The smell of sweat lingered in the humid air as seasoned and first-time music festival attendees received the go-through to enter one of the world’s largest concert events – the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
As beads of perspiration stung my eyes, my expectations for the weekend were already changing. My worries for the dreary thunderstorm forecast had now turned sunnier – as I fumbled to stake a tent for the first time in my life, my skin was searing from the heat.
For five days, this 700-acre Tennessee field that will be desolate for the remaining year must accommodate 100,000 people. There were cinemas, taxi services, convenience stores, showers, spigots flowing with cold water and food ranging from fried oysters to falafel pitas.
Personal space and resources started to disappear. Luxuries like cleanliness, air conditioning and Facebook became nearly nonexistent. But the festival’s freedom is otherwise unlimited – everyone is free in their concert and campsite choices, and many attendees willfully take advantage.
Considering these challenges, Bonnaroo created an undeniably organized four-day weekend:
Since everyone was still arriving the first night, most performances came from smaller indie acts like Manchester Orchestra and British punk singer-songwriter Frank Turner.
I was encouraged to see Mike Snow, an up-and-coming Swedish electronic group that is touring across the U.S. this summer.
The xx – an English post-punk trio returning to Bonnaroo for the fifth time – pleased tired audiences most with an entrancing and flowing set list primarily from their newest release xx. Appropriately, they began with that album’s energizing, wordless intro, and immediately raised the crowd from the floor to its feet.
This day marked the beginning of the headlining bands and performers. Conveniently, comedy acts like Aziz Ansari and Jay Leno feud survivor Conan O’Brien performed during the hottest parts of the day in a shady, cool tent – allowing a brief refuge from the sun and the pulsating music.
Damien Marley and Nas gave the crowd an energetic hip-hop boost early in the evening for the long night ahead.
Kings of Leon played an unforgettable setlist for two hours. Until 11:30 p.m., they awed the audience with hit singles like “Closer” and “Sex on Fire,” and surprised everyone with a few unheard, not-yet-released tunes.
Immediately after being 30 yards from KOL’s lead singer Caleb Followill, I found myself transported to the back of a huge crowd with its ears turned to The Black Keys and what they do best – the blues.
Following their performance, Kid Cudi and B.o.B. took the stage. I returned to camp from Centeroo – only about an eight-minute walk – and drifted off to the deep vibrations emanating from the house band Bassnectar.
During the early afternoon, ominous thunder and dark clouds teased campers, who feared that the storms that had been predicted every day would finally arrive. Luckily for us, it just proved to be a reviving breeze.
Unlike the other three nights of frantic hikes across the festival, many people camped out at the same stage. In between watching the White Stripes guitarist Jack White on stage with The Dead Weather and an inspiring, nearly three-hour concert by Stevie Wonder on the “What Stage,” Weezer was clearly audible at the nearby “Which Stage.”
The band highlighted its fan-favorite repertoire and also performed a cover medley of MGMT’s “Kids,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.”
Jay-Z focused his performance on the audience – despite his newest album’s release last year, he emphasized the songs that carried him to success and kept the crowd excited. He performed his recent song “Empire State of Mind” with newcomer female vocalist Bridget Kelly.
As Jay-Z finished his set at 11 p.m., the air had finally cooled enough for me to find the will to rave at the house music performances of Deadmau5 and then The Disco Biscuits, who pumped instrumental electronic music until 7 a.m.
Clear weather held in Manchester throughout the final performances. Seasoned professionals in the music festival circuit like Martin Sexton, Blues Traveler and John Butler Trio kept audiences busy all day.
Electronic performances by English band Phoenix – known for their song “1901” – and Mike Posner were the last to take the stage before the weekend encore performed by the Dave Matthews Band.
Since jam bands like Grateful Dead, Phish and Widespread Panic were powerful influences to Bonnaroo’s beginnings eight years ago, Dave Matthews filled the hearts of those bands’ followers in 2010. The Dave Matthews Band – which has toured for 20 years – will unconventionally take a year off from touring.
Some campers sacrificed Dave’s performance for the impending traffic onslaught, but it was a final show that shouldn’t have been missed – soulful as always and more visually pleasing than ever.
The first question everyone asked when I finally had cell phone service was, “How was Bonnaroo?”
In a word: epic.