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Old and New at Bonnaroo

The nation’s greatest live music festival turns 10

By Joe Fries Created: June 16, 2011 Last Updated: June 16, 2011
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MANCHESTER, Tenn.—Nearly 100,000 people gathered last weekend, June 9–12, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on a hot and at times dusty farm in Manchester, Tenn. The four-day camping festival offered a broad range of music from all generations and cultures and attracted a global and diverse audience.

Adventurous music fans flooded I-24 just south of Nashville with cars, vans, and campers packed to the limit. Most arrived between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday evening, forming a line on the road’s shoulder that took many hours to pass and caused local traffic problems—not all that uncommon for festival goers. However, once the car is parked and the campsites are set up, the long road trip is soon forgotten.

The wait is like a rite of passage for the chance to see the wide variety of artists fill stages, lounges, and tents for four days. The continual expansion of genres showcased at Bonnaroo was as noticeable this year as ever, with Eminem getting the honor of the Saturday night headlining slot. This could have been the reason for a staggering number of first-time “Rooers” and a noticeable decline of veteran attendance.

Festival History

Bonnaroo began predominately as a jam-band rock festival. The 2002 inaugural lineup featured Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident, moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Phil Lesh and Friends with Bob Weir, The Disco Biscuits, Trey Anastasio (of Phish), Ben Harper, Gov’t Mule, and bands alike.

Where else are you going to see a Snoop Dogg crowd singing and dancing with a Phish crowd? That’s Bonnaroo.

Other notable acts over the years have included Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Tool, Radiohead (widely regarded as the best Bonnaroo performance of all time), Widespread Panic, Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder, Nine Inch Nails, The Dead, Neil Young, The Police, and many other greats from past and present.

While the festival always featured a variety of musical genres and appealed to a wide audience of live-music fans, a turning point occurred in 2006 when Radiohead was given the Saturday headlining slot.

“There was some bitterness going around the ‘What (main) Stage’ crowd before Radiohead took the stage in 06,” said Ryan Gallaher of Infooro.com, an independent online resource and community dedicated to Bonnaroo, when we spoke last weekend.

“They attracted more of a hipster crowd and the Roo vets were skeptical. By the time the show ended, Bonnaroo had changed. People loved it. It was one of the defining moments of Bonnaroo,” said Gallaher.

In the years following Radiohead, Bonnaroo started seeing the jam-band-only identity slipping away; more indie, alternative, and rap acts were popping up, along with new festival goers. The Police and Tool were headliners the next year. Kanye West played in 2008, Snoop Dogg played on the main stage in 2009 just hours before Phish closed out the festival. Jay-Z played in 2010.

In just a few years, the festival had gone from being a relatively unknown jam-band cult gathering into what many concert goers think is America’s greatest music festival. Where else are you going to see a Snoop Dogg crowd singing and dancing with a Phish crowd? (It brings to mind the James Brown line: “The long-hair hippies and the afro blacks. They all get together across the tracks.”) That’s Bonnaroo.

A Decade Anniversary

The 10th anniversary was a celebration of how far the festival has come but also reminded us how it got there. There was something for everyone. The String Cheese Incident and Widespread Panic, who played at the first Bonnaroo, were there to remind people of the festival’s jam-band roots. Lil Wayne and Big Boi were there along with Eminem to represent what the festival has become. In between, there were legendary acts like Robert Plant and The Band of Joy, Buffalo Springfield, Gregg Allman, Loretta Lynn, Dr. John, and Bruce Hornsby, which attracted an older crowd that resembled festival crowds of years past.

There were also more recently successful bands that attracted a younger crowd, such as Arcade Fire, The Strokes, The Black Keys, Neon Trees, Mumford & Sons, and The Decemberists.

One of the greatest features of Bonnaroo is that there are plenty of non-music entertainment options for those who need a break from music, the heat, or just need a diversion.

There was a cinema tent where rockumentaries and movies were screened, if you wanted to get out of the heat and cool down. There was a comedy tent that has been graced by comedians like Conan O’Brien and Margaret Cho. Dave Attelland hosted one of my favorite Bonnaroo performances when Flight of the Conchords performed in 2007. This year saw funny-men Lewis Black, Cheech Marin, and Tim Minchin among others in a strong rotation.

Sports fans concerned about the NHL and NBA Finals were happy to find the Bonnaroo Sports Bar where they could play pop-a-shot and watch the games on flat-screen monitors.

Artists were encouraged to show their stuff on the graffiti walls that lined much of the 700-acre farm. By the end of the weekend, you could spend all day walking up and down along the wall, finding some beautiful (and some not so beautiful) creations.

The majority of the campers in my area felt that Friday’s main stage acts were the best of the weekend. Bonnaroo veterans My Morning Jacket played a gripping Friday evening set and were followed by recent Album of the Year Grammy winners Arcade Fire, who made their Bonnaroo debut in impressive fashion.

The String Cheese Incident’s late-night Saturday set featured a glowing spaceman hovering around and darting over the crowd, along with some other out-of-this-world effects that added to a memorable performance.

On a sad note, the joy of the festival was quickly subdued when people found out about two deaths that occurred over the weekend. A 24-year-old man from Raleigh and a 32-year-old woman from Pittsburgh passed away at the festival. The heat, dust, and excessive crowds were a problem all weekend, and those who were unprepared struggled. Over 1,000 people were treated for heat-related illnesses.

In fitting fashion, Bonnaroo veterans Widespread Panic closed down the festival Sunday night with an old-fashioned rock and roll dance party on the main stage. As they played to their faithful fans, many festival attendees were packing their stuff and waiting in line (again) on the way out of the campgrounds.


Joe Fries is a writer and golf pro living in Miami Beach, Fla. You can follow him on Twitter @The7thFreezer or www.twitter.com/The7thFreezer.




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