Ostensibly, this is supposed to be a review/recap of the 2014 Bonnaroo music festival.
However, there’s a major flaw with that undertaking because, much like Bill Simmons’ secret about basketball, Bonnaroo isn’t really about a music festival.
Sure there are hundreds of bands and artists playing nearly 24 hours a day for 4 days straight — and that’s not including all the infinite amateur DJs that soundtrack the campgrounds with their own car-stereo selections — but really, at its core, Bonnaroo is something else entirely…
It’s a sleepaway camp for adults.
After my first Bonnaroo last year, I was convinced that it was some sort of cathartic annual retreat, likening it to the “Kai-high”-inducing spiritual weekends that former Catholic school students got to enjoy/endure. But by the time I was convincing friends and the girlfriend to attend this year’s Bonnaroo with me, I realized that it’s something more wholesome than any of those conversion-based spiritual outings; Bonnaroo is something cheesier, kitschier, and honestly, more fun than anything with a mission.
In fact, Bonnaroo’s only mission seems to be to keep Bonnaroo friendly. After 13 years, it seems like they’re doing a hell of a job.
That’s why it isn’t surprising that as you turn your overly-packed car into a campsite, neighbors and passersby will come over, introduce themselves, and ask if you need any help. That’s why by the second night you’ve already exchanged contact information with a baker’s dozen of fellow festivalgoers, all flocking from different parts of the country. That’s why, almost a thousand miles from your apartment, you feel like you’re home. As said girlfriend Mollie pointed out after only a few hours on the farm, “People here talk to each other like neighbors they haven’t met yet instead of strangers they’ll see once and never again. That’s really cool.”
It’s also why Bonnaroo doesn’t deserve the slight of being reviewed as a music festival.
Because it’s a sleepaway camp for adults.
And like camp, it really is what you make of it.
Yes, you could conceivably spend 96 hours straight listening to live music spanning any conceivable genre you could think of, but there’s so much more than going on at any given time. Do you want to laugh your ass off? Go see Hannibal Buress, the hard-working comedian who seems to have finally found both his voice and his audience, or TJ Miller, the unexpectedly deep goofball, slay a set at the comedy tent. Do you want to learn more about civic rights? There’s more than enough manned soapboxes ready to throw literature at you. Do you want to just really embrace the Camp Bonnaroo vibe? Not only do they have Wet Hot American Summer playing in the cinema tent, they have the film’s maker, David Wain, there to hang out with you while you do it.
But most importantly, like camp, you can be the real you, even if that you is a completely different you than the you usually presented to the world; in fact it’s highly encouraged.
Bonnaroo as a community-based festival seems built on the Rousseauian idea that man is inherently good and just needs to be given a safe place where he feels comfortable acting on those base, inherently good instincts.
“Everyone here wants you to have a great time,” a slightly rolling 21-year old named Sam said to the impromptu circle I had joined while waiting for Frank Ocean to go on late Saturday night. And he’s absolutely right. Not just in the way that people are more than willing to share a bottle of water or a joint with you, but in the way that everyone apologizes if they bump shoulders with you while walking and the way that lost cell phones and wallets end up in the Bonnaroo Lost & Found instead of strangers’ pockets.
There’s a real sense that we’re all in this together.
And sadly, it’s a pretty disorientingly unique thing to see strangers be so genuinely good to one another. But it’s also what makes Bonnaroo feel so magical; you’re completely out of your comfort zone, but it’s the most comforting feeling in the world.
Then of course there’s the music…
But let me say it again: it’s impossible to catch every act. One just has to accept that going in. Sometimes roller hockey is the same activity block as archery and sometimes The Flaming Lips, Frank Ocean, and the Skrillex Superjam featuring Damian Marley, Robby Krieger of The Doors, Janelle Monaee, Warpaint, Chance the Rapper, and surprise-guest Lauryn Hill are all on at the same time. C’est la Roo.
That just means you have to pick your must-see’s carefully.
For me, it was The Naked And Famous (one of the best band/time-of-day pairings of the weekend), Neutral Milk Hotel (winner of the Paul McCartney “I can’t believe I’m actually getting to see this!” award), Chance the Rapper (one hell of a showman who took full advantage of his lucky 2am slot), Bouncing Souls (best pit I’ve been in in years), and the NBA Finals Game 4*.
*Side note: Bonnaroo is actually one of the most fun places to watch an NBA or World Cup game. It’s on a huge screen, you’re surrounded by thousands of people, and there is nothing better than watching playoff basketball whilst stoned.
But then there’s the stuff you just allow yourself to stumble upon.
One of the most fun sets of my weekend was the rambunctiously poppy Louisiana band Royal Teeth’s performance at some tiny stage that Miller Lite and their I-wish-I-could-hate-you new logo sponsored. With a strong hour or so set, they helped wake up a captivated crowd, and even this writer’s calloused heart was forced to warm up to them after only a few songs.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a band embrace such poppy, hooky melodies, and their singer performs with the unabashed enthusiasm of someone who once had to pay his bills by working at Starbucks and who now gets to travel the country playing music (true story).
And then there’s Warpaint, the art rock band out of Los Angeles, California, who battled through Sunday afternoon heat and their own admitted battles with a post-Mexico trip to Diarrhea Planet to deliver a fantastic, sprawling set that perfectly balanced accessibility and experimentation.
Then there’s the stuff you just know you’re going to see.
The James Blakes, who put on a perfect festival version of the 9:30 Club set he performed a few months ago; the Little Dragons, who celebrated their 4th album’s arrival with an invigoratingly fun Sunday night set; the Phoenix’s, who are always everywhere all the time; the Disclosures, who may have sneakily had the best front-to-back set of the weekend. You see them because they’re certifiably great and it feels like everyone sees them.
Only then you realize there are the ones that everyone sees…
Kanye, Jack, and Elton.
And let’s get this out of the way, Kanye West’s music is GREAT. He is going to go down in history books as one of the most influential people in pop and hip-hop music of all time. I just don’t know if he should have come back to Bonnaroo like this…
For those unaware, back in 2008, Kanye was set to headline and was hours late and it a was big old mess. From then on out, Bonnaroovians have rallied around hating Kanye to the point that it’s now comically sad to see the plethora of “Kanye is a gay fish” or “Fuck Kanye” signs and tags around the festival. But six years later, Kanye came back. And it was, as always with Yeezus, the most talked about topic of the festival.
After starting only a few minutes late this time, Kanye singlehandedly toyed with the psyche of an entire 100,000-person audience. In between an onslaught of hits, he lashed out at everyone from Elon Musk to the press (“Where the press at?” t-shirts on their way) to the Bonnaroo festivalgoers themselves.
He didn’t care who he pissed off because once the next beat kicked in, he had everyone cheering again; he was professional wrestler-level good. Because you can hate Kanye West the person all you want, but you can’t help but love Kanye the performer.
Ironically though, while he was proud to belt out “You should be honored by my lateness/that I would even show up to this fake shit” off “Stronger,” it felt like a Freudian slip of the tongue when he followed that up with “I need you right now;” if anyone needs a cathartic weekend at summer camp, its Kanye.
And if Mr. West did ever want to know a way to call out the press and keep the audience on his side, all he’d have to do is wait 24 hours and catch Jack White’s set.
The man who seemed like a god for a few shredding hours announced early in his set, “Who makes music? Does a tabloid like Rolling Stone make music happen? No! You and I make it exist!” (most likely referring to his recent cover story drama), and from there, he put his guitar where his mouth was and ripped through a blistering set of new hits and old favorites, each presented with a grandiose showmanship that felt absolutely otherworldly at times.
Jack White may have already been a rock god before Bonnaroo, but he baptized a few thousand more awe-struck disciples by the end of the night.
Which leaves us with Elton…
One of the last great timeless rock stars, Elton flat out delivered on a Bonnaroo-closing set that made me both laugh out loud with excitement and even tear up twice (“Rocketman” is heartbreaking and I had Mollie next to me for “Your Song”; I regret nothing). As my friend Colin put it, you’re always going to get excited about Bonnaroo no matter what, but there’s always that one act that helps you convince yourself that you have to go.
Elton was that act.
After every song later in his set, the audience erupted with thankful cheers knowing that that might have been the last time they ever get to hear Elton John (the man has had a hard 67 years…), but that sense of the moment helped usher in a serene feeling of acceptance to the closing of festival.
It was our perfect last bonfire at Camp Bonnaroo.
As everyone huddled in their campsites one last time, you could hear different conversations taking place in the darkness, everyone recapping their weekends with stories and highlights: “Diarrhea Planet was swinging from the rafters!” “Sarah took 2 hits of acid and I haven’t heard from her since!” “It felt like we were all pre-programmed with a chip in our brain and when Darkside went on, they turned it on for the first time.” “Janelle Monae may have been the best thing I saw all weekend.” “I think I’m going to move to Nashville.”
But honestly, the one that stuck with me the most was when I, lying in my sleeping bag about to fall asleep on the ground one last time, heard one of my friend’s voices telling someone in the neighboring camp that he hadn’t been on a vacation in two years and that he didn’t realize how much he needed this.
At Bonnaroo, everyone just wants you to have a good time.