As most who attended are now getting to be fully recovered, it’s still hard to believe at this time last week Bonnaroo was getting broken down, the last few dead heads were still peeling themselves off of the fields of Great Stage Park and the last few long-since-raged-out ‘clean vibes’ volunteers were waking up and packing for the inevitable hours of travel.
From the beginning of the weekend, Bonnaroo organizers had set out to celebrate 15 years of magic, and boy did they deliver. For the first time you had actual flushing toilets in Centeroo (the main mass of land that holds all of the stages) and there were little reminders of Bonnaroos that had long since past. This year’s Centeroo, almost took on the character of a Bonnaroo museum type space. So no matter how many times you’d been to the festival, there were physical recollections or (for those first-timers) little windows into a past history of what kinds of art and lore had once occupied this space. Even the Which Stage question mark that’s traditionally mounted above the stage was anchored at ground level this year.
Of course, there were some mainstays, the Bonnaroo arch was looking fly as ever with a little rabbit coming out of a hat on top of it. The multi-colored ferris wheel was still lit up in all its glory at night and What Stage still bore those same iconic green letters spelling out ‘Bonnaroo.’ But what truly makes this festival unique, as any Bonnaroovian will tell you, is the music and its impact on the crowds that pack the tents to listen. This year, despite some rumblings about the strength of the lineup, the music was pretty much on point. There were some relative unknowns as well as some heavy hitters, but both were pretty equally matched in terms of quality. Our crew was pleasantly surprised to find some familiar artists that we’d overlooked on the lineup as well as delighted when we were walking around and discovering new sounds.
We arrived and set up our site at around noon on Thursday. Since the two main stages wouldn’t be open at all that night, it was a little bit easier figuring out how to proceed. One of the unwritten rules at this festival that’s definitely not in the ‘code’ is that ‘you can’t see everything’ and it couldn’t have been more true this year. So first up was the experimental jam-tronica group Papadosio. They really set the tone as the first group to have the crowd extended out beyond the bounds of That Tent, bringing their version of festival party to the forefront. Plus they were also groovy and ethereal enough that you could still enjoy them from a blanket or the picnic tables.
Next up was Hermitude, who packed the edges of That Tent even tighter. And with good reason too. The set included an extended remix of the ever popular “Hyperparadise” where everybody lost it right as El Gusto shouted “we couldn’t play the original without playing the Flume remix!” There were also fantastic remixes of Odesza’s “Say My Name,” and what was ultimately the most mind-blowing improved jam, the one that lasted all the way through “Searchlight” and found Luke Dubs beautifully dominating the keys.
Next we treated ourselves to some of the passion-filled soul and rap stylings of Lizzo, who continued to turn That Tent up even further. That was cut a little short though so that we could get over to This Tent to catch The Floozies. I’d seen them previously so I knew their set was going to be a memorable one and by the time they ended it was pretty safe to say they’d delivered with full force. It was their first Bonnaroo and festival-goers were more psyched than ever to raise the energy to critical mass and groove down with that sweet electro-funk. It was easy to see the raw talent that’s earned them a place on Griz’s All Good label. As the Floozies ended so did our ability and desire to keep dancing. Our crew had gotten up at 5am to drive out to the farm, so we scooted back out to the site to sleep after day one.
Bonnaroo’s ‘High-Five Friday’ got off to a great start for us with Griz opening up Which Stage early in the day. Yes it was hot and getting hotter, but nobody cared when Griz took the turntables and started bringing the funk to bear with that killer sax. It was one of the most lit crowds I’d seen that early on a Friday in recent memory. He played some of those fan favorites like “Fine Way to Die” as well as “Hard Times” and one of his buddies Muzzy Bear also got up on the stage to add some electric guitar into the mix. Griz was also hosting pop-up sets all through the weekend in addition to helping out with SuperJam, so if you missed the Friday set, there was a chance you might have heard him out in the campgrounds.
There were more fun surprises in the campgrounds as well if you were looking hard enough. Tucked away in RV Camping beyond The Other Tent, our good friends at Kowasa Clothing Co had parked their sky blue bus and were spreading their distinctive clothing line far and wide. Their motto ‘Never Stress’ was a fitting motto at the farm.
Next we had to split if we wanted to catch both Keys N Krates as well as Chvrches, who were scheduled right on top of one another. Chvrches delivered a very emotionally charged set, mostly playing songs off of their latest album Every Open Eye. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry, who was decked out with some Bowie-esque make-up, melted some hearts out in the crowd with stunning vocals on top of the swelling and booming synth lines at What Stage. It was truly a full circle moment for the group, since their last appearance at ‘roo two years prior was over at This Tent.
Keys and Krates on the other hand gave their typical pulse pounding party of a set and the crowds quickly turned up with one raging song after another.
After that it was another split decision. This is typical of Fridays on the farm, though not as bad as in years past. Having seen Flosstradamus several times before, we decided to go over to J. Cole, in a set that included Chance the Rapper (the newly nicknamed ‘mayor of Bonnaroo’) gracing the stage as well. It was already great to see J. Cole throw down with a full band to back him, and catching Chance was an added bonus too.
Then it was time for The Chainsmokers, a set that I wasn’t sure what to expect from, as I’d never seen them before and don’t typically listen to their major hits on the radio. But needless to say, theirs was one of the most surprising of the whole weekend. Right as they started they taunted “Hey Bonnaroo!! You ready to make Coachella your bitch!?!” During their set they released a new song exclusively for Bonnaroo with the artist featured in it sharing the stage. Halsey had performed earlier in the day and had teased the crowd with some veiled hints. But the crowds weren’t sure if this was Halsey’s typical flirtatious nature, or whether it was something deeper. Turns out The Chainsmokers now have a new collaboration with her and it debuted in an already buzzing lightning wave of a set.
After experiencing that kind of novelty it was a little hard to go back to Zeds Dead, an act I’d seen numerous times in the past. So we cut and ran to Tame Impala, a much more spirited show that seemed to glow ever brighter in the fading embers of the night. With a tricked out geometric light show and a voice that could cut through tension like a knife through butter, this act proved to embody the spirit of the festival unlike any other except for maybe The Dead and Co.
With the festival halfway through, we ended up sleeping pretty far into Saturday. Fortunately, though we got out to What Stage in time to see Grace Potter, who seemed to rip a hole in reality with the level of rock and roll she and her band brought to the sun-drenched field. The place seemed to rise and fall with every passion filled wail she poured into the microphone. That set appropriately ended with a cacophony of rhythmic drums that echoed out as they left the stage.
After that we trekked out to The Other Tent to see some of The Knocks, who’s sultry blend of rhythmic funk combined with soundscapes similar to that of Daft Punk and A-trak. This made for a more than pleasing mid-day party. It’s really too bad that they got placed so early on and in the heat of the day at that. But I’m gonna go ahead and predict they’ll blow up between now and their next Bonnaroo (where they’ll no doubt get better scheduling), so be sure to catch them the next time you get a chance.
Next, Chris Stapleton absolutely killed it with some good old fashioned blues that burned not quite as hot as the sun, but almost. Then, a tour that took us through the ever-peppy Two Door Cinema Club as well as The Internet, a group that mesmerized our ears with a mix of beats and beeps that stretched from the early-90s to now (with soul at every turn).
At this point, even the diversity of music was starting to put a strain on us and we were still curious as to what the rest of the fest could offer. So we decided to do a dose of comedy via Judd Apatow and friends, with Apatow’s unique brand of authentic comedy serving as a much needed antidote to the dust, heat and discomfort (the Comedy Tent had AC).
Soon after dinner and after the sun went down something strange happened. Lightning lit up the sky in forked streaks. It was a little uncanny since the Dead and Co. were slated to play the next day, and the ‘steal your face’ icon was already slightly shimmering at What Stage. It was almost as if nature herself were heralding the group’s arrival. However, the festival organizers saw this glaring liability quite differently and halted all the music, shut down Centeroo, and prompted Macklemore to say “Obviously Mother Nature is pissed off at somebody, we will resume, we love you guys.” Fortunately, the music resumed a little bit more than an hour later. But by the time we got back, Macklemore was done, Ellie Goulding was finishing the final lines of “Love Me Like You Do” and Pearl Jam dived into an all-encompassing set that had multi-generational appeal. In between hard rocking and rich jamming, Eddie Vedder didn’t hesitate to bash Donald Trump, suggesting that a wall be built around him with a little hole cut out so that all who passed could give him the finger. Needless to say, the crowd was in full agreement with this apt advice.
And then the Saturday late shows started to hit with a firework emblazoned SuperJam: Kamasi Washington and Friends (Griz among them) that cascaded into Big Grams (Big Boi and Phantogram) with RL Grime and then Adventure Club holding it down at the Other Tent. Most memorable among these moments (after the literal funk/soul explosion set to fireworks) were RL Grime’s “Tell Me” and Adventure Club’s extended version of “Crave You” to close out the tent sets. We even found our way up to the top of the Kalliope stage before the night was over to rage with those starry-eyed sunrise chasers.
Sleeping even further into the day was more than necessity the last day of the festival. Another AC bath early on at the Comedy Tent had us aching for the final music to come. But while we were there, Adam Devine woke us up with his self-described ’stupid’ antics. Needless to say though, the Workaholics star was hilarious all the way through his routine. After that, Death Cab for Cutie blasted us from the past, and then some hippie happenings ensued right near the end of their set, which involved a rainbow parachute with the word ‘kindness’ scrawled in huge letters across the top of it. It was in fact a mobile sanctuary dedicated to the idea of kindness and its power, which our crew was all about and a theme that Bonnaroo seeks to promote. It was also a great moment of recognition for many in our crew. We have a tent sticker from one of the first music festivals we ever attended (See: LEAF Festival) that reads “Kindness so rocks! I am another yourself.”
And then came the Dead and Company, with John Mayer in tow, who beautifully ignited some of The Grateful Dead classics, which have influenced much of what we now know to be contemporary music. The crowd was of all ages and demographics and the night sky was lit with lanterns, shadows of the swaying crowd, and no lack of good vibrations. Fifteen years later, Bonnaroo has stayed true to it’s heritage and brought back the surviving members of one of the most iconic jam bands in history, without which much of the culture we take for granted simply would not exist. It was an epic show laden with crowd-pleasing classics as well as trippy forays into the obscure and mysterious. We left that show with a profound sense of wonder, for both the weekend we’d just experienced and for how we’d take what had happened with us into the future.
Through the years, the festival’s organizers have truly accomplished what they’ve set out to do, both in being a festival that honors the roots of live music as well as being one that has an acute awareness of growing genres such as EDM. Here’s to another 15 years of magic, Bonnaroo. We can’t wait to experience what you’ll thrill us with next.