Space technology may not be advanced enough to get you to another world, but there’s always Bonnaroo. As soon as the 700 acres of land in Manchester, Tennessee is in sight, it’s clear Bonnaroo is its own bubble separate from reality.
While performances are essential to any music festival, there’s an endless supply of attractive features for Bonnaroo-goers to enjoy. There’s early-morning yoga, movie projections, comedians and food that range from classic carnival bites to gourmet foods and vendors selling New York City’s famous Crif Dogs.
Sprinkled throughout the site are also non-food vendors where any hippie or techno junkie can find what they’re looking for, whether it be by creating a personal pow-wow drum or by picking out jewelry with crystals designed for LED lights to shine through.
But what sets Bonnaroo apart from Lollapalooza or the Detroit Electronic Movement Festival aren’t the tangible things one expects to find at most festivals — it’s the other-worldly atmosphere.
On the eve of Bonnaroo 2012, after thousands had already pitched their tents and sparked fires, a hum of “Bonnaroo” swept through the grounds like a wave at the Big House made of voices.
As we sat on the back of our car that night eating Wheat Thins and awaiting our turn to join the hum, we looked out to see people lighting and releasing paper lanterns into the sky, like balloons of fire.
Bonnaroo was going to be one hell of a ride.
The Kooks performed at Which Tent Thursday afternoon and provided the perfect summer soundtrack to Roo’s blue skies. Even from the far side of the stage, the Kook’s instruments and vocals were in perfect balance and they transitioned from song to song so smoothly you barely noticed.
As the British indie band jammed, the crowd swayed and danced. A nearby couple were swing dancing. The gentleman pulled in his girl for a quick kiss to the beat of one of the opening numbers.
“So, yeah. We’re the Kooks from, uh, England,” frontman Luke Pritchard said as he addressed the audience for the first time before jumping into “She Moves In Her Own Way.”
The Kooks were more than comfortable on stage and their casual attitude with the crowd only added to their music’s relaxed vibes.
But Roo offers far more than indie. The Dirty Guv’nahs, a southern rock band with wide-ranging influences from R&B to ska, performed three times throughout the festival.
While their performances weren’t as polished as old-timers like Radiohead, their enthusiasm and genuine rock persona charmed the pants off the crowd, making them a name to remember.
The Dirty Guv’nahs’ lead vocalist James Trimble said the band formed by accident, starting as only a hobby when the members were studying at the University of Tennessee together.
Trimble said, in 2009, after attending Bonnaroo for four years during their time at UT, they got to perform on the stages they were used to watching.
“(It’s) what I consider to be the kick-start moment of our career as a full-time band,” Trimble said.
Their invitation back to Roo this year allowed them to showcase new songs from their upcoming album planned for release this fall.
Trimble said while playing at smaller venues like Ann Arbor’s own Blind Pig — where he said The Guv’nahs will hopefully be returning to sometime in the upcoming year —is enjoyable, an exciting part of festivals like Bonnaroo is reaching the ears of new listeners with their music.
“Bonnaroo is the most well-run festival in the United States of America,” Trimble said after explaining they’ve been playing festivals all summer, including Wakarusa and Summerfest.
Laid-back to Ludacris
The acts that fill Bonnaroo’s nighttime slots transition from chill to explosive, as heard by those who attended Yelawolf’s performance Thursday night.
This Eminem-esque rapper oozing southern smoke kept the crowd raging song after song, jumping from his own material to putting his own twist on old-school numbers like Johnny Cash’s “Folsom County Blues,” and Outkast’s “Bombs over Baghdad.”
And on Friday, there was Ludacris. While he was clearly apprehensive of performing for an audience at a festival with a relatively low focus on hip hop, it soon became clear This Tent was filled with true fans as he played songs from his earlier days such as “Blueberry Yum Yum” and “What’s Your Fantasy.”
Ludacris worked the crowd in between songs, making it a personal performance, saying he was going to play until they kicked him off the stage.
While initiating a screaming match between the two halves of the crowd seemed a little ’90s, Luda was easily one of the best performers of the weekend, performing like a pro without seeming gimmicky or over-rehearsed.
Flogging Molly kept the party going on Saturday. As the sound of the bagpipes and a fiddle rung out from That Tent eminent moshing and crowd surfing ensued.
The listeners spilled forth from the That Tent’s canopy and jigged to Flogging Molly’s set which included “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “Overboard,” until dust clouds swelled up from the ground.
Bob Schmidt, Flogging Molly’s banjo and mandolin player, said festivals are what Flogging Molly is built for, adding that Bonnaroo is different from festivals like Lollapalooza because it’s run more like overnight, European music festivals.
“Bonnaroo’s a lot more esoteric,” Schmidt said. “The diversity of the acts is a lot greater than Lollapalooza.”
Flogging Molly recently celebrated their 15th anniversary and recorded their soon-to-be sixth album in Detroit where lead vocalist Dave King and wife Bridget Regan, who sings, plays the fiddle, tin whistle and uillean pipes, own a house.
Schmidt attributed Flogging Molly’s success to their fans.
“We’re here because our crowd is here. We’d look like idiots up there doing that by ourselves,” he said. “It’s the same symbiosis that goes in every aspect of life — you just have to remember we all just have to be there for each other.”
Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers both gave blowout performances on their respective nights — no surprise there — and performed in front of screens flashing psychedelic images of strange patterns, a warped live-feed of the bands and plenty of lasers.
Wonder what they were getting at.
Skrillex also utilized lasers and intense graphics at his show, but added the effect of smoke cannons, which repeatedly fumed as he dropped the bass every song.
The crowd at Skrillex was an endless sea of glow sticks, rage sticks and other glowing toys that didn’t stop moving to songs like “Kyoto” and “Bangarang,” off his newest album, until after the last beat fell slightly before 3:30 a.m.
The combination of incredible performers, food and activities keep people coming back year after year.
Austin McKitrick from West Virginia attended for the first time and said incredible performers like SOJA will lead him to come back next year.
“I already know,” he said. “It was worth the trip.”
Fellow ‘Roo-noob’ Clara Guilleu from Sarasota, Fla. said she also plans on returning to Bonnaroo in the future.
“I feel like the vibes everywhere are so nice,” she said. “Even though it’s so crowded, it’s so enjoyable.”
Bonnaroo delivers from all angles, incorporating music ranging from dubstep to rock to rap in an imaginary, carnival-like setting where people can’t help being nice to each other. The temporary escape from reality leaves everyone dead-tired but satisfied, at least until next summer.
This year was the first year Bonnaroo used RFID scanners on its wristbands that you need to scan to get into Centeroo and re-scan when exiting in order to re-enter throughout the weekend. Upon leaving after the last performance we’d see for Bonnaroo 2012 we decided not to scan out our wristbands so part of us would remain in the Bonnaroo dimension forever.