On the eve of yet another Bonnaroo, some of my friends are wondering WHY a 50-something me is actually going – not only willingly but excitedly – again. I first Rooed in 2007, taking my daughter, her boarding school roommate and her boyfriend. I love to camp (and admittedly that alone sets me apart from most of my girlfriends). I’ve taken my kids camping since they were 3 and 5, from “car camping” to more wilderness hike-in-to-a-campsite mode. Taking three 17-year-olds camping with 100,000 other people is a little different. From anything I could have imagined.
It began inauspiciously enough. I had the brilliant idea to set out from Atlanta at midnight Thursday morning to get a prime camping spot. We arrived in Manchester, Tennessee, at about 4 am. There was a line. A line of cars to get in! At 4 am! They were checking cars for illegal substances. I guess seeing a tired, slightly alarmed mom driving the car — with “what-am-I-getting-into” written all over my then 40-something face — led them to immediately give us a bye. We eventually pulled into our area at the very, very furthest end of the field farthest away from anything – I thought by then we were probaby actually in Kentucky. Everyone was hooting and yelling “Bonna- rooooooo!” and playing guitar and otherwise partying, as we pitched our two tents. This was, remember, after 4 a.m. They were still making said noise when we finally collapsed to sleep.
The first thing you learn about Bonnaroo mornings is that as soon as the sun comes up, it is literally as hot as hell. So after a couple of hours of sleep that first night, we started baking in our tents and groggily climbed out. It was then that we discovered just how far away we were from the music venues. But we soon discovered that portapotties (very well monitored) were closeby, as were wash-up stations and good food and drink. And we learned the routes to Centeroo and the lay of the land. Because I had a notion that I could actually keep an eye on three 17-yr-olds — plus ensure that they were hydrated, eating ok, and not getting lost — I walked at least 5 miles each day that first year. There’s no way to ease into Bonnaroo (not at the general admission camping level anyway), you have to jump right in.
Once I settled into the idea that this mass of dusty, grinning humanity would be my home for a few days, something magical happened. I relaxed. I felt at home. My own wards were ecstatic, bubbly and cheerful about everything, and kept in touch as much as possible. Random kids talked to me during our walks to Centeroo (where the music is) – me, a mom! – and asked me about my musical tastes, what bands I was going to see, gave me suggestions – and cared about what I said! When I started picking up bottles along the way in, kids helped me and started talking to me about the environment. They thought it was cool that I work for EPA. One kid said that he could tell I was into a mystical vibe, and suggested I catch a singer I had never heard of before, but who remains one of my favorites now. Back at the campsite, everyone made friends. Our neighbors, old hands at Rooing, offered water, juice, snacks, advice, and played the Byrds and the Decemberists (another great discovery that year). I discovered soon that I wasn’t the only mom there, nor the only one in my age range — although of course the majority are in their 20s or early 30s, there are a fair number of aging rockers every year. But really, age isn’t a big deal. Everyone is chill. Other years when I’ve gone to Roo with other 50-somethings, no longer were we stressed-out doctors, lawyers & architects with schedules and clients — we were just us, still up at 2 and 3 am, sitting on the ground eating yogurt & fritters and talking about bands. No worries.
I first went to Roo for the music — duh! Honestly, this is what it is about. Seeing the Police was what pushed me over the edge to buy tickets. An incredible calibre of acts, variety of music, and intensity of performances are common at Bonnaroo. That first year, I was standing just feet from the stage and Sting. (The 20-somethings must have noticed me swooning.) Flaming Lips put on an incredible trippy show, for which my daughter and her roommate were first row while her boyfriend and I watched from further back. I heard the genius of White Stripes, the karma-rich Michael Franti, and the dark intensity of the Decemberists. Other times I listened to Stevie Wonder as he brought songs up from the depths of my memories (I knew the words to every one); Springstein in his first festival appearance; the always amazing Dave Matthews. I dance more at Bonnaroo in 4 days than at any other time or anywhere else. (And if you just can’t stop dancing, the “Silent Disco” allows everyone to dance til dawn under a tent wearing headphones — passersby can’t hear the music, but can just see the synchronized movements of the crowd.)
Also amazing have been the bands and singers I never knew before — because I think it’s pretty scientifically proven that, famous or unknown, everyone gives their best performances at Bonnaroo. They are up, psyched, energized, empowered. And not infrequently, the bands themselves are bowled over by the experience, and it’s not just the size of the crowds. I’ve heard bands from newsomers to the Staples Sisters gush appreciation for the crowd. And Buffalo Springfield (yes, Neil Young et al) noted it was the largest audience they had ever played for! And they looked like they were having a blast.
Collaboration and jamming are hallmarks of Roo at its best. There are planned jams, but there are also surprise invitations by one band to another, or guys just show up and hop on stage (particularly in the wee hours). But the musical triumph of Roo is the diversity of the genres. I’ve heard some old Roo experts decry the commercialization as the festival has gotten bigger and more formal, and that may be valid compared with the earliest years — but in one festical I danced to Robert Plant, Loretta Lyn, Greg Allman and Eminem, not to mantion Preservation Hall Jazz Band and alternative Mumford &Sons. There’s country and bluegrass and southern rock and rock and electronica and rap and everything until the music itself starts to defy definition. Tearing down the walls separating genres, Bonnaroo just immerses us in the vibe, the beat, the spirit of live music. And that’s something you don’t get from going to a regular concert. It’s Music with a capital M.
So the music is why people go to Roo. But there’s so much more. Of course there are booths and food and all that. There is a whole area called Planet Roo devoted to environmental causes and discussions. It’s not just that the festival has become increasingly green, now recycling and composting an impressive volume of wastes from some 90 – 100 K people over the 4 days. Each year I have signed petitions, spoken with groups about their current projects, made friends. I participated in an invigorating and intuitive drum circle with some 20 or so others, accompanied by two dancers. I’ve made recycled art with old cardboard and paint, where each of us was given one color and told to share, encouraging discussion and artistic expression. I’ve decorated banners. I’ve joined others in early morning outdoor yoga, learned about organic gardening and worms, watched a tutorial on earth-building and learned about the construction of the Bonnaroo post office, a recycled tire and earth building. Did I mention I got free (Ben & Jerry’s) ice cream?
But the reason I go back is the community. The calls of “Bonna- ROOOOOOO” particularly ring out in the first 24 hours, as the tribe reaffirms itself and settles in. Roo is a small town of folks thrown together with common interests & a shared fondness of place. That aspect of Bonnaroo is what makes me sad to leave on the last day. (When I went with guys my age, one had been, off and on, mildly complaining each day about the heat, the walking, the dust, etc. Yet as we packed up Sunday evening, he suddenly realized he didn’t want it to end, either.) In our day to day lives, it’s not just that we have pressures of work and responsibilities for our families – we have insular lives. Despite families, friends and coworkers, and despite contact with the world through media every waking moment, we are not really in touch. Our days and our contacts are controlled and managed. We drive our cars along the same routes, meet with specific people on specific tasks, know what days we have to pay the phone and power bills.
At Roo, there are few walls – literal or figurative – between us. We are surrounded by each other with no goals except to hear and see and be. We don’t know who we will be standing next to at the next show. And everyone is pretty happy — it’s like the crowd at the Super Bowl, but with no losing team. Camping neighbors offer tips, food, and friendship. We talk to each other, we help each other, we enjoy each other. If it’s sunny and hot, you feel it and seek out shade, water and ice cream. When it rains, you get wet. When I return to the city and drive to the train station the first day after Bonnaroo, I notice the stark contrast to the Roo ritual of walking alongside these fellow townspeople to the venues in the morning.
What would our cities and towns be like if we walked a mile to work each morning, walking with and passing hundreds of our neighbors every day, and talked to each other? Would we be so polarized in our politics if we had danced with our adversaries the night before? And would it be so easy for some to ignore the need to protect and preserve our air, land and water if they were living in a small tent, hauling water from down the road, and feeling the dust of drought or the stickiness of humidity? Would some of us be less judgmental of people of different ages and backgrounds if we saw them applauding and singing with our favorite music, and if we tried to listen to their favorites too?
I can be accused of romanticizing Bonnaroo, but this is my experience. There are lots of reasons why I return to Bonnaroo year after year — the relaxation of a vacation, the music itself, the other experiences and learning that take place — but key is the sense of community in this quirky, temporary town populated by a mixed-up tribe of dusty but happy music-lovers, whether they are young or just feel young. And that’s why this week I will travel again to the middle of Tennessee, pitch my tent and my solar shower, get too much sun and too little sleep, and feel totally alive. Bonna-Rooooooooooo!