The guy walking around with the balloons wasn't celebrating a birthday or distinguishing himself among throngs of festival goers; he was distributing them for their helium content. But my first impulse, in my naïveté, was to ask somebody to buy me a red one.
I would quickly learn the tripped-out ways of Bonnaroo. I didn't even have to leave my campsite. A nitrous lover didn't move from his car all weekend and cut out the burdensome middle-man (Mr. Balloon), becoming an extension of the canister himself. One morning, I was awoken by two friends who had happened to run into each other three feet from my tent.
Dude one: "Holy shit! I had no idea you were coming here."
Dude two: "Yeah man."
One: "What are you on right now?"
Two: "I'm rolling, and I just dropped."
One: "For Sasha? (A band that played a set from 3:45am to 5:30am)"
Two: "Yeah, did you?"
One: "No, but I tripped balls at Radiohead. It was amazing."
Two: "Can you believe how many people are sleeping in? [He said at 6:30am.] Do you know where we can get more drugs?"
You could buy almost anything hippie-related, and for $196 you could build your own djembe drum, but as the sign warned: "If you're high, it will take twice as long."
The festival was trying to trip you out, even if you just said no.
One tent had a silent disco. In a packed tent, disco heads hippie-jived while wearing head phones that piped private music. This struck me as a slightly more interactive version of post-ipod life because at least the head-phoned were dancing with each other.
Saturday night's masquerade took place in a tent designed to look like a barn. A psychedelic band jammed. The drummer had a Mike Tyson mask on, the bassist wore a skeleton mask and the lead guitarist had an old lady mask. There was also a movie theater playing films 24 hours a day (like a 3:45am showing of The Shining), in a black-lit tent designed to feel like a stoner's basement lair.
Among the freaks: some naked people, naked people with body paint and a guy dressed as a goat man with five fairy followers (like all respectable goat-men) -- but the weirdest sight of all was the joggers. "I can't believe I just saw someone running," I heard one awed, hungover Bonnaroovian, who sat baking in the punishing sun, say in utter disbelief.
The air at Bonnaroo was dense with odors, fair foods and smoke: marijuana, cigarette or the occasional fragrant clove -- all of which seeped into my skin. As I'm writing this in Nashville's airport, I can't type three words without taking an itching break.
"Not just for hippies," is the mantra Bonnaroo is trying to push. Reggae and hip-hop acts (such as Steel Pulse, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley and Cyprus Hill) didn't bring in more diverse crowds, just whities dressed in genre-appropriate garb, like the many Trustafarians who accessorized with the colors of the Jamaican flag. On a side note, as I walked by the Cyprus Hill concert, I got to hear B-Real's version of firing up the crowd. He asked them consecutively if they liked regular joints, then pipes, then Bob Marley-like spliffs and finally bongs, while the crowd cheered at each pot-smoking device.
The first act I saw on one of the smaller stages, Devotchka, played its unique Eastern Bloc indie rock while dressed properly in gold sport coats and formal dresses, despite the 90 degree dry heat. During consecutive songs, the drummer played a baby blue xylophone, a trombone and an accordion. An hour after the show, I saw Devotchka frontman Nick Urata by the media tent still in his gold jacket.
MTV's John Norris lurked around the small compound glowering and interviewing rockers. Members of the photo press (which for some reason included me) were ushered to the photographer pit in front of the first row of the main stage and were allowed to shoot for three songs or 15 minutes, whichever came first.
Led under the main stage, we had to pass through the artist compound. As we passed by him before the Tom Petty concert, Norris grunted and complained to his cameramen about us getting in his way. Many of the artists standing around booed us as we passed.
The 50 or so photographers on hand all had "real" cameras and Creative Loafing's hand-held digital didn't really hold up. To say I had lens envy would be an understatement. I caught other photographers sneaking sideways sneers at me and my puny camera. Space was at a premium in the pit. One photographer even threatened another, and they had to be separated.
In the pit, I was so close that I could see the wrinkles in Tom Petty's velvet coat and in his face. The next day, I was also able to see that Beck was wearing too much lipstick and rouge. CL's camera broke and I was forced to use my personal back-up camera, a piece of junk that my mom got for signing up for a new credit card. One photographer complained about his shutter speed only being 1600, while my back-up camera reacted to any motion like I was trying to take a still of a speeding bullet.
After Radiohead on Saturday night, I went to see Concord's Avett Brothers' set. Their PR guy had told me how great the Avetts are live, which at the time seemed clichéd. As much as what I'm going to say sounds similarly hackneyed, the Avetts gave one of the best performances I've ever seen from a band. Convulsing with his entire body as he strummed his hardest, hair blinding, Scott Avett was in another world on stage.
The crowd fed off it, jumping constantly throughout the show.
The heartthrob frontman had girls cooing and men shouting, "You guys are awesome." One lady talking to Scott Avett after the show said it best: "You rocked my face off."
"I got more phone calls and e-mails about this show then anything we've ever done as a band before," said upright bassist Bob Crawford (the trio's only non-Avett). "I think it's such a great year for us to be here because it seems more diversified than it was in the past."
Of the Bonnaroo experience, Crawford said, "This is great because you get to see four or five of your big acts, and then you see stuff you've never heard of before. I guarantee you 97 percent of the people never heard of us."