I'm getting a little burned out on hating on the neoconservatives and the FOX news voting bloc and defending global warming, so I'm taking a break this time and writing about what I'd describe as the holiest 90 minutes of my life. It happened this weekend at Bonnaroo; a magical land of tranquility and peace.
Every year in Manchester, Tennessee, Bonnaroo is the largest music festival in north America, and is home to 850 acres of endless fields of tents filled with 100,000 people who come all the way from Alaska to Connecticut, each one as open, warm, and friendly as the next. Amidst the oppressive summer heat and the odor of thousands of food vendors, and sweat-drenched hippies, indie kids and hipsters are dozens of the hottest musical and comedic acts in the world.
(There were entirely too many great bands playing to see all of them, but I'll list a few of the bands I saw. Keep in mind, most of these concerts had at least 10,000 people in the audience. You're lucky to even get inside the tent or in the vicinity of the stage, as getting a good spot requires one to get to the stage 45 minutes early and slip through the teeming masses until the crowd becomes too thick to move. You'll notice that I saw 11 bands the first day, 7 bands the next, and then finally took my time on the last day and only saw 4 bands. The less bands you see, the better concert experience you'll get.)
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Femi Kuti & the Positive Force
Booker T and the Drive-By Truckers
The Mars Volta
Centeroo, where all the action happens, features hundreds of displays of art, political activism, music and dance workshops, dance clubs, drum circles, and a carnival complete with a ferris wheel and circus. The average Bonnaroo day ends around 6 AM, when the last band has left the stage, when your feet finally ache and your ears ring too much from the rave party, and you make the long trek back to the campsite in flip flops as the sun rises. The day begins again after around three hours of sleep, when your tent becomes an oven from the morning sun. Rinse and repeat daily Thursday thru Sunday, immersed constantly in infinite moments. That's Bonnaroo in a nutshell; a weekend of infinity.
In high school, I and others my age read a book called "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky; a sort of modern-day Catcher in the Rye for my generation. It was about a kid named Charlie who came of age in the mid to late eighties, and astutely observed the people around him and the adventures they all had.
He described certain moments as "infinite," when he felt completely engaged and alive; in tune with the ultimate joy he was experiencing, while lucidly aware of having the moment. Charlie would always subconsciously step back in his mind, and remind himself that he was having an infinite moment. A moment that he always carries with him.
I've had a treasure trove of these moments, especially in recent months. I had the ultimate infinite moment while watching Andrew Bird at Bonnaroo.
I can't really classify Andrew Bird's music, and anyone who can doesn't understand Andrew Bird. He's a classically-trained violin player from Illinois, who also plays guitar and glockenspiel. More than that, he whistles eerily beautiful and haunting melodies. His signature is picking his violin like a guitar, recording that melody, then playing a complimentary melody on top of that. When that's finished, he has a harmonic string quartet playing over him, where he then produces a bow and plays his violin over the top of the melodies he creates and that his band supports.
Andrew Bird travels with a drummer/keyboardist, a bassist/saxophone/clarinet player, and a rhythm guitarist. When the full musical picture has been painted and detailed, Bird croons eclectic lyrics over multiple-layered string harmonies. His live performances are a must-see, because one can witness exactly how Andrew Bird creates his magic one piece at a time, live on stage. I saw him for the first time in 2007 in Columbus, when he was a little lesser-known before the release of his two newer albums.
I was seven people back from the front of the stage for this show, with about 30,000 people in the field behind me. Sadly, I had to miss Erykah Badu's 3:30 PM concert to get a good spot for Andrew Bird at 4:15. With about 45 minutes on my side, I started walking forward to the Which Stage until I could no longer push forward. I stepped around and over festivalgoers sprawled out on beach towels and in the grass, through groups of frat dudes, mods, punks, hippies, hipsters, Deadheads, Rastas, and skaters, all the way to the front. My shirt clung to my skin, buttoned only twice at the bottom and soaked in a combination of my own perspiration, several gallons of water that flowed from a giant mushroom, and red paint left over from Friday, when my entire torso was painted crimson from a parade of painted people in thong bikinis carrying tribal drums.
The sun mercilessly broke through the clouds around 4 PM, in direct defiance of the pleasantly overcast and temperate morning's cool temperatures. My mind was in a delirious yet hyper-aware state, exacerbated by the jungle-like humidity and a voluntary lack of sleep and not much food, in addition to being constantly assaulted by high decibels and blown away by raw musical force. Here, at the last day of the festival, my skin had taken on a darker tone. This was partially due to the abundant sunshine and scarcity of shade- also to the 3 days of filth that bodies accumulate when not showering with soap and shampoo. My body was laminated in a sheet of dirt, encased in another layer of sweat, with more dirt on top to really seal in the color. But this was only my first Bonnaroo; the true pros were much filthier than I.
Finally at the front of the crowd, I took a swig of lukewarm water out of my trusty gallon jug I had been using all weekend. The crowd meshed closer around me, and I got to know all of the people who surrounded me, where they were from, and heard a little bit of their story and told a little bit of my own. The sense of brotherhood one will find at Bonnaroo is dependent on which band you're seeing, but everyone is generally very warm, open, and giving with everything they have. There's a unique sense of community to be found at Bonnaroo unlike anywhere I've ever been.
An infinite moment
(I'll do my best here to take you right where I was, and describe to you what I saw, heard, and felt. I can honestly say that the time between 4:15 and 5:45 on Sunday, June 14th, 2009 at the Which Stage at Bonnaroo, was the greatest time and place for any human being to be alive in history; past, present, and future.)
The crowd gathered in tighter as our numbers grew, and sound crews started bringing equipment on stage for Andrew Bird's show. I recognized, along with the other Andrew Bird fans who rallied to the front of the stage, the fantastical props and set pieces Bird always travels with. The spinning double gramophone, sock monkey, and the life-size gramophones on either side of the stage add to the eclectic and esoteric tone of Andrew Bird's music. The collective anticipation from all of us in the front in combination with the heat and lack of room to move is almost too much to bear.
Finally, a tall, shy, thin, 35 year-old man walks on stage with his band and waves at the crowd. He is immediately received with cheers, praise, and song requests. Andrew Bird picks up his violin, closes his eyes, and picks the first part of a multitracked violin melody. His band joins in as the sound progresses. Now, as the first verse starts, the entire field in front of the stage is alive with a pulsing sub bass harmonizing with the hundreds of notes now singing together on a palette of musical colors personally picked out by Bird. Bird now starts crooning eerily to a peacefully intense piece of music, and the guy next to me shivers with pleasure.
A few songs from now, and the music is now transforming into something more energetic, driving, and powerful, chiefed by Andrew Bird's whistling and drummer Doss's double-timed beat. Bird steps on a switch, and the double gramophone behind him starts spinning faster and faster. He runs over and compliments the main melody on his glockenspiel, whistling along with the notes he is striking.
Looking around, the massive crowd is hypnotized by Andrew Bird's unfair amount of talent, now fully on display as he blissfully plays his violin to a vast soundscape of beautiful music. We all shout and cheer as the song ends. I notice a tear has collected in my right eye, and I'm wearing a ear-to-ear grin, much like the one worn by the rest of those around me. I find that my hands have been raised in victory and happiness for quite a long time.
I look at the guy to my left and say, "This is the greatest time to be alive." He nods, and voices his agreement. At this moment, I'm convinced that no music can sound any prettier than the song I just heard, and no moment can be richer than the one I had just lived. And right after the next song, Bird outdoes that moment, and I'm in just as much disbelief. One song later, and he's done it all over again. Andrew Bird's concert was a eternal hour and a half of glorious harmony and joy.
Now, the last song is playing. Bird began by playing his violin in long, sweeping, one-time strokes. He harmonizes with a different stroke. Once this has been layered, the strings filter in and out of the speakers, left and right. My body unconsciously shivers, and my head jitters involuntarily with each swoop of the bow across the strings. Now, Bird is giving his all to this one cosmically beautiful melody.
The crowd around me is now fully engaged in the performance, beaming with glee at each awesome thing Bird does to compliment his song with his whistling, his guitar playing, his violin, the drums, the keys, the bassist's saxophone playing, and Bird's voice. Everything in the universe seems at peace, nothing wrong can happen here; this is a holy place filled with angelic music, and thousands of brotherly people from all different backgrounds are united by this one performance, and their love of music and of each other.
By the end of the song, I'm silently weeping to the sheer, raw power and energy and of the music. My feet are exhausted from dancing. My knees are locking, my water jug is completely empty, my bladder has painfully full for the past hour, and sweat is pouring from my brow and dripping from my chin. I'm left entranced, with the rest of the crowd, as Bird says his thank you, and walks off the stage. As he does, he leaves the double gramophone spinning, and the layered string harmony playing angelically over the giant speakers. I'm satiated from the music and the crowd's energy, I'm sweating, famished, and parched, but I helplessly walk forward, toward the stage, looking around, unsure of what to do next. Like those around me, my mind is reeling from being blown away by what seems to be everything that is right in the universe. I serenely float on my own little cloud for the next few hours, slowly regaining my sense of reality in the afterglow of the most mind-numbingly amazing experience of my life.
At this point in the afternoon, I hadn't eaten since 1:30 or so, and it was past six. I had just refilled my gallon jug halfway, and was wandering around in a daze, looking for the nearest food stand so I could refill my body with nutrients of which it had been deprived. I walked past a vendor selling hand drums, and a small drum circle had gathered in front. I excitedly picked up a dumbek, listened for the right rhythm to play, and my hands began slapping a rhythm against the fiberglass head. I then started playing with more force and vigor, energized by the tautness of the drum and the tone of the slaps against the rim, singing their high notes and low tones to the meandering masses slowly gathering around us.
I felt the music and the happiness inside of me stored up from the concert suddenly pour out uncontrollably through my arms, through my hands, through my fingers, all the way to the fingertips and palms hitting the drum. Sweat flew from my face, and I felt my head bob up and down, left and right. My rhythms became faster and harder and I began to grin. The drum circle watches and listens to each other, and grows in size as cameras come out in the crowd and official Bonnaroo photographers stick telephoto lenses in our faces. It felt as if I was no longer consciously present in the drum circle, but lost in my own private dimension, where all that existed was rhythm and fingers. I pounded out all of the ecstatic shivers and energy my body and mind absorbed from the concert into the drum until I can no longer lift my arms. Looking down at my shaking, red, filthy hands, I saw that two blood blisters had formed. It wasn't until I walked away from that drumming session that I felt I had returned from reality after Andrew Bird's life-changing performance.
Looking back now, these two moments- the concert, and the drumming- both stand out as the most infinite of my life. I now believe life isn't measured by years, success, accumulation of wealth, or even knowledge. It's about the infinite moments you have, and how much you realized and enjoyed them.
Infinite moments are the meaning of life.
Friday Thoughts and Links
7 years ago