The lineup for Bonnaroo 2016 received significant criticism as soon as it was released in late January, especially from loyal Roo-ers who have come to the Farm year after year. Some thought that the headliners were outdated or not enticing enough, while others complained of the “uninspired undercard.” Further critique derived from the newly instated Camping Passes (car camping used to be included in the price of one’s ticket) that were sold for $60 per car/campsite this year. I will not deny the merit in these criticisms: admittedly, I too thought that the lineup left something to be desired and that the new Camping Pass seemed like an unnecessary money grab. However, my enthusiasm about seeing LCD Soundsystem for the first time in a space like Bonnaroo and the amount of lower billed quality acts I discovered post-lineup drop outweighed my initial sense of apathy towards attending this year. And I’m so glad that these components were enough to propel me to the Farm because it turned out to be a momentous and memorable weekend.
Bonnaroo as it exists now in 2016—a full fifteen years after its inception as a jam-band oriented festival, and quite far separated from what it once was—has both its downfalls and points of success. Either by way of the unfavorable perceptions of the lineup or the current saturation of the musical festival market (likely a combination of the two factors), the attendance at Bonnaroo was down this year. People have estimated that the number fell around the 45-50,000 range: a significant downgrade in size from the typical 80-90,000 people that Bonnaroo drew in recent years. Some may choose to fixate on the negative connotations of this fact—for example, the idea that Bonnaroo has lost its steam and that other festivals are doing it “bigger” and “better” now. But I can say that as an attendee of this year’s Roo, the extra space to breathe and room to dance made a significant and positive difference in my overall experience of the festival. Lines were shorter, quality spots at the stages and tents were easier to access, and the campgrounds felt less crowded. And, it cannot go without mention: the new permanent non-Porto bathrooms make a paramount difference (especially as a female).
Thursday and Friday comprised one of, if not the very, best 36 hours of live music I’ve ever experienced. That initial rush of music enthusiasm (and a body that is not yet sunburnt and physically exhausted) certainly helped me catch a lot sets in the first couple of days. I started my Bonnaroo off right, with a 4:30 Thursday afternoon show from Con Brio. Their set was marked by immense musical talent and soul from the 7-piece band that hails from San Francisco. Despite the very warm temperatures, the audience danced and grooved under the tent in the mid-afternoon sticky June weather. It was the kind of set that encouraged people to ignore the heat and sweat, if only to dance in celebration of the great music. I received the opportunity to chat with a few of the band members after their Thursday show, still a bit taken aback from how impactful their performance had been. The members of Con Brio—an eclectic group of adept musicians who share a passion for funk and soul—found each other by way of the close-knit Bay Area music community. It wasn’t long after their local popularity in California began to extend across the country, and now they are preparing to embark on an international tour alongside the imminent release of their album this summer. This is a band to keep an eye on.
Other Thursday highlights included Hundred Waters, WET, FKJ, and Mail the Horse. I saw Hundred Waters last month at Moogfest—a very solid set that was enough to convince me to see them again at Bonnaroo. This show was next level, though; lead singer and pianist Nicole Miglis has the voice of an angel, which she showcased well enough in her May performance at Moogfest, but she seemed so much more comfortable and confident on the stage in this Roo show. It took them a few songs to warm up, but midway through the set, I was enamored. The band played a good deal of unreleased material, all of which sounded fantastic and was delivered well through live performance. WET is fairly standard trance-pop: minimalist, groovy, catchy. The Who Stage was the perfect space for that show, as it felt intimate and connected for the audience while the audio came through at a perfect volume for the space. FKJ (French Kiwi Juice) showcased his immense talent as he glided across the stage playing the keyboards, saxophone, guitar, bass, and other instruments—all by himself, and in live time. After a few back-to-back sets of electronic and/or pop sound, I popped over to the Miller Lite Stage for the Mail The Horse show: another band that I was able to chat with earlier in the day. The on-the-rise Country Blues/Rock band first began to play music together when they were in college at University of New Hampshire. All of them cited rock that they heard playing on the radio growing up as a major musical influence, as that was what became ingrained in their brains after hearing popular classic rocks songs time and again. Alongside the individual members’ personal post-college evolution, the band found its sound and style: a development that didn’t require much discussion but happened naturally. To play well-known national festivals like Bonnaroo is an exciting endeavor for Mail the Horse, but they all agreed that one of their favorite band experiences to date took place in a tiny Honky-Tonk style bar in Charlotte called Thirsty Beaver, as the performance felt intimate and true to their roots. Mail the Horse seem grounded and ready for wherever their journey takes them next.
Again on Friday, I was able to make it to a commendable number of shows: the heat had not gotten the best of me yet. My day of shows began with Daughter and FIDLAR—two very different but equally enjoyable sets. Daughter was reserved and earnest and beautiful, while FIDLAR was perhaps the highest energy show I attended at Bonnaroo this year. The entire tent evolved into a mosh pit within five minutes of their start time. I enjoyed immersing myself in the mosh-madness for a few songs before eventually backing away to the side of the tent so as to observe the performance from a less physically dangerous viewpoint. CHVRCHES and Leon Bridges were both very solid, but I reached a point in Friday early evening that I began to consciously focus on conserving my energy for the night to come. This conservation proved most imperative.
I have had the good fortune of seeing a lot of fantastic musical sets in the past few years—ones that I loved for varying reasons and that affected me in different, special ways. But the 102 minutes that LCD Soundsystem took over the What Stage on Friday night marks the highest highlight of my live-music-watching career thus far. Every element of the experience came together in this picture-perfect kind of way: the band executed the songs of the dream setlist flawlessly, the sky was clear and the air crisp around us, and I, along with every person near me, spent the entire 100+ minutes beaming and dancing. The joy contained within that space was innumerable, contagious, a bit life changing.
My night continued on in great spirits, as I caught most of Purity Ring, the entirety of Blood Orange, and the last hour of Lane 8’s Silent Disco set. I was coming out of LCD feeling elated, and even though Tame Impala sounded good at a distance, I looked over at the tent that Purity Ring was playing and saw so much room, as most of the people still awake and out in Centeroo were over at Tame. I ended up sidling up to rail without much effort. I’ve heard criticisms of Purity Ring’s live show and of their last album; I enjoy both, though, so this set was great for me. The stage presence of Blood Orange’s frontman Dev Hynes is unbelievable. Everything about the way that he slides around the stage, matched with his impressive vocals and guitar skills, is captivating to watch. The entire band is notably talented, including the two back up singers, and similar to the Purity Ring set, the tent was quite empty and left a great deal of room to dance around. I had listened to maybe 15 minutes of Lane 8 before Bonnaroo; after the night of music I’d already experienced, this was just the cherry on top of my sundae. Daniel Goldstein (Lane 8) is so stoic in his presence, and it felt like an hour long cleansing shower for my soul. Perhaps the best live DJ set I’ve ever seen.
Energy dropped off immensely after Friday night, and I had to begin pacing myself in a much more conscientious way. Strangely enough, one of my favorite sets from Saturday was something that I initially had planned to drop by for five minutes, only to witness the bizarre performance for the benefit of a few laughs. Grandma Sparrow was weird. Weirder than weird. And I loved it—I felt like I was part of this bizarre musical/dancing cult for 50 minutes, as we were commanded to enact certain movements for some of the songs while Grandma Sparrow himself pranced around the stage like a mad man. The space felt so jovial and like a temporary removal from any sort of social conventions/expectations. It is shows like this that remind me how special of an experience Bonnaroo can provide.
My musical disappointments of the weekend are so limited—of the roughly twenty five sets that I caught all or most of, I walked away from only three with disappointment, and in both instances, I think my positioning and current mood influenced my level of enjoyment. Waxahatchee sounded fine but lacked energy, and the performance came across as rather one-tone. Vince Staples’ album Summertime ‘06 was a favorite of mine from 2015, but I did not think that his live performance was nearly as captivating as the songs are to listen to on track. I was outside of the tent for the part of his set that I caught, though, and I readily admit that I might have had a different impression if I had been closer to the stage. Lastly, the Superjam fell flat—especially when (and I quote) “musical legend” lead singer from Third Eye Blind appeared on stage to sing a dreadful rendition of “Ring of Fire.” The Third Eye Blind moment was so terrible that it became hard for me to regenerate any enthusiasm for the Superjam after he walked off stage. Lots of talented musicians appeared for the show at some point, yet as a cohesive whole, this show was unsatisfying to me.
As the sun rose for the last day of Bonnaroo, news of the hate crime committed in Orlando spread across the Farm: the air was heavy and mournful, with festival-goers unsure of how to mediate the shock and sadness. I spent the first part of the day at camp, in an attempt to conserve both physical and emotional energy, and then finally made my way over to Centeroo to get a good spot in the What Stage pit for Death Cab For Cutie. This was the perfect somber-but-cleansing show to see in light of all the emotion that came from the Orlando massacre. Death Cab was one of the first bands I fell in love with when I began to pursue listening to music in a more deliberate, serious way around age 12 or 13, and the setlist that they played at Bonnaroo this year included songs of considerable personal significance and nostalgia (I Will Possess Your Heart, Transatlantacism, Soul Meets Body). Frontman Ben Gibbard told the crowd that there was a song that they typically do not play at festivals but had been requested by Chance the Rapper, and “if Chance tells you to play a song, you do it;” thus, he strummed the first chord of I Will Follow You Into the Dark, and I released the deepest sigh. A cathartic moment to the highest degree.
Bonnaroo has seen a good deal of changes, and not all for the better, but even now, it remains a unique space—one that thousands upon thousands of people find special enough to throw down good money and travel to the middle-of-nowhere Tennessee for, and that’s a notable fact. This year was full of positive surprises for me: sets that I wasn’t expecting to be nearly as remarkable as they were. Aside from LCD Soundsystem, it turned out that almost all of my favorite performances stemmed from undercard bands, who had come to the Farm with gusto and initiative to share their talents with the festival. Given the tragedy that occurred on that Sunday, I cannot imagine a better place to try and work through that shock and grief than at Bonnaroo, with all of its beautiful music and concerted attention on human connection and appreciation.