Our Digital Music Supervisor, Cameron, writes about his experiences at Bonnaroo!
The large majority of Bonnaroo’s almost 100,000 attendees camp in makeshift rows of cars, tents, and RVs amongst the campground’s sprawling fields. The weather is humid, sometimes rainy, and always sweltering. It lacks the busy, metropolitan atmosphere of Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, and Miami’s own Ultra. Yet for all the festival’s sweat, grime, exhaustion, and haphazardness, it’s an experience like no other. While Bonnaroo’s environment might shy some away from the festival, those who are drawn in form an immediate bond over both music and circumstance. The people at Bonnaroo are some of the friendliest and most welcoming around, and that makes all the difference in the world in the midst of a shoulder-to-shoulder sea of fans crowding around a packed stage.
But Bonnaroo isn’t all campgrounds and summer heat. This year’s lineup boasted hundreds of reasons, big and small, for music fans of all genres to brave the great outdoors. Chief among them was Sir Paul McCartney, easily the most recognizable artist at Bonnaroo, if not in the entire world. The former Beatle brought an audience that was as equally diverse as it was massive, and put on a show unlike any other. Seeing the living legend play over two hours of classic Beatles and Wings songs bordered on the surreal. Jack Johnson played Saturday night due to Mumford & Sons last minute cancellation, and proved to be one of the weekend’s biggest surprises. I knew only a handful of his songs, but was content just relaxing to his easygoing and simply fun performance. Pre-headliners Björk and Wilco put on a pair of great shows that were hindered by minor problems. The latter, despite a stellar performance and setlist, seemed to suffer from an unenthusiastic crowd. While big Wilco fans like myself probably left the show more than pleased, much of the audience (who were probably scoping out good spots for Sir Paul) seemed either unimpressed or unfamiliar with the band. The former constructed a career-spanning set that was only aided by the spectacle of her stage show. Unfortunately the Icelander’s evening time slot was still during daylight hours, whereas a late night show would have heightened its aesthetics.
Late night shows are a large part of what sets Bonnaroo apart from other festivals. They’re the after party to each night’s big name headliners, and often stretch into the early hours of the morning. This year, Animal Collective provided one of the most impressive late night sets. The band’s eccentricity and fluorescent stage setup paired well with their 2am time slot as they played songs off their latest album, Centipede Hz,as well as some fan favorites like “Peacebone”, “My Girls”, and “The Purple Bottle”. The later time slots also showcased another Bonnaroo mainstay: the Superjam. Every year the festival brings together a host of disparate artists to play together on one stage and put on a truly unique production. This year offered three Superjams, two of which I saw. The first was hip-hop themed and feature DJ Jazzy Jeff, Solange, funk band Lettuce, members of the Wu Tang Clan, and plenty of surprise guests. The second was centered around soul music and was hosted by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. He was joined onstage by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, legendary Sly Stone bass player Larry Graham, John Oates, Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, and plenty more. Together they covered classic soul, R&B, and rock and roll tracks including Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up”, Prince’s “1999”, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”, and a collection of Sly & the Family Stone hits. This was one of my favorite shows of the festival. The setlist was fantastic, everyone in the audience was having a great time, and the hodgepodge group played together seamlessly, creating a once in a lifetime show. Thursday night offers the first shows of the Bonnaroo weekend, and typically favors up-and-coming artists. One of the first shows I caught that night was Canadian rock duo Japandroids. Unfortunately the band’s sound mixing was off the whole night and everything came out muddy and indistinguishable. Purity Ring also played that night, although I think I may have been more mesmerized by their entrancing light show than their live sound. Alt-J, one of the final acts Thursday night, played to a packed crowd that was a testament to how popular the band had become since the release of their debut album in 2012. Despite not being able to see them through the swarms of people, the band sounded great as they ran through hits like “Breezeblocks” and “Tessellate”.
Among the standouts during Bonnaroo’s daylight hours was Tame Impala. The Australian psych-rock band’s thick, layered sound filled a packed tent perfectly. Songs from their first record and last year’s Lonerismwere turned into extended jams that segued into one another really well. I had the pleasure of seeing Canadian artist Mac Demarco twice at Bonnaroo, and both shows felt brilliantly funny and carefree. Demarco displayed his great stage presence, and engaged the crowd with silly covers of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Bussiness” in between songs from his most recent 2. British band Foals and New Orleans artist Trombone Shorty both put on dynamic afternoon shows while Swedish singer songwriter the Tallest Man on Earth performed a quiet and affecting solo acoustic set. The Dirty Projectors, touring in support of last year’s Swing Lo Magellan, sounded phenomenal. The band was well rehearsed and able to hit the complex rhythms and vocal harmonies that feature many of their songs. On the other hand, experimental rap group Death Grips put on one of the most disappointing shows of the weekend. I was excited to see how their raw, intense sound would translate to the stage. Drummer Zach Hill wasn’t able to make the show which took a lot of the punch out of their Bonnaroo performance. Back on the mainstage, indie rock veterans the National proved to be more energetic than their more melancholy records might suggest. Singer Matt Berninger gave some of the festival’s most passionate performances as the band played songs from this year’s Trouble Will Find Meto open for Bonnaroo closer Tom Petty.
Bonnaroo once again proved that it is the premierfestival in the American South. Those willing to make the journey and weather the conditions are rewarded with a wealth of diversity in music as well as interesting people.