Outside of my tent, which is already muggy and unbearable in the June Tennessee heat, a man is selling something called “Unicorn Farts.” In the distance, a food truck blasts reggae music for the 76th straight hour, while two twentysomethings compare blood-soaked T-shirts from the previous night’s GWAR show. It’s 8:30 a.m. Good morning, Bonnaroo.
In its ninth year, Bonnaroo has done an impressive job of hanging on to its reputation as one of the most eclectic music and art festivals, showcasing a wide range of performers and an even wider variety of fans, from a man trying to break the world record for most hugs in a day to weed-cookbook vendor named Ganjalicious. “It really is an incredible community that brings together people from all walks of life,” says Douglas Mauldin, of the band Mauldin Brothers Revival. He and his twin brother Draper are winners of the gobbling division of the Grand National World Championship Turkey Calling Contest and shared both their gobbling and singing with Bonnaroo crowds this year. “No matter how weird or how different you are,” adds Draper, “you’re accepted at Bonnaroo.”
Since its inception in 2002, Bonnaroo has cultivated that oddball sense of community, which stars in the campgrounds and pervades the entire festival. Located on the outskirts of Manchester, Tennessee, the Bonnaroo farm plays host to the majority of the fest’s 80,000 attendees, creating a unique (and literal) pop-up society. A midway point between Burning Man and Coachella, Bonnaroo lets many a freak flag fly amongst its thousands of tents.
“Welcome to Bonnaroo!” shouts a man by the name of Ray Bong, during an impromptu concert in the camping lots outside the festival’s center. Sporting tie-dyed hair that matches his shirt, Bong has been called the unofficial President of Bonnaroo by some. He seems to embody the DIY mood of the week well — his keyboard and toy guitar are amplified by a speaker running off of car batteries. “Bonnaroo,” says Bong, “is simply the greatest place on earth.”
On Friday, Bonnaroo’s second night, a naked man rushed the stage during LCD Soundsystem’s set, purportedly attempting to bite one of the band’s roadies. He was tackled by, among others, Wayne Coyne, the lead singer of the Flaming Lips. “For those of you who can’t see what’s going on here onstage,” proclaimed LCD frontman James Murphy, “shit just got weird.”
The weirdness of Bonnaroo is by no means confined to stages and tents, however; much of Bonnaroo’s eccentricity is constructed by the festival itself. In eco-friendly Planet Roo, oddball acts like Miss Lolly Pop’s Burlesque Coterie play on a solar-powered stage while women get their breasts painted in a nearby tent. In the Silent Disco, a DJ broadcasts dance music to a floor full of gyrating hippies wearing headphones, creating quite a spectacle. A psychedelically painted, mushroom-shaped fountain is one of the grounds’ focal points.
If you ask most people, though, the wacky nature of Bonnaroo is organic, stemming from the individuals in attendance rather than any sort of organization. Whether dressing like characters from Avatar or bringing a dancing pink squid puppet to stages all weekend, fans seem to savor the judgment-free, anything goes environment. “It’s just a different vibe than other festivals,” explains 26-year-old Cameron Freeman. Comparing it to the Vans Warped Tour he adds, “that festival has more of a fuck you attitude. But here it’s a love you attitude.”
The members of the Flavor Savers, a short-shorts-wearing band that performed their moustache-themed repertoire daily at the Bonnaroo Beard & Moustache Competition, would agree. Says frontman Rodney BelAire, “It’s the only place where the response is positive to us walking around dressed like idiots.”
To some Bonnaroo veterans, the festival’s current incantation is a bit watered down from its early years. Tennessee native Andy Rogers has been to seven of the festival’s nine events, and reports a decrease in the weirdness of Bonnaroo. “There are more rules,” he said, “and they’re stricter about enforcing them. Fewer parades, fewer late night parties in the camps.” He seems a little disappointed in the direction of the festival, although he admits that the event is still one of the weirder ones around.
Others see those rules as necessary organization lent to the general chaos of Bonnaroo. “There’s basically this understanding that if you follow the few rules that Bonnaroo has,” says festival first-timer Margot Holder, “you can do whatever else you want. They don’t care how you dress, they just want you to be safe.” If Ray Bong and the Flavor Savers have anything to say about it, though, Bonnaroo’s outlandish nature is in good hands. “People keep coming up to us and saying, ‘Glad to see you here’ and ‘You’re keeping Bonnaroo alive,’ ” says BelAire. “We want to come do this every year.”