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Slouching Towards Bonnaroo 

In a field in Manchester, Tenn., at one o'clock on a Saturday morning, there is a man who's just been rudely jerked out of slumber by a ragtag gang of red, black and white-clad circus freaks. Banging on garbage cans, setting off sirens and playing instruments nobody's ever seen before, they've surrounded the hapless sleeper, shone flashlights at him, and muttered at him unintelligibly through bullhorns; a virtual storm of noise, light and strange costumes that emerged from a previously peaceful darkness into which he probably hopes they'll soon recede. But they show no signs of doing that. As he struggles to get up and unzip himself from his sleeping bag, the look on his face is so hapless and frightened that one of the group -- in eye-patch and fez -- silences his horn and envelops the sleeper in a full-body hug. The look of relief that washes over the sleeper's face is total. The aliens have not finally come to take him away. It's just the Bingo! Show, straight from New Orleans, spilling over at the Bonnaroo Festival.

Bonnaroo, which is a rock festival like Katrina was a little spring shower, actually has its provenance in New Orleans. The locally formed promoters, Superfly Productions, who made their bones here in the late '90s booking hippie-friendly funk and jam acts, teamed up with Tennessee-based company AC Entertainment in 2002 to throw the first Bonnaroo, which, with no advertising at all, sold 70,000 tickets. Two years later, Rolling Stone included it on a list of the fifty biggest events in rock 'n' roll history. It was an act of marketing genius from the start -- by booking jam band acts, who tour relentlessly and tote along die-hard hippie audiences who will, á la touring Deadheads, faithfully attend every show on a tour, attendance was a lock.

The festival site itself is a mind-warpingly complex temporary city. Viewed from the top of the festival's Ferris wheel, tents stretch past the horizon to comprise a shantytown of fans larger than some towns in the otherwise sleepy central Tennessee area. There are five main stages, several smaller lounges, a twenty-four-hour air-conditioned movie tent, art installations (including touch-and-sound-sensitive light-up statues appealing to ... enhanced fans), batting cages, stand-up comedy, a video arcade, a solar-powered stage, belly dancers, performance artists and buskers ... and the list goes on. Contraflow-like traffic plans are set up to accommodate incoming and outgoing caravans of fans. Coffee County residents can invest in the festival's economic impact by purchasing Bonnaroo bonds. Lacking the reanimated corpse of Jerry Garcia, this is hippie heaven.

And it's growing and changing. 2006 saw the festival completely sell out more than 80,000 tickets -- potentially due to a divergence from their traditional booking practices. Woodstock-generation (and second-generation) favorites were still represented, with marathon late-night sets from acts like Phil Lesh, but the roster this year showed more than a token presence from the harder side of rock. Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello, Cat Power and Radiohead all represented, and all drew their own crowd, making the ratio of hippie to hipster nearly one-to-one; I spotted a guy in a Joy Division T-shirt in line behind a young lady with dreadlocks the circumference of my wrist in the artist catering area.

New Orleans was present in full force. The Bingo! Show, a project of Liquidrone's Clint Maedgen, held down the Preservation Hall Tent's inaugural year at the fest with nightly shows, the act's first shows outside of New Orleans. The tent itself was a nexus for New Orleans energy that slowly won over the Bonnaroovians with two shows a day from a loosened-up, funked-up Preservation Hall Jazz Band, two from the obnoxious but intriguing band Bones (like mid-period Tom Waits with a dirtier mouth) and a closer from Bingo! -- which, if it can be described at all, seems like a Brechtian cabaret via Twin Peaks funneled through the Ninth Ward. In costume, with movies and loud noises and, of course, bingo games. By their third night's show, the tent was standing-room-only as the saronged and dreadlocked lined up to be leered at by Bingo's cast of characters.

Beyond the embassy of downtown New Orleans weirdness that was the Preservation Hall Tent, the city's presence was felt across the Bonnaroo grounds. Dr. John resurrected his Night Tripper persona for a 10 o'clock set, doing classics like "Right Place Wrong Time" with two full-sized Mardi Gras floats parked outside the tent. He was followed by Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, with a half-hour set in-between from the Rebirth Brass Band mounted atop one of the floats.

As per usual, when New Orleans culture ventures outside the city limits, it draws a two-fold reaction: a slight problem in translation followed by an utter embrace, a big "yeah-you-right" hollered by whoever our host is in whatever their language is. The glow-stick carriers who gathered around Rebirth's float didn't necessarily understand how to second-line, at first, and the newly minted Bingo! fans probably didn't know what to make of the call-and-response of Ninth Ward vernacular. But by the end of the weekend, the crowd was sold, heart and soul, to New Orleans. After the storm, Allen Toussaint remarked that Katrina was "a wonderful, if accidental booking agent" -- at Bonnaroo he was proved right.

click to enlarge Bingo! stirs up the nightlife at Bonnaroo. - ROXANNEHAYNES.COM
  • Bingo! stirs up the nightlife at Bonnaroo.


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