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Down & Dirty at Bonnaroo


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By Caitlin O'Hara



Climbing out of our tent into the fresh air, I felt a thin layer of dust coat my feet, legs, dress, eyes and hair.

I was armed with sunscreen high enough to protect alabaster skin, a 24-ounce water bottle, trail mix and my Converse All Stars — tied tight.

My friends and I walked around with our collective grins spread as wide as the campground. I was ready for my first Bonnaroo.

The team had a rough outline of a plan. We’d circled favorite bands on our pocketed schedules, but our most important strategy would be endurance and flexibility.

Overzealous and enthusiastic first-timers might opt to skip eating, drinking and taking care of themselves to see, hear and experience everything. This is just not possible.

Bonnaroo is 80,000 campers and more than 10 stages of music. There is a comedy tent, a film tent, a Broo’ers Festival, food trucks and artists’ booths. It’s all stretched across 700 acres in Tennessee.

You might find yourself dancing to Ludacris one moment, and lying in the sun enjoying Rodrigo y Gabriela the next.

The atmosphere at Bonnaroo can change drastically from show to show, from campsite to campsite, but a constant vibe of excitement runs through all Bonnaroovians.

Sure, some of the excitement can be attributed to the drug sub-culture, but most of it stems from the love of music and the desire to share the experience with friends old and new.

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival collects artists of varying acclaim. The 2012 event, June 7-10, showcased up-and-coming acts like Bloomington’s own The Main Squeeze, but still invited fans to enjoy music legends with headlining sets by The Beach Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead and festival veterans Phish. 

After setting up camp Thursday night, we excitedly headed to Centeroo (the home of the stages, tents and vendors) for our first show.

It was nearing 2 a.m. Friday, and we’d missed most of Thursday’s acts on our drive up, but the team remained overjoyed.

We stopped at a sheltered tent to hear Nashville, Tenn., band Cherub and it hit me: My next three full days are devoted to documenting and enjoying what Rolling Stone called one of the 50 moments that changed rock ’n’ roll history.

After this epiphany — and slight overwhelmedness — I found myself sitting on the ground, with the worried faces of my roommate and boyfriend floating above, asking me if I was feeling all right.

I had fainted in the crowd within my first three hours. I had some acclimating to do.

I was seeing Radiohead the next day, for god’s sake. I needed to ready myself.

On Friday afternoon, tUnE-yArDs brought the engaging energy I’d experienced when I saw the band last summer at Pitchfork Music Festival and at Rhino’s in Bloomington. While followers of the band know that head lady Merrill Garbus creates intricate loops and layers of sounds, seeing her loop percussion and vocals live is a sound to behold.

Garbus played Bonnaroo with an intensity and passion that sent a heartbeat into her crowd, and she later seemed taken aback by the size and adoration of her audience. She humbly thanked the crowd, who was just as grateful to share the show.

After that great set, my clan headed to a hydration pod to re-fuel and cool down. This is essential to a successful ’Roo mission. After a long Friday of ’Roo-ing, I felt my eyes drooping through the opening songs of my favorite band. I felt like a traitor.

And lo, the magical arpeggio of the first notes of “Everything In Its Right Place” filled my ears. The crowd erupted in joyous applause.

Radiohead expertly played the main stage for two hours and 20 minutes of bliss to a re-energized crowd. The band’s powerful set was 25 songs long, the longest of Radiohead’s 2012 tour thus far, and featured an equal balance of classics and tracks from their most recent album, “The King of Limbs.” The driving, multi-faceted rhythms of the newest LP translate fully only when experienced live.

Later, a sun-burnt, voiceless and over-stimulated version of myself stopped to take in the wonderland of music and camaraderie encapsulated in the bubble of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

Set on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn., since 2002, Bonnaroo has grown into its namesake comprised of New Orleans’ slang meaning “a really good time.”

The term is derived from the French “best on the streets” — “bon” means “good”, “rue” means “street” — and the festival aims above and beyond its name.

The Main Squeeze played The Miller Lite Great Taste Lounge early on Saturday. While the initial crowd was filled with Hoosiers, Corey Frye’s soulful singing drew a crowd extending out of the venue’s modest limits. The Squeeze’s signature funk and unbelievable energy kept the audience dancing for the entire 50-minute set, and the band no doubt introduced many new fans to its acclaimed music.

Blind Pilot, The Shins, Bon Iver and The Beach Boys provided ideal soundtracks for dancing in the sun.

Some artists jokingly referred to the crowd as “hippies.” Images of your parents’ festivals could be compared to Bonnaroo’s hula-hooping, face-painted audience.

But Bonnaroovians should not be classified, for there was a diverse lineup on the farm. Flogging Molly delivered Irish folk-punk, Little Dragon brought pop-electronic. SBTRKT’s set could blow out the bass in 300 speakers. Santigold’s rhythmic jams were heard throughout the grounds. Red Hot Chili Peppers vibed funky rock to the delight of a massive crowd, and Umphrey’s McGee played into the morning light.

There is so much to be experienced at Bonnaroo. The trip was expensive and taxing, but it was well worth it.

Your tent will probably leak, and your eyes will be full of dust, but when you and your friends are dancing late into the night, these worries will have flown farther than fire lanterns.

On Sunday night, we packed up our campsite and rubbed our aching feet. Exhausted bones and muscles climbed into the SUV. We started home with souvenirs of dirt under our fingernails and melodies flooding our dreams.

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