Every year before Christmas, I get a text message from my pal Tyler Mesanko about the coming year’s Bonnaroo line-up. Now that I’ve retired from the holiday party circuit, I usually don’t know anything; my opinions are more like educated guesstimates. Sometimes our prejudicial predictions are spot-on, but sometimes they suck.
Like clockwork, Tyler leaves his shop on the Jersey Shore, in the beginning of the busy season, for his three-day musical fix. He lives and breathes music. Bonnaroo and gig posters fill his store, Shaded Vision. He comes down to Manchester with the same group of buddies every year and they take it all in—though the way they do it has changed over time.
“Late night for me has changed in the six times I’ve been to the ‘Roo,” he says. “Originally, it was all about the headliners, the big acts, the main stagers. Maybe because of age and maturity or all the years going, I’ve opened my mind. Now, it’s all about the late night.”
It’s true: When you get older, you pick your spots more wisely, either for energy or patience’s sake. But for all of us night creatures, there came that moment over the years when we get hooked on the ritual. “The show that started it all for me was the Flaming Lips,” says Mesanko. “I look up and see a spaceship landing, a confetti cannon, laser pointers. It was insane, I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere. There have been magical times where I looked over at my best friends and knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment
For a family man, a doting dad of two tow-heads, and a small business owner, life is full. But it’s the tribulations (like rebuilding from a hurricane) or the mundane (like the Jersey Shore in the winter) that spur him on to seek the new and the nuts at Bonnaroo
“The late night is for the innovators, the magicians, the scientists of music—and, of course, it’s a chance to see something fresh,” he says. “But it’s also for the pixies, ravers, hippies, and music freaks of all shapes and sizes. No festival can touch the magical vibe and the people that make it what it is. I love me some crazy, and I love late night Bonnaroo.”
Sean Avery used to fly around at breakneck speeds on a patch of ice, chasing a small round disk while hulking dudes aimed to rip his head off. When his season ended as a hockey player for the New York Rangers, he would come directly to Bonnaroo and forget the pains of a grueling campaign. “It’s the purest three or four days that I spend with myself and with people out of the whole entire year,” he tells me. Avery, now retired at age 32, is a bonafide Bonnaroo veteran, a globe-trotting festival attendee, and a Hall of Fame fun-seeker.
Sean Avery knows a party when he sees one, and he knows his music. “To have music playing for 17 hours in the day is unheard of, and the late night sets are always the best—there’s no question about it,” Avery says passionately. “There’s a vibe that drops over the 700 acres when the clock strikes midnight. Everybody seems to ramp it up. Either you fall in love at that point (laughs) or you go on your own or your group gets bigger. It depends on the music, the weather, and your mood—combinations that are pretty special, and that make for some epic evenings.”
Avery loves that he never knows what he’s going to be turned on to when he’s going from This Tent to That Tent, or getting way out at The Other Tent. It’s what he chases all weekend. “You know going into it that the headliners and the bigger bands are going to be great,” he says. “But you move on and see what’s happening, and you’re surprised with a great show. Bands that you would probably never see or interact with, not knowing what you’re going into—that’s exciting.” Last year, Avery had one of those instances in the heat of the night, with tens of thousands of his new closest friends and Skrillex. “When Skrillex went on at 2 a.m., there had to be 40,000 people there,” he says. “He turned a lot of people into fans of Skrillex—but not just Skrillex, electronic music as whole. Seeing metalheads and hippies getting into it, that was the ultimate few hours for everyone.
“It was like ’Holy shit, there was no stopping it, so let’s just go with it.’ You just lose it, you’re so into it. Collectively, when that many people are into the same thing, it’s very powerful, and you don’t get that at any other festival. There’s no way.” I knew I’d see Jeff Kravitz, camera around his shoulder for almost 20 hours. It was so late it was getting light, yet there he was, as Springsteen once described, “in the lonely cool before dawn,” his bald spot shining like a beacon in the night.
“I‘ve got Bonnaroo in my blood,” Kravitz says. “I’m ready to go all night long. I appreciate the fact that there’s programming that goes until dawn, because that’s the place to do it—Bonnaroo is where we can really let loose.” He’s the kind of guy who is the first one in and the last one out. He’s got a serious case of what I call FOMS—“fear of missing something”—but fortunately he’s in the perfect profession for someone with this affliction: professional event photographer. “The year the Flaming Lips played late night, I admit it, I did take a nap. I woke up with 20 minutes left in their set, and they were doing Dark Side of the Moon. Being a photographer, you don’t have to be there for four hours—if you get good stuff, it looks like you were there the whole night,” he says with a laugh. But he sure does seem to be everywhere at once, because he’s a true soldier, a defender and chronicler of fun.
In order to do that kind of running around, of course, you need a plan, and Kravitz always has a plan. “You have to have good legs to make it through the late night set, and it helps to have a golf cart, ’cause it’s late, man,” he says. “By the time you get to that point in the day, unless you have your cocktail right, you ain’t gonna make it.” Kravitz is a veteran of both the Grateful Dead and Phish scenes. He started shooting music back in 1979 (first show: Yes at the Philly Spectrum) as a student at Temple University. Between all of this experience and being raised in Atlantic City, he has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to how humans act when the sun is rising to the east.
“There’s always a sense of community at Bonnaroo—even more so during the Late Night, because you know you’re in on the magic,” he says. “To be out there in the tents and walk back and forth, that’s a Herculean effort, and I’m sure there are parties in the campgrounds that go even later, that don’t stop. It’s like a jungle: If you survive all night, you get the gold.”
QUESTION DO YOU SPEND YOUR BONNAROO LATE NIGHTS WITH FRIENDS, NEIGHBORS, OR IS IT ALL ONE BIG FAMILY?