Bonnaroo...through the eyes of a rookie
by Thomas Corhern
MANCHESTER -- It was Monday morning. My eyes felt like they could hardly open, just exhausted from the previous days before me.
The experience was overwhelming, an unexplainable feeling of excitement. True, the 2010 edition of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival had just come to a close, and after experiencing the event for the first time through my own eyes, I was ready to start the whole thing all over again.
I just needed a shower first.
Over the nine years the event has been held, I had heard my share of stories about what to expect, what I would see and things to do at the festival. And even after I heard those stories, it all seemed to be much more than what I expected or had imagined. A lot more.
The festival's name derives from Dr. John, a New Orleans rhythm and blues icon, and his 1974 album "Desitively Bonnaroo," which, in Ninth Ward slang, roughly means "a really good time."
That it was.
As fellow Herald-Citizen staffer Ty Kernea, who was vacationing, and I arrived to the Manchester campus, it was a strange sight that beheld my eyes. We had left a little late that afternoon, but it was enough to see the makeshift metropolis created by the campers together in nearly full-force.
Seeing 75,000 people at one place doesn't seem to be all that impressive when you think about one of college football's palaces. For example, the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium holds 102,037 people after its 2006 renovation, nearly 27,000 more than was in attendance in the rural Manchester fields that host the event.
But seeing at least a square mile of Tennessee farmland covered by impromptu tent cities was more of an impressive sight than seeing a large stadium filled to capacity with its patrons packed in like sardines. The campground reached over the horizon, with nearly every square inch covered with cars, tents or RVs.
As we pulled into our spot in Camp Billy Zane -- named for the character actor who appeared in the film "Zoolander," from which our quadrant took its names from characters in that film as every camp was named for a movie character (I'll admit, I secretly hoped for Camp Han Solo or Camp James Bond or even Camp Marty McFly or Camp Clark Griswold, but no luck) -- we immediately went to work putting our campsite together.
Ty and I immediately struck up a bond with our neighbors -- a trio of ladies: Gina Garcia, Nikki Rouse and Maddie Commando, all from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who had played women's rugby, as well as a group from Charlottesville, Virginia and a patron from Nashville. And the camaraderie started over, of all things, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
After camp was set up, Ty and I made our initial trek to Centeroo, where all the magic happens. For the uninitiated, Centeroo consists of the event's stages, the kiosks, and much, much more. But Ty and I went our separate ways as we each wanted to see different concerts pretty much over the course of the weekend. Ty headed straight for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at That Tent, while I made a bee-line for the media compound so I could orient myself with the grounds.
It was much harder than it looked. As soon as we were searched at the entrance, I was overwhelmed. The map I had been sent made it seem like everything was relatively close together. Not quite. It was fairly close, but the proportions created by the campgrounds certainly made Centeroo seem pretty smal
I found my way into the What Stage's audience and watched my first concerts of the night with Tenacious D and Kings of Leon. Between that time, I had my first interview of the event, the electronic band The Crystal Method, who was scheduled to play a 2-to-4 a.m. show.
After Kings of Leon just before midnight on Friday, I walked around the complex, trying to take in the sights and familiarize myself with what the festival had to offer. When the heat had started to get to me, I found the cinema tent, a quick and easy place to cool off. I watched the climax of one of my favorite films, "Shaun of the Dead," then saw a couple of events that piqued my interest.
You see, Bonnaroo isn't just about music. There's also a lot of artistic events as well, mostly taking place at the Planet Roo section of the complex. I arrived at the Solar Stage to see a tribal dance ensemble doing various forms of belly dancing, followed by "Miss Lolly Pop's Burlesque Coterie." Yes, the name describes it all. And seeing the Saturday Night Live-group The Lonely Island's "I'm on a Boat" being performed in a burlesque routine was definitely worth the effort.
I ventured over to watch the Crystal Method, and after watching from the front, stage right, immediately in front of the speakers, as I finally ventured back to Camp Billy Zane, my heart continued to pound. I couldn't get the rhythm out of my head and it made it nearly impossible to sleep. Well, that and the roasting temperatures from inside the tent as the humidity made things uncomfortable quick.
So instead, I stayed up with neighbor Gina, as well as a couple of the other guys and stayed awake until a couple of unintentional quick naps later. That morning, I got maybe 25 minutes of sleep, and it didn't bode well for me for the rest of the day.
Saturday was also when I first learned that no matter how much planning you do, there is absolutely no way you can catch every act that you want to see. It's just impossible. Either they will be scheduled at the same times, or you might sleep through them, or some other circumstance will occur.
On Saturday alone, I missed Conan O'Brien, Weezer and Jack White's latest band, the Dead Weather, all because of varying circumstances. It happens, but you can't really let it bother you, because there really is so much else to see.
I made lemonade out of lemons, taking in Imelda May, the Paper Tongues and a little bit of the World Cup soccer game between the United States and England before I made my way back to the media complex for another round of interviews.
That night, I caught Stevie Wonder and a little bit of Jay-Z before exhaustion started to creep in and made my way back to the campsite, where I finally grabbed a great night of sleep.
But over the course of the day, I also learned the importance of water during the hot and humid afternoon. Ty and I came prepared with four cases of water, but I found myself revisiting the filtered water towers over and over again to stay hydrated. I think I took in 30 to 40 bottles of water in the course of three days.
I also learned that even though I was trying to dress like a reporter -- as I did in my first day at the event on Friday -- at something like this, it's not really feasible. As the weekend wore on, dress shirts made way to T-shirts, jeans worked down to shorts and shoes worked down to sandals or flip-flops -- but even those were dangerous in the mud around the site as I saw several pairs that had gotten stuck in the mud over the course of the weekend.
Then came the final day.
I knew by the end of the day, some of the new friends I had met at the festival would be gone as quickly as they had entered. It was kind of bittersweet and poignant, yet the excitement of the event still shined through. We all shared a breakfast meal with turkey sausage and toast grilled at the site, then made our separate ways once again.
Sunday was the day that presented the most problems as scheduling became even more hectic. I was able to catch Regina Spektor, Martin Sexton, John Fogerty and the Dropkick Murphys, but again, there were more shows that I really wanted to see, like Blues Traveler, Kris Kristofferson and They Might Be Giants.
The evening closed with two great performances from the Zac Brown Band and Dave Matthews Band, bringing the festival to a satisfying end.
As I ventured back to Camp Billy Zane, the camp was a shadow of its former self. All of our neighbors had retreated back to their regular lives, leaving only a scant few in the campgrounds who were going to wait until Monday morning.
One group, after I had stashed my equipment back in my camp, came up to Ty and I offering us one last shot before the event was finally over. I thought to myself, a toast to what had been three of the most grueling, exhausting, yet exciting and entertaining days of my lives. I took it, continuing to lend out my hand in a hospitable spirit -- after all, that's one of the things the event is about.
As the sounds of Centeroo started to fade, Ty and I sat and talked, reminisced about the things we had seen and done, then drifted off to our quarters and called it a night.
The sun rose quickly that morning.
I woke, stepped outside the tent and saw even fewer cars remaining than the night before. The realization hit me -- it was time to go home.
It was barely 8:30 a.m. when we finally made our way into the line back onto the highways, smooth sailing on the way back to Cookeville.
I could hardly keep my eyes open, because it had been a very busy weekend. One that saw me going in so many directions.
But by the end of it all, I couldn't help but think about the great times and the pros definitely outweighed the cons.
Was the trip worth it? Absolutely. Would I have changed anything? Not at all. And as we hit Cookeville city limits, I realized I needed two things -- a cold shower and a long nap. Bonnaroo was done for another year, and for my first trip, I loved every minute of it. It was a non-stop thrill ride because you never really knew what was going to happen next. And I can't wait to get the opportunity to get on the ride one more time.