CL on the Road: Backstage at Bonnaroo, Part One (with photos, video)

Deborah rocks it like a VIP and offers her wrap up of the Tennessee music fest, days 1 and 2, with photos & video

Since the majority of the VIP section was full, we caught his set from backstage. His fast delivery and energetic bouncing across the stage was infectious as he roused the crowd. The comparisons to Eminem are inevitable, especially now that he's signed to Shady Records, but it's uncanny to see the same bouncing energy I remember from the young Slim. It seemed that every person in the packed tent and spilling across the grass was dancing as he delivered "I Just Wanna Party," "Good To Go," and "Throw It Up." Making the first of my mental notes to "buy this album" but needing a bit of a break, we left early, missing his tribute to MCA with a string of Beastie Boys hits. While the hippies fought for their right to party, we walked in past the crowd waiting outside the Comedy Tent to watch game six of the Celtics-Heat series, meeting our friends in the front row. There's nothing quite like watching a Boston game with Celtics fans … and certainly nothing like the rousing we received walking through the unwashed masses afterwards with my friends wearing their green and white.

Phantograms Sarah Barthel
Ready for more music, we headed back to our spot at the front of "This Foul-Mouthed Tent" to catch the first half of Kendrick Lamar's set. Full of R&B samples and confidence, it's very clear why Lamar has been slated as the "next Kanye." His relaxed West Coast style was more my thing than Danny Brown's quick nasally assault. The crowd ate up everything he delivered, and he graciously provided our group with one of the many running jokes that invaded our RV for the weekend with his song "Pussy & Patron." Just about hip-hopped out, we split from our group to go see Phantogram from the front section of the Other Tent. My favorite set of the evening was peppered with phenomenal purple and blue lighting; the sparkling pops of light nearly as hypnotizing as Sarah Barthel's spectacular vocals. The set also featured a couple of firsts for my Bonnaroo - the first medical emergency (a passed out fan lifted out over the madness as though crowd-surfing), and our first sighting of McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse.) The actor shadowed us throughout the weekend as I started to judge the quality of our positioning by pure Fogell proximity.

The unofficial headliners of the night were the much-hyped Alabama Shakes, () with a crowd that was packed all the way to the middle of the Centeroo fountain. With the VIP section full and turning people away, we headed backstage again to catch the show from an amazing vantage point. Brittany Howard's soulful voice was simply stunning in person, as the band blasted through their debut album and played a new song. This may have been the largest crowd the band has played to date, without a bit of hesitation from the group. As much as I adore the album, unfortunately the show was a bit slow after being blown away by Phantogram. Several times through the rest of the weekend I found myself wishing a different band had been selected as the focus of the evening, but looking back it was a wise choice to calm everyone down a bit after the energy the hip-hop shows produced.

Silent Disco
After the show we walked through a crowd swarming like zombies back towards the main campgrounds. Knowing they had a long walk back to their dusty sleeping bags made me realize exactly how fortunate we were to be in our super-secret secluded RV zone behind the What Stage. In anticipation of finding the best spot to watch Radiohead, we scoped out the entrance to this main stage getting a feel for where we wanted to be before heading out to the Silent Disco for a little dancing. This became one of my favorite spots of the weekend, as we caught Jared Dietch in a face-off against Quickie Mart. Dancers were given a pair of two-channeled headphones so they could switch back and forth between the different music; Dietch playing a danceable house mashup of crowd-pleasing hits like "Sweet Child of Mine," Adele, and the song we all knew Radiohead would never play, "Creep." Quickie Mart played pure dubstep, and with his half of the crowd seizing and thrashing and the other side singing and waving their arms, it looked like what Dietch would later describe as "a sea of Elaine's dancing." He also pointed out one element of the festival that prevailed throughout the weekend: "It's just the most receptive crowd in the world. You say anything, play anything, and everyone is so excited. You say 'Bonnaroo' and they go absolutely crazy."

A short walk across the now deserted farm, and we collapsed into our beds sometime around 4 a.m. It would be the earliest I made it to bed all weekend.

Merril Garbus is TuneYards
Rolling out of bed at a respectful 10am, all five of us showered and made a leisurely breakfast in the RV, then headed out to see a band I never thought I'd catch live, The Kooks. I'd wistfully watched recordings of them playing at Glastonbury, but it's been so long since Konk was in frequent rotation on my playlist that I'd given up hope. Their upbeat pop was a great way to shake off the exhaustion from the night before as they kicked through a catalog of songs that I adore, closing with my favorite, "Naive." We cruised backstage to This Tent to avoid the packed VIP section for tUnE-yArDs. Merrill Garbus's powerful voice was looped and layered, with a recorded drum track keeping everything on point. As she jumped up and down, the crowd mimicked the movement with a sea of bodies bouncing. To my ears, most of her stuff is a little too "beepy boopy," for lack of any better term, but I can't deny that when Garbus held a note for so long that her face turned purple then looped it so it seemed she'd be screaming forever, it was pretty damn badass.

Making the first "did we make the right choice" decision that comes from the compromise of different musical tastes colliding, we skipped Ben Howard to go see The Infamous Stringdusters at the Hippie Tent (Other Tent.) Their bluegrass meets jam band style was unique, and I rarely complain about any group with a stand-up bass. I was anxious to get a good view of Two Door Cinema Club at This Tent, so we cruised out a bit early, stopping briefly at the Great Taste Lounge to see Katie Herzig. Her soft-vocals and indie pop reminded me a bit of Feist, and stoked my excitement about seeing her later that afternoon.

Backstage at Two Door Cinema Club
I'd planned to see Two Door Cinema Club in Tampa earlier in the week but we left a day early so it wasn't possible. Though their stuff is a bit poppier than I usually like, I'd started listening to them in anticipation of the local show and they'd crawled into frequent rotation on my iPod. Their set provided some much needed dancing in the shade backstage, and the energy would've been perfect for the night before. We left early so I could get to the one comedy act I absolutely had to see, Aziz Ansari. In one of the few disappointments of the trip, we couldn't get access to either of his two sets as they required advance sign-up and had a several thousand person deep line even though there was no hope of admittance. Damn you, Tommy Fresh!

One of my "don't miss" shows was Little Dragon so we headed out a bit early to settle in backstage at This Tent as the crowd started climbing the tall fences separating "us" from "them" trying to get a glimpse. The Swedish electro-pop darlings' first Tampa show was one of my first reviews for Creative Loafing, and I remember thinking that vocalist Yukimi Nagano's huge presence really needed a bigger reaction than the Crowbar crowd provided to the then-unknowns. There was no lack of enthusiasm at this show as Nagano absolutely owned the moment, her tiny body moving with a quirky tireless bounce across the stage as thousands of fans (and Flea, also backstage) danced and sang along to their old and new material. With tons of cowbell and vocal loops, it was one of the strongest sets I caught all weekend and the first time I heard the crowd demanding an encore. Though I'd hoped to catch a few songs from Fitz and the Tantrums, I couldn't tear myself away and actually ended up missing a bit of Feist.

With the afternoon sun giving the Which Stage a warm glow, Leslie Feist's sweet voice filled the lawn area with people joyfully dancing along. Fellow Broken Social Scene member Charles Spearin accompanied the set with percussion, an unexpected surprise. Even though we'd managed to get a spot in the front row, the music was making me a bit sleepy, with Feist herself seeming more subdued than usual in her matronly long skirt and sunhat. After catching an afrocentric version of "Mushaboom" and knowing I'd catch another BSS alum, Emily Haines, when Metric plays the Ritz in September, we decided to follow our ears back to the thumping bass calling us from This Tent.

On our walk we stopped to see the Flavor Savers at the Solar Stage, I think. They were listed as a 'beard and mustache competition,' but were playing in multicolored chicken costumes, which definitely merited at least one moment of attention, even in this crazy environment.

With the largest crowd I'd seen yet, This Tent was already jamming to Ludacris delivering what seemed like a never-ending catalog of hits. Once again, VIP was full so we danced from backstage next to our new buddy Fogell. Complete with backup dancers shaking their asses, Luda even performed some of his collaborations like Usher's "Yeah," and Fergie's "Glamorous." The man knows how to get the crowd excited, shouting out "We got two tour buses. We gonna have to bring back some of these ladies! Anyone want to come back to our tour bus?!" He followed this up to a huge response from the crowd leading them in a back-and-forth chant of "When I say 'let's get' you say 'fucked up.'" On our way out to our hidden restrooms behind the stage, I got to chat with Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano. I mentioned their gig so long ago in Tampa and she remembered it and Tampa's own Jack Spatafora, of Aestheticized Presents, fondly. It was pretty cool to be able to share my excitement with her at seeing them hit this level of success, and she's every bit as gorgeous and sweet close up as you'd imagine she might be.

Rodrigo Y Gabriela, backstage
We headed over to my first show at the headlining What Stage to see Rodrigo y Gabriela and their energetic acoustic metal-inspired rock. Coming behind the venue through a 'super-secret' back walkway a few steps from Radiohead's tour buses, we found an amazing spot on one of the 50-person capacity viewing platforms on either side of the stage. The duo were playing their hearts out, Gabriela especially, bounding across the stage with energy, huge smiles, and percussive pounding on her instrument, while Rodrigo's speedy fingerpicking held most of the melodies. Still, it was difficult not to focus on the big white elephant in the room — would this be our spot for Radiohead? The distraction was especially mind-blowing since from our spot on the platform, we were staring at the backside of the British band's phenomenal lighting display on one side of a curtain, and the band's equipment on the other. In a completely otherworldly moment a roadie pushed a cart with Thom Yorke's guitars directly underneath me, and I found myself not breathing at all for a moment as I hovered over greatness. An absolutely humbling WTF moment of "how did I get this lucky?"

The decision of whether to stay put to guarantee this view or head down to the VIP area at the foot of the stage for front row was a tough one, and we finally opted to catch the end of Rodrigo y Gabriela's set from a front row spot against the fence so we'd be smack in front of Thom Yorke. None of us realized security clears out the VIP section after every show to give everyone a fair shake, so we found ourselves in a swarm of photographers and super-fans pushing towards the wristband scanners. In what was almost a bigger Bonnaroo miracle than Radiohead playing the festival, we ran into the rest of our group, no small feat in a crowd of 80,000 people and without cell service. We all moved into the fenced area as people ran in all around us, filling the section nearly immediately. As it started to get packed, our fearless leader made a quick risky decision and led us briskly to the front of the stage, heading down the walkway to the soundboard and entering the "Super-VIP" area, a fenced in under the main stage camera's wide swinging span. Directly in front of the stage about 50 yards back, we were surrounded by open space as the crowd glaring at us became more condensed by the second. Oh, and there were coolers filled with good free beer and water … as though we weren't already blessed enough.

Coming onstage to a chorus of looped echoey vocals calling out over the screams of the crowd, Radiohead opened with the first track from King of Limbs, "Bloom." I knew this set would be heavy off the new album, and although I didn't instantly take to the subtle layers of sound of the release, suddenly it all made sense as the flashing shards of blue light and video collided with Johnny Greenwood blasting the hell out of a snare drum and Thom Yorke's emotive wailing. Those lights, man. Twelve square video screens rearranged themselves for each song, flashing constantly changing close-ups of the band playing, which I hope gave even the farthest reaches of the packed lawn a view of what was going on. The giant LEDs I'd seen earlier from behind now displayed brilliant colors and patterns, as flashing bursts of light spread across the crowd. I couldn't stop snapping photos, trying to catch every change of scene as it appeared. Yorke was in unusually excellent spirit, dancing non-stop and chatting easily with the audience. ("Lotus Flower" below.)

Over two and a half hours long, the set included most of King of Limbs, favorites from nearly every album, and three newish songs, "Identikit," "Daily Mail," and "Staircase." I dig the danceable electronica direction, and especially like the hint that Yorke dropped in his dedication for "Supercollider:" "This song is for Jack White. We saw him yesterday. A big thank you to him, but we can't tell you why. You'll find out." While I anxiously wait to hear the supposed collaboration, I keep reliving my favorite moments from one of my favorite bands: Yorke's jittery dance to an absolutely blazing "15 Step," Greenwood playing straight through after cutting his hand open during "Bodysnatchers," and listening to "House of Cards" standing next to the person that, in my mind, the song has always been entwined with. Perfection. ("Bodysnatchers" video below.)

On our way out, our friend mentioned he'd walked past Yorke entering the show on a small bridge that separates backstage from artist transportation. As he looked at him, the overwhelming noticeable element was that the bridge smelled like sewage. It's just a fact of Bonnaroo, kids; even the rockstars have to use the porta-potties. The bridge returns later in this story, but at this moment all that mattered was that he and Thom Yorke had smelled the same poop, and it didn't affect his performance one bit.

After the show we headed back to regroup at the RV briefly, then on high recommendation went over to catch The Word, a collaboration of Robert Randolph, John Medeski, and the North Mississippi Allstars. Honestly, I couldn't tell you a thing about their performance, as I was just too pumped from Radiohead and anxious to get over to see Major Lazer. I guess that everyone leaving Radiohead was just as excited, as thousands of people spread out around This Tent were jumping in the brightly colored lights. We tried to push through the crowd, but it was too solid to maneuver and we knew there wasn't enough time before the end of the set to swing wide and come in from the stage entrance. I could hear Diplo yelling "If you wanna say fuck that Sheriff put your middle finger up in the air" as we headed to our next show and I regretfully missed my second "must see" act of the weekend. I didn't even realize until we got home that we were also missing hip-hop royalty, Talib Kweli and Mos Def, performing together as Black Star. Sometimes there are just too many options at Bonnaroo.

As we walked we passed one of several "pop-up shows" that spontaneously appear at random non-stage spots. There was the Sydney band, Art vs Science, playing with Mark Foster from Foster the People to a small group of 100 people. Dressed in silver jumpsuits and playing some crazy-addictive electro-funk, the band provided the second theme song for our weekend, "Flippers." Seriously, you gotta move your flippers if you wanna get down at Bonnaroo. (Video below.)

Flying Lotus
I'd never seen anything like Flying Lotus destroying the crowd at That Tent, making some of my frustration at missing Diplo go away. As he chugged from a bottle of whiskey the DJ rallied the crowd into a frenzy with a mix of popular hits and deep grimy bass. Thousands of people singing along with Michael Jackson's "One More Chance," and then completely lost their shit when it mixed seamlessly into the Beastie Boys "Intergalactic?!" Yes please … more, more, more. We danced through the entire set as lasers flashed over the swarm of thrashing bodies and it's nonstop crowd-surfing.

Heading back in the direction of the Silent Disco, we stopped to hear Umphrey's McGee just starting their never-ending set of metally jams and covers before noticing a spaceship on the empty Which Stage (video clip below). Heading closer for a better look, (because who wouldn't stop to look at an abandoned spaceship?), we checked our schedule to see what band had played the stage last. Was it from Foster the People? What the hell did they do with a spaceship?! I'm pretty sure this was the moment where I realized things had started to get downright weird in Tennessee.

Moving on, I was sucked briefly into Big Freedia's awesomely literal ass-shaking set from across the lawn. A perfect example of Bonnaroo's strong connection to New Orleans, Big Freedia (pronounced Free-da) is one of a group of self-proclaimed "Sissies" (a local term for men with varied and ambiguous sexual identities). The music is classified as bounce, and that is exactly what the packed Other Tent did until 4am (video below), while we walked past the line for the Silent Disco and put our headphones back on to dance to Jared Dietch taking on Wyllys in another spinning throw-down. Most of our group had long since gone to bed, but a couple of us stayed dancing. Every time I tried to leave (at one point starting to walk out the door) Dietch would pull me back onto the floor with his killer mixes.

At around 6am, I finally pulled myself away and walked back alone across the farm; Centeroo deserted except for the group at the tent still listening to Umphrey's McGee continue playing three hours longer than their scheduled two hour early morning set. Their technicolor light show still going in the early morning light, I could still hear them jamming as I collapsed into bed.

click to enlarge Danny Brown - Deborah Ramos
Deborah Ramos
Danny Brown

click to enlarge Yelawolf - Deborah Ramos
Deborah Ramos

Every year tens of thousands of music fans flood into tiny Manchester, Tenn. for a week that changes their lives and making Manchester, briefly, the third largest city in Tennessee before an abrupt fall back to its sleepy ways. I was unbelievably fortunate that my first journey to Bonnaroo was spent enjoying it in a way that few of those many people get to. [Text and Instagram photos by Deborah, band shots by Mike]

You see, there is a bit of a caste system to the wristbands that provided access to this year's completely sold-out festival. The vast majority of Bonnaroovians have GA wristbands. They stay in tents, rarely shower (if ever), buy food from vendors (often eaten while walking), and spend hours baking in the hot sun to get a glimpse of bands amid thousands of others in a grassy field. Of course, that's if they aren't passed out in one of the plentiful spots of shade, simply too exhausted to carry on to the next show. The next level is VIP, which offers better access to the stages, private campgrounds with showers, or RV rentals. The highest level of wristband is Roll Like a Rockstar, a special package that provides accommodations on a fully stocked tour bus, chauffeured golf carts whisking around on hidden back roads, private viewing areas and restrooms, and hospitality lounges spread throughout the farm.

Our group wasn't just rolling like rockstars, we were rolling as rockstars. We wore the coveted yellow ‘Artist’ wristband, with full access to nearly every area at Bonnaroo one could ever wish to see, and plenty of perks that no paying attendee can experience. I didn't realize before the trip but this is much more access than even press receives, as my experience seems to have been much different from Andrew's. We didn't have a tour bus or golf carts, but none of that nonsense mattered because we had the most superior access to music out of anyone in attendance.

Sometimes, the good things in life are just about knowing the right wonderful people.

click to enlarge Phantogram's Sarah Barthel - Mike Wilson
Mike Wilson
Phantogram's Sarah Barthel

We arrived at artist check-in after a long drive and a stop for a mind-boggling amount of food at Walmart, where the locals seemed completely amused by the chaos that landed upon them. We drove right in to our parking lot with no wait and no bag or body checks, checked in at our RV, and settled in for the weekend. Since getting onto the farm took less than 5 minutes, there was plenty of time before the first show we wanted to see to wander around and experience the calm before the storm. At this point, I hadn't yet accepted the Bonnaroo code of "Be In Here," and was struggling to find wifi and send texts, not comprehending my phone would be little more than a camera and notepad for the rest of the trip. After a quick walk back to the RV to freshen up, our group split apart, with some of us heading to an backstage crawfish boil complete with open-bar and the others towards the music. We were rested and ready to go.

We were instantly sucked in by heavy bass filling the grassy area in front of This Tent, walking right into the private viewing area at the foot of the stage to catch the beginning of Danny Brown's set. His biting delivery and filthy lyrics were nearly overcome by the bass, which up this close twitched the hairs on my arms to the beat. This was the first of several fantastic hip-hop sets we wandered into, and my introduction the the unbelievably enthusiastic Bonnaroo crowds. I've never seen anything like how ballistic the packed tent became when Brown shouted out, "Bonnaroo, y'all some freaky motherfuckers! You gonna be getting dirty up in those titties later?" Brown played a bit of Blondie's "Rapture," dancing around onstage to recapture the crowd's attention before launching directly into the aggressive "Die Like a Rockstar."

click to enlarge Phantogram's Sarah Barthel - Deborah Ramos
Deborah Ramos
Phantogram's Sarah Barthel

I don't know that I've ever left a show in the middle of a set, but had a sense it was going to become a trend as we headed briskly to the front of the Other Tent to see the act we'd originally planned to start with, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.. Their indie-rock seems deceptively simpler live than recorded, as I'd never realized their perfectly harmonized songs are fleshed out by recorded electronic elements. Not only did the band bring a killer cover of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," they also brought a little something special for the crowd. Josh Epstein explained that they were so grossed out by the porta-johns when the band played their last festival that they decided to buy a bottle of Dom Perignon and leave it in one of the 7,500 facilities spread across the Manchester farm. Though Epstein encouraged "whoever finds it, goddamnit, have a good time," I'm pretty sure anything I found in one of those things would be staying there for the next person to enjoy.

From the back of the field we caught the last two songs from Orgone. Their funky R&B had Soul Train written all over it, like a fantastic 70's blaxsploitation soundtrack. Vocalist Niki Crawford encouraged the crowd to get into her vibe, saying "Orgone has been making sweet, sweet love to you for the last hour. Did you feel it? How you gonna make love back to us?" before the crowd enthusiastically responded with a sing-along to "Love Maker" as we started our walk back to This Tent. Stopping briefly by one of the smaller side stages, the Great Taste Lounge Brewed by Miller Lite (one of the thankfully rare visible sponsorships), we enjoyed some psychedelic basement rock from Monstro before continuing on to catch Yelawolf. [MORE photos, video and wraps after the jump.]

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