Rain had delayed the Dead’s performance by an hour or so, and by the time we had reached the What Stage, around 9:30, the group was just beginning their set.
“Tennessee Jed” was the first song and the audience, swirled by narcotics and alcohol, belted along. “Tennessee, Tennesse, there ain’t no place I’d rather be.” Indeed.
We sat on a plastic tarp, relatively safe from the spongy ground beneath us as the Dead played covers of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” and The Band’s “The Weight.” Of course they also played Grateful Dead standards such as “St. Stephen” and “Box of Rain.”
We left halfway through, however, drawn by the buzz of Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Robert Randolph is a local musician, born in Irvington. “We were close to Newark and Orange,” Randolph said, “so things got really bad. I’m talking about murder and crime and drugs. As a child, when you’re around all these things, you somehow become a part of it because you’re curious. And I became a part of it too.”
However, Randolph turned his energies towards music, becoming a master of the pedal-steel guitar. He began playing at church, where his father was a deacon and his mother a minister, and his passion for the instrument grew.
Now he sat before us, rocking violently in a chair, wailing on the poor instrument sitting in his lap, producing raw sound as his band clamored along with him. Randolph commanded the stage, connected with the crowd, brought friends up to play with the band. We sloshed around, stamping our feet in ankle-deep water before the stage as Randolph hopped with his screaming guitar, teasing riffs from “Beverly Hills Cop.” This was truly the essence of live music, a sickening, unadulterated barrage of sound – a most heavenly cacophony.
“Playing with soul is the only way I can play,” he said. The two hours we spent there felt like five minutes – we were stunned into silence; we wanted more.
We awoke the next morning with the sun in our eyes and a clear blue sky overhead. This was to be our last day at Bonnaroo. Trey Anastasio, Phish’s front man, was due to close the festival. Afterwards, we would drive straight through to New Jersey.
We dismantled our tent. Feeling no need to salvage it for future use, we threw all our garbage into it and attached the corners to the crossbars, creating a kind of garbage pod – it resembled a mutated larvae, freakish in size. We dragged it, to the amusement of everyone who beheld us, to the trash, and then set out once more for Centeroo.
We went to see Cracker with Camper Van Beethoven first, on Zack’s request, hoping only to hear “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” one of the rockingest songs to feature a violin solo, a sort-of-hit from Camper Van Beethoven’s 1989 album “Key Lime Pie,” released just a year before the band would break up.
Two years later, the band’s front man, David Lowery, had signed a new contract forming the band Cracker. Fourteen years later, we were standing in front of them in Tennessee as they performed what turned out to be a very solid set.
From there we went to get a taste of moe., who was performing at What Stage. We hovered near the back, collapsed on the caked earth. When they were done, we wriggled our way towards the stage to get a good close look at the next performer: the former leader of the Talking Heads, David Byrne.
Byrne was a class act, a tall wiry man in a black jumpsuit, singing opera songs in between his performances of Talking Heads classics. His solo material was as charged as his old band’s songs, he performed them all with a subdued grace that the music industry rarely finds in its former stars.
Among the old songs, we were treated to “I Zimbra,” “And She Was,” “Once in a Lifetime,” that perennial Talking Heads favorite. He closed with a fiery performance of “Life During Wartime,” that had us hopping around in the sand and shouting along to the delight of those around us.
As Byrne left the stage the clouds began to collect again. More rain. We ran out of What Stage towards Which Stage where Medeski, Martin and Wood, the jam-jazz favorite, had already started their set. The mud was horrendous in the highly trafficked areas and we’d long ago abandoned our shoes in favor of slipping and sliding through the mire, running full out with no fear of falling face first into the wet earth.
We stood in a brown puddle up to our knees listening to John Medeski pull sound like taffy out of his organ. The clouds were now over us completely – the rain was coming. We could feel it and so could the band.
Randolph was invited up to play with them, and they only got a minute or so into their jam when the skies exploded in a flash of lightning and water.
“We’ve gotta go now,” Medeski said into the microphone as roadies swarmed the stage, trying frantically to cover up the instruments, “Sorry.”
We returned to the car in the pouring rain – with our tent now gone we had no shelter and labored to construct a canopy with one of our big brown tarps, slamming it in the trunk and huddling underneath it, shivering and wet.
Our neighbors invited us into their tent, seeing our plight, and we sat drinking with them, waiting for the storm to pass.
Trey started late, due to the weather, and we arrived in the midst of his first set, conducting the Nashville Chamber Orchestra in classical versions of Phish standards. The crowd did not seem pleased by this odd diversion, hearing strings pluck out the usually electrified riffs of “Guyute.”
The second set featured Trey with his solo band, a big horn section blasting along with him as he hopped up and down, slack-jawed, playing his guitar as the crowd erupted with joy. This is what they’d come for; this was the perfect way to bring Bonnaroo to a close, with a flurry of glow sticks launched into the Tennessee night sky, with fireworks going off as the set came to a furious close.
We walked slowly back to our car after the set, unsure of how to feel, of what to do. The first cars were starting to leave, starting the slow trip back to wherever it was they’d come from. Ninety-thousand people disbursed in every direction, to everywhere in the country.
We joined them. As we headed east towards Knoxville on Interstate 24, back towards Virginia with Zack at the wheel, the driver’s side window came off its hinges and collapsed into the door. We could not get it up again, so we took shifts driving with rain and wind blasting us in the face. We were filled up by it, as much as it agonized us.
We had to accept it. We had to endure.