Bonnaroo is a massive four-day music and arts festival, held every June on a farm in Manchester, Tennessee.
The campgrounds stretch for miles, line after line of tight-knit cars, tents, and RVs. Individual camps are complete with giant flags, lawn chairs and mess halls. Giant green balloons float over the horizon, marking a dozen or so “villages” – bustling 24-hour centers where you can buy food, take a shower, meet party people, light fireworks, or sit on a hay bail to watch a psychedelic band shred at 4:30 AM. The whole situation feels like an American refugee camp, where everyone knows the world is ending, all have made their peace, and now just want to enjoy their last days to the fullest.
At the center of the campgrounds (for some, a 40 minute walk), you find the actual festival grounds, known as Centeroo. After waiting in line (where you may receive hundreds of high fives), being searched, and scanning your trackable wristband, you enter the heart of Bonnaroo. First, you may notice the two main stages – What Stage & Which Stage – where big names play to big crowds. Next, there are three large tents – This Tent, That Tent, & The Other Tent – where much of the live music takes place during the day and late into the night.
Then, there are a bunch of smaller themed stages & tents, countless food vendors, art demonstrations & installations, sand volleyball courts, a giant waterslide, an all-night barn rave, a silent disco where everyone wears headphones, a comedy tent, and an air-conditioned cinema – not to mention 100,000 Bonnaroovians, dressed for the desert heat, moving in all directions. Centeroo is open 24 hours, and some people spend the whole four days in there – napping under trees, eating overpriced crepes & smoothies, dancing all night, wandering in utopian bliss.
This is what Bonnaroo is all about. Free expression. Young people. A vision of utopia. Spontaneous yoga circles in the grass. Sharing food and drink. Public displays of affection. Music from all angles. Chinese lanterns floating into the night sky. Graffiti accepted on every surface. Kindness so contagious that by Sunday, everyone is deep in it together. “Happy Bonnaroo,” with a smile, is how to say hello.
Bonnaroo offers a lot more than just music. Take the Solar Stage, for instance, which has hours of meditation and yoga practice each morning. Or the air-conditioned Bonnaroo Cinema, with movies all day and night. Or the artists who give demonstrations every day, creating dialogue with their small crowds. The big stages are so crowded and rowdy that these smaller experiences can feel more genuine and meaningful. I stopped to watch a master glass blower several times, because I liked how he related his art to life in general. “To release energy, you must add energy,” he said over and over.
He ended each demonstration by asking everyone to take care of themselves and to know their limits. I quickly realized that there are a lot of drugs at Bonnaroo. Dealers wander around the miles of campgrounds selling LSD, magic mushrooms, cannabis, cocaine, MDMA (called Molly) – pretty much any drug you’ve every heard of, and then some. One gnarly-looking dude tried to sell me some drug he called “Sassafras!” A lot of young people experiment with drugs at music festivals. Many end up in the medical tent – dehydrated, malnourished, and sunburnt. Two people died last year. Thankfully, the medical staff has a “what you say here, stays here” policy, so no one can get in trouble for helping their zonked-out friends.
While Bonnaroo boasts the image of a lovely music & arts festival, it is clearly a money-making machine. Over 100,000 people spent $300 or so on a wristband. An item of food or drink averages about $7. Even a shower cost $7. Some Tennessean farmer is making a killing at Bonnaroo! One source reported that Bonnaroo brings $57 million into the local economy, in just one weekend. The fact that it is still growing, regardless of how expensive it is, makes me believe that festivals are a great business model within the music industry.
And it works here in modest Manchester, Tennessee, of all places! Bonnaroo doesn’t feel like Tennessee culture, or even a Tennessee crowd. It feels like a hippy-tinged community of party people that make a yearly pilgrimage to this transformative enclave, only to disperse back across the globe four days later. On Sunday night, I heard enough “see you next year!!” to make me believe that many people are repeat Bonnaroovians.
The music lineup was star-studded, covered a wide range of genres, and featured up-and-comers. These were a few of my favorite sets:
Paul McCartney – A Beatle! Playing Beatles songs! Legendary. It was like hearing the whole story, an echo of his past greatness. To hear these iconic songs – “Blackbird,” “Hey Jude,” “Yesterday” – live, from the man himself, is powerful. He still had a lot of quality in his voice, and in his presence. Plus, there were some epic pyrotechnics and fireworks during his set.
Allen Stone – A soul singer with a message. He got the crowd to dance more intensely than any other act I saw. A true performer.
David Byrne & St. Vincent – These two performed with such confidence, such grace, such a unique take on music. Plus, they featured a killer horn section and extensive choreography which kept it fun and entertaining.
Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls – Angsty anthems from England, played with a ton of heart. His voice came through loud and clear, with catchy and meaningful lyrics. And his band held an incredibly high level of intensity.
Bonnaroo 2013 was the biggest, rawest festival I have ever attended. The camping aspect turns the experience into a marathon music retreat, with a community feel. If you’re thinking about making the trip, go with a few friends, and make sure to be completely prepared, or things can go south quickly! Drink lots of water!! Happy Bonnaroo!
PS Debi Snookums, thank you so much for the wristband – this post is dedicated to you.
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