Halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga sits Manchester, Tennessee, a humble and hospitable town that has become the haven for all music festival lovers on the Eastern seaboard. Manchester’s modest population of roughly 10,000 residents grows nearly ten times its size every June for Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, one of the biggest and most prolific festivals of the season.
Bonnaroo 2014 did not disappoint, setting an all-‐time record of over 90,000 attendees in its thirteenth year. Growing bigger and better, 2014’s headliners attracted festival-goers from all walks of life. From Kanye West to Elton John and Jack White, the “something for everybody” moniker definitely rang true. In addition to the music, the arts entertainment was booming with comedy, dance, sculpture and performance art present at almost every turn. Bonnaroo is not for the fair-weather fan or the faint of heart, but offers one of the most magical and action-‐packed weekends of the summer.
After driving through thunderstorms and rainbows, my crew and I arrived to a muddy campground and were ready to mentally prepare ourselves for a grimy next few days. Luckily, the hot Tennessee sun quickly dried up all of the muddy dirt and grass and Thursday started off with a bang. I was able to catch a lot of acts that were relatively unfamiliar, a strategy I always try to employ on a festival’s first big day. Some standouts were Cass McCombs and his catchy song “Big Wheel,” Real Estate with their chilled-‐out indie vibes and Cherub, the Nashville rock duo who tore it up at The Other Tent. But my favorite Thursday performance would have to be Banks and her hypnotizing Lana Del Ray meets Lorde meets Ellie Goulding vibe. A very unexpected surprise.
Friday’s daytime performances were earthier than the previous day-‐ Greensky Bluegrass and The Wood Brothers full-‐bodied twang reminded me of the fact that I was in Tennessee, while Umphrey’s McGee and Dr. Dog added a psychedelic groove and a whole lot of energy. Speaking of energy, I stumbled upon one of the most dynamic Bonnaroo performances on my way to Vampire Weekend: A Tribe Called Red. Never heard of ‘em? Me neither. The Native American electronic group is a fusion of chants, drum circles, and EDM beats, and their sound radiated from the stage. The Friday night sunset fueled what can only be described as a tribal dance party. I thought I’d only be passing through but I stayed for almost the whole set, somehow snapping out of the rain dance party to catch the end of Vampire Weekend.
But what always seems to stand out at Bonnaroo are the Super Jams-‐ if you find one that really excites you it’s worth claiming your spot earlier in the day. Lucky for me I skipped out on Kanye’s performance early to get in on Friday’s Super Jam, a smart decision it seemed. Kanye returned to Bonnaroo after upsetting fans in 2008, when he showed up hours after his time slot, played an underwhelming set, and insulted the likes of Pearl Jam and Further. Bonnaroovians didn’t forget, sporting ‘F*ck Kanye’ signs and booing him on stage as he performed in full Yeezus gear with a mesh mask covering his face. Stopping at the end of Heartless, Kanye shot back “F*ck the press” and “I am the Number 1 mothaf*ckin rock star on the planet.” Needless to say, I left as booing roared on.
Friday’s Super Jam offered a much needed breath of fresh air, with an exciting mix of bluegrass, folk, and soul. Derek Trucks, Chaka Khan, Taj Mahel and many others filled That Tent with such a unique and fiery sound. Special guests Susan Tedeschi, Ben Folds, Karl Denson and Andrew Bird added to one of the most eclectic sets of the festival, with the standout moment of Chaka Khan covering Led Zepplin’s What Is and What Should Never Be. Other memorable Friday performances included the chart-‐topping Sam Smith, who played from his No. 1 selling album In the Lonely Hour, as well as jumping in to sing Latch during Disclosure’s monster late-‐ night set. Speaking of jumping, Janelle Monae jumped into crowd, escaping out of the straitjacket she donned at the start of her performance. And let’s not forget the nostalgia-‐inducing sounds of Neutral Milk Hotel and Ice Cube. Talk about #flashbackfriday.
But as it always goes with Bonnaroo, the end of the night is never really the end of the night. Exhausted by a day full of dancing, I somehow found the energy to catch Skrillex around 2 a.m. The crowd was wild and the lights were enchanting. Though not a huge EDM fan, I couldn’t pass it up; Skrillex is truly an act not to be missed. Admittedly, I didn’t stay too long, since I wanted to make time for Die Antwood, the kooky South African rap group, who I’d seen once before when studying in Cape Town. The crowd went wild during their catchy ‘love song’ I Fink You Freeky. The evening was definitely a Friday the 13th to remember.
After the marathon that was Friday, I tried to lie low Saturday morning and enjoy all of the other sites Bonnaroo had to offer. I quickly became a fan of the dollar grilled cheese stand and made friends with folks running Planet Roo, Bonnaroo’s sustainability initiative which includes workshops on gardening and recycling and displays art made of repurposed materials. I also got in on an early morning yoga session. Namaste.
Laying low was definitely the route to go, as Saturday was one of the hottest days of the weekend. I ended up paying $12 for a shower in a pop-‐up RV on the outskirts of the festival grounds. Money well spent, I do have to say…
Feeling like a new woman, I jumped back into Saturday’s lineup and First Aid Kit was a nice introduction. The Swedish sister act has a beautiful, full, and authentic sound that really played to the outdoor setting. Moving on, I was lucky enough to catch Cake perform “Short Skirt, Long Jacket,” which was pretty freaking awesome. Other Saturday highlights included Damon Albarn, the man behind Gorillaz and Blur, who played some new stuff mixed with the old hits like Clint Eastwood and Feel Good Inc., and Cage the Elephant, Kentucky rockers who really boosted my sunburned spirits. Next up was Slightly Stoopid, a festival favorite and a much needed calming vibe to prepare Bonnaroo for Saturday night’s throw-‐down. The crowd was grateful for their chill reggae sounds and watching the sunset over the iconic Bonnaroo ferris wheel while listening to Closer to the Sun was truly a moment to remember.
Once the sun did in fact go down, Saturday turned into a whirlwhind-‐a marathon really-‐ of rock, soul, and face-‐melting EDM. Lauryn Hill (while an hour late, in true Miss Hill style), made the crowd swoon with her rendition of Killing Me Softly. Lionel Richie grew an older crowd, while Jack White tore it apart with the younger fans banging their heads and thrashing up-‐and-‐down in true rock-and-roll form. He somehow captivated the entire crowd with his cool and mysterious demeanor. His Seven Nation Army encore had the crowd going wild, chanting the infamous baseline in thunderous unison. Equally crowd-‐ pleasing were The Flaming Lips, with their rainbows and streamers and “F*CK YEAH ROO” balloons filling the stage. Wayne Coyne is so cool.
The second Super Jam of the festival, headlined by Skrillex was rowdy and full of base drops and light displays, but one of the most surprising late-‐night standouts was Frank Ocean, who played a stripped down set featuring tracks off channelORANGE, that was incredibly intimate and raw. But never fear, the beats came back in full force for Kaskade to close out the night. The show was total insanity and the crowd was going wild, dancing until the wee hours of the morning. While the music ended around 4 a.m., the after party carried on through the sunrise and the campgrounds were full of impromptu dance parties.
Just when I thought I’d heard it all, the Sunday sunrise blazed into camp and the last day of Bonnaroo was off to a rocking start. Newcomers Fitz and the Tantrums captivated the crowd with their retro sound and the Avett Brothers delivered their honest folksy melodies. Notable Sunday acts included The Artic Monkeys, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Wiz Khalifa. Bringing Bonnaroo to a tearful close was the one and only Elton John, singing the hits in his US festival debut. I think we were all crying during Tiny Dancer.
At times during Bonnaroo you wish it was all over and you could escape into some cleanliness and solitude. Without question, Bonnaroo is overwhelming, but hearing the crowd roar during the last show makes you want to stay and do it all over again. Like summer camp, you load up your car, leave the grounds, and the spell is broken. Make sure to send yourself a postcard from the Bonnaroo Post Office to soften the blow when returning home and inspire your plans for next year’s festivities.
Written by FestPop Staff Writer
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