At Bonnaroo 2013, there wasn’t much you didn’t see. Naked guys, naked girls, horses, random acts of kindness, mushrooms… even a Beatle!
(And there were plenty of regular beetles too.)
The Bonnaroo Arts and Music Festival, held in the rural area of Manchester, Tennessee, welcomed a record-breaking 90,000 attendees this year. Dancing, smoking, laughing, and roasting under the hot Southern sun for four days, these music lovers had their fill of music, art, drugs and fun. Concertgoers came from all over – many from the South, and some from as far as Canada. There was a lot of near-nudity – bikinis count as a complete outfit – but everyone was accepting and friendly. And amidst all the craziness, you can meet some of the strangest people ever. Where else can you do that?
Each year, dozens of musical artists from all ends of the spectrum play at Roo’s five venues, so at any given point during the day one can wander the dirt grounds and hear the sounds of a breakthrough indie-rock band (Matt and Kim, Passion Pit, Of Monsters and Men, to name a few) clash with the soulful wails of a rhythm and blues act (late-night special R. Kelly, anyone?), and the far-off spitting of the hottest rappers (A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis…not to brag).
Daily headliners take the main stage (called the What stage, for whatever reason) usually around nine at night. Usually, no other acts are scheduled to play at this time. However, Saturday night there was an exception: Mumford and Sons, the original headliner, had to cancel last-minute due to the bassist requiring emergency surgery for a blood clot in his brain. Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson was asked to perform and had less than 24 hours to gather and rehearse with his band whom he hadn’t played with in a year. The jazzy Preservation Jazz Band performed at a faraway tent at the same time as Johnson’s set, and played a song with the singer for an encore.
Johnson’s last-minute act wasn’t his best, as could be expected, and though Sunday’s headliner Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers brought unexpected twists and raw covers to the main stage, they fell flat at times (i.e. leaving out “Free Falling” – not the best choice considering that’s the only Petty song anyone under age 50 knows). Shockingly, probably not even Mumford and Sons, if they could’ve performed, would have topped the nearly three-hour performance by Friday night’s headliner, Paul McCartney.
The former Beatle performed classic hits from the band, from upbeat samples like the opening “Eight Days a Week” and “Paperback Writer” to stripped-down gold such as “Blackbird” and “Let it Be.” There were sing-a-longs – “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” and “Hey Jude,” notably – and tributes, like “Here Today” for the late John Lennon and a ukulele version of “Something” in honor of George Harrison. McCartney also performed Wings hits, like a roaring rendition of “Get Back,” and solo work like the classic “Maybe I’m Amazed.” The 71-year-old writer and singer essentially responsible for defining pop music over the last century, engaged frequently with the crowd and even needed a moment to “soak in” the 80,000-person audience. To top it off, at 11:30 PM, following a pyrotechnics-assisted “Live and Let Die,” McCartney stepped offstage only to return for not one, but two encores. By the final medley of “Golden Slumbers”/ “Carry That Weight”/ “The End,” it was nearly midnight, and nobody seemed to notice.
Besides bringing in different artists, Bonnaroo also invited local vendors, merchants, businesses, and food services to advertise and sell products in the central market. There was also a comedy tent featuring Daniel Tosh, Bob Saget, and other funnymen, a popular destination for laughs and air conditioning. Another cooled building was the cinema, hosting premieres of documentaries and discussions with specialists about current issues. The Roo Academy was also a hot destination for concertgoers, where art classes and music lessons were taught daily.
No matter what, there was always something to do at Bonnaroo, in case hearing some great live music wasn’t interesting enough. Sure, there are drawbacks, like brutal 90-degree heat with little shade, a complete lack of personal space, expensive food, the stench of porta-potties, and the dirt that forms a second skin by the end of day two. But the experience – meeting fascinating new people, discovering music, enjoying your favorite artists with tens of thousands of other fans – is an experience unlike any other, and that’s what makes Bonnaroo worth it.