You hear it all the time, but Bonnaroo really is a festival unlike any other. It’s brings out an eclectic group of bands that draw an even more diverse group of fans to create the 7th largest town in Tennessee for few days. This is what it’s like to be there out in the crowd, camping in tents with tens of thousands of strangers who come from all corners of the country to see the most talented artists in the world perform in front of the largest audiences of their lives.
So much happens over the course of four short days, but I’ll try to be as concise as possible to take you through the Bonnaroo experience day to day.
Thursday is really about the excitement that the day has finally come to head down to a farm in the middle of Tennessee for one of the greatest music events in the world. Literally overnight, a tent city of 80,000 pops up in a field surrounding Centeroo, which is the actual venue that holds all of the stages and vendors. You arrive with people who have driven from all across the country, our neighbors were from Georgia, Colorado, and North Carolina, and set up your own little community for the weekend.
It seemed that everyone we spoke to was talking about the night’s main attraction, Alabama Shakes, who would come on at 11:30. They played a thrilling set to a crowd of thousands who spilled out every side of the massive This Tent (think Perry’s at Lollapalooza). You could tell that the Alabama Shakes were pouring out everything they had for the largest audience they’ve played to in their young, but exploding career.
Thursday Backstage Performances
Umphrey’s McGee – Booth Love
Feist – How Come You Never Go There
Friday was the first day of the festival where the two main stages, Which Stage and the mammoth What Stage were open with acts. I ran into JB Smoove, stand-up comedian and the character “Leon Black” on one of my favorite shows, Curb Your Enthusiasm, who was more than happy to stop to chat with a fan. We were able to get right up on the rail for Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, who kept the entire crowd dancing with their driving rhythm section, funky horns and booming vocals of Sharon Jones who strutted across the stage the whole show.
Throughout the course of the afternoon, I saw Laura Marling perform a laid-back version of her song, “Sophia.” We also caught a good amount of Fitz & the Tantrums’ set before an enormous crowd at That Tent before we made our way to see Feist, who played one of my current favorites, “How Come You Never Go There.”
We made our way to What Stage in anticipation of Rodrigo Y Gabriela, followed by Radiohead. After a blazing set by the dueling flamenco guitars, backed by the super-tight rhythm section, C.U.B.A. Radiohead, simply put, is why I bought my ticket. They performed favorites such as “Karma Police,” new tracks from King of Limbs like “Separator,” as well as unreleased tracks, “The Daily Mail” and “Identikit.” The band, and their absolutely beautiful backing light show, kept the audience enthralled through throughout their set. We ended Friday with a late-night performance by The Word, which featured Robert Randolph, John Medeski, and North Mississippi Allstars.
Friday Backstage Performances
Avett Brothers – Love Like The Movies
Alabama Shakes – I Ain’t The Same
The Punch Brothers – Movement And Location
Fitz And the Tantrums – MoneyGrabber
Dale Earnhart Jr. Jr – Simple Girl
Two Door Cinema – What You Know
I got a late start on Saturday, not heading into Centeroo until close to 4pm where I saw my first performance of the day, Punch Brothers. Their inventive bluegrass jams were the perfect way to start a brightly sunlit day on the big farm in Tennessee. However, we left a little ways into their set to catch two great back-to-back artists performing on the more intimate Sonic Stage. First up was were the North Mississippi Allstar Duo with their soulful roots rocks, followed immediately by the blues power of Gary Clark Jr.
After this, we headed to What Stage to watch The Roots perform a captivating show, and moved as close as we could for Saturday night’s headliner, Red Hot Chili Peppers. They played songs spanning their entire catalog, including hits such as “Give It Away” and “Under The Bridge,” and some tracks from their new album, like “Look Around.” Being a bass player, I was transfixed during the entire show by the pure energy that Flea exults while onstage. Among some really entertaining banter with the crowd, he also gave a shout-out to his son who was streaming the show live online. We ended the night with a performance by Superjam, which was anchored by ?uestlove and featured musicians he had been performing with for years, including members of The Roots, as well as some former backing musicians for Prince.
Saturday Backstage Performances
LP – Into The Wild
Temper Trap – Need Your Love
I woke up Sunday morning to the sound of raindrops pelting the outside of our tent. The overcast sky and slight drizzle was actually a welcome change of pace for me and the other visibly weary fest-goers as we entered the main gate. My group felt like we hadn’t seen enough bands in the previous few days, so we made it a mission to see as many shows as physically possible on the last day of the festival.
We started off with a second helping of Gary Clark Jr. at What Stage, followed by a quick hit of The Black Lips at Which Stage as we moved towards This Tent for GROUPLOVE. We caught a couple songs, and decided to check out the neighboring Cinema Tent. They were about to show a film called Finding North, which was introduced by Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars, who shared their own personal experiences of hunger in rural America as they related to the documentary.
We had to tear ourselves away from this compelling and beautifully shot film to stick to our plan of absorbing as much music as possible, and headed over to That Tent for The Antlers. We watched about three-quarters of their set, and set out across the Bonnaroo Market to see The Joy Formidable. While we walked up the “street” we heard the sound of horns and drums swelling from behind us as a crowd suddenly gathered to line the walkway. It was the Stooges Brass Band, who decided to take a second line through the heart of the festival. The band stopped as a crowd gathered around to dance to the impromptu performance from the New Orleans brass band.
The Joy Formidable were up next, throwing some much-needed energy into those in attendance with a furious set and some candid commentary on the differences between Manchester, UK and Manchester, TN. After seeing the Shins perform their new song, “Simple Song,” and an older favorite “Caring is Creepy,” we decided to head back to What Stage to get a good spot for the festival’s ultimate headliner, Phish. As has become their Bonnaroo tradition, they invited another festival artist to join them on stage. This year, it was Kenny Rogers, who performed his 1978, “The Gambler” with the band in the middle of their first set which was filled with some fan favorites such “Cavern,” “Wilson,” and “Tweezer.” Set two featured a few eclectic covers, including “Golden Age” by TV On The Radio, “2001″ – Phish’s take on Deodato’s version of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathrusta” – and “Rock & Roll” by The Velvet Underground.
It was one of the best Phish shows I’ve ever seen (though I kind of feel like that after every time I see them), but was bittersweet because after the show we realized it was the finale of one of the greatest weekends of music we’d ever experience.
Sunday Backstage Performances
Delta Spirit – Empty House
The Shins – It’s Only Life
Group Love – Tongue Tied