Bonnaroo is not for the faint of heart. The four-day music and arts festival has taken place every year for the past eleven and is an absolute commitment to go. The festival crams over 80,000 festival goers into a plot of farmland, making it the 7th largest city in Tennessee when the festival is underway. Bonnaroo forgoes the single-day tickets that are popular with other festivals but rather has a huge majority of its attendees camp on site all four days, with tons of dirt, sweat, and absolute weirdness taking place under the unforgiving Tennessee sun. Some of the best shows go till 4 AM on any given night making a crowd a bunch of tired, dirty, and mostly intoxicated zombies wandering around from stage to stage. Bonnaroo is an all-or-nothing commitment.
Throughout the festival’s four days, I saw four major trends forming, and I believe these four themes to be the best way to present Bonnaroo 2012.
Jam music is no longer the primary sell at Bonnaroo, but rather hip hop is now the name of the game. There were rappers of all types: short ones (Kendrick Lamar), white ones (Mac Miller), legendary ones (Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def, of Black Star) acting ones (Childish Gambino), funny ones (Das Racist), funny sounding ones (Danny Brown), repulsive ones (Yelawolf) and even Wu ones (GZA). Of the rap breed, the self-proclaimed legendary and hardest working band in hip hop, The Roots, once again proved why they are the best ticket in the genre with a wide array of covers including a tribute to Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys with “Paul Revere” as well as Roots classics like “The Seed 2.0” and “Here I Come”. Questlove also curated the Super Jam for this year, a late night jam session that is a festival tradition, employing incredible soul musicians and fronted by D’Angelo, the beloved soul singer who gave his first performance in 12 years.
By Fem Rock, I don’t mean of the Lilith Fair, feminist variety. Feist, Laura Marling EMA, Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, and St. Vincent were all part of a crop of female guitarists that are bringing girl guitar play to new heights. St. Vincent stole the show and the hearts of those watching with her enchanting voice, incredible energy, and more than anything – her ability to sling an axe. Her cover of the Pop Group’s “She is Beyond Good and Evil” as well as a handful of favorites from her latest record Strange Mercy helped make up what was one of the best shows of the entire festival. The Alabama Shakes proved worth all the hype surrounding them and some, heading the first night of the festival with their young, budding front woman Brittany Howard swooning the crowd with her big-hearted voice and wild rock ‘n soul guitar play. Feist wowed fans with material off her latest album, Metals, as well as inspired new arrangements for old favorites like “I Feel It All” and “Mushaboom”, making them sound more cohesive with the primitive, vocal sound of Metals.
Roots Music Alive in 2012
Bonnaroo stands in the heart of the state probably most responsible for America’s roots music, as it serves as the home for the Country Music (and its hall of fame), Memphis blues, and Elvis. The festival was once again a showcase of tons of artists who maintain that American spirit from folkies like the Avett Brothers and the Civil Wars to bluesman and bluegrassers like Gary Clark Jr. and the Punch Brothers to Americana rockers like Dawes and War on Drugs. All of these artists proudly hoisted the flag of classic American roots tradition proving themselves worth being a part of it.
Another name in folk, Bon Iver, gave a whole new name to the genre, playing with a 9-piece band that played out more like a jazz collective than the cabin-in-the-woods, barebones folk that Justin Vernon started from. His breathtaking breakup song, “The Wolves (Act I and II)” got perhaps the best sing along of the festival with a crowd of likely 50,000 singing their hearts out along with Vernon.
Bonnaroo Favorites Return
Music festivals like to bring fresh faces and the hottest new bands to their attendees, which Bonnaroo definitely did with bands like Fun., Grouplove, and Foster the People – but the Tennessee festival has always stuck faithful to bands who have played Bonnaroo in years past and this year’s festival was no different. Tenured Bonnaroo veterans the Roots and the Avett Brothers found themselves right at home at Bonnaroo this year, both playing on the main stage to bigger crowds than they ever have before. Headliners Phish and Radiohead showed that this wasn’t their first rodeo, both headlining Bonnaroo for a second time. Phish played the longest set of the weekend, a four-hour hippie marathon including a special guest in country legend Kenny Rogers performing “The Gambler”. Radiohead played another premier live set, with a heavy amount of material coming from their last two records, In Rainbows and The King of Limbs, as well as three new surprisingly warm-sounding songs.
So there are just four flavors of Bonnaroo this year. That isn’t even to mention a passionate Antlers set, the show-stopping soul revue of Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones, formative sets from Santigold and Fruit Bats, a hits-heavy Chili Peppers set (though minus the great John Frusciante), or an embarrassingly bad reunion by one of my all-time favorites, the Beach Boys…but I digress. Even with all the other good and harmful activities that take place in which there are plenty, Bonnaroo really comes down to the music and the unity found in it, and this “everybody is in it together” attitude is what makes Bonnaroo the quintessential American festival today.
If you would like to see my recap for RELEVANT Magazine, go here.