Every year, tens of thousands of festival lovers (to the heights of 80,000 to be exact) travel to Manchester, TN for one of America’s most well know festivals, Bonnaroo. This music and arts festival has a whirlwind of opportunities for its festival-goers, going way beyond the music itself. From the hammock haven found in the shadows of the only trees of the campgrounds, to the comedy tent hidden inside Centeroo, there is constant activity to please all likings. But with 125+ artists across 8 stages (including the silent disco) how can one decide their destiny in this 4-day chose-your-own-adventure festival? Here’s the run-down of what we saw, what we learned, and why we will ALWAYS be the first ones buying our tickets to Bonnaroo.
THURSDAY: DAY 1
First day on the farm is of course overwhelming. The campground is slowing filling, the Bonnarovians (the official name given to the inhabitants of the farm) are out and about and exploring what greatness this festival is about to provide for the next 4 days. Not to mention the spectacular line up in which Bonnaroo did not feel shy.
Starting out our line up for the festival, we saw Temples. Their lights and 70’s inspired melodies (and hair) revved the crowd in preparation for the balance of the evening on the highly anticipated first day. Playing each of our favorites, Temples rocked their golden hour, and left us wishing they would play Shelter over and over again as the sound reverberated throughout the packed tent.
Through the rest of the evening, we moved from space to space and were able to catch hints of The Growlers and Glass Animals, both pulling impressive crowds for a not yet fully populated festival. Courtney Barnett however, stole our attention as her femme fatal rock played into the crowd. Of course she played our favorite hits, History Eraser and Pedestrian at Best, and the crowd agreed with our taste as they screamed out the lyrics and swatted at the copious amounts of balloons soaring through the air. At this point, we couldn’t get enough of her kick ass energy and were left feeling ferocious and ready to be the next female ruler.
As the night continued, you would have to say that Mac Demarco and his trio of equally weird bandmates took the cake when they trekked all the way to Tennessee to camp in the excessive heat. Demarco proceeded to introduce each song with his famously creepy voice, like the one your parents told you to always run away from, while alternatively swooning the crowd with his latest hits; Salad Days, Blue Boy, and Freaking Out the Neighborhood being the stand out songs of the set. And just to top their night off, Demarco and band claimed to be on a mission to set the world record for the most crowd members on top of other crowd member’s shoulders. Like any beast would, I hopped onto of my neighbor’s shoulders to join in on the mission for Demarco’s claim to fame.
FRIDAY: DAY 2
Day 2 on the farm welcomed us with a wave of heat, promptly at 7:30AM, and the only cure was to explore the vast campground and accompanying art scene. As mentioned before, the farm offers their Bonnarovians a hammock haven hidden in the only natural shade found on the festival grounds – but you better claim your hammock early, because they were a hot commodity (pun intended). Through the hammocks, we found tables for crafts. Yes crafts. All materials needed for bedazzling the official shoe of Bonnaroo, the Teva sandal. But if arts and crafts weren’t your jam, Centeroo offered a variety of art venders spanning from unique, one-of-a-kind prints, to specialized body art drawing.
As the heat (sort of) let up, our impatience got the best of us and we headed off to the tents to start the day. Opening our lineup for the afternoon was Rustie, the Scottish electronic artist from Glasgow. His instrumental mix between electronic and hip-hop electrified the crowd as they jumped to each beat in unintentional synchronized fashion. A crowd pleaser to the max, he gave a performance that goes to show the variety of electronic we’ve come to recognize within the past couple of years. To keep the electro buzz strong, Unknown Mortal Orchestra hit our next chord as they overflowed the tent pleasing us with old hits and ending strong with one of their latest (and excellent) releases, Can’t Keep Checking My Phone.
The show stopper of the day was of course, Alabama Shakes. Lead singer Brittney Howard owned the stage immediately as she stepped foot into the crowd’s sight. Playing hits from their latest album, Sound and Color, Alabama Shakes could not disappoint, and their appreciation of the massive crowd presence did not fall unseen. Mid performance, Howard pauses, “I don’t even know what to say,” as she scans the crowd in amazement. After a long silence and a soulful sigh, she proceeds with “thank you. Now we can move on” and continues the set to play everything, but their original hit Hold On.
The rest of Day 2 was spent idolizing our past, listening to Tears for Fears and replaying Donnie Darko over and over in our heads. Standing behind the crowd you couldn’t tell what was clearer, the band’s voices or the crowd belting out Everyone Wants to Rule the World.
SATURDAY: DAY 3
The third day of Bonnaroo was by far the most loaded of the weekend. (So many artists, with so few hours in the day.) Being the mid west gal that I am, seeing PHOX was first on our list. Having the chance to see a familiar face on stage was a breath of fresh air, just like the band itself. The eclectic group, made up of lead singer Monica Martin along with 5 other Baraboo, Wisconsin friends, I like to label as a mix between Beirut, Alabama Shakes and Amy Winehouse. Their soulful sound and quirky character gives a whole new take on indie pop. After their performance, with a special cover of Blink 182’s I Miss You, I was able to sit down with Ms. Martin and uncover her thoughts on Bonnaroo and festival life itself.
You guys have played at so many festivals this year, so far what has been your favorite?
Sasquatch is perfect, Newport Folk Festival is perfect, Coachella is a whole different animal and it’s a scary one to me but I also acknowledge that people really get into it.
And how do you feel about Bonnaroo?
Oh right, I should talk about this one. It’s great, it’s really really great. I like it.
Since you’re not able to hang out long, what artists are you most disappointed to miss?
Not just because he’s sitting right here, but Shakey Graves. I would love to see them play. I’m also sad that we’re missing Bahamas, they’re great. But we are playing a one off show with them soon, so I’m excited for that. Umm, D’Angelo. I really wish I could see D’Angelo. I mean who I really wanted to see I got to see and that was Kendrick Lamar last night.
Oh so you guys stayed last night, did you camp?
I did, I stayed, I camped! That was weird. That was a new experience.
Camping can be sort of terrible.
It’s a thing. It was weird. Part of me would rather just go camping.
OK, and one last question- If you could describe PHOX in three words what would it be?
Oh man. Three words. Confused eighth grader. I would elaborate more, but I’ve only got three words.
As Monica and I parted ways, Atypical Sounds kept up on the folk inspired trend and watched Woods, the folk rock band from Brooklyn take over the tent and wow the crowd with Shepherd and Moving to the Left from their latest album ‘With Light and Love’. From there we saw Trampled by Turtles (another mid west favorite) lure in the crowd at the main stage, and we danced away the afternoon to the feet tapping, head bobbing blue grass perfection.
Changing gears for the balance of the afternoon to some synth-pop, we had the chance to catch Phoebe Ryan at her first ever performance at Bonnaroo. Playing at the smallest of the spaces Ms. Ryan surely did not disappoint as she owned the stage and kept the crowd singing along with her biggest hit Ignition/Do You.. (Mashup). Later in the weekend we had the opportunity to sit down with Ryan and talk about her latest EP released Tuesday, June 9th , and her thoughts on her very first performance at the farm.
You released your first EP last week. How does it feel to have all that hard work finally out there?
It feels amazing! It’s literally been a year in the making. A year ago I flew down to Nashville for the summer and started writing the EP, and now here I am back in Tennesee. It’s mind-blowing.
This is your first year at Bonnaroo! How did you feel?
I love it. The vibes are so great, people are getting weird here, I love it
There is definitely a little bit of everything here!
Yea it’s wild, I’m a supporter! A supporter of the weirdness.
Have you been able to see any other performances while you’re here?
I haven’t been able to see as many as I wanted to, but I did get to catch Tove Lo’s set and I saw my friend Kevin Garrett. It’s been pretty great.
Anyone you regret not being able to see?
Haha everyone! Everyone is so cool, I wish I had more time to observe.
We definitely will keep an eye out for Ryan as she’s working on a new album this summer and just released a new single, We Won’t, with Jaymes Young. We are pretty sure that although her set at Bonnaroo was killer, the best is definitely yet to come.
Another indie-pop band that grabbed our attention was Belle and Sebastian. Their happy-go-lucky sound gave the crowd an extra jump of energy on the day, and when we least expected, lead Stuart Murdoch hopped onto the corner amp to shout out his jealousy that in the comedy tent, someone was fed fake gummy bears by a celebrity. His dreams came true (and so did ours) when Jon Hamm waltzed onto the stage to fulfill Murdoch’s fantasy.
The balance of the evening was overtaken by Childish Gambino, playing a variety of hip-hop and soulful power ballads. From was the EDM take over, where Bassnectar lit up the sky with glow stick showers and Flume defined the perfect ending for Bonnaroo Day 3 by playing our favorites Sleepless and Insane and ensuring we dance until the sun comes up on the final and last day of our festival adventure.
SUNDAY: Day 4
The 4th and final day of Bonnaroo. We never thought it would come, nor did we ever want it to. It had been a long hot week and the perfect remedy was to lay low; our blanket game was on point.
Starting out our day we basked in the sun for Spoon. Lead singer and guitarist Britt Daniel captivated the crowd starting the set with old time classics, like The Way We Get By. The band continued to play from their newest album ‘They Want My Soul’ as they threw in old time favorites and ended the set with I Turn My Camera On.
To continue the lounging experience of the day, we sat through parts of Punch Brothers, and Florence and the Machine (knowing she would have an amazing performance after watching her glide across the stage this past Governor’s Ball). We caught Florence just in time to bring a guest from the crowd to the stage (as she had done for past sets), and to get chased by her own security as she continuously ran through the open areas of the venue. Surprisingly quick for having just recently broken her ankle at Coachella this past spring.
A highlight of our evening was Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters. As a music community we’ve grown to love Robert Plant from his role as lead singer of Led Zeppelin, and although he’s at the age of 66, Plant still fully understands how to rock and roll with his crowd. We sang along and watched from afar as Plant played some of Zeppelin’s best hits, which unfortunately did not include Stairway to Heaven.
As all good things must end, it came to be this sad time for Bonnaroo. One last artist and our 4-day adventure was over. We had highly anticipated this performance as not only was Billy Joel the only set of the night, but was also was slotted for a magical 2 and half hours. At the age 66, this New York native vocally amazed us. The field was filled with Bonnaroovians of all sorts and all ages, but somehow Billy Joel pulled everyone together to appreciate these last few moments. Joel played his classic hits, Piano Man, Uptown Girl, and We Didn’t Start the Fire, although we had secretly hoped Vienna would grace the set list. The disappointment set in early, when Joel walked off the stage at 10:15pm, only to be followed by a 20 minute encore and confusing delay before fireworks (his set time was slated for 9pm-11:30pm). Do we wish he played longer, of course. But was this early ending a blessing in disguise, absolutely.
Bonnarovians slowly left Centeroo, forming a mass of walking zombies as they all made their way back to their camps to either pack or pass out before the long (or short) journey home the next day. Despite the heat, and the massive crowds, Bonnaroo holds a dear place in our hearts. It’s not until after you leave, that you realize life on the farm is (debatably) better than life in reality itself.