The 9th-annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival rocked Manchester, Tennessee, June 10th-13th, bringing nearly 80,000 music fans from around the world to commune in the scorching heat and thick humidity for a string of live music and comedy performances. With so many attendees, Bonnaroo felt like a city unto itself, with enough people to fill FedExForum nearly four times.
Attendees flocked to the 700-acre farm for four nights of awesome acts. This year's lineup, boasting even more variety than prior years, included jam bands, rap, techno DJs, indie rock, punk, Latin alternative, comedy, and more. Fans trudged across Centeroo, the main grounds, to see performers on the various confusingly named stages — What Stage, Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent, and the Other Tent — checking their schedules constantly, saying, "Where is that show again? What Stage? Wait, Which Stage? No, it's That Tent." Fun stuff.
Despite the large crowd, there were no incidences where I felt a hint of danger or saw a fight. In fact, everyone I encountered was nice, talkative, and eager to know me. It was as if we were all one big family; nothing like the standoffishness we encounter in everyday life.
This is probably in part due to the obvious drug culture associated with Bonnaroo. Throughout the weekend, hawkers wandered the grounds offering mind-altering substances, casually catcalling "Molly," "Headies," and "Lucy" as they passed. During the late nights, it sometimes seemed that the entire wide-eyed, jaw-dropped audience, especially at electronica shows on the newly added Lunar Stage, but also at acts like Dave Matthews and the Flaming Lips, were under the influence. Even some vendors' tip jars were labeled "Mushroom & Herb Fund," and event volunteers openly toked pipes under shade trees.
Thursday's opening, which generally features a lineup of lesser-known, up-and-coming artists, went off with a bang. Indie pop band the xx drew a large crowd to That Tent, and Lotus, an instrumental electro-jam band, played the Other Tent late into the night.
However, the Lunar Stage, which kept the party going past 3 a.m., is where most of the action happened, as DJs Dieselboy and Afrojack entranced the audience with their mind-stimulating mixes. There, I watched as a group gathered in awe around a shirtless guy throwing and spinning flashing, stringed glow sticks, the lights blending and twisting together in the dark. The crowd bounced and writhed with the builds and releases in the tracks, which at their peak evoked a plane taking off down a lit-up runway.
The ravers owned the Lunar Stage most of the weekend, with the Crystal Method performing Friday night and Kaskade Saturday.
Friday's crowd swelled in size with bigger acts Tenacious D, the Flaming Lips, and Tori Amos on the roster. Tenacious D drew the largest crowd, performing several hilarious tracks from their Pick of Destiny album, including the infamous rock-off with Satan, "Beelzeboss (The Final Showdown)." A red-faced, horned devil crept in from side stage to join the performance and was ultimately defeated.
The Flaming Lips played a midnight show to a sea of fans, opening with a burst of lights and confetti, as front-man Wayne Coyne rolled off the stage inside a big clear balloon, tumbling and flipping into the crowd.
They performed several originals, including "She Don't Use Jelly," "Do You Realize?," and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" before a trippy, almost unrecognizable special cover set (featuring Stardeath and White Dwarves) from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Coyne spoke to the crowd between songs about the importance of friendship, love, fun, and the brevity of life.
Margaret Cho performed in the Comedy Tent, but one of her openers, Reggie Watts, stole the show, keeping the audience rolling throughout his performance. "What's with these ladies? Always sitting down, then getting up and walking through doorways. Then picking up stuff," he mumbled. "And men ain't no better. Always leanin' on stuff. What's up with that?" He also included a song about women carrying giant purses. Silly, but very funny.
Friday's lineup also included the banjo stylings of actor/comedian Steve Martin, as he jammed with the Steep Canyon Rangers at That Tent, and Les Claypool, in his final solo live performance before going back on tour with Primus this summer.
During the nights, as sore-footed fans retired from Centeroo and hiked back to their campgrounds, long lines formed for Porta-Johns and food vendors. Back in the tent, distant cheers from the all-nighters, bursts of beats and music, and the humming of campers' generators made it hard to drift off to sleep. Mornings were harsh waking up to the heat.
The afternoons were harsher, with temps in the mid-90s, and the heat index even higher. But I toughed it out to explore the expanse of arts-and-crafts vendors and the various art installations, like the giant bobbleheads and the mushroom fountain, where sweaty attendees went to cool off and clean up.
Days were also a good time to people-watch. Bare-breasted and body-painted women and men in skirts and speedos trolled the grounds. Anything goes.
Saturday brought with it several classic acts — the godfathers of grunge, the Melvins, performing an early-evening set and rocking the crowd with their sometimes off-key guitar riffs and the wailing vocals of Buzz Osborne, whose music obviously influenced '90s grunge kings Nirvana.
Weezer played to yet another bursting-at-the-seams crowd on Which Stage. Weezer's set included oldies, such as "Say It Ain't So," "Why Bother," and "Undone — The Sweater Song." They covered MGMT's "Kids," mashing it up with Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," and closed with "Buddy Holly" as thousands of fans sang along.
The Comedy Tent was nearly impossible to get into, with long lines for Conan O'Brien and Aziz Ansari. I wasn't able to catch either act.
Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z closed the main stage Saturday night with back-to-back performances.
Day four was the hottest yet, or it seemed that way after three grueling days and nights in the muggy Tennessee weather. The crowd thinned out a bit as some people packed up and went home early. Those who stayed lay on blankets, napping in the sun, squeezing into the sparse shady areas trying to catch a break from the heat.
Old-school alt-rockers Ween performed the starry, psychedelic tune "The Mollusk," among others, including a cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance." Later, Medeski, Martin & Wood played to Bonnaroo's hardcore hippies as the sun finally started to fall behind the stage. Many fans danced, some creatively with umbrellas and hula hoops. Other flailed their bodies with every twang of the guitar.
Finally, the Dave Matthews Band lit up the main stage, ending the weekend-long miserably tiresome but equally awesome spectacle. Matthews performed old favorites "Two Step" and "Tripping Billies," as well as newer tracks from Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. The band jammed it out hard, and, at one point, saxophonist Jeff Coffin played two of the instruments at once. It was a great way to bid farewell to one of the biggest and best music-fest experiences in America.