Year two for us at Bonnaroo saw The Back Left Pole become The Back Left Pole Dancers as we prepaid for a campsite where our group could be centrally located together. In previous years the group had to make sure that they met up outside of the farm and went in together in order to camp with each other. Keeping 8-10 vehicles together in the madness that is Bonnaroo is a titanic undertaking. This time we opted to pay a little extra per person and they gave us a specific plot of grass to set up on. 2014 also saw the size of our group swell to nearly 45 people. Some of the people that we met in 2013 did not show up in 2014, but some others that had gone in years past made triumphant returns to the party. There was also a whole new class of Bonnarookies for everyone to get to know. That meant that I was no longer the new guy, but rather a sophomore. Even though I still had to meet a lot of new faces, I felt more at home on the farm this year. I truly felt like a Bonnaroovian, a Back Left Pole Dancer.
2013 was my first year on the farm and nothing will ever be able to replicate that experience, but 2014 took it to another level. The group was huge and there were a lot of smaller groups (cliques?) within the big group, but even so, we were all in it together. Our group gained a dad. Dad drove his pickup truck down and set up a huge (20’ x 20’) party tent and sound system. That meant that we could (and did) blast music at all hours of the day and night. The party was always raging in the Back Left Pole Dancer camp site. We also had a coordinator this year who made sure all along the way that everyone knew what was going one and help funnel us to where we needed to go and did what needed to be done. This position was necessitated by our foray into Groop Camping. From the time we started buying tickets, up until we were safely settled into our camp site, he dealt with all the frustration of coordinating between Bonnaroo and all of us aloof festies. Then there were the folks that entered us in the Groop Camping, “Road to Roo” contest. I had no idea that the contest was a thing, or that we were entered in it, but it was, and we were. These Pole Dancers found us a mascot, then took a series of photos as our mascot, Rage Henson made his way to Manchester from Minnesota.
Once again I brought enough liquor to get everyone drunk and tried my hardest to make sure that everyone stayed that way. I tried to be the guy who brought everything, so that no one needed anything, or had to go without something. The ladies were more coordinated than ever, coming up with outfit themes and wardrobe changes. There was no shortage of bubbles, glitter, or glow sticks. The new tent that dad brought was amazing and provided much needed shade during the day and an awesome place for the late night dance parties that raged until the sun was well into the sky. Sometimes so late that our neighbors asked us to turn the music off. I mean, think about that, partying so hard at a music festival that other people who are there to party tell you that you are partying too hard. That’s just kind of how 2014 was. We went 100% one hundred percent of the time. Also 2014 saw the crowning of our first official Trap Lord. If you need to be told what the function of a Trap Lord is, then you clearly are not a part of the trap.
As usual the lineup was out of control. For my part, I had grown to like, even love some of the newer music that I had never heard of the year prior. Bonnaroo was the reason for me to discover new artists and to branch out into unfamiliar music territory. From the Arctic Monkeys, to Chromeo, to Die Antwoord, there was plenty of new music for me to brush up on in order to compliment the artists I was already excited to see. From Jack White, The Flaming Lips, and Nick Cave, to Ice Cube and Janelle Monáe, there was almost too many amazing acts scheduled. Last year (2014) also brought to a fantastical conclusion the storied Kanye West saga. In January Bonnaroo divided it’s followers by booking the controversial artist as the Friday night headliner, 6 years after his infamous set on the same stage, when we went on 4 hours after his scheduled start-time, only to play for 45 minutes as the sun was already rising, after which he left and published an open letter ripping the organizers of Bonnaroo for allowing Pearl Jam to play for too long and not respecting the light show that he had planned. While some Bonnaroovians seemed content to give West a second chance, you could clearly see that there were many who were not happy with him in the lineup. Kanye himself seemed to notice some of the detractors, as it was commonplace to see “Fuck Kanye” spray painted along the grounds. Also, even though there were no other acts playing at the same time, I would estimate that little more than half of the more than 80,000 Bonnaroo attendees actually came to the show, leaving the grounds looking shockingly empty.
None of that actually mattered when West came on stage (on time, actually), because he seemed hell bent on ruining this show himself. Firstly, the event organizers require artists to use the jumbotrons in their acts, because with so many people attending, many fans are not in a position to have a view of the stage from where they are and the big screens allow them to experience as much as possible. West’s way of accommodating this request was to project the big screen as a negative video, meaning that you could see his visage, but unless you had some serious inside-out sight, there’s no way you could actually make any of it out, not that it mattered, because he came out wearing a fucking mask. However, when he came out swinging with the hard hitting “Black Skinhead” the crowd went nuts. It wasn’t until the 2nd or 3rd song that people began pouring from the grounds. This was when Kanye West went on his first rant. Midsong he stopped, cut the music, then infamously shouted out, to no one in particular, “Where the press at?” From there, the show was an almost laughable series of self-gratifying diatribes, addressing everything from his previous Bonnaroo debacle (never apologizing, of course), to his status as the Biggest Rock Star in the World. In between he would compare himself to the likes of Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven. and Howard Hughes. By the time we finally left, there couldn’t have been more than 15-20,000 people still there. If it was possible to humiliate the ego that is Kanye West, the steady chorus of boos, combined with the steady stream of Bonnaroovians flocking to the exits would certainly have caused him to end his set early. But, as it was, he was still playing as I finally made it out of earshot.
I really want to think of that Kanye West experience as a bad one, because it was probably the worst live music show I’ve ever been to, but the sheer spectacle of it. I’m just glad I was there to witness it. To see someone go down in flames and never even realize that he was on fire. I still can’t quite wrap my mind around it. It did serve as a stark contrast to Saturday’s headliner, Jack White. Where Kanye West was convinced that we should all be honored that he would even show up to this Bonnaroo shit, Jack White was humble and gracious. He started out by acknowledging the fact that it was hot as hell in Tennessee and that he knew that we had all been standing around under the sun all day. The fact that we would still come out to see him really meant a lot to him; that we (the fans) were the only reason that he had for playing this show, any show. It’s really a simple thing, but he had us eating out of the palm of his hand with his sheer sincerity. Then he introduced the the entire blues ensemble that he had brought with him for the show. He talked about his collaborators as if they were his best friends, giving each of them a worthy shout out. Then he proceeded to play for nearly 4 hours, doing at least 3 encores. It was the type of performance that gets you thinking that maybe you’re watching a legend in the making. That performance will always stick out to me as one of the bests I’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t even the most memorable of the festival.
Remember that Groop Camping, “Road to Roo” competition that I mentioned before? The one that I didn’t even know that we were entered into? Well, thanks to a couple of motivated Pole Dancers and one Rage Henson, we actually won the contest. Our prize? Pit passes to see Elton John perform the final show of the festival on Sunday. So, all 45 of us met back at the camp site to change into our funky freshest best, then were escorted through the artist area into the pit, right in front of the stage. Behind us was 80,000 people who wished that they were as close as we were. When Elton finally came on stage it was as though he was playing a private show just for us. I’ll tell you what, all the drugs in the world wouldn’t have made that moment feel any better. Being able to have that moment with Elton, with my girlfriend, with all of the beautiful Pole Dancers and with the rest of Bonnaroo, well, that’s about as good as it gets. When he brought up Ben Folds to play along with him, it got even better. When he played “Rocket Man”, the crowd reached fever pitch. When he played “Saturday’s Alright (For Fighting)” the whole thing just exploded. When he came back for an encore and finished his set with “Your Song” and “Crocodile Rock” it was almost too much. By the time the show was finally over, I think each of our lives had changed, even if just a little. I wasn’t prepared for how amazing being that close to Elton John could be; how infectious his energy would be.
Beyond the headliners, Janelle Monáe blew my mind. The energy she had and the way she commanded the stage was just beyond my comprehension. The flaming lips were out of this world trippy. The Skrillex Superjam brought me to all sorts of hip hop and R&B that I didn’t think I’d get to at this festival. From Janelle covering Michael Jackson (“Wanna Be Startin’ Something’”) and James Brown (“I Feel Good”), to A$AP Ferg covering Notorious B.I.G. (“Juicy”) and A$AP Rocky (“Wild For the Night”), to Mystikal Making (I mean Shake Ya Ass, right?) a guest appearance and Robbie Krieger (The Doors) playing “Break on Through” along side Matt Shultz (Cage the Elephant), this was a truly epic Superjam (not to mention Damian Marley, Lauryn Hill, Warpaint, and Thundercat). I even missed a ton of amazing shows, like Damon Albarn, Lauryn Hill, Bobby Womack, and Ice Cube, but just like the year previous, the music was only half the draw.
The best part of Bonnaroo 2014 was how at home we felt within our group. We became closer with all of our Roo family. We partied with them, had heart to heart talks, did all the drugs, and danced as hard as humanly possible. We got weird together at Die Antwoord in animal onesies, got super sequensy and outrageous at Elton John, and rocked our faces off with Jack White. It’s these experiences that showed me that an amazing show is even more amazing when you can look over and see that your friends are going just as crazy as you are. It’s made even better when you go back to your camp site after the shows end, sad that it’s all over, just to find that there are already 20 people back at the tent keeping the party going. We partied until there was no more party left to be had, then we packed up our things and left the farm, tears in our eyes, reluctantly handing our parting goodbyes and well-wishes for the travels home, dreading the year long wait until our triumphant return to the farm.