My Road To The Back Left Pole: A Bonnaroo Experience (part 3 of 3)

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When it came time to make the decision to purchase tickets for Bonnaroo this year, it wasn’t even a question. My girlfriend and I weren’t interested in even waiting for the lineup to be posted. The lineup is almost inconsequential to us at this point. We know there’s going to be good music, because it’s Bonnaroo. What we go for is the amazing people and the good vibes. Those are going to be there regardless of who’s playing the main stage. We waited for the very moment that early-bird tickets went on sale online and virtually pushed and elbowed our way to the front, until we had the tickets we craved. From that moment we were committed. Then it was all we could do to wait for the actual lineup to be released. Lineup day is basically a holiday in my house.

When Bonnaroo finally arrived and I rolled up to the farm this year, after a 15 hour drive from NYC I was positively giddy. Even though I hadn’t slept in nearly 36 hours, I was wide awake and ready to go. My car was packed to the rafters and I barely was able to fit everything that I wanted to bring into the car. I had spent the previous two months stockpiling requisite item (and many of the superfluous ones) needed to make this Bonnaroo the best yet. I was the second car to arrive at our campsite and so I got to see everyone pile in one by one. Every car that arrived was another reunion, another family member returning home. Last year we felt like our group won Bonnaroo. Our camp was the envy of our pod and we were treated like total VIP’s on our way to watch Elton John in the pit. This year we had a lot to live up to. Bonnaroo Groop Camping staff tucked us into the back left corner of the site this year, which seemed pretty appropriate. Our plot was huge and we spent a fair amount of time planning out the best way to organize ourselves. Once again we had a main party tent, but this year more people caught on to the idea of shade tents instead of camping tents. Often times it’s just way too hot to have a fully enclosed tent. In 95 degree weather your tent quickly turns into a sauna.

This year we had a designated area within our camp for a kitchen set up. We had a couple of camp stoves and enough space to store enough food where things didn’t get too overly trampled on, dirty, or full of ants. Also, this year dad bought us a generator to power the party, and one of the Bonnarookies brought his professional DJ equipment. There is no doubt in my mind that this camp set up was easily the most refined and best operating setups in our group’s history. We didn’t have as many people this year as we did in 2014, but there was very few times when there wasn’t  a group of Back Left Pole Dancers partying at the camp site. Because of our location in the back of the pod, however, it seems as though we were outside of the area where most of the campers were partying. Undaunted, we just turned up the music even louder, until people who wanted to party found us; by the final night, they were coming from all over.

Once we were all set up, Wednesday night was about the booze and starting our own dance party. I did my best to mix up cocktails and the music was jamming. The next day, with the last of the stragglers showing up Thursday afternoon, our group swelled to about 35. The last of our family to show up was a couple of our favorites, who we didn’t expect to see. They made the last minute decision to blow town and come to Manchester even though they didn’t have tickets. That’s the true Roo spirit and what being a part of this family means to each and every one of us. No matter what, there will always be an undeniable pull that makes us gravitate toward the farm (and to the Back Left Pole).

Music the first night is limited. The shows start later; they end earlier; and there are fewer stages open. This allows Thursday to be the day where you don’t have to make the tough decisions about which bands to see when they inevitably overlap. Through the first two years of my attendance, some of my favorite smaller shows have been on Thursday. In 2013 it was Django Django, Alt-J, and Killer Mike; 2014 had Thao and the Get Down Stay Down and MS MR. This year Thursday night was closed down admirably by Gramatik. Probably one of my favorite DJ sets at Bonnaroo. His effortless use of jazz and hip-hop samples made his set incredibly danceable, while still being relaxing and comfortable. It was a great way to kick off Bonnaroo 2015.

As expected, Friday was the most amazing day, music wise. We had already dubbed the day Kendrick Day, in honor of King Kendrick Lamar, and there weren’t even words to express how excited I was to see him again at Bonnaroo. In my first year (2013), K-Dot was a rallying point for our group. After being spread out and disconnected for most of the afternoon, everyone found themselves at this one show, geeked out and dancing the hottest part of the day away. It was a moment where I could look around and really see how much these people loved this festival and the music and each other.

For me, this whole day was lived in anticipation of K-Dot moving up to fill the headliner slot. Before that, however, was Sylvan Esso, Atmosphere, and Ben Harper. Sylvan Essos folky electronic sound transitioned effortlessly to a live performance. They almost put you in a trance, and I can’t even recall if anyone was at the show with my girlfriend and me. I had to snap out of it just so I could make it to the Atmosphere show.

Seeing Atmosphere in concert was a long awaited experience for me. For as long as I’ve been a fan of their music, and being that they are from my home state of Minnesota, it seemed sort of a tragedy that I had never seen them live before. They certainly did not disappoint. Slug came out with seemingly endless energy and their set list included almost all of the songs that I would have put onto an Atmosphere playlist. When I listen to Atmosphere, I think about them as a hometown group; I think about Ant and Slug as guys that most people won’t have heard of outside of the Twin Cities. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m still on the inside track of something that’s going to blow up someday. Then I remember that they have been around for nearly 20 years and are the kings of underground hip-hop. I was reminded that they are huge in places other than Minneapolis when I heard the entire crowd singing along to Sunshine. It was an appropriate introduction to the band that put Minnesota hip-hop on the map. Even those in the group that have seen Atmosphere multiple times admitted that this was one of their better performances, even if Slug has put on a little weight (he has).

After Atmosphere my girlfriend and I waited around to see if we could catch some of Ben Harper’s set. If there ever was a musician that was made to play the festivals, it’s that man, and if I could just catch a few of his songs it would do wonders for my soul, as well as being able to check yet another legendary musician off of my musical bucket list. We knew that it would be tight since his set overlapped Kendrick Lamar and when he showed up late for his set, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to make it to both. We reluctantly tore ourself away from the Which Stage, slowly, hoping to catch at least the first few chords of his set. It wasn’t meant to be. I guess we’ll have to wait until his next return to Roo. But as soon as we were out of site it was on to Kendrick and the What Stage. Nothing was going to keep us from raging along with the rest of Bonnaroo. I was floating on cloud nine from the moment I saw the stage

Unlike the afternoon of 2013, where we met up with our Back Left Pole crew, the lady and I were destined to catch this show alone. A few laps through our usual meeting spot let me know that I wasn’t meant to find the Back Left Pole Dancers, and once the stage went black and subsequently exploded into light, revealing Kendrick Lamar and his four-piece live band, none of that mattered. I spent the next hour and a half belting out Kendrick’s songs at the top of my lungs. From the opening track, the thumping “Money Trees”, right up until the final energy laden line of “Alright” every song built on the previous one, until the entire crowd was jumping and screaming in unison. The set was relatively short for a Headliner, running for less than 90 minutes, but that might have had more to do with the time needed to set up for the night’s second headliner, Deadmau5. Even so, it’s difficult to say that any set that came before or after it came anywhere close to matching it’s energy and intensity. Knowing that K-Dot wasn’t singing over some recording, but was rather playing with an actual band. Knowing that he cared enough about his music to not just use the show as a vehicle to promote his new album; to cram new tracks down our throats, even though it’s what we were begging for. Kendrick Lamar knows how to work a crowd. I personally was lapping the whole thing up.

When he launched from “Money Trees” right into “Backseat Freestyle”, my favorite of his tracks, I knew this set was going to catch fire and burn this whole stage down, and not in the same way that Kanye burned it down last year. This was going to explode, and we were all going along for glorious the ride. As Lamar blazed through tracks from Good Kid m.A.A.d. City, breaking once to do a rendition of A$AP Rocky’s “F**kin’ Problems” and another time for a cover of Tupac’s “Hail Mary” the energy continued to rise. At one point Kendrick referenced his last performance at Bonnaroo, saying that back then (2013) the crowd was at an 8.5, commanding us to take it to a 10. We obliged. A little later he challenged the crowd to make that 10 a 20, immediately before launching into the infectious “m.A.A.d City.” And if it were possible, we did take it there. And just when we were content to hear our favorite tracks from GKMC, Kendrick asked the crowd how many of us had been with him from the beginning. Of course I cheered along with everyone else, even though his mix tapes became my homework after discovering Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” track. I had come late to Section 80 and Overly Dedicated. I just told myself that by beginning he meant his first Bonnaroo performance. I was there for that. He took that moment to reward us all for our patience. Where we thought that he was going to kick it back to his mix tape days, instead he slowed it down brought us forward to his new album. He and Anna Wise gave an interesting, if not beautiful rendition of the song “If These Walls Could Talk,” before he finished his set with three of his most recognizable and catchy songs from To Pimp A Butterfly: “i”, “King Kunta”, and “Alright.” I was as high as I had ever been after any show by that point, and the night was still young.

After getting snubbed for an encore, we found ourselves meeting up with a few of the Pole Dancers. After a few minutes of reliving Kendrick’s amazing set, we set out for the next show on our list. To me it was fitting for us to follow the eloquent and sometimes soft spoken poetic message of Kendrick Lamar, with the hard-hitting, in your face, equally poignant slam poetry of Killer Mike and his duo Run the Jewels. By the time we got there, this amped up show had already began. To date, this is one of the grittiest rap shows I’ve every been a part of. These guys are the heavy metal of hip hop, replete with mosh pits and head banging. Even Killer Mike was banged up, showing up in a sling, with a broken arm. It didn’t matter though, whatever energy that I had left from Kendrick, I redoubled while thrashing at this show. We ducked out at the end just in time to catch the last half of Earth Wind and Fire, and boy am I glad we did. Not more than 15 minutes after shimmying our way up to the Which Stage, the surprisingly energetic for their age band blew our minds. They summoned to the stage not only Chance the Rapper, but also King Kendrick Lamar, fresh off of his dominant performance at the What Stage. Everyone went nuts and for the next 10-15 minutes I was in awe as Chance and Kendrick freestyle rapped over the funky beats laid down by EW&F. What an amazing moment for everyone on the stage, but also how special for us fans to have been able to be there to see it. That was definitely a top 5 moment for me.

As if that wasn’t enough, Friday closed out for us with a late night DJ set from STS9. I had never heard of them before this set, but they definitely left an impression on me. They blasted bass and electronic beats at us until at least 330 AM. Somehow there was still enough energy to go around and by the time they finished their nearly 3 hour set, there was a sort of electricity in our group. The 15-20 Back Left Pole Dancers that met for that final Friday night show were alive and full of energy, when one of the group suggested that we head back to the camp site for liquor drinks. And liquor drinks we had, along with a full-on dance party. When the sun started to peek it’s way up and some of the group contemplated going to bed, the rest of us powered on as late as we could. We decided that breakfast was in order and served ourselves a healthy portion of French Dose. After breakfast we spent hours pondering the important questions of life, like the qualifications of a proper Hemi, and the proper method for starting a revolution, and outlining the finer points of a new charity movement, Dumps for Bumps.

As early morning turned into early afternoon, and Friday turned into Saturday, Bonnaroo hit it’s home-stretch. For most of us, Saturday had much less of a promise for the on-fire shows that Friday had provided, though one of our group found his way to SZA in time to propose to her (which she accepted) with a genuine, hand-made Bonnaroo ring. For our part, we made it into Centeroo in time to check out some of Belle and Sebastian’s set before catching the first half of SBTRKT another DJ I’d never heard of. After deciding that it was a little too early for electronic music, the girlfriend and I made our way to Childish Gambino, another artist whose work I’m not at all familiar with. His music was fun and his sound was not entirely unlike Kendrick, but I found most of the crowd, or at least the portion of the crowd that was near us to be awful; loud and obnoxious, selfish and pushy. We could only stay for half of the show. I guess it was the younger group of kids, not usually the ones I see at the other shows we go to.

Unfortunate for me, the second half of the night was plagued with sickness. At one point I realized that I had been partying for so long that I hadn’t slept since Thursday afternoon. It was now Saturday night. I was full swing into an anxiety attack for several hours before I could figure out how to calm myself down and go to sleep. I missed the Slayer show, along with Bassnectar, Tyco, D’Angelo, and most importantly, the 80’s Throwback Superjam. While I woke up refreshed and ready to finish Bonnaroo in proper fashion, I can’t help but regret missing out on that Superjam, along with the dance party that ensue back at the campsite afterward.

Sunday, also known as Liquor Sunday in the Back Left Pole Dancer camp is a lazy day where we sit around for most of the day and eat all the remaining food and drink all the remaining booze (or at least as much of it as we can). Most of the early shows are optional. This year was no exception. Pole Dancers came and went, but most stayed and tried to spend most of the hottest part of the day under the shade, listening to our DJ’s spin the jams, and getting as drunk as possible. Personally I only intended to see 3 shows on Sunday, and they were the last 3 shows of the festival. I spent all day, up until 6 pm at the camp site with my family. We tidied our living area up a bit, fried some bacon, grilled up some sausages, and drank copious amounts of beer and liquor drinks. Some of the folks showered and prepared outfits for the evening’s shows. Tonight was Billy Joel after all; you can’t show up to the Piano Man looking like you’ve been camping and doing drugs for 4 days. We counted all of our glow sticks and devised ways to smuggle them into Centeroo. When it was finally time to go in to the grounds, it was for Florence + The Machine. I was blown away by how much energy Florence had. She was running from one end of the stage to the other. Her presence was amazing. At one point she saw a fan in the crowd with a sign that said merely “HUG?” She beckoned the fan to the stage, telling them that if they made it to the stage, she would gladly give them a hug. The fan crowd surfed all the way up to the stage before engaging Florence in a running (jumping) hug. I was jealous.

I left F+TM a little early, because I needed to live out a fantasy of mine. I know that I will likely never get to see the remaining members of Led Zeppelin perform together, but Bonnaroo 2015 gave me the chance to see Robert Plant play a few of my favorite Zep songs. Hearing Robert Plant sing “Going to California” ranks right up there with Paul McCartney singing “Hey Jude.” I had long since lost my voice, but I squeaked out every word to that song and a half dozen other Led Zeppelin songs. By the time I left, I had to have been the happiest boy at Bonnaroo, and I still had Bill Joel ahead of me.

There’s a lot of hoopla about Billy Joel quitting his set 45 minutes earlier than scheduled, and while I don’t necessarily think that he should be let off the hook, especially when guys older than him have played far longer and arguably harder, but let’s be honest, Billy rocked. The show that he put on was clearly a show that he’s played many many times before, even the seemingly impromptu AC/DC cover that he did with his roadie seemed a little too rehearsed, but still, this is a guy who hasn’t made any new music in over 20 years. He started the show with “My Life” and barely skipped a beat all the way through. He coyly gave short introductions to his well known songs, talking about them as if the audience had never heard of them before. He hit almost all of my favorite songs (“Movin’ Out”, “All For Leyna”, “Zanzibar”, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, and “Piano Man”) before crushing it down the stretch, with “Uptown Girl”, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, “Big Shot”, “You May Be Right”, and “Only the Good Die Young.” I mean, would we all have liked to see some impromptu musicianship? Maybe a guest other than his roadie? Yeah, of course, but I guess when you have a winning recipe, sometimes you just have to stick with it.

On top of that, that extra time the Billy Joel didn’t play certainly wasn’t wasted. As soon as we all got back to the camp site, the Back Left Pole Dancers were raging once again. With the remaining unused glow sticks and some sick bass drops, the final dance party was the best one of them all. I didn’t last for the whole thing, but our house DJ’s (DJ Tanner, DJ Eurotrash, and DJ Fresh Prince) killed it and we were probably the last party going on a night when people who have to work on Monday are packing up and piling into their cars hitting the road before Billy Joel even has enough time to get drunk in his limo.

In the morning, the worst part of the entire festival happens. Not just the clean up, which is akin to moderate torture. You remember that time when you were outside of your mind and you spilled that entire liquor drink onto the pile of tent poles in the corner. Now you have to clean all of that up. All of the half drank beers, the bacon grease, the glow sticks, and confetti; then you have to find a way to fit your tents back into their tiny cases and everything back into your tiny vehicles. You took so much care and effort getting everything into your car on the way to Bonnaroo. Now you just want to throw things away to avoid having to maneuver them into that tiny trunk.

No, that’s not the worst part of Mondays at Bonnaroo. The worst part is trying to say goodbye to everyone without breaking down in tears. You’ve already used up all of your happiness for the next week and a half and now you have to say goodbye to people that you probably wont see until next year at Bonnaroo. It’s just too much. This year saw an amazing rookie class. These guys came in already pros. They not only contributed to the group, but they made Bonnaroo better in general.  One of our Pole Dancers celebrated his 10th year in fine farm, while a couple of others entered high school, attending their 9th Roo. For My girlfriend and me, we were officially vets. We weren’t rookies anymore, and we had made it through our sophomore year. This year also brought our group a new Trap Lord, and he had to make some tough Trap Lordian decisions, which he did in true trap fashion.

Musically, this year did not match up to my two previous years. The downside is that there wasn’t quite as many amazing shows to check out, but I went into this year knowing that I was going to get a chance to get to know my family even more than I had in previous years. Let me tell you, the Back Left Pole Dancers are even more amazing than I knew before. There were times when I wanted to go into Centeroo to see a show, but I just couldn’t pull myself away from the shenanigans happening at the camp site. I don’t know if Bonnaroo was running any sort of contest this year, and it doesn’t even really matter, because our group won Bonnaroo. It wasn’t even close. I saw a lot of Bonnaroovians partying hard in their respective parts of the farm, but when it comes to going where the party really is, you needn’t go any further than the Back Left Pole.

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