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On Bonnaroo 2012: Jam Band-centricity

June 25, 2012

I remember Phish’s set only vaguely. They were the final headliner of Bonnaroo 2012. They had a four-hour, 8-midnight set; I stayed for about forty-five minutes. I stayed long enough to see their guest Kenny Rodgers come and go, and for the band to launch into a dizzying guitar-driven jam that seemed as if it was going last forever. It astounded me and bored me senseless at the same time.

Questions started to pop into my head to keep me entertained. Dithering, unintrusive jam music is easy to think to: Why the hell are music festivals (Bonnaroo especially) so jam band-centric? Why do bands that don’t jam all that much normally, come to Bonnaroo and drivel senselessly on their instruments for such long spans in their sets? I don’t see jam music as being very popular at all these days. I had thought it died on the eve of Phish’s first retirement. And yet, somehow it is still managing to thrive in odd pockets like Manchester, Tennessee.

The Bonnaroo Music Festival has been diversifying its music over the years, including more hip-hop, electronic, and indie acts, and drawing an increasingly diverse crowd. But Bonnaroo was founded as a folk and jam festival, and it clings faithfully to that identity today. I believe that no matter how far current music moves away from jam or folk genres, Bonnaroo will always be a jam fest. One of the main reasons for this is because Manchester, Tennessee is grimy as shit.

The grime and the harsh conditions define the character of Bonnaroo. It’s the most common thing talked about down there. It’s also the element of that festival that took the biggest toll on me, because I passed out from dehydration in a crowd and broke my front tooth on a railing. But that’s another story…

There is a deep-seeded connection between grime, physical discomfort, and jam band music festivals. It’s a sort of asceticism that comes from the hippie culture of the 60s and 70s. Hippies back then were perpetually either smelly, hungry, tired, dazed, strung out, or more than one of the above. They ignored and endured all of that physical discomfort so that they could be fully engaged in swaying to the music they loved. Jam band lovers embody that same dedication to the music today, but to a lesser degree.

The conditions in Manchester, Tennessee are ideal for creating that lovely crustiness that true jam fans endure and adore. Dust constantly clouds the air and shoe-sucking mud wallows on the ground. Freezing nights are followed by blazing mornings; the temperature soars until sundown; this makes the ¾ sleeve light cotton poncho the perfect all-purpose garment. The tent camping on the dry hard ground is perfect for inciting backaches, and makes yoga a necessity. The showers are cold and smell like sulfur, and cost too much money and time to make them worthwhile. Everybody, no matter what they look like going into Bonnaroo, comes out with their hair locked and matted, their clothes earthy-toned and smelling rancorous—looking like perfect hippie jam fans. The hippie types that went in styled like that from day one came out with the biggest smiles.

Bonnaroo’s conditions can be hard to endure. A handful of people die every year, but they keep this quiet. The conditions can occasionally detract from the enjoyment of the music (like when they kill you), but they can often add to the experience when paired with the right music. The repetitious guitar riffs, gradual dynamic shifts, and rough untutored musical changes of jam band music work very well with attention spans that have been dulled by heat and grime. A listener will never lose their place in a song moving along at the sluggish pace of jam band music if they need to step out of the pit to take a drink, or find shade, or wipe the dust from their forehead and eyes. The challenging, rapid changes of house music and/or the lyrical density in a rap verse cannot be heard and processed as easily in an environment as demanding as Bonnaroo’s. Jam music is kind to ears and bodies and minds weathering such physical stress. It is soothing music, abominably so. Where else can this music thrive?

This much can be said on tough conditions of Manchester Tennessee: they do bring people together and help to inspire a real passionate and communal spirit. Putting the satire aside for a moment: I think that Bonnaroo is a fascinating event and has a thriving culture. I tried to meet and talk to as many people as I could when I was down there, and I talked to a lot of Bonnaroo veterans. I enjoyed meeting everyone that I did.

A lot of the conversations I had focused on two things: 1) That this year’s Bonnaroo was enjoying the best weather and 2) had the worst line-up they had seen in years. It was warm, they said, not hot, and it didn’t rain until late the last day. There was a lot of hip-hop and “played-out” mainstream headliners, and Skrillex. There was a lot of hatred for Skrillex, which is understandable because the man is a very divisive topic of conversation everywhere*.

In fact, (Skrillex-related tangent:) the mysterious Superjam set with ?uestlove and special guests (which turned out to be D’Angelo and the Soulquarians band, and one of the best shows of the whole festival), which was scheduled at the same time as Skrillex, was one of the only shows that got hyped enough for the crowd to demand an encore. I’m not some gratuitous half-hearted clapping and “Oh please come back please one more song. I know your sets not over because you have ten minutes left on the schedule”—but real demand. Half of the reason for the encore fervor in the crowd was because the band was so tight. And the other half was because the people wanted any music but Skrillex. ‘Fuck Skrillex’ was their chant. Uninspired, but it got the point across.

Anyways, the hippie jam lovers at Bonnaroo loved the hippie jam bands. I had so many conversations (too many conversations) about Umphrey’s McGee four hour set ‘til sunup, and not enough about Kendrick Lamar’s fantastic set. But you know, there was something odd about hearing Kendrick in the Bonnaroo environment. Kendrick’s sound is clean, cool, and urban. In the end, didn’t feel right being played on a hot, dusty farm.

Hippie jam band music will continue to thrive at Bonnaroo just as hip-hop continues to thrive in the city—because the environment is right for it. Jam music will remain popular in its isolated, organic pockets. It’s hard to see hippie jam music thriving because it has no place on the Internet where all other music flourishes. (Who is going to devote the bandwidth to post four-hour streams every concert? Who is going to devote the time to watch it with ear buds and a small laptop screen?) Hippie jam music will always have its places to thrive because no other music works as well in the haze, heat, and grime of the music festival.

*I don’t understand why that guy gets all the attention that he does. Positive or negative, his music doesn’t seem worthy of all the controversy that surrounds it.

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