Bonnaroo Chris finds ‘temporary utopia’ at the festival
After visiting Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, “I find myself wishing the real world were more like the festival, where folks are kind and polite to each other,” said Chris Alexander, who launched BonnarooChris.com. Chris created a blog to keep up with “so many amazing Bonnaroo experiences.”
Bonnaroo is a unique space designed to be filled with diverse people “who collectively create a temporary utopia,” Chris said. “Leave your preconceptions, bring some comfortable shoes and head over to the beautiful hills of Tennessee to see for yourself.”
Chris’ latest Bonnaroo-themed art project is a digital piece, visualizing “one day at the festival in a static image.”
The extra-large digital art project, titled WHY, incorporates many of the people, elements and icons of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, spanning a period of 14 years, said Chris.
“Utilizing over 100 layers intricately woven together in Adobe Photoshop, WHY represents many hours of late nights and weekends and painstaking attention to detail, to achieve an impressive size and scale,” Chris said.
The piece features various festival experiences, including the Bonnaroo fountain, the Parachute People, the What Stage, the Sonic Stage, the Comedy Tent, Planet Roo statue, the Other Tent, Bonnaroo bobbleheads, the Ferris wheel, the Silent Disco, Bonnaroo fans.
“The center flower is encompassed with six Bonnaroo arches and the quote: ‘Reality is a condition caused by the absence of Bonnaroo,’" Chris said.
Chris dedicated this art project and BonnarooChris.com to festival’s fans, staff and volunteers who make Bonnaroo possible.
“The ideas and memories shared on my blog are dedicated to you,” he said. “Bonnaroo is such an inspirational place.”
He discovered his love for music at an early age.
“I was born and raised in the great state of Vermont. But my family was nomadic, moving around a lot, and at the end of eighth grade, we moved to Virginia Beach.”
Chris made friends easily, which helped him get used to the change of scene and culture.
“I also fell madly in love with live music, with my first concert taking place at the Hampton Coliseum,” Chris said, adding that seeing Def Leppard perform on their Hysteria tour was a “huge moment” for him.
In 1995, Chris got his first taste of the festival experience with the Grateful Dead performing in Highgate, Vermont.
“Everyone was just so...polite and chill,” he said. “Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist and vocalist, died three months later, but I was already hooked. The following year I caught the Lollapalooza show in Syracuse and Phish's Clifford Ball in Plattsburg, New York.”
Chris now lives in Florida and continues to appreciate music and art.
“Somehow, I ended up in Florida for art school and that's where I've lived since,” he said. “I turned an art degree into a unique career, mostly in the nonprofit sector, driven by a love of design, music, photography, and wanting to make an impact.”
He took his first journey to The Farm in Manchester more than 10 years ago.
“My first trip to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival was in 2007,” Chris said. “The headliners were epic – The Police, Tool, Widespread Panic, The White Stripes – plus a whole bunch of bands I didn't know. My buddy and I made the commitment, squeezed all of our gear into a Jeep Cherokee and drove 11 hours from Florida to Tennessee. We had curated playlists made from all of the festival's bands. It was exciting.”
It took about four hours to get from the highway shoulder into the festival, but even that part of the experience brings positive memories, he said.
“Two things became immediately clear upon our arrival: Tennessee in June can get hot, and my buddy and I were not well prepared,” Chris said. “And yet, the Bonnaroo experience was unexpectedly welcoming and invigorating. There was an instant camaraderie and a familiar politeness that was reminiscent of the Dead experience way back in '95. The variety of events and art installations and surprises was exhausting and fun. There was a sense of accomplishment by the end of it. I saw the bands I wanted to see, I saw sunrise on Sunday morning, I bonnarooed hard, but I felt there were some music acts and other events that were missed, simply from not being prepared enough.”
So, he had to go back the following year.
“We had to go back in 2008. Had to. Not just to see Pearl Jam and Metallica, and not to be able to make fun of Kanye West until the end of time, but if only to prove ourselves as better festival attendees.”
In 2008, Bonnaroo music lovers started waiting for Kanye West’s scheduled headlining performance at 8:45 p.m. At 4:45 a.m. he delivered “what was, to many, a tumultuous and below-average performance,” according to rollingstone.com.
“We had to know that we had learned from our mistakes the previous year,” Chris said. “My infamous Bonnaroo Checklist was born during this time, and I'm glad to report our campsite was a total success. The tradeoff was acquiring a feeling of tranquility and bliss from The Farm, and it began to call me back every June. I've missed a couple years unfortunately, so 2021 will be my 12th visit to the festival.”
Memorable experiences – musical and personal – bring him back to The Farm.
“Musically, I've seen once-in-a-lifetime shows like the singalongs with Paul McCartney and Elton John and a huge, diverse catalog of artists, from Stevie Wonder to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I've seen sets from legends who are no longer with us, like BB King, Greg Allman, Levon Helm and Tom Petty. Non-musical highlights include Bob Saget making fun of me; being thrown into the air by the Bonnaroo Cheerleading Squad; running into festival visual designer Russ Bennett and being able to tell him what a special place he created; enjoying a delicious locally-sourced Bonnaroots meal.”
He stood under Mission Icefly, as thousands of small LEDs were released above the crowd, trying to understand what was happening in the sky.
“I've met people from all over the world, including Australia, Brazil, England, Germany, Israel, and lots of the United States – but I have to say the Canadians are the wildest bunch,” Chris said. “So many relationships forged at Bonnaroo have turned into lifelong friendships.”
He has participated in various initiatives to support nonprofits.
“In recent years, I've spent a great deal of time volunteering, alongside many great organizations in Planet Roo, which has been the most fulfilling festival experience for me yet,” he said.
“Planet Roo is a space devoted to a handful of selected nonprofit organizations, ranging from the international Oxfam to the local Tennessee River Coalition,” he said. “Each organization does fabulous work and the people who volunteer in the booths are some of the coolest folks you'll meet. I started volunteering with an international disaster relief agency called ShelterBox and, in 2014, I applied for space in Planet Roo on their behalf. To my delighted surprise, they were accepted that year and three times after that. The volunteers did a great job each year of delivering the compelling story of ShelterBox, and the organization enjoyed great visibility from potential donors and volunteers. A free ticket to the festival meant hard work, putting in a sweaty shift each day, and the positive impact was felt by every team member. Many of the volunteers have returned to do it again as seats on the team became very coveted.”
Being able to combine his passions for music and volunteering “was a great achievement, making my festival experience all the more fulfilling.”
Chris is looking forward to this year’s festival, set for Sept. 2-5.
“I bought my ticket to Bonnaroo 2021 the moment they went on sale this year and, coincidentally, got my COVID vaccine the next day.”
He’s ready to create new memories.
“I'm looking forward to seeing my friends,” he said. “And Amish donuts. Random dance parades. Loud, beautiful music from so many artists, from Foo Fighters to Lizzo to Larkin Poe. The cheers rolling through the campground as everyone shouts 'Bonnaroo' at the top of their lungs. I'm looking forward to pretty much all of it.”