There is nothing like Bonnaroo. An almost-90,000 person, four-day festival could easily be a nightmare–but an overall feeling of happiness seems to pervade The Farm, the affectionate (and literal) term for Bonnaroo’s venue. People who have been there before know that Bonnaroo is a spot where everyone comes to enjoy the music, meet new people and be with their Bonnaroo “family.” Festival-goers really seem to look out for each other and uphold the Bonnaroo code of “radiate positivity.” Of course, it’s not perfect–there were rumors of a lot more theft this year than in years past, but even the fact that strangers warned each other of this (shoutout to Jay from North Carolina for letting my camp know) speaks to the communal spirit of Bonnaroo.
Everyone knows that Bonnaroo can be and has been a spot for iconic performances (i.e., last year’s Jack White set–I actually saw people crying tears of joy after it). This year, Kendrick Lamar solidified his title as the voice of our generation, Childish Gambino made it clear that he’s worthy of a headlining spot and Florence + The Machine put on one of the dreamiest shows I’ve ever seen. Bonnaroo is a place to get into artists you’ve never listened to before or become even more obsessed with your favorites, simply because of just how good their live show was.
A common misconception of Bonnaroo is that it’s simply a place to get fucked up–while you definitely do have plenty of access to various substances, that’s not solely what The Farm is about. There are healthy activities (yoga every morning, a 5k held on Saturday), an entire group devoted to enjoying the festival without drugs/alcohol (Soberoo) and a ton of food options, as well as things for people who want more than just music. This year, the Game of Thrones finale viewing party on Sunday night in particular drew a huge crowd. There’s also a ferris wheel, cinema tent, comedy shows, a silent disco, and so much more…Bonnaroo is what you make of it. Here’s what we made of it this year:
After arriving and setting up (and having my usual Bonnaroo dinner of a Lunchable), I wandered into Centeroo, where all the stages are, for the first shows of the festival. Tove Lo played her electro-pop at That Tent on Thursday night, which was packed out to the point that I questioned why she wasn’t on a main stage. She then gained even more fans by flashing the crowd during her new single “Talking Body,” the same stunt she pulled at Sweetlife Festival last month.
Courtney Barnett’s set at This Tent began during Tove Lo’s, and while her crowd wasn’t quite as big, they were definitely devoted, singing along with the rocker. Barnett wore a Chastity Belt shirt, a nod to her touring buddies, and charmed the crowd with music and anecdotes alike. Barnett opened with “Lance Jr.,” a guitar-heavy, grunge-esque rock song that set the stage for the rest of her show, which included songs like “Depreston, “Elevator Operator” and “Avant Gardener.” Barnett’s laidback (yet still uptempo) set was a good sound for the Thursday Bonnaroo crowd, many of whom had just completed long drives to The Farm and were getting energized for the rest of the weekend.
Sylvan Esso’s synth-driven pop filled The Other Tent Friday evening. The duo, led by vocalist Amelia Meath, played to a crowd that spread from inside the tent and spilled onto the lawn outside. Meath’s strong, ethereal voice was complemented by the other half of Sylvan Esso, Nick Sanborn, and his simple yet catchy beats on songs like “Dress,” “Coffee” and a new untitled song. The duo’s chill set helped awaken the audience from a scorching hot afternoon and prepare them for even more energetic sets later in the night.
Ben Folds and yMusic played an abbreviated set of their touring show at The Other Tent, finishing with crowd favorite “Not The Same”–the audience absolutely loved the harmony participation part and screamed for more after he left, but Folds didn’t return and the cheers turned to boos. However, this seemed not to be a reflection of how the crowd felt about Folds, but more a showing of just how good his set was.
A bit later, rapper Kendrick Lamar played the first headlining set of the massive What Stage. I’d seen Lamar before (at Sweetlife two years ago) and thought he was pretty good, but wasn’t left astonished or wanting more. This time, I could have listened to him perform all night–the rapper left nothing onstage, playing a high-energy show that included older hits like “Poetic Justice” and new hits like “King Kunta” alike–a highlight was when he played “M.A.A.D. City” twice–I’m pretty sure he could’ve continued playing that song over and over and the crowd would have still begged for more.
Electronic king deadmau5 had the What Stage on Friday an hour after Kendrick–this meant that he was competing with Earth, Wind & Fire, Flying Lotus and later Odesza. Luckily, this didn’t stop fans from flocking to this headlining set. He played his hit “Ghosts N Stuff” fairly early in the set, and oddly enough, spent most of the time playing without his trademark mouse head, choosing to wear only a flatbrim.
EDM fans had a great night with deadmau5 and later STS9, while Kendrick Lamar fans got a double dose, if they played their cards right–many were hoping that Lamar would pop in during Flying Lotus’ set at The Other Tent (based on their previous collaborations), but he surprised everyone by showing up with Chance the Rapper during Earth, Wind & Fire’s show at Which Stage, rapping over the group’s funky beats.
The first show I caught on Saturday was Trampled by Turtles’ set at What Stage. The bluegrass/folk group played to a chill afternoon crowd, many of whom were enjoying naps in the sun or hanging out on picnic blankets. However, when the band closed out with “Wait So Long,” sleepy festival-goers hopped up and began to jig around, bringing some much-needed energy for the night ahead.
I then stuck around for Hozier’s set–the Irish rocker’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past year, as was evidenced by the amount of people pouring in after Trampled by Turtles. He played many of his hits and some extras, including a cover of Ariana Grande’s “Problem” mixed with Warren G’s “Regulate.” Hozier then closed with “Take Me to Church,” which may have been a little trite, but I doubt the audience would have let him leave without hearing the (much overplayed) megahit.
“That’s fuckin’ weird. I love it,” declared The War On Drugs’ vocalist Adam Granduciel soon after coming on, when spotting one of many horse head masks at Bonnaroo in the crowd. The group then immediately launched into “Arms Like Boulders,” one of many hits played during their early evening Which Stage set. The last time I saw The War On Drugs live was at a small beer festival held in my college town–also fucking weird, and also something I loved. The crowd was slightly larger this time, but the quality of music the same–The War On Drugs puts on a good live show, with Granduciel’s voice not missing a note and instruments playing to the perfection of an album.
Belle and Sebastian then took the stage at This Tent, playing a danceable show led by lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s impeccable voice. At one point he jumped off stage and into the crowd to dance with a few lucky audience members, while the rest of us continued singing along to the group’s indie offerings. Jon Hamm (or Don Draper, as I still think of him) also showed up for this set and randomly fed Murdoch gummy bears onstage. Bonnaroo!
The sun began to set, indicating that it was time for Gary Clark Jr. to play at Which Stage. Clark began his set unaccompanied, with a quiet, soulful song–just his vocals and guitar serenading a crowd of thousands. In about five minutes, though, he had the audience rocking with the blues-tinged sounds of “Bright Lights.” Clark’s Bonnaroo career began just four years ago, on Miller Lite’s small New Music on Tap Lounge–Which Stage is a huge departure, but judging by the crowd that stayed throughout Clark’s set, he was ready.
Soon after, My Morning Jacket began their set at What Stage and put on an absolute clinic–it seemed that everything sounded exactly as it should, with almost cinematically perfect balancing and production quality. After this set, I headed over to Which Stage in hopes of getting close to the front for Childish Gambino’s set–not a chance. I was apparently not the only person there surprised by just how many fans came out for renaissance man Donald Glover’s set, but it was well-deserved–the entire lawn (with the exception of the Slayer fans across the way) was filled with people screaming along to every song, as Glover got more and more into the show, dancing around stage and ripping off his shirt to hits like “Crawl,” “Heartbeat” and “Sweatpants.” He even debuted at new song, assuaging some of my fears of rumors that he was retiring from his Childish Gambino musical life.
I then ran over to What Stage for Mumford and Sons’ headlining set, only to be greeted by what seemed like all 85,000 attendees plus more. This show appeared to be even more crowded than Billy Joel’s festival-headlining set the following day, but it was definitely deserved. The group played hits both new and old, plugging in when needing to (“The Wolf”) and softening for others (“Awake My Soul”)–unfortunately, the amount of people at the show meant that some quieter moments were drowned out by audience chatter, but the group silenced this with a once-in-a-lifetime encore. In a tribute to the late Joe Cocker, the group launched into his version of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” joined onstage by members of My Morning Jacket, Dawes, The War on Drugs and Hozier. Guest appearances are common at Bonnaroo, but this caught the attention of even the most tripped-out festival-goer–the entire audience seemed to stand in awe until the song was over. Truly an amazing moment at What Stage.
Sunday afternoon/evening was a time for folk and bluegrass at That Tent, with Shakey Graves, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Punch Brothers and Ed Helms’ “Bluegrass Situation” Superjam all performing and happening throughout the day. Bonnaroo patrons were treated to a pleasant soundtrack of banjos and vocal harmonies in the distance for much of the afternoon, whether or not they attended these shows.
Electro-rockers AWOLNATION took over Which Stage on Sunday afternoon to offset the acoustic sets happening across The Farm–the group played hits like “Not Your Fault,” “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)” and (of course) “Sail.” The crowd jumped along with lead singer Aaron Bruno as he screamed out song after song, echoing all the way to the camping Pods.
As afternoon faded to evening, Brandi Carlile jumped on the Which Stage and showed her love for the festival, mentioning how last time she played Bonnaroo she was on a “trash can stage” on the side, and how thankful she was to be playing a main stage. Carlile’s shows are always great (and I’m still not sure why she’s not more mainstream/well-known, since she clearly has a large following), but this set in particular was filled with energy and emotion–Carlile loves performing, and sets like this show that it really is her calling.
While Brandi Carlile’s set was ending, another talented band was just taking off. Florence + The Machine played a high-energy, dreamlike show, with the sun setting behind the What Stage. I had listened to the group’s Governors Ball set the week before and was curious to see if frontwoman Florence Welch’s foot, which had prevented her from moving much then, was fully healed. However, no mention of the foot injury was made during this show. Welch put on one of the most athletic shows I saw over the weekend, running around stage and out into the crowd. One lucky fan even got to climb over the barrier to the stage and hug Welch, who had proclaimed that “If you can get to me, you can have a hug.” The group played new hits like “How Big How Blue How Beautiful” and “What Kind Of Man” along with older songs, with Welch’s voice hitting notes high and low effortlessly. The group closed out with “Dog Days Are Over” and the crowd went absolutely crazy–my friends and I weren’t remotely near the stage, but even far back near the vendors, the audience was jumping with every beat. This was one of the best shows all weekend, in my opinion.
Punch Brothers’ late afternoon set at That Tent was filled with eclectic, acoustic instrument-filled pieces–everything from Sunday-appropriate gospel tracks to more rollicking songs (“My Oh My”) to the group’s own take on classical (the Debussy-composed “Passepied”). Hardcore Punch Brothers fans stayed near the front of the tent, while the rest of the crowd was content to relax on the lawn, often with picnics, blankets and the occasional smokable. The Sunday of Bonnaroo is quite a calmer affair than the rest of the weekend, and the Punch Brothers set a perfect soundtrack for the tired (yet still excited) crowds.
Closing out Which Stage on Sunday was Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters. I haven’t been keeping up with Robert Plant much these days, but I’d heard rumors that he was performing with this particular backup group because his once strong voice was failing. However, unless I was simply hearing a sneaky recording of Plant’s howling vocals in “Black Dog,” this is not the case. There were a few moments during quieter songs when G-Eazy could be heard from his set at This Tent, but I think that was more a reflection of the acoustics of the open area between Which Stage and This Tent than any issues with Plant’s set.
By the time Billy Joel’s set began at What Stage, Bonnaroo was clearly winding down. We had packed up all of our stuff, and some of our neighbors had even left–it seemed like a lot of the crowd hadn’t come for him (in contrast to headliner Elton John’s strong showing last year). However, upon arriving to What Stage, the crowd that was there–and make no mistake, there were still a ton of people–thoroughly enjoyed Joel’s career-spanning set, singing along with classics like “Pressure” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A high point was when Joel whipped out a cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” amping everyone up. Joel closed out with “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” and (of course) “Piano Man,” and the entire audience collectively put its arms around each other and sang along. He may not have had the following that John brought last year, but Billy Joel knows how to please a crowd.
After Joel left the stage, everyone flocked from Centeroo to their respective Pods, and eventually, their respective lives. It’s hard to leave–The Farm has become your home for four days, where you have an address (your camping Pod), a job (if you volunteer or are a vendor) and neighbors, and for a small chunk of time, you forget about the real world and the life you lead outside of it. Your days revolve around music, friends and just enjoying life–it’s hard not to “radiate positivity, and I think that’s why everyone keeps coming back.
All photos courtesy of Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival