Features | Festivals

Bonnaroo 2006, Pt. 2: Radiohead Is People, Too

By Dom Sinacola | 1 August 2006

Holy Moly was there so much to offer, so many ways to poison and purge my body, a lifetime of excess to enjoy and possess, that discovering the reason for my journey, the realization itself, was a dumbing event. The reason was simply Radiohead, and -- so lithe my syntax! -- this idea's probably anticlimactic.

I was never much interested in Bonnaroo. I wasn't about to spend a month's worth of pot money to go and spend more money on drugs simply so I would be able to sit through a violently drunk Trey set. Yet, with the announcement that Radiohead was headlining, I knew I needed to find a way. Of course, other artists dripped over the lineup like honey; Andrew Bird, Devendra Banhart, Sonic Youth, Cat Power, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, My Morning Jacket, Common, Cypress Hill, they gave me the twitters, all these darlings, sent by the demigods of impatience, the arch nemeses of the Superjam. Still, Radiohead would be there, that holy balm, rain water, and Sword of Damocles all in one. How much would I put on the line to make my path to Tennessee? The cost could be unimaginable, yes, but destiny is hardly ever convenient. Besides, the face of 'Roo was changing.

What? Dave Matthews sucks! Haha, yeah, hahaha, phew, ha. That guy knows me.

But honey was only leverage against the guilt in not giving two shits about Friday headliner Tom Petty. Or his Heartbreakers (One of which, keyboardist Benmont Tench, turns out, would later take the stage with Jon Brion at Intonation). Or the slippery emergence of Steel Pulse, of Mike Gordon's recent incarnation, Ramble Dove, of Oysterhead, proving a supergroup's mediocrity can survive funlovin' scarcity, of partyhound boogers Disco Biscuits, and, as I recede into jargon, of Umphrey's or MMW. Oh, and I didn't care about Phil Lesh, or his friends, and the spite in my voice as I think this out rivals only the way that dude screamed his distaste for the owner of ATO records, a major label subsidiary that just happened to champion My Morning Jacket to masses composed of dudes like that dude, who was screaming in the middle of the seething masses waiting for Radiohead. Just sayin'. Karma, it seems, was in the air. It had the aroma of molly, which smells like a paperclip.

There were a few moments when my elitist indieism could've swung back to bite. The first was paltry, waiting in line to get into what could only be described as a water hangar, chatting surreptitiously with a guy in front of me, slowly admitting I hadn't bothered to see Biscuits or Wood. You mean, no Robert Randolph? Dude, you shoulda heard Corn Mo, his accordion, dude.And we stared at the mud around our feet, the thick clods curling like meringue and merging with the dubious runoff from the porto-potties across the road. It was only Saturday morning, and the sun told me -- The sun, which my brother called "Steve," was greeted every morning at 7 with a middle finger. Oh, to sleep without being awoken by Steve's greenhouse heat! -- I had yet to ignore Bill Frisell, Rusted Root, moe., Bela Fleck, and Matisyahu. Too late to check him about My Morning Jacket, the assault of riffage that lacerated Clayton Purdom's soul the night before, or to discuss cheerily how on-game Andrew Bird was. This guy in front of me turned his back. A filthy dog wandered through the muck and scratched at its ears. How fitting that a hippie castigates me with no more than an ergonomic unwelcome. I was a mutt.

The second moment came to a head soon after I returned dejected from the water area. Our campsite was in Ed Rooney, just north of Ferris Bueller, north of Sloane Peterson, and, with the help of an SUV from Vancouver, we'd concocted a tarped enclosure between our Jeep, my brother's Cherokee, and our new friends' massive automobile. There we veg'ed on blankets, shared nuggets, boiled potatoes and green beans, talked fondly of home as only true travelers can, and made bargains over car-battery wasteage. The plan that morning was easy: Spend the day at the What Stage, the main stage, starting with the Neville Brothers and doing our best to stake a spot until Radiohead. Do not move. Bring lots of water, a blanket, and my beach hat with pockets. Stay through Elvis Costello, then Beck, and then depart only after Radiohead. And as we stirred a tiny pot of macaroni, our Vancouver friends looked on with disdain; the Neville Brothers? The fathers of New Orleans funk, you hipster showboats, who told you to respect the Nevilles? We were shamed into quietly eating our processed cheese. Styrofoam gringos, us cynical, urban poseurs, unable to fit, bastards out of the Midwest. Never saw the Nevilles.

Which seems to parlay into the singeing of my arm skin. No less than thirteen minutes before Radiohead's scheduled intro, before I just fucking know they'll start with "There There" because I can feel it in my loins like I was brought to this place by all grand machinations of this incomprehensible universe, like that one dude just knows that Dave Matthews sucks, we're pressed between hoary throngs of people. No, pancaked, mutilated, squeezed of all discernible skeletal structure. And in this suffocation, Karma lights a cigarette and presses it to my limb.

I'm given twelve-and-a-half minutes to react; I refuse to feel pain during Radiohead, even though I have to pee, my assbone's killing me, and I've been smoking enough pot to sedate a buffalo. So, in the brief microcosm of that initial second, as the fire eats away at my flesh and one would expect signals to piston into my brain encouraging me to scream and flail my arms about madly, I go numb and have a religious epiphany.

First there is opacity, stretching into infinity, or maybe that is last, time's cyclical and in the middle of the spinning void, which only feels like spinning because I actually can't tell it's spinning because it is so dark, a pindrop of light appears, inflating into a slick amoeba of earthtones, growing and multiplying into a paisley motif which churns and has no sure shape, marbling, cobbling until the blackness recedes and my mind is filled with a shirtless form, swaying like a cobra. I recognize Devendra Banhart, sunburst tattoos over each perfect nipple, and time clicks back into place, opening a bearded window into the day before, that was Friday, That Tent, after Andrew Bird. Banhart crowned himself the leader of the Hairy Fairy Band, one name out of a shifting many, and stuck to mostly Cripple Crow fare like the creaking "Hey Mama Wolf" and the loose "I Feel Just Like A Child." His jeans were tight, riding low, and his boots were rustic beauties. Each song carried an improvised shamble, so that "Long Haired Child" could smile and twist alongside a darker, psych-stomped version of Vetiver's bruised "You May Be Blue," maintain the grin even though the song about fucking little boys was conspicuously absent. A surprise groove, dubbed "White Reggae Troll," mocked and celebrated the humid ululation of the day. Be yourself! If Devendra invites you on stage to play your own composition, saying it's his favorite part of his performances, and even if your song resembles an early Thunderegg piece, you won't be judged! If you indulge the id telling you to dream about fucking little boys, are you necessarily a pedophile? We are all fashionistas, image whores, thirsty dancers that need synthetic drugs to find some tappable soul. That's why Banhart, Goan connoisseur godblessem, absolutely oozed sex, in every connotation of the word.

My reverie continues. I envision the difficulty a stenographer must have, like Cat Power, who's suddenly fronting the Memphis Rhythm Band, a ten piece with Maybon "Teenie" Hodges, former sideman to Al Green, Steve Potts, who used to drum in Booker T and the MGs, and two backup singers, a string section, and a horn duo. The band's out first, and they're all wearing black, a deceptive anecdote that breathes an air of cool over the audience more than throwing our dirty, sweltering existences in our faces. The band, one of many southern blues bands in spittable distance at Centeroo, flexes in swampy instrumentals, warming up the filling audience. They sound morbidly honed, their craft too atavistic to matter much to an ungainly schlub like me, but the two curvaceous divas at the back of the stage encourage us to clap along. Is this Chan Marshall's band? Isn't she supposed to be terrified of stuff like this?

So, they wore black, and in my cigallucination, the stage hums with warmth. As opposed to Conor Oberst, who wore a long white-sleeved shirt to compliment his jet black hair, which I immediately interpreted as posturing. This is revealed at Which Stage, platform for the day's college rock, where Bright Eyes assembles a band of dour scenesters to do his bidding. What the fuck are all these hippies doing here? You can't groove to I'm Wide Awake, no matter how fitting that title could be. I'm confused, why am I here, I've always despised this artist -- my reverie's collapsing, the microsecond closing. And wait, BE performed before Cat Power, immediately after Devendra Banhart.we skipped Nickel Creek, right.alright, so Oberst, chiding the sun, seems to be taunting us. Wear a tee-shirt, asshole!

The day is bright, Bright Eyes is pale, and his band is excited, fittingly together and injecting an unexpected fullness to Oberst's wandering compositions. Drummer Maria Taylor, one half of Azure Ray, struggles to wield the clout that maybe the songs deserve, especially when Mike Mogis's pedal steel or Nate Walcott's accordion drowns out her pace. The set's predictably front-loaded with Wide Awake cuts (and an opening Dave Bartholomew song?) like "Train Under Water" and "First Day Of My Life," or the odd, conspicuous Digital Ash twosome "Ship In A Bottle" and "Take It Easy." Then, "Another Travelin' Song" exacerbates every facet of the outfit on rollicking virility alone, an unassuming trump to "Lover I Don't Have To Love's" crowd-pleasing organ line; the tequila transforms Oberst from alienating emochild to proper country-tinged indie staple, a guy who actually begins to enjoy the punishing sunlight. No dank bar, this. I mean, Which.

And, as if precognizant of his metamorphosis, Oberst invites Gillian Welch out for the devastating "Lua." Her vocal inflections are subtle behind Oberst's, the two of them side by side with acoustic guitars, but her swooning take on a verse is catharsis. And then, as if precognizant of my orgasm, Bright Eyes reach up their gaunt asses and pull out Gruff Rhys, Super Furry Animals frontman, who, after adding infinitesimal guitar to a blasting "Laura Laurent," plays a gorgeous acoustic version of "Hello Sunshine." The melody, his impeccable voice, they're lulling in the heat, so when Oberst practically bows to his friend, calling the song the theme for the festival, I loudly agree. And also, as if precognizant of the weekend's following excess, Jim James waddles on stage to share a mic with Welch, too demure to possibly be the god that heads the MMJ leviathan. A massive guest wankalong to a Kevin Ayers ditty proceeds. The set ends there, even if Oberst skids through some Bright Eyes oldies. Stage spectacle is now expected.

Reverting, or perhaps moving forward, to the Memphis Rhythm Band, Chan Marshall emerges after the lilting opening to "The Greatest." Shit, her backup singers love her. She cradles a cigarette, wears appropriate black, plain and elegant, but bounces around the microphone, miming a boxing match with herself. Her head cocks and releases with each lyrical line and she messes incessantly with her long hair and bangs. The jauntiness is only a hint, here come the popping drums to "Living Proof," she's bouncing again, smiling at the audience, performing the lyrics. "It's not your face," finger-mask over white silky skin, "...you were so strong," Mr. Universe pose. "Empty Shell" is poised with patient backup flourishes; the sax in "Willie" screams. This band of pros is devotional, so into their bandleader and her woozy ballads that the vacuum left by their absence after "Where Is My Love" is shocking. She's obviously shaken by this, and she confesses her tragic love affair with the piano, sitting, sighing, goddamned ready to begin "Who Knows Where the Time Goes." Inevitably, technical difficulties arise and she's shaken again. The spell she cast has begun to slip. Her solo set, with "House of the Rising Sun," "Love and Communication," and "Hate" is pleasant and windy, but stands kinda flaccidly against the band's set.

And then I lurch forward, zoom in to Chan's black blouse, nowhere risqué OK, and there's a stark opacity again, and the microcosm's gone, the epiphany's done, and really, the cigarette barely grazed me, so I tell the profusely apologizing guy it's alright, ya know, just be more careful, because we're all squooshed into the same boat here.

By now, two questions may be obvious to any patient reader:

1) Radiohead, while the supposed fulcrum of this uber-meta sonico- travelogue, has been barely described, and, you may ask yourself, wouldn't it be redundant, by now, this far into their tour, with so many bootlegs and talk swarming like so much astral powder, to give a detailed description of the Bonnaroo performance? And,

2) Should such a myopic, hipstered, blatantly "indie" take on the festival be trusted, even if the "writer" admits to the extent of said myopia?

Please. My plan's to build momentum, simultaneously capitalizing on natural tension, wrapping this beast of a weekend around the Radiohead performance like a bloodred barbershop pole. In fact, time is inconsequential when it comes to an event like Bonnaroo: performances will be missed, ancillary activities will go neglected, meals will be skipped or consumed at distracting times, drugs and alcohol will fuzz and distort the rest. Myopia is the least of a festivalier's problems.

The crowd is the point here, the ideal. 80,000 people, give or take a couple hundred, pushed toward the What Stage at 10 pm Saturday night. The hour and a half after Beck, before Radiohead, was an exercise in endurance, and many of us patient enough to find a spot earlier in the day watched helplessly as drunk fuckwits shimmied closer to the stage than we could have ever politely imagined. Only, the majority of us were calm, fizzing peacefully. Every walk of life seemed to be in attendance. Every walk of life seemed to expect the best show of their lives.

There's not much to say about a stagnant, miserable hour and a half, besides mentioning a spiritual awakening and when two jack-o-lantern motherfuckers hid each other's dicks so they could pee in a water bottle, which sounded like a brilliant idea at the time, until they held up the results and got taunted for exposing their bright yellow dehydration.

Finally, the lights dim. The glossy Bonnaroo sign snaps out. A din rivets the field. So tiny, the band clumps in the middle of the stage with Johnny noticeably at our far right. He's a tail. I can't remember if this moment is black or devilishly red, but the sonorous drums pitch perfectly over the crowd and they roar knowingly in return.

*****

In lieu of dictating the experiences of seeing Andrew Bird, the Streets, or My Morning Jacket, the former an ebullient display of unparalleled talent, the middle ready to be detailed in upcoming Intonation coverage due to an almost identical set, and the latter a thunderous, legendary performance, like Phish big, I will briefly state a few thoughts on festival/concert etiquette. All three shows will only be lauded to death in many many other venues, and that's fine, but it means I need not add any more cirrhotic pabulum. So, by brief, I mean in list format. Some will be obvious. You will thank me for others. Let's just make sure we have a good time, k?:

1) Never lay down. Sitting is alright, but if you're supine, it means you cherish your comfort above all other's, reducing, ultimately, the space for those surrounding you, and I will step on your crotch.

2) Do not wear the band's tee-shirt. At a festival, do not wear a tee-shirt from any previous year, and do not wear any band's tee-shirt that happens to be scheduled to perform at the festival. Also avoid: drug paraphernalia tee-shirts, blazers, designer shoes, makeup, deodorant. Otherwise, I will step on your crotch.

3) If you insist on singing the lyrics -- who doesn't have that urge every once in a while? -- do so quietly. You're not on stage, and you can't harmonize. People will definitely notice if you flub up the lyrics. If I can hear you over the artist, I will push you down and step on your crotch.

4) Be considerate when smoking cigarettes. At Bonnaroo, or at any outdoor festival, ventilation is not really a problem, but ash and cinders are. Exhale straight up. Otherwise, wait until five people aren't so crushed into you that all ten of their hands are tickling your rectum.

5) Do not scream out requests. I assure you that the band cannot hear you. You also will not impress anyone by shouting B-sides or unreleased tracks. Those around you will just sneer at you because you are a douche.

For most of Saturday, though, etiquette never played a harrowing part. We arrived at the What field with time to spare before Elvis Costello, the Imposters and Allen Toussaint, so we laid out a blanket and worked on difficult, esoteric crosswords.

Unfortunately, Elvis put on the blandest show I'd seen that weekend. He rarely left a stentorian position in the middle of the stage, uncomfortably rigid in a gaudy, martial frock. Toussaint on piano, Costello stolid with choppy guitar, George Bush bobble-head flip-flopping on an amp, the two, legends in their own easily arguable right, faithfully reproduced most tracks off their recent River In Reverse. "Faithfully" left little room for highs or lows, and while Costello's voice sounded energized and rippin' strong, the crowd held little interest for Toussaint's standards, like "Yes We Can Can," a smooth and sobered Lee Dorsey cover. I doubt the audience was necessarily ignorant of Toussaint's importance to New Orleans R&B -- Costello made the connection clearly -- but I think the day was too shining, the fever for the night too strong, and the inevitable obnoxiousness of a seminal artist doing mostly new joints ruled the roost. Still, the set opened with the infamous Nick Lowe cut, "What's So Funny ('Bout Peace, Love And Understanding)?" and that got some blood flowing. "Clown Strike" was heartily enjoyed by a middle-aged guy obviously on E, and the dopey cat puppet he held aloft more than lost its shit during the "Alison/Tracks Of My Tears" medley. The most striking highlight, though, was the RIR "Broken Promise Land," which exercised its extremes lovely live, warping into an avant-soul number that drew attention to the tragedy that brought the two performers together without sombering the mood beyond belief. And another Dave Bartholomew song?

More waiting. We smoked bowls to kill time more than get high, as our peak levels were hit long ago and far away. We remembered, fondling the carb, that we needed to preserve water. I fought the craving to take off my shirt. My shoulders ached from the sun. There's not much to say about a stagnant hour and a half.

You see, festivals work in layers. Corporatism upon publicity on top of art upon selective security, all over Nature. Then, somewhere at the bottom, is an insidious unease. Because even if you're witnessing the most eclipsing moments of your pheremonal life, within three days, your lower back will begin to hurt, your patience will run dry, and you'll fall asleep while kneeling by your car to pee. At that primal level, alone, Beck's performance took the flakey cake. The man must please the disembodied, malevolent spirit of L. Ron Hubbard well enough, because he sure knows how to put on a show.

The set-up was nothing new before Bonnaroo. Two giant screens on either side of the stage project early-nineties hand-held camera shots of a lip-syncing marionette band, modeled after Back and bandmates, performing the show as it happens. Each musician gets a few puppets in his arsenal, usually interchanged to present different cutesy doll instruments, and when the "curtain" of the mini-stage parts, a separate TV screen is revealed, projecting more images of Beck, which, in turn, are projected on the big screens, revealing a bizarro world of chintzy visual effects, causing remarkable desires for drugs. Excuse me. "Pharmies." Meanwhile, this dude Ryan, who shakes the tambourine during "Black Tambourine" and concocts erstwhile cacophonous percussion, spasms to Beck's menagerie of beats, sizzling and canned both. Halfway through the set, a list which is evenly composed of most Guero tracks and fan jizzrags, Beck's band leaves and he goes raw. That means acoustic. He gets all intimate with the audience, soon the band returns to the stage to "eat," they become impatient, start "playing" their dinnerware, you've heard this before, I'm positive of it, blah blah, the band resumes full duty, then break, the puppets "perform" two album recordings, and then there's an "encore" where a boom box grows to blockrocking cardboard bloatedness. Bonus for Bonnarubes, after "Mixed Bizness," all the real people leave and a short movie, starring the puppets, plays on the dual monitors. The tiny wooden people, voiced by the band, arrive at the festival and confront the stench of hippie. It's funny cuz it's true.

Seriously, it was damned funny. This is Spinal Tap, and Beck's upstaged by puppets. But maybe that was the point. It already felt like half his set was prerecorded, rehearsed meticulously, unashamedly. I even had trouble imagining his acoustic section as a spontaneous session, that he settled on "Do You Realize?" and "Creep" as if the two songs filtered out and away from the fucked up audience right into his hands and brain. He can play the shit outta both, can reach the chocolate lows in "Lost Cause," and I's never heard his voice so clear or effortless. He became the King of spectacle, in my heart, ripping apart and licking up the whole weekend like a tab of some fantastic acid. Now if only I could've tripped face, maybe my reluctance to accept a circus over hard-won live musicianship would've dissipated without me begrudgingly admitting that I actually had a soft spot for Guero. Or maybe I just hated the album up until I saw the show.

Of course, then, Radiohead enters here. The behemoth has come. Oh, the implications! But, instead of carefully describing the set, I will simply provide the set. Is your favorite Radiohead song in there? Have you heard the new joints? Clay thinks they're all about fucking; can you imagine the lyrics? If you were Phil Selway, would "There There" be a satisfying opening? Relish in this communal interactivity.

01 "There There"
02 "2+2=5"
03 "15 Step"
04 "Arpeggi" (or: Self-Explanatory Title, Redeemed In Coda)
05 "Exit Music (For a Film)"
06 "Kid A"
07 "Dollars And Cents"
08 "Videotape"
09 "No Surprises" (or: Less Chimes More Synth)
10 "Paranoid Android"
11 "The Gloaming"
12 "The National Anthem" (or: Crazy Garbled Vocal Loop Shitstorm)
13 "Climbing Up The Walls"
14 "Nude" ("Big Ideas")
15 "Street Spirit"
16 "The Bends"
17 "Myxomatosis"
18 "How To Disappear Completely"

Encore:
19 "You And Whose Army?" (or: Piano Camera Up Thom's Nose)
20 "Pyramid Song"
21 "Like Spinning Plates" (or: No Fucking Way They're Actually Playing This!)
22 "Fake Plastic Trees"
23 "Bodysnatchers"
24 "Lucky"
25 "Idioteque"
26 "Karma Police"

Encore!:
27 "House Of Cards"
28 "Everything In Its Right Place"

With no hint of hyperbole, you will find this list nowhere else. And as you and your friends, unable to have made it to Tennessee, gather around the computer screen or printout, will you debate the merits of this monstrous band, dissect the lineup with a lapidary's eye? Did "Idioteque" and "Karma Police," bless our luck, create a tremor in the fabric of space-time? Probably. Did "Dollars and Cents" flatten the pastoral seamlessness of "Kid A?" Sure it did, and Thom didn't scream at the end of "Climbing Up the Walls" either, thwarting my one chance of ever hearing my single favorite Radiohead moment live.

Alright, I may have another chance. The band's become an arena hegemony of bulbous textures and consumable electronic experimentation, and the new album should be out before the next Bonnaroo, which'll have, what, like U2 headlining? It'll get there. Regardless, I know I'll meet Radiohead again, and when they play "Exit Music," 80,000 people will go absolutely quiet, enraptured by the squirrely frontman. The band's got that kind of control; in song craft, in obtuse lyrics, in blurry standard, they've somehow figured out how to ineffably instill a fleeting notion of utopian ideal in concertgoers. Hippies, jocks, hipsters, spazoids, burn-outs, preps, fratties, fatties, street vendors, gypsies, 40+ moms (had one right in front of me), all of them finally, thankfully shut the fuck up. With Radiohead, our generation has a magisterial musical presence, both accessible and Outsider, which creates a mythos as consuming and available as our most patriotic bedtime stories. And even if this electric kool-aid awe isn't real, it's palpable in certain pockets, and even if one were to get pelted in the face with a glowstick, one realizes that a good friend/roommate has ingested the best acid he's ever come across, and that the glowsticks must be marvelous to watch and the universe is connected in his eyes, however dilated they are.

*****

My roommate Karl was at the first Bonnaroo. He was among, maybe, 30,000 people he says. The most "indie" presence there was probably Amon Tobin or Ween. The main draw was headliner Widespread Panic. It was more than well known that guitarist Mikey "Panic" Hauser was on his last legs, that pancreatic cancer would soon take him, and that, possibly, Bonnaroo would be his last show. Why pancreatic cancer at 40? It's easy to point to the drugs and partying, the conceit that the body will eventually give up and that youthful invulnerability is nothing but a pathetic illusion. How trite; all this excess, vomit, filth, groove, understanding, tolerance: peeking the cusp of one's destiny? If it amounts to a simple rejoinder like backwards bible camp, then Bonnaroo is simply about drugs.

Instead, I think Bonnaroo is the grandest of failures, not because concert schedules fell behind or because the kids just couldn't curb their lust for chaos, the opposite was fact, actually, but because Bonnaroo's a loving illusion that just can't, won't ever work. You share marijuana, share tarps, share car battery power, share cereal bars, beer, welcoming smiles, silence, rhythm, mud, and then it's over, work awaits. Even the artists will leave to find smaller venues packed with disappointing crowds. They won't have their friendly band friends joining in on the spectacle. Communities will dissipate. The illusion, sorry, is bound to die.

Except for with hippies, who smell their way back West to the Snowmass Festival. Dude, Benevento/Russo Duo, right?