During the weeks leading up to Bonnaroo, my coworkers at my government day job had many questions for me. Granted, this is my third year going, but every year, the same conversation begins...
“Where are you going again?”
“To a music festival in Tennessee.”
“So it is all country music? I didn’t know you were a fan…”
“Actually, no. No country music. All kinds of other music, though. The headliners are Elton John, Jack White and Kanye West.”
“Oh, I didn’t know people in Tennessee like Kanye...” End of conversation. (After this weekend, they probably do not, but more on that later.)
Working at a festival is a little different than attending one. First and foremost, regardless of whether or not you hit the late night shows, you have to be up at the crack of dawn to open your booth. On the way from camp to Centeroo, one must step cautiously as the ground is littered with intermittent festival goers who seem to have simply collapsed in the field after a hard night of dancing. For the early risers there is sunrise yoga that goes well into late morning. I am not clear where these people come from or how they are able to rave all night with Skrillex and then stand on their head at 9:00 am, but mine eyes have seen it!
With the proliferation of festivals and their non-profit villages, voter registration is no longer a surprising activity in the music scene. You still get the occasional “Vote for what?” but more often you get, “Oh! I’ve been meaning to update my address! Thanks for being here!” Over 350 people stopped at the booth over the weekend to update their registration or register for the first time.
We also added a new voter pledge to the roster of activities. Concertgoers have the opportunity to write themselves a postcard that will be sent back to them in November reminding them to hit the polls. To make it even more enticing, the postcards are actually designed by famous poster artists as a continuation of the #GoVote project. In addition, one lucky person who pledges in 2014 is also going to win a Cloud 9 Adventure (Jam Cruise, My Morning Jacket's One Big Holiday, etc). We collected over 1,000 of those postcards, and will be sending out a boatload of them in the Fall.
Partners in Democracy
This year HeadCount is truly blessed to be partnered with the folks behind iCitizen. Many may be wondering, “What is this iCitizen you speak of?” Well let me tell you. iCitizen is an amazing app for your smartphone. When you download it, you input your zip code and it populates with all of your elected official, both national and state, along with their voting records. But wait! That’s not all! It also has opinion polls and the results are sent to said officials. You can also see how folks in your state and across the country feel about that specific issue. Finally, it contains a newsfeed function that you can populate with whatever issues you feel strongly about - anything from civil liberties to environment, campaign finance to international affairs. It is an awesome app. They also have fans from both sides of the aisle in the Senate and House.
I happen to be a skeptic who does not like to download things onto my iPhone 4 because my phone is old, slow and out of space. However, I find myself spending a lot of time reading stories and getting lost in the poll results (and wondering why the 76% of America who think differently about an issue are so nuts!). All that said, the actual people who work on this app have been joining us in the field this summer and they are some of the smartest and most fun people I have worked with. They are dedicated to educating the public on the issues that matter most and it has been a pleasure combining efforts. I would highly recommend checking out the app here.
Of course, the main attraction of the festival is the music and it will be no surprise that the most talked about act of the weekend was Kanye West. I will readily admit that I was extremely excited to see Kanye as a headliner on the lineup. I was not there for the “disaster of 2008.” However, I saw him on the Watch The Throne tour, as well as at Austin City Limits, and when he is not talking, he truly can entertain. No matter what you think of Kanye the Man, Kanye the Entertainer is an entirely different beast.
Unfortunately, Kanye the Entertainer did not show up on The Farm this year. Instead, the crowd was met by an angry individual wearing what appeared to be a designer fencing mask on a naked stage with a red backdrop. No fancy set pieces or elaborate backgrounds. Throughout his set, he took multiple breaks to bemoan the haters, declaring that he is but a “humble 37-year old man playing to a crowd of 90,000 people” (I left out the expletives for our polite reading audience — let's just say he did not use the word "people" but a more colorful term that rhymes with "brother trucker"). He also informed us that his artistry is equal to or greater than that of Beethoven, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes and Shakespeare, just to name a few, and declared war on the press. He also had choice words about the anti-Kanye graffiti that could be seen in the porta-potties and on the walls around the grounds. Let's just say people were already a little ticked off by him before he even arrived.
While it might appear that all of this was a bad thing, it definitely unified the crowd in a collective confusion and fostered multiple inside jokes over the remainder of the weekend. For most people, the opportunity to do what you love for ninety minutes and collect a paycheck that is assumably in the six or seven figure range would be a dream come true. However, Kanye is not “most people” and the crazy that he spouted left many wanting more. Had I not been standing in a vast pit of mud, though, I could have listened to this humble gentleman wax poetic on his greatness all night long. It was like a train wreck. To his credit, the songs he was able to complete without launching into a tirade were fantastic.
So Much Music!
Apart from Kanye’s spoken word tirades, there were no bad sets at Bonnaroo. Everyone brings their A-game to The Farm. A surprise highlight on Friday afternoon was Sam Smith. His collaboration with Disclosure, “Latch,” is all over the airwaves, but you never really know how much of DJ remixes are the original artist or the soundboard. Rest assured, if Smith comes to town, you do NOT want to miss him. He may be a bit of an awkward kid, but as soon as he opens his mouth, he is mesmerizing. His falsetto voice and smooth grooves will win over any crowd.
This year’s lineup offered plenty of opportunities to hit big name artists. First on my checklist was Damon Albarn. His expansive career through Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad and The Queen and even solo efforts were covered in his set. He also got a bit of help from De La Soul and Del The Funky Homosapien for “Feel Good Inc” and “Clint Eastwood,” respectively.
Another major highlight was definitely Lionel Ritchie. While half the crowd appeared too young to have been alive when his hits were released, that did not dampen their enthusiasm (or love of American Apparel tank tops with Lionel’s face ironed on along with the question of the weekend, “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?”). “Hello” is definitely a jam and a half, but the true surprise from the set was Lionel’s encore, the 1985 smash, “We Are The World.” I can say in all honesty that somewhere upstairs in my house is the original USA for Africa cassette with that song on it and I know every single word. As the audience sang along, images of the original cast flashed through my head - Michael Jackson in his rhinestone glove and crazy captain’s jacket, Cyndi Lauper with her yellow hair, Quincy Jones conducting the choir and Bruce Springsteen belting it out at the nylon covered microphone. If none of this makes sense, check it out here. (If you are a glutton for punishment, you can also check out the 2010 remake with Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne and a rap interlude by Humble Kanye himself.)
It is probably not even necessary to mention that Jack White and Elton John were on fire in their respective headlining time slots on Saturday and Sunday. Jack played as if his life depended on it and Sir Elton brought out all the hits from his half-century career for a two hour sing-a-long.
Back to Reality
Returning to work this week was tough. After a week of adventures, it is never ideal to plop back down behind a desk. And due to my emphatic exaltations prior to leaving that, despite Kanye’s antics, he is one of the best performers out there, I had to have this conversation repeatedly:
“How was the festival?”
“It was awesome!”
“How was Kanye?”
“Uhhhhh. About that…”