Bonnaroo (From the Pit)
By Gary Miller,
2:33PM, Thu. Jun. 19, 2008
My trip to Bonnaroo began back in early December when I got an email telling me I had won a trip to Hollywood for the premiere of PS I Love You starring Hillary Swank. My wife and I were excited to go not so much for the movie, but because we have friends and family in Los Angeles and I'm from that area originally. The night before we were to depart, both of us started feeling ill and by the next morning we were both sick as dogs and unable to move much farther than the bathroom to throw up. There was no way we were taking a trip anywhere. The flights, hotel, limo, and premiere tickets at Mann’s Chinese Theater all went unused.
Sometime in early February, on a whim, I got on American Airlines' website and typed in our reservation numbers and up popped the information for our flights and at the bottom a statement that the tickets were unused and fully refundable. I immediately called American and told the story to the customer service rep. I asked her if the price of the tickets could be applied to other flights rather than refunded to Warner Bros. as they were the ones who paid for them. She checked and said “No problem.” Over the next couple of days my wife and I talked about where we wanted to go. Warner had paid for the tickets last minute, ponying up full fare so we had over $1,700 in credit to play with. In the end, we got a flight for my wife to visit family in Kansas, I got one to Chicago to shoot Lollapalooza later this summer, two roundtrips to L.A. for my wife’s birthday, and of course my flight to Bonnaroo.
As the time came closer, I laid out my best idea for the bands I wanted to shoot, going over it time and again and then finalizing it once the set times and stage schedules came out. Of course all the big names would be included, but it’s the mid-level bands that are the hardest to judge - bands that are up and coming or ones that may break soon. I listen to a somewhat narrow range of music, mostly hard rock with some blues thrown in. Doing what I do I get exposed to tons of stuff and I’ll download a song here and a song there from other genres, but good hard rock & roll is my mainstay so I had to ask my wife and some friends for help.
The day before Bonnaroo I had to work all day then boarded a flight to Nashville. I arrived at 9:30pm and got my rental car and headed out for Manchester, TN. I used to live in Memphis in the early 1980s when I was in the Navy and really like rural Tennessee. It's beautiful country. Just as I was getting to my motel, the skies opened up and it started pouring. The forecast for the weekend called for rain all the way through. I'd been hoping the weather guessers would be wrong, but I brought a poncho and a waterproof cover for my camera so I was set either way.
Thursday, June 12
I wake up around 9am and prepare for the day. I leave my laptop at the hotel since I’ve never been to Bonnaroo and don’t know the layout. I’ve been told it’s nice and safe, but those things have different meaning to different people. I drive to a radio station to pick up my photo pass and then head in. I'm not given any special parking and when I ask no one knows of any, so I figure I'm with the masses just as at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which I’ve shot faithfully from year one. Well, it takes three-and-a-half hours to get into the festival grounds and get parked. As I pass people wearing official Bonnaroo badges or t shirts, I ask again and again about media parking and get the same blank look. After getting out of my car, I notice people all around me setting up tents. I figure this is normal as I'd heard camping is very popular at Bonnaroo.
I walk the half mile to the entrance and go to the media area. I'd already missed several bands I wanted to shoot due to the traffic situation, but I take a look around, grab a couple waters, and head for the tents, which were the only stage areas with bands the first day. As I walk to the tents, I remember that Austins W3 security was bussed in to work the show. Other companies were here too, but I know these guys. Through the weekend I see 20 or so guys I've maneuvered around during the Austin shows working the pits and barricades. A couple times I got there late they helped me get my shots.
I shoot Superdrag, Back Door Slam, and MGMT before heading over to Nicole Atkins. I'd shot Nicole during South by Southwest and wanted to shoot her again. As I'm waiting for her to start, I see a friend form Austin, Andy Langer, a deejay on KGSR who also writes for Esquire magazine. He comes over to say hello and we chat a bit. He asks if I need anything and I mention the parking situation, so he calls over Ken Weinstein, who runs the whole show at Bonnaroo. Ken listens to my problem and tells me to go by Bonnaroo HQ at a nearby hotel and he'd have a parking pass waiting for me. Yeah right,. I’ve heard that before. “You’ll be on the list” is one of the biggest lies in the music biz.
I shoot Nicole Atkins in that tent and go on to shoot Battles and then the Sword. This band's from Austin, but I'd never seen them. They're my favorite band from the first day and in the top five for the whole festival. After that, I shoot Vampire Weekend and them Lez Zepplin, who I loved. These women rock!
After Lez, I head back to the hotel to edit and transmit to my image service. This is a photo clearing house that sells to all the papers and magazines so I can make money off my pics. I was up until 5:30am doing this and got to bed around 6am. I had to get up at 9:30am for another day.
Friday, June 13
I head over to the festival hotel and find out Ken had indeed provided me with a parking pass. I take a secret route to the festival grounds that bypasses all traffic and gets me in and parked in five minutes. Today, I've brought my laptop as the setup for the press is the best I’ve seen at any venue. We have an air conditioned tent and a trailer for setting up our laptops and working on images.
Today I shoot Jose Gonzalez, Fiery Furnaces, Umphrey’s McGee, Tegan & Sara, Minus the Bear, Les Claypool, the Raconteurs, Willie Nelson, and M.I.A., all at a blinding pace. Festivals like this are spread out so the sound doesn’t bleed over to the other stages if at all possible. There are two main stages and three large tents. There are also several smaller tents, a comedy tent that's set up to look like a circus, and a New Orleans tent, as well as two tiny stages.
The last two acts of the day are Chris Rock and Metallica on the main stage. I like Chris Rock okay, but I thought having him open for Metallica was an interesting idea. He performed in front of almost 70,000 people and as Louis CK put it the next day, even if 40,000 loved him he still bombed. I mean face it. The overwhelming majority of people were at that stage to see the headliner of the day, Metallica. This was also the whitest crowd Rock had ever played to I’m sure. Some genius thought of a great way to introduce him and that was to have Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett come out with him. I think he would have done well regardless, but this gave him the Metallica stamp of approval which couldn’t hurt.
Earlier in the day, Ken Weinstein had spoken to all the media and let them know that Metallica was limiting photographers to about 20 out of the 50-60 that were there. He let us know we could ask him or any member of his staff if we were “in” or not. Since I'd met him the day before I went to him directly. He looked at me and said, “Austin Chronicle right? You're in.” I had never told him I was with the Chron; he heard that from veteran Chron alum Andy Langer. I was actually shooting mainly for WireImage, which is my service, but I always turn pics of everything I shoot into my editor at the Chronicle too. Who was I to argue with the guy with the golden tickets? Thirty minutes before the show, photographers begin filling up the staging area hoping against all odds that the restrictions will be lifted and everyone will be allowed to shoot. I pass Ken and he apologizes, saying they were being extremely tight with access and he wouldn’t be able to let me shoot. He says they only want wire services to shoot at which time I let him know I'm shooting for WireImage as well as the Chron and is that good enough? He says it is and I'm given the largest photo pass I’ve ever seen. I shot Metallica a few years back and they passed out enormous passes then, but this one's even bigger, about three times larger than the standard sized pass.
They take the chosen ones to the backstage area and we're waiting until it's time to go up into the pit area to shoot. What we call the pit is the area between the barricade and the stage where security stands to monitor the crowd. As we're standing there, I become aware of Metallica music playing. I figure someone has a boom box on somewhere. I then look over to the travel trailer we were standing next to and even though the curtains are drawn, I can see movement and make out the shadow of a guitar and a drum cymbal. Metallica's warming up in the trailer we were standing next to! As we're taken to the stage, we walk around the front of the trailer and there are about 50 people standing there staring at the trailer. All the doors are shut and the windows covered, but everyone stares silently at the trailer.
We're led to the front stage and waitfor the show to begin. I spend time checking out the stage and the crowd. I'm not worried about being caught off guard as I know the intro music is Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of the Gold,” which has started every Metallica show for many years. The show starts and we were off and running. I'm on autopilot by this time after having shot 10 performers already. I always try and get good shots of the drummers. In this case, Lars Ulrich is well known, but in a lot of bands the drummer sits semi-anonymously in the back. They don’t often get the respect they deserve for setting and keeping the tempo of the songs. I get plenty of good stuff and am even able to enjoy the show a bit. The first three songs are “Creeping Death,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “Ride the Lightning.” My wife always asks me “what did they play?” when I come back from a shoot and I usually think a moment and tell her I don’t know. I’m so focused on shooting I don’t really hear the song so much as just the beat. This time, though, I hear it all and am singing along as I shoot. It's over way too soon and we're led out, everyone walking briskly to the press trailer to download and look at photos. I would have liked to watch the show, but they ended up playing for two-and-a-half hours and I did have work to do. This time I was done and in bed by 2:30am to rest up for another day.
Saturday, June 14th
Again I wake up at 9:3am, but this time I lay around for a bit and relax. I start off at 2pm with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, then Against Me! and Ozomatli. I really like Ozo and listen to a bit of their set after shooting. I then get Gogol Bordello, which I catch right at the end of their set so I don’t know if I like them or not. After that, it's over to Mastadon, who I know I like as they are very hard rock. I’ve shot them before, but always in daylight at SXSW or OzzFest. Let me say this about Bonnaroo: the tents are set up perfectly. They're big enough to get a couple thousand people under them and the sides are low enough to allow the stage lights to create the mood in the tent and not just look like daytime photos. I get some great shots of the band. I run over and shoot Cat Power, who again I’ve only gotten daylight shots of and get the same wonderful lighting there too.
After that, I go to the main stage and prepare to shoot B.B. King. He's getting the key to the city of Manchester and Coffee County. Driving into Manchester the day before I'd seen a store in a strip mall that was called Confederate Pride. It had all sorts of ephemera related to Dixie that I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. I thought of this store and how cool it was that an 82-year-old black man was getting the key to the city. After the presentation, I move on to Ben Folds, Iron & Wine, and then Levon Helm, the drummer for the Band. I’ve photographed Robbie Robertson before and wanted to get Helm while he's still performing. It was a nice show even if he didn’t do “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which he sang way back when with the Band.
After that I shot Jack Johnson, who I don’t think should be a main stage performer, but what do I know. The crowd's as big as for any other act. We get word that the rules for shooting Pearl Jam will be the same limited numbers as for Metallica and if you shot them you could shoot P.J. I’ve shot them befor,e but it was right when Eddie Vedder cut his hair so I have all these nice shots of a guy no one recognizes. Twenty of us troop to the front again and wait. I don’t know what the three songs are they're playing as I'm shooting like crazy and moving around to get different angles. We're limited this time to the right or left side, which we had to choose and stay at. The center, right in front of Vedder, is off limits, but that really doesn't matter. Soon enough we're done and I head back to the trailer for more editing. I transmit my photos at 1am and then have to decide whether to stay and shoot Ghostland Observatory and whether I want to try and shoot Kanye West from the crowd. West doesn’t allow photos, but there are a few photogs going to shoot him from within the masses. I find Ghostland interesting, but I'd recently shot them and they're from Austin, so I'll get them again. I decide to head out.
I try and follow the rules of the house when I’m shooting. I follow a first in and first out mantra, meaning I get into the pit quickly, I shoot my allotted songs, and I leave as soon as the music stops for the third song. I’ve seen photogs completely ignore the rules and keep shooting, but I feel that this will come back and bite you at some point. Kanye West's set had been moved from 8pm to 2:45am to optimize his “Glow in the Dark” tour setup. I get a text from a fellow photog when I'm already at my motel that the set time's been pushed to 3:45am. When I wake up in the morning and go online, I seee that Kanye West hadn't gotten to the stage until 4:45am and played only a 50-minute set, getting off stage after the sun had started rising. It was more like the “Glow in the Dawn” show. All day the next day, people are chanting “Kanye sucks” from the crowd as they wait for various bands to go on. I heard in the backstage area that some of the lateness wasn’t his fault, as Pearl Jam had gone an hour long. I think that people are tired of his crap regardless. If you act like a punk, you get treated like a punk. He acts like it’s an honor for people to see him, but he’s got it all backwards. The crowd's paid him for a service and he should go on on time and perform a full show.
Sunday, June 15
I get to the grounds and shoot Abigail Washburn with Bela Fleck. I had planned on shooting Ladytron next, but they were 30 minutes late already and I wanted to see Robert Randolph so I go to his stage. I then go over to another tent and shoot Jacob Dylan with some great lighting. Then it's Yonder Mountain String Band and O.A.R., then over to see Solomon Burke. Robert Randolph goes long, so we wait for about an hour to see Solomon Burke. I'm getting antsy as I'm due at the main stage to shoot Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. Beatle Bob came out and introduced Solomon Burke and I shoot one song of him before heading over to the main stage.
I've wanted to see this act since I heard about it. I’ve seen Plant before, but never performing this kind of music. Let me just say that Alison Krauss is 10 times more stunning in person than on TV. I enjoy the shoot and the performance too.
After this, I shoot Death Cab for Cutie, hearing more chants of “Kanye sucks,” then run over to see husband and wife team Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi. This is the kind of music I like, blues with some great guitar from both of them. I watch a few extra songs then head back to do my final day of editing. I transmit at midnight and am done.
In all, I photographed 41 acts, two press conferences, and one comedian. I took 5,000 photos and I drank probably 40-50 bottles of water and took Alieve like it was candy. I walked miles a day, losing a toe nail in the process. I’m sore and I’m tired and I had to fly home and work the next day. Bonnaroo is the best run festival I’ve had the privilege of shooting. Coachella comes in second, but the Bonnaroo press area amenities and the hands-on approach and friendliness of the staff take the cake. Other festivals could take some lessons from how Bonnaroo treats the press. I'm already looking forward to next year.