Features /// Reflections on Bonnaroo, Past and Present

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Bonnaroo: Where it’s Been, Where it’s Going and How Drunk You’ll Get.

Forgive me. I refused to engage in the crazy Bonnaroo announcement mayhem last week: it seemed a little excessive for a item you could wait 5 minutes for and then read about online all at once. It was, as we say in journalizzm, fake news. Anyway, this is not to take away from the amazing lineup, which includes Sir Paul (no shit!), The National, Wilco, a Bluegrass Situation superjam, Tame Impala, Tom Petty, Django Django, JEFF The Brotherhood and many other excellent acts. Check out the whole deal here.

To celebrate, I asked guest-blogger Julian Ciany to talk about what the ‘Roo means to Tennessee, and to all of y’all.

By Julian Ciany :::

If one were to etymologically trace the word “Bonnaroo,” one would arrive at the French “bon” and “rue,” which literally mean “good” and “street.”  To translate a bit more succinctly we end up with “the best on the streets,” a title that the Bonnaroo Music and Arts festival has come to perfectly represent.  Over the past eleven years, the festival has seen a diverse and eclectic variety of some of music’s most influential figures. USA Today called it “the culmination of a musical movement” while the Associated Press described it as “three days of musical history in the making.” Bonaroo has experienced a very distinguished evolution that has madet it the mecca for live music aficionados everywhere.

The Bonnaroo festival was first held on June 21st-23rd of 2002.  Its creators, Superfly and A.C. Entertainment, were heavily influenced by Coachella and the massive festivals held by the popular jam-band Phish, which also continue to draw faithful audiences.  Because of the important role that Phish played in the inspiration for the festival, the initial lineups were heavily centered around the jam-band, bluegrass, and funk scenes.  Bands like The Allman Brothers Band, Primus, Ween, Bela Fleck, and My Morning Jacket were part of the original centerpiece that held together this little “secret” that was Bonnaroo.

But in 2006, the festival began to branch out and invite acts that would make the festival represent a wider variety of artists.  The jam-band staples of Bonnaroo were now giving way to appearances by artists such as freak-folk singer Devendra BanhartRadiohead, Pearl Jam and the White Stripes.  This all culminated in what some believe to be the most eclectic Bonnaroo ever in 2009.  The 2009 Bonnaroo included everything from the Afro-Beat dance parties of Femi Kuti and King Sunny Ade, to the classic bar anthems of Bruce Springsteen, to the luscious melodies of folk singer Andrew Bird, to the first performance at Bonnaroo of its main inspiration: Phish.

Since 2009, Bonnaroo has had B grade lineups such as those of 2010 and 2011, and top notch ones like 2012 and the recently announced roster of artists for 2013.  The list of 2013’s artists begs a second look.  At first glance it appears to be another typical conglomeration of artists one would expect from the festival; big name acts like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Wilco, and The Lumineers stand out.  But dig deeper and you will find some very impressive acts encompassing this annual diverse collection of music.  Talking Heads frontman David Byrne will be performing with St. Vincent as they play their highly appreciated album from last year entitled “Love This Giant;” Sam Bush and Del McCoury are set to play what is likely to be a highly energetic set of foot-stomping bluegrass, and new favorites Alt-J and Tame Impala will also be gracing the farm with their well-received sound that they have brought to the alternative music scene, as well as a countless amount of other new and familiar faces to the Bonnaroo scene.  As they did in 2010, Superfly and A.C. Entertainment decided to release the lineup in an unconventional way this year— by having two of this year’s performers, Weird Al Yankovic and Daniel Tosh, announce the artists via a live YouTube stream.

This decision on behalf of the festival producers was just one of many examples of how Bonnaroo has become an extremely powerful force in the music industry, and an important source of revenue and attention for the state of Tennessee.  Each year the festival brings close to 100,000 people to the small town of Manchester, just an hour away from Nashville. Because of its proximity to the Music City, many who travel to Bonnaroo from far away include a visit to Nashville in their itinerary, bringing a huge wave of commerce to the city.   Bonnaroo also makes an effort to reach out to many bands around the area by giving them a chance to play.  A lot of these acts come from the Nashville area and get to play on one of the smaller stages at the festival.

 I attended Bonnaroo in 2009, before I actually moved to (East) Nashville.   Being an avid Phish fan, but never having seen them, I was sold immediately when I found out they would be playing.  My friends and I made the 20-hour journey from Rhode Island, having no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  As we pulled into the gates of the festival, it really started to hit me that for the next four days, I would have free range to listen to an overwhelming plethora of music filled with welcoming cultural diversity.   There was so much I wanted to do and see that it was actually a bit stressful, but in the greatest way possible.

Bonnaroo is something that every music lover should consider.  While it has in some ways veered towards a mainstream audience with its marketing focus and particular sponsors, it nevertheless still continues to deligh with an eclectic collection of music and entertainment.  I personally witnessed this when I went, and I am more than excited to do the same at this, its eleventh year.

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Marissa is the editor of Lockeland Springsteen.

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