There are few places on this green earth quite like Bonnaroo. The 4 day festival in Manchester, Tennessee is a full out display of artistic expression and positivity and it holds a very special place in my heart. In 2012, my dad took my younger brother and I to the Farm for the first time as a family vacation of sorts, but mostly to see Radiohead (one of my dad and I’s favorite bands). That year, I fell in love with Bonnaroo’s good vibes and great music and ever since, I can’t not go back every summer. This year, I documented my adventure for the first time for a think piece of sorts in hopes of capturing the true essence of what makes Bonnaroo so amazing. This year was also the first year I participated in Bonnaroo’s volunteer program, which allowed me to attend the festival for free in exchange for working 18 hours over the course of the festival (VERY RECOMMENDED FOR POOR FOLK).
I departed at 2:07 AM on Tuesday morning, by myself, from Chicago and drove about 4.5 hours into southern Indiana. At around 5:30, I pulled off the highway and took a 3 hour nap behind a Denny’s, which had to have been one of the strangest places I’ve ever slept. When I awoke, I took off for Tennessee. I had to be there Tuesday evening to check in as a volunteer, and was greeted with a complimentary BBQ for all volunteers that was much needed after hours of driving. That night, all the volunteers mingled and drank and celebrated that Bonnaroo was finally back. A drum circle broke out for only 10 minutes near my site that happened to gather 100 people into a dance circle for its short life. That was when it finally clicked I was back on the Farm. It was then I met some of my neighbors. The one who stood out most was a 22 year old from Tampa named Tyler, who had recently bought a van (which he came in) for $1000 and immediately put another $1000 into it DIY making it 100% livable. Dude insulated the whole thing, put a water pump and shower near the rear and had enough supplies and gadgets to last him any predicament. At one point during the festival, he managed to unlock our neighbors car using a butter knife, two saw blades and the adhesive side of a piece of Velcro. Seriously a one and a million dude. I hope he sees this.
The next day, I worked my first volunteer shift, organizing gift bags of books for Manchester kids through the charity FirstBook. Volunteering was an awesome experiencing that I hope I can keep participating in. With a free meal every day I worked and showers included, I was happy to work the 18 hours that weekend to attend the festival for free.
On Thursday, all of my friends who were attending Bonnaroo in general admission arrived and the party really began. After slamming some cold beers to beat the Tennessee sun, we ran through the Bonnaroo crowds screaming “We wanna party with Taylor Swift!” while giving and receiving high fives the whole way to Centeroo (the center of the festival where all the music happens). When we got there, we caught the final 15 minutes of Dej Loaf’s set, which was especially loud and rowdy. Often, sets on Thursday night (especially hip-hop ones) get a bit crazy in part because of everyone’s excitement for just arriving. “Try Me” and “We Be On It” were crowd favorites as some fans took to spraying one other with water guns.
After Miss Loaf, we met up with friend and Bonnaroo artist Different Sleep (the other two dudes are Paul and Ellis), for he was participating in the Red Bull Music Academy take over of the Silent Disco on Saturday night. He showed us pictures of the artist amenities (which we were very jealous of) and told us about all the crazy things he had already seen. From there, I separated with my Croo and went off to show Different Sleep the festival grounds a bit. After about an hour, Different Sleep had to go back to his camp and I met back up with squad. From there, we went to catch Courtney Barnett; a bad ass rocker chick from Australia with guitar tones and lyrics like Kurt Cobain and a voice like Sheryl Crow. Barnett was probably the most stand out discovery I had this year at Bonnaroo. As soon as I got home on Monday, I started learning her discography. After her was Mac DeMarco, a favorite amongst my friends and I. DeMarco played all of his hit and covered Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” as well as a very silly rendition of “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. He ended his set with a special performance of “Together” and about 10 minutes of crowd surfing.
With another volunteer shift at seven the next morning, I grabbed an Amish doughnut (ACTUAL HEAVEN) headed back to crash (but not before seeing this sleepy Bonnaroovian) 😉
After volunteering, I went to meet up with some more Chicagoan’s, Pat The Manager and Eric Montanez, as well as Chance the Rapper who arrived after his Superjam rehearsal. For all of Friday afternoon, we grilled burgers, drank beers and threw around a football while talking about new music, funny shit we had seen already and why we all love Roo. After hours of hanging out, I said my goodbyes and went off to go catch Tears For Fears (which was…marvelous). They even covered Radiohead’s “Creep’!
From there I went to post up and wait for Kendrick, who was scheduled to play the main stage before the headliner, Deadmau5. What I have to say next might surprise some readers…
Where the hell was the new album, Kendrick?? I’m sorry. I love you man. I love Good Kid, Maad City, but I love To Pimp A Butterfly too. Maybe even more. I guess I’m still having a hard time understanding why you didn’t play more of the new album. I’ll give you most of the people in that attendance were just there to hear the bangers that made GKMC so popular, but there were still a large body of us there to see the new material. It’s important to mention I’ve seen Kendrick around 13 times, so I’ve seen the show he played at this years Bonnaroo several times through, but I know there were more of me out there that wanted to here “Wesley’s Theory”, “Hood Politics”, and “The Blacker the Berry”. I still love you, Kendrick, I just keep getting disappointed with your live show and I don’t know how many more disappointments I can take before I stop showing up.
OKAY BRIEF MOMENT OF NEGATIVITY OVER. Bonnaroo is all about “radiating positivity” which has become a central part of my life since I started attending the festival in 2012. So, I’m going to keep it positive the rest of my story 🙂
After Kendrick was Deadmau5, or Joel Zimmerman (EDM’s Kanye West). I had seen Deadmau5 twice before, both times being great performances, so I was excited to see him again (being I haven’t been to a headlining EDM show in years). Being that I was alone, and a little bit gone, I managed to buddy up with a group of girls from the University of Florida, who accepted me into their little group. Admittedly, I only remember one of their names (Tracey) but they were very nice + cute so shouts out y’all.
After Deadmau5, I caught the end of Odesza’s set and then hit the hay. After all that football, dancing and boozing, I was well overdue for some sleep. After all, Saturday’s line up featured many of the artists that brought be back to The Farm in the first place: Jamie XX, My Morning Jacket, and the almighty D’Angelo and The Vanguard :heart_eyes:
Saturday morning, I woke up at the crack of 6:30 covered in sweat and headed out for my final volunteering shift. Luckily, this day, Bonnaroo didn’t have much for us to do so we waited around briefly and then were told we could leave. I got to hang with a couple guys I had met in line, who were traveling around the states while on summer break from Long Island University. They were on the soccer team and exchange students from England and Sweden. Their names were Alfred and Sebastian and both were extremely humble and nice dudes, extremely excited to be at Bonnaroo and submerging themselves in American culture. They had just spent the night in the Tennessee mountains the night before I met them in the volunteer line. Over the course of the weekend, we played a little soccer, drank a few beers and met some girls. That right there is the true spirit of Bonnaroo. Meeting new friends and immediately hanging out like you’ve known each other forever. It was a pleasure to run into them multiple times on The Farm and I hope we can reconnect sooner than later and get into some more trouble.
After volunteering, everything started to get a bit…weird. In the best way possible. I met up with my friends at their site, who were just excited for the day of music to come. While at their site, we drank, played frisbee and spit shit with the neighbors before taking off to Centeroo. The first thing we saw in Centeroo was a sign of the day to come. As we entered, we noticed a large gathering of people in a circle. When we approached it, we noticed there were two football teams (completely decked out in full uniforms and pads minus helmets) playing an actual football game minus a ball…
As the quarterback of the blue team pretended to launch a Hail Mary, spectators ferociously chanted “SPORTS! SPORTS! SPORTS!” before the pretend play was broken up by a shaven-headed female defensive back (shown below). I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for something imaginary, well maybe except for when I was a toddler, but the actors of this fake football game were so convincing we found ourselves engulfed in the shenanigans. So cheers to y’all.
From there, we made our way to the Other Tent where Jamie xx was about to play within the hour. That’s another thing about Bonnaroo, all the tents are named “This, That, and The Other Tent” while the big stages are named the Which and What stages. You can imagine this fucks people up who are heavily sedated but the confusion is pretty comical. Anyways, back to Jamie xx. He started with “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”, one of the hits of his solo debut album “In Colour”, which came out last month, and from there on it was an all out dance party. He didn’t speak once but he really didn’t need to. Mixing UK acid-rave house, disco and a select amount of his own material (which is pretty much a blend of those two genres) dude had everyone dancing and moving. To be honest, I didn’t want the hour set to ever end and I’m certain I’m not the only one who felt that way. Jamie xx sent everyone on an electronic music journey with his hour at Bonnaroo and for that, I can’t wait to see him when he stops in Chicago for Pitchfork Music Festival next month.
Gathering ourselves after an hour of dancing, we made our way to the main stage to catch My Morning Jacket. What happened next was nothing short of heaven. We got there just as the band was about to start and found a large area where we all kicked off our packs and shoes and simply laid in the grass. For the next two hours, blissful rock music flowed through the main stage sound system and straight into our bodies. I managed to scribble down a few notes of how I was feeling at the time.
– This is like sitting in a warm bath of music.
– Subtle southern sunset
– The push away from earth…
– I see bats eating bugs and stars
Fuck if I know what that all that means.
As we were leaving the main stage where Mumford and Sons were about to perform in the next hour, my friend started complaining of stomach pains and started to ask around for Advil. Luckily, a local mother exclaimed she had some she could give to her. We started talking to her while she looked for the medicine in the first aid kit she had brought and noticed she was with 6 kids. I asked her if they were all hers to which she said only two were and she was chaperoning the rest. As we continued to speak, she told me they were all from Manchester and attended the festival yearly. I asked her if she was ever worried they disappear or get into trouble and her answer surprised me. She said she’s always wanted her kids to be completely open with her, no matter what it was about. So if they saw someone having a bad trip, they could ask her what was going on and she would explain to them exactly what was happening. This really hit close to home with me, since I started attending Lollapalooza when I was only 12 and saw my fair share of illegal activities take place before I really even knew what was going on. Her philosophy was simple: If I can responsibly bring my children to these types of things and let them see the darker sides of it, when they’re of age, they’ll be knowledgeable of drinking and drug usage and hopefully will be wise about it. I wish more parents adopted this type of reasoning. I’m so grateful I was able to see things that were a little bit raw at the time I saw them, because when I was confronted by them later in life, I was calm and didn’t make any brash decisions that endangered myself or others. Unfortunately, I didn’t get their names, but I did capture a picture of them which is definitely my favorite photo from this years Bonnaroo.
Right after was when it hit me…D’ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD WILL BE PERFORMING IN FRONT OF MY FACE IN THE NEXT COUPLE HOURS. Oh man, it became hard to contain my excitement as we bounced around Centeroo waiting for shows we wanted to see to start. First, we caught a little bit of Childish Gambino before we made the conscious decision to go see the one and only, Slayer. Admittedly, I was kind of scared to go see Slayer, but I’m so happy we stopped by for 15 minutes. They’re like…actually really fucking good! I mean, I could never listen to that just sitting in my bedroom, but they put on a good ass show. The icing on the cake was people screaming “SLAYER!!!” throughout the whole performance, which was by far one of the most out-there things I have ever witnessed at Bonnaroo (and that’s saying something).
Before my friends broke off to go see Bassnectar, and me to go see D’Angelo, we went and caught our buddy Different Sleep’s set at the Silent Disco, which was an absolute riot. I’ve only ever seen Different Sleep in dimly lit clubs in Chicago so seeing him on the Bonnaroo farm was an absolute trip. People loved it, though, dancing and laughing along to his very clubby set. It was definitely a change of pace for what had been playing at the Silent Disco all weekend, and I think people really enjoyed that.
And then it was time for the only reason I came back to Bonnaroo. D’Angelo.
As I waited at This Tent for him to begin his set, it was like waiting for the clock to strike 3 on your last day of school. I could barely stand still as people around me discussed their favorite D’Angelo records and what they hoped he would play in the moments to come.
And then it happened. First, his band (which consisted of Pino Palladino, Chris Dave, Isiah Sharkley and Jesse Johnson and others) took the stage and began to play “Ain’t That Easy”, the first song off his comeback album Black Messiah. After a few minutes, D’Angelo finally took the stage in a tattered, olive green trench coat wielding a very heavy metal looking guitar. The next hour and a half was an experience I don’t even want to try and explain. I’ll put it like this: I actually feel like I walked away from that concert cooler.
The next and last day, Sunday, was rough. After seeing all the artists you had come for, it becomes hard to withstand the blistering heat and stench of yourself, so we took it pretty easy that day. We grabbed foot-long corn dogs, sat in the shade, and observed the quirky Bonnaroovian’s that meandered past us while we laid out. It was then I caught this ADORABLE photo of a man with his son, as his son struggled to keep up with his dad clearly eager to make it to a show about to start. Probably 30 steps after I stopped them for the photo below, lil’ man took a bit of a spill and started to cry. It didn’t last long, however, as probably 15 people who saw it happened began to cheer for him to keep going, which brought a smile to his and his dads face. It was truly a beautiful Bonnaroo moment.
We tried to stay for most of Sunday, but we were simply too beat to make it so we left at around 5 from The Farm and departed home to Chicago. As I drove home on I-64 North, I looked out into the setting sun and for the first time, mentally recapped all that had happened that weekend. The end of Bonnaroo is always bittersweet because on one side, you get to go home and shower and sleep in a real bed but on the other, you have to wait a whole year from then to experience the pure and genuine fun that Bonnaroo is. Everyone there is so positive, uplifting and eager to make new friends (but not in a weird way). It makes living your regular life a little easier, seeing so many displays of love and generosity in just one weekend alone. Sure there’s Bonnaroo withdrawl, where you realize the rest of the world isn’t as pleasant, but Bonnaroo instills in you the belief that that kindness still does exist in people, so much they create a community once a year to show it. I’ll always try and return to The Farm each year, and I hope more and more people take the leap and make the journey at least once. It’s truly a site to be seen. Until next year, goodbye Bonnaroo! You’re my favorite place on earth.