Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival | 06.12-15.14

bonnaroo smWhether or not you are a fan, lying under the stars as Lionel Richie plays “Say You, Say Me” and Commodores tracks like “Brick House” and “Three Times a Lady” is an enthralling musical experience.





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Manchester, Tenn.

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is an experience unique to North America. It’s the closest thing to the legendary Glastonbury Festival that exists. Many of the acts that played over the course of the four-day fest acknowledged this fact. That reason alone is also the reason that, unlike its closest competitors in Coachella and Lollapalooza, it will never sell out before the lineup is even announced. It simply isn’t a fest for those unwilling to deal with camping in a Tennessee field for the better part of a week—or dealing with the heat/cold/rain/mud/dust.

bonnaroo janellemonae_250LFor those capable of coping with weather conditions, it is absolute nirvana. It’s four nights of anything your music-loving heart desires, whether that be laying in the grass, listening to the sublime sounds of James Mercer and Danger Mouse’s collaboration Broken Bells, or taking illicit substances and dancing your ass off to whatever surprise guest was playing the new Kalliope Stage until after sunrise.

The 700-acre farm is plenty large for all musical styles to exist peacefully. Sometimes they come together in unison, as witnessed during Sunday night’s Bluegrass Superjam, as the talented musicians and Ed Helms tackled Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Saturday evening’s superjam featuring Skrillex also saw a blending of worlds as Janelle Monae, Matt Schultz (Cage the Elephant), Robby Krieger (The Doors), Lauryn Hill, and Mickey Hart (The Grateful Dead) covered a variety of tracks from their respective groups, as well as from Michael Jackson, James Brown, and David Bowie.

Thursday opened in the same fashion of recent years, overcrowding for acts that have never seen crowds half this size. Without the benefit of the large Which and What stages, a crowd that had been filling in since around 4 p.m. Wednesday was confined to the smaller tents that featured the usual variety of acts, with Australian group the Preatures absolutely ruling their (nearly) festival-opening time slot. Lead singer Isabella Manfredi stalked the stage like a seasoned festival veteran despite claiming that eating Tennessee BBQ prior to the bands set “was a mistake.”

bonnaroo banks_300RImminent star Banks played her first evening show at a festival, and most likely her largest crowd to date. The newcomer gave perhaps the most heartfelt set of the weekend, and was visibly shocked by the crowd’s reaction as she delivered songs from her upcoming album Goddess. “This Is What it Feels Like” was followed by a roar from the crowd that caused the singer to admit, “This is one of the best days of my life.”

Friday felt like a day to get funky; having said that, St. Paul and the Broken Bones put on arguably the best set of the entire day at just 12:30 p.m. The band’s aesthetic would have been more fitting on Sunday morning. Lead singer Paul Janeway enthralled the crowd with stories of being pissed on as he was working security during 2010’s Jay-Z performance, and took us all to church with soulful renditions of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and their own “Call Me” that far surpassed the recorded version’s soul.

The rest of the day belonged to the What Stage, as a quintet of Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Umphrey’s McGee (the lone jam band on the bill?), Janelle Monae, Vampire Weekend, and Kanye West took to the stage. West, of course, would become the most talked-about show of the weekend—which, let’s face it, was the goal. In Rolling Stone magazine, even Jack White, seemingly a god to Bonnaroovians, admitted that West’s tour was, “more punk, more in-your-face than anything I’ve seen.” The general consensus seemed to be that if you were in the first half of the crowd, it was one of the greatest things you’ve ever seen, and if you were in the back half, it was the most repulsive thing the Bonnaroo organizers have ever done.

It is Bonnaroo, however, and so very few come for just one act. The acts that followed Mr. West were as diverse as possible. Metal mainstays Mastodon came in support of their newest release One More ’Round the Sun. Derek Trucks, Chaka Khan, Ben Folds, Taj Mahal, and Andrew Bird led the most “Bonnaroo roots” set of the weekend, and the crowd represented that. It was ultimately Skrillex who ruled the night on the Which Stage, as the other crowds paled in comparison.

bonnaroo damonalbarn_300rSaturday was a day packed with constant conflict. It showed most in decisions between the rarely touring Damon Albarn (of Gorillaz and Blur fame), Cage the Elephant, R&B staple Bobby Womack, and the energetic Grouplove. The British singer—who could easily have headlined if he had chosen the Gorillaz moniker—brought out an insane number of special guests, including De La Soul for “Feel Good Inc.” and Del the Funky Homosapien for his verses on “Clint Eastwood.” Albarn compared the festival to Glastonbury, a fest he has played and headlined several times, before noting that one of the things that makes the British festival so special is that attendees and bands take the time to visit and enjoy local landmarks. He then realized that he was on the wrong song and traded his piano for a guitar.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said about Lionel Richie and Jack White? They are both exemplary performers whom everyone should see in their lifetime. Whether or not you are a fan, lying under the stars as Richie plays “Say You, Say Me” and Commodores tracks like “Brick House” and “Three Times a Lady” is an enthralling musical experience. Jack White (much like Kanye West) speaks his mind. He felt the need to constantly remind the crowd that he wasn’t “trying to bore you, Bonnaroo,” and that he was merely “with us.” That’s fine and all, but what we all came for was to sing along to “Hotel Yorba” and listen to one of the most iconic guitar players of the last decade play guitar.

Saturday is the night when exhaustion becomes the rule more than the exception; this showed up most at The Flaming Lips’ set, which started around 12:30 a.m. The band seemed almost frustrated by the crowd’s malaise, but soldiered on as the audience found the energy required for an ending of “Do You Realize?” and a set ending cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Energy was not lacking at the This Tent, where the previously mentioned Skrillex superjam may have been the largest tent show at the festival ever.

bonnaroo kanyewest_227LSunday at Bonnaroo always feels almost minimalist—not compared to the real world, of course, but put up against the sensory overload of Friday and Saturday’s costumes, parades, and late-night shows. Sunday is the day you walk into Centeroo in the boxers you woke up in, eat some donuts, and relax in the grass. Let’s face it: By that point, no one is really looking anyway.

With that in mind, the Carolina Chocolate Drops opened the What Stage, doing their best to get the crowd to sing, clap, and generally just wake up. The group from the Durham, North Carolina, area was two-thirds music and one-third history lesson, as they introduced the crowd to traditional Southern instrument. After such a teaching, it only seemed appropriate to eat at a Pulp Fiction–style food truck diner from Gastropod in Miami. With the choice of ordering your burger “bloody as hell” or “burnt to a crisp” to go along with a real milkshake, it wasn’t exactly the vegan’s choice, but after a long weekend, it hit the spot perfectly.

The weekend was coming to a close and the largest Sunday night Bonnaroo headliner to date was yet to come. Although in past years, the majority of the crowd seemingly cleared out early for jam band headliners Phish, Dave Matthews Band, and Widespread Panic, it seemed as though a large majority had stuck it out for a chance to sing “Tiny Dancer” with Bonnaroo’s second Knighted headliner in two years, Elton John. (Sir Paul McCartney played in 2013.)

There was not much as far as deep or rare cuts, but a special appearance by Ben Folds for “Grey Seal” made the evening all that much more sweet. “I never knew a better time and I guess I never will” could not have summed up the weekend much better, as the Rocket Man closed out his festival-best set with “Crocodile Rock.” Somehow, every year at Bonnaroo seems to just get better and better.

This is how 80,000-ish people came together to form a collective, looking to escape everyday life and do their best to live by a motto that includes the phrases “radiate positivity,” “don’t be that guy/gal,” and “stay true, ’roo.”

To most, those words might come across as vague, cheesy, confusing, or just marketing. To the people who live by them for four or five days a year (and sometimes year ’round), they are a goal to having a fulfilling weekend, taking care to respect those around you, and taking care of a 700-acre farm on which they all reside once a year at Bonnaroo. | Bruce Matlock


Bonnaroo photos by Bruce Matlock

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