Morning came pretty early on Day Three as the pointless musings of Ted and Alice’s dopey friend pulled me from Slumberland. She was going on about the Disco Biscuits show, which Fumo and I had skipped because we weren’t in any condition to start a show at 2am. However, the rest of her group had been there, so she wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know, except possibly that she had convinced herself one of the band members noticed she had cut her hair recently.
Friday’s rain had made the ground quite muddy. Thankfully, I had brought my hiking boots at the recommendation of the website. Fumo and I went into the grounds early and caught Hightide Blues, a young quartet from Atlanta, GA that earned its appearance through a radio-station contest. They kept the small group of attendees dancing amidst the raindrops with their modern Southern rock.
The sun burned through the clouds pretty quickly during the Soul Rebels Brass Band set. Since the two largest stages had no tents, people set up near trees, refreshment stands, garbage cans, and even larger concert-goers to beat the heat. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, who I became captivated with after Coachella, performed with low energy, so Fumo and I gave up quick. Thankfully, Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet featuring Béla Fleck sounded tight and their upbeat bluegrass music invigorated us. So much so, we paid no attention to the fact the only members unnamed, cellist Ben Sollee and fiddler Casey Driessen, didn’t add up to a quartet with Fleck.
Many comments were made that Metallica seemed out of place at Bonnaroo, yet I never heard that same mindset attributed to Mastadon. Sure, they are more progressive metal compared to Metallica’s speed, but damn if they weren’t just as loud, as heavy, and as compelling. It’s better to hear and appreciate a band like this mixed with other genres instead of sandwiched in with similar bands.
Fumo had headed back to camp to recharge while I went to spend time with another legend whose path I am not likely to cross too many more times, the 82-year-old B.B. King. Early in the set, there was a break in the action as the mayor of Manchester honored King with the key to the city. I found the intensity of the late afternoon heat unbearable. I could only tolerate so much while listening to B.B.’s set, which was too easy going. The music didn’t stand out enough to keep me hooked, so I ventured back to the car.
On the way back, I saw Alice among the vendors. I was going to say, “Hello,” but she caught the attention of another fellow when she let him know she had nuggets for sale. They disappeared among the parked cars, and I could only hope she was an equal partner in this operation, because it doesn’t seem to gentlemanly to have your girl slinging, but then I make no claims of understanding the mind of the modern woman.
After a breather and a bite to eat, Fumo and I returned for Jack Johnson who was lucky to have been scheduled at 8pm because his mellow rock would have lost people in the afternoon heat, but as it was, he created a good vibe and the audience enjoyed it. Eddie Vedder came out to play a song towards the end of the set.
Fumo was making friends as he smoked out some people standing next to us. After a few puffs, they asked where we were from, and after he stated, “California,” they seemed startled and backed off the pipe. Apparently Tennessee weed isn’t as strong as California, and they got much higher than they expected. Our new pal, Dale, remarked, “My buddy had two hits, which was one too many, and I had four hits, which was three and half hits too many.” Fumo is a serious dope fiend, and during Johnson’s set would have a few puffs off the pipe every other song. At one point late in his set, Dale tapped me on the shoulder and asked in a combination of bewilderment and awe, “Is he still getting high?” If competitive marijuana smoking becomes a sport, and don’t immediately dismiss it without considering how huge competitive food gorging has become, I will always bet on Fumo and give the points.
Pearl Jam took the stage and plowed through a rockin’, hit-packed set, close to three hours, which was longer than they had been scheduled. Vedder spoke to the crowd a couple of times about the Iraq War and Bush to a mixed response. He was understandably upset because the health of his friend Tomas Young, the subject of the documentary Body of War, had taken a dire, and possibly, fatal turn. Vedder took the stage after one break and sang “No More” about the war, but couldn’t get the crowd to join him like he has on other dates. The band closed with a blistering version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
Fumo called it a night, and I went over to see Phil Lesh & Friends, who had a surprisingly enormous crowd at 1am laid out under the moonlit sky. The bodies went so far back that some people were hearing other stages. After a few familiar tunes that they performed quite well, I had to tap out and get back to camp.
Day Four was Africa hot, foreshadowed when I awoke to discover the inside of the tent sweating. The sky was blue and not a cloud could be found all day. Even with sunscreen on, the sun felt still like it was burning your skin on contact. It had to be the worst day for your body, yet we continued to witness people’s skin in a wide array of colors from the levels of tan and burn they sported. Some bodies were even multi-colored, and on a few individuals you could see where they had swiped sunscreen on, but not rubbed it in. Hand prints swiped across shoulders and the base of the back, creating a false sense of UV security.
We heard through the grapevine that Kanye West’s elaborate glow-in-the-dark show didn’t go off right. He had moved from 8:15pm on a smaller stage to late night on the main stage, but he didn’t start until 4:25am and the dawn’s early light came up before he finished. “Fuck Kanye!” was a common refrain throughout the day voiced by many people. Kanye responded to the incident on his blog.
We caught the Sparrow Quartet up close on the small stage and they made the heat bearable. Spending more time with them, we learned that while their music sounds like bluegrass, it’s really a hybrid folk music because Abagail alternates singing in English and Chinese, revealing a commonality in the cultures. She was also the first artist to make a crack about Kanye.
At the end of her set, we went to see Robert Randolph’s Revival and our bodies were on autopilot as we found a great shady spot and savored it. Since his act was listed as Revival and not Family Band, we expected something different, but when the band took the stage, the large ensemble played a vastly different, more African sound. This radical change in sound was explained by our being at the wrong stage. After giving Orchestra Baobab a couple of songs to capture our interest, we headed over to find more familiar Randolph tones. Even though the set had started, we found a spot that was going to be shady, but the heat was too much to tolerate the wait. We grabbed a spot blocked by a recycle center as Randolph finished off his gospel-tinged set, but not before mentioning Kayne’s misstep.
For Yonder Mountain String Band, Fumo and I joined the many camped out under a mist tent. The hair on my arms and legs were lightly covered in small droplets of water. We then moved closer and scooted our chairs around following the oddly shaped shade provided by a speaker tower. Even in the heat, YMSB had people up on their feet dancing. Before they left, they also took a shot at Kanye.
We were going to check out Solomon Burke but hunger and a concern about shade were too strong of a motivator, so we grabbed dinner and got spots for my most anticipated act of the weekend: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. They, along with bandleader T-Bone Burnett and a group of talented musicians, delivered a fantastic set of music, mostly taken from their album Raising Sand. The biggest response from the crowd was their Zeppelin covers. “Battle of Evermore” sounded similar to the original, but “Black Dog” was turned inside out. No longer the dynamic rocker of youthful lust that matches the opening lyrics, the music now resembles the lyrics that close the song of the man who “found out/ What people mean by down and out” opening with a broken jack-in-the-box guitar riff that led into intense wailing of the violin. Krauss took the lead vocal on a couple of songs, which slowed things down too much, as many kids streamed out, likely to catch Death Cab for Cutie, but I found the entire performance to be one of the best sets of the weekend.
With Widespread Panic left on the bill for us, likely playing until midnight, thoughts of the drive home to California and the potential of taking just as long to get out of Bonnaroo as it took to get in, the scales weighed toward leaving immediately. We knew we could find the WSP shows online, so we headed homeward bound where our loves lied waiting, as Paul Simon described it.
My Bonnaroo 2008 experience was a grand success. There was an unbelievable amount of good music at nearly every turn. In fact, considering how much I didn’t get to take part in, if I hadn’t had so many marvelous memories, the event would be bittersweet. Hopefully every artist I missed and was curious about was recorded by some taper who will make the shows available online. I would recommend the event to all no matter what it takes to get there and be a part of it.