Maximum Performance

Bonnaroo ’08: And So It Begins

Maximum Performance

With our sights set on Manchester, Tennessee, we're driving west on Kentucky's Bluegrass Parkway. The first act at this year's Bonnaroo Festival is already in full tilt and we're still hours away. My traveling partner, Lida Prince, is scanning the schedule, busily making notes about what we'll see and what we may to have miss.

Tonight, New Orleans is well-represented on the "Somethin' Else" stage with Soul Rebels Brass Band (set to play in a few hours) and Ivan Neville's gritty Dumpstaphunk (from midnight- 4 a.m.)-- we'll have to catch them on Saturday--while two tribute bands, NYC's Lez Zeppelin and Dark Star Orchestra, close out the night at "That Tent" and "The Other Tent."

The heavy-hitters line up on Friday with slots by Metallica, Willie Nelson and Les Claypool. But don't look for me there... I'll be checking out the Fiery Furnaces (1:15, "That Tent"), the Swell Season featuring Frames frontman Glen Hansard (4:15, "This Tent"), NOLA slide guitarist Anders Osborne (5:45, "Somethin' Else") and uber comedian Chris Rock (7:45, "What Stage").

Who else? New Orleans pianist Henry Butler and the Game Band followed by a stage-closing (1:15-4 a.m.) New Orleans SuperJam led by George Porter Jr., and featuring Butler, Osborne, Jackie Green, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, and explosive drummer Johnny Vidacovich.

On Saturday, no Jack Johnson for me... I'll be at "Which Stage" for Gogol Bordello (4 p.m.) "This Tent" for Cat Power (4:30) and Iron & Wine (6:30) ... and Ozomatli (3:15, "What Stage"; 5:15, "Sonic Stage").. then perhaps Sigur Ros (1 a.m., "That Tent") and Talib Kweli (2:30 a.m. "The Other Tent").


It's a fiery sunset and we're dangerously close to Bardstown--"Bourbon Capitol of the World"--and the Maker's Mark distillery. But no stopping until we're close to my all-time favorite place to bed down, Wigwam Village. The usually deserted BP is a great cruising road. With no one else in sight, I'm drifting back in time... they yea is 1969.

It was November 29 of that landmark year and four of us were headed north on I-95 in my 1962 Corvair. Incredibly, our parents actually consented to letting us miss school to attend the West Palm Beach Pop Festival (yes, back then, they were called "pop festivals")--now considered one of the late-'60s' best festivals.

West Palm Beach was the third major festival of the year, following Woodstock and Atlanta. Except for Miami and Ft. Lauderdale (during Spring Break), Florida was a dangerously conservative state (something Jim Morrison would confirm if a member-exposing show at Dinner Key Auditorium--and a subsequent Indecent Exposure charge hadn't effectively ended his career--and then his life), every bit as "red" as Georgia (I still can see that crosses that were eerily burning in a Georgia field as we drove north the following year). There was definitely an air of adventure--and even a little danger.

The day before the festival began, the sheriff of Palm Beach County (or maybe it was West Palm Beach...) arrested one of the early arrivers, proclaiming that "Florida was not going to become a playground for hippies." If my memory serves me, the promoter of the festival owned a used car lot and some the free-thinking folks in and around West Palm had torched the place as some sort of demonic warning.

As with Woodstock and Atlanta, the few facilities at West Palm were taxed to the breaking point. There was one stage and a literal sea of people. The food was sketchy and the lines to the porta-johns snaked back through the crowd. We managed to grab a small patch of ground close to the stage and, unwilling to relinquish our seats, stayed put (for a time, in the mud) for at least 14 hours.

Back then, the lineup was the A-list of rock--just about everyone but Zappa and Hendrix (who we had heard the year before at the Gulfstream Pop Festival) and the Dead. Looking back, it was like hearing a generation of music in a couple of days: the Rolling Stones (circa "Sympathy For The Devil"), the Jefferson Airplane (pre-"Volunteers"), the Byrds (featuring guitarist Clarence White), King Crimson (performing "Court Of The Crimson King"), Spirit, Pacific Gas & Electric, Iron Butterfly, a hot new band called Grand Funk Railroad (which was actually good) and an impromptu set with Janis Joplin, Johnny & Edgar Winter joining the Vanilla Fudge.

OK... enough nostalgia. But the point is that folks like Bonnaroo founder Rick Farman have fine-tuned the inner workings of a festival (Bonnaroo--Cajun slang for "a really good time"--is known as one of the best organized festivals) and that thankfully, people's mindsets have changed. In the 21st Century, locals welcome the influx of dough from one of the world's top-grossing festivals.

Held on a 700-acre farm with multiple stages featuring more than 100 acts over four days, Bonnaroo's lineup is perhaps the most diverse of any of the country's major festivals. In addition to festival stalwarts like Pearl Jam, Little Feat (are they really still playing? And why?), Metallica and Widespread Panic, icons Willie Nelson, Solomon Burke, Levon Helm and B.B. King will make appearances. Every manner of indie rock--from My Morning Jacket and Death Cab For Cutie to Gogol Bordello and Toronto's Broken Social Scene is represented as well as favorites like Robert Randolph, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and Les Claypool.

With organization comes capitalism and creature comforts. Tickets ain't cheap (four-day passes range from $200 to $1,169 for VIP treatment), and I hear there are $7 showers and the beer is expensive--but that's way more than was offered at West Palm Beach. There wasn't any organization to speak of and with far too many people for whatever food was on hand, some of the townspeople actually brought food to distribute. Yeah, buddy, those were the days.

Stay tuned for a description of sights and sounds so vivid you'll feel the blazing sun, the cold beer, and hear music in your head.

And don't forget: the only thing lamer than writing a blog is reading a blog...

Catch the 2008 LIVE webcast on the AT&T blue room June 13-15. For more info on Bonnaroo, click here.

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