Every year, the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival temporarily becomes the seventh largest city in the state of Tennessee. Thousands of music fans flock to a 700-acre farm in Manchester—a rural town located an hour southeast of Nashville—and construct their five-day civilization. From their cars, the festival-goers erect their own personalized dwellings on the massive fields of dried, sun-smoked grass. One group pulls five cars close together, the front grills facing one another. They hang blankets and tapestries from a pop-up awning and run fans to the portable generator in the back of a pickup truck, building their own yurt in an impressive display of preparation that can only come from previous years on “The Farm.”
The expansive campsite is indicative of the massive size and appeal of Bonnaroo. In a time when the market is becoming saturated with festivals, big and small, Bonnaroo remains an event unlike any other. And when walking in between the cars, taking in the sights and talking with the smiling campers, it becomes clear that one reason for Bonnaroo’s uniqueness is something seemingly obvious, but so often forgotten in festivals like this. The music.
“I think Bonnaroo is the perfect place for a band like us,” says Austin Smith. His band, Roots of a Rebellion, is a local reggae-rock group who won the “Rood to Roo” competition hosted by Nashville radio station Lightning 100. The victory led to the band’s first performance on the Bonnaroo stage, a packed set at the festival’s “New Music on Tap Lounge” on Thursday evening. “It’s true music lovers,” he says of the festival. “People who live for music and listen to as much as I do go to Bonnaroo.”
Simply put, Bonnaroo is a music fan’s festival. This is not to say that other major festivals do not have unforgettable lineups and energetic audiences, but with fans at other festivals using the events as fashion statements or opportunities to party, the fans at Bonnaroo remain focused on the tunes.
“I think there’s a reason that the best music festival in the country is only an hour east of Music City, U.S. A.,” says Smith. The ideology and culture of Nashville are reflected at Bonnaroo, and leads to some of the most unforgettable shows of the festival season.
The crowd for the alternative rockers LCD Soundsystem was electric, immediately grooving with intensity when the band opened their headlining set on Friday with “Us V Them.” Halfway through the song, a massive disco ball rose from the stage and floated over the head of frontman James Murphy, only causing fans feet to quicken as the dusty grass turned into a swift dance floor.
“We are really happy to be playing for you guys,” Murphy said to the crowd early in the set. “You seem to be in a really good mood.”
That positivity—call it excitement, passion or even love—lent itself to shows throughout the weekend. On Saturday evening, Haim, another alternative rock group, rolled through a charged set. Fans fist pumped with the band in a call-and-response chant for the group’s retro-sounding hit “The Wire.”
Folk-rock enigma Father John Misty sang and toyed with an expansive and engaged crowd during his Sunday set. Fans in the pit for the show—mere feet from the front of the stage—knew the words not only to the artists popular I Love You, Honeybear tracks, but also his deep cuts and early songs. The crowd belted the choruses back at FJM, at one point storming to the stage just for a chance to show their knowledge and sing into the microphone he held out to the audience.
One reason that the performances are so energetic is because of the unique way the festival organizes the shows. While most festivals allow fans to camp out all day at the front of a stage, Bonnaroo makes fans lineup to gain access to the pit for a particular show, then forcing fans to exit the prime seats once the performance is over. This measure ensures that fans in the crowd’s most energetic section are there for that artist specifically. With a group of true fans that tightly packed, the vibe cannot help but be electric.
The pit during Tame Impala’s concert, which took place during the coveted 1:00 – 3:00 a.m. slot on Friday night—was the weekend’s most spry. Minutes before the band’s psychedelic set commenced, murmurs of “I can’t believe we’re here” and “this is going to be incredible” popped out of the crowd. When the band took the stage and worked their way through the impressive set, the audience was a mix of individuals with closed eyes swaying to trippy tunes and those who simply stared ahead, awestruck by the technical musicianship.
Like true music devotees, Bonnaroovians (an official term for “a person that has had their mind blown by the full Bonnaroo whammy and has a great passion for finding and celebrating good stuff”) do not keep the music at the stages. Street shows and impromptu performances in the campgrounds are the norm at Bonnaroo. When Roots of a Rebellion attended the festival last year as fans, the band performed in some of these unique side shows. Smith remembers festivalgoers constructing makeshift stages and a few fans even towing in trailers with full stages into the campgrounds to host jams.
But it is not only the fans that experience the shows in a special way. The artists embrace the idiosyncrasy of the festival in their own ways as well, often putting a little extra oomph into their Bonnaroo performances. Legendary Seattle-rockers Pearl Jam did just that with their Saturday night slot. Despite the sweltering heat, the band tore through a set of hits. When the group played a string of “Even Flow,” “Jeremy,” “Why Go” and “Porch,” four early hits off the band’s debut record, Eddie Vedder and crew looked like were back in the alternative heyday of the 1990s, screaming and sprinting their way through the songs.
The reason for this level of energy is that just like the fans, the artists recognize that Bonnaroo is a special place to perform. Jason Mraz returned to Manchester unannounced for a surprise set on Saturday afternoon, taking the stage solo, with only a mahogany guitar, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the legendary festival. Hip hop star J. Cole appeared genuinely dumbfounded by the size and positivity of the audience at his Friday night set.
“When I was writing this song I had a vision,” he said to the crowd, before his closing song of “Fire Squad.” “It looked something like this.” The rapper specifically mentioned the love he saw at the festival as something that he hopes the song encapsulates.
While almost any artist would be thrilled to see their name on the Bonnaroo lineup, the festival holds a certain importance to Nashville artists. Roots of a Rebellion have been grinding their way through the Nashville music scene since forming at Belmont University in 2010. Smith describes the thought of playing the festival as “surreal,” given the band’s familiarity with the event from the fan perspective. Singer-songwriter Rayland Baxter—a Nashville native who is a veteran of Bonnaroo—displayed his connection to the festival during his Friday performance. “I’ve been to so many Bonnaroo’s it ain’t even cool,” he joked to the hometown audience. “Nah, it’s cool.”
And that’s honestly the way most people would describe Bonnaroo. Cool. Part of the coolness is the music, sure, but Bonnaroo is more than that. More than a music festival. Bonnaroo is cool, because it is a community.
This was the fifth straight Bonnaroo for festival-veteran Ryan Shoaw. He quickly identified the two pillars of Bonnaroo as music and community. While it is the impressive lineup that draws Shoaf and thousands of other fans, it is the community that keeps the Ashville, North Carolina native coming back. “Everyone’s so supportive here,” he says. “You can make your Bonnaroo your own Bonnaroo and everyone supports you in what that means.”
For many of the artists, the Bonnaroo community is manifested in collaboration. Rayland Baxter brought out Oregon-trio JOSEPH to assist him on his song Dreamin’, and The Chainsmokers treated guests to a live debut of their new song “Closer” by bringing out alt-pop star Halsey during their set. Chance the Rapper—who was the festival’s most enigmatic celebrity, not appearing on the festival lineup—crashed multiple sets throughout the weekend, most notably fellow rappers J. Cole and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
“That cooperation and collaboration,” Austin Smith says, “is a key component to the Bonnaroo vibe. It’s just coming together and making something beautiful.”
The best example of Bonnaroo’s emphasis on collaboration is its SuperJams. These are concerts hosted by an artist who cultivates a unique set of performances by gathering festival performers and special guests. Musician and Office-actor Ed Helms hosts the Bluegrass Situation SuperJam every year. Talking about the jam in an artist panel, Helms noted that the mix of spontaneity and talented artists “makes the results unpredictable and a little bit wild.” Third Eye Blind frontman Stephen Jenkins, who performed in the Heart, Soul & Spirit SuperJam hosted by saxophonist Kamasi Washington, noted that the first time he met the people he performed with on Saturday night was when he walked on the stage. Yet it is the unpredictability of those collaborations that keeps the performances exciting and keeps the community invested in the music.
For the fans, that community extends beyond the stages and into the campsites. “Everyone here is looking to make a friend,” Shoaf said about the festival. When I first arrived at Bonnaroo, I was immediately greeted by Shoaf and my other camping neighbors. Everyone around me walked up to introduce themselves and offer to help me set up my tent. No matter where I went during the weekend—whether it was chatting with people while charging my phone or hanging out at the campsites after following a 1:00 a.m. late night set—I saw that community.
Shoaf fondly recalls his initial impression of ‘Roo’s unique community during his first time at the festival. “What struck me,” he says, “was if you get tired and take a nap in a field and there’s 500 people around you, nobody steps of you, nobody kicks your bag, nobody takes your stuff.” He laughs. “Everyone was whispering around me so they could let me sleep.”
And these experiences are not unique. Bonnaroovians want to get to know you, want to feel that connection. Whenever someone hears that it is a fan’s first Bonnaroo, they instantly want to know how it is going. Who have they seen so far? What’s the vibe of their campsite? Do they feel like they’re part of the family yet?
The community is so strong at Bonnaroo. While people are always there to ensure that each other have a good time, the Bonnaroo community was relied upon in a much more serious way this year. There were somber undertones to the festival on Sunday following the terrorist attack in Miami.
“My spirits are a little down this morning,” said folksinger Margaret Glaspy, during an artist panel on Sunday afternoon. The young singer-songwriter had a hard time discussing how wonderful of an experience it was to play Bonnaroo with the horrors from the previous night still fresh in everyone’s minds. “I feel like we’re all together and hopefully we can share love with one another and make love-based decisions and not fear-based decisions.”
Dead & Co. frontman and founding Grateful Dead member Bob Weir used the final words of his headlining set—consequently the final words of the entire festival—to condemn the acts of the terrorist. He referenced a representative from Georgia and the lieutenant governor of Texas, both of whom made disparagingly homophobic remarks in recent days.
“Now, I wanna ask a question,” the singer-guitarist said. “How different are these people’s’ worldviews from the worldviews of the people with ISIS? It’s the same hatred. They pull those hatreds out of different books, but it’s the same hatred and I’d just like to point that out.” Weir then nodded to the crowd, walked off stage and the festival ended.
While not the expected “all-is-good,” positive vibe to end the festival, Weir’s choice is fitting. Bonnaroo urges its community to take action, whether it be spreading positivity, promoting sustainability and spreading arts across the country. While Bob Weir’s message was a heavy one, it is one that urges the community act. As has been seen time and time again, music and community together can make a change.
And it’s the music and community that keep Bonnaroo special.
Photos courtesy of Alex Justice.