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Dear Bonnaroo, You Get It

2011 August 19
Posted by saramelvin

Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee is a self-proclaimed modern day, global Woodstock. When I arrived at the 600 acres of farmland deep in the American south, the little Bonnaroo guidebook I received had the Woodstock comparison written confidently its introductory page. This set my expectations higher than they already were, and sent my imagination into an unknown territory. Having spent four days engaged in musical paradise and living in its surrounding sprawl of dusty tents, I understand why the festival chooses to make this parallel. I watched the almost four hour long documentary Woodstock over the winter holiday, prompted by my recent $250 Bonnaroo ticket purchase. Directed by Michael Wadleigh, the film was edited in 1970 by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker and chronicles the monumental three-day festival – with footage of festivalgoer’s, and full musical performances by artists like Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Band. The documentary demonstrates to post-Woodstock individuals, such as myself, that the festival and its 500,000 attendees came together with a message of peace, free love, and cultural openness. I saw the event representative of a generation collectively participating in a non-commercial, counter-cultural social movement using music as the tool for change. So did Joan Baez, who said during her set, “This is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue,” sharing her view of the charity concert invoking political power.

Although Bonnaroo X (2011 was its tenth anniversary) was by no means historical pinnacle of a decade defined by struggle for civil rights and anti-war, as Woodstock was, it still embodied a spirit and indescribable vibe that could do wonders for any music-lover entering the community. Bonnaroo may be considered a nostalgic yearning for the deeper meanings Woodstock carried, for sure. It’s true that our generation is marked by materialism, narcissism (See the August 2011 issue of The Atlantic to read more on ‘The Cult of Self-Esteem), and general normalcy of mixed-race couples and gay people. Good on us for all of that! And of course, thank you to all those political and social activists of past decades who actively fought for us to have it relatively easy. While Woodstock was a definitive counter-culture movement of its time, counter-culture of the 2000’s has adapted a mass consumer nature, making it effectively paradoxical. Case and point: Bonnaroo recognizes the essential role of its corporate sponsors in its desire to profit for Superfly Presents, the 40 million dollar events and marketing company that puts on the whole endeavor. From my festivalgoer view, Superfly Presents tastefully confronts the challenges commercial partnerships pose on the general outlook of the festival’s demographic (crunchier than most considering Bonnaroo’s jam-band focus).

All the commercial stuff aside, having experienced the festival in full force this past June I can attest to the re-imagined and idealized experiential community Bonnaroo actually is. Prior to my arrival, I didn’t realize the extent to which the festival was more than just an accumulation of some of the best bands, musicians, and jammers I know. It truly is a community, an amassment of music-lovers that park their cars, pitch their tents, unfold their chairs, and willingly converse with anyone and everyone who passes by. When I walk down the paved streets of Toronto, I can’t figure out why everyone is making so much effort to avert eye contact with one another. I am pleasantly surprised when nice-looking people offer a smile. What a concept. At Bonnaroo not only do you get a smile, but an open invitation to come hang out and share a beer on the dusty paths, make-shift dining areas in front of tents, at the shows themselves, of course. Like Woodstock, Bonnaroo continues to show that music is a universal language that draws people together, and more than anything proves the stupidity of homophobia, racism, and whatever other oppressions plague our world.

So even if the 18-30 year olds of 2011 have it pretty good already, what ‘monumental’ change can the modern-day festival bring about? Bonnaroo, and its corporate partners, are actively engaged in one of our generation’s major obstacles threatening all of our imminent futures, overconsumption and environmental degradation. With an environmental conscience so strong and volunteers so committed, Bonnaroo is officially the ‘greenest’ festival in the world. Their leading sustainability practices don’t detract from the experience either – their mission statement ensures that the ultimate priority is still maintaining the ultimate experience for the fan. Although many critics would point out that the growing ‘green movement’ is just a derivative of commodified American culture, large-scale changes slowed by consumer interests. However, the Bonnaroo team does more than just sell T-shirts made from organic cotton. The green team covers all the bases – they have well organized waste management programs that divert 60% of landfill waste to recycling facilities, a strong relationship with the local community, ethically based product consumption, and energy consumption practices (offset 900 tons of CO2 this year!). Essential for staying hydrated in the 40 degree Celsius weather, the free water stations implemented this year to decreased bottled water waste. I also spent some time with the volunteers and non-profit representatives at Planet Roo, the dedicated environmental area on the festival grounds. Unlike the ‘green movement’ binary I usually encounter (either over-simplistic Band-Aid projects or the ‘we’re totally screwed, it’s time for the apocalypse already’ approach), Planet Roo provided environmental knowledge and informed us of the festival’s tangible successes in a non-patronizing, resourceful manner.

I know what you’re all thinking … it’s a music festival, let’s get to the point already. Surely The Arcade Fire’s majestic (yes, majestic) deserves a few words, no?  Stay tuned for part 2, “The Best of Bonnaroo”, with detailed reviews of my favourite shows from the four days of musical utopia. For now, I’ll leave you to ponder the underlying importances of music festival communities, from Woodstock in 1969 to Bonnaroo in 2011. As Florence Welch from Florence & the Machine belted in her Friday evening show, “Bonnaroo’s got the love!” And that … is that.

The photo above displays a small view of Campground 9, my Bonnaroo neighbourhood. Of the 80,000 festivalgoers, this campground was one of dozens. Unlike most festivals where there are giant parking lots and you walk onto the property to camp, at Bonnaroo you set up your makeshift home in front of your parked car. Each campsite is marked by a giant balloon, like the one pictured above, otherwise it would be fully impossible to navigate! Most of the pictures in this post were taken on disposable Kodak cameras. However, low quality film captures high quality fun!

Eager, enthusiastic festival attendees pictured in front of a few of the many yummy food trucks, in a camping area. The back of their shirts read, "This guy, that guy, which guy." This refers to the names of the stages, deliberately meant to confuse festival-goers, the main venues being Which Stage, What Stage, This Tent, That Tent, The Other Tent. Imagine trying to co-ordinate a meeting spot with your friends ... "Lets meet at This Tent," I would say. "Wait, That Tent over there?" "No, not THAT tent. The other tent. No wait, not the Other Tent, THIS tent." You never get anywhere. Case and point: Do not separate from your friends, you might be lost for days.

Centaroos ferris wheel at sunset.

This is the entrance to Centaroo, the main festival grounds where all of the action (and music) takes place. What does Bonnaroo mean anyway? It was a word popularized by New Orleans R&B singer Dr. John with his 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo, which means "a really good time."

Bonnaroo is a slang construction taken from the French "bon" meaning "good," and "rue" from the French "street," translating to "the best on the streets." The names literal meaning is absolutely accurate, and honours the rich Louisiana music tradition.

An aerial photograph taken from the Bonnaroo helicopter in 2006. 100,000 people you see below make the third largest unofficial city in Tennessee!

Hello Woodstock ... the 500,000 unexpected festival-goers overwhelmed the small town in New York (Photo courtesy of the New York Times archives).

Rachel Rock-aroo in front of the Planet Roo statue in Centaroo and Bonaroo.

Iconic love at Woodstock.

42 years later... a (platonic) roo love moment caught on film between Chris Brown and myself. Chris is one of my favourite photographers, took incredible pics at the festival that you can check out on his website:

Kicking back and relaxing on blankets during the Amos Lee show. Ten minutes into the concert, youll probably have met all of the people sitting beside you, chit-chatting about your experience at Bonnaroo. No averting eye contact or offering a passive smile and hurrying on with your day. But thats unsaid at Bonnaroo.

People express style in awesome, inventive ways at this festival. Everyone is an an individual it seems, so no one gets too much attention for looking a little out of the ordinary. I bumped into Cat wearing a pink wig on the way to Florence and the Machine.

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