Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival | 06.08-11.17

Even with its flaws, Bonnaroo is still one of the best times you can have.

Manchester, Tenn.

Future Islands

Music festivals, like the rest of life, have their peaks and valleys. Bonnaroo’s peak saw the festival sell out in multiple years with more than 100,000 attendees. The glory days boasted lineups that were topped by legends and undercards that were littered with future headliners. The festival was critically acclaimed and even seemed to please message board skeptics.

Fast forward a few years to the valley of 2016. In its first full year under Live Nation control, the attendance dropped to just 45,000, the lowest in the festival’s existence, and less than half of previous years. While the smaller crowds meant a better experience for those that attended, they reflected a misstep and a bit of an identity crisis for the festival. Though, to be fair, Bonnaroo is in its 16th year, and most teenagers struggle to find themselves at some point.

This year’s attendance numbers were up slightly to 65,000, but there were still signs that things aren’t completely figured out yet. U2 and Red Hot Chili Peppers topped a lineup that didn’t contain any other bands from the ’80s, ’90s, or early ’00s, where each of these bands reigned supreme. Only time, and next year’s lineup release, will tell if Bonnaroo will move away from these kinds of headliners, or if they will learn to complement them on the rest of the lineup.

But even with its flaws, and in the middle of an obvious valley, Bonnaroo is still one of the best times you can have. The vibes of the festival are alive and well. “What an extraordinary thing Bonnaroo is,” U2 lead singer Bono said before joking, “Thanks for naming it after me.” The next night, RHCP bassist Flea added, “We’ve played a million festivals and this is my favorite one.” Those of us who attend every year agree.

Highlights included Friday’s early performance by Wilderado and a high energy set from Francis and the Lights, who was joined by Chance the Rapper for some choreography on his song “May I Have This Dance.” James Vincent McMorrow (small crowd in a tent) and Glass Animals (huge crowd on the Which Stage) played to different-sized crowds, but both poured energy into their performances before impassioned fans.

The xx’s evening served as somewhat of a redemption show for them. Those of us who attended their first set in 2010 remember a slow and slightly boring performance. With a lot more experience and more shows under their belt, their latest set was much more powerful and engaging. They were confident, their show was visually engaging, and the crowd was drawn in.

U2

The festival’s biggest “get,” U2, headlined Friday night. Bono made it clear the band considered it as big of a deal as the fans, saying, “In the last 30 years, we have only played a [U.S.] festival site once before tonight. Can we come back again?”

They continued to win the crowd over by rolling through hit after hit. The show opened with a powerful performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” as the band walked out onto the walkway that extended into the crowd. They also delivered “New Year’s Day” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” before playing The Joshua Tree in its entirety. The five-song encore included “Beautiful Day,” with Bono adding the chorus from RHCP’s “Under the Bridge,” and ended with “Elevation,” the tour debut of “Vertigo,” deep cut “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” and “One.”

U2’s show was powerful and sincere, and much like Bonnaroo tries to do, radiated positivity. Bono closed the show with an echo of our sentiments. This is “a night for all of our lives that we will never forget.”

Saturday’s best shows included The Front Bottoms, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, and Future Islands. Later in the day, Chance the Rapper showed he could have headlined, and played to the weekend’s biggest crowd. Those of us who showed up later than hours ahead of his set had to watch from several football fields away. That may be in part because Chance has become a staple at the festival, appearing even when he’s not on the bill, and has been named by Bonnaroo’s newspaper “the mayor of Bonnaroo.” In addition to his headline-size show on Saturday night, he also spent some of the weekend playing volleyball within the festival grounds, watching shows, dancing onstage with Francis and the Lights, supporting Malcom London on the festival’s smallest stage, the Who Stage, and doing two songs in the Superjam.

Chance’s set was heavy on songs from last year’s Coloring Book, but it also included songs from his features (Kanye West and DJ Khaled) and older material from his albums Acid Rap and Surf. The show’s real success came from the energy that ran throughout: the energy that has endeared him to the festival.

Red Hot Chili Peppers’ headlining set seemed to have even more energy and flair than their previous show in 2012. Flea spoke of his love for the festival and walked across stage on his hands. The band played hits from their entire career, even older songs like “Aeroplane,” “Suck My Kiss,” and “Soul to Squeeze” before ending with “Give It Away.”

This year’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band–led superjam was a party from start to finish, and one of the most fun in recent years. The band poured through 13 covers, adding horns and energy to every genre, from pop to funk to hip-hop to R&B. Boyfriend and her dancers produced a version of “Super Freak” that would have made Rick James proud. Lecrae led A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” Lukas Nelson and Margo Price showed their range and covered Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.” Rayland Baxter and an all-star cast of backup singers covered Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” while bathed in purple lights. Joseph harmonized on a perfect cover of TLC’s “Waterfalls.” Chance the Rapper rapped Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nothin’ but a G Thang” and invited everyone back on stage for a powerful finale of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” Even with the changes in recent years, the superjam made us feel like we were back at the old Bonnaroo again, and was one of the best shows of the weekend.

Saturday’s memorable sets included White Reaper (self-proclaimed “World’s Best American Band”), Margo Price, and Royal Blood. Royal Blood’s crowd was an amazing thing to be a part of, and was made up of sing-alongs, mosh pits, crowd surfing, and a massive circle pit. Seaton Smith and this year’s headlining comedian, Hannibal Buress, kept everyone laughing in the air-conditioned comedy tent.

Lorde’s show on Saturday night was my favorite of the entire weekend. A technical issue at the beginning of the show forced her to stop mid-song twice, before leaving for 30 minutes while it was resolved. Instead of being a disaster that derailed the evening and her set, she bounced back gracefully and never lost the crowd. She was impressed by everyone’s grace and understanding. The crowd joined together to chant “We love Lorde,” leading her to say, “Bonnaroo, they told me about you. They told me you’d be an indescribable crowd. I can already tell how magical you are.”

She responded with a renewed confidence and swagger and an energized version of “Tennis Court.” The crowd responded with spirt-filled sing-alongs to older songs like “400 Lux,” “Royals,” and “Team,” and enthusiasm for newer jams like “Homemade Dynamite” and “Green Light.” During “Team,” she took laps around the crowd, greeting fans and giving out as many high fives as possible, but she also connected with the larger crowd on each song. Not even a technical issue and a delay could stop her Bonnaroo debut from being an enormous success.

Our weekend closed with the Ed Helms–led Bluegrass Superjam. This year’s best moments included an all-star cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Mandolin Orange’s cover of Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” Martina McBride covering The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and a finale that included everyone joining Bobby Osborne for “Rocky Top,” which he originally recorded.

As we walked out under the iconic arch one last time, I couldn’t help but think of the weekend and the festival as a whole. I think it’s OK that Bonnaroo is still trying to figure out who it is; a lot of us are, too. And I thought about what Wilderado sang on Friday in their song “Morning Light”: “Not quite sure just exactly where I am, but tomorrow I’ll be home and it won’t matter where I’ve been.” That’s exactly how most of us will feel in 51 weeks when we head back to The Farm. | Matthew Wallin

Check out Matt’s photos of Bonnaroo on our Instagram

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