As I wrote in my day one write-up of the 2013 edition of Bonnaroo, just getting yourself to this festival is almost always an epic ordeal. My journeys both to and from The Farm in Manchester were exhausting and difficult, but there was one main difference: on my way there—I was really questioning whether Bonnaroo was worth all the hassle…but on my way back, I had my answer.
Now in its twelfth year, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has time and again made a strong case for being one of the best major music festivals currently being produced in North America, if not the world. Bringing together roughly 100,000 fans and nearly 200 great artists to a 700-acre farm in the middle of Tennessee (in the summer, mind you) is in itself quite the feat, but doing so with such success on so many levels is even more impressive. Although the general ethos has changed a fair deal since its first run—just look at 2002’s lineup and it’s immediately clear this used to be a different kind of music festival—the evolution has been thought-out and slow enough as to avoid alienating too many of the original ‘Rooers and maintain a fairly strong sense of self. Sure, jam bands used to dominate almost every stage and tent of Bonnaroo and now they’re scarcely at the Farm, but 2013’s lineup was hard not to love. With major names like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The National, Passion Pit, The xx, Wilco, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, ASAP Rocky, David Byrne & St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear, Wu-Tang Clan, Of Monsters and Men, The Lumineers, ZZ Top, Animal Collective, Nas, Beach House, Björk, Matt & Kim, R. Kelly, and The Tallest Man on Earth to name a few, Bonnaroo had something for almost anyone and even catching a fraction of the acts had the potential to provide a truly satisfying festival experience.
And so after four days of Bonnaroo and some time to reflect on it all, I’ve been able to look back on the experience and determine that, even with any slight hiccups along the way, it was truly one of the most musically satisfying experiences I’ve ever encountered.
Section One: Organization/Production
If you’ve ever talked about Bonnaroo camping, you’ve heard this before, but you’re going to hear it again: something should be done about camping assignments. It seems that every year, the festival organizers devise a new, even more random way to decide where people are going to camp. I know groups that arrived Wednesday night and were a 30-minute walk from Centeroo, whereas my friends got in Thursday afternoon and we were just a short 10 or so minute walk to the festivities. I’m not too upset since this worked out for me, but when people spend this much time, effort, and money preparing themselves for the festival, you’d think maybe you should reward people for their extra diligence in getting to Manchester before everyone else. Having said that, it’s not as though the campgrounds are some terrible place and every minute spent there is a minute more of hell. Part of this has to do with the basic facts that everyone is there to have a good time and walking around the campgrounds and making new friends is a pretty fun activity in itself, but it’s also clear that Bonnaroo did a pretty good job including just enough amenities (showers, toilets, water stations, food areas, shade tents) in the camp area to get you what you need without crowding every open space with more stuff. Personally, I think part of the charm of Bonnaroo is camping in tents in a big open field and embracing the lack of amenities for a couple days, so I found the whole endeavor just delightful. Having said this, it’s unclear what measures could really be taken to address these concerns when so many people are trying to camp around the same area, but some sense of the assignment system beforehand would probably be welcome by almost everyone.
But of course, the camping and hanging out and partying are all just a preamble to the nerve-center of the festival: Centeroo. And luckily, for the most part, the problems with the campsites are among the very few negatives of Bonnaroo. While there are some changes from year to year, almost every aspect—from the stages to the lineup to the shopping and food vendors and the assorted other diversions—doesn’t really change from year to year in the sense that things are different, rather the organizers just make everything just bigger and better, while managing to maintain a Centeroo that’s easy (and fun!) to navigate. No matter if you’re walking from one corner to Centeroo to the exact opposite one, there’s plenty of music, beer stands, toilets, and surprises along the way. But at the same time, you rarely feel overcrowded and stuck trying to move (getting to the front of a main stage is a different story, but what would you expect?).
All of this leads up to actually getting in front of a band and listening to music. In this sense, the scheduling was tight and the sound was almost always crisp. Having a good setup for outdoor music is almost a given these days, but a lot of work goes into setting up this many stages to sound this good. Sure, there was occasionally some sonic overlap when walking from one stage to another, but this should be expected, and when you were in front of a certain artists, it was like you were only at their concert, with almost everything else drowned out. Like other festivals, getting right in front of your favorite artist can be tough, but the crowds were mostly manageable, and if you wanted it bad enough, it wasn’t too hard to move around in the crowds. A good balance if you ask me.
I’d also say that the "New Music On Tap Lounge Brewed By Miller Lite" was a supremely delightful surprise almost every day of the festival. If you can get past the obvious corporateness of it (which, given the lack of obvious corporate influence in the rest of Bonnaroo, isn’t that hard to do), the Lounge provided a great opportunity to see very small but exciting groups (36 in all over the four days) in a prime location. It was easy to walk from This Tent to What Stage and stop by the On Tap Lounge for a couple minutes to hear something new and exciting, which, let’s be honest, is kind of what Bonnaroo is about.
While this wasn’t the first year Bonnaroo utilized RFID technology in the wristbands, there were a few strides made in 2013 that made possible for guests to really enhance their experience. Checking in at various points around Centeroo such as stages and attractions with a collection of photo-booths made it easy for us to enjoy the moment while still knowing that with just the simple flick of a wrist, our Facebook account was keeping track of what we saw and when for us. Plus, the super easy-to-use wristbands made entering and exiting Centeroo a breeze and lines to get in rarely built up too long.
Section Two: Presentation
Visually, there’s a lot about Bonnaroo that works. You simultaneously feel like you’re at a music festival in 2013 while also having a sense of being out in the wilderness among nature and American beauty. At the tents and stages, vibrant lights shows filled up almost every moment, providing the obligatory visual enhancement that a lot of ‘rooers so crave. I’ll give a special shout out to Sir Paul and the insane pyrotechnic show he put on during "Live and Let Die," making it one of the most exhilarating live performances I’ve ever been privy to.
That said, because Bonnaroo is technically billed as a "Music and Arts" festival, I’d argue more could have been done to highlight the arts that aren’t just “not music.” Sure, there were films and stand-up comics, but with so many other "arts" and so much available space in Centeroo and the campgrounds, there were definitely some missed opportunities for additional entertainment like art installations and interactive art displays. Perhaps it wasn’t on most people’s minds, but it seems like this was a missed opportunity to really put things over the top.
Regarding musical presentation, however, almost everything was spot on. The line-up was huge and diverse. You could have spent all your time catching the major acts and saw an amazing variety of musicians, or you could have wheeled yourself around between the smaller tents and caught your favorite indie artist or new up-and-comer. I’m hesitant to say Bonnaroo has the ultimate lineup amongst summer music festivals, but with its excellent mix of genres and artists of varying popularities, you rarely found yourself without someone you wanted to see during those four days.
Section Three: Sustainability Practices
The Boy Scouts have a rule: “Always leave the campground cleaner than you found it.” Though it’s not clear that Bonnaroo follows this rule to a T, they come pretty close. Most obviously, the volunteers do such a good job with the cleanup every morning, you’d hardly know a big party had been in the same spot just a few hours earlier. But to be more specific, just before the festival started, Bonnaroo was awarded the 2013 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award for “exceptional voluntary actions that improve or protect our environment and natural resources.” By doing things like installing a Permanent Solar Array (a first for a major music festival) to provide more that 61,000 kilowatt hours per year of clean energy, outfitting whatever’s possible with clean and efficient faucets and light-bulbs, offering a variety of class and displays at Planet Roo to get ‘rooers excited about recycling (seriously, it’s possible guys!) and championing an aggressive recycling and composting campaign, short of literally forcing everyone to plant trees in between each set, Bonnaroo does pretty much everything it can to be a green event.
Section Four: Non-Musical Entertainment
Aside from the stages and tent of live music, a few of the more major Bonnaroo attractions were the Silent Disco, the Comedy Tent, and the Cinema Tent. Each one is pretty cool in its own way, but none had enough appeal to really draw me away from the live music. There were also things like the Fiesta Garage, the Bonnaroo Salon, Splash-A-Roo, and the Apples to Apples Crazy Combinations Lounge that are, again, all pretty cool, but unfortunately not cool enough to draw my attention away from the music. (I will say though that the Broo’ers Festival was perfectly located in the middle of Centeroo and offered a much appreciated selection of delicious craft beers from around the country, which served well to cleanse our palates of the onslaught of light beer otherwise consumed during the festival.) That said, I was there to focus on the music, so I didn’t put a priority on these attractions, but I guess the very fact that they’re all being offered at Bonnaroo says something about the organizers’ recognition of some people’s need for a break from the music every once in a while. Perhaps not executed perfectly, but when Bonnaroo does so much else so well, it’s hard to tear people away.
This year also saw the first ever running of the Bonnaroo 5K. Shockingly enough, I didn’t participate, but from what I gathered, although there was some hearty participation, the route wasn’t perfect and while exercising is fun, it more felt like a “5K near Bonnaroo” than a “Bonnaroo 5K”—some work needs to be done on this if it’s to become a festival mainstay.
Section Five: Overall Festival Atmosphere
Last year, IYS’s biggest complaint in this category was the overbearing presence of dust. A fair complaint at the time, but I don’t know if 2012 was just an unlucky year or if they’ve just figured things out, because 2013’s Bonnaroo was about as dust-free as you can expect from an open field in Tennessee. It might not have been the cleanest place in the world, but Bonnaroo itself maintains a surprisingly habitable feel for most of the four days of music.
Beyond that, I’ve alluded to this already, but for the most part it’s hard to beat the Bonnaroo experience. Good vibes, good music, good people, and good beer (okay, sometimes good, mostly bad) beer abound make for a pretty awesome time. Of course you’re going to get that one idiot being a jerk in the campsite at 4 a.m., but those are few and far between and for those four days at The Farm, you wonder how you could ever live any other way.
I’ve had time to look back at my four days at Bonnaroo and really think about my time there. I’ve thought about all the music I saw and how well each artist performed. I’ve thought about the lines I’ve stood in, the heat I’ve endured, the friends I’ve met, and the memories I’ve made. For this review, I’ve thought about every aspect of my experience and realized that even during the event itself, Bonnaroo always felt like a very tightly run festival. Sure, there were some bumps here and there, but considering the sheer numbers of stages, performers, and festivalgoers, it was clear things were being done well. You can talk about Bonnaroo in comparison to other festivals—of which there are many…and many very good ones—but I think Bonnaroo stands in a class of its own. I could say that you have to go for yourself to really understand, but even before I arrived in Manchester, I knew I was in for something special. It just wasn’t until I left that I knew I had just experienced some magical. So you shouldn’t go to Bonnaroo because you want to understand what all the fuss is about, you should go because it’s simply the best musical festival in America. So that’s it…go.
Final Score: 89/100