After 96 consecutive hours of baking in the Tennessee heat and humidity, walking from stage to stage to take in as much music as possible and drinking and dancing sometimes from noon until dawn, even your third and fourth shower after returning home from Bonnaroo can be like a religious experience. Though the festival itself gets under your skin in a way that one does not necessarily wish to ever wash away. Indeed, coming down after the festival, returning to the mundane realities of everyday life, can be a difficult proposition for hardcore Bonnaroovians struggling to simply settle back into their daily routine on planet earth.
The fourth and final day of Bonnaroo 2014 found (photographer) Chuck (Madden) and I sun-dazed but smiling, still eager to soak up and savor every bit of music we could. Among the few campers stirring that murky morning, I woke early and wandered the eerily empty festival grounds well before noon. I’ve attended the festival six times since 2006, but Sunday morning was the first time I rode the Bonnaroo ferris wheel. After an hour or so of tapping away on my trusty laptop in an empty press tent, the ferris wheel ride gave me an opportunity to chill and be still for a few minutes, surveying the scene from a bird’s eye view. A crowded cornucopia of bright lights and loud music after dark, it was both surreal and serene to view the Bonnaroo festival grounds silent in the morning.
The silence wouldn’t last. Even before I disembarked from the ferris wheel I could hear Lucero doing their soundcheck on a stage that I could barely see in the distance.
Chuck’s day began with a pair of bands he would be raving about for the rest of the afternoon: Kansas Bible Company on the tiny On Tap Lounge stage and much-talked-about new arrivals Lake Street Dive in That Tent, where a surprisingly large crowd had already gathered for the band’s 1 p.m. start.
Cloudy skies and occasional drizzle kept temperatures tolerable for the first three days of the festival. But Sunday was all clear skies and blazing sun, sending temperatures into the 90s for most of the day. Always an endurance test, Sunday at Bonnaroo 2014 was a brutal trial for the thousands on site who were forced to either hydrate, hunker in the shade, or both, until the sun relented in the early evening. But shade is not easy to come by at Bonnaroo, and sitting in a hot tent is no kind of relief whatsoever. Sunscreen, long sleeves and floppy hats ruled the day. Experienced Bonnaroovians are well-familiar with the physical demands of the festival. It just so happens that after three days of relative ease and comfort, Sunday’s weather conditions upped the ante on a panting throng already sunburned and exhausted.
Arguably some of the finest acts on the Bonnaroo lineup were featured on the festival’s final day, as Bonnaroo attendees were treated to phenomenal sets by Broken Bells, The Avett Brothers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Arctic Monkeys, Shovels & Rope, Washed Out, Wiz Khalifa, The Lone Bellow, Okkervil River and an afternoon performance by Yonder Mountain String Band on the main stage that featured Bluegrass legend Sam Bush on violin.
This writer tumbled into the Other Tent just in time to catch a rousing set by Those Darlins. Like Nashville’s Wild Feathers before them on the weekend itinerary, this was sort of a hometown gig for Those Darlins, a band whose founding members met at a Rock & Roll camp in Murfreesboro, Tenn. A sparse but dedicated crowd happily held lead singer Jesse Zazu aloft as she tumbled over the barricade and into the audience. Laying back on a sea of fans’ hands, her guitar squall raged unabated at full steam as her eyes rolled back in her head. (Those Darlins play a free show in Cincinnati this Friday, headlining Fountain Square’s MidPoint Indie Summer concert.)
After a ridiculous amount of pre-gig hype, the controversial Kanye West’s Friday night performance delivered nothing but disappointment to a Bonnaroo audience that should have known better to have expected anything more. Saturday headliner Jack White and Sunday’s top dog Elton John showed that good material and passionate, substantive performances will always trump shallow arrogance, hype and bullshit. To Mr. West, who once claimed himself to be “Shakespeare in the flesh,” I submit this famous quote from Macbeth:
“Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,
Of far greater significance than this writer expected was a stellar Sunday night performance by Elton John, who reeled off one classic after another to close out Bonnaroo 2014. I knew Elton’s set would be great, but I was not prepared for just how truly amazing it was. With a band featuring guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson, who have been with him for 45 years (you read that right), Bonnaroo 2014 was Sir Elton’s first-ever appearance at a U.S. festival. Opening the show with Side One of his classic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album from 1973, Elton proceeded with a version of “Levon” that concluded with a virtual clinic on Rock & Roll piano playing in the extended outro. Though I was dubious at first about Elton closing out the festival, this two-hour performance instead turned out to be such a stunner that I know I will forever count it among my all-time favorite Bonnaroo memories.
Thanks again to CityBeat for this amazing opportunity and to Chuck Madden whose concert photography is simply the best and whose friendship and company are a big part of what makes the Bonnaroo experience so meaningful to me.