The message leaving the farm in 2016 was one of hellfire and brimstone, corporate “selling out” – a proverbial music festival Revelations. Marred by plummeting ticket sales, overall control shifting hands from AEG/Superfly to Live Nation, and incessant Manchester heat, Bonnaroo 2016 felt like the beginning of the end (from a media vantage point, at least).
It was far from a total loss, though – indie stalwarts Whitney, Blood Orange, and Tame Impala made great strides, LCD Soundsystem got back together, and Maren Morris took Middle Tennessee by storm – but definite changes were sure to come (like not booking The Chainsmokers ever again).
But let’s go ahead and wipe out any and all thoughts that Bonnaroo is dying. After 2016’s iteration, bands, brands, and Bonnaroovians alike braced for the worst in 2017.
Now, I don’t want to sound like the opposite of an early adopter (so, late adopter?), but the point is Bonnaroo had to make a major pivot between 2016 and 2017 – and to be perfectly honest – it worked.
The pre-Roo chatter was that 2017 had the potential to serve as the final iteration of Roo on the Farm should 2017’s ticket sales resemble that of 2016’s. The Bonnaroo powers-that-be and Coffee County officials were in the midst of tight renegotiations for Bonnaroo to remain in Manchester, and a repeat of 2016 certainly would not help Live Nation’s cause.
In the end, the anxious murmurs of Bonnaroo moving elsewhere and potentially resembling its city-based cousins Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits were frivolous, as Bonnaroo came back in a big way. A very big way, in fact; 71,000 ticket sales in 2017 versus roughly 45,000 in 2016.
Lo and behold, Bonnaroo 2017 rolls around touting a headliner heavy lineup – U2, The Weeknd, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chance (the Rapper, at this point he’s a single name), Lorde, The xx, and local boys by way of Bowling Green, Cage the Elephant.
At first glance, the thought is things are on the up and up at Bonnaroo under Live Nation’s direction – that’s certainly a high dollar mark for top-line relevant talent. But, after a little rumination, it may become ever so slightly apparent to notice the absence of a Bonnaroo cornerstone, a casualty at the hands of an otherwise glorious victory – the jam band.
Sure, most Bonnaroos aren’t brimming with jam bands galore, but in years past, the middle of the lineup was good for a handful of premier jam bands here and there. There was Dead & Co. in 2016, My Morning Jacket in 2015, and so on and so forth. Look back toward the earliest iterations of Bonnaroo and you’ll see nary a DJ (DJ Shadow was in the first year, but the “DJ” is a loose moniker) or bedroom producer, instead it was a lineup filled with jam bands and bluegrass.
2017 on the other hand, featured Umphrey’s McGee on the fifth row of the lineup poster, while other jam bands like Twiddle and Rainbow Kitten Surprise hung out toward the bottom of the lineup. In the end, this is simply an observation that proves Bonnaroo has shifted to survive and continue to thrive in the ever-changing festival environment. Granted, I’m not one for jam bands to begin with, but it is an aspect that was apparently absent.
Anyway, rather than try and appeal to a slightly older set to spend their hard earned cash in order to risk heat stroke, Bonnaroo featured more DJs, Soundcloud rappers, and bedroom producers in 2017, to appeal to the younger, more vivacious (see: younger) crowd, and that’s okay.
They literally changed what used to be “The Other Tent” into “The Other,” housing any and all DJs and rappers. Ultimately, it helped make discerning who was playing where at what time easier than in years past (added bonus). Now, the ravers and groovers finally had a single place where they could camp out all day if they so pleased.
There were DJs galore – Marshmello, Flume, Ganja White Night, Haywyre – but there still plenty of guitar music to be had – Margo Price, Mandolin Orange, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Kaleo – plenty of cult indie acts to boot– Car Seat Headrest, Future Islands, Lucy Dacus – and still featured the handful of CMA Fest crossovers – Luke Combs (this year’s Maren Morris), LANco, and Tucker Betheard.
There were plenty of small acts that showed up in a big way – many of whom are included in the portraits throughout this post – maintaining one of Bonnaroo’s biggest tenants – the “little guy” getting a big shot. Shoot your shot Hippos Campus, Mondo Cozmo, Deap Vally, Corey Harper, Walker Lukens, River Whyless, Goody Grace, Ella Vos, and plenty more.
So things weren’t as different as some might have feared, in fact, the festival itself over delivered in a number of ways, primarily in the form of absolutely spectacular sets from everyone like U2 (obviously), RHCP (ditto), Joseph, The Lemon Twigs, Reuben Bidez, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who not only put on one of the best sets at Roo, but also received the key to the city to boot), just to name a few.
Everyone loves an underdog, and if there’s such thing as a major festival not getting its fair shake in 2017, it was Bonnaroo. Luckily for us (and Live Nation, Coffee County, and Bonnaroovians), Bonnaroo came back in a big way, ultimately reassuring the world of music that The Farm in Manchester is (still) a force to be reckoned with.