Live Nation will ruin Bonnaroo. Coffee County’s new DA will ruin Bonnaroo. Bonnaroo will ruin Bonnaroo. The list of things that will end Bonnaroo never seems to end, but the festival keeps going, improving, and growing. Coming from a veteran of seven years, the festival’s infrastructure and experience has never been stronger.
This year saw several new and rather large improvements to the grounds, including a couple groups of flushable porta-johns (which did amazing things for the smell walking into Centeroo); large screens outside all the tents, which changed the vibe from one of frustration for many to a more relaxed, sit-down experience; and lastly, yet another year of growth for shade trees planted on the Farm a few years back.
It was a dusty, hot year, however. By Sunday, facemasks were widely accepted apparel. As the crowd rushed in to the What Stage area on Sunday, an intense dust storm kicked up behind them the closely resembled something you’d see in a desert, or Mars, perhaps.
Thursday continued to be a day for the new. Unlocking the Truth started off what would turn out to be one of the stronger metal lineups the festival has had. The insanely young thrash metal band from Brooklyn got several mosh pits going, which is several more than there are at Bonnaroo some years. Ryn Weaver played several songs off her new album, The Fool. She did suffer from poor sound from which The Other Tent seemed to suffer for a large portion of the weekend. Unless you were right underneath it, you had better luck hearing what was going on at other stages.
As dark approached, a crowd gathered under the newly placed disco ball that had been previously topped by the clock tower. Excitement grew as the end of the parade promised the opening of the Grove. The area would supposedly add whimsy to a festival jam-packed with it. As the lit-art cars approached, a ring of enclosed porto-johns opened and people wearing little more than see-through raincoats and clear umbrellas emerged. The crowd quickly caught on and ran into the area. Over the weekend, the Grove featured insane dance parties, magic acts, and plenty of time to relax in hammocks. As a side note, there have also been reports of people emerging from the Grove with poison ivy.
Other Thursday highlights included the comedy stylings of Ron Funches and Cameron Esposito; an advance screening of Trainwreck, the new film featuring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader; and Vernor Winfield Macbriare Smith IV, aka Canadian singer-songwriter Mac Demarco.
With the sun and Tennessee humidity oppressively beating down like Apollo unhitched his carriage and took a break directly over the farm, Friday was a day not to be taken lightly. Metal bands generally don’t come along with bright sunlight and drinking as much water as possible, but Pallbearer and Brownout (presents Black Sabbath) both received the opportunity to bring their sludgy sounds to an otherwise bone-dry day.
Pallbearer vocalist Brett Campbell quipped that it was unfortunate the festival had booked “two Black Sabbath cover bands” in the same timeslot. He most likely noticed the crowd, albeit enthusiastic, was rather thin. Metal has a shaky history at the fest, although Tool notably delivered a memorable headlining performance in 2007 and Gwar received a coveted late night spot in 2010. Brownout, on the other hand, swapped out Pallbearer’s doom metal for Latin-infused renditions of Black Sabbath hits and deeper cuts alike.
Continuing the day’s theme of ear-busting rock, Royal Blood took the Which Stage in a fashion that would be impressive for someone on their 3rd or 4th Bonnaroo. The U.K. duo was not overwhelmed by the size of the gathering crowd but right at home as they continue playing to massive festival crowds worldwide. Running through their entire discography (all one album), they took little time for chatter and only a few brief moments to look over the crowd and soak it in.
Bonnaroo veterans would consume most of the next several hours. Ben Folds brought along Y Music to play an almost entirely new set of songs that will be released in the fall. Folds noted that everyone in the crowd must be very smart to have come seen a chamber ensemble. The band was not enough, however, as he often turned the entire audience into an instrument, bringing beautiful music from both behind and in front.
Nashville band Moon Taxi has been at the festival what seems like…every year. This year, however, felt different. They captivated a large Which Stage crowd and worked them into frenzy with their combination of indie and jam sounds, which no doubt has been developed and influenced by playing Bonnaroo over the years. They are a band that could easily play with Walk the Moon or Phish, and they closed their set with an excellent cover of “Wake Up” by Rage Against the Machine. If that doesn’t get your interest, keep listening to your Florida Georgia Line album.
The night suffered from what felt like the lack of headliner. Technically, Kendrick Lamar and Deadmau5 held the title, but the fact neither were unopposed seemed to give away the festival also felt like neither could please a large enough audience. If anyone after dark put on a headline-worthy set, no one received more buzz the rest of the festival than Earth, Wind and Fire. That’s right: A band more used to playing at performing arts centers delivered a packed set to twenty-somethings while Deadmau5 was showing off his new toys and Run the Jewels were putting on one of the best hip-hop sets in Bonnaroo history.
Saturday morning starts out with the feeling that two more days are an eternity. Saturday night brings the realization that this is your last chance to listen to music until sunrise for another year. Andrew Hozier-Byrne, aka Hozier, felt like the perfect Bonnaroo act. He may be Irish, but somewhere in there is a little Tennessee. His presence is captivating and his voice smooth as apple butter on a hot summer day. One could easily see him playing in the same place a few years later, after another successful album or two.
My Morning Jacket are the consummate Bonnaroo musicians. Enough hits to bring in a crowd, enough jam to keep the old-school Bonnaroovians happy, and enough sound to fill the entire What Stage field with dreamers soaring through the cool night air. Their new (excellent) album felt right at home with a heavy dose of songs from Z and It Still Moves. Jim James isn’t the reincarnation of Jerry Garcia, but My Morning Jacket may be the closest thing this generation has to a band that knows how to jam, yet also keeps the casual interest of the many with solid singles.
After two solid hours of My Morning Jacket, having Mumford and Sons to follow felt excessive coming after a night with lesser headliners. Their new album may be the definition of meh, but the band had something to prove after missing its last headlining Bonnaroo gig due to bassist Ted Dwane’s requiring surgery to treat a blood clot. The band made light of the situation, but took its redemption very seriously. They (as well as their stage) looked the part of headliner, and the setlist followed suit. The band is used to pulling out special guests on the farm, and this time was no different as My Morning Jacket, Hozier, Ed Helms, and members from several other bands came out to perform “With a Little Help from My Friends” (the Joe Cocker version) to close out the night.
Walking back into Centeroo, an amazing (or devastating) realization set in. Bassnectar had begun on the Which Stage. What that essentially meant was you were either about to jump into a crazy rave, or about to hear a crazy rave while you watched D’Angelo bring his new album to fruition. In the case of the latter, it was very disappointing to find that, unless you were right underneath the This Tent, your chances of hearing any of D’Angelo were next to zero.
Things were slightly better over for the Superjam at the Other Tent. Producer Pretty Lights, DMC, Robert Trujillo (Metallica), Jack Antonoff (Bleachers/fun.), Chance the Rapper, and Jamie Lidell promised to bring a throwback dance party. What actually happened was fun, but a bit disjointed. Zach Galifinakis and Jon Hamm kicked off the party. After a few songs, things devolved into a Pretty Lights set, which was great but not as advertised. The mix of metal, pop, hip-hop, and soul didn’t leave much room for continuity as the vibe constantly shifted between headbanging, dancing, and awkwardly waiting for the next act to get its mic ready. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but calling it a dance party might be going a bit far.
Sunday is a more laid-back Bonnaroo experience. There isn’t very much EDM left, so many who came just for the party head out early or stay at camp for the majority of the day. It is a day for those aware of the marathon ahead on Thursday. There were, however, lots of great tunes that a large portion of the crowd could enjoy. Robert Plant led the Sensational Space Shifters through a solid career-spanning set that saw him put a twist on classic Led Zeppelin songs “The Lemon Song” and “Rock and Roll.” If you are against revisionism of art, his set would most like cause more pain than joy, but given how long he has been performing, it’s only fair that he should still be able to enjoy the songs, as well.
Twenty One Pilots win for having the set that caused the most number of dust tornadoes. As the What Stage gates opened around 2:00 p.m., somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 to 5,000 people rushed in for a chance to stand in the sun and get as close to the stage as possible. Though the band arrived close to half an hour later than scheduled (supposedly due to Bonnaroo forcing them to sign anti-climbing stuff paperwork), they quickly got the crowd jumping and climbing on each other’s backs. Twenty One Pilots undoubtedly spent more time in the crowd than any act all weekend, and ended in a climactic version of “Guns for Hands” with drummer Josh Dunn and singer Tyler Joseph riding the crowd on top of drum kits as confetti covered the sky over the pit.
Thankfully for those looking for something besides Billy Joel, the Bluegrass Superjam ran late and seemingly featured every musician still on the grounds. Annually curated by Ed Helms, this year’s version of The Bluegrass Situation featured Trampled by Turtles, Punch Brothers, Rhiannon Giddens, Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn, Jerry Douglas, Shakey Graves, and probably more. The group covered staples of Bluegrass music as well as other songs throughout pop culture. One cover featured Shakey Graves singing through “Little Red Corvette.”
All good things must end. Though few in attendance could admit to having actually seen Joel, the man from the Bronx did a fairly successful job of wrapping things up. Some odd things occurred. For instance, did anyone need to hear his backing band cover AC/DC and ZZ Top? Even Joel asked the crowd to stop him if it was awful, but Southerners are too kind for that. The rest of the set was a tight collection of hits that put him on par with the last two Sunday headliners Elton John and Tom Petty.
Bonnaroo is unique in that its crowd (in large part) is composed of true music lovers. You don’t come to the middle of nowhere in Tennessee to be seen or noticed. You don’t bake all day to check one or two bands off your list. You’re just as likely to see 70-year-olds in the audience at Childish Gambino or Twenty One Pilots as you are to see teenagers at Billy Joel or Robert Plant. We are just music lovers coming together to share in a judgement-free zone, and dance. | Bruce Matlock