Bonnaroo is by far my favourite music festival the United States has to offer. When people ask me what makes Bonnaroo so special I find it hard to put into words the experience one has on The Farm. So lucky for you, readers, I’ve put together an A-Z guide on why this years Bonnaroo was an unforgettable experience.
I’ll start with the show that had the most energy. When I saw Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals were given a Main Stage headlining slot opening for Eminem, I was surprised and excited for the platform this young, fresh band would get. And Anderson .Paak absolutely relished and crushed the moment. This rap, funk, soul, rock band was the most energetic, in your face set of the fest. I never stopped moving and was in constant amazement of what an amazing show I was seeing.
Never in your life will you see more beach balls than the four days you spend on the Tennessee Farm. Ranging from tiny ones filled with flashing lasers, to giant ones you could fit your entire family in. While it makes it aesthetically pleasing, one most always be aware for the impending moment when one comes flying to your face.
This might be the thing that sets Bonnaroo apart the most from other festivals. Spending four days sleeping on the ground, braving 90 degree heat, thunderstorms, mud, and exhaustion puts everyone on the same page of just trying to survive. You really are all in this together and for one main reason, the love of music. Because of this you make amazing friends and strike up incredible conversation.
While waiting in the pit line for The Killers, I started talking with a fellow Killers fan from Atlanta, before I knew it he was buying me a beer, corn dog, fries and his wife was putting a medal on my neck which read, “You Really Shine!”
There really is no place like Bonnaroo!
One of the best parts of when a music festival’s schedule comes out is planning out your days on who you will see and your route of attack. This also forces you to do some research and try to find new bands and catch an act you have never seen.
This year’s band for me was Moon Taxi. Two years before Moon Taxi played Bonnaroo on the Which Stage. I remember walking by and being blown away by the crowd size and so I stopped for a moment. I was impressed, and vowed to check them out when I got home. Life got in the way and I forgot. When I realised I had an opening on Sunday evening, I saw they were playing the Which Stage again. I then started listening to some of their albums and looking up their live stuff on YouTube and I was hooked. It suddenly became one of the shows I was most looking forward to.
Then Sunday evening came just as the sun was about to set on the festival for the last time in 2018 and I was second row and ready to rock. Their live show was better than anything I could have hoped for and that is what makes going to a festival with so many choices and so many things to discover so absolutely great.
At Bonnaroo, you never have to worry about going hungry. And you certainly never have to worry about having an abundance of options. There truly is something for everyone, ranging from po-boys, chicken tikka marsala, fried Oreos, quesadillas, noodles and pizza and pizza and more pizza.
There’s also so many drink choices from a Brewer’s festival of taps from all over the world to wine, black lemonade and unlimited water to keep you hydrated.
My favourite experience of the weekend was the Tom Petty Superjam. Every year Bonnaroo is known for it’s massive superjams where artists playing the festival, and some that aren’t come together to jam for over two hours.
This year they chose to honour the legacy of the recently departed Tom Petty. With appearances by Sheryl Crow, Bon Iver, Young the Giant, Cage the Elephant, Hayley Williams and more, it was a non-stop two hours of surprises and sing alongs for the tens of thousands in attendance.
It was a show I will never see again and two hours I will never forget.
Good Ole’ Country Music
I am not a country music fan. Nothing about it really appeals to me and it’s not something I really search out. But I have always heard Sturgill Simpson is the best thing Country music has going for it. When I saw Sturgill was playing before Muse, I knew I was going to get the chance to see him because I would be positioning myself to get the closest spot possible for Muse’s set. As the show began Simpson’s voice brought to mind childhood memories of hearing Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. Sturgill sounded so crisp and so iconic and what followed was what I imagine country music was meant to be years and years ago. So much soul, grit and jam outs. Simpson and his band of incredible musicians put on an amazing concert and for that he earned a lot of respect from me.
I have listened to Paramore since they first came out over ten years ago. They hit me at the perfect time of my college angst and as they have matured and grown as musicians I would like to think I have matured and grown as a human. This was the first time I had seen them live, and it really solidified the reasons for my crush on their lead singer Hayley Williams from all those years ago. She was an absolute joy to watch on stage. How she moved, sounded and addressed the crowd with messages of hope and happiness gave the largest day crowd of the festival an incredible experience. College Nathan was definitely not disappointed.
It is easy to complain about the weather of Bonnaroo. it typically being the second weekend of June, the usual forecast is Sunny skies, no clouds and highs over 90 degrees or over 32 degrees celsius. It is hot, exhausting, and because there is hardly any shade of trees on the farm, not much fun. It is always important to stay hydrated and constantly be drinking water to stay cool and alive.
This year was much the same, until about 9am on Sunday morning when buckets and buckets of rain came pouring down on the people trying to sleep off a raging Saturday night. For about the next three hours, threats of lightning forced the festival grounds to close and people to seek shelter in their cars. As my campsite began to flood and mud pits began to form all over the festival grounds it was easy to long for the days of the searing heat.
Just a Friend
I don’t know how or why, but you will hear this song at least 50 times over the four days, whether it’s waiting before a band to play, or standing in line for food or exiting the festival grounds for the day, it is everywhere, all the time.
Knights of Cydonia
Muse was made to be seen live. Their hour and a half long set on Friday night was filled with incredible lights, mega rock anthems and the soaring vocals of lead singer Matt Bellamy. As the usual, Muse closed with the song that catapulted them to rock superstardom, “Knights of Cydonia”. This is their magnum opus of their recording collection and live it catapults them to a new level. The epic ness of the sound, the breakdown and nearly 80,000 people screaming “You and I must fight to survive,” will shoot chills down anyone’s spine and it was one of my favourite moments of the weekend.
Eminem has had a whirlwind, roller coaster career that has included many number one hits, plenty of controversy and a few different looks. But nearly 20 years into his career, Eminem has reached the pinnacle of performing live. Maybe it’s his maturity, older age, or the sobriety, but the show Saturday night at Bonnaroo was his best I have ever seen. The show ran so smoothly with hit after hit, spanning his oldest cuts to his new board charting singles. He clearly has something to prove and his live shows mean a lot to him now. The best moment was of course the closing number, “Lose Yourself”. The biggest crowd of the entire festival rapped every single word along with him and everyone’s feet left the ground when the chorus dropped. It was a moment he definitely captured and he didn’t let it slip.
Manchester Orchestra shows are as unique as the band themselves. Led by Andy Hull’s angelic voice that brings to mind the greatest Irish folk singers of all time, layers over shredding guitars and bumping bass lines. It was the hardest rocking show of the festival. But when the guitars fade, and Hull is left singing his many acapella breaks, it is arguable he may have the most serene voice of any singer playing the festival. It is an incredible juxtaposition to watch on stage, and I would recommend seeing them live to anyone anytime.
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug and the show I got when I walked into Nile Rodgers & Chic was not what I was expecting. What began with the nicest looking man in an awesome suit playing awesome guitar turned into a showcase of his greatest songs he helped write and produce and those songs turned out to be some of the greatest songs of all time. From “We Are Family” to “Get Lucky” to “Let’s Dance” and many more, the hour long show was a non-stop dance fest and sing along. It was such a joyous thing to be a part of and one of the most fun moments of the weekend.
On Your Own
Bonnaroo is a survival test to the fullest and not easy by any means. It is estimated that over 90 percent of the attendants of the festival camp on the Tennessee farm. While some roll up in cushy RV trailers, nearly all of them are forced to channel their inner Bear Grylls and pitch a tent and set in for the weekend. This is where I give you important advice and tell you to always set up your tent before you leave town for the weekend.
One year, I discovered too late that the six person tent I grabbed for me and two of my friends was actually a two person tent and forced one of my friends to sleep all weekend in my car. And another year, I was left clueless on how to put up my tent, until my friendly neighbours assisted me leaving me feeling unintelligent, judged and in for a long weekend. But the feeling at the end of the weekend knowing you have survived a Bonnaroo, and toughing it out with 70,000 of your new closest friends is incredibly gratifying.
This is the greatest secret of the festival. If you want to be as close as possible for a once in a liftetime concert experience it is so easy. You just have to sacrifice, many hours, several bands and be ready to wait. The best thing about Bonnaroo is the best spots for the main acts are reserved for the most loyal and dedicated of fans. Five years ago, Paul McCartney played Bonnaroo, and my friend and I were determined to be mere feet away from the legend. So seven hours before he took the stage, we set up camp with several other maniacs and settled in for a long day. But as the lights went down and there was Paul, 10 feet away, the wait became suddenly so worth it. Other festivals typically reward these spots to the highest bidder, and I will always be grateful to Bonnaroo that they give them to the truest of fans.
Quiet Set, Big Draw
To be given two sets to play during such a massive festival is a tremendous honour. In my time of coming to Bonnaroo only The Grateful Dead and Phish have been given this opportunity. For the 2018 Bonnaroo, Bon Iver was tabbed as playing a set before and after Eminem. It struck me as a very odd and unconventional choice, picking someone with such serene, mellow music to play for tens of thousands for over two hours. But, Justin Vernon seized the opportunity and provided two very different toned sets that soothed the crowd but also gave them plenty to get excited about. It was an honour Bon Iver deserved and it definitely wasn’t squandered.
Ridiculously Amazing Sunsets
As I have mentioned before, there are not very many trees on The Farm. One of the only perks of this is the land is flat and you can see far off into the distance past the festival walls. This creates wonderful moments for the sunsets. The festival promoters are amazing at what they do and they always program incredible bands to be playing while these moments happen. From Moon Taxi to Sylvan Esso and even Sturgill Simpson, each night held another beautiful thing t take in and truly feel blessed to be there.
Sunrises with Kaskade
Kaskade definitely dialled up the notch on demanding Bonnaroo be an all night party. After his headline slot on the DJ stage which lasted ’til past 3am, he ran across the farm and made a surprise appearance at the Kalliope stage, a makeshift stage meant to keep the party going. From there on, he dropped many basses and kept the crowd jumping until 7 am. It was an incredible accomplishment for all who stayed until the final drop, as it was the third day of the festival.
It is always a great idea to show up to Bonnaroo on the first night. While most of the 90 thousand who attend the festival show up on Friday when the big headliners play Thursday can actually be the most rewarding time to be there. As the crowds are much thinner and easier to navigate and it is much more of an open slate to make many new discoveries. Past Thursdays at Bonnaroo I was lucky enough to see Kendrick Lamar, Glass Animals, Alt J, Twenty-One Pilots and many more. This year I was determined to find who could be the next band or act to duplicate that success. Durand Jones & The Indications, Jade Bird and R.Lum.R. are my picks this year to be the most likely to skyrocket the lineup when they are next at Bonnaroo.
Urinetown (or the Porta-Potties)
Nothing makes you appreciate running water and toilets that flush more than 4 days on the farm. Luckily, two years ago Bonnaroo made a move to bring in permanent toilets that flush and aren’t the most disgusting things in the world. Sadly, with 90 thousand people and so much ground to cover there still are portable toilets around. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, but its another way of survival. And it really teaches me never to take my bathroom at home for granted.
Last year when I first arrived to my campsite we received word that Chance the Rapper had just been riding his dirt bike through the camp and saying hello to the many in attendance. There is something about Bonnaroo that Chance loves. Last year, Chance was a headliner, the year before that he came out during J. Cole’s headlining slot and sure enough this year Chance came out on stage to support his fellow Chicago mates Knox Fortune. I completely understand why he keeps coming back, Bonnaroo is the best!
When You Were Young
The Killers are my coming of age band. Popping up on the scene my senior year of high school, I remember singing with my friends in the car to “All These Things That I’ve Done”, to rushing to record store to buy their second album Sam’s Town and following their evolution as a band as I transitioned into adulthood. Their songs are anthems of my youth and mean the world to me. So to see them live is an incredibly exciting opportunity. I planned my day around seeing them as close as possible and in the meantime made some incredible new friends, but the moment the show began I knew, this was the reason I was at Bonnaroo 2018: for this show.
As Brandon Flowers ran out, the opening notes to “Mr. Brightside” hit. No way! They are starting with this? Hell yeah they are! As the lyrics, “Coming out of my cage…” hit, the crowd erupted and complete madness had hit the farm. It was the absolute best way to start the show and pure joy was emanating from my heart.
The rest of the show was nearly as flawless, they played five songs from their debut album Hot Fuss which was a tremendous gift to their oldest fans, they didn’t spend too much time on their new stuff but really spanned their whole career. It was absolutely perfect.
While you wouldn’t think it, Bonnaroo can be filled with families. This is a risky thing if you ask me. Much in the vein of Woodstock, which a lot of the people attending the festival would wish Bonnaroo to be, there is a lot of free spirit around the farm. And with that free spirit comes a lot of girls covered in just paint or with no tops at all and some guys with just tube socks honouring the Red Hot Chili Peppers, even though they headlined Bonnaroo last year and were nowhere to be seen this year.
Young and Wildin’ Out
Billie Eilish was definitely the youngest artist at Bonnaroo yet she was on the second biggest stage. The 16 year old rock singer wasn’t fazed one bit and floored the audience with her jarring voice, awesome stage presence and comfort with the moment. Her hits “Ocean Eyes,” “Watch” and “Lovely” had the crowd singing along with every word. She clearly is a star on the rise and I am sure she has many Bonnaroos ahead of her.
Zoom Out Moments
I learned a very valuable lesson when I was young from my Step-father that I practice every single Bonnaroo. He taught me that when you are living out an experience you know you will never forget to take a deep breath and take a zoom out moment. A zoom out moment is when you realise the moment you are in, you take a second to observe it from outside your body and soak it in and truly embrace the moment as one you will carry with you forever.
Bonnaroo has provided me with so many of these, from singing “Hey Jude” with Paul McCartney, to ‘Oh, Oh, Oh’ing to “Seven Nation Army” with Jack White, they have been countless and I treasure every single one.
This year I had several, from being able to sing “Free Fallin'” with tens of thousands of people one last time, to screaming “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier”, these are the reasons I go to music festivals. While it can be exhausting, rough, wet, smelly, and other not fun things, it provides moments that will last a lifetime and it is why I will keep coming back to Bonnaroo as long as I can.
For more information about Bonnaroo, visit their website, here.
Photos by Taylor Mithelman.