As any press materials will tell you, during the weekend of Bonnaroo music festival, the 700-acre farm that contains the stages and attendees turns into the eighth largest city in Tennessee, home to roughly 80,000 campers. Packed tightly against one another with increasingly creative setups, the eclectic variety of Bonnaroo festival-goers mirrors the eclectic variety of the outdoor festival, which aside from its two primary stages, three major tents, and handful of smaller stages, also homes a comedy tent, a film tent, a vast array of shops, education on sustainability, a microbrew festival, a water slide, and even a place to decorate your own hula-hoops. We at Prefix took the Bonnaroo grounds this year to check out everything that makes the festival unique in the canon of the summer festival scene, and here we present our festival report card of the proceedings.
It’s hard to qualify the quality of the bands at any festival that has the sheer variety of Bonnaroo as “bad,” but aside from Radiohead’s typically excellent performance, a strikingly powerful set from Bon Iver, and a conga-line inspiring nostalgia trip from the Beach Boys, the overall band performances of this year’s Bonnaroo were of the good-but-not-great variety.
Thursday night was a warm-up night of sorts for Bonnaroo, as the main What Stage wasn’t opened and the Thursday night lineup lacked a true headliner. Instead, it put together a solid run of young hip-hop acts, with Danny Brown, Yelawolf, and Kendrick Lamar all following each other at a single stage, each bringing a unique take on hip-hop performance to the Tennesee crowd. Brown of course featured his trademark yelp, but also highlighted the woozy, discombobulating aspect of his productions with a brain-crushing bass. Alabama’s Yelawolf was drinking hard liquor on stage as he brazenly attacked his songs, while Kendrick was as focused as an assassin, bringing precision to his Section.80 bars.
On Friday, the festival seemed to open in earnest, as more attendees flooded the grounds, making for a more compact gathering across the grounds. The Kooks brightly colored Brit-pop fit well into the opening of day, waking the crowd up from the previous night’s celebrations. Merril Garbus’ tUnE-yArDs project lost a little of what makes her performances great in the sheer scope of Bonnaroo, but songs like “Gangsta” and “Business” still slayed. For me, one of the biggest surprises for me was how damn good the Avett Brothers turned out to be live, as they had moved from simply performing their songs to truly feeling them. While their music can seem a bit vanilla on record, live their camaraderie and skill brought their songs to life.
Between the Avetts and Friday headliner Radiohead came the Latin instrumental stylings of Rodrigo y Gabriella and C.U.B.A., who brought some 70s Santana-style psychedelia and virtuosity to the stage as the sun (finally, mercifully) began to set. But of course the night belonged to Radiohead, who played a set heavy on In Rainbows and King of Limbs tracks, both of which were given new life in a live setting. Above them, a grid of monitors hung from suspension cords moved around and showed an insane variety of camera angles as the band stormed through new tracks– including the debut of an actually brand new song– and classics from their catalog.
On Saturday, Das Racist took the opportunity of their 2pm set to play a few new songs, freestyle new lyrics to “Women,” announce the official release date of hype man Dapwell’s mix tape (July 1st), and force their entire crowd to look away from the stage and at the fountain behind them, all of which was exactly what I wanted from a Das Racist set. After them, Santigold stormed through a set while being endearing, and Childish Gambino stormed through a set while being annoying, before the Roots, who may now be better known for their Jimmy Fallon band status than their records, played the lights out, locking into near-perfect grooves with muscle and efficiency. At one point, the band brought out returning legendary R&B singer D’Angelo, which was about as soulful as it sounds.
The headliner of the night was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which hardly means anything to indie music fans anymore, and the band seemed to struggle to find the same tight-knit, communal connection to the audience, to their songs, to each other, that the Roots had perfected earlier. Minus John Frusciante, something seemed off about Anthony Kiedis and company the entire night, even when they played stone cold classics like “Under the Bridge.” That weakness ceded the real headlining duties, essentially, to Skrillex, who may kind of awful to listen to on record, but is perfect for a drunken 2pm dance session; all you really need in that case is a lot of bass and a killer light show, both of which Skrillex was more than happy to provide.
The final night of Bonnaroo seemed weirdly subdued, as rain fell overnight and it was overcast throughout the day. Fruit Bats and Here We Go Magic provided mid-tempo hangover relief for the late night Skrillex attendees. Then, in somewhat of a fantastic surprise, The Beach Boys were a perfect nostalgia trip, playing only a few songs from their new record, and instead focusing on all of their old classics with panache, self-deprecating humor, and lifetime’s worth of skill. A conga line may have broken out. We may have joined it. Ben Folds Five made it more difficult to be cynical, as despite a murky mix, the band bashed out its songs with unabashed energy.
The evening was made, however, by Bon Iver, whose subdued songs gained a communal strength in the numbers of Bonnaroo, and Justin Vernon found a crowd willing to turn “The Wolves” triumphant, “Skinny Love” into catharsis, and “Beth/Rest” into an anthem. A smattering of rain came down as the crowd acquiesced to Vernon’s request to split the heavens open on “The Wolves'” “What might have been lost” refrain, in what may have been the festival’s finest moment. And closing out the festival entirely was four hours of Phish, which went pretty much exactly how you might have expected it to.
All in all, the bands at this year’s Bonnaroo were good, played well, didn’t really fuck up, but aside from a few moments of Bon Iver, never really felt transcendent the way a great live show can.
Location & Weather: C+
Maybe this is a biased grade, given that by the time I was done with Bonnaroo my face looked as though someone had decide to stick the whole thing in a fire, but it seemed to me that Manchester, TN was just a wee bit hot, even with the massive shade structures and the 40-foot water slide that the Bonnaroo grounds provided. During the day, it was a struggle to stay cool, even with the abundance of free cold water. I spent $15 on a water mister just to survive the weekend, if that gives you any indication of the heat.
On the positive side, the festival location itself has been specifically built over the years to accommodate what could be a clusterfuck of humanity. The grounds could easily have gone to hell within hours, but newly planted grass and trees, and a smart layout of the campgrounds prevented nature itself from becoming an enemy during the weekend.
Plus, during the evening, temperatures dropped into a perfectly acceptable chill, making it possible for anyone who– as Danny Brown suggested– may have wanted to get freaky in their tents to explore that possibility. Or, you know, if you just wanted to sleep comfortably, that was also an (less exciting) option
Staff & Organization: B-
Staff was no problem the entire festival. Lines due to the bag and body checking were never long in terms of wait time; security was effective but not overzealous; vendors were consistently polite, willing to work with you if your were short a few bucks; drugs were only rarely confiscated. I have to give a sincere kudos to the Bonnaroo staff, even though asking for directions from them often seemed to leave them in a state of confusion.
The sheer variety of things to do was astounding, but it made it almost impossible to see the things you wanted to see. I, for example, wasn’t even able to step foot into the comedy tent, much to my disappointment. In some ways Bonnaroo seems obsessed with the scope of itself, wanting to cram more and more into the same amount of space. Even without adding a single activity, I could probably have spent an entire week on the Bonnaroo grounds to get to seeing even half of what the festival has to offer. Picking between bands is expected, of course, but with activities, films, interactive events, and boutiques, the festival sometimes seemed overstuffed.
Additionally, the facilities for those camping is slowly turning into a have and have-nots situation at Bonnaroo. Just looking at the RV and pre-set VIP camping areas made me long for something as simple as cell phone reception (almost non-existent) and indoor plumbing (almost non-existent). But the dirty, sweaty bits are undeniably part of the Bonnaroo experience, so it’s hard to fault the festival for encouraging bathing yourself by using a water bottle and a washcloth. The outhouses are the bigger problem, as no matter what time you may arrive at them, your chances of finding them clean, stocked with toilet paper, or including any type of sanitary material were next to zero. As a guy, this is less problematic, but I still found myself cringing every time I had to go to the bathroom.
Bonnaroo is an experience. And, if it’s one you’re the least bit curious about, there’s no reason not to take a year to attend. Any of the failures or successes of the festival are ones that you’ll see coming from the moment you buy a ticket, which is a good thing. There are no unfortunate surprises, problems that you would never have expected. Instead, the issues with Bonnaroo are the issues anyone would have with living in a tent city for four nights. The upshot, though, is that you get to see performers like Radiohead, like Bon Iver, like Danny Brown, you get to participate in a community of fellow music lovers, and you get a multitude of different experiences. The biggest issue with this year’s Bonnaroo was simply that it was just another year of Bonnaroo, without the unforgettable moments that can make experiences like it so striking.