I originally wanted to write this post the week leading up to this year’s Bonnaroo, but I got busy. As it turns out, though, I’m writing this on the 9 year anniversary of the first day of the very first Bonnaroo. Yeah, I went to there. It was the summer after my first year of college and earlier in the year, while I was home on break, my buddy Toth told me about this new festival in Tennessee. It was three days, tickets were $100 and that included camping spots. I wasn’t the biggest jam band fan in the world, but the line up seemed interested enough and I liked the idea of being able to tell people I went to the first of something I figured would wind up being a pretty big deal (I guess I was right on that point). To make matters better, Toth figured we could head down to Nashville for a few days and then drive the next hour to Manchester and watch the show. Seemed like a good plan to me.
Our days in Nashville were pretty fun, though would have been even better had we been 21. I have a very distinct memory of walking down the main street wherever we were and hearing all this different music coming out of the bars and clubs that we couldn’t get into. We did however find a Charlie Daniels museum (I love the Charlies Daniels Band), ate at a Hard Rock Cafe, went to a few record stores and also got some “rock star clothes” as Toth called them. I still have the redish pink 70s pants and bright green button down shirt I bought there. I also remember having a conversation about this new show called American Idol. Toth thought it was a big deal and I thought it was BS. Guess I was wrong about that one.
On the morning of June 21st, 2002 we packed our crap up, stocked up on food at a grocery store and then went to make the hour-or-so drive down to Bonnaroo. Seems pretty simple, right? Heh. No way. Instead of taking the hour that Mapquest told us it would, we wound up being stuck in traffic for 7 or 8 hours. I’ll be honest, I can’t remember the exact amount of time because it’s been so long and I was kind of losing it at the time. I don’t know if it was the wide open space, the insane gridlock or the fact that no one else seemed to think this was a big deal, but I was starting to have a serious panic attack as traffic all but stopped. I was very seriously doing the math in my head, trying to figure out how long it would take us to get home if I just turned around and started driving. How mad would Toth be? How would I pay him back? My better judgement won over and I wound up just sitting it out. To give you an idea of how slow the traffic was moving, people were getting out of their cars and tossing the frisbee around for 15-20 minutes spurts and only had to move a few feet to catch up to their car. It was insane.
Eventually we got in, though and went to our camp site. As you can see from the pic, they were basically as wide as a car and twice as long. Toth had a ton of camping equipment like the tent, chairs, a grill, the awning, the whole works, plus he knew how to cook on the camp stove, so we were pretty set. We had a pretty good set up across from some older biker-looking people from Chicago who I remember talking about quitting heroin,or “H” as they called it. That kind of freaked me out, but they seemed nice enough. Again, I’m relying on memories that are a decade old that were probably fuzzy to begin with thanks to poor sleep, a lack of showers and (I assume) some kind of contact high. While I didn’t partake in anything while there, there was plenty around being imbibed freely. I even saw a guy with two different colored eyes. I guess they could have been contacts, but he looked REALLY messed up.When we got to the actual gate, we were given a schedule and a map to help us find our way around. I don’t have it here in NY otherwise I would scan it. I believe the camping areas essentially surrounded the concert area which was split between four stages of increasing size. At least one–and I think two–were under huge tents while the larger two were just gigantic, open air venues. I remember having a general feeling of calm and ease while there even though it was beastly hot and really big. Everyone seemed cool and I saw all kinds of things I had never seen before, from the guy with the crazy eyes to some of the wildest frisbee catches I’ve ever seen. And that’s not even taking the music into account.
Thankfully, I wrote about my experiences at the show on my old website which is still around thanks to Angelfire (that’s also where I swiped all these pictures from). According to that, these are the bands I saw along with some modern day commentary.
Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade
Widespread Panic (the first set)
Keller Williams Incident (kinda)
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (for a few minutes)
I couldn’t tell you thing one about Big Wu or Jim White. You’ll see me writing that a lot in the next few paragraphs, but I think it’s because I wasn’t familiar with most of the music going in, so there aren’t a lot of touchstones. However Umphrey’s McGee made a big impact on me. They really impressed me and I still remember their show as being my favorite. It was in one of the smaller venues and I think we got pretty close to the stage. We saw Frog Brigade from way back, but it was rad seeing Buckethead play. Gov’t Mule and Panic are mysteries, but I do remember sitting on the side of the tent for Keller’s show and peeking under to see what we could see. I actually really regret not sticking around for Karl Denson’s set. It was one of the late night ones and I actually had listened to one of his records, but I think I didn’t want to be on my own that late. Such a wuss…
Ben Harper (solo)
String Cheese Incident (I think)
Col. Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains
moe (the first set)
Harper played the largest stage they had all by himself. I wasn’t really familiar with his music at the time, but that really impressed me. I don’t believe Jack Johnson was a big deal at the time I saw him, but I do remember him bringing out a 6 or 7 year old Australian girl named Scarlet to play drums at one point. I have no recollection of String Cheese Incident, but Jurassic 5 was awesome. That was my first and only hip hop live show experience. Maybe I was thinking of Bucket of Bernie Brains when it came to seeing Buckethead? moe was the late night show that night and it was pretty cool. Toth and I met some nice people while waiting for them to go on. I think the band was an hour or so late (which anal retentive me did not appreciate), but we all wound up talking bootlegs for a while which was cool. I think Toth stuck around for the second set, but I was exhausted and headed back to the camp site.
Bela Flech & Edgar Meyer
Phil & Friends with Bob Weir
Ween is another one I have zero memory of, though I know I was interested in checking them out because some dudes I worked with in high school were HUGE Ween fans. I remember being in the thick of things for Phil & Friends, but am not a Dead fan, so it was another “I have to say I was there” kind of a thing. I wandered away from all that craziness and hung out towards the back of the second biggest stage to check out the Superjam which I remember being really sick. The last show of the night was Phish’s Trey Anastasio playing with his then-new band. At the time, Phish had “broken up” and word around the festival was that Phish would be reuniting. That wasn’t the case, of course as Trey went on and played with his big band. I wasn’t all that interested in this particular show and really didn’t feel like wading through a literal sea of people, so I hung back at the camp site while Toth went and watched. I was able to get one of the camping chairs up on the roof of the van and wound up watching from there. It was actually a pretty awesome moment. I’d love to watch more concerts that way.
By Sunday, I was more than ready to get the hell out of Tennessee. I had had a good time, but that was a completely different kind of living than I was used to. I had spent the whole time in a uniform of cargo shorts (the same pair I believe) and white under shirts. The cargo shorts were important because I could put water bottles in the extra pockets. Man was it hot. Oh and showerless. There were a few rigged-up sinks that helped a little, but I had never been that sweaty and gross for so long.
We had decided–thanks to my prodding, I’m sure–to head home right after Trey’s set. My plan was to get out of there and drive for as long as I could before needing to get a hotel room and sleep.That’s not how it actually went down, though. It took Toth a while to get back because of all the people, but then it took three hours just to get out. My figuring was that that was still better than what it would have been like the next day. I only got an hour away from Manchester before needing to stop. The hotel we wound up stopping at must have made a killing that night because they charged us for a full night even though it was late and we had to be out by 10 or 11 the next morning and we were definitely not the only Bonnaroo attendees staying there. At the end of the day, though, we didn’t care because we got to sleep in an actual bed and even got to take showers. I’m fairly certain that was the best shower I’ve ever had. I also had the best chicken sandwich of my life the next morning at a nearby Cracker Barrel.
Looking back, I’m really glad I stuck with it and didn’t let my craziness get in the way of a really interesting and fun experience that left me with a lot of memories, even if most of them don’t have much to do with the music itself. Toth went back to Bonnaroo a few times after that, but I bowed out. I spent a ridiculous amount of money that summer between the Tennessee trip, visiting the future-missus in New Hampshire for a few weeks and buying a guitar (the last one I bought now that I think about it). Would I go back again? Yes. But only if I was taken in via helicopter or didn’t have to deal with all that traffic thanks to a parachute drop or some such.