Two pieces of graffiti vied for the title of best at Bonnaroo, the massive music festival that last week warped 75,000 or so of the most supple minds within a day’s drive of central Tennessee. The first read, suggestively, “F*** the illiterate.” More in the spirit of the event, the second read, “Reality is a condition caused by the absence of Bonnaroo.”
The boast is apt. Now in its seventh annual incarnation, Bonnaroo is four days in which the normal laws of the universe go AWOL. The first night, with festival-goers still erecting their tent city across the 700-acre grounds, rain fell like an assault. The next day, which was beautiful, young women met the sun and mud with bikinis and galoshes. Horn players and people in ornate animal costumes paraded intermittently. When darkness fell, men lined their bare torsos with flickering plastic tubes. A guy outfitted a bicycle with a bilious sea-creature rig and careened about, prompting a girl to say, after one close call, “I almost just got run over by a giant shrimp.” Generalizing about such an epic party is folly, other than to notice that folks were overwhelmingly cheerful and kind, and that crappy back tattoos are hugely more popular than you might imagine.
Phish and Bruce Springsteen headlined; the genius of the festival, though, was that you could stay amply entertained without bothering to attend either. (“Born to Run” lost some of its verve at midnight in a field with 30,000 sun-weary burnouts.) The Beastie Boys (with surprise guest Nas), Nine Inch Nails (allegedly in their final U.S. show), moe., Of Montreal, Animal Collective, Galactic, Phoenix, the Mars Volta, Bon Iver, Neko Case, the Dirty Projectors, Pretty Lights — all put on solid sets. Disappointing were MGMT, who didn’t deploy enough bass to undergird their wan vocals, and TV on the Radio, who by contrast oversaturated their melodic grooves with enough bass to make your arm hairs quiver.
Nothing shy of brilliant were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Girl Talk (quickly establishing himself as the planet’s premiere party act), the unassumingly hilarious folk singer Todd Snider (underline it: see him, if you ever have the chance), and Andrew Bird, the multi-instrumentalist and virtuoso whistler whose every song was a departure from its album version. Bird’s set was among the festival’s finest; for greatest single song, the Decemberists’ finale cover of Heart’s “Crazy on You” might be it. No other artists I saw left their audience chanting “One more song!” A friend of mine who tripped on mushrooms during the Decemberists’ set raved about it the next day even as he took hits of opium from a makeshift bamboo pipe.
Amid this circus, Little Rock’s own American Princes might have been the hardest-working group there. The five indie rockers played at a VIP tent Thursday night just as the deluge forced people closer to the stage. (And lest you imagine VIPs as inherently better people than you or I, ponder these three words: cigarette butt earplugs.) They then carted their gear across the grounds, through mud and rain, to another small stage for another late set played before another sparse, wet crowd. The next night, at the back of the great field, between the Beastie Boys and Phish, they played in another tent so muddy that the audience mostly loitered outside.
Their prime show, though, was early Sunday afternoon on the intimate Sonic Stage. By then a thief had picked bassist Luke Hunsicker’s wallet clean of its cash, Collins Kilgore had lost his voice — no catastrophe, as he’s one of three vocalist/guitarists in the band — and David Slade sent out one song “to everyone who feels half as hungover as I do right now.” They played to a crowd that began at a desultory 30 — including a girl underlining passages in a Margaret Atwood paperback, a couple making out on the grass and a single high-bouncing superfan at the front barricade. But the Princes kind of kicked its ass: By the end of their half-hour set, another hundred or so people had gathered, and the murmurs (“They’re good”) were happy ones. Slade told the audience: “This is our last show of four we’re doing this weekend. We’re going to miss the shit out of it.”