Another year, another Bonnaroo, but for once, one with little to no hullabaloo.
Where years passed featured undermining whispers of how Bonnaroo was undersold, restricted access for the everyday festival goer due to “special” VIP and Platinum packages, the idea that Live Nation would bring more brands and fewer bands into the fold, 2018 on “The Farm” featured a precipitously insignificant amount of inane prattling (which is a great thing).
The closest version of talebearing at Bonnaroo 2018 that I caught wind of was the glaring omission of a “legacy” act from this year’s headliners, and the fact that Fleetwood Mac originally stood to serve that role, but with Lindsey Buckingham’s firing from the band in April of this year, either Fleetwood Mac or Bonnaroo reneged on the slot. Whichever one it was, no one seemed capable of determining who or what was at fault for the hypothetical Fleetwood Mac dropout, and thus it remained a rumour (get it!?) and hardly a headline, which is the way most Bonnaroo coverage should stay.
Each year, these trivial observations make the rounds in the press compound of Bonnaroo - neatly situated behind Which Stage - as everyone searches for their respective, but ultimately invariable angle for their readers, subscribers, compatriots, fans, etc. That’s all well and good, but in all reality, coverage typically boils down to one of two purviews - Bonnaroo is doing just fine, or it’s not.
So here is the end of our buried lede, simply stating that Bonnaroo is doing just fine, and there’s absolutely nothing to worry about.
A couple of years ago, once Bonnaroo shifted hands in it’s sale from Superfly to Live Nation, many labeled the new iterations of Bonnaroo as dead on arrival. Many believed that Live Nation would lead to a more corporatized festival that embraces less of the Bonnaroo experience and more of the cookie cutter festival fodder that is Coachella.
In my belief, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Bonnaroo is still (for lack of a better descriptor) Bonnaroo. It’s still the festival where people couldn’t care less where you’ve come from or what you do and instead embrace the uniquity of a four day weekend in which like minded souls convene upon a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee to experience escapism together. Sure, it’s not on par with Woodstock or anything, but the “old” Bonnaroo wasn’t that either. Ultimately, Bonnaroo is what you make of it, and some people want to make it out to as many different sets as they please, while others might only care for what’s playing at The Other. That’s all perfectly fine.
Honestly, Bonnaroo 2018 was probably one of the better editions of the festival in recent memory thanks in large part to the lack of disparate whispers and what not. Granted, there was plenty of inescapable heat and the annual “The forecast said it wasn’t going to rain” downpour, which left the ground more than a little spongy on Roo’s final day - but all in all, spirits were high.
In my opinion, this year’s lineup was a little different than in previous years - a decent amount of DJs, no Bluegrass Jam, and pretty much no jam band - but there was still a wide swath of acts for any and all tastes to choose from.
An interesting observation of the festival was just how decidedly younger the crowd was. That might lead to some of that worrisome negative navel gazing about how the festival has “changed,” and while speculation might be fun, it’s ultimately pointless. It should be noted, however, that the relative youth of the festival did serve a nice barometer for up and coming acts that seem to have some solid traction, in terms of the turnout for their sets.
Artists like Daniel Caesar, Kali Uchis, Rich Brian, Moses Sumney, and Anderson .Paak brought out some of the most impressive non-headlining crowds, so if there was ever any suspicion their respective hype was in question, let their Bonnaroo crowds serve as an end to some doubt. Not that someone like .Paak’s credibility was ever in question, the four preceding artists do seem to stand to have longer runway than originally thought. If I were a gambler, I’d be more than willing to put money down on any of those four, specifically Caesar. He had by far and away the most ardent convergence of fans underneath This Tent.
All in all, a young Bonnaroo is good for Bonnaroo, because they’re less likely to be swayed by the perpetual sweat and ultimate grind of a four day camping festival, as well as being, well, young. There’s more life to be lived by these young Bonnaroovians, so why not do so at future editions of the festival if previous times were a hit?
Outside of the youth movement at Bonnaroo, the most notable change to the lineup, from my view, was the absence of the Bluegrass Jam, which to some might serve as a sign of the old Bonnaroo phasing out, but that’s really just a red herring, and ultimately, a fatalist view.
If you consider who typically hosts the Bluegrass Jams, it’s either Ed Helms, Steve Martin, or Chris Thile. All three had a more than valid reason to not appear at The Farm this year - Helms is off promoting his new film Tag, Steve Martin just released his latest special with Martin Short on Netflix, and Chris Thile has Live From Here to host virtually all the time. So, for any of them to come out the Bonnaroo might have ultimately served as more of a detriment to the quality of the jam.
So, in lieu of an Bluegrass Jam, Bonnaroo chose to do something that was truly enterprising - bringing the Grand Ole Opry to The Farm. Hosted by Old Crow Medicine Show (see: Ketch Secor), the traveling Opry featured Nikki Lane, Bobby Bare, Del McCoury, Joshua Hedley, Riders in the Sky, and even some Opry Square Dancers.
It was a solid iteration of the show that made country music famous, even if it was placed in an unfortunate time-slot, up against alt-J, Thundercat, and those clamoring for festival closers The Killers. All in all, a successful dry run for The Opry, but hopefully, Bonnaroo will have some sense to place the next “GOO at ROO” on a Friday, where it won’t be competing with so many heavy hitters. Nevertheless, I’d say the inaugural Grand Ole Opry at Bonnaroo was a success. Bonnaroo remains innovative through adding one of the most historic musical variety shows in the history of entertainment
So, we’ve established that Bonnaroo appears to be skewing younger, and why that’s probably a good thing, the historic innovations of Bonnaroo via the Grand Ole Opry, but what about the jam bands, man???
Well, admittedly, I’m not one for jam bands. In fact, I’d throw Phish and The Grateful Dead up there in my all-time least favorite band list, but that’s for another write-up - where have all the jam bands gone on Bonnaroo’s lineup? No Dead & Co.? No Dave Matthews? No My Morning Jacket? No Umphrey's McGee? Has Bonnaroo gone soft?
Not at all.
In fact, this year’s lineup was ripe with quite a few jam bands, just not in the explicit “let’s play this one riff for thirty minutes” manner that has come to be known as jam band-dom. Look no further than Sturgill Simpson, whose own Grateful Dead fandom has oriented his music into the cool realm of country jam band-dom. There’s nary a Sturgill set that doesn’t rattle off a few hundred licks and tasty kicks to keep the audience enveloped in his sound. Then, you have Bon Iver’s exceptional second set, which featured all sorts of surprise guests - Francis and the Lights, Sylvan Esso, Moses Sumney, and more - and unexpected new song revelations, that sound equal parts trap music and classic Bon Iver. Truly, an unreal performance.
You also have the aforementioned Thundercat, whose name is all but built on freeform jamming, and Anderson .Paak, whose showmanship brings the audience’s view every which way during a performance that doubles as a showcase for Paak’s musical prowess. Moving down the lineup, there’s Durand Jones & the Indications mixing sweetness with sweat, *repeat repeat shredding with R.LUM.R, Blank Range, and Okey Dokey bringing on all sorts of special guests.
So there are your jam bands, hiding in plain sight.
If there’s one thing to be learned from any and all festivals, it’s that they are what you make of them, and I’d like to believe our time at Bonnaroo was in fact time well spent. Whether you spend all your time at one stage, or never make it closer than the archway at What Stage, Bonnaroo is a unique festival going experience that proves to stand on a plane of it’s own when it comes to festivals. And thankfully, next year’s Bonnaroo won’t compete against CMA Fest next year, instead following the weekend after. So who knows what changes in next year’s iteration, but I have a sneaking suspicion it will be for the best.