Bonnaroo has always held a spot on my bucket list right above getting my appendix removed and right below being first in line in Pamplona for the running of the bulls. Though I live only an hour away from Bonnaroo’s home of Manchester, Tennessee, I have never been desperate to make the pilgrimage from Nashville to one of the country’s largest, most greatly attended music festivals. For me, attending concerts has always revolved around the musician and the musician alone. When I got the chance to see Noel Gallagher in early 2018 or attend a private JME concert in London in 2016, the circumstances were utterly irrelevant. What mattered was the band, the stage, the music, and my presence as just another head in the audience. But Bonnaroo is another beast entirely. From various Instagram feeds and Facebook updates, I have determined over the years that the festival is a place to listen to music, camp in your drunken, sweaty filth, and, most importantly, be seen. So, in early January, when some of my friends from High School decided we should all make the pilgrimage, it’s fair to say I was unsure of what I was getting myself into. After purchasing the ticket, I studied the lineup more carefully and researched the scale of the festival. 80,000 people would be filing into a few square miles of field to eat, drink, camp, and listen to music. Regardless of my experience, I knew I would – if only for a weekend – be 1/80,000th of one of this country’s strangest, yet highly praised annual events.
The best thing about Bonnaroo is the music. Yes, this may seem fairly straightforward, but until you are in the middle of a crowd of 50,000, struggling to catch a glimpse of Childish Gambino or Post Malone, it is difficult to find the value of a Bonnaroo ticket. Though the ticket prices increase as the months fall off the calendar in the buildup to the festival, a ticket to see Childish Gambino, Post Malone, Phish, The Avett Brothers, and many other artists still won’t cost you much more than the price of one decent ticket to a John Mayer concert. The music at the festival was phenomenal. With multiple stages and almost ten other venues within the festival, the music simply never stops. Whether you wish to see The Grand Ol’ Opry play at a small stage with a few thousand fans or you wanted to be front row for Gucci Mane after midnight with ten thousand people slamming into you from behind the choice is yours.
My personal highlights from the festival came in the first two days. In fact, the first performance I saw came from a few sound technicians who played an original song followed by a full, ten-minute rendition of “In My Time of Dying” by Led Zeppelin. At this point, I had been up for damn near 32 hours and had no idea how desperately I needed some slide guitar in my life. Another excellent performance came from Brooklyn Punk/Alternative group Parquet Courts. Their recent album Wide Awake has been a refreshing injection to a rather barren rock scene, and their performance reflected this much-desired energy. Performing with a wild yet focused intent, these guys put on a phenomenal show. Of all the groups I saw, these guys were easily the most connected, tight, and complete performers of the festival. My favorite show, however, was the primetime performance of Childish Gambino on Friday night. Wearing no shirt and a pair of long white pants, Gambino, AKA Donald Glover, took everyone to church. As his music has shifted from internet mixtape rapper to soul and funk enthusiast, Gambino has morphed into the second coming of George Clinton with the moves of Mick Jagger and the energy of James Brown. Though the lights, monitors, and moving platforms certainly gave the performance an air of arena suited pop music, Gambino’s dialogue with the crowd and his brilliant band of horns, synths, drums, keyboards, and guitars sprinted at his heels to give the show the authentic feel it deserved. His performances of “Summertime Magic” and “Redbone” seemed to silence the tens of thousands in the audience as he threaded the crowd with waves of funk and intrigue. This is Gambino’s last tour for a long, long time. If you get the chance to see the guy, hop on it.
As I stated earlier, Nashville is about an hour and fifteen-minute drive from Manchester, Tennessee. I left in a caravan with three other cars at around 6:30 PM on Wednesday, June 12th. So here’s a math question for you: why did I arrive at Bonnaroo at 8:30 AM on Thursday, June 13th? For those of you who don’t know math – that’s 14 hours in the car. So, what happened?
The discovery of two pipe bombs in a man’s car, the appointment of a new sheriff, and a sold-out Bonnaroo forced a massive bottleneck at the exit for the festival. Though they should have been prepared for a gigantic swell of attendees on Wednesday night, the state troopers and police showed little patience with this massive line, instead shouting at tired travelers to move out of the road or even get out of line. When my group arrived in Manchester and saw a line of hundreds of cars stretching before us, we understood this as part of the experience. Sure, we may have to wait for a few hours, but that’s normal for Bonnaroo… right? Wrong. Driving to the back of the line, we passed what seemed like over a thousand cars. Traveling in the opposite direction of the festival, we must have driven for fifteen minutes before the end of the line limped into sight. Silently, we pulled behind the last car and waited. Though we passed the first few hours in the pitch dark on the side of a highway, we periodically got out of our vehicles to kick around a soccer ball, listen to music, or just to stretch.
Thought we were moving? Nope. At one of the faster sections, I clocked our progress as having moved half a mile in an hour. I believe that it was around 1AM. As the night got darker and the wind got colder, the three other drivers and I repeatedly met up outside of our cars to chat and stay awake. Yes, the people traveling with us were all asleep in the back of our vehicles, but we had no option but to, every other minute, get back in our cars, turn them on, pull fifteen feet further ahead, turn off our cars, and get out once again. Remember, we were stranded on the shoulder of highways and interstates in the middle of Tennessee. To make matters worse, there was absolutely no service. Want to play music to stay awake? No chance. You’ll wake up the guy sleeping next to you in your car. I tried checking twitter, Instagram, even reddit to see what was making the line so long, but I got only radio silence. It took ten minutes to send a single text message and even longer to receive a response. I remember when I would freak out as a six-year-old if I didn’t have Shrek loaded up to watch in the car on a five-hour drive to someplace like Atlanta. Now, at nineteen, I was sitting in a car for fourteen straight hours with no music, no television, no social media, and no contact with the outside world. That’s a dark, dark combination.
Slowly, however, the sun rose, the rooster’s crowed – seriously, remember we are in the countryside of Tennessee, and we saw the end of the line stumble before our eyes.
Pulling into the festival on the warm morning of June 13th, we felt less like we had beaten the line and more like we had just gotten out of surgery. It was over, but it didn’t feel normal.
The Pregnant Hippies
Bonnaroo is less a music festival than it is the most prominent human Zoo in the United States. If you are a fan of people watching, this place is your goddamn Mecca. Here is a brief list of some of the “people” I saw at Bonnaroo:
A 7-months pregnant white woman of about 40 with dreadlocks to her hips, wearing only a bikini top and a towel for a skirt.
A 60-year old man painted silver with aviation goggles and wings who at one point, tried to corral me into a hug as I walked to get breakfast. Yeah, I turned into Usain Bolt and got 100 meters from that confirmed creep in 9.58 seconds.
An overweight woman silently juggling or spinning these rope things as a crowd of thousands walked past her. I’ll add that this was a common theme. I don’t know how juggling adds to your listening experience, but I guess you can’t knock it ‘til you try it.
All in all, Bonnaroo attracts a rather eclectic group of… individuals.
The festival was a whirlwind of music, exhaustion, and happiness. I can now cross Bonnaroo off of my bucket list and proclaim that the festival is indeed better than getting an appendectomy. Will I be returning? I will go back if these two conditions are fulfilled: There is someone perfect playing in the lineup who I am desperate to see and that the Bonnaroo staff or State Troopers execute all men dressed up as silver angels.