For those of us who attend Bonnaroo every year, it is like a holiday that rivals Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it is a little bit of both rolled into one.
There’s something about Bonnaroo that most festivals can’t create. Maybe it’s the rich history Bonnaroo celebrated this year—its 15th—that makes it so special. “Bonnaroo was one of the first fests like this to take hold in the States. It’s not just the people who put it on, but the people that come here—you—who are the positivity,” Eddie Vedder said during Pearl Jam’s headlining show on Saturday.
Maybe it’s the excitement of collaboration that can (and does) happen at any time. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis brought out Chance the Rapper; Rayland Baxter brought out Joseph; Chvrches brought out Paramore’s Hayley Williams; The Chainsmokers brought out Halsey; Judd Apatow brought out Eddie Vedder; Sara Watkins brought out The Secret Sisters; and the two superjams brought out everyone (like they always do).
Maybe it’s the fact that bands can (and do) play all night long. The host city of Manchester, Tenn., doesn’t have the same sound ordnances that limit most festivals. Late-night bands, DJs, and the entire Kalliope stage start after the sun sets and often keep going until it rises. The sense of community in the campgrounds, people walking around giving high fives, and people walking around yelling out “Bonnaroo!” doesn’t hurt, either. Whatever it is, there’s something unique and special about this festival, and it was apparent this year.
Not that there weren’t problems. 2016 marked the first year under the new ownership of Live Nation, and with the change in ownership came some other changes. For example, this was the first year Bonnaroo charged for camping or parking. There was also some lineup confusion with names at the top that appealed to older festival fans (Pearl Jam and Dead & Company) and names further down that appealed to a much younger audience (J. Cole, Ellie Goulding, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and Halsey). There was also a rule change that prohibited any water, even in sealed bottles, from being brought into Centeroo (the main area where the festival actually takes place), though that rule was later changed to allow one sealed bottle of water per person. All these things, possibly coupled with the growth in availability of festivals all over the country and higher-than-average temperatures, led to much lower ticket sales than usual. Some estimates say that there were as few as 50,000 people in attendance, down from around 80,000 in 2015.
The lower attendance isn’t good for business, but it made this year’s Bonnaroo a lot more enjoyable, and helped make it a magical year. There were no lines getting in our out of the campgrounds or Centeroo, at water stations, bathrooms, or food trucks. It was easier to get into the mainstage pits and under the tents for shows, which meant less sun and less heat. It also meant you could watch an entire set, leave at the end, and still get a good spot for the next show. The small crowd also made it feel much more communal, like it does when only a few people stay at college during the summer, or most people in the office have the day off.
We walked into Centeroo on Thursday night in time to catch three acts: Twin Peaks (whose live show is a thrashing, loud experience in the best way), Børns (whose sound issues really put a damper on the entire set until Arcade Fire and David Bowie covers and the closer “Electric Love” were such a sing-a-longs that it didn’t matter), and Cashmere Cat (whose recordings are stellar, but whose live show tried to put us to sleep in the back of the crowd and encouraged us to call it a night).
The rest of the weekend was jam-packed with nonstop music. Friday started with Nashville singer-songwriter Rayland Baxter, who said, “I’ve been to Bonnaroo so many times that it ain’t even funny.” After 15 years of Bonnaroo, it’s not uncommon for a current performer to have been a former attendee, but it’s still cool to hear every time. Baxter’s set was highlighted by his Paul Simon–sounding “Mr. Rodriguez,” and a few songs with supporting vocals from the trio of sisters in the band Joseph. Daughter, whose newest album cover and stage backdrop look like the famous Bonnaroo arch, played their beautiful, heartfelt songs next. The set peaked during “Youth,” as the crowd continually applauded during every pause between lyrics like, “And if you’re in love, then you are the lucky one/ ’Cause most of us are bitter over someone.” The continual admiration caused lead singer Elena Tonra to smile, laugh, and back away from the mic several times. It was a beautiful moment of shared admiration.
Chvrches was our first main stage show of the weekend, and started my favorite run of the weekend (Chvrches, Halsey, M83, LCD Soundsystem, Tame Impala, Lane 8). Chvrches pored through songs from both of their albums as lead singer Lauren Mayberry made herself at home on the big stage, using every inch of it as she danced, ran, and thrashed. They ended the show with a live collaboration of their recently released single “Bury It” with Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Williams brought a ton of energy to the show, and even paused during her performance to point at a fan in the front row who was wearing a Paramore t-shirt.
We decided to see Halsey in order to get a good spot for M83. Halsey’s crowd was passionate, hanging on her every word and every move. It was clear from her performance that if she can continue to put out music that she is a pop star in the making. As her performance ended, we moved up further into the pit to get as close to M83 as possible.
I always worry about catching a band like M83 at a festival, because catching them in the wrong time slot can really kill the vibe, but The Which stage after dark was the perfect time and place for them. Their 16-song set was filled mainly with tracks from older albums, with only five songs coming from their newest release, Junk. It was the perfect blend of songs.
When LCD Soundsystem started headlining festivals and was announced as a Bonnaroo headliner, I was a little bit skeptical—not because they didn’t deserve it or couldn’t handle the main stage, but I worried that not enough people were familiar with their music, let alone loved it. Not only was their headlining show one for the ages, but the entire crowd was enthralled from start to finish. I was amazed and impressed to see people around me in every direction singing every word to every song. The communal reaction made a great show even better. For anyone who is even a casual fan, find a way to catch them on this reunion tour.
Tame Impala was given a highly coveted “(Late Night)” beside their name on the lineup as soon as it was released, and deservedly so: Tame Impala’s brand of psychedelic rock works best in the dark, late at night. Their show lived up to the billing and earned the spot, as song after song wafted across the crowd while lights danced behind and across the band. The only thing disappointing about their set was how short it was. With the aforementioned lack of curfew and encouraged collaboration and creativity, late-night time slots are meant to be minimums, not maximums. Tame Impala was scheduled to play from 1 to 3 a.m., but stopped at only 2:15 a.m., cutting their set almost in half. That might be about right for most bands with only three albums, but for a band like Tame Impala that has long songs and prides itself on creativity and exploration, it felt premature. It was a good set, but felt like a tease of what it could have been.
The only positive of the early ending was that DJ Lane 8 had just started mixing in the Silent Disco and there was no wait to get in. The Silent Disco is a novelty that I’ve always wanted to check out but that I’ve never felt motivated enough to do so. Lane 8 changed that. As a handful of us wandered into the Silent Disco, it felt like a ghost town. We danced to ourselves and even got close enough to watch him mix for a while. Once people started coming in, a line quickly formed simply because no one was leaving. People popped in for a minute, intending to check it out, and then became mesmerized and couldn’t leave. Tame Impala had ended early, but Lane 8 made up for it by playing into the wee hours of the morning. Those of us who begrudgingly left did so only to pace ourselves for the rest of the weekend. The smaller crowd meant a quicker walk back to a closer campsite, and we were quickly asleep.
Saturday’s music started with a couple of Alabama artists, Dylan LeBlanc (backed by The Pollies) and Anderson East, who represent a larger movement of amazing music coming out of Alabama (think Alabama Shakes, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and Jason Isbell). LeBlanc’s set was a special treat, an intimate show on The Who stage, highlighted by set closer and title track off his newest album, Cautionary Tale. Anderson East’s high energy, high-personality set was highlighted by a cover of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” and his own “Satisfy Me.”
Even though he played early in the day, Chris Stapleton’s mainstage show felt like a headlining set in its own right. Buzz had been building since the release of his impressive solo debut, Traveller, last year, had grown with his Justin Timberlake duet at the CMAs, and was boiling over by Bonnaroo. Stapleton only made it through eight songs in his one-hour timeslot, but it was enough to leave us satisfied and impressed. It was also great seeing his wife Morgane singing backup vocals right beside him as she looked straight at him with respect and admiration. Love on display like that is a beautiful thing.
We spent the next couple of timeslots resting and recharging as we anticipated getting in the line for the pit for Pearl Jam’s headlining show. That allowed us to sing along to Band of Horses songs and to take turns getting into the pit for parts of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s show (which was awful, and only highlighted by an appearance by Chance the Rapper). We’ll never know if it was Mother Nature getting angry or having mercy on us by shortening their set, but whatever it was, a storm came through that caused an evacuation of the entire festival. The majority of people did as they were told and went back to their car or campsite, while a few of us hung out on the corners of the inside closest to the exit. Once the evacuation was called off and the grounds were opened back up, we raced across Centeroo to get back in line for Pearl Jam. Thankfully, we were rewarded by getting to almost the exact same spot in line, and ended up getting great spots in the pit to see their show.
Pearl Jam’s show was one of the best of the weekend. Their set relied heavily on older songs, especially those from Ten and Vs., and featured perfect covers of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The band even played “Lightning Bolt,” possibly in defiance of the weather, or as a tribute that it didn’t prove serious enough to cancel the show.
Saturday’s late night is always highlighted by a superjam, a revolving door of artists who take the stage to put their spin on classic covers, or to get help playing their own hits. This year’s version, a Heart, Soul, and Spirit Tribute to Tennessee, featured almost as much talent as any other year (Kamasi Washington, Miguel, Lizzo, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, etc.), but didn’t come together as seamlessly as those in the past have. There were a lot of missteps (Third Eye Blind’s attempt at Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that needed a singer with a deeper voice or a song with a higher range, and a weird version of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA,” for example). But two moments made up for all of the miscues. The Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats–led, “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” (Bobby “Blue” Bland cover), Lizzo’s high-energy version of Tina Turner’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” and Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” were as impressive as any other superjam moments from the past. The superjam didn’t work all night, but when it worked, it killed it.
We bounced around Sunday morning between John Moreland, Civil Twilight, Sara Watkins, and Boy & Bear, everything catching our attention for a few minutes, but nothing catching it completely. We took the time to enjoy a few different shows, to do a little last-minute shopping, and to get an Amish doughnut. (Are Amish doughnuts the best food of all time?)
Our group split time between Kurt Vile and Jason Isbell; Vile split his time alternating between borderline indifference and aggressive, guitar-driven rock. On the main stage, Isbell picked up where Chris Stapleton left off, carrying the torch of passionate, thoughtful, thought-provoking singer-song writers who are recapturing country music and redefining the genre. I didn’t think I liked country music anymore, but if that’s what it sounds like now, then I do.
Father John Misty balanced his wit and sarcasm on one side of the farm, while X Ambassadors poured everything they had into their passionate brand of radio-friendly rock music on the other side. Both set the stage for much different acts that would follow them: FJM for Ween and X Ambassadors for Third Eye Blind. When the lineup was released, there were more than a few LOLs at the inclusion of Third Eye Blind, but it only took one look at their crowd to realize that, not only did they belong, but they needed a bigger stage. With a weekend full of underwhelming crowds Third Eye Blind bucked the trend and played to an audience around 500 times the capacity of their small tent. That wasn’t lost on Stephan Jenkins, who commented on a possible reason for their acceptance across different generations and genres: “We don’t have to [prove] anything. We’re a guitar rock band.” No need to try to be something you’re not; just go out there, have a good time, and play the hits. And it worked.
We worked in one last superjam, the Bluegrass Situation version led by Ed Helms and Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek. Their guests included Lee Ann Womack (whose amazingly clear and powerful voice stole the show), The Secret Sisters, Amanda Shires, and the Sam Bush Band, among others. Their onstage banter and slowed-down, laidback covers were a relaxing and calming moment of closure to the busy weekend.
We left a few minutes early, hoping to get a good spot for Dead & Company’s second and final set. We walked over as thousands danced around and smiled to set 1’s ending song, “Casey Jones.” We arrived just in time, as hundreds left to go to the bathroom, get drinks, or possibly even start their drive home. We were able to walk right into the pit and ended up in the third row, right in front of Bob Weir. After talking with a legion of Dead Heads for a few minutes set 2 got started and everyone got started dancing. John Mayer took turns playing lead guitar and singing; he has really embraced his new role and settled in to it. Second set highlights included “Slipknot!,” “Terrapin Station,” and a captivating version of “Drums.” The huge video screen behind the band showed the same thing as the two smaller screens on either side of the stage. This meant that we could keep our eyes on the stage the whole time and were never tempted to let our eyes wander away from the magic. An especially cool moment happened when the camera zoomed in on our group and projected us on the big screen behind the band as we were singing the lyrics to “Fire on the Mountain.” That small thing felt much bigger, like the sense of community that makes the Dead family, and the Bonnaroo community, what it is. It was fitting to end a weekend that was highlighted by a sense of intimacy and community with one last moment of it.
It was hard not to get nostalgic as we exited under the arch one last time. For those of us who attend Bonnaroo every year, it is like a holiday that rivals Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it is a little bit of both rolled into one. We drive out to “The Farm” for a lot more than just a few concerts, but we do it each year to experience those concerts in a place that feels like home, with friends who feel like family. We spend enough time “trying to get with the plan”—and the farm reminds us that sometimes it’s OK just “trying to be with your friends again.” | Matthew Wallin
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