Once a year, usually under a stuffy, stultifying Southern sky, the faithful begin to assemble on the side of Route 24, some 60 miles southeast of Nashville. Every tribulation will be worn like a badge of honor: the long lines, the lashing rain, the white Tennessee mud, the overflowing toilets, and the miles of tents, with nary an inch between them.
But for the roughly 70,000 attendees of Bonnaroo 2008, staged on a 750-acre farm in this bucolic corner of the state, there was also respite to be found: private showers sponsored by Garnier Fructis, a video-game tent sponsored by Microsoft's Xbox 360, and a shaving station sponsored by Gillette. There were art galleries, shaded tearooms, and a quiet Internet cafe.
Even by the raucous standards of the modern music festival, Bonnaroo has long enjoyed a reputation as particularly exhausting. For five days, overheated Bonnaroovians flood Manchester – population 8,294 – trampling over its pristine farmland and buying crates of water, beer, sunscreen, and bug spray. The sun is harsh, the thunder inevitable. The food is greasy. And stages are often surrounded by swarms of fans, jammed together in a Kodachrome mosaic of sun hats and beach chairs.
So in recent years, Bonnaroo, which is run by Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment, has torn a page from Britain's Glastonbury music festival and moved toward a more dynamic "experience." Music is still at the forefront here, but an increased emphasis is placed on the off-hours. Pleasant diversions abound. As at Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, and Coachella – three other big American festivals – attendees are increasingly faced with a wealth of air-conditioned tents, stand-up comedy stages, playgrounds for the kids, and cinemas showing the best new independent documentaries. The unsaid directive: get amped up, by all means, but give yourself some time to zen out.
I had just turned 13 when I arrived at my first music festival. This was back in the mid-'90s, when the word "festival" had a certain amount of ballast: one was expected to suffer for listening to one's power chords. The bands played mostly punk rock, and we stumbled around in the humidity, our ears ringing. The only alternative attraction was a skate park. No one watched.
I thought of that summer as I walked from Bonnaroo's "Spiritual Gangster" yoga class to an air-conditioned "interactive" barn, sponsored by the cable network Fuse. Not, it should be said, out of any nostalgia: after three days of noise and mud, even the strongest man is as fragile as a twig of Tennessee birch.
Still, a Bonnaroovian eventually becomes aware of the paradox: Provide 70,000 people a place to relax, and 70,000 people will all attempt to relax at that place. "Ugh," said my friend, upon barreling through the doors of the Fuse Barn. "It's hotter in here than it is outside." There was air-conditioning somewhere, but the barn was so chockablock with shirtless men and bikinied women that the effect was nullified. For a moment, we all stood together, motionless, dripping sweat and watching a bad music video on a big flatscreen. When we left, the 102-degree heat felt like a dash of ice water.
Now that is some true zen.