In case you missed it: Big changes and festival highlights from Bonnaroo 2017.
This year, 65,000 people made the annual pilgrimage to Manchester TN to help Bonnaroo celebrate its birthday with Amish donuts, high fives, spontaneous art, and, of course, a sweet lineup. After 16 years, it’s safe to say that the majority of attendees are a new generation than those that originally formed the first festival in 2002, and the producers have not let this slide by unnoticed. While last year brought a few changes to The Farm that were mostly unremarkable (with the exception of permanent bathrooms, and Live Nation’s first full year at the helm), this year, Bonnaroo got an impressive facelift to keep up with the crowd and meet the younger Bonnaroovians more on their turf.
"The Other” 2.0
Throughout the years, it’s been entirely common for stages to come and go and be renamed (Sonic, Who, Kalliope, etc), though the two main stages and three side tents have remained untouched since 2003. This year, EDM fans were given the gift of a remodeled stage in the form of the brand new "The Other.” Previously a tent, The Other had its top blown off and was injected with the spirit of Kalliope (the EDM stage from the last two years known for raging late into the night with the massive VW bug next to it). Now sort of like Which’s electronic little sister, The Other welcomed Big Gigantic, Cherub’s Jason Huber, Marshmello, and many more DJs to the stage this year.
In the area Kalliope used to call home, new sponsor Bacardi made its debut with the Bacardi beach- a sandbar complete with fake palm trees, hammocks, a cocktail bar, and plenty of lights to transport festival-goers off The Farm and to spring break. The beach was bumping with DJ sets throughout the weekend, and offered an excellent vantage point to watch shows at The Other without delving into the throng of ragey fans.
All of the bigger stages with the exception of What also got a makeover. This, That, and The Other were all decked out with brightly-colored scrims, adding some decoration to the previously unadorned sets. Anyone who has been to Roo before would have noticed the more controversial absence of the distinct question mark that normally revolves at the top of Which, also replaced by abstract, pastel signage. I myself mourned the loss of the curtains and rotating question mark, and found the stage art to be a bit more cookie cutter than the vibe Bonnaroo is known for, but perhaps (likely) I’m just a sucker for tradition.
The Sunday night slot of Bonnaroo is always saved for the biggest headliner, traditionally a well-entrenched, rock or jam band. Switching it up this year, the spot was given to The Weeknd, a younger R&B/pop star. The rumor mill offered suggestions that the switch was merely due to Bono’s schedule, as U2’s clout far exceeds that of The Weeknd’s, but it seems more likely that Bonnaroo was attempting to reach the younger crowd that normally dips out Sunday morning. The move certainly seemed to have paid off based on the strong crowd attendance Sunday night.
It would be hard to write about the festival this year without mentioning Chance the Rapper, the reigning “Mayor of Bonnaroo.” For the last few years, whether booked or not, Chance has made numerous appearances on collaborators’ stages across the festival. This year he appeared for Francis and the Lights, led a song at the super jam, and rocked his own set on What, a big upgrade from his last full-set performance in 2014, which was in a tent. The main venue was absolutely packed as Chance made his entrance on a mini-motorcycle, backlit by pillars of fire, and the crowd sang every word as he played hits off Coloring Book, a few favorites from Acid Rap, and other hits.
It seemed like everyone on The Farm was excited for U2’s second-ever festival performance; the band is currently on tour playing their entire Joshua Tree album front to back. Bono brought his own stage with him complete with gigantic screens and a wild light show, punctuated by the typical headliner fireworks that did not disappoint.
A New Orleans legend known for her work in “bounce music,” Big Freedia and her team took over the Solar Stage to break down various twerk moves for those of us less fluid with our hips and bodies. During twerk class every morning, I watched the liberation of hundreds of people as Freedia taught them to to “mix it up,” “Peter Pan,” and “toot it up.” The brave were given the opportunity to show off their moves in a giant twerk circle where three people at a time were given the spotlight as Freedia and her crew yelled encouragement in the form of “overdrive” and “ass everywhere, ass, ass, everywhere!” If there’s one thing I learned from Bonnaroo this year, it’s that if you get the chance to go see Big Freedia, DO IT.
Francis and the Lights
For someone who performed almost entirely by himself on a stage with no background graphics, Francis Farewell Starlite was truly captivating. His mesmerizing synths and big sound were matched by his uncontainable energy and erratic dance moves. Chance the Rapper joined Francis for their iconic choreography of “May I Have This Dance” to extreme fan stoke. And, as if the performance wasn’t already memorable enough, Francis jumped off the stage to run around in the crowd for a bit, and ended his set by doing a back handspring into a backflip that he landed in a split. Mic drop.
Beyond the Music
In terms of activities, Bonnaroo is offering a lot more to do these days besides going to music. Out in tent city, a few of the pods have been decked out in various themes, offering places to hang out and things to do outside of Centeroo or your campsite. The coffee house and vinyl shop at Pod 7 (The Grind) were in peak form this year, as was the mystical hammock forest out behind it (The Grove). Other holistic programming met a broader audience than usual with record turnouts for things like morning yoga and the 5K run Saturday morning, demonstrating that Bonnaroo has definitely become a more accessible partner that doesn’t require a total departure from one’s daily routines. Activist-central Planet Roo also offers plenty to do and learn, in full-force this year as usual with booths for registering as a bone marrow donor, learning about sustainability, and making your voice heard on various issues.
Traditionally on The Farm, temps have left festival-goers feeling like they were melting into a pool of their own sweat that they very well might drown in. While last year brought temperatures that topped 100 (not to mention a thunderstorm evacuation), this year, was all moderate temps and clear skies with a festival high of 89. While at the end of the day, people were hardly less zapped for energy, some of the days were downright pleasant- words I have never used in the past to describe summer in Coffee County.
As usual I lost count of how many bands mentioned it being a dream to play the festival, and of how many artists went right down to their fans and jumped into the crowd, whether it was Dave Bayley from Glass Animals crowd-surfing with a 200-foot microphone cord tether, Cage the Elephant frontman, Matt Shultz, diving into his fans, or Diplo rolling around in a giant hamster ball. The superjam was jammy and super and brought the funk. Fans stormed the venue at two o’clock on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to sprint as fast as they could across the field to get to the front rail for the headliners. The line for Amish donuts was insanely long, people walked around shouting “Happy Roo” to each other the same way people wish each other a Merry Christmas, and people covered themselves in just as much glitter as they did sunscreen.
There may be details that change from year to year as this festival grows and evolves, but throughout my five trips to The Farm, I’ve noticed that the most important thing stays the same: the vibes. In the utopian world of The Farm, a land that is governed on the principles of good vibes and radiating positivity, and whose name literally means “only the good stuff,” there is no room for racism, travel bans, homophobia, or any of the other damaging ideals that we run into everywhere in the world “out there.” Without straying into the quicksand that is politics these days, I will say that this year was no exception to the typical blissful reprieve that Bonnaroo offers from the negativity and aggression associated with the news and watchful Big Brother’s eye- a reprieve that allows people to tune out the drone of society and to instead truly listen to their hearts. The world of Bonnaroo is a beautiful one, where people are free to truly express themselves and where strangers not only acknowledge strangers, but embrace them, help them, and share with them, always looking for common ground instead of reasons to fight.
As usual, by Sunday, I was ready for a real night of sleep and a break from the sun, but as also usual, I can’t wait to go back. Until next year, radiate positivity and stay true Roo. And as always: See you on The Farm!
See the full Bonnaroo 2017 photo gallery here!
All photos per the author. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.