Bonnaroo 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the Tennessee music fest, which features a surreal roundup of influential artists—from hallowed hit-makers to old-school royalty, and everything in between. However, the antics onstage hardly compare to the madness off—the grounds have become synonymous with sex, drugs, and hippie shuffling. Complex City Guide reporter Lauren Otis will be forgoing sleep and hygiene to go live on the ground and blog from the bonna-fied event. Come on feel the noise.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Bed," 8:30 a.m.
After a few nights spent in our sweatshop of a tent, crashing in the car was a nice change of pace. Having forgotten my pillow at home, I’d grown accustomed to using my backpack topped with the previous day’s clothes as a bootleg one. Finally having a headrest was pretty key. Funny how this place makes you appreciate the little things you take for granted. I’ll admit though, I was already starting to get sad about taking off the next day.

Bonnaroo, in a way, feels a bit like heady summer camp. I’d miss the smells of people firing up various grills in the mornings and afternoons—and I’d also miss their kindness. Nearly everyone I met counted among the friendliest people I’d met in quite some time. The palpably relaxed vibe of the entire community made for a bounty of new friendships to organically be formed and phone numbers to be exchanged. Getting to know your neighbors in Tent City was a given, but I found that one of the places where I met some of my favorite people was actually standing in the crowds, waiting for shows to begin.

People approach Bonnaroo’s music offerings differently. Some choose to spend the day walking around the grounds, sampling different ten minute intervals of various shows before moving along to the next. (The festival is an ideal place for this because there are so many different kinds of artists; it’s easy to get drawn like a moth to a flame towards one of the stages if you happen to overhear an awesome guitar solo, a good beat, or if just happen to notice a plethora of others gravitating there.) Then, there are people who come to ‘Roo with a set agenda of artists they’d like to catch. These are the people you’ll notice camped out hours in advance by the stages to secure a good spot for their favorites. My experience so far had been a mix of the two, but I found that I met a lot of cool people while opting for the latter. The people you were cramped in with had likely been in similarly cramped situations for other shows the artist had put on, and tended to have some great stories. Talk of your shared mutual affection for the performer would branch out into talk of shared mutual affection for other randomness, and before you realized it, you both knew one another’s life stories.

At risk of sounding corny, it was really awesome to see the love of music bring so many people together.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 3 p.m.
Bonnaroo brought in quite the mishmash of celebrities. Within one afternoon, I’d already with crossed paths with Ron Jeremy, “Jerry” (of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream), the comic who plays Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and word was even going around that Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio was checking out shows on the premises. (I’d like to think I missed him because he was caught up in one of the African dance classes, or getting henna somewhere.) However, the coolest and most seemingly random by far had to be NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. What business could he possibly have at this Tennessee music fest?

As it turned out, he’d made his way down to showcase his new sports documentary, On the Shoulders of Giants, which tells the story of the outstanding, but relatively unknown, 1920s basketball team, he Harlem Rens. I was fortunate enough to have a brief chance to probe him about his new project before he made his way over to the press conference.

So, how exactly was the film born? What made you feel compelled to share the Rens’ story with the world?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Well, I found out about the Rens when I was in high school, but it was really after I retired from playing professional basketball that I started to learn more about what they did. They never got any recognition, so I wanted to deal with that issue. The Harlem Renaissance is really something that motivated me when I was in high school, but I didn’t connect the Rens to it until I found out what I found out from reading about them. I wanted to talk about this great team that nobody had ever acknowledged.

What do you think they meant to the game? Are there certain means in which they’ve paved the way for today’s ballers that many might not be aware of?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: During the 1920s and ‘30s, the Rens played at an up-tempo pace and they played the passing game—they didn’t dribble the ball a lot. And that was really how the game should be played, and very few teams understood that. So even though it was an all-black team that had to deal with discrimination, coaches would bring their staffs to watch them play so they could learn what it meant to move the ball quickly, and move bodies, as opposed to dribbling the ball around the court. Then they played a very close man-to-man defense, and that again really was where the game was going. My college coach, John Wooden, played against them. He played for a professional team in Indianapolis and he’s the greatest college coach that there was. He would tell me that the Rens were one of the best teams that he ever saw play.

What is it that you ultimately want audiences to walk away with from this film?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I just want them to get an idea of what we’ve had to go through in order to have this wonderful game that is so popular, which allows young athletes to come out of high school and make millions of dollars. If it wasn’t for teams and people like those that played for the Rens, it never would have happened. Professional sports were segregated at that time, and black Americans were not given a shot, so when the NBA finally started, everybody was well aware that not all of the best basketball athletes were playing. It excluded teams like the Rens, who were going out there and winning championships against the other teams.

What was it like collaborating with some of these equally influential participants on the project, like Cornell West and Maya Angelou?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I have so much respect for people like Dr. West and Maya Angelou. Maya came to New York in the late 1930s, so she knew about the Rens, and Dr. West was also aware of them. They were willing and happy to talk about how significant they were.

If I’m not mistaken, you actually debuted the film at a high school. What made you choose that particular location?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: We wanted to get it in front of kids because a lot of them have no idea what the Harlem Renaissance is about, much less this amazing basketball team. The Rens paved the way for their favorite athletes, so for me, it’s my gig as a historian to bring these issues in front of young people who need to know about them.


Adult Swim, 6 p.m.
The fest’s carnival area was calling to me in the early evening. There’s a giant Ferris wheel that overlooks the entire thing, as well as an assortment of weird games, like “Oh, Yell No!” where competitors pretty much see who can out-scream one another until they lose their voices. Mine was already shot from chanting along to songs the prior night, so I instead decided to unleash my inner child on a different one where participants can see if they’ve got what it takes to toss as many balls as possible into a toilet. (Less gruesome than it sounds.)

Those who weren’t feeling lucky parked underneath one of the nearby trees, where batches of exhausted fans would sprawl out together on blankets to munch on hush puppies, sip from their CamelBaks, and relive their favorite performances from artists like Man Man, Deer Tick, and Chiddy Bang.

Click to the next page for Oprah's Bonnaroo appearance.

Oprah, 6:37 p.m.
In lieu of the usual banners or “I Love You” signs, Bonnaroo music fans toted around all sorts of funky oddities to wave in the air, from papier-mâché shrunken heads on poles to lawn flamingos to twinkle-lit pimp canes (maybe in hopes that one of the artists might give them a shout out). There were also varying kinds of crazy headgear and costumes you’d notice spectators donning before shows, which only got more outlandish as the sun went down. This was one of my favorite sights.


Jambalaya, 6:40 p.m.
I probably spent more time eyeballing this jambalaya than Mumford and Sons, who were on at the time. Not that they weren’t great—I just had other priorities. Plus, I somehow managed to wind up in a swamp of couples, so gazing at the spicy goodness for a minute was slightly preferable to the canoodlers. However, the field was a sight to behold. It was absolutely packed with people swaying back and forth to the band’s guitar strumming as the sun began to set. There was no way to get around without rubbing sweaty shoulders with your neighbors, but at a certain point you stopped caring. One guy with a curly ‘fro flicked his bottle of cold water up in the air, which rained down a group of us. Had this happened at home, I probably would’ve wanted to punch him. Here, I wanted to grab him and give him a hug. It felt amazing.