September 13, 2009
Musicians On Music | Helen Buyniski at Bonnaroo
MUSICIANS ON MUSIC
Musicians On Music is a weekly feature in which we feature exactly that: musicians, both local and national, writing about music, the industry, other people’s music, or whatever they feel like writing. This week we feature Helen Buyniski, who toured the summer festivals with the Mickey Western Band and Lady Circus’s The Rusted Gun Saloon. Here, as the festival season ends, she details what that was like.
How do you prepare for a week spent under the stars, surrounded by Phish fans, mud, and eco-friendly bio-degradable plastic cups? You don’t. You buy a tent at the last minute and ignore reality until you’re under the fluorescent interrogation lights of a 24-hour WalMart in a Tennessee surburb at 4 a.m., five minutes away from the festival gates. You glance at the camping supplies piled miles high in the aisles, hike for what feels like hours to the bathroom in the back of the store. You come out and realize that despite your loathing of the great outdoors, you will be spending the next week sleeping in a tent.
In June, the Mickey Western Band and Lady Circus were invited to bring our show,“The Rusted Gun Saloon,” to the eighth-annual Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tennessee. The Mickey Western Band supplied our dark gypsy-folk rock as the soundtrack to the Circus’ performance: a play of aerial acts, stilt- and fire-dances, beds of nails, displays of public drunkenness, and, of course, murder. Perfect for Bonnaroo, a festival characterized by its “peaceful vibe,” recurring appearances by jam band members, and general inescapable hippie associations.
The Mickey Western Band opened Thursday afternoon on the Solar Stage, an environmentally-friendly venue situated inside “Planet Roo.” Roo was the festival’s uber-green eco-enclave, anchored by a massive papier-mache hand grasping a wire globe and emerging from the earth like the avenging zombie limb of a PMS-ing Mother Nature. In keeping with the “green” theme, I wore a clump of silk roses in my hair, but following a sudden cloudburst two songs into our set, these and everything else on stage were soaked. I was able to shelter most of my equipment from the rain and avoid frying myself and my amp, but a wet-stringed violin sounds like cats being tortured and I couldn’t wait to stop playing. The rain confused Mickey so much he played one song twice, but the circus ladies in the audience kept the spectators dancing and watching even as the dance floor turned to mud. Several rounds of applause later, I ran offstage to try to dry off my violin with a number of other wet things. Success!
Three times a day every day, we led elaborately costumed parades through the center of the festival grounds, loosely based around themes like “color” and “water” and sparsely accompanied by the few musicians who could walk and play their instruments simultaneously without faceplanting in the intractable mud. I skipped half of these, feeling superfluous hopping around twirling my leopard-print umbrella after an ill-fated attempt at waving a streamer-flag during an earlier parade nearly took down a few stilt-walkers. Instead, I flitted around the edges of the parade, mentally collecting bad t-shirt designs and convincing excited onlookers to come to the nighttime performances.
Despite a costume change — after being soaked in the rainstorm, I’d abandoned the drowned-kitten look — a kid who looked about 16 recognized me from the Solar Stage and gushed about how much he and his friends had enjoyed the Mickey Western Band. His hyperactive enthusiasm (“I want to be you!”) was weirdly charming and cheered me up considerably. Not wanting to lose my newfound adoring fans, I invited them to the next show, making another lucky guess about when and where it was. They caught up with Mickey and me later for autographs.
Half the time I didn’t know we had a show until someone was crouched outside my tent shouting my name and shaking me awake. We weren’t listed in the program—even the “Bonnaroo Buskers,” the slightly insipid alliterative-umbrella title we shared with the other performance groups, was sprinkled incorrectly across the stage schedules. At midnight on Saturday, when we were supposed to play the intimate, coveted Sonic Stage, we were instead leaning off the platform and shouting for a missing Mickey in between attempts to artificially extend soundcheck. Meanwhile, Nine Inch Nails was playing at Which Stage, drowning out our plaintive calls for our lead singer, who only appeared at the very last minute.
Friday and Saturday’s midnight shows on the Sonic Stage were condensed versions of “The Rusted Gun” show we had performed four sold out evenings in January — circus routines set to songs we knew well enough to play while sleeping, unconscious, or dead. Even performing in these unfamiliar surroundings, living out of tents and a dubiously secure instrument trailer, we easily held our own in the festival environment. It was almost relaxing: we could only benefit by playing there. Every festivalgoer who stumbled into the audience was a new listener, and if they stayed long enough to become a fan, we had won.
For a “music and arts festival,” there was suspiciously little participatory art at Bonnaroo. Miss Lolly Pop’s Burlesque Coterie, who joined the Lady Circus and Brooklyn’s Modern Gypsies performance troupe in the parades, were perhaps the most successful in luring audience members into action — spontaneous, glorified lap dances are good for that — but festivalgoers for the most part were content to watch curated performers and events without contributing. When our videographer tried to participate in the “collaborative” graffiti wall with her own spray paint, she was hit with a screaming reality check from the festival’s art director, and we realized that the festivalgoers’ inactivity was more self-preservation than apathy. She spent hours baking in the sun, painting over her designs with the sickly greenish-yellow of the wooden ad-plastered fence, and no doubt would have been told to Go To Her Room had she not been sleeping in a bus.
Those who attend music festivals like Bonnaroo see something romantic in the idea of escaping civilization’s confines to relax and cavort in fields, wrapped in a soundtrack evoking the perfect mix of summertime nostalgia and a rock’n’roll party atmosphere. Slap a $250 price tag on the experience, though, and you may experience a nagging cognitive dissonance: did you really drop all that cash to stand in a circle with your friends eating pizza? Are you getting your $6 worth out of every single beer can crushed into an artificial carpet on the ground? When not performing, I went on safari, observing the festivalgoer in its natural habitat—who were these people? What were they doing here? I was genuinely curious
With Bruce Springsteen and Phish both headlining, the people-watching was eclectic, to put it mildly. The odor of patchouli battled hair gel combined with Axe body spray; the mud that covered the campgrounds was made up of as much beer as water and organic juices. A girl wearing little more than the suggestion of shorts and a bandana tied around her breasts ran up to her boyfriend with a stricken look on her face, lifting up her sunglasses and pointing at her arm, and whined at him to “do something!!!” The offending arm was covered in vomit of unknown origin, and the boy uncapped his water bottle with an air of resignation, pouring its precious contents on the offending mess and rescuing his princess. Later, I walked by the Fuse Barn, a karaoke cabin run by the music network, and was transfixed by the televised spectacle of a chubby girl in a bikini belting out Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know” with all the breathy, tuneless enthusiasm of childhood’s hairbrush-microphones.
Fortunately, I didn’t only watch the spectators. David Byrne’s set was packed with beloved Talking Heads tracks and lively choreography from his backup dancers. Nine Inch Nails didn’t disappoint either, satisfying the audience’s rabid demand for encores several times over. My favorite show was Norwegian punk-folk-cabaret quartet Katzenjammer in the David-Byrne-curated That Tent on Friday afternoon. After seeing them again on Saturday, I saw Sol, one of the singers and the primary drummer, backstage in the artists’ lounge. I stuttered my way through a few awkward compliments, thoroughly embarrassing myself and tripping over my words in front of this goddess of a woman who was, like me, just lurking in the VIP area to partake of the vodka sponsor’s generosity. At least I didn’t ask for her autograph (quick, sign my blank stare!).
Free showers near the free cafeteria and free alcohol in the artists’ hospitality lounge made camping almost civilized. As the festival drew to a close, all the fields abandoned except for the area around What Stage, packed with breathless Phish fans, corporate sponsors scrambled to unload the dregs of their merchandise in the hospitality tent. The Converse sneaker crew, formerly smug and exclusive with their appointment-only “design a shoe” kiosk shrouded in black curtains to prevent unauthorized peeking at the future of footwear design, was approaching everyone they saw and trying to give them shoes. I got a pair of black high-tops thrown at me for my disinterest, as well as a bag of hair products, t-shirts, and yogurt coupons.
Bonnaroo fell into place at the last minute for the band; I guess good luck and good musicianship are an unstoppable combination. Playing a festival, in some way, is an inexplicable experience. But through it all, I can’t wait to do it again next year.
by Helen Buyniski