Bonnaroo. A name was never more fitting. Simple syllables slide off the tongue with effortless joy and a tendency to howl. The word drips of the place it describes: a farm in Tennessee where for four days each June hundreds of performers and thousands of travelers will make easy friends from strangers and enjoy a dynamic and interactive arts experience in a friendly, peaceful environment.
Now in its fifth year, Bonnaroo has established itself as the premier music and arts festival destination in the country. What started out as a jam band-based weekend featuring Widespread Panic and Trey Anastasio in 2002, Bonnaroo in 2006 has evolved into an eclectic collection of musicians and performers. From jam favorites moe. and Phil Lesh and Friends, to alt-emo rockers Death Cab For Cutie and Sonic Youth, all the way around to true hip-hop heads Common, Blackalicious and Lyrics Born and the reggae stylings of both Damian Marley and Steel Pulse, not to mention everything in between stand-up comedy and vaudeville circus shows, Bonaroo is more than a concert. This is celebration of life.
The eclecticism and the bold mixing of music and people is the true purpose of this festival. As My Morning Jacket’s lead man Jim James said in a telephone conference with The Hatchet, “It’s like a fantasy world.a chance for everybody to escape their normal lives and their normal jobs and normal worries and.just go out with a bunch of like-minded people that just want to have fun.”
A classic gaming arcade with the old-time favorites and a well-rounded playground complete with swings and sandbox means there is no excuse to be bored at any hour of the day. An example of the creative hysteria manufactured at Bonnaroo is a popular activity last year called ‘Silent Disco,’ which entails hundreds of people dancing with wireless headphones all tuned to the same station.
There will also be jazz at this year’s festival. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will occupy its own tent for three nights with their rich and authentic New Orleans sound, while progressive jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood will play to blow a few minds.
The weekend’s main attraction, however, is Radiohead. This world-famous group, dubbed by Rolling Stone as “Rock’s Best Live Band,” has been creating thoughtful and hard-hitting rock since the mid-90s and are a powerful entity in modern music history. The band is representative of Bonnaroo’s shift towards diversity. In its first two years of existence, the festival was centered around the so-called ‘jam-band’ scene, featuring artists like The Dead, Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon and the Allman Bros. Band.
The lineup has always reflected a wide range of tastes, but the early years were part of a movement in the jam-band community towards European-style, multi-day festivals, building off the success of individual efforts by bands like Phish and moe. In a testament to the sophisticated tastes of the fans, the musical genres in the last two years have moved progressively towards a middle ground, including bands from all genres around the world. Musically aware hip-hop acts like The Roots made everyone want more, which is partly why this year is ripe with rap talent. In addition to the previously mentioned artists, Cypress Hill and Atmosphere give this year’s lineup variation and depth.
Spring Fling performers Matisyahu and Grace Potter are playing the festival as well. In a powerful performance witnessed by many students, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals bring driving dirty blues to back up pianist and astonishing vocalist Potter, a young lady who’s voice has been compared to the likes of Janis Joplin. As if that weren’t enough, the organizers have made a conscious grab into alternative rock, represented by Death Cab for Cutie, Sonic Youth, My Morning Jacket, Bright Eyes, Beck and others. This strong showing will most certainly attract a crowd who may have never been to the festival (or others like it) in years past. The festival should also expose some jam-band fans to some quality bands they may not have heard or considered before.
The astonishing number of people who attend (between 90 and 100,000 people arrived in Manchester, Tenn. last year, according to the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, Tenn.) make the peaceful atmosphere all the more amazing. The complete lack of hostility and violence in a group so large living in the hot southern summer sun for four days may seem impossible, but it is hard to imagine it any other way.
Everyone goes to Bonnaroo to see a different artist and to be with different people, but in the end they all search for the same magic, the ethereal vibe that exists in a makeshift community gathered specifically to celebrate its own diversity. The word Utopia comes to mind, but that may be a stretch. However, what else could one be doing this summer that aspires to concepts like unity, Peace and Love? It seems clear that, in spite of its diversification, Bonnaroo is still a hippie-fest at heart.