Working as an intern at Lightning 100 is an incredible experience that comes with many, many perks. However, the coveted Bonnaroo VIP wristband is not one of them. So like many of you, I too had to survive off of nothing but hot dogs and walk a mile and a half just to get to the back of the Centeroo line. Despite the discomfort, I wore the thin film of sweat and dirt that covered me from head to toe as a badge of honor and embraced the inevitable sunburn with open arms. As a seasoned Bonnaroo veteran these things came as no surprise, but that doesn’t mean that the festival has become routine.
We all knew that Paul McCartney and Tom Petty were going to be fantastic, but in my opinion the headliners do not make ‘Roo the unforgettable experience that it is. Everyone leaves the campground on Monday morning with a memory of an unanticipated, yet mind-blowing show permanently burned into brains from an artist they may have never even heard of. So with that in mind, I bring you the three completely unexpected things that made my bonnaroo fantastic.
1. The Hot Dog Explosion at Jeff the Brotherhood
Having seen this band in venues as small as The Other Basement and The Miller Lite On-Tap Lounge, it was pretty cool experience to see one of my favorite local bands climb the ranks and land a spot on a major stage. The crowd was evenly split between fans who were excited to see “this new band called Jeff the Brotherhood” and local die-hards who knew every word to Castle Storm before it was re-released on Infinity Cat last year. Even though I have seen JTB more times than I can count, I knew that it was going to be hands down the most fun show at Bonnaroo. Just as I expected, they did not let me down as the best live band on the planet.
What I did not expect, was the criminally undocumented eruption of hot dogs when Jake and Jamin kicked into “Shredder”, a crowd favorite, I looked behind me to see a guy about my age with a backpack filled to the brim with uncooked hot dogs, with every intent to throw as many of them as he could into the mass of people at the front of the stage. I doubt I will ever know how he got them past Centeroo security, but I am sure glad he did. The perfect synchronization of the drums barreling in after the fuzzed out guitar intro, the first-ever circle pit at a Jeff show, and the seemingly endless supply of processed pork flying through the air made for the best possible snapshot of the Nashville punk scene. Its aggressive and sweaty, but still doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is fun and supportive of everyone who wants to get involved, including the guy with a backpack full of hotdogs.
2. The Unadvertised Katey Red Show
While the Saturday late-night line up was mostly filled with throwback artists, comedy acts, and electronic music, one artist steered my evening away from a night of dad rock into a Cajun Sissy Bounce dance party. On my way from Billy Idol to Bustle in Your Hedgerow, I stumbled upon an intimidating 6’2 drag queen shouting into a microphone on top of the loudest drum loop I heard all weekend, performing on a wooden platform right next to the mushroom fountain. It wasn’t until 3 days later after a lot of sleuthing that I discovered that this artist was Katey Red, a pioneer of the New Orleans hip-hop music scene and long time friend of Big Freedia. I saw my fair share of rappers this year at Bonnaroo, but neither Kendrick Lamar nor Macklemore could get a crowd moving like Katey could. It was almost impossible to differentiate her back-up dancers from fans due to the fact that the crowd surrounded the makeshift stage on all sides. While NOLA was well represented this year at Bonnaroo, this show certainly captured the underground essence of the big easy in a way that the What Stage couldn’t.
3. The Soft-spoken William Tyler
Having spent nearly all of my 20 years on this planet as a Nashville native, I am ashamed to say that Bonnaroo was my first time seeing William Tyler. His sophomore release Impossible Truth on Merge Records was one of my favorite releases of the year, so I went into the show with high expectations. Tyler’s virtuosic guitar playing focuses more on depth and building layers that blur the line between harmony and melody. His reserved demeanor on stage did not appear to be an indication of sheepishness, but instead a sign of wisdom and experience, leaving the audience curious and enthralled for the entire 40 minute set.
Not once did the lack of vocals make the show seem boring. The masterfully crafted balance of guitar, pedal steel, and drums complemented each other without encroaching into their respective territories, making for one collaborative musical idea. The intimacy of a small stage and Tyler’s sparse playing made for a show that was equal parts captivating and relaxing, allowing listeners to enter a meditative state and reflect on how remarkable Bonnaroo can be. While I was expecting William Tyler to be good, nothing could have prepared me for how great it was.