For seventeen years, Bonnaroo Music Festival has established itself as one of the paramount summer festivals in America. Taking place on a massive farm in Tennessee, every year the festival is home to some of the most momentous performances and colorful characters you can find.
Upon arrival, we waited on the shoulder of U.S. Route 24, misdirected by the local police, slowly advancing through the seemingly endless parade of cars. It was hard to believe that there was a gathering of 80 thousand people just a mile away.Manchester felt like the type of place where nothing ever happened: a flat and lonesome highway town. Each year, the festival more than doubles the population of the county.
Some passengers around us ditched their rides to walk down the side of the highway in their unapologetically skimpy festival attire. A wise decision: It took about two hours of following the procession down the winding one-lane road for us to arrive at our campsite.
On Thursday night at 1 a.m., Saba took the stage in the confusingly-named “That Tent.” I feared his introspective and dark music, despite its brilliance, would not lend itself to the live performance. I couldn’t have been more wrong — Saba was charming and energetic, his show heavy on crowd engagement. He performed two new songs; it was hard to determine the tone of them (he raps very fast!), but they felt like a more cynical and uptempo version of the Care For Me sound. At the end of the show, someone threw their top on stage. “Okay, cool,” Saba responded.
The next morning, I woke up to the sensation of being cooked alive in my tent, which had transformed into an oven as soon as the glaring Tennessee sun rose over the field. I walked for ten minutes through the sea of colorful tents to fill my water bottle with sulphurous well water and trekked over to Centeroo, the main area for performances.
That afternoon, the Avett Brothers delivered a surprisingly lukewarm performance. Both the crowd and the band felt listless, as if all parties were going through the motions of a concert. There wasn’t a whole lot of singing along, and their thumping roots rock lacked the heart that their live performances usually possess. In their defense, a great deal of the crowd was there in order to secure a spot for the Childish Gambino show an hour later. That might explain the crowd’s lack of interest in their output as well as their own alienation from what must have seemed like an indifferent audience. Given the low-energy performance, we were also awaiting Gambino’s arrival.
Then the lights cut out.
Childish Gambino rose out of the ground on a futuristic platform, shirtless, bathed in white light and smoke. He performed the unreleased combo “Atavista / Algorythm.”
“This is church,” he declared.
By the end of the show, we believed him.
Gambino’s stage presence was nothing short of galvanizing. The adoring crowd seemed to hang on his every move, the preacher at the pulpit. At times, he seemed like a man possessed, electricity coursing through his veins, eyes rolled back in his skull. He performed every song as if he’d never get a chance to perform again.
Credit where it’s due to the camera crew: Their work was so good that it almost served as a detriment to the performance. It created the somewhat distracting effect of watching a movie in which you were simultaneously an extra. Despite the high-quality filmography, all eyes remained, for the most part, on Gambino.
“I told y’all this is church,” he reminded us, closing with a choir-supplemented “Redbone.”
Directly after Childish Gambino, I shuffled through the throng towards Solange. Bonnaroo would be her first performance in America following last March’s release of the masterful When I Get Home. Her set was laid-back and the crowd was surprisingly sparse, yet it was nothing short of soul-stirring. Her voice is even more gossamer in person. When she spoke to the crowd, she did so in a gentle and warm way, almost trance-inducing. The soft lights and mesmerizing choreography provided an excellent contrast to the raw energy of the prior Gambino set.
So far, my experience left me eager for more. Aside from the excellent performances from Saba, Childish Gambino and Solange, I was blown away by how relentlessly positive and friendly everyone was, from our camping neighbors to random strangers passing by in the crowd. Large events like music festivals tend to bring out the worst, most selfish nature in people, but Bonnaroo was different. Everyone seemed aware that they were a part of some cultural happening, intent upon respecting a widespread mutual agreement to be a good person — at least for the weekend.