MIKE PESCA, host:
What kind of music do you like? If you answered with the name of any band or solo artist that ever recorded in the U.S. or abroad, then the Bonnaroo Festival is for you. Or if you said, I do not like music, I like comedy, then the Manchester, Tennessee, Bonnaroo Festival is for you. OK, maybe not opera and (unintelligible) singers, but other than that, the festival, which started yesterday and goes through Sunday, features maybe the most eclectic lineup of bands I have ever seen, from Widespread Panic to Kanye West to Pearl Jam to Cat Power, not to mention the comedy tent with Chris Rock.
You may have any number of reasons to hate big summer festivals - hello, eight-dollar bottle of water - but it would be hard to find a person who wouldn't want to see some of the acts on the Bonnaroo list. Andy Langer, music critic for Esquire Magazine, is at Bonnaroo for the festivities. He's got a look forward at the big events still to come. Hello, Andy.
Mr. ANDY LANGER (Music Critic, Esquire Magazine): Hello.
PESCA: How's it treating you so far?
Mr. LANGER: It's pretty amazing. I think this is my favorite festival, and it's leaps and bounds - just more - it's a better festival than any of the other ones in America. I'll just, you know, start with that.
PESCA: Right. Is it because of the acts? They have great acts at a lot of them.
Mr. LANGER: Well, it's because of the total immersion. I mean, there are some 60,000 people who camp out here. And it's a tent city that's just over the horizon of the main stage, and those people never leave. They're here for the full 96 hours. And when you're here for 96 hours to see music, it's different than if you're just going to a downtown park for eight or nine hours to see music. You can treat the whole deal and see a wider array of things, just on a whim, because you're here the whole time.
PESCA: How much does a four-day pass cost?
Mr. LANGER: You know, I believe it's in the 200-buck range, or maybe a little more with the parking and camping privileges.
PESCA: And you know, if you prorate it and see all the bands you can see without going insane, it's actually a pretty good deal.
Mr. LANGER: Yeah. I mean, just look at this afternoon. I mean, you can see the Swell Season, followed by the Raconteurs, Willy Nelson, Chris Rock, Metallica, and My Morning Jacket come on at midnight.
PESCA: We've got to skip right to Chris Rock.
(Singing) Which one of these is not like the other?
How big is the comedy tent? How big is the crowd he's playing?
Mr. LANGER: Well, the comedy tent, which has comedy all day long in air conditioning, the comedy tent has folks like Mike Birbiglia and Zach Galifianakis and Janeane Garofalo. You know, there's some A-list comedians in that comedy tent.
PESCA: And all kind of alt comedy, all kind of, like, you know, Pearl Jam-y.
Mr. LANGER: Exactly. But Chris Rock is playing the main stage, and he'll be on roughly an hour before Metallica.
Mr. LANGER: And if 70,000 people are in front of Chris Rock, as we expect they will be, then that becomes arguably the largest comedy event in the history of comedy. Because generally, you know, you can play the Hollywood Bowl, you can play Madison Square Garden, but to have 70,000 people in front of a standup is supposedly unheard of.
PESCA: You can't...
Mr. LANGER: You know, you're going to have to fact-check Guinness for that, but that's what they're claiming.
PESCA: Oh my God. When I heard 70,000, I'm like, it can't work, and I didn't know - you just said he's opening for Metallica. Is he insane?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LANGER: He's definitely daring.
PESCA: Yeah. How often has it come up where you have been torn between - like, really torn between, a couple acts that are coinciding?
Mr. LANGER: You know, when they're moving around, you know, 160, 200 bands or whatever it is, there's going to be some kind of conflict. And you know, today you'll have to choose between the Swell Season and part of the Raconteurs. But that said, you know, you can move around here. There's no sort of - there's nothing stopping you from sampling just a little bit of everything. And for instance, that comedy tent, because it's air-conditioned, there's sometimes two or three hours of a wait. But again, if you're here for 96 hours, two or three hours is not that big of a deal to wait. If you were at a regular festival, it would be.
PESCA: There's a band. Tell me how to pronounce their name. It's a Brooklyn band called M-G-M-T. Is it "management"? Do they say that?
Mr. LANGER: Yes. You can do it either way, apparently.
PESCA: All right, cool. Let's do it this way and hear a little bit of them.
(Soundbite of song "Electric Feel")
MGMT: (Singing) Standing there with nothing on, She gonna teach me how to swim.
I said, ooh, girl, Shock me like an electric eel. Baby girl, Turn me on with your electric feel.
PESCA: Now this band, management, or MGMT, they'll also be playing Lollapalooza later this summer in Chicago. Do bands, maybe smaller bands, feel like they have to play these festivals? Do they want to play these festivals? Are the festivals, you know, cash bonanzas for them? What's the band's motivation?
Mr. LANGER: It's not that it's so much a cash bonanza. It is certainly for a Metallica, Pearl Jam, for a Radiohead, who's playing a lot of the festivals later. Those bands make serious money. The other bands, it's an opportunity to get yourself in front of people who genuinely love music, and who have the ability, like I said, to gamble, you know, to experiment on something they might not necessarily have heard of.
And so there were folks last night, you know, Grupo Fantasma, this group from Austin that's a, you know, backing band for Prince and a Latin funk band. They had a full, you know, probably five or 6,000 people watching them. If they pulled into your town, they'd be good for 300 people.
Mr. LANGER: So this is a good opportunity for them. You know, MGMT, last night, really brought the hippies and the hipsters together, dancing under one tent. And you know, on a Thursday night, there was hardly anyone hurting for a crowd. I mean, even this guy, Matt Morris, that Justin Timberlake's producing, he was in a tiny little tent early in the day and there was an overflow crowd, I mean, early in the day being 4:30 on a Thursday.
PESCA: Speaking of hippies and the hipsters, the hippies faced off against hip-hop, or they will on Friday and Saturday. On Saturday night, three a.m., Phil Lesh and Friends will be entering, like, their fourth hour of their set, and then Kanye West will just be starting his late-night set. I think that starts around, when? Eleven at night? So, I guess, in that case, it will be hippies to the left, everyone else to the right?
Mr. LANGER: Well, no. Kanye West is starting at 2:45 a.m.
PESCA: Oh no, he really is. Oh my God.
Mr. LANGER: He's beginning at 2:45 a.m. They had him up against Jack Johnson on the second big stage, not the big stage, and he ended up telling them that he wanted full production.
Mr. LANGER: And he wanted to use the main stage. And they said to him, well, you can do that after Pearl Jam finishes. And by the time he sets everything up, it'll be a 2:45 start time. He'll play until 4:15, 4:30 in the morning. And he'll play to a capacity crowd. He'll probably play to, you know, figure 50 instead of the 70,000.
PESCA: That's like when you call the restaurant and they're like, well, sir, the only reservation I have is on Christmas Day at two in the afternoon, and you say, yes, I'll take it, and my friend Kanye West will be joining me.
Mr. LANGER: But again, only at Bonnaroo can you do that.
PESCA: Right. Give me a sense of, though, the fan experience. Are they really charging way too much for the water? Are the lines for the porta-johns terrible?
Mr. LANGER: No. They've done this long enough that they have it all figured out. And they're not gouging you on the water. This is one of those festivals where there's not a lot of corporate signage anywhere. I mean, it's completely different than the - it's more like a European model, where you're, you know, you're selling them breakfast, lunch and dinner, because they're here for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So there's a lot more opportunity to sell people things, but they're not gouging them on each of those things because they know they have an audience that isn't going anywhere. And so it's a lot more friendly in that regard. And there's, you know, food from all over the world. There's a New Orleans tent this year that replaces the jazz stage from last year, and it's modeled exactly like a New Orleans night club. And surrounding that New Orleans night club are New Orleans food vendors, from New Orleans, serving New Orleans style, you know, gumbo and jambalaya and catfish and whatnot.
PESCA: That sounds awesome, and you know, we're going to take you over break a little bit. I think maybe we'll even come back with some of that New Orleans tent music. So many bands playing at Bonnaroo. What is a band that you hadn't seen before that you really like? Just never seen before?
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LANGER: You know, last night I got to see both Nicole Atkins, who never impressed me on record. You know, she had a record earlier in the year that got good reviews. I just wasn't buying. And she was really impressive last night. And the Felice Brothers, who are, you know, brothers from, I believe, the Catskills, and they're, you know, four brothers and a guy named Christmas that's their bass player.
PESCA: Andy, like I said, we're going to take you over. We're going to keep the conversation going with Andy Langer of Esquire. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. Hang out for a sec.
(Soundbite of music)
PESCA: Welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. You were just listening to sounds from the New Orleans tent at Bonnaroo Music Festival. We're talking a little bit more with Esquire's Andy Langer. Andy, it seems that a lot - there are a ton of festivals this summer all over the country featuring a lot of the same bands. How do the festivals try to distance themselves from each other?
Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean, geographically, a lot of them are distanced. I mean, simply, you know, they become more regionalized versions of these destinations that you go one weekend a year to hear music. So, in that regard, Radiohead can play four or five festivals and not reach the same audience each time. You know, because they seem to be - Radiohead and Jack Johnson are the kings of the summer festivals.
The other way is that you cater your set, you know, or your - you know, for instance, My Morning Jacket has a three-hour slot here. And you wouldn't have that at any of the other festivals, again, because of the 96-hour difference. I mean, the fact that people are here so long, they can see a three-hour-long My Morning Jacket set. If they were playing one of the other festivals, My Morning Jacket might have an hour and 20 minutes.
PESCA: Highlight a band that you're looking forward to.
Mr. LANGER: Looking forward to Adele today. This is the British soul singer who, you know, has got the Amy Winehouse comparison, but she's had a huge record in the UK that just came out here on Tuesday. And this is a lot of folks' first chance to see her in America.
PESCA: She's Welsh, right?
Mr. LANGER: She is.
PESCA: I think we got some Adele. Let's hear some of her.
(Soundbite of song "Cold Shoulder")
ADELE: (Singing) See, I can see that look in your eyes, The one that shoots me each and every time.
You grace me with your cold shoulder. Whenever you look at me, I wish I was her. You shower me with words made of knives. Whenever you look at me, I wish I was her.
PESCA: This is certainly the biggest stage that Adele will be appearing on in the United States. I don't know what she's done in her native UK. But you know, you're a veteran, Andy, of these festivals. If they hired you to consult them and say, all right, we're a new band or relatively new band. We've never done the festival crowd. We've never played anything of this size. What advice would you give us? What would you tell new bands?
Mr. LANGER: I would remind people as often as possible who you are. You don't have to feel stupid up there telling them over and over, I'm Adele, or I'm Nicole Atkins, or whoever I am. And I would, you know, cater your set towards the festival. I mean, in this case, you know, if you have an eight-minute song you normally wouldn't play, play it here. Because these people are appreciative of music in general, and of - they're willing to experiment on an eight-minute song.
Mr. LANGER: Maybe not at another festival. That would send them walking away towards another stage.
PESCA: I guess, like, Eminem and self-referential rappers have the advantage then.
Mr. LANGER: They do (unintelligible).
PESCA: I'm Slim Shady. I'm the real Shady. Have you heard about me? My name is Slim Shady.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: Is there any...
Mr. LANGER: He'll do fine.
PESCA: Any - you know, hip-hop, Kanye West is going. Any kind of genre that just flames out in these settings?
Mr. LANGER: That doesn't work?
Mr. LANGER: Ah, you know, I mean, I don't know that I've seen one, and the - you know, just the fact that this is a crowd that, you know, that claps in the right places for solos, and they're pretty open. And in a lot of ways, this feels like sort of the last bastion, the last place where there's pure, unadulterated music loving.
And it's not about the business as much as about the business of seeing music. And in that regard, it's pretty amazing what does work, because, like, Abigail Washburn, she'll be singing in Chinese later today. And she'll do just as well as My Morning Jacket will later or as Willie Nelson will, you know, and there's B. B. King here, and a lot of - it's just - it works.
PESCA: Andy Langer, music critic for Esquire, honorary volunteer in the state of Tennessee. The city is Manchester. The festival is Bonnaroo. Thank you, Andy.
Mr. LANGER: Thank you.
PESCA: Coming up, guess what. We're going to talk to Ralph Nader about basketball. But first, let us get the latest news headlines from the BPP's Mark Garrison.
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