It’s hard to believe that the 16th installment of Bonnaroo already came and went, and here we are, two weeks into the Bonnaroo Blues and I’m just finally slowing down to reflect on it.
And while Bonnaroo 2016 left much to be desired, SVV and I both agreed that Bonnaroo 2017 was probably our favorite year so far. And I’ve been nine times to date, too (NINE!).
A lot of that had to do with the fact that we housed a cumulative 14 humans(!) and 4 canines(!) on a rolling basis in the week leading up to and during Bonnaroo. That might sound like a nightmare in the making for some people, but for me, it was a dream. This old house was meant to be lived in and loved on, and I was thrilled when the Wailing Loons returned for another Roo, Alex came back to the Farm again and brought her family down from New York for their first one, and my Nashville friends Matt, Jason and Michael decided to head down last minute. Full house = happy house. It felt like one big college slumber party all over again!
Alex and Kristin at Roo 2015 vs. 2017
Each year, my Bonnaroo recap looks a little different. Sometimes, it’s superlatives; other times, it’s a full-blown recap; sometimes, it’s service-oriented tips. This time, it’s a patchwork quilt of a little bit of everything all rolled into one.
But First, Some Roo History
Some of you, no doubt, have never been to Bonnaroo, nor do you know the festival’s origins. I had the distinct pleasure of growing up in the county and seeing the fest from when it was a seedling of an idea. In fact, the first iteration of Bonnaroo took place when I was still in high school.
And when the creators of the short-lived Itchycoo Park chose Manchester as the site of their music festival at the turn of the millennium, that decision was no doubt met with some raised eyebrows. Who could blame the critics? After all, it was the dawn of Napster and online streaming, and the founders were already dealing with a rapidly changing music industry while targeting an older—or at least, different—demographic than your typical camping festival traveler while focusing on artists popular in the groovy 70’s and the ballad-filled 80’s (think: Sammy Hagar, STYX, John Kay & Steppenwolf).
Not to mention, they chose to do so on a 700-acre farm with very little infrastructure located a half hour outside of the nearest mid-sized city and a full hour from Nashville.
And though that particular endeavor flopped famously, the small, 10,000-person community found its way onto the global map nevertheless thanks to the success of Bonnaroo, which picked up where Itchycoo left off—only with bigger, better and more thoughtful aspirations—in 2002. Only a year after its first go, Bonnaroo drew in such acts as Flaming Lips, Neil Young & Crazy Horse and James Brown; 15 years following that, it not only continues to thrive, but grow. Bonnaroo accomplished what Itchycoo could not: fill a void the festival community was clearly lacking.
More Than Just Music
If you happened to read my National Geographic essay on Bonnaroo, you’ll know that Bonnaroo isn’t just music. It’s also sustainability and food, fitness and education. It’s full of craftsmen selling their wares, artists displaying their art. It’s lawyers and accountants and students and unemployed folks. It’s campers—some in luxe RVs, others in sleeping bags—and day trippers. It’s young and old and somewhere in the middle, white and black and green and purple and everything in between. It’s not any one thing, and thus it has something for everyone.
This year, I didn’t go to see any of the art exhibits. I didn’t bust my ass to flit from one stage to the next trying to catch up with friends. I didn’t poke into any one shop or buy a thing that wasn’t edible. Rather, I made my base—sometimes, completely alone—out of the Broo’ers tent and just soaked up the atmosphere, feeling grateful an event like this takes place in my metaphorical backyard each year.
I’ve also learned to implement one rule with all house guests going forward, and that’s this: Have a meeting place at the end of the day if carpooling, but let yourself just be. Don’t waste all your time trying to get your iPhone to send a text through to find out where your friends are and then trying to coordinate among the crowds and throngs of people trying to do the same.
Enjoy the fact that Bonnaroo is one of the safest-feeling places you’ll ever be while surrounded by more than 50,000 strangers all of whom are your friends for the weekend, no matter their religion or race or political affiliation. I love that in a day and age where politics and religious beliefs have ripped our world in a million fragmented pieces, this little utopia still exists for four days each year.
But Also—Let’s Be Honest—It’s the Music
Past Roo acts have included Paul McCartney, Elton John, Billy Joel, The Police, Bruce Springsteen, Macklemore, Chris Stapleton, Grace Potter, Haim, Judd Apatow, Sam Hunt, Jason Isbell, Ellie Goulding, Jack Johnson, Mumford & Sons, the list goes on and on. The one common thread is that each year, upward of 150 acts take to the various stages throughout the four-day event.
Last year’s lineup, which included Pearl Jam and the Dead & Company as top billing, didn’t attract much of a crowd in Roo terms; in fact, only 44,000 people came out for the festival, compared to the 75,000 to 100,000 attendees it usually draws. This year, however, attendance was up by nearly 50 percent from last year, thanks in part to U2 (who was, no doubt, my favorite act of the fest), Lorde, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Weeknd.
I also think that AC Entertainment was smart in diversifying the talent to include a number of Millennial (and younger) draws like Chance the Rapper, who did a solid hour rap show with everyone up on two feet bouncing in the air, and then went into full-on gospel mode for the last half hour (it was the most disjointed set I’ve ever seen in my life and I’m still not entirely sure what happened there).
Still, never has the demographic of attendees felt so spread out as this year, and that’s a good thing for Bonnaroo in the long run as it needs to continue to attract younger festival-goers, along with the veterans (side note: my mom joined us for her 15th Bonnaroo!!!).
There’s Always Something New to Try
Alex dragged me out of my bed on a sleepy Sunday morning to go to the Comedy & Cinema Tent for a movie. I know what you’re thinking—A MOVIE? AT BONNAROO? I think that was similar to how my internal monologue went, too—and yet the description of Ingrid Goes West about an influencer wannabe who stalks Instagram celebrities online and Single White Females them was something I just had to see.
This dark comedy was funny, charming, a bit disturbing and had Alex and me LOLing all over the place. After it was over, Aubrey Plaza and the director Matt Spicer took to the stage for a Q&A. Aubrey is every bit as awkward IRL as her characters would lead you to believe, and I’m only a bit sad that her movie co-stars Elizabeth Olsen and O’Shea Jackson Jr. weren’t on hand to chat, too.
The Food Is Still Good
Every year, Oxfam America and Eat for Equity host a couple of BonnaROOTS Community Dinners, and there’s always more than 50 options available in the Food Truck Oasis and within the vendor rows. Bonnaroo veterans who returned this year include Prater’s BBQ, Spicy Pie, Baconland, Amish Baking Company and many, many more. There wasn’t too much that was new in the food arena this year—actually, I’d say if you factor in the artist hospitality, VIP and media areas, there were less food options available than in years past—but it was still a feast for epicures like myself.
As usual, the Amish donuts took the top vote in my mind with Humpty’s Dumplings out of Philly tying them for my favorite food of the weekend (though the three Roti Rolls I had did not suck one bit).
All in all, if the next Bonnaroo is anything like this year’s, you should definitely put it on your docket when plotting out your summer 2018 travels.