A wooden fence lines the perimeter of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. The plywood structure provides amateur artists and inspired attendees alike with an informal canvas to paint caricatures of festival headliners, display names of performers from years past, spray generic graffiti and write quotes ranging from nonsensical to profound.
Perhaps the most noteworthy quote on the wall reads “Reality is the absence of Bonnaroo.”
Within earshot of this spot comes the sound of techno beats mashed up with random lines from Star Wars. A glance up to the source reveals an oversized cuckoo clock towering over an unfathomably large campground that balloons Manchester, Tenn.’s population from 8,000 to 80,000 for four days each June. The attraction? How about the most eclectic conglomeration of musical acts assembled anywhere in the world running the gamut of styles from classic to modern rock, hip-hop to electronic, lo-fi surf pop to dance metal and practically any other absurdly named genre conjured up by the blogosphere?
Not enough? Take in a movie followed by a Q&A session with the likes of Zach Braff, Aziz Ansari or Kareem Abdul Jabar. Prefer to be bombarded with jokes that induce side-splitting laughter? Easy solution: Socks are regularly knocked off by comedians whose influences range from politics to marijuana. And for the more adventurous at heart, a giant water slide constantly awaits spontaneous belly flops and swan dives.
No, this is not reality. This is Bonnaroo.
But behind all the glitter and gloss that most experience at the festival is an intensely well-planned event that has evolved into a premiere destination for live entertainment. Over the past ten years, the organizers of Bonnaroo have worked out all the kinks and turned a jam-band dust bowl into an oasis of art to satisfy anyone’s pallet.
One of the festival’s keys to success is the attention to detail that can turn an exhausting or frustrating day into an undeniably enjoyable one. For example, a new mechanism for audience arrangement that brings in a fresh group of people at the beginning of each main-stage set allows attendees to camp out for artists without having to get dangerously sandwiched and sweaty in the process.
Similarly nice touches carried over from years prior include eloquently framed band names on giant poster boards displayed onstage during shows — which come in handy in the instance of a lost schedule or confusion with stage names — as well as something as simple as the sandy ground under the performance tents that lends itself well to burrowing feet and tired toes.
All of these minor touches combine with the aforementioned, more obvious draws to create a one-of-a-kind atmosphere.
Musicians and festivalgoers equally contribute to this contagious dispensation of good-natured feelings.
Slug, of the hip-hop group Atmosphere, described why this is so important.
“There’s a vibe at festivals — but especially at one like this — that’s real communal,” he said at a press conference last Friday. “To be able to see a bunch of people who don’t know each other from Adam come together and enjoy what we do — to see them get on the same page with their hands in the air or using their voice together — you know, this is as close to church as a lot of us are going to get.”
Although hip hop acts are a newer addition to Bonnaroo’s rock-based roots, Atmosphere was not the only group throwing down beats and rapping vocals.
Lil’ Wayne and Eminem headlined Friday and Saturday night, respectively, and the industry giants provided a contrast of why people both hate and love live hip-hop music.
Weezy’s set — regardless of technical difficulties outside of his control — was unremarkable with a lack of cohesion from the few instruments onstage and a heavy dose of prepackaged samples.
On the other hand, Detroit’s own Slim Shady created a stunning stage show both visually and sonically, belting out hit after hit from a back catalogue that has rarely been performed live in the past several years. A surprisingly complete band produced a consistently tight sound and was supplemented by scenes from Eminem music videos and other images made specifically for the show, bringing the songs that so many know so well to life. And to top it all off, Marshall added unbridled energy into the entire set.
“I think the reason Bonnaroo is so open-minded to (hip hop) is because it started as a jam band festival,” said Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, The Allman Brothers Band and The Dead at the press conference. “When the jam band movement started, my only complaint was, it needs to be more open-minded.”
“It needs to include other genres (like) bluegrass, jazz, blues, hip hop, reggae, whatever, because the only thing you need to be a jam band is to improvise and have a mindset that goes along with this,” he added.
Needless to say, the festival had its fair share of guitar-driven acts as well with mind-blowing sets from My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire and The Black Keys.
In usual Bonnaroo form, the lineup paid tribute to the past with singers like Wanda Jackson and Mavis Staples being booked this year. The two legends used their songs as a backdrop to tell their life stories, filling in the gaps between music with anecdotes about personal experiences ranging from Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. to Jack White and Jeff Tweedy.
After four days of a diverse sonic landscape, intellectual stimulation, comedic relief and water works, festivalgoers were forced to enter back into reality. Although the grounds are left dormant, the abstract, yet intoxicating concept of Bonnaroo, remains as a tiny reverie in the back of peoples’ heads, collectively counting down the days until a field in Tennessee erupts with creativity and positive energy once again next year.