Bonnaroo Is Not A Music Festival

Photo by Stephanie King

I learned to perfect the tonal frequency of the wristband beep of acceptance. Based on the type of wristband each Bonnaroovian had determined the levels of access you could enjoy. You had to scan your wristband to get in to various areas of the fest. A high pitched beep meant access. A Family Feud sounding honk meant rejection. I had a blue Media wristband which is a step up from the GA bands but a giant leap down from the green Artist bands. Even with an Artist wristband there were 3 levels of access: Level 3 admitted you to the artist lounge with free booze and coffee (with the amazing Baristas at Frothy Monkey keeping the vibes chill all weekend long). Level 2 admitted you to the artist lounge along with special viewing areas and backstage access at certain stages. And level 1, I can only assume, admitted you into Eddie Vedder’s tour bus bunk bed. I’m not sure. I didn’t meet anyone with that wristband.

However, I learned to work with my access handicap because everyone in my Roo crew had a level 3 Artist band. Not to say everyone I came with were artists. Many were managers or significant others. It seemed anyone in the industry (and their friends) had some level of Artist wristband.

But the artist lounge was where the true artist Bonnaroo connections were made.

It’s where the drummer from Halsey, Nate Lotz, got to see his good bud, the bassist of Allen Stone, Tyler Carroll (fun fact the three of us played a show together a year prior in LA). Where members of Vulfpeck and Allen Stone‘s band shared a mutual admiration love fest accompanied by gracious hugs and smiles of recognition – gushing over each other’s sets.

These interactions won’t get reported in the media because the media wristbands did not grant access to the artist area. But my pitch-perfect vocal beeps, while shuffling through with a big group in front of an overworked, overheated staffer was the perfect combination to grant this writer access.

And it was a musical reunion for me. I ran into: the drummer who I hadn’t seen since we played a Christmas party together a year and a half ago in LA, the bassist who I toured with five years prior, the trombone player who I partied with in New Orleans this past December and a guitarist/producer who I hadn’t seen since our bands played tiny Minneapolis clubs together back in the day. And it’s where I met and then ran into the brother-sister funk duo of Lawrence a mere 17 times over the course of the 4 day fest.

The artist lounge was where a young band playing a 3pm set on the up and coming Who Stage or On Tap lounge could challenge a main stage headliner to a game of ping pong. Everyone at different stages of their careers all sharing a beer, bourbon or cold brew together.

Major props to Bonnaroo for cultivating this kind of welcoming environment for their artists.

Every musician in his or her respective projects that brought them to Bonnaroo, to this moment in the massive outdoor, shaded lounge enjoying some respite from the 80,000 music fans baking in the sun just a few feet away on the other side of the fence. No matter which side of the fence you were on, though, you were having the time of your life.

This is Bonnaroo.

Bonnaroo is not merely a music festival. It is a community. An energy. A vibe. A utopia.

Photo by Stephanie King

It’s a place where, as thousands stood in the pit, baking in the unforgiving Tennessee sun, waiting for a band’s set to start, ice cold water bottles got passed around. By whom? Nobody knew. But if you needed some hydration you took one. If you didn’t, you passed it back to someone who did. Bonnaroo is a place where, when I was struggling to set up my tent by myself, my camp neighbors jumped in to help. Start to finish. Thanks Tess and Brian from Birmingham! A place where a 63 year old doctor celebrating his 10th straight year at the fest can high five a 17 year old newbie as they gleefully wish each other a “Happy Roo!” Both levitating as Tame Impala’s confetti cannons explode at 1:30AM.


This doctor, Larry Saripkin, described in the Bonnaroo Beacon (the free daily PRINT newspaper distributed every morning around the grounds recapping the previous day along with other interesting Bonnaroo stories):

“I come to Bonnaroo primarily for the music, but I love the camaraderie and the spirit that permeates The Farm.”

Bonnaroo, now in its 15th year, is one of the only festivals on the planet that indiscriminately brings together acts of every genre. Both established and emerging. Young (like 21 year old first-timer Shamir) and old (The Dead & Co closed out the fest Sunday night).

And it’s where just three years ago Lucius and Chris Stapleton played the tiny emerging On Tap stage in front of maybe a couple hundred. This year they both played big stages to thousands.

Photo by Ari Herstand 

Yes, that’s a cheeseball flag.

And then, Saturday afternoon, halfway through the festival, a friend hooked me up with a level 2 (!!) Artist wristband. No more vocal beeps. I promptly ran through What Stage’s backstage directly into the pit to sing along to Stapleton’s “Traveler” with thousands of other music lovers.

Photo by Ari Herstand

The late night “Tribute to Tennessee” SUPERJAM hosted by Kamasi Washington and his band mixed with members of Lettuce played only songs by Tennessee artists. Allen Stone and his band came out and brought the crowd of thousands to spiritual heights with a BB King cover that surely reached him in the heavens. Oh Wonder sang Dolly’s “Jolene.” Michelle Williams of Destiney’s Child and Antwan Stanley of Vulfpeck crushed an Earth, Wind and Fire jam (Maurice White is from Memphis). Nathaniel Rateliff, Miguel, Lizzo, Chicano Batman and GRiZ also delivered stellar performances during the jam.

Photo by Adam Newmark

Unfortunately, no one informed the lead singer of Third Eye Blind of the Bonnaroo Code. The first words out of his mouth in the mic were “I just got here. I missed sound check.” And he proceeded to ignore all musicians on stage while he sang a shaky “Ring of Fire” in his rock-star bubble. He payed no attention (or respect) to Kamasi who was giving cues to the band and Mr. Blind missed most changes and took a sledgehammer to the beautiful ball of soul left by Allen Stone just minutes prior. You have to respect the Roo. And Mr. Blind didn’t.

With my level 2 Artist band I was able to get right up close in the pit for Death Cab For Cutie, one of my all-time favorite bands. Their set was simply spiritual. Even friends who tagged along and had no interest in the band admitted it was one of the strongest performances of the weekend. I’ll fully admit that I danced and sang my ass off – releasing all insecurities or judgements that would normally swell in at any other “hip” concert. Not at Bonnaroo, though.

A slimmed down Ben Gibbard donning skinny jeans, contact lenses and a respectable rock-star hair cut gave quite a different performance from the last show I saw 10 years ago – pre-Zooey Deschanel marriage (and divorce). I almost didn’t recognize him. Mid set, the band left the stage and Gibbard said “we weren’t going to play this song, but when Chance the Rapper requests a song, you do it.” And that’s when 10,000 Roovians sang along to “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” Lovers embraced. And everyone came together as one collective voice sharing a moment in time that will never be replicated.



Chills. Tears. Bonnaroo.

Even though his vocals were a bit low in the mix for my taste, the performance was one for the books.

Photo by Adam Newmark

Another absolute standout performance was Allen Stone‘s late afternoon set on the What Stage. I enjoy his new record Radius, but it doesn’t come close to what Stone and band bring live. Some of the funkiest players on the scene are in his band. Bassist Tyler Carroll was locked into a deep pocket with drummer Jason Holt. The horns not only screamed and wailed ala Tower of Power, but trombonist Evan Oberla and saxophonist Ari Kohn‘s dance moves gave a respectful nod to the horn bands of the 70s with a modern twist. Both New Orleans natives, they brought their Big Easy sauce to the stage.

No one can elevate a crowd like Allen Stone.

He’s not just a voice. He’s not just a songwriter. He’s not just a guitar player. He’s not just a performer. He is a spiritual guide. And we were all members of his church for the brief 45 minute set.

Photo by Ari Herstand

Shoutout to Allen’s front of house (FOH) sound engineer, Eric Loux who had the set dialed in perfectly – an impressive feat for the very first set of the main stage. The mix was just pristine.

The mix award for the weekend goes to Allen Stone’s FOH, Eric Loux.

Most bands brought their own front of house sound engineers, but unfortunately, some younger bands didn’t realize how important bringing your own FOH actually is and their sound suffered.

The excitement was palatable when Vulfpeck took the stage for their 8:45pm opening night performance, but unfortunately only a fraction of the crowd of maybe 5,000 got an audible show. For some reason, the house sound guy – probably fatigued from his 15 hour day – kept their volume at a pre-show house music level – so if you weren’t directly in front of the wall of speakers, you couldn’t hear much. One of the reviewers in the Bonnaroo app complained “TURN THE SOUND UP!!”

But even those close enough with half ways decent volume got a nearly inaudible mix. Vulfpeck, delivered a flawless performance, complete with a guest by BØRNS who sang fan-favorite “Back Pocket,” an impromptu Stevie Wonder “I Wish” and a stellar rendition of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” both sung by unofficial lead-singer Antwaun Stanley. And drummer/guitarist/singer Theo Katzman delivered a fantastic rendition of The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek.” But it took the sound guy about 5 songs to dial in the bass (only when he started to take a solo did sound guy realize there was a bassist) – a travesty considering Joe Dart is one of the best new bass players in the funk world today. The electric keyboard was either muted or Jack Stratton was Milli-Vanilling the entire set in his white tennis shorts. And oftentimes the correct mics were completely off because the members of Vulfpeck trade off instruments and mics so often (sometimes mid song) that an unfamiliar sound guy would surely miss a few crucial moments. No house sound guy can manage a set like this effectively. You have to know the band. And that’s why you need your own sound guy.

Vulfpeck with Antwaun Stanley
Vulfpeck, Screenshot of the Redbull TV webcast

The final performance of the festival, Dead & Co fronted by John Mayer was disappointing to say the least. My generation’s jam heads grew up attending Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, Big Wu, String Cheese Incident, Particle, Widespread Panic and DMB shows. I probably logged over a hundred jam shows between the ages of 15 and 22. I was a jam head. But I missed the Dead boat by a few years. It seemed everyone else in the pit was a solid 10+ years older than me. I know the hits, “Cocaine,” “Touch of Grey,” “Scarlet Begonias,” etc. and I was prepared to dance my ass off for the final, two-set performance of the night. John Mayer is one of the best living guitar players and songwriters of our time.

Photo by Andrew Leib

I’m not ashamed to admit that I know most of Room For Squares on guitar, own his entire catalog (with his greatest album, Continuum, on vinyl) and have seen him in concert a half a dozen times. Unfortunately, he had to front the sloppiest rhythm section of Bonnaroo. Well, it’s an insult to the incredible bass player, Oteil Burbridge, to lump him in with “the rhythm section.” Really, it was the two drummers, original members Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, who couldn’t lock in. Were Dead shows always like this?

These guys couldn’t find the pocket if it was stapled to their foreheads.

Photo by Ari Herstand
Photo by Ari Herstand

Bob Weir locked harmonies with Mayer and former Grateful Dead member Donna Jean Godchaux. Burbridge, had the tone, touch and feel of the true pro he is. Keyboardist, Jeff Chimenti, was on point. But if your drummer(s) can’t hold down a groove, ain’t nothing gonna save the set.

I was actually quite impressed with how much Mayer found his own groove with Burbridge and took transcribable-worthy solos while the drummers competed on where one was going to land. Every. Goddam. Measure.

We took off at the set break.

A pretty anti-climactic end to a life-changing weekend.

But did it dampen the weekend? Not one bit. The music was mostly great. And sometimes it wasn’t. But it didn’t matter. There were no negative vibes. There was pure love in the air. The beauty of this kind of festival is if you aren’t feeling a band’s set, there are typically 5 others happening at the same time. Or if you just want to chill, there’s plenty of room for that in the many lounge areas in or around the food stands or the artist gallery. Or if you need to just cool the F off (it hit 100 this weekend) the fountain provided a much needed respite. Or you could retreat to your campsite (or in our case, air-conditioned tour bus – thanks Andrew, Adam and the entire Red Light Management team for being so awesome and welcoming!) for good conversation, good beer and good weed (thanks TSA for not checking inside my Advil bottle).

Pearl Jam, by Adam Newmark
Photo by Stephanie King
Photo by Andrew Leib

80,000 Bonnaroovians. 80,000 unique experiences. But one collective spirit.

Bonnaroo is not merely a music festival. It’s a vacation from negativity. It’s a welcoming community coming together to be inspired and fulfilled.

Need a drink? Your neighbor will share. Want a smoke? Your new friend will help you out. Need a high five? Just put your hand up. Want to dance? Dance. Want to sit? Sit. Want to lie down? Stretch it out. Want to do yoga mid song in the grass? Yeah, that happened. There are no judgements at Bonnaroo. There is only love and happiness.

I’d like to think that Al Green had the idea of Bonnaroo in mind when he wrote the song.

See you next year on The Farm!

Photo by Adam Newmark

Want to give a special shoutout to Jake Whitener and the entire Big Hassle staff for being so damn helpful and welcoming all weekend long. They were busting ass.

Ari Herstand is the author of How To Make It in the New Music Business, a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and the creator of the music biz advice blog Ari’s Take. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake

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