We all come to Bonnaroo for one reason or another: love, escape, freedom, “fuck it.” Whatever brings you there usually brings you back. That’s because The Farm is more or less a permutation of nirvana — a raw, unrivaled experience that, yes, includes unbearable heat and the occasional whiff of feces, but also one where the positives squash the negatives like a water bottle that’s been dropped in the middle of a Deadmau5 set. Hyperbole? Possibly. But nowhere I’ve traveled — be it a festival, a foreign country, or a small town in Iowa — has ever been so welcoming.
Like many people, I’m often one to avoid public interaction with strangers, instead diving into my phone or using my ear buds to create an artificial wall, so I won’t be bothered. But not at Roo. For four days, I’m among new friends who are willing and able to hold a pleasant conversation. This is a beautiful tradition of Bonnaroo and one they’ve kept going for 14 years strong. Here’s why that’s important: The further we all drudge into the abyss of adulthood, the more we cherish these moments. Time passes while life spaces out and speeds up. Making the most out of this time is what Bonnaroo has always been about. What’s more, each year is vastly different, from additions and evolutions to lineup changes and our own expectations.
It’s hard to ever walk in knowing what to expect.
Photo by Amanda Koellner
This year, those who visited Manchester, Tennessee, were treated to a few new “luxuries”: flushable toilets (I’m obsessed), new stages, and even a grove-of-sorts featuring hammocks and one Instagram-ready forest chandelier. The Who Stage was a small, black-bannered home for bands who otherwise might not have made the cut. Off to the side was a tent where the same artists could interact with their fans and sign goodies. Not so hot was the buzzkill Kalliope Stage, which was tucked in between This Tent and The Other Tent, sort of like that sweaty guy who crams into your friends’ circle halfway through a show. The stage’s endless barrage of generic techno and dubstep plagued any ambiance being crafted on the more celebrated main stages.
However, as I walked with the crowd on my way back from watching the bloody season finale of Game of Thrones — Bonnaroo is very pro-Westeros, thank God — the communal “That was amazing!” feeling remained stronger than ever. We saw the potential artist of our generation (Kendrick Lamar). We saw a member of Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant). We saw a collection of some of the best artists in different genres (Caribou, Run the Jewels, Tears for Fears). And though I will likely have a month-long hangover, it was worth every second. The best part? We’re already counting down to Bonnaroo 2016!
In the meantime, read ahead for our full report from this year.
Photo by Ben Kaye
That Tent — Friday, 7:15 p.m.
“Let’s stay for five songs and bolt for Alabama [Shakes].” That was the consensus of the several gentleman behind me during Kacey Musgraves’ evening set. After taking in the cheesy Western milieu onstage, which included light-up cacti, I was on the same page. To be fair, Musgraves deserves plenty of credit for her work, which has inspired quite the following since her start on Nashville Star in 2007. Better yet, her songs fall perfectly in line with the medium-rare portion of the pop-country steak with platitudes and lyrics that taste good and go down easy: “Mind your own biscuits, and life will be gravy,” she sings on “Biscuits”. Thing is, I’ve just never been a steak guy myself. –Kevin McMahon
Photo by Amanda Koellner
The Other Tent — Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
As the sun set on the first of four constitution-testing days on the farm, UK psych-rockers Temples took the stage to a noted sigh of relief. The quartet donned their standard ’70s garb, and off we went. 12-string lead melodies on tracks like “Colours to Life” and “Shelter Song” punch to the front and stick with you. Vocal harmonies sound like calls to the countryside set in another time. In all, Temples seem like the next logical progression in European psychedelia. While the word “recycled” comes to mind, it’s not meant in bad taste. We’ve got to recycle if we are to survive; it’s a good thing. –Kevin McMahon
Photo by Ben Kaye
The Who Stage — Thursday, 9:00 p.m.
After a 10-minute delay due to some rough soundcheck difficulties, Bear’s Den proved greatly worth the wait for the well-packed Who Stage crowd. Though the band’s heartbreak folk isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly connected with the girl who was brought to tears at the first note of opener “Elysium”. With warm vocals and spot-on harmonies, the British band delivered a gentle set that simultaneously beat with a solid energy, with guitarist Andrew Davie and banjo player Joey Haynes playing into each other as much as toward the crowd. There’s an earnestness in their show, and it clearly works. –Ben Kaye
Photo by Ben Kaye
This Tent — Thursday, 8:15 p.m.
Apparently, I avoided some awkwardness by arriving to Iceage’s set a few minutes late: The controversial Danish punks started playing their “On My Fingers” only to stop a minute or so later. After a separate lighting issue was resolved, though, the band finally launched into their hard-charging sound for good, and at its best, it was mesmerizing. Even when guitarist Johan Wieth chugged out an entrancing, standalone riff toward the end of the set, all eyes were on frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, whose phantom-like presence was as intriguingly theatrical as it was strange. Credit where it’s due, though, because Iceage’s other three members were locked in in their own right, with drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen smashing away at a near-scary velocity. One quibble: Iceage’s overall gloominess isn’t exactly conducive to cheery festival vibes, and they didn’t modify much to help that. –Michael Madden