer the worst crowds for the best. Wandering around a bit, we find a fruit smoothie stand and recharge, then decided to head over to What Stage for the upcoming Oysterhead show. This band hadn’t toured or had an album out since 2001-2002, and this was an opportunity to see Stewart Copeland performing live, which neither of us had before. I was somewhat reluctant, as I am not a fan of Trey Anastasio, but I liked Les Claypool’s work well enough, and I definitely liked The Police. We staked out a spot during the Steel Pulse show, and took it easy until after their set. Then, it was time to get serious about finding a spot closer to the stage and occupying it for the upcoming hour. As such, we invoke a higher DEFCON and get our best big-stage mojo working.

Here’s how this works: (A) If you need to go to the bathroom, go early. (B) Take in whatever fluids you need to replenish what you're sweating out, but not so much that you have to pee. (C) Work your way up as close to the people in front of you as possible, because any space that you leave will (1) become an invitation for people to use your spot as a throughway, and (2) will become instantly taken up by the sweatiest, stinkiest, and highest person imaginable, or (3) will become a magnet for people at minimum 1' taller than you. This breed of concertgoer also usually arrives immediately as the show begins, having no concept of how long you might have waited or how badly you might want to experience the show yourself. These people, I dub The Bonnarude. These people have overcome all sense of propriety, dignity, cleanliness, or of the concept of “personal space.” Prepare to be elbowed, have your feet stood upon, have your sight obstructed, have cigarettes waved dangerously close to your bare skin, and you must, in turn, waive all rights to plead “foul.” (D) You cannot leave more than 1 square foot unoccupied by 10 minutes until showtime, and less than that once the show starts. (E) Once the show starts, do not consider moving unless you are willing to concede your space (ergo the necessity of an empty bladder). At this point, it’s time to become acquainted with your fellow man (or woman) and all of their sundry aromas, fluids, and funks.

If you are lucky, they will pass a joint or a one-hitter in your direction. This year, not so lucky on that score, though there was a kind soul who had a pump sprayer who kept spritzing the crowd with water, and my wife kept a goodly spray of water going with her battery-operated fan, so at least we stayed reasonably cool.

I am starting to feel my age, though. It takes a certain commitment of energy, a willingness to tolerate constant inconvenience, and some physical endurance (owing to the effects of age on the lower back and other weight-bearing joints). Despite all of this, the show was well worth seeing. I will recall the good moments fondly — such as when Claypool exclaimed to the audience, “I just had to remind Trey of this, and I gotta tell all of you — that’s STEWART FUCKING COPELAND!” It is that glimmer of awe that even accomplished musicians have in the practice of their craft that reminds me of how much I truly love the experience of music.

That said, I am also reminded of how much I truly hate the experience of large groups of people, especially of The Bonnarude. I am completely willing to allow that I am fast becoming an old curmudgeon, but this oft-ascribed “community vibe” of the Bonnaroo experience escapes me.

So, rather than suffer through the concomitant bullshit to see Tom Petty, who is the only act remaining that day, we opted to head back to the hotel for a good hot shower and a fulfilling meal. Over margaritas and salsa that evening, we look towards tomorrow, which promises Dungen, the Swedish psych-rock outfit that was a “must-see” for the both of us. The plan — get up and get over there about an hour before show time so we can scope the merch tent and get a damned good 'n' strategic point of view for this concert.

Bonnaroo is a massive undertaking.

A partial list of logistics for 2006 (provided by festival promoter Ashley Capps) is impressive:

  • 108 bands, 31 comedians and more than 1,400 performers and crewmembers
  • More than 5,000 working personnel
  • 1,500 volunteers
  • 486 stagehands and technicians
  • 50 miles of electrical cable
  • 1,250 portable restrooms
  • 12,000 feet of phone cable
  • 13,000 feet of Ethernet cable
  • 37 backstage and nine public Wireless Hotspots
  • 6.5 million total watts of electrical power generated
  • More than 40,000 feet of fence
  • 15,000 tons of rock to build roads
  • 65,000 gallons of fuel
  • 620 walkie-talkies
  • 1 million pounds of ice
  • More than 1,000 gallons of paint
  • 200 rented musical instruments

For all of this, Bonnaroo brings home the bacon. Actually, Bonnaroo brings home the bacon, the whole hog, a few suckling pigs, and the fatted calf. Preliminary reports estimated the gross receipts at a whopping $18 million for 2006.

According to an economic study by Dr. Murat Arik at Middle Tennessee State University, the revenue impact to Coffee County in 2005 was substantial. The Shelbyville (TN) Times-Gazette reported that direct spending by festival organizers represented $2 million locally, and music fans contributed another $8.6 million. The total economic impact is estimated to be well over $14 million, including over $4 million in personal income, over $400,000 in tax revenue, and nearly 200 jobs.

Coffee County Mayor Rick Pennington said of the festival, “I love Bonnaroo. It’s like having NASCAR come to your city once a year. ”

Considering that per capita income (per census information) in Coffee County is around $24,000 — Bonnaroo represents the sort of economic opportunity for the area which would have many local officials elsewhere in the country begging, bending, and making all sorts of allowances.

For the music fan, the cost is about $200 per ticket, and in return, you are favored with some of the biggest names in music, and some of the best emerging bands on the scene. That seems like a pretty good deal all around. Bonnaroo is historically a guaranteed sell-out event, which doesn’t deter hundreds from coming around and either (a) trying to stow away or counterfeit their way in, (b) from hanging around until someone is good enough to give you a bracelet that they are not going to use anymore, or (c) showing up and taking their chances with a scalper. A Bonnaroo single admission can go for over $800 on the week of the festival, as evidenced on eBay and elsewhere.

The Dungen plan panned out nicely. We’re there in time for sound check, and we readily identify snippets of songs off of their album Ta Det Lungt (“Take It Easy,” if cheap online Swedish-English translators are to be believed). I recognized the keyboard from “Det Du Tänker Idag Är Du I Morgon” and the guitar riff from “Bortglömd” during the warmups. The set was fantastic, despite having to renegotiate position a couple of times, as someone about 6'4" came and stood directly in front of my wife, who is about 5'6". Everything is going really well until we are about three-quarters of the way through, my wife realizes that she didn’t adhere to the strict bladder-emptying regime required to make it through an entire morning set. By the time the band really has gotten going, they are attracting a larger and larger crowd, so once she got out, she was out for the duration. Once the set was over, I grabbed up her stuff that she left behind and made my way through the crowd, which had immediately doubled in size (the next act was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and the crush was on). I had to fight for every footstep, and I wound up not so much leaving as I was extruded from the crowd. As [bad] luck would have it, I lost the one crucial possession which my wife had left behind for me to collect — her sun hat.

In 95 degree weather and 80% humidity, having a good hat is key. I fought my way back through the crowd, but came back empty-handed, so with steam rising from our ears, we strike out onto Centeroo’s dust-choked midway to find a sun hat. This was a harder proposition than I had thought. We noticed, as an aside, that there’s now trash everywhere. Rejected handbills, used cups, broken sandals, wrappers, plastic spoons, water bottles, plastic beer bottles ... seems like a lot of misplaced waste for a festival which prides itself upon being earth-friendly. Not a great place to pasture animals, but given what winds up in the dumpsters, it’s probably true that more makes it into proper waste or recycling containers than gets scattered along the ground.

We finally found an acceptable hat and wandered over to the water truck, which is broken down. We opted to find shade, and made our way over to The Whichever Other Cleverly Named Tent where Amadou & Miriam are performing. We caught the tail end of Bill Frisell, which was pleasant enough to hear, but forget being close enough to watch. Binoculars are going to have to do. It is now officially miserable hot, and despite having shade, frozen lemonade, a couple of beers, and the [mis]fortune to sit by a couple of kids with really good pot who won’t share, goddamnit ... we jostled up the schedule again and approached the rest of the day. It boiled down to how badly we want to see Radiohead, which is, honestly, badly. However, tempering our lust for this show was the fact that (1) it’s going to be a few hours, and (2) we’re basically going to have to suffer through a Beck performance if we want any kind of seat ... er, patch of ground.

We recalled bleacher seats on either side of the Whatever The Fuck Stage, so we headed to those. Those weren’t full to capacity, so we figured that if we are early enough, we could sit there. When we arrive, however, we find that THIS IS VIP SEATING, requiring a quintuple premium ticket. So much that. Plan B: Grab a patch of lawn about 3/4 of the way back, far enough away so that anyone that wants to jam down front can feel comfortable doing so, but not so far back that we can’t see the Jumbotrons. As the crowd kept getting bigger, the diameter of our poorly defended perimeter shrunk to nothing. People sat around waiting for Beck to take the stage, and I thought certainly we’ll be able to enjoy this sitting down, right? People can’t possibly think they’re going to see anything happening on the stage, right?

Wrong. Once “Devil’s Haircut” started, everyone stood up.

Sigh. This just plain isn’t working out. Last time, we sat right up front and watched Wilco and Los Lobos, and did so comfortably. No one got in our way. No one crowded us. People shared. There is definitely a different dynamic at work, and it leads to a simple conclusion for the evening:

Fuck ... this.

Ergo, Plan C: Go to the great local pizzeria on TN-55, drop in at the liquor store for a bottle of rum. Sailor Jerry, if they have it.

Once you wander outside the grounds, the “welcome” that the attendant throng enjoys is arguably thin at best. Many stores have marquees which indicate WELCOME in bold, capital letters, but should you betray your participation by wearing a Bonnaroo bracelet in public, it draws stares that are more than curious. These stares range from suspicious to disgusted. Speculation drives much locally, as most residents do not participate in Bonnaroo. In 2005, only 9% of attendees were from Tennessee.

Popping in at the local DQ in 2004, we were greeted by a group of high schoolers who were genuinely curious about the goings-on, but for whom superstition would be their most prominent guide. They ask about the hippies, and the people walking around naked, and all of the drug-addled weirdness against which their parents have sternly warned them. And while, yes, we did see a number of people walking around in nothing but body paint, we saw piercings of all shapes and gauges, and we observed a Leviathan of American trustafarian culture, you find yourself wanting to say to these kids, “Hey, relax. Once you get old enough, go see for yourself.”

Yet, you can also transcend suspicion and superstition to get useful information. Tonight, we find just such a person as we’re checking out at the drugstore. The cashier is asking us about the heat, and if we have been having fun today. She’s seen our bracelets, and sees how bedraggled we’re looking, and makes the correct assumption about our travels. As we wrap up, another employee decides to take a smoke break, saying, “Oh, yeah. I could tell you stories. I live just down from the festival site. ”

With that as an appetizer, we follow her to the curb outside, and proceed to chat with her about the last couple of days, as well as our experience compared to two years ago. She tells us about how Bonnaroo really does try to make things easier on the locals, and makes constant, consistent improvements.

“Well, that’s got to be some kind of comfort to y’all,” I say. “And it’s got to be especially comfortable for that guy running that farm.”

“Mr. McAllister?”

“Yeah, we heard that he made enough leasing out the land that he doesn’t really need to work anymore.” At least that’s what we’d heard at the pizza place.

“Hell,” she says. “He didn’t really need the money. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a really nice guy. Kinda ... well, you wouldn’t know he was really rich.”

She goes on to tell us that Sam McAllister, the gentleman farmer, was actually a divorcee who’d recently divested himself not only of his marriage, but also of his substantial interest in McDonald’s franchises. According to this woman, he pretty much owned McDonald’s interest from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga along I-24, so it wasn’t like Bonnaroo was his lottery ticket. He was already independently wealthy, and maintained significant holdings in the mid-state. Not quite a Max Yasgur story there.

“He still lives down there and runs that farm, making wine and pasturing cows and whatnot,” she said. “But he still drives around town in his beat up old pickup and you just wouldn’t know that he had all that money.”

As part of “that money” is a lease worth reportedly $1 million a year, and was recently renewed for another five year term. The lease stipulates that (1) every speck of trash gets picked up, and (2) that the land is returned to an agreeable state. “It takes them about six months to get all the trash picked up,” she said. “They have crews that walk arm-in-arm over that whole ground, and they pick up every scrap and every toothpick.” That’s a big job, but a reasonable expectation. Good for McAllister, I think.

“How do people here take to the festival?” I ask.

She tells me that she thinks that people have gotten a little past mere tolerance, because it means a lot of money to the community. Still, it can be a pretty big pain for the folks that have been stranded in their homes by the traffic, and it’s still a sore spot among many. If the community has a chance to help out, however, the locals can be counted upon. She tells of the first year where a church group packed up a van with bottled water and gave it away for free to participants, once word had gotten around that water and ice had run out on-site. Bonnaroo also helps out by donating a pair of tickets to households directly inconvenienced by the festival. While some locals go, “They sometimes just [sell the tickets and] spend the money to get away for a while,” she says.

As for the future, she has heard a rumor that the main stage area might be turned into an amphitheater or stadium, while admitting that this was just in the talking stage.

We confess to being disappointed, and she tells us to call up Jeff “Cellular” (who we later learn is Jeff Cuellar, community relations for AC Entertainment) because she sincerely believes that they do listen, and they do care about what locals think, and they do their best to address concerns.

Sunday morning came, and we sat on the bed doing the math, figuring out what acts we might like to see. Mike Doughty, Steve Earle, Sonic Youth — bands that we both love.

A few hours later, we were wandering around the new addition to the Chattanooga Aquarium, spending a lazy day with butterflies, leafy sea dragons, and iridescent jellyfish. For all practical purposes, we were already halfway there this morning, so instead of seeing acts we had both seen, we’d salvage what was left of our Sunday.

After our side trip, we head back home, and made our way past the Bonnaroo exit, where a huge queue of traffic started to form heading out.

We thought that, all in all, this has been a good weekend.

But it’s going to take a fuckin’ Kinks reunion to get us back.