Monday, June 27, 2011

Six Months of Joy

Hello my lovely and patient (?) readers!

I have some catching up to do here!  Let's see - when last I wrote, I was teaching in Kentucky, getting ready to head out to Tennessee for Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.  So tonight, I will tell you a little bit about my adventure at Bonnaroo!

Bonnaroo was awesome.  I totally loved it and I will probably go again next year.  For those of you who aren't familiar with this festival, let me briefly explain.  Bonnaroo is a 4-day music festival on some farmland in the middle of Tennessee.  And for those 4 days, Bonnaroo is essentially its own city, kind of like at Burning Man - this year, there were 90,000 people at Bonnaroo, and most of these people are camping out next to their cars.  (The cars are nicely laid out in grids in camps with names like Camp Chewbacca, Camp Stewie Griffin, and Camp Marsellus Wallace.  We got a corner spot in Camp Ed Rooney, which was a prime location, only 10 minutes from the stages.)  It is hot and very dusty during the day, and gorgeous at night.  We never set an alarm clock while we were there - all the acts start in the afternoon, but also, you automatically wake up at 8am when you start sweating in your sleeping bag.  As a Bikram yoga teacher and a fairly-frequent camper, I felt that I was very well prepared for this environment!  I wore a hat, a bandana, and SPF 50, my friend and I carried around CamelPaks and gallon jugs of water all weekend, and we both felt great.

The city of Bonnaroo is a fun and happening place, even before you take the music into account.  There was a surprising amount of delicious and reasonably-priced food - some of the smoothie stands were excellent, and I had the best iced chai tea that I've ever had in my life.  The girl at the chai stand gave me the ingredients but not the proportions, so I will spend the rest of my summer in my kitchen on a quest to recreate the perfect chai.  Some booths were just blatantly selling stoner food - hot waffle ice cream sandwich with hot fudge, anyone?!  The shopping was great - I bought quite a few sundresses, a new backpack with an Om sign on it, and some feather earrings.  There were also rides - a water slide, a Ferris wheel, and a giant slip-and-slide - and lots of hula hoops.

So my friend Slappy and I basically spent the first day wandering around ooh-ing and aah-ing over all this fun stuff before remembering that there was also supposed to be some music involved.  And a LOT of it!  With 2 main stages, 3 music tents, a comedy tent, and a cinema tent, the big challenge at Bonnaroo is getting to see all the acts you want to see!  There were some amazing acts that we missed seeing, either because they conflicted with another group that we wanted to see or because we couldn't make it in.

Here is most of what I did see, in order.  (I am consulting my schedule for this.)  Thursday: Futurebirds, Karen Elson, Beats Antique.  Friday: Bela Fleck and the (Original!) Flecktones, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire.  Saturday: Old Crow Medicine Show, Alison Krauss and Union Station with Jerry Douglas, Mumford and Sons, The Black Keys, Buffalo Springfield, Eminem, String Cheese Incident, Girl Talk.  Sunday: Mavis Staples, Amos Lee, Iron and Wine, Ben Sollee, White Buffalo, Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, The Strokes, and Widespread Panic.

Pretty good!!

That's a wide variety of musical styles (which is the cool thing about going to a huge festival like this) - along with the jam bands (which are a Bonnaroo staple), we had rap, soul, dance, bluegrass, and rock and roll.  It was very cool and I'm discovering my latent love for bluegrass music.  (The Telluride Bluegrass festival is seriously tempting me for next year, if only Colorado weren't twice as far as Tennessee...)

There were a lot of great acts, but there are two that really stand out for me.

First standout: Mumford and Sons.  My god, but those men can play.  That was hands-down one of the best live performances I've ever seen.  Watching those men jam out, it is impossible to imagine anyone enjoying himself more than that.  They are pure energy and joy, and if you ever get the chance to see them, GO!!

Mumford had a 6:15pm spot on the second-largest stage, and Slappy and I essentially camped out at that stage for the entire afternoon in order to get a decent viewing spot.  And we did - we were close up enough that we could actually see the faces of the guys on stage!

All told, there were about 50,000 of us jammed onto that dusty little field, standing room only, jostling around each other with our backpacks and water jugs, trying not to end up standing in a ditch or behind someone really tall.  We stood around like that for a while, waiting for the band to come on, and I was very proud of myself when I started up a half-decent Eagles sing-along.  ("Well I'm a-running down the road trying to loosen my load, I've got seven women on my mind....")  And then the band came on.  And we sang.

Here's the gorgeous thing about being a fan among other fans.  Listening to music is normally a semi-private experience.  You listen to an album in your car, in your kitchen, during dinner, on your iPod, on the subway, in your bedroom.  If you love the album, then you listen to it over and over again, until you know every word.  And that's a very personal thing, right?  When you love a song or a band so much that you play it on your iPod all day, until you know the music inside-out...

Until one day, you go out into a sea of people, in the middle of nowhere.  And the band starts playing, and everyone else knows the words, too.  Everyone in this space has been listening to these songs over and over, in the car, on the subway, in their bedroom.  So the private experience becomes a shared experience, and you realize - how can you miss it? - that all these strangers share the same emotions.  You know, beyond doubt, that our hearts all keep the same beat.  A sea of strangers, thousands of people, stand together, soclose, nearly touching, in a dusty field, at sunset, moving to the music, and singing out: "Love, it will not betray, dismay or enslave you, it will set!  You!  Free!"

It's just the same in yoga sometimes, isn't it?  You come together with these strangers, and you sweat together, you breathe together, your hearts pound together.  And you end up kind of loving and respecting each other, even if you never know each other's names, because you recognize that common bond.  You're having this intense, private experience (that's called life), but everyone else is having the same experience with you, side-by-side.

Not to mention the other yoga-to-music analogy - you can walk up to a fellow yogi and say "eventually, in the future..." and they will fill in the blank.  I know that you guys know the lyrics.

So that was one memorable experience.

Here's the other one.

Saturday night is basically big, loud, chaos.  We saw Eminem on the big stage at midnight, who was okay.  (He spent an awful lot of time sort of talking about himself and shouting, when we mostly just wanted to hear "Loose Yourself."  Which he got around to, eventually, and which was a lot of fun.)  Then I ran around and went to the jam bands and dance parties until the wee hours of the morning.  There was a big blow-up dinosaur at one, and lots of balloons and confetti at the other - fun!!  Then I went to bed at about 4:30am - so early, by festival standards! - because I wanted to go hear Mavis Staples on Sunday morning.  I had heard her once before on the radio and I liked her.

Mavis Staples played at 1:00 on Sunday afternoon, on the main stage.  The last act to play on that stage had been Eminem, and that field had been trashed, but it all got cleaned up overnight, just in time for some gospel music.  There were not too many people there - most people were still sleeping off Saturday night! - so the field was nice and open, great for spreading out the picnic blanket (i.e. sheet), lounging in the grass, and listening to some happier music.

It was a beautiful day.

Mavis Staples.  Look her up.  Her family has been making music for 61 years, and they - The Staples Singers - were basically the musical voice of the civil rights movement.  (Mavis's father was friends with Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Now, according to Wikipedia, Mavis Staples is 71, which I find hard to believe, because she looks about 50 and has the energy of a 25-year-old.  She reminds me of a yogi - ageless!  And she has a presence.  That's the only word I can think of for what she has, and really doesn't even begin to cover it.  When she sings, you feel her, right down to the soul.  Oh my gosh, that's why they call it soul music.  You can feel her soul, and she is talking to you.

She sang some amazing songs.  She sang "Wade in the Water," which led Slappy and myself to dance around like fools doing our best white girl impression of Alvin Ailey.  She sang a gorgeous song from her new album, "You Are Not Alone," and she sang very old songs like "For What It's Worth" ("stop, children, what's that sound?") and "I'll Take You There."  Did I mention that this woman has presence?  When she was singing, "I'll Take You There," she called out, "Our family has been taking you there for 61 years, and we ain't tired yet!"

In that moment, I thought of Bikram.  Two completely different individuals - Mavis Staples and Bikram Choudhury - but both of them getting up in front of a crowd, tirelessly, for decades, repeating the same words, to lead people to a better life.  And I thought of myself and all the other yoga teachers, because what is it that we're trying to do?  We'll take you there.  We want to take you to a better life, a better way of living.

On top of being a singer, Mavis Staples speaks with magnetism of an old-school Southern preacher and the affection of a mother.  When she speaks, your ears perk up and you listen.  So I remember, very specifically, something that she said in the middle of her performance.  She said, "I just want you to walk away from this performance.... feeling joyful... for at least... six months."

Six months of joy.  Gorgeous.  What a brilliant goal.  What a fantastic power.

Just take me by the hand.
Let me, let me, let me lead the way....


Next up:  How Bikram Yoga is like ketchup!  I know you are dying to find out....