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Bonnaroo from a Grunt's Eye View

Posted 2:38pm on Wednesday, Jun. 22, 2011

When the lineup for the 10th annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival was announced — including Eminem, Arcade Fire and Robert Plant — music fans perked up.

Then they showed up — 85,000 strong — from June 9-12 at the 750-acre farm-turned-concert venue, from aging hippies in their beat-up RVs to rave kids drawn to the festival’s techno-heavy late-night lineup to rap fans enticed by Lil Wayne’s headlining slot.

But not everyone — especially broke college students some 700 miles way in Texas — can afford a $250 ticket. especially when travel, meals and liquid refreshment are considered. That’s where the Work Exchange Team comes in, allowing for aspiring, financially challenged festgoers to attend Bonaroo in exchange for a few shifts of work.

To participate, volunteers must put down the full ticket price (plus $50) in advance, which is refunded electronically after successfully completing their shifts.

We were asked to arrive at Bonnaroo, about 60 miles southeast of Nashville, two days before the festival kicked off on June 9, a Thursday. We left Keller about 10 p.m. on June 6 and drove all night, arriving the next morning at Coffee County Central High School to check-in, a long and bureacratic process in which we were given three meal tokens, an ID card, a work T-shirt and work schedule.

At this point, the music seemed miles away.

Volunteers were tightly herded into Camp Zoolander, a large campsite in the far corner of the campgrounds and home to the Great Wall of portable toilets.

We set up our tent and filled our air mattresses before heading out to a barbecue dinner, which was followed by a orientation session where a stocky, bearded man gave a barebones introduction to Bonnaroo: “Show up at your shift 15 minutes early, and we’ll tell you everything you need to know then.” While the volunteer positions and shifts varied widely, I was scheduled to work the toll booth, checking in festival attendees, from an unhumane 5:30 a.m.to 7 p.m.on Thursday and Friday, the first two days of the festival.

Wednesday was a day of relaxing and with concerts still a day away, the stiffling heat and thick dust were on center stage. Protective hats, sunglasses, and globs of high-powered sunscreen were necessities, as were frequent trips to the water tents.

Volunteers were encouraged to roam the massive campgrounds as well as Centeroo, the epicenter of activity for all of the music and other entertainment.

Wednesday also gave volunteers a chance to get to know one another. One international group of volunteers displayed keen entrepreneurial acumen by selling grilled cheese sandwiches — using agec cheddar, not the plastic stuff — and cold beer out of their tent. A sign, written on the side of a cardboard box, begged potential customers to “Help us get home to Canada!”

Sarah Kamrae, a Toronto resident who had been following jam band Phish on their American tour, said selling food out of a tent is a great way to make some money, “or at least eat and drink for free.”

Thursday morning was my first shift, and I was assigned to the VIP check-in station. My job consisted of checking in VIP festival attendees — folks who paid big bucks for preferred parking, special showers and restrooms — giving them maps and trash bags, and pointing them toward the traffic cops. Cars were also searched by safety officials, and it wasn’t unusual to see attendees dumping out huge jugs of water to fill them up with liquor or beer that had formerly resided in contraband glass bottles.

Some volunteers who made it through their 13-hour shift elected to go for a late-night show. We did make time for an electrifying set by the Walkmen, another 5:30 a.m. shift loomed over the entire set.

Friday was much more relaxed, as volunteers found their shifts being pushed back by hours at a time, allowing for extra hours of sleep. Some shifts were switched, and after a few hours being passed around from job-to-job and finding ourselves unneeded, we were cut loose after less than five hours of work. For me, this is when Bonnaroo truly began.

Friday night on the What Stage, Centeroo’s main venue, was a spectacle to behold, as The Decemberists finished a strong set with an elongated guitar riff that allowed frontman Colin Meloy to show off before bidding the Bonnaroo crowd a terse goodnight.

The Decemberists were followed by My Morning Jacket, which thrived on the rock-star intensity of singer-guitarist Jim James. Arcade Fire’s hypnotic set was made memorable by the band’s stunning visual show and a Wake Up-centered encore that blew the proverbial house down.

Saturday was marked by Eminem’s charged set, the best of Bonnaroo, where he energized the crowd with classics such as the The Real Slim Shady and his encore performance of the always-popular of Lose Yourself.

An endless set by Manhattan Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello didn’t finish until early Sunday — just before the sunrise.

And after a few hours of sleep on a well-worn air mattress in an tent that now smelled like a locker room — we were able to catch a stirring performance by Mavis Staples, continued with the predictably great Austin instrumental band Explosions in the Sky, and ended with a dusty lightshow by the festival’s final performers, Widespread Panic.

While we unfortunately missed rap headliners Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifia, along with Robert Plant, not to mention neglecting the air-conditioned Comedy Tent entirely, Bonnaroo remained an extremely fulfilling experience.

“You have to accept the fact that you’re not going to be able to see everything you want to see. ... There’s 90,000 people here,” said John Dillon, a volunteer from North Carolina.

While the music was fantastic, Bonnaroo is plagued by the same problems that weigh down many summer festivals — namely a shortage of showers and hot, sticky weather.

“The heat is awful. I have to peel myself off things in the morning,” said Tierra Isaac, a second-time volunteer from Ohio .

Said Katie Porter, a volunteer from Mississippi : “It’s really disorganized, and there aren’t any real perks besides the food. If we have to work in the sun for 14 hours, we should at least get a free shower.”

Still, most volunteers say the hassles are worth the money saved. “You spend money getting here, but you’d spend that anyway. Volunteering allows us to save $275,” said Leanna Usher from Atlanta, who was volunteering at Bonaroo for the third time.

Besides the music, many volunteers cited the community atmosphere of the campgrounds as their favorite aspect of Bonnaroo. Friendships were quick to form and neighbors looked out for each other’s things, held spots in line, and in some cases, served dinner.

“The best part has been being together with 90,000 people,” said John Dillon, a volunteer from North Carolina. “Being a community of people in one organism, all together watching music.”

Monday morning, as the volunteers moved out of Bonnaroo, a melancholy mood tinged the camp. Goodbyes were said, promises to keep in touch were exchanged, and everyone left the dusty Manchester campgrounds sporting sunburns, tanlines and a deep desire for air-conditioning and a shower.

Kamre, the grilled cheese specialist, said she would definitely come back.

“Six days at a festival is a long time, but you ride it out,” she said. “It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. Really, it’s more of a slow jog. Now that we know what to expect, we won’t be so frustrated next year. You know, it’s just Bonnaroo.”

Keller resident Alex Williams is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin.

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