The story of Cage the Elephant’s secret Bonnaroo set

Cage The Elephant Bonnaroo Anthony Merriweather
Photo by Anthony Merriweather

Photo and story by Anthony Merriweather / MTSU Seigenthaler News Service

The first day of Bonnaroo had commenced and thousands of Bonnaroovians were scattered across the grounds, floating toward the rows of overpriced steaming food on massive platters and herding to find the artist they saved hundreds of dollars to see.

The sun was setting and a majority of patrons were moving from campgrounds to Centeroo’s hub of madness that is 80,000 people celebrating life, love and music. Little did they know, they were moving farther from the true madness preparing to take place.

Plaza 9. Where the madness lives. Cage the Elephant lead singer Matt Schultz’s brainchild. It was a place where Bonnaroo fans could enjoy their favorite classic cartoons every morning, “ROOcharge” with yoga and constantly celebrate the conception of the Plaza 9 experience and Roo itself.

With a rock ‘n’ roll veteran like Schultz so deeply involved in the festival, it’s hard for anyone on the grounds to not imagine him roping the rest of his Grammy-winning group along for the ride. Rumors began to spread from the press, festival goers and vendors about a secret show.

“Sorry, Plaza 9 is closed”

Around 8:30 p.m., barn doors to the plaza began to shut and, with the help of Bonnaroo safety, rows of rented metal fence began inching closer to the roughly 15 people acting on the credible speculation.

Conversation among the early birds was vague, but it was clear what they were there for.

Hours passed and the crowd began to multiply like cells joining together on a petri dish. As the crowd grew, staff did the same, and black shirts began to motor down the road, leaving clouds of dust behind them.

As a Bonnaroo safety person joked with the first few people that arrived on the scene, the festival director came and introduced himself, naturally startling the gatekeeper and catching him off guard.

Reality began to set as feedback started to wedge its way through the cracks of the barn, also revealing fragments of the immaculate set design that everyone has already seen and been curious about.

“Jenny, your vegan fries are ready,” someone loudly said, sound-checking over a microphone.

Soon after, platters of shiny gold Burger King-like paper crowns reading, “Happy Roo,” started to land on the heads and hats of the hundreds waiting in line. More excitement is instilled in the eager fans, and some cannot contain themselves. As the same person from Bonnaroo safety joked with the fans at the front of the line, he couldn’t himself any longer.

“It’s fucking Cage The Elephant,” he said loudly.

His partner on shift near him yelled at him for speaking on the secret that everyone already knew the staff was lying through their teeth about.

“Shut up,” she said sternly.

He throws his head back as he laughs, and then the men in black return with an aggressive tone, pushing those in line farther back and barking orders at those trying to creep their way in past the fence too early.

After minutes of organization and communication between staff and everyone waiting in line, the barn doors slid open, and about an hour until midnight, the line quickly funneled one-by-one into Plaza 9.

Anyone that walked in was first greeted by a giant birthday cake positioned at center stage, guarded by a blank cut-out of a baby fetus. The fetus was positioned symmetrically on both sides, displaying projections of visual art on a constant loop. A disco ball hung from the ceiling with a float-like chandelier dressed in streamers, and the walls were covered with what looked like shiny wrapping paper and other assortments of birthday and New Year’s decorations.

Dan Luke And The Raid — whose lead man is the younger brother of Matt and Brad Schultz — took the stage to welcome everyone for the evening festivities, bringing a lovable garage rock energy and tight sound.

Dan Luke And The Raid gained some traction over the past year after the release of new music from an anticipated record and coming off a U.S. tour with Declan McKenna.

The Bowling Green and Nashville-based band played some of their most popular songs, including “Golden Age” and “Black Cat Heavy Metal.”

Nashville DJ Spice J set the tone for the rest of the night leading up to the “surprise special guest,” admitting himself that the secret kind of got out. Nonetheless, Spice J delivered, being the prolific party DJ that he is, playing anything from Isley Brothers to Taylor Swift.

Every moment is New Year’s in Plaza 9, and after explaining the mission statement for the experience, Spice J leads the crowd in a New Year’s countdown and encourages consensual kisses when “the ball drops.” As the countdown ends, he cued music and laser lights shone through bubbles swarming the space over the crowd.

The intensity remained constant, and Cage The Elephant never broke character, not even as their little brother Dan came out to grab his keys he left on stage and hugs the band goodbye as they rip through one of their songs.

As the show reached its peak, Matt Schultz began to eye the crowd more often than not, teasing their excitement. And, with corded microphone in hand, he crashed into the arms of the yelling crowd. Schultz was then hoisted eye-level to the disco ball hanging from the barn ceiling in the center of the crowd, with a champion look in his eye. Arms and cell phones were flailing to catch a glimpse of the madness.

Every moment is New Year’s in Plaza 9.

For more Bonnaroo coverage, visit here.

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