It was hot at Bonnaroo yesterday. (How hot was it?) It was so hot, I could have poached an organic free-range egg in my Nalgene bottle. It was so hot, the mice crawled out of Jamey Johnson’s beard, hoping to catch a breeze. It was so hot, They Might Be Giants only got halfway through “Particle Man” before he evaporated. I’ve got a million of ‘em, folks. Try the veal.
It was so very hot, in fact, that your brave festival correspondent, namely me, decided to forgo the photo pits – always a good 30 degrees or so worse than the temperature outside – and just see as much music as I could. At a music festival! It was a crazy decision, and one that paid off. Between 2 and 8 p.m., I saw a grand total of 14 bands, and time-coded my notes as I went to give you a minute-by-minute recap of my travels leading up to the Dave Matthews Band and their big closing set on the mainstage. Oh, how I was looking forward to “Ants Marching”! All day, as I walked under the oppressive sun, that was my thought: Just a few more hours, and you get to hear “Ants Marching”! Keep going! You can do it! Almost there!
After the jump: Jamey Johnson, Regina Spektor, Against Me(!), Fogerty, Ween, They Might Be Giants, Miranda Lambert, Phoenix, and yet another lesson in why the secret to life is low expectations…
2:20 p.m. It’s blazing hot. I’ve finally swapped the rain boots for flip-flops, and despite a liberal application of sunscreen, my toes are still on fire. On the mainstage, John Butler is dedicating a song to the men fighting wars abroad, and the people suffering from the BP oil leak, or what he calls “the greed in the Gulf.” Then Butler – the remains of his trio on break – plays a long, beautiful, solo instrumental on his acoustic guitar. The melody is placid and calming, with lots of hammered-on arpeggios; he’s not using a pick, just the weight of his fingers on the fretboard to summon the notes. Then a moment of distortion, and the song picks up an Irish jig rhythm that accelerates to a climax so expansive and rich that my face spreads into an instinctive grin. Joy spreads into the universe. It is a marvelous, marvelous song.
2:35 p.m. I am hearing Lucero for the first time. As a loyal Hold Steady fan, I appreciate the keyboard work, and their horn section got me itching for DMB later. (“Ants Marching”!) Frontman Ben Nichols may sound a bit like Dr. Teeth (of the Electric Mayhem) when he sings. Google tells me the slow song I heard was “Mom” – Nichols apologized for bringing it down in the middle of the day like that – and then a bit of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” led into the anthemic “Smoke,” which I very much enjoyed.
2:50 p.m. Jamey Johnson, who is still sporting a black cast on his right arm, is reminding everyone that the high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high. I buy a beer and perch on a picnic table, impressed yet again at the insta-classic country songs that have poured out of Johnson in the last few years. Around me, the throngs of people from Saturday have diminished considerably. Not sure if that’s because they all left after Jay-Z, or if they’re all passed out under a trash can somewhere. Stayed on my picnic table for three more, including “Lonely At the Top,” which I think comes from his upcoming Guitar Songs album.
3:08 p.m. Blues Traveler are always such a great festival band, primarily because John Popper’s harmonica sounds really good when you’re standing outside. Heard “You, Me, and Everything,” and “But Anyway” had a nice jammy little drum solo in the middle. I decide to move on and take about three steps in the other direction when “Runaround” starts. The crowd goes wild. I stop walking and sing along.
3:23 p.m. Regina Spektor is holding down a pretty large audience over on the Which Stage, and as I climb the bleachers in the back and find a seat, she starts “Laughing With.” “No one laughs at God in a hospital,” she sings, her voice and piano clear, a lovely string section backing her. “No one laughs at God in a war.” You know when I laugh at God? When it’s four thousand degrees outside and I finally get a seat on the bleachers and a nice breeze picks up, but the breeze smells like garbage, just an intense, intense rotting trash smell so violent I have to get down from the bleachers to breathe. Then I might laugh at God a bit. After singing along with “On the Radio” – “this is how it works / you’re young until you’re not” may be my motto for the weekend – I decide to move on and take about three steps in the other direction when “Better” starts. The crowd goes wild. I stop walking and sing along.
3:34 p.m. I crossfade the end of “Better” into “High Pressure Low” by pretty much running to This Tent for Against Me(!). Find a big empty spot and put down my backpack and think about pogoing for the first time all festival. Sure enough, when they start “New Wave,” I can’t help myself. If you saw a dork jumping up and down with a sun-brella outside the Against Me tent yesterday, fellow Bonnaroovians, that was me. I jumped through “White Crosses,” I jumped through “White People for Peace.” I belted out the chorus to “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” with appropriate remorse, having just spent the weekend with access to VIP, and wondered if it was inappropriate to do the Molly Ringwald during a song called “Suffocation,” then did it anyway. Finally, I do not know why on earth former Hold Steady keyboardist and professional mustache-haver Franz Nicolay has joined up with this band, but the high harmonies sounded great.
4:13 p.m. Made the hike to the mainstage for John Fogerty, who’s in the middle of “Born on the Bayou” when I arrive. One of America’s most solid live performers, he neither looks nor sounds any different than the other times I’ve seen John Fogerty. I make it through “Wrote A Song For Everyone” and “Don’t You Wish It Was True” before succumbing to the heat and fleeing back to the tents.
4:35 p.m. Kris Kristofferson is getting old, and I think he knows it – rumor is he’s considering retirement. So I will forever treasure the memory of hearing him sing “Darby’s Castle” and “Me And Bobby McGee” with a proud, quavering voice and an out of tune guitar.
4:47 p.m. They Might Be Giants are under attack from the infernal Lunar Stage, where, once again, a bunch of drunks are karaokeing “With A Little Help From My Friends” thanks to the magic of Beatles Rock Band. I tuck in closer to avoid the sound bleed, and enjoy “Meet the Elements” and the always-entertaining stage banter of the Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell. “Is it all dudes?” Flansburgh asked, gazing out over the audience. “Or is it dudes with their 4’8” girlfriends?” A breeze picks up. It does not smell like trash. They play “Particle Man” and splice in a little of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” at the end. I decide to move on and take about three steps in the other direction when “Your Racist Friend” starts. The crowd goes kinda wild, or maybe that’s just me. I stop walking and sing along. Then I stay even longer, because they are doing “Doctor Worm,” a song about a worm who is not a real doctor but is a real worm, an actual worm. It is maybe one of the happiest songs ever written, with a great horn part. (Everyone brings horns to Bonnaroo!) At the end, there’s a little tiny confetti drop, and everyone cheers. Suck it, Flaming Lips! Then TMBG pull out the sock puppets, which don’t work all that well from 100 yards away, and I take off.
5:17 p.m. Dropkick Murphys dedicate “God Willing” to a friend who passed away yesterday. There appear to be fewer crazy Irish/Red Sox fans waving flags in their audience than usual.
5:24 p.m. I try and fail to understand the appeal of Ween, but I do enjoy yelling “WEEEEEEEEN!” several times to no one in particular.
5:48 p.m. After swinging by the press trailer to eat a slice of pizza and fetch more water (okay, and sit in air-conditioning for a hot minute), I am back out to try again with Ween. I believe they are doing “Voodoo Lady.” I give it everything I’ve got.
6:00 p.m. I have fled back to Kristofferson, who’s closing his set with a duet of “For the Good Times” alongside Jamey Johnson, who looks happier than I’ve ever seen him. Then Kristofferson walks off stage and through a throng of admirers to a waiting shuttle van, and is gone.
6:30 p.m. Right after Kristofferson, we found a stray BlackBerry in a golf cart and spent most of the previous half hour trying to figure out how to return it to its owner. Believe it or not, we succeeded. Bonnaroo magic! Then I went to go pass out in the sun and listen to the Zac Brown Band. They are a good band for passing out in the sun.
6:50 p.m. I walk up to Miranda Lambert’s tent right as she starts “Famous in a Small Town.” My favorite blonde country star is wearing a sequined vest and confidently strutting the stage in front of a fancy neon/video content backdrop, and she sounds great, her voice and her success apparently peaking at the same time. I get another beer and rock out to “Dead Flowers” in an almost inappropriately expressive way. “This is maybe the first show I’ve ever done where I could get a contact high,” Miranda muses. Stayed here for a long portion of her set – including a great moment when Miranda sat down with just her guitar and, as a tribute to the man who’d stood on this stage the day before, covered John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” – and took off after a goosebump-inducing version of “House That Built Me.” Very, very proud of Ran-Ran. She’s a great argument for the benefits of proper artist development. Be patient, record labels! If there’s talent there, it’ll show.
7:49 p.m. I climb the fence at the packed Phoenix stage and just watch people go nuts for the Frenchmen. Secretly I do not know the music of Phoenix all that well (I even misidentified “1901” to a friend as “1501”), but I like the sound of it, and from my perch above the crowd, I drank in the sights of the ‘Roo one last time as the sun set orange and pink over the trees. A helicopter cut the sky, balloons waved on the horizon, beach balls bounced over upstretched arms, and the ferris wheel spun its technicolor frame in the distance. The band sounded great and the fans received them rapturously. In the slot where Band of Horses so beautifully helped me ease my transition back to reality last year, I found Phoenix more than fulfilling.
8:34 p.m. There are no bandaids in the press trailer. I patch up my bleeding, oozing blisters with a couple of baby wipes and some gaff tape.
9 p.m. The Dave Matthews Band starts the final set of the festival with “Don’t Drink the Water,” and someone sets off a flock of those beautiful flying Chinese lanterns, which drift into the sky like glowsticks with wings. “Thank you for sticking around,” says Dave. The night has cooled down, and the band sounds great – they clearly derive so much enjoyment from one another, always flocking to the point on the stage where someone is soloing and appreciating the musicianship with broad smiles. There seems to be a lot of well-rehearsed improvisation going on, if that makes sense. “You Might Die Trying” brings Dave’s first funny chicken dance of many, and Jeff Coffin’s extended tenor sax solo at the end of “Lying in the Hands of God” is totally transcendent, and also reminds me a lot of Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles, which is a good thing. Fireworks go off at 9:30 – they would go off twice more in the 11 o’clock hour – and the crowd is a merry, jiggling mass as DMB switches from folk to rock to the jazzy, loungey stuff I find least interesting. Every song is about ten minutes long. I start to tire, but every time I think I can’t go on, they switch the tempo, zig when I think they’re going to zag, and it peps me up. The video content flows across screens at the top of the stage that look like a technicolor claw lifting the band up to the heavens. It’s dazzling, and looks crazy expensive.
They do “Tripping Billies” and the (as Dave explains) rarely-played “Can’t Stop.” By 10 p.m., Dave had sweated all the way through his shirt, and it looked like a sound guy had to come out and wipe down his guitar pickup. I groove to “Why I Am,” and the appearance of “Jimi Thing” sparks a crowd-wide campfire singalong, the opening acoustic chords a welcome sonic respite from the band’s thunderous wall of sound. At some point a little snippet of Prince’s “Sexy Motherf—er” emerges, and we all shake that ass. “Time Bomb” is huge, and segues into “Two Step.” There is a drum solo that goes on forever. Frankly, at this point, everything was going on forever. But still I hung on, safe with the knowledge that eventually “Ants Marching” would come, and my four-day journey across these fields would be complete.
“Ants Marching” never came. Neither did “Satellite,” or “Crash Into Me,” or “So Much to Say,” or “What Would You Say,” or even “You and Me,” the song DMB performed so wonderfully at this year’s Grammys, so wonderfully that I bought the video of the broadcast version off iTunes. Look: I am not that girl who shows up screaming “Play the hits!” at festivals, but I do believe quite strongly that you’ve got to make some concessions to the casual fans in the crowd. Out of 70,000 people, that’s bound to be a pretty sizeable chunk. You have to throw those people a bone. If you are Dave Matthews, and you are closing out Bonnaroo, I believe that means you have to play “Ants Marching.” But maybe that’s just me.
Omissions aside, it was hard to complain about the encore: a delicate and very credible cover of Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done” performed by Dave alone, which led into a slow and somber first verse of “All Along the Watchtower.” And talk about a band with power, Mixers – when that number exploded into the full band, I almost came out of my shoes. To put it over the top, they threw in the guitar solo from “Stairway to Heaven” – I’ll be honest, at this point I was so exhausted that I spent a little time freaking out and trying to figure out if they’d actually been playing “Stairway to Heaven” the whole time and I’d just confused the lyrics in my head, or hallucinated the entire last four days and I was actually in Boca watching the Mantovani Orchestra do “Tiny Bubbles” or something – and then went back to “Watchtower” and ended with a gut-busting ROAARRRR from Dave, and more fireworks, and then they were done. I made a sad little squeaking noise, and put away my notebook, pulled the earplugs from my ears, and stared for a minute at the “Thank you!” message on the jumbotrons before hiking up the backpack one last time for the walk to my car.
And that, gentle readers, was my Bonnaroo. Enough out of me. Did you go? What did you think? Are you okay?