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Thursday, 20 June 2013 14:39

Festival review and photos: Going strong in its 13th year, Bonnaroo delivers all-star lineup of music and comedy, including a historic performance by Sir Paul McCartney

Festival review and photos: Going strong in its 13th year, Bonnaroo delivers all-star lineup of music and comedy, including a historic performance by Sir Paul McCartney Mike Gualdoni
Written by Mike Gualdoni

Sitting in the dank, humid depths of a sad Porta Potty on day three of Bonnaroo, a poor soul sits and contemplates his life with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other for an early morning movement.

Defeated, he takes a final drag and flicks his cigarette to the floor, trying to think about all the amazing music he's heard, all the beautiful people he's met and the mystical place that the world has brought him back to. A smile comes across his face as he finally pulls his britches up and lets out a sigh of relief before getting out of the wretched box. And then he noticed the small toilet paper fire on the floor.

It's truly remarkable what the human mind and body can tolerate in extreme circumstances. While some people might train for, say, the Olympics, there's another strange breed of folks that run the four-day gauntlet that is the Bonnaroo Music Festival.

People come from across the globe come to live in third world conditions of cramped tent cities and mid-'90s degree weather while trying to ingest as much drugs and alcohol as they can before the weekend ends. People come together to be themselves in a twisted and decorated 700 acre playground filled with adventure, music and trail magic. A shirtless man letting his sweaty muffin top sway in the breeze summed up the entire spectacle quite elegantly as he bounced around with Molly in line at a water station. "I love this place!" he exclaimed. "A festival fueled by friendship!" He paused, dazed for a moment. "And narcotics!"

Whatever your flavor of fun, this is the time and place for anyone to break away from the day-to-day monotony and unleash your inner animal in a relatively safe and contained environment -- all to the tune of an array of incredible musical acts that if you're lucky, you just might remember.

With powerful performances by artists from across the board -- Portugal. The Man, ZZ Top, Empire of the Sun, Animal Collective, Bjork and a slew of others -- the music lover was quite at home. But there was also plenty of good comedy to be seen on the farm. Maria Bambord had the crowd cutting up from awkward laughter in the Comedy Tent with her unique style of standup involving different anecdotes from her life being told by a plethora of characters. Not as well-known as she should be, she's most notable from the documentary film, "Comedians of Comedy," where she toured the country with comic geek heroes Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Zach Galifianakis.

Not afraid to grab the mental-health issue and throw it around like her play thing, her dark yet light-hearted comedy lets you laugh while at the same opening your mind a bit on the subject as she pokes fun at her struggle with manic depression and some of the other mental illnesses that currently plague the nation. The show leaves you with some great laugh medicine and a good feeling inside to see someone overcoming their struggles while doing what they love.

To the surprise of many, Michael Winslow stopped by the Cinema Tent to share some of his noises in a refined standup routine aided by videos. The sound-effect wizard from the "Police Academy" series had a bit of a raspy voice due to the deathly dry and dusty conditions, but he entered the room with his own live beat-boxing intro and made it through his routine without disappointing a soul. One minute he was bouncing around on the floor Indian style with wild, childlike facial expressions while recreating every last sound effect and dialogue in the tie fighter scene from "A New Hope," and the next he was explaining how he couldn't believe he was paid to make the evil gremlin noise. You really didn't know what you were going to see next, and it was a great show to catch -- especially if you were in another dimension.

Another side attraction in the Bon carnival is the Broo'ers Festival, the official watering hole of the grounds and a great rendezvous point for the crafty alcoholic. Microbreweries come from far and wide to serve their sweet nectar to the thirsty masses in a massive shaded tent that features a quaint fenced off porch area that proved to be a fine spot for a strong porter and a cigarette. If you're lucky, you might find yourself stumbling into the scene late in the night after a long day of backpacking, looking for your party or your porter, and stumble upon a beer circle breaking out.

It doesn't happen very often or for very long, but when the collective blood/alcohol count reaches just the right level, hundreds of people group together to form a giant circle surrounding a large open space. All blind with ale, the crowd's wild and boisterous cheers contagiously spreads throughout the room like everyone's team had just won the big game the same day as they all had won the lottery. At first, it is a confusing sight, as there is nothing on the inside of that circle. But then it all becomes clear. Suddenly, someone rushes into the center of the room in a display like some kind of scene from the Roman coliseum, and a great suspense builds. Onlookers hold their breath as they watch a strange man who hasn't bathed in days raise his tall glass of brew and begins chugging like mad. Seconds later, the glass is empty, and as the vacant container falls to the floor the crowd belts out another victorious howl in joyous celebration. Spontaneous limbo matches, dance parties and chug-a-thons break out for a few minutes, making for an incredible atmosphere and energy. But before you ever really truly grasp what exactly was happening, the moment passes, and the people exhausted by their brief moment of total victory move on to their next form of debauchery. With all the people floating around the grounds on strange drugs and Chinese chemicals, it's good to thing to stop by the Beer Tent every now and again to try some new brew and put on the goggles.

With all of the fun, games and music to be had at Bonnaroo, there was one act that by and far stole the show -- past, present and future. Sir Paul McCartney charmed a crowd nearing 100,000 in a show that Rolling Stone called Bonnaroo's "single greatest [...] headlining performance in the festival's 12-year history." The mind instantly went into a dreamlike state when that timeless voice rang through the air like a soothing lullaby as he juggled guitars and basses between songs when he wasn't playing the piano with artisan skill.

Drawing on mostly Beatles tunes with a handful of Wings and solo work, McCartney played a powerful two-and-a-half-hour set without missing a beat. At just 70 years young, the same innocent '60s kid still looked great, and he played even better.

It was a truly surreal experience to be able to sing along with "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da," "Paperback Writer," "Band on the Run" and "Hey Jude." Even "Helter Skelter" made the list. An incredible fireworks display that surrounded the audience during, "Live and Let Die," matched the fanfare of the moment, and tears cleaned streaks down people's dirty cheeks during "Golden Slumber."

Interludes between songs had McCartney interacting with the audience and telling stories of palling around with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton in what can best be described as a straight-up classy show. He made a special note to use his time in the spotlight to advocate the freeing of the Russian band "Pussy Riot" and to comment on the fine smell of the quality reefers in the audience.

After two encores, he finished his finale, "The End," and while under the cover of another spectacular firework show, the legend said his farewells and ducked away off stage as the sedated audience was distracted by the overwhelming lights like a moths to a porch light. The band was on the run once again.

Bands played, people played and septic tanks were filled. Bonnaroo 2013 was a Gonzo weekend to be had by all, and it truly was a great success. Words cannot do justice to the magic of Bonnaroo, or any music festival for that matter. The only way to truly experience it, just like anything in life, is to live it. If you come out the other end with your kidneys and mind intact, you're changed for the better. If you do end up making the trip, don't forget to bring the wet wipes.

All photos by Mike Gualdoni.

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