Saturday, June 14 2008
setting: Bonnaroo Music Festival, Coffee County, Tennessee (35.47683N, 86.05218W)
After I'd gone to bed last night the rain that had been threatening and occasionally starting up and sputtering out finally kicked in in earnest. It was late and I was too tired to drag my ass down to the "Which" stage to see My Morning Jacket, but they were loud enough for me to hear them okay from where I lay. The loudest component in the My Morning Jacket sound is the guitar, which plays at maximum reverb and tends to execute simple patterns over and over. In my half-asleep state, these patterns seemed to go perfectly with both the rain and the tingling from the poison ivy rash I'd picked up a week ago at the Secret Spot. The rain was finding its way into the tent in more ways than I'd thought possible, positioning moisture in places where it could either creep up to me through cloth items or I could roll into it. There's a misery to sleeping in a wet tent, particularly when you also have poison ivy (I've faced down this particular double-barreled misery before), but its a misery somehow tinged with excitement, particularly when there's a loud reverbing guitar weaving into and out of your dreams. Less exciting were the many loud conversations I overheard coming from the people walking up "7th Avenue." Nearly all these conversations were about drugs: where they could be found, how good they were, and how easy they had been to sneak in. When people weren't talking about drugs they were talking about potential sexual partners, though in these cases the focus was usually on the craziness (as opposed to, say, the sexiness) of the person in question.
At some point in the night when the rain was pelting down I suddenly became concerned about my camera. I found it in the corner of the tent in a puddle of water. Something had shorted out in it and caused its lens to extend. Suffice it to say, it wasn't functional. Perhaps it could be dried out, but probably not. Oh well, that camera (a Canon S400 Elf) is four and a half years old and has been on its way out since at least late 2005.
This morning I woke up early again and set off to the place bears use as a bathroom. I didn't go as far down New Bushy Branch Road as I had yesterday. There's a dry creek bed bisecting a field to the north of the road (35.481155, 86.055028W), so I jumped down into it and walked as far as I could until prickly brambles overwhelmed me. But there's a problem with shitting in a field when you're at an event with 80,000 other people and the portapotties are disgusting. Other people want to shit in the field too. Luckily, I didn't step in anything, but I was still in the midst of finding the perfect botanical toilet paper substitute when a group of hippies who had been walking some distance behind me on the road decided that they too would make use of this spot, though only to piss. I didn't want them to stumble upon me in a compromised state, so I quickly finished up and stumbled out of the gulch rhetorically asking, "Does the Pope shit in the woods?" They seemed genuinely shocked, but that might only be because of the drugs they were on. One of the hippies tried to exchange some witty banter with me, but there was something missing.
As with everything else, coffee was expensive at Bonnaroo. I've expressed outrage at the $7 showers and the $6 beers, but I thought nothing of spending ten to twelve dollars every morning on coffee. Yesterday it was hot and I'd only bought ice coffee, but it was overcast and cool enough this morning to drink hot coffee, which was less expensive.
In the morning before the music started, Centeroo was a pleasant place to hang out. There are some nice big trees near the "Which" stage whose roots have formed raised hummocks at their bases, dry islands in a sea of mucky grass and debris (most of which gets cleaned up early every morning). This morning I sat there listening to my MP3 player, disappointed with by the severe distortion my Tegan and Sara recording had sustained.
I made another tour of the schwag tents, hoping to find the JanSport game that had netted me a small LED flashlight. When I ducked into the Garnier Fructis tent just for the air conditioning and ended up getting a free hair wash, just because there were only a couple men waiting. The women's wait, however, was five hours long.
Eventually I found my way back to the camp and took a nap in the driver's seat of the car. Had the sun been shining, the greenhouse effect would have made this impossible, but what with the cloud cover, I stayed comfortable even with the windows rolled up. The alternative would have been to attempt to nap in the tent, but that would have been a miserable, soggy experience. With the car's windows muting the sound of pedestrians and the earbuds blasting Explosions in the Sky into my head, this morning I experienced perhaps the most effective sleep of the festival.
Meanwhile, my camera was still behaving strangely; it would display the boot up screen and then make a loud buzzing noise as it unsuccessfully attempted to retract the lens.
When next I waded into Centeroo, it was afternoon, and I found my way to the "That" tent to see part of a set played by a punk rock band called Against Me!. The singer had an amazing and somewhat surprising voice, sounding a little glammy (sort of like Vince Neil, the guy from Mötley Crüe). Live music is always better than the canned kind found on media, and when it's loud, fast, and aggressive, the qualitative advantage is even more extreme. I find punk rock generally hard to listen to in CD or MP3 form, but it's viscerally satisfying live.
Somehow Gretchen and I found each other prior to the Avett Brothers show, and we burrowed into the front of the crowd from house left. A young woman near us wouldn't shut up about all the people who had been monopolizing the fronts of audiences even though they had no idea who the bands were or the lyrics to their songs. We assured her we were Avett Brothers fans from way back, which is true. Our problem turned out to be that the Avett Brothers played mostly their new stuff, though we only know stuff from Mignonette and a Carolina Jubilee.
Since we'd last seen them, the Avett Brothers had added a drum kit, a keyboard, but only one additional "brother," Joe Kwon, a long-haired Asian American cellist who almost out-Avetts the others when it comes to throwing his whole body into the music. In addition to their usual performance style (Seth and Scott Avett energetically playing guitar and banjo while stomping on parts of a drum kit as Bob Crawford plunks away on a stand-up bass), periodically one or the other Avett would go and play the full drum kit or keyboard. At the very end, the band suddenly went all-electric, though it was as if they were cave men suddenly stumbling onto glorious new space-age musical power tools. They only rocked out for about two minutes this way, but it was hard and loud, and it dissolved thoroughly for a moment into feedback, showing them to also be gods of a genre they aren't even known for.
When we bought veggie burgers and fries at the one food concession that seemed to lack a meat option, I ordered "the Cowboy," which was flavored with barbecue sauce and jalapeño peppers. This combination proved unexpectedly delicious.
After we'd eaten, we sat in the grass outside Levon Helm's act, watching massive black smoke rings being fired into the sky from somewhere else within Centeroo. We wandered over to the launch site of the smoke rings and saw one in the process of being prepared. Someone had built a vertically-pointed cannon capable of holding an entire gallon of gasoline. A woman would climb a ladder and pour the gasoline into the muzzle, it be pressurized behind a volume of compressed air, and around the mouth of the cannon a circular constellation of torches would be lit. Then a horn would sound, and from a distance of twenty or thirty feet, someone would pull a string connected to a ball valve. FOOF! All that gasoline would be shot into an aerosol cloud around the torches, producing a fireball ten feet across. A scorching wave of radiant heat would sweep the crowd and a black smoke ring would start climbing into the air. Depending on numerous variables, particularly the stillness of the atmosphere, the ring would either disperse within a few seconds or coalesce into a magically-expanding smoke ring whose life could be measured in minutes. Was it worth $4/shot? Some didn't seem to think so, but I couldn't get enough.
The massive "What" stage, capable of entertaining 100,000 people, has special rules concerning the pit directly in front of its stage. To keep people from camping out in the pit and monopolizing the best part of the audience space for all the big name shows, the pit is emptied after every show. Tonight Pearl Jam would be playing, and Gretchen and I wanted to be in the pit for that. This meant we'd have to pre-position ourselves in front of the gate to the pit during the show that preceded Pearl Jam. That preceding show was a performance by a guy named Jack Johnson, already in progress. I'd never heard of him before, but (judging from the massive crowd singing along to his music), he's wildly popular. It turned out that one of the worst things about pre-positioning for the Pearl Jam pit was having to listen to Jack Johnson. It's possible there's a more insipid, less compelling musician than Jack Johnson, but I can't think of any. At his very best he is perhaps three times schmaltzier than Dave Matthews at his very worst. Most of the time listening to his music is like being heavy-petted by Ned Flanders.
We were riding the waves and flows of the crowd past the house-right concessions when Gretchen said she'd go ahead on her own to find out from a "safety" person what the deal was with the pit. She told me to wait for her by the corner of a pizza concession, so that's what I attempted to do. Unfortunately, though, the force of the flowing crowd was such that it was very hard for me to maintain a static position. I'd be pushed a dozen feet toward the stage and have to catch a crowd flow going the other way. I was in the flows like this for about a half hour, looking and looking for Gretchen to return, but I never saw her. I wondered if she'd found a good spot in the pit pre-position crowd and was waiting for me to join her. So I jumped into a current of stageward people and rode it all the way to the pre-position crowd. It was possible Gretchen was in it somewhere, but I didn't have any way to find out; I didn't have a cell phone and no one was going to hear anything I could shout.
After Jack Johnson's show came to its merciful end, his pit of schmaltzophiles was cleared and the crowd around me began to anticipate the Pearl Jam pit. Gradually interpersonal space was squeezed out from around us, particularly as members of the Jack Johnson pit tried to join our crowd for another go in the pit. One of the guys from the Jack Johnson pit was something of a pit expert, saying he'd been in the pits of all Bonnaroo's biggest acts, including Chris Rock and Metallica. He said it wasn't difficult to get into the pit, we just had to mass by the gate as we were doing and ride the pressure of the crowd in. "We're all getting in," he said confidently, motioning at the 150 or so people nearby.
A safety guy appeared at the gate, and our crowd compressed further in anticipation. He shouted for us to back up, that he couldn't open the gate, but there was no way these hundreds of metric tons of humanity were going anywhere but toward where gravity pulled, toward the pit. As the elbows poked me from all sides and I had to position my arm as horizontal column in order to maintain space to periodically expand my rib cage, I made an observation to people around me, "This is how people are crushed at rock concerts." As bad off as we were, the people pressed against the unyielding fence a dozen feet away were worse.
Now I could see people being let through the gate into the pit. They were so enmeshed in those around them that the safety guy seemed to be plucking them one by one out of the crowd like burrs from wool. Within a few minutes, I'd flowed up the gate and was being plucked off the crowd. The safety guy said the same irritated thing to me that he'd said to everyone else, "One at a time!" followed perhaps with a futile, "Everyone else back the fuck up!"
But then there I was, a free man once more, surrounded again by my cocoon of empty personal space. I was in a dusty walkway leading along the fence holding back the impacted crowd of people who would never be in the pit, but the way in front of me was unimpeded. It was, for a moment, like being a celebrity (a real one, the kind everyone has heard of). I felt an unusual joy as I skipped down the path and down into the pit, several thousand square feet of ground directly in front of the stage that was still mostly empty.
I looked around, like a righteous Christian in Heaven hoping to find someone I knew who had also been saved. Where was Gretchen? I didn't see her anywhere, so I went to the pit entrance to look for her among the dozens of exuberant Pearl Jam fans streaming in. To a person, everyone was acting like an overjoyed eight year old on Christmas morning, their eyes wide and their stride bounding as they fully realize their good fortune. "Damn, I'm directly in front of the stage at a Pearl Jam concert!"
Eventually I gave up on ever finding Gretchen and took a position in the pit, prepared to enjoy the music.
I'm not a huge Pearl Jam fan, but I definitely consider it musical comfort food, particularly in a live concert setting. There's just nothing like the aural comfort of being cocooned in loud, warm electric guitars.
It's easy to see how Eddie Vedder came to be a rock god. He definitely has the essential stage persona wherein he appears to be channeling someone or something much more powerful than any human. His body becomes a puppet for this force, and the music turns into something indistinguishable from a force of nature. This isn't to say I found Vedder's stage persona uniformly appealing. For one thing, he has a mysterious tendency to spit a lot, and sometimes it looks as if he's unconcerned with who might happen to be standing in his spittle's trajectory. Sometimes Vedder would engage the audience with call-and-response routines, which, though never as awkward as they had been with Metallica, were still unnecessarily cloying. Finally, Vedder is never as inarticulate as when he's trying to make a political point. When he's telling us that George W. Bush sucks or that we should vote, he acts as though he's apologetic for even bringing it up, and then ends up stammering his way through it, making the whole interruption seem unnecessary. And if he thought he was going to get anyone in this crowd motivated to do his political bidding, he seemed sadly mistaken.
Vedder drank from a large dark brown bottle for most of the show. Early in the show, he'd hide the bottle behind something on stage after he was done with it. Later, though, he was more flamboyant with his bottle. I don't know what he was drinking, but whatever it was seemed to make him zanier and ever-more-possessed by the rock-god puppeteer as the night wore on.
Eddie Vedder is an A-list rock star who has spent much of the past decade trying to legitimize himself in alternative circles after cashing in on the grunge phenomenon on the 1990s. Tonight, for example, he was wearing a Sleater-Kinney teeshirt, showing his respects for a Seattle band with as much credibility and critical acclaim as Pearl Jam has fame. Vedder also took a moment to give props to many of the other musicians who had been at this festival, listing old-timer BB King alongside the fresh-faced Cat Power. Tellingly, though, he never mentioned Metallica, which I'm sure Eddie Vedder considers a bunch of boneheaded greasers. But the fact of the matter is that Metallica opened the way for popular acceptance of heavier and harder music, and without Metallica grunge itself may never have happened.
Pearl Jam's show went more than an hour beyond its scheduled end, and there were plenty of great songs. The best of all was probably a cover of the Who's "Love, Reign o'er Me." Interestingly, during that song I looked around me at the hippies, sorority chicks, and frat boys near me and they seemed utterly mystified; none of them knew the words.
Because it was Bonnaroo, Pearl Jam felt the need to jam up the middle of their songs to make them more jam-bandy, and this no doubt contributed to the length of the show. Near the end, though, they did another cover, this time of Bob Dylan by way of Jimi Hendrix, "All Along the Watchtower." Everyone knew that song!
Just leaving the "What" stage took a good twenty minutes as the crowd squeezed out through the narrow aperatures provided. Part of the problem was that there was a wide, muddy ditch at the main exit that everyone had to jump across.
I got back to the tent and found it wide open, meaning Gretchen had already come back. It turned out that she was in the passenger seat of the car trying to fall asleep. She woke up immediately when I appeared, clearly pissed off that she hadn't been able to find me at the rendezvous point. I explained that I'd waited there for a half hour, hadn't seen her, figured she'd found her way into the pre-position crowd, and gone off to join it. She insisted that she'd come back after only forty five seconds of absence and waited for me at the rendezvous point the whole night. She'd ended up watching Pearl Jam from atop a crate sitting on the counter of the pizza concession. She'd enlisted those around her to call my name (which quickly morphed, telephone-style, from "Gus Mueller" to "Ferris Bueller").
She also befriended a middle-brow 40-something-year-old who had good things to say about Jack Johnson when he was still playing. As for the information Gretchen had obtained from a "safety" person about the functioning of the pit, she'd been told that there had been people waiting for hours for the Pearl Jam pit and that anyone else getting into it was essentially impossible. This, as I'd discovered, hadn't been true, but it had been enough to keep Gretchen from trying and had also led her to believe that I hadn't made it to the pit. During my prolonged absence, she was actually worried that I'd been arrested or perhaps even abducted. She'd left the Pearl Jam show before it was over once they'd become a bit too "jam bandy."
We both slept in the car tonight, me in the driver's seat and Gretchen in the passenger's. It was to be the best full night of sleep I would get at Bonnaroo.
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