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A Camping and Music Odyssey: Bonnaroo 2011 in Review

It was a fun time at Bonnaroo, the massive Tennessee music festival that for 4 days doubled as the world's largest campground.

The long list of acts included Eminem, Arcade Fire, Lil Wayne, Buffalo Springfield and up-and-comers The Head and the Heart.

It ended on June 12 as it started—with daytime temperatures in the 90°s, packed campgrounds and a generally upbeat vibe.

Some recollections from the biggest, tightest campground I've ever experienced:


Wall-to-wall tents is the norm in Bonnaroo campgrounds. (All photos: T.D. Wood)

• Camping is a different experience at a music festival, as detailed in an earlier REI Blog post. (Check it out or this post on what to bring if you have a festival in your future.) Mornings in campsites in the tightly bunched, treeless pastures at Bonnaroo are spent trying keep shaded from the sun before music starts at noon each day. A great tip we learned from veteran festival campers: Bring a shelter to shield tents and gathering areas from the sun. That could extend sleeping time after late nights. Sleep is a casualty during a festival. I never turned in earlier than 3:15 a.m. at Bonnaroo.

• Other necessities: Bring an ample supply of water, a stash of toilet paper, a wide-brimmed hat for men and women and abundant sunscreen—particularly useful for the under-25 crowd, where the standard uniform is shirtless and shorts for guys, bikinis for females.

Bonnaroo fashion• Four rainless days with 80,000 trampling attendees turned the farm's pastures into a dust bowl. A brown haze hovered over the farm's most traveled walkways. The fashion accessories of the fest: the bandana and the Buff. The on-forehead headband was in vogue, but so were bandanas tied over faces as breathing filters. Still, I estimate I inhaled about a pound of dust over 4 days.

• It seemed like half of the attendees, a generally congenial and good-natured group, smoked. As someone who lives an apparently sheltered life in mostly nonsmoking spaces, the amount of tobacco consumed was astonishing. As SNL's Deandre Cole would ask: What up with that? Oooo, whee (or is it wheeze?).

• We learned from a campsite volunteer that festival-goers routinely leave inexpensive camping gear behind when Bonnaroo concludes. A few hundred tents are abandoned each year, she told us. (Sara and I saw gear aplenty left behind as we drove out Monday morning.) The volunteer could not, however, recall seeing an REI tent left behind.

Bonnaroo in action• Music highlights: Neil Young concluding a Saturday night set as a member of Buffalo Springfield with scorching version of "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World;" Robert Plant opening a Sunday night performance with his Band of Joy collective with a swampy version of a Led Zeppelin chestnut, "Black Dog;" a fantastic after-hours lineup Saturday night that included 2 terrifically over-the-top acts (Scissor Sisters and Gogol Bordello), the elegant industrial funk of STS9 and the theatrical spectacle provided by jam band The String Cheese Incident (complete with about 2 dozen massive, gelatinous white balloons being batted around by a huge Which Stage crowd, followed by a pair of jetpack aerialists whooshing into the night sky). Sara was impressed by, among others, Amos Lee and Justin Townes Earle; my fave discoveries were Explosions in the Sky, a Dallas-based crescendo band that sounds like Metallica without lyrics in a dreamy mood, and School of Seven Bells from Brooklyn, an adventurous trio that crafts mesmerizing, ethereal anthems.

Silly Hats ClubHumorous moment: Bands did not perform encores at Bonnaroo, but after a raucous reception to his group's Sunday night performance, a member from Explosions in the Sky returned to the stage to thank the crowd, then mentioned that, as Dallas residents, band members were definitely not returning to the stage because they had plans to watch the second half of Game 6 in the Dallas-Miami NBA championship series.

Photos: Sara and I pose in a Tennessee pasture that served as our Bonnaroo campsite for 5 nights; Lea Simmons of Pittsburgh rocks the must-have fashion accessory of Bonnaroo: the ubiquitious bandana-as-breathing-aid wraparound; Bonnaroo fans get animated during a Band of Skulls performance (so, is this how you 'Roo?); an apparent gathering of the Silly Hats Club at Bonnaroo. Other fashion statements on display at Bonnaroo X: loincloths, super heroine outfits, head-to-toe body paint; messiah robes; belly-dancer spangles; 28,000 different bikini styles.


A typcial Bonnaroo crowd, this one for Mumford & Sons. (All photos: T.D. Wood)

Posted on at 5:01 PM

Tagged: Bonnaroo, bandannas, buffs, camping, festival and tents

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