Wednesday, June 19, 2013


For the people who haven't heard of it (of which I'm one of, because I'd never heard of it before this job opportunity came up), Bonnaroo is a four-day-long music festival held every year in Manchester, Tennessee.  Over 80,000 patrons will show up and camp on a 700 acre former farm, at an average ticket price of $300 for general admission and FAR more for the various VIP access levels.

Over 100 musical groups, artists and acts will play over 15 different stages ranging in size from the headliner's stage, hosting acts like Paul McCartney and Tom Petty, all the way down to stages not much larger than you might find at your local bar.

The secondary stage.
Any event this size is going to need a very large crew to make everything happen (just under 11,000 staffers this year), and that's where I came in.  I'd been on site a couple weeks ago doing some pre-setup setup, and now I arrived back a few days before the event proper to finish final implementation and run the show.

But all that rain that I'd dealt with riding down from DC had a nasty effect on the festival grounds; two days of it had turned most of the roadways and parking lots into slop.  I helped to push/pull out more stuck golf carts than I can count on my first day there.

Not me, that was actually my boss.  I made him push while I took pictures.
Old sheets of plywood were laid in more commonly trafficked areas to prevent the heavy equipment from getting bogged down.
In addition to my daily wage and free hotel, the company also provided catering on-site for three meals a day.  The food was decent, far better than on Kwajalein, not quite as nice as on the ice.  But very workable, and there was a good selection of juices and fancy milk substitutes for those so inclined (I guess they figured on employing a bunch of hippies)

Actual grapefruit juice that tastes like grapefruit!

I dated a vegan for over four years, and an appreciating for this stuff is the long-term result.

Meals were in a mess-hall tent with a plywood floor laid down, folding chairs and large tables.  It was functional, and seemed easy to hose down when it got filthy.  Given how many of us walked in completely disgusting, covered in mud and sweat and grime, having it mostly outdoors was a good plan.

Dessert usually wasn't half bad either.

The real danger of this place was the cooler by the entrance; stocked all day long with ice cream, it was the bane of my existence.  I AM NOT A GROWN UP.  I SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED ACCESS TO ALL THE ICE CREAM I CAN EAT.

I had at least 2-3 of these each day.  And I'm not ashamed of it.
Feeding us like this was almost a requirement, because the work was brutal.  Aside from the first day there where it drizzled a bit in the morning before clearing up, it was sunny and hot the whole week.  Most days touched 90 degrees, and the humidity was about the same.  This job had me outside all day, every day, running more cables and digging more trenches, mounting wireless bridges and access points, installing switches and doing anything else that needed to be done.  We were providing internet access and network services to over 90,000 people with a crew of just 6; none of us worked less than 14 hours a day for the few days before the gates opened.

Most of the time we worked more than that; there were a couple days where I showed up at 8am, worked non-stop until 3am, slept for four hours before waking up to be back on site at 8am. Because come Thursday evening, the gates WERE going to open to a flood of hippies whether we were ready or not.

When you're doing installations this quickly that don't need to last for very long, you can be a lot more lax about your installation quality than you might be in a more permenant setup.  And everyone is so stressed that people are pretty understanding when your warning signs start to get a little bit more terse than the usual "Please do not touch".

Peace and love, in addition to the murdering of anyone who's messing with my stuff.
 You're so busy running around and trying to get everything done that you almost lose site of exactly what's going on.  Occasionally you're snapped back to reality by a reminder that a bunch of semi-famous people are going to be around very shortly.

Access control to the compound and the various different sections is handled via RFID wrist bands; different colors and codes denote where you can go and if you can escort people with you.  I was handed a blue band with green tag; the "Unlimited Access to all areas" clearance.  It got me everywhere, at any time, for any reason.

That "Roll like a Rock Star" pass is something new this year, previously it was called "Super VIP", it's a level of access for those with more money than sense.  For $60,000 (or more, I heard different rumors on pricing), you and seven of your friends get your own super-luxury tour bus in a dedicated secluded rich-people-only area, catered food/drink, free golf cart taxi service, and nearly unlimited back-area access to the whole facility.  Only a blue/green wrist band such as mine, or the Mister T "Infinity" pass has more access, and that's mostly just to the boring areas (like the admin/office trailer compound).

Sure beats camping in a field.
There's a few places that it won't get you, and places that even my wrist band won't usually let me go.  And one of those places is the Headliner Compound, where the A-list musicians spend time when they're on site.

 I can't go in there at any time, but if I have legit work to do there, my boss (with an Infinity Pass) could let me in.  And there were some things we needed to do in there, specifically in the dressing room of Paul McCartney.  And here . . . here is where one of the dumbest things I've ever said fell out of my mouth.

We (the IT crew) were in our trailer in the admin compound, when my boss called me into his office saying "I need you to go into Paul McCartney's dressing room right now.  Take these in there (he gave me some papers and some Direct TV equipment) and get it set up.  Take off your shoes before you enter, and don't sit on the furniture."

"No problem," I replied.  "But . . . okay, this might get me in trouble, but who's Paul McCartney?"


"Well . . . I mean . . .obviously he's a musician or something, right?  I mean, he must be pretty famous . . . ?" I stammered, acutely aware of my boss looking at my incredulously.  He stuck his head of of the office and exclaimed to the rest of the crew "Guys, he just asked me who Paul McCartney is!"

"NO!  HEY, NO!" one of the other techs, himself a musician, exclaimed as he stormed over and grabbed all the equipment out of my hands. "NO!  You do NOT get to go into Paul's dressing room if you don't even know who he is!!!  You DO NOT GET THAT HONOR!  I'm taking this over there myself!!!"

It was then explained to me, through peals of laughter and astonishment from everyone in the trailer, that Paul McCartney was a former Beetle, one of the most famous musicians in the world, and all-in-all a big fucking deal.   Hey, so I'm a little out of touch with pop culture, give me a break.  I can be pretty sure that no one at that whole event knows who Valentino Rossi is.

(I did eventually go in there, very briefly, later in the day to move some cables.  At least I can say that I've been there, I suppose).

For those of us who aren't Paul McCartney, and can't stomach spending $60,000 on a four-day weekend, general admission is relegated to camping over the immense spread of open fields.  It doesn't look like much fun; there's no shade and everyone is packed together like sardines.  Not my idea of an enjoyable camping trip.

The gates to the camping areas opened a day before the gates to the festival grounds themselves did, giving us one last chance to get everything wired.  This was a 3am day, as I was crawling around the main stage and related areas getting the last few wireless bridges and access points mounted.

Backstage on the main stage
Being here, and working this event was incredibly surreal.  Much of it brought me back to when I was working stage crews many years ago, although this was on an unimaginably larger scale.

Looking at the main stage from the spotlight/sound mix tower
For all the working-to-exhaustion that the days before the festival were, the actual event itself was mostly stress-free for me.  We did have a few technical problems, but they were high-level issues mostly regarding a vendor who insisted on blasting out their own wi-fi at power levels enough to cook a turkey, and stomping all over our long-range bridge links with the radio noise.  Aside from pulling a few random cables here and there, I didn't have much to do for Friday and Saturday.  I even happened to be at the right place at the right time when his Knighthood Himself arrived (wouldn't it have been easier to just helicopter in, rather than shutting down half the backstage roads with a giant motorcade?)

And while I was mostly free to wander around and see whatever shows I felt like, I didn't have any interest in most of it.  I don't follow music, and the only act that I might have had some vague interest in seeing was Weird Al Yankovich, and he wasn't playing until 2:30am.  I poked my head into the main stage area when McCartney was doing his thing, but didn't feel light trying to fight through that whole crowd to get any closer.  Even the VIP areas were packed solid, and my wristband wouldn't have been any good.

Aside from the music shows, there was also a circus-style Comedy Tent, and that did have an act I wanted to see; Bob Saget, of 90s fame from the TV show "Full House".  I wasn't the only one interested, and the line was GIGANTIC.  It wrapped around the paddock area a couple of times, far more people in line than could have ever fit into the tent.

That's the tent in the background, the line starting in front of it, heading to the right, then snaking back to the left.  All those people sitting down in a row are in line.
But . . . well, blue/green wristband.  Wander up to the tent entrance, flash it, and I'm in.  :D 

Bob Saget seems to be compensating for his squeaky-clean Full House days by having the lewdest and filthiest act possible.  At one point someone from the first few rows was heckling him, so he told him to take a roofie and a viagra so he could go fuck himself.
Yet another perk of the wristband was getting into the Artist Compound, with it's open bar (for all the good that does me) and Arists Catering, where all the famous people eat.  Not that I would have recogized anyone there; I might have had lunch next to someone famous, and had no clue who they were.

Anyone notice anyone famous in here?
 I ate there a few times, and it was pretty decent, but not too much better than the staff catering.  Mostly it was that the furniture and decor was nicer, and they had someone there making fresh fruit smoothies for everyone.

And before it felt like it had even started, Sunday evening came around and it was all over.  The last act to play on the Main Stage was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, so as strains of "Last dance with Mary Jane" wafted over the vendor area, we started clearing everything out and ripping it all down.  The crowds left behind a sea of garbage, and we wasted no time in breaking out the heavy equipment and starting to strike everything as soon as possible. 

I thought hippies were all about saving the planet?

I was there again 'til 3am; we had to take advantage of the weather while we had it, because we knew what was coming the next day.  :(

Perfect weather for all four days of the festivle itself, but at about 6am Monday morning the first line of storms rolled through, and they didn't stop for the next two days.

The rain turned the entire venue into a swap; vehicles were getting stuck everywhere, and entire areas were completely impassable.

It was impressive just how quickly the main stage got stripped of almost all the gear

Working in these conditions flat-out sucks; the only saving grace was that it was still relatively warm (compared to the other places that I've worked).  But we couldn't avoid any of it; we had gear EVERYWHERE around the venue, and it all had to come back down as soon as possible.  It's not cheap equipment, and there's been plenty of instances of it vanishing when another crew (or patrons) get to it before we do.

Over the next two days, all the equipment was taken down, and we got to the task of sorting and cleaning it the best we could.

In just this last week, we deployed over 26,000 feet of CAT-5 cable, and now it all had to come out again.  Some recycler is going to be happy to get this pile of spaghetti.

Thankfully the rain stopped later in the day on Tuesday, and the sun came back out (which just served to turn the place into a sauna).  This gave us a chance to get up the fire town and take our transmitter gear down, and take a gander at the whole area from the tallest structure around.

Amusingly, Bonnaroo tries to bill itself as a "green" event, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  The staggering number of diesel generators couldn't have used less than a bazillion gallons of fuel, and almost every large tent had huge air conditioner units running in them 24/7.  The volume of trash generated was immense; cleanup crews will be on site for the next two weeks cleaning up millions of beer and water bottles.

The final casualty was the shoes I'd bought before I started working so that I didn't have to walk around in my riding boots all day; they were a lost cause after the two days of muddy cleanup.  I left them in a dumpster somewhere; maybe some hobo will make use of them, but I doubt it.  The were completely soaked through with that very unique stench of Tennessee mud; I wanted nothing more to do with them ever.

But it's all over now.  I'm back on the road, typing this from Knoxville.  From here out, I have no plan, no schedual.  I'm up into the Northeast now, up into Canada and to the start of the Trans-Canada Adventure Trail.  Just a few more days to get me out of the USA, and the REAL adventure can begin!