Bonnaroo’s Sweet Sixteen: Amish Donuts, Twerkin' with Freedia, Mayor Chance The Rapper, & More

By: Julia Ordog

In case you missed it: Big changes and festival highlights from Bonnaroo 2017. 

It's important to use both hands.

It's important to use both hands.

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

The Other Stage.

The Other Stage.

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.

Bacardi Beach 

Bacard's Oasis.

Bacard's Oasis.

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.

Scrims

The new scrims on The Which Stage.

The new scrims on The Which Stage.

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 Weeknd 

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.

Chance

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. 

U2

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.

Big Freedia

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.  

Mild weather!

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. 

Cage The Elephant.

Cage The Elephant.

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. 

Bonnaroo.

Bonnaroo.

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!

-Julia

All photos per the author. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.

Colorado Duo Niya & Kris Set Out On Tour For New Album Release

By: Will Baumgartner

Niya Nolting grew up singing in church choirs in New Orleans. At 16, she joined her first band, which led to her to being voted one of NOLA’s top “Women in Rock”... until they found out her age and disqualified her. But it was too late: Niya had been bitten by the performance bug, and has remained in love with singing and sharing her music ever since. While attending CU Boulder, Niya enjoyed some local recognition with her jazz band, Niya and the Satellites. She stayed in Colorado, met and married guitarist Kris Nickeson in a ceremony at Red Rocks, and released the album 'Through the Matter' in 2013, with a band calling itself simply “Niya”. The all-too-familiar pressures and difficulties of maintaining a full band led to the current stripped-down sound of the duo Niya & Kris, which is Niya’s most current project.

This Saturday, September 24th, Niya & Kris will perform at Westminster’s Orchard Arts Festival, and from there, they set out on tour. Their new album, 'Beneath the Watermark', will be released song by song starting this Christmas, with videos accompanying each track. The duo’s first single will be “Where the Rain Held Weight”. Niya’s music reflects her entire history, with influences from rock, jazz, and New Orleans swamp soul. I recently had the chance to discuss Niya’s diverse and powerful sound with her in a conversation that really dug into the hardship and beauty that gives rise to her music. Check it out for yourself:

How did growing up in New Orleans and singing in church affect who you are as a singer and songwriter?

Having New Orleans woven into the fabric of my music challenges me as a singer, but at the same time helps me relax into something familiar and true. The challenge is to always remember that spiritual base that brought me to singing by keeping faith and conviction in the words and message I am conveying with my voice. Today, this emotional honesty is a soul-baring process that takes me on a journey through the fear of opening up to the satisfaction of having done it. Having been exposed to so many styles of music growing up has made me eclectic as a singer, and I feel at home singing everything from blues, to rock, to jazz and soul because in a way, New Orleans lives through me.     

You joined your first band at 16. Did you get hooked on performing outside of church right away?

Yes. I remember the moment I fell in love with making music. It felt just like falling in love with a person. It was in my bass player’s garage and we were playing U2's song “Bad”. A feeling washed over me like I was somewhere else; a new place I had never been before. Now, I look for that place: a calm inside the music every time I play, and that’s when I know I’m doing it right. [It’s a feeling that] can be hard to gauge when you’re onstage, but in my experience, the only way to know you've engaged the audience is when that switch has been flipped inside of you.

Niya & Kris.

Niya & Kris.

You had a jazz band, Niya and the Satellites, when you were at CU. How did that group come together? What led you from rock to jazz?

I put a sign up in the CU auditorium looking for players, and my buddy Robbie Stiefel answered. He’s an amazing guitarist with an old-school country blues style of playing, which fit well with my eclectic vocals. My daughter had a friend in school whose dad played piano, Bill Giebler. His piano became the heart of the music we produced together, and the three of us became quite a writing trio. My rock style went to the wayside because the jazz needed room to grow, and my musical style expanded because of it. The songs coming out on my next album were mostly written with this crew.

After Niya and the Satellites, you went back to rock. Did that have anything to do with the sad fact that jazz is so underappreciated in America, the country where the form was born?

The blues/rock/soul album I released in 2013, Through the Matter, was composed of music I had written before the Satellites that I needed to get out. It made sense at the time to go back to what I had been doing on my own before the jazz. Now, I [play all styles] in my shows with my husband Kris Nickeson. His jazz/funk background has brought me back to where I need to be, which is right in the middle of rock and jazz. Being a duo allows the music to be free from style restrictions, because no matter what you play, you sound like two people playing on a porch somewhere.  

Album artwork for  Through the Matter .

Album artwork for Through the Matter.

Do you find musical pleasures in this two-piece, stripped-down approach?  

The songs from Through The Matter are as beautiful and fun to play as a duet as they were with a full band. I can play them alone, as a duet, or with a full band and the story stays the same. I am loving the duet approach because we can hear and play off of each other better while enjoying our companionship as husband and wife, singer and guitarist, music lovers, and friends. There is nothing more exciting than holding down the rhythm while my husband rips out an amazing solo. It has made me a better guitarist, singer, and percussionist since I get to do all three.

You’re releasing your next album, 'Below the Watermark', song by song, with a video to accompany each song. That’s quite a project! What was behind your decision to adopt this ambitious approach?   

The music world has become more visual with YouTube and Facebook the way it used to be with MTV. Personally, I love that. It has pushed me to learn video production, which I find I truly enjoy as much as making music. Both of my grandmothers were painters, and I loved to draw before I was lured into the music world. So now, I feel like I’m going back to my roots in a way, and can convey my ideas with more of my talents. It is ambitious, which is why it takes time, but each song will be like its own little album, a piece of the bigger picture. I can see all the videos and music complete in my mind as I perform them at Red Rocks one day, which is a dream my husband and I both share. He asked me to marry him there; it would be amazing to come full circle and see that dream complete.   

You told me in an earlier conversation that your new tunes have a more “swampy, New Orleans vibe” than the songs on 'Through the Matter'. Was that a direct result of the fact that, on at least some of these songs, you were writing about your family and the hurricane? Did you write any of the songs in New Orleans?

The “new stuff” is really what I wrote with the Satellites, and now it is finally coming to the light. Below the Watermark is a compilation of songs dedicated to my family, and much of it is about living there and what it felt like to go through something life-changing with my family. I was living in Colorado when [the hurricane] happened, but my heart was with them when I wrote this music. “Below the Watermark”, the album’s title track, is a fan favorite, and “Where the Rain Held Weight” is another. This record has been a long time coming because honestly, it took that long for our hearts to heal. I want this music to be a celebration of our family and all the New Orleans families that endured and persevered through tragedy.

I know this can be a tough one for any artist, but can you tell our readers, in a few words, what the essence of your music is, and what you hope listeners will take away from it?

Life is hard and beautiful. My intention is to bring myself and those who choose to journey with me through the hard parts to something beautiful. I’m using the power of my voice and the rhythm of my words to bring listeners with me to that calm place; the one I’m always trying to reach when I perform. It's that same magical place that I found in the church choir, in the garage band, and now in our husband/wife duet. It seems a waste to keep that to myself, so I share it in hopes of making people feel better and less alone.

Tell us a little about The Orchard Arts Festival and what we can expect from your set this Saturday?

Westminster has an amazing arts community in its historic downtown. The Orchard Arts Festival highlights local musicians and artists, and I am excited to be one of them. We play from 11:30AM-12:30PM, but the festival opens at 10AM. We will kick off our set with tunes from Through the Matter, and some old blues by popular artists like Elvis. I'll pepper in some swampy jazz tunes from our upcoming album too. I’m also paying tribute to a female artist that left us too soon, but in order to know who that is, you'll have to come see and hear for yourself!

What’s next for Niya & Kris?

Our master plan is to tour the world together playing music, while expanding our repertoire and performing shows that are studies of past artists. To be diversified is to live in this business, so we are writing shows that will showcase artists from the past like Billie Holiday. We’ll perform some of their songs, tell stories about their lives, and shed some light on the origins of music and why it drives people like us to dedicate our lives to performing. We are starting by expanding in Colorado, with more shows throughout the state, and in neighboring states. Our first mini-tour starts in Moab, Utah and will end at a house party in Logan. More dates and places will be added as we go along. Eventually, all roads lead to Red Rocks; at least that is our underlying prayer: to show our love for one another and the music that we create in the most beautiful music venue on Earth.

Make sure to see Niya & Kris this Saturday at The Westminster Orchard Arts Festival. Details on the event can be found here.

Keep up with Niya & Kris on their website.

-Will

All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.