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Jason Merritt
Hundreds of people crowd "What Stage" at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. The festival is held every June in Manchester, Tenn.
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Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival

June 14–17, 2007

Manchester, Tenn.

The Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is an annual event in Manchester, Tenn. The music in Bonnaroo is divided between six confusingly titled spaces — "What Stage," "Which Stage," "This Tent," "That Tent," "The Other Tent," and "Somethin' Else." What follows are the highlights of the musical experience that is Bonnaroo and some tips in case you might want to attend someday.

By the time my group and I finally found our way towards the music on the first day, we were just in time to catch the tail end of Sam Roberts Band, a group of Québécois musicians who put on a dynamic show peppered with long rock tunes. Next, we headed over to see Mute Math in "This Tent." They played an intense set and interacted with the audience without acting goofy; lead singer Paul Meany wailed like some impossible love child of Sting and Bono while doing handstands and eventually giving out his keytar to the audience. Mute Math ended the set by jumping on and breaking some of their stage lighting, giving off an energetic visual to go along with the excellent music they had played.

We ended the night listening to flamenco-rock by Rodrigo y Gabriela, former trash metal guitarists who traded off quick guitar melodies and rhythms while covering acoustic versions of Rage Against The Machine and Pink Floyd pieces.

Mistake No. 1: Not bringing a balloon. Bonnaroo recommends bringing a flag or a balloon to the festival, so campers can find their tents when they head back for the night. Somehow, we deemed this unimportant and stumbled around aimlessly at 1 a.m. searching for our temporary home. By the time we got back, we were more than ready for a good night's sleep, planning to wake up around noon to catch the music that would start around an hour later.

Mistake No. 2: Neglecting to bring a canopy for our tent. By 8:30 a.m. we were up and sweating, unable to find a bit of shade under which to relax. We waited around our campsite for a few hours, made friends with our neighbors, and gulped from our water bottles as though we would never drink again. I spent a few hours in the car with the AC turned up high, dreading my impending entrance into the world of sweat and dust outside the Odyssey's doors.

The first act we caught on the second day was the Cold War Kids who rocked and rolled and played the only song of theirs I recognize, "Hang Me Out To Dry." Next, I headed to Tortoise, a '90s Chicagoan instrumental post-rock that put on a relaxed and fun show despite their fun and funky bass lines. The other people in my group went to see The Richard Thompson Band, and they witnessed the cult solo artist play incredible acoustic guitar that sounded more like a group of guitarists rather than a single man. After dinner, we saw The Black Keys, who brought their blues-y garage rock to an enthusiastic and massive crowd; they sounded particularly excellent on their track "Have Love Will Travel."

Finally, it was time for that evening's headliner, during which this reporter and her companions decisively headed back to our van to relax in the air conditioning, opting not to hear Maynard James Keenan do whatever it is he did that night with his thrash metal outfit. We headed back to the festival for the famous Bonnaroo SuperJam, which features different musicians from the festival performing together on one stage. This year, the Jam consisted of Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, Roots drummer ?uestlove (pronounced "Questlove"), and singer/songwriter Ben Harper. Their set centered on Zeppelin covers, and although each musician is undoubtedly talented, together they sounded like an exotic dish gone wrong — too many chefs in the kitchen made the show uninspiring.

Good Fact to Know: Bonnaroo has a strict "one exit" policy, so we decided the halfway point at the festival would be our time to leave and explore Manchester, the town that hosts the festival. When we headed back to Bonnaroo, we realized we could park in visitor parking — a short 15-minute walk from the music — and save ourselves the 45-minute trek we had experienced the previous two days.

On Saturday, one of my fellow group members went to see chanteuse and pianist Regina Spektor, and he proclaimed she was "his woman" and the "hottest girl ever." I went to see Hot Tuna, but I quickly became too hot and somewhat bored, opting instead to take a dip under the big communal fountain which fans had used to cool themselves down.

I went to see Damien Rice, who performed an acoustic set (to my disappointment) that featured highlights from his two LPs and a couple of tracks from his EP. Although his set was well performed, Rice's electric shows are much more exciting compared to the laid-back vibe of this performance. However, fans were into his show, and audience members sang along through much of the performance. He encored with my favorite of his songs — "Woman Like a Man" — and then my least favorite of his songs, the uncomfortable and repetitive piano tune "Accidental Babies."

Others in my group checked out relative newcomers Manchester Orchestra (ironically from Atlanta, Ga.). They sounded like Death Cab for Cutie with an angrier performance and seemed young enough to be recent high school grads.

The highlight of the evening came when Spoon performed a mix of tracks old and new, showcasing some songs from their wonderful new album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Bonnaroo enforces a not-so-strict but generally observed policy of no encores, if only to make sure that acts are on schedule and have enough time to set up before sets. Artists who played encores during the festival generally cut their sets 15 minutes short and then came back as though it were unplanned, but Spoon played all the way through to 7:30 p.m. and the audience still wouldn't leave. Though they'd been told not to, the band came back out for a fully genuine encore, making their set one of the best we saw at Bonnaroo.

The night went on with headliners The Police, who played, as expected, a smattering of hit songs, but surprisingly cut their planned two-and-a-half hour set down by an hour. This forced following act The Flaming Lips to start their set early, which seemed fine by Bonnaroo-goers, who started leaving The Police 45 minutes into the set to get a good spot to see The Lips. The band descended in an on-stage spaceship, and lead singer Wayne Coyne rolled out into the audience in his usual plastic ball. The audience was also outfitted with laser pointers, which flickered over the stage throughout the set. Although the theatrics were exciting and certainly an impressive spectacle, we wished The Lips had played more music — they took longer in between songs than the songs themselves, and Coyne certainly alienated many music-goers with long political rants.

Mistake No. 3: Why didn't we bring more water?

Seriously. It was exhausting. After three days in the hot sun, I was pretty sure I was suffering from dehydration, heat stroke, and probably food poisoning — who knew? Sunday was supposed to be the best day of music, at least for me — The Decemberists, Wilco, Feist, and The White Stripes were all playing within a four hour period — but the heat finally cracked me.

I clung to my jug of water as though it was all that sustained me. I moaned unhappily on the grass all through the Decemberists' (probably) exciting set, couldn't get it together to stand for Wilco, and only felt like moving when it was time for Feist's set, which was perhaps the only truly bad thing I saw that day. For a girl who talks up her punk roots as much as she does, and from the same artist who put out awesomely rocking demos only a few years prior, Leslie Feist just sounds more and more like elevator jazz with every new thing I hear. Disappointed, we returned to Wilco, who finished their set strong with 2001's track "Heavy Metal Drummer" off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

The White Stripes were last, but I think we knew all along we wouldn't catch them. We wanted to beat the traffic, and the heat and dirt were getting to all of us, and even if we'd caught the set, we would've felt too sour to enjoy it. Instead, we happily hit the road, stopping for the night in Chattanooga, where we ordered in lots of desserts and appetizers from a nearby diner — and I personally enjoyed one of the most satisfying showers of my life.

Bonnaroo is a great experience for any music lover, but if you want to appreciate it, you've gotta do it right. Bring plenty of water, budget wisely, and do all you can to get a good night's sleep — even if it means sleeping in the car.