Clear Skies Over Manchester: Vets and ROOkies Unite For A Growing Festival (Bonnaroo Review)

Feature Image: Courtesy of Thornton Drury

Whether it was the six hours of pure rain that stormed down on us going through Florida that Tuesday afternoon or pre-Bonnaroo jitters, there was something about this festival that was giving it a surreal energy. For a writer on assignment, it may be your typical project. For a photographer, it requires the same amount of dedication to the shot. For a lover of music and a first-time Bonnaroo attendee, this festival completely won my heart over. To put it succinctly, Bonnaroo sets the standard in a industry that has become flooded with other festivals attempting to reach the energy and community created every June in Manchester, Tennessee.

Secret set to kick off Bonnaroo with special appearance from Jason Huber from Cherub. Photo Courtesy of Mandi Nulph.

My Bonnaroo experience opened with the shining Tennesee sun, which was great considering I didn’t have to buy last-minute rain boots. The weather gave us all a reason to throw any worries out of the window, because as soon as those clear skies over Manchester welcomed us on Wednesday, the level of comfort for the rest of the week was high with nature on our side. It also goes without mentioning that an obligatory Wal-Mart run was about to go down before entering the grounds. The whole town looked like it was ready for the influx of visitors that were beginning to make their way into Bonnaroo. The Wal-Mart in Manchester alone was much more organized and stocked than my hometown Wal-Mart, but you could tell it was from years of Bonnaroo experience. The parking lot wasn’t a party but a community of people lying under trees waiting for other cars to caravan inside the grounds. You could tell people some people were there for longer than a day, but the level of peace and sense of community in a simple parking lot captured what kind of week would entail.

Courtesy of Mandi Nulph

There was something about that sky when we were getting our car checked in, a combination of a chilly night forming, orange and purple skies, and thousands of people around you just as excited for a week of pure excitement. As a first-timer to Bonnaroo, dozens of people recommended I give Tent-Only a shot. Since it was the lot directly in front of the arch, it was hectic and full of life 24/7. At first, it felt like a prank. Having to lug equipment from Pod 3 over to the Arch was not to be underestimated. Halfway through the trek of transporting the gear over to tent-only, I kept muttering, “This must be a prank on the new guy.” Shortly after, strangers chipped in to help, and two neighbors at Tent-Only offered their wagons to make the move much easier. This level of community is similar in other camping festivals, but the community of experienced Bonnaroovians blending in with the newcomers made it a level of unconditional love that is hard to come across. Settling in at our site that Wednesday night was lovely, with the weather reminding us it would be on our side this week. It goes without mentioning that creating a bond with your neighbors is essential, and I was able to rough it right next to Bonnaroo hometown heroes the “Church Boners.” They showed us what it meant to party, to be a family, and how the South does it. Let me just say: Southerners do it right.

Church Boners. Courtesy of Mandi Nulph.

For anyone considering Tent-Only in the future:

To a photographer, it’s like having the action come straight to you. To a writer, it makes work as easy as drinking a beer in your front yard as you watch the events unravel themselves. For a lover of music, escape, and a reason to party, it felt like I was home.

After Wednesday night kicked off with everyone exploring the grounds with their wackiest outfits and party favors, you could tell how free you were to be yourself at Bonnaroo. The Soopergroop Party in Groop Camping made it hard to believe that this wasn’t even the first official day.

Planet Roo. Courtesy of Mandi Nulph.

Come the next morning, it was game time. Time to get a meal and shower in, because it was time to explore a huge and mind-blowing place called Centeroo. To put in words how big it really is, well, I’m still trying to make sense of it. The trick is, don’t let it intimidate you. Besides, the names of the stages are The What, The Which, The This, The That, and The Other: it’s meant to confuse every single one of us. So that called for an afternoon stroll through the vendors, the only way I remembered I was still in Tennessee for a moment there. The collection of locals and festival-inspired craftsmanship made for a market for all your festival fan needs from custom guitar picks to very kitschy/nostalgic Pink Floyd shirts.

Photo Courtesy of Yvonne Gougelet.
The Lemon Twigs. Photo Courtesy of Jorge Suarez.

It was so easy to just sit down and talk to someone. It felt like there were thousands of us passing by each other just waiting to see how weird and interesting things can truly get. It was inspiring and eye-opening. It’s not everyday someone tells you to check out a band performing that night because they sound like a mix of The Beatles and The Beach Boys: how can a sane person say no? So, my initial night started with an intimate and extravagant performance from The Lemon Twigs, who played stunning originals like “I Wanna Prove To You” which had me excited for what else I was to come across this week.

As they closed and I was still trying to gather my thoughts of it, I decided to spend the night over at The Other, Bonnaroo’s brand-spanking new stage dedicated to electronic acts. Given it was the first night and no headliners, it was probably the only day I would make my way to this stage, so I might as well get a glance. To be fair, if you ever see Haywyre on a lineup, don’t sleep on this act. His show kicked off the nightfall with an electronic artist equipped to fully shred on the piano. As the night went on, more and more lively and bass-pumping acts came in like Herobust, G Jones, and Ookay. It was a nonstop party with heroes in the alternative electronic realm who stepped away from the EDC/Ultra crowd, which finally deserved a stage at Bonnaroo for the late hours. Only takeaway was, Bonnaroo can truly take advantage of this stage all night long, but this year never went past 3:30 (latest was Big Gigantic on Saturday).

G Jones at The Other. Courtesy of Mandi Nulph.

Remember how I mentioned Tent-Only? There is nothing truly more magical than your alarm for the day being a soundcheck from The XX. 8:30 AM Sun took full force, so I decided to start my day by running over to the What Stage to experience The XX during rehearsal. (Side note: Headliners are known to rehearse the morning of, and being at Tent-Only you were able to get a glimpse at every unplugged moment like this one.)

Photo Courtesy of Yvonne Gougelet.

Friday afternoon was dedicated to further exploring, when I came across the holy grail: The Broo’ers Tent. Not only were Amish Donuts stationed here, but it was a large shaded tent where you could get some of the country’s newest and best craft beer and enjoy it in their beer garden, located promptly by the Which Stage for recommended viewing. The weather remained at a constant beauty, so it only made sense to capture the life near the mushroom: costumes, totems, and groups of truly happy souls frolicking through a mushroom fountain; made a grown man want to do the same (which I obviously did.)

Photo Courtesy of Yvonne Gougelet

Friday was a me day. It was an opportunity to catch some truly big names that Bonnaroo was able curate. Francis and The Lights was the first show I sat in on, which was WOW. The bass sank into your chest as Francis danced like nobody was watching, jumped off stage and ran around the field, and brought out Chance The Rapper for “May I Have This Dance.” A show with that much energy coming from one person doesn’t come very often. It definitely gave me more blood-rushing excitement than any DJ set during the weekend. Then, it was camping time, an opportunity to see The XX at a premiere slot that they deserved for their third time on The Farm. That show was simply elegant and shows how much the three have grown since their debut days. The performance was a sharing of the baton as they took over the lead with moments like Romy saying she, too, gets nervous, followed by her doing a solo performance as Oliver and Jamie gave her room to take over. This was an equal share of the three which, as a fan of Jamie XX behind the turntables, we were able to see as the producer took over as well in a magical moment not everybody is lucky to experience. Please take me back to this night. As for the rest of the night, we got to see mind-tingling performances from Glass Animals playing songs from their How To Be A Human Being album, which was the perfect thing for a Late-Night set. Late-Night set MVP, however, will go to Portugal. The Man, capturing the essence of Metallica and Roger Waters with the full moon hovering over the This Tent with lasers and smoke galore. It was really the best show I have been to all year, and thanks, Bonnaroo, for that.

The XX. Courtesy of Mandi Nulph.

Bonnaroo is the kind of place where you just forget to sleep, because, well, you don’t want to miss out. So, it meant a quick rest at The Grove on Saturday afternoon to really sit on my thoughts of the other night and prepare myself for round two. Saturday was special. Every show blended with each other. The genres blended, and, as a whole, we forgot what separates us as listeners of music, and many of us were able to check out something we normally wouldn’t. If you don’t get what I mean, Bonnaroo was able to program a diverse lineup which featured big-time acts which made people explore passed their taste. Me personally, Saturday night was nonstop shows from Chance The Rapper, Cage The Elephant, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flume, Superjam, and that last-minute Late-Night Umphrey’s McGee set, which reminded us that the people behind Bonnaroo care about the attendees.

Long story short: Shpongle was unable to perform last minute, which resulted in Umphrey’s taking over the Late Night, after many cries from long-time Bonnaroo fans who shouted how essential it was for a jam band to take the night slots as well. Needless to say, every show toppled the energy of the last and made it one more night without sleep, because even the Silent Disco, Snake and Jakes, and the parties in the surrounding pods made you never want to get back to the campsite.

And somehow there it was, Sunday: The final day. I fell in love with the place and was not emotionally ready to say good-bye. I decided to be responsible and load the car up early so that way I could enjoy the rest of the day without a worry of having to pick up that night before leaving. It felt like I was breaking up with Bonnaroo, and I was saying, “C’mon, baby, don’t leave me.” Alas, I embraced it to enjoy the final day. This was the only day I had to check out the Comedy and Cinema tent, which I would recommend regardless of what day you visit. It refreshes you for more music festival marathoning with its circus-like feel, quirky performers, and that A/C. I can see myself going back just for the A/C, but this time it was to see Hannibal Buress. As a long-time fan, I couldn’t miss out on what his set would be like at a festival. To experience something like this, make your way to Roo, because it’s the only music festival with a fully programmed comedy lineup; to some it may sound odd, but it’s the perfect fit once you experience Bonnaroo for yourself. He took the stage alongside DJ Tony Trimm, clips of him fornicating with inanimate objects, and a voice changer equipped to be as honest and gut-wrenchingly hilarious with material focusing on Bonnaroo. It really is a one-of-a-kind experience. Like Bonnaroo and everything around it, the festival itself is a one-of-a-kind experience that no other festival has been able to do for me. Sunday night was a farewell but a happy farewell: knowing I just witnessed one of the coolest, unique, and happiest places on Earth (pfft. Disney.) 

Hannibal Burress. Courtesy of Yvonne Gougelet.

Closing Thoughts of the festival: For many, many months knowing that I would be attending Bonnaroo in June, my mind was not entirely sure what that would mean. I had heard tons about the festival and even more concerning the corporate changes the festival was experiencing. Set aside what loyal fans had to say about its changes and the previous year being a large decline in attendance, 2017 genuinely proved itself to be a crucial year for the future of a place that so many people call home. That, ultimately, is what stuck with me. I had never met so many people in my life who were so happy to be back to a place such as this festival. The loyalty and dedication to the trek back for another year at Bonnaroo is inspiring. It reminds anyone of the importance of life to those who love music and expression of all sorts, and Bonnaroo allows every single one of us to express ourselves in ways I have never seen happen before. If the corporate atmosphere that is taking over Bonnaroo is changing anything, its definitely not that. I can understand that when change is in the midst, it feels like it won’t be for the better, but to be an impartial viewer of the history of Bonnaroo, Bonnaroovians have the last say on the fate of this festival. Lineups will always change with the times, and the acquisition from LiveNation only means that it will be dedicating itself to making sure it will have a a lineup worthy of attracting fans of every age, culture, gender, personality, etc., so they, too, can be a part of the Bonnaroo culture. As for the actual culture of Bonnaroo, as I’ve gathered from long-time attendees, it’s not going anywhere because it’s what makes Bonnaroo such a bucket-list item for music lovers in the first place. 

Bono from U2. Courtesy of Thornton Drury.

Yes, it’s changing. Only for the better. We were able to get more organization, better bathrooms and facilities, a cardless system, and the largest music promotion company in the world dedicated to bringing the world’s largest and upcoming acts to the farm. The headliners this year spoke eons of how much dedication will be put for further years: We got alumni such as Flume, Chance The Rapper, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. We also got legends like U2,which a Bonnaroo ticket price alone would pay for a stadium appearance from them. Not everyone is able to say they saw U2 in his lifetime, but the LiveNation partnership will allow more performances like this to come to the Farm. As for acts like Travis Scott, The Weeknd, and Lorde, it’s the festival’s duty to grow with the music industry. It doesn’t mean that the festival will now only tend to younger audiences, but it must tend to anyone who wants to experience Bonnaroo.

The Weeknd. Courtesy of Thornton Drury.

It’s changing, it’s growing, and it’s in a spot where the future direction is unknown, but after a year like 2017, where we saw extreme care, a growth in attendance, and not a negative comment in sight from attendees, I think festival fans everywhere have plenty to look forward to when it comes to the future of Bonnaroo as one of the true kings of music festivals.

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