Bonnaroo 2008 – Morningbell’s Perspective

Glide contributor Travis Atria made his debut appearance at Bonnaroo this past weekend – not as a member of the pres but as musician.   Atria’s band Morningbell, was selected to play the Sonic Stage at the premier festival, a gig that he soon won’t forget.

Friday – We sped through the mountains, winding our way to Manchester, Tennessee where the Bonnaroo music festival is held each year.


This year, my band Morningbell won the OurStage “College Battle for the Roo” and was selected to perform at the festival.  I went in 2006 as a member of the press and left with that heady glow that comes with watching the best music in the world for three days.  My expectations of ever being a part of that music were an extremely long pipe dream at best.


But, here we are.  We checked in at a Holiday Inn close to the festival site and were given our credentials, wristbands and maps.  So far, no royal treatment – it takes them 10 minutes or so to even verify that we’re actually playing.  I’m fine with that, though – I am, after all, no Robert Plant.


As we parked and walked in through the backstage area, we passed several giant tour buses with bands sitting outside of them.  I consider myself well versed in current music, but didn’t recognize a soul except for the singer from De Novo Dahl.


The festival is quite a scene:  imagine if a city of 80,000 people suddenly was erected over night for the sole purpose of throwing an intense, four-day party and then vanished.


There are people everywhere – a giant mass of humanity walking, dancing, sitting, smoking, singing, hula hooping and, depending on how the day has gone, lying face down in the grass … people with muddy feet, stringy hair and sunburns … drunk people, high people, people whose eyes are ringed and fiery, their minds flying somewhere in the stratosphere.


As we walk in, we watch a bit of Les Claypool – that rare breed of man who is as funky as he is bizarre.  But, a festival of this size presents some difficult choices because artists’ sets often overlap.  Friday is, in my mind, the comedy day, so we leave Claypool’s set and decide to forego The Raconteurs, despite their seemingly endless parade of glowing reviews, to catch comedian Zach Galifianakis in the Bonnaroo Comedy Theatre.


Galifianakis is one of the most interesting, boundary-pushing comedians of his era.  He doesn’t have jokes, per se, but rather goes on absurdist tangents and creates characters like The Guy Who Talks About the Garfield Move Way Too Much.  He ends his set with ridiculous pastiche of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” complete with a painfully corny video of himself singing and dancing.


While waiting for Galifianakis’ show, we get our first taste of what it means to be an artist at Bonnaroo – a man handing out tickets shows us the special line where we get to stand.  He asks me the name of my band and I tell him.  “Sorry, but I’ve never heard of you,” he replies.  “That’s OK,” I say.  “There are about 80,000 people here who have never heard of us.”  Another man at the entrance to the tent gets us V.I.P. seating and offers us free bottled water, which is worth its weight in gold here. 


Later, we just miss the end of Rilo Kiley’s set and decide to catch a bit of Willie Nelson.  Although the sound wasn’t particularly great, Willie Nelson is Willie Nelson.  We watched “On the Road Again,” “You Were Always on My Mind” and a few other classics from special bleachers.


Now the main comedy event – Chris Rock.  After an introduction from Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich, he takes the stage with that searing voice and manic energy that made him famous.  Put simply, Rock is the only comedian who can do a 15 minute bit on the differences between men and women and have every second of it be original, incisive and off color. 


At the end of his set it starts lightly raining, and we decide to call it a night – there’s a long weekend ahead and we have to perform early Sunday.

Saturday – I had to miss most of the day because of a family wedding, but got back right at the end of Pearl Jam’s set.  They finished with a hair-raising version of “Alive” and we shot over to the Movie Tent to see Wayne Coyne introduce the Flaming Lips’ new movie, “Christmas on Mars.”  The movie sets looked great (Coyne built many of them himself), and the movie has enough interesting shots, great spooky music and gratuitous use of the term “motherfucker” to make it worthwhile.  We left early because it was past 3 a.m. and we had to be ready at 10:30 a.m. Sunday for our set.  We could hear Kanye West, who apparently started more than an hour late, as we chased fitful sleep in a hot, sticky tent.


Sunday – They sent some golf carts to pick us up in the guest parking lot at 10:30 a.m.  A man walked up with a banjo and asked for a ride, but the driver told him he’d have to wait.  The banjo man turned out to be Bela Fleck, and when we realized this, we insisted that he go first.  The cart eventually came back and ferried us to the Sonic Stage.


Because we played at noon, we were pretty much the only thing happening, and the crowd was way bigger than we expected.  They crowd seemed to enjoy our set and we played as well as possible.  Playing at Bonnaroo is hard to describe … imagine if your birthday came 1,000 times a year.


After we finished, we hung out in the backstage tent and waited for Broken Social Scene to come (their first show was scheduled for 2:15 p.m. on the same stage).  There, I got to meet one of my favorite bands as somewhat of an equal, or at least as another musician rather than as just an insane fan.  I acted, however, like an insane fan.  They were incredibly nice, to a person, and I chatted with front man Kevin Drew for five minutes or so, then bass player Brendan Canning for 10 minutes, then singer/guitarist Andrew Whiteman for five more.  I asked Whiteman about a lyric in their song “Looks Just Like the Sun” that I can’t understand and he went blank.  “Now I can’t remember it,” he said.  “Can you sing it to me?”  So I began singing a Broken Social Scene song to a member of Broken Social Scene, but he still couldn’t remember it.  He took the stage and I got a great spot behind the stage on the side to watch the band.  They played songs from “You Forgot It in People,” and when they got to “Looks Just Like the Sun,” lead singer Kevin Drew stepped to the back of the stage, right by me.  After Whiteman began the song, I overheard Drew say, “He sang it wrong.”  I felt this was my fault.


They go into a loose jam, repeating the refrain:  “Put down the bong and vote for Obama / You know that you wanna” and finish their short set.


We went to the main Artist Tent later and schmoozed with some bigwigs from Rolling Stone and a few other magazines and then hit the road.  It does hurt to miss soul legend Solomon Burke, Broken Social Scene’s second set, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss and Death Cab for Cutie, but we had to be in Indiana that night.


I left Bonnaroo with a wonderful feeling.  Festivals like this have come a long way since Woodstock.  No one here really believes that they are going to change the world with music and love.  But at the same time, a real community grows very quickly here.  People generally watch out for each other and are genuinely moved by the music, the place and the experience.


It reminds me of something I overheard Friday night as Willie Nelson segued from “On the Road Again” to “You Were Always on My Mind.  A woman behind me in the bleachers said:  “Now I can die happy.”


It’s comforting to know that music can still do that to someone.


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