As Fort Cream’s RV splinter cell made its way through the backstage areas — vainly attempting to rekindle year-old muscle memories about where the free bottled water is — I saw a man whose face could accurately be described as a perfectly manicured spiral. Starting as a mustache and ending as a single connected sideburn, this dude’s facial hair literally curled around his face. It was, frankly, madness.
And that’s how my fifth year at Bonnaroo started. Minus all the boring stuff like setting up my tent and watching a girl dump empty beer cans over my sloppy, shirtless colleagues. But, rather, observing a dude with the dumbest facial hair I have ever seen in my entire life (and this is coming from someone who currently lives in East Nashville). But that’s Bonnaroo for you. More than anything else, it’s a place that not only welcomes your freak flag, but wants you to make it as big and weird as you possibly can.
Also, there are bands.
A disoriented stumble toward mid-afternoon tunes led me to EMA, the uber-hip experimental pop singer from South Dakota (people are from South Dakota?). I don’t know why I was expecting a dancy electro-pop show — possibly because of this — but after three dirges, EMA started to sound like she was winding toward tearing up a picture of the Pope on stage. That seemed like as good a time as ever to abandon ship.
I instead landed at the oft-neglected Cinema Tent, exactly on time to watch Doug Benson make fun of Rambo. The Benson Interruption is a little like Mystery Science Theater 3000 — Benson and guest comics screen a bad movie and savage it from the front row. The only difference is that everyone on the panel is tremendously high and I don’t think anybody wrote down any jokes in advance. But it’s not like Rambo (or today's screening of Crank 2: High Voltage) is the kind of intelligent fare you need to prepare yourself for. I made it through roughly the entire expository sequence before checking out. I figured that after hearing Kyle Kinane compare Rambo to “Confucius with Down Syndrome” and seeing a Burmese soldier throw a baby into a fire, there was nowhere else to go but down.
The thing about Thursday at Bonnaroo is that you need to go in with the lowest expectations possible. As much as they’d like for you to believe that they’re a well-oiled machine from the get go, the volunteers and staffers are about as confused as you are. They just have more leverage to make you believe otherwise. After getting dissed at roughly every conceivable entrance to the media viewing veranda for Yelawolf, I split off from the group with Ashley, determined to eat an arepa and hear some jokes.
Spurge has the comedy tip on lockdown, but I will say that I’ll take any and every excuse to see Kyle Kinane do stand-up, and so should you. His 2010 stand-up record, Death of the Party, is one of exactly two albums on my phone (the other being Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me). He only did 15 minutes, which paled in comparison to his awesome, lengthy set at Bongo After Hours Theater earlier this year, but they were a killer 15 minutes and a leading contender for the arbitrary “best thing I’ll see all weekend” award.
I bailed out of the comedy show early, missing my opportunity to shout “YEAH DENVER” at Pete Holmes, to make my way to The Other Tent for Phantogram — which is absolutely my jam. While most of Bonnaroo was visibly (and understandably) hyped for the rootsy soul rock of The Alabama Shakes, Phantogram has been the cornerstone of my Thursday night schedule since their slot was announced. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter make music that sounds like a synthesis of everything I had seen prior — the moody dirge pop of EMA, the clawing bass at Yelawolf, the omnipresent bleeps and bloops of DJ Whoever at the Whatever Stage — but in the best way possible.
The trouble here, if you could really call it trouble, is that watching Phantogram at Bonnaroo felt a lot like watching M83 at Marathon Music Works. Backing tracks were present and aggressive, which made the live songs sound exactly like their recorded counterparts. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it all depends on the mindset you’re in. If you’re there to analyze the musicianship on stage, it’s kind of a bummer. But if you’re there to dance in the dirt with a stranger, it doesn’t matter so much. I can’t say for certain what exactly was happening in the middle of the crowd at Phantogram, but I’m pretty sure that at least one girl with a pixie haircut wound up pregnant. Just sayin’.
Phantogram closed their set with that song I can never remember the title of but Shazam every time I hear it and I was sent navigating around the thick mass of bodies waiting for The Alabama Shakes. My winding road around the corner sent me into the familiar arms of Glossary at the Beer Company Buzz Marketing stage. Yeah, these are all songs I’ve heard a thousand times before and yeah, I was kinda surrounded by folks I see at regular shows all the time (by which I mean ones with air conditioning), but there’s something to be said for finding a little piece of Nashville, or Murfreesboro as it were, in the middle of the madness. Watching Glossary was centering, it made me feel like I’ve regained at least a tiny bit of reality.
But then I started imagining what Bingham Barnes would look like with a swirl beard and it was all over.