Beyond the Gates: One year ago, Consequence of Sound’s Tyler Clark declared with Nietzchean despair, “Bonnaroo is dead.” The festival, which once reigned among the greatest in America, was suddenly faltering after a buyout from Live Nation and record low attendance in 2016 as the rootsy jam band fest attempted to adapt and revamp. Over the last three years, Bonnaroo’s missteps and uncertainties were disappointing. More and more, the festival became a generalist catch-all festival like Coachella at the expense of Roo’s devotees.
However, the reveal of 2019’s lineup sparked hope. The festival finally appeared to strike a balance, celebrating its rock and Americana roots with returning favorites Phish, The Avett Brothers, and The National while attracting a new generation of followers with hip-hop superstars Post Malone, Childish Gambino, and Cardi B. Throw in a heavy dose of EDM, a solid selection of indie rock and small font acts, a few crucially unique experiences, and Bonnaroo was ready to rise from the dead.
Opening Shots: Thursday at Bonnaroo has historically been a small-scale beginning to the festival. The two main stages are closed for the day, and the crowds are the smallest of the event as campers continue to arrive and set up for the long weekend. But those who showed up were in for a stellar welcome to Bonnaroo.
Vancouver’s Peach Pit opened the festival with an energetic indie surf rock performance to an overflowing That Tent crowd. It may have been Peach Pit’s first visit to Tennessee, but Roo was ready and welcomed them with choruses of cheers as guitarist Chris Vanderkooy launched into sweeping and emotional guitar solos. The band closed with a medley of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Wipeout” and turned the entire tent into a ‘50s dance floor.
The dancing didn’t stop for the rest of the day as other indie highlights like Australian rockers Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Chicagoan rapper SABA kept the crowd going ‘til the early morning hours.
Nashville to Manchester: The highlight of Thursday was Bonnaroo’s newest unreproducible event — the second annual iteration of the Grand Ole Opry show live from the Farm. The collection of country legends collected on the festival stage may seem like fish out of water, more accustomed to the balconied Opry house and legendary Ryman Auditorium. However, the attention to tradition and country western music’s legacy is honest and exhilarating, attracting many who would otherwise never listen to the high-energy bluegrass picking of Ricky Skaggs or the frontier music of Riders in the Sky (whose performance of Toy Story 2 classic “Woody’s Roundup” was a definite crowd-pleaser).
Though the energy was great throughout the two-hour performance, the party really began when Bonnaroo favorites Old Crow Medicine Show closed the night. Bandleader Ketch Secor led the crowd through rambunctious country sing-alongs of “Rocky Top”, “Me and Bobby McGee”, and, uh, “Old Town Road”, which I guess is cowboy music canon now. “If anybody was wondering if that song was country, I just played it on Roy Acuff’s fiddle,” Secor boasted before closing out the night with their own canonical classic “Wagon Wheel”.
Festival Fashionista: Despite 2019 being one of the cooler Bonnaroos in recent history, summery beach fashion remained in full swing. Tank tops, swimwear, and wide-brim or bucket hats kept bedazzled and glittery attendees free and comfortable under the sun. As things cooled down into the 50s and 60s at night, many sported fuzzy onesies featuring Winnie the Pooh, unicorns, and Pikachu, which honestly looked like a blast. Of course, the totem game was strong as flags and posters celebrated meme culture, particularly Game of Thrones. Though, Post Malone was also a fan favorite with totems sporting everything from Toast Malone to Watermalone to Post Kevin Malone from The Office.
Best Bites: It’s easy to attend Bonnaroo and feel a sense of FOMO about the number of food options and cuisines available throughout the Farm. Hamageddon, the iconic metal pig that serves as a meat smoker, remains a staple outside This Tent where barbecue lovers will get their fill of brisket, sausage, rotisserie chicken, and more. While a lot of the food offerings are pricey, Rolling Oven Mobile Pizzeria has the best bang for your buck, featuring 10-inch wood-fired pizzas made to order for $12. In terms of drinks, the Broo’ers Festival tent is a favorite among craft brew lovers who can choose from a couple dozen of America’s best beers.
Let’s Jam: The SuperJam remains a staple highlight of Bonnaroo, a chance for artists to come together and celebrate music’s very best. The night has featured some of the festival’s greatest delights over the years from Questlove, Ben Harper, and John Paul Jones jamming on Led Zeppelin classics to Chance the Rapper covering “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and “Hey Ya!”. This year, however, lacked some of the star power of previous years as a group of small font artists joined GRiZ to pay tribute to our fallen heroes like Dr. John and Nipsey Hussle. The show closed on a high note with Walk the Moon’s Nicholas Patricia joining David Bowie’s Blackstar band for “Under Pressure” and “Let’s Dance” before ending on a rendition of George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90”. Though this year wasn’t the SuperJam’s best, it remains a must-see on the Farm.
That One Performance: Donald Glover has humbly made a strong case for himself as one of the world’s greatest multi-threat entertainers with his acting, directing, and story writing, and of course, the music. Childish Gambino ascended on a smoke-enveloped riser from the middle of the crowd and immediately had the audience (possibly the biggest of the festival) in the palm of his hand.
From the beginning, Gambino asked the crowd to put their phones away. “Feel some shit with me because tonight is church. And I am not playing around.” He didn’t. Over the next hour, he performed his set with such precision and attention to detail that it deserves to be made into a film. Every facial expression, every dance move, every lighting and pyrotechnic flair was perfect, making the set the greatest audiovisual experience of the weekend.
The Best of the Tiny Fonts: Little Simz opened Saturday with a display of honest zeal for the music. Backed by a trio of keys, live drums, and a DJ, Simz gave a raw, energetic performance highlighting her new album, GREY Area. Her flow was razor sharp, even when accelerating to supersonic speeds. Always carrying an infectious smile, Simz spread the neighborly spirit of Roo with personal storytelling on “God Bless Mary”, a song dedicated to her neighbor who gracefully coexisted next door while Simz practiced and recorded loud music through all hours of the night. Though the early afternoon crowd still saw people shuffling their way back to life after the late night before, they embraced Simz with eruptions of applause after fan favorites like “Venom” and sang along to every word.
Rookies of the Year: Bonnaroo’s sixth stage may be small, but the up-and-coming artists featured throughout the weekend were determined to steal audience ears away from the large font artists. While things were still getting started Saturday afternoon, LA’s Sego was ready to break through the sleepy haze with Alyssa Davey’s grungy bass lines and a dose of DIY punk energy. Frontman Spencer Petersen channeled his best garage rock rendition of Steven Wright as he provoked the crowd to action, beginning: “I think it’s time we all start acting our age/ I think it’s time I actually start getting paid.”
Later in the afternoon, local Nashville favorites The New Respects graced the Who Stage, offering a Janelle Monáe-esque fusion of rock, funk, soul, and Destiny’s Child harmonies. Whereas Monáe takes a more pop-centric focus, The New Respects are not afraid to rock out to Led Zeppelin-inspired riffs and a heavy, soulful cover of “Come Together”. Music City may be known best for its Americana and country roots, but the New Respects’ infectious grooves offer a glimpse into the Nashville of tomorrow.
Right Place, Wrong Time: Brandi Carlile is a national treasure deserving of much higher recognition than she currently receives. During her early Sunday afternoon performance, she filled her songs with unbridled passion and her audience with tears. Carlile’s performance may not have been the visual spectacle that Gambino’s was, but it was the most moving show of the entire weekend.
Her heartfelt performance of “The Mother”, which she dedicated to fathers and parents of all types on Father’s Day, encapsulated the way she turns the intimately personal into the universal. The expert storyteller also surprised the audience by performing a duet with Tanya Tucker on her new Carlile-produced single “The Wheels of Laredo”. As the last blasts of rowdy Americana rang out, the mayor of Manchester presented Carlile with the key to the city, an honor given to one artist each year who best represents the passion and spirit of Bonnaroo. This year, no one was more deserving.
Best Improv Group: Despite fears of cancelation after multiple canceled dates in recent weeks, Cardi B made her Bonnaroo debut on Sunday night to the relief of an overflowing crowd. Just a few songs into the set, however, Cardi’s bodysuit tipped, perhaps due to some overzealous twerking. Cardi handled the situation with grace, powering through the next couple of songs before going off set (no pun intended) to change into a bathrobe, which she sported the rest of the night. Though the set by no means went according to plan, Cardi put the show and fans first, leading the crowd in roaring choruses of “I Like It” and “Bodak Yellow” to end the night.
Best Entrance: “We’re backstage; we’re backstage,” began The Lonely Island, literally singing about their entrance to the anticipated “post-Post Malone” set. The chuckles grew into cheers as the narrative continued and the trio revealed themselves with Rage Against the Machine-like fury, screaming, “We’re on stage!” As soon as they arrived, they disappeared again, hiding off stage right and staring at the crowd, now erupting in laughter. It was a perfect entrance for the comedy group who put on a hilarious show full of skits, Chris Parnell appearances, and of course, a puppet Justin Timberlake.
Outgrown & Underestimated: Bonnaroo has done a good job of appealing to their new, younger demographic. However, the festival continues to underestimate just how many people attend the weekend for hip-hop shows. Last year, T-Pain’s set was so over-saturated, it was impossible to see if you arrived late. This year, Cardi B, Gucci Mane, and even Juice WRLD could have benefitted from a larger setting. Meanwhile, Bonnaroo’s two hip-hop headliners, Childish Gambino and Post Malone, boasted around twice the audience size of fellow headliner Phish. While the festival has embraced hip-hop in recent years, they’ve missed the fact that it’s the prime reason attendance is rebounding.
Phishing for Answers: Phish are dependable. Not many bands can be trusted with five and a half hours of stage time at a single festival, but Phish never faltered throughout their three sets. For Phans, it was the best part of the weekend. However, for casual listeners and those unfamiliar with Phish’s jam band flavor, it was a decent opportunity to sit down and relax, or else not show up at all.
Indeed, throughout the weekend, the general tone was less in anticipation of the final headliner and more unsure of who Phish was at all. That being said, those who showed up appeared happy they did, and Phish gained some new fans with their virtuosic performances. But it seems Bonnaroo 2019 sold out for the first time since 2013 not because Phish topped the bill, but despite it.
Leaving the Park: Again, just last year, Tyler Clark wondered, “Maybe there exists a future lineup that will please Bonnaroo fans past and present.” That future came to life in 2019, though it wasn’t perfect. Bonnaroo offered one of their best and most diverse lineups in recent years, but they continue to face a headliner problem. The times have changed. While the festival’s respect and devotion to roots were well-received, one has to wonder if a jam band will ever appeal to the majority of Bonnaroo’s 80,000 attendees again.
That being said, 2019’s Roo finally got the ingredients right — a phenomenal celebration of music from hip-hop to rock and roll, Americana to EDM, and string bands to jam bands. They may just need to play around with the dosage in the future. As the successful four-day weekend has come to a close and campers are back on the road, it’s safe to say: Bonnaroo is risen. It just looks a lot different than it once did.