The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival may not be easily explained to the uninitiated. The idea of spending four days camping in the brutal heat of June in Tennessee may seem crazy to some.
For a music junkie like me, Bonnaroo represents paradise.
Most will equate the scene to Woodstock and the comparison can certainly be understood. A hippie vibe runs throughout the venue: a giant field transforms to a concert arena, booths encouraging environmental activism sit everywhere and girls in patchwork skirts and guys with dreads dance strangely until the wee hours of the morning.
However, this is not Woodstock.
The most amazing aspect of the festival is the traffic management. Miles of traffic do exist – after all, 80,000 people create traffic problems – but Bonnaroo and Manchester, Tenn. officials learned valuable lessons from the first festival in 2002. Some concertgoers waited upwards of 20 hours in traffic that year.
The organizers and local police really deserve credit for finding ways to cut down on the lines of traffic. They incorporate as many different festival entrances as possible and monitor the situation from both the ground and a helicopter above.
Once on site, the focus becomes setting up camp. Some take the minimalist approach of just a tent and a sleeping bag. Others bring shade areas, showers or RVs and live in style. After setting up the home base, Bonnaroo attendees head to Centeroo – the place where all the stages and tents sit.
The only way to squeeze well over 100 bands and comedians into a four-day festival is multiple stages. Bonnaroo does this with two main stages – the What Stage features the headliners and ample room for all 80,000 attendees and the Which Stage serves as a second stage with a slightly smaller viewing area – and three music tents – This Tent, That Tent and the Other Tent. If the names sound confusing, it quickly becomes second nature after a few trips around the venue.
The concert grounds also feature comedy tents, art tents, a marketplace and several smaller tents which feature even more entertainment. Bonnaroo offers something for everyone.
The 2009 festival featured many different styles and genres of music. Saturday at the Other Tent offered fiddles and mandolins for the bluegrass fans, while a day of heavy metal was on tap Sunday at That Tent. The Beastie Boys, Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg gave hip hop fans a fix. Phish, moe. and Gov’t Mule gave the hippies a soundtrack for spinning in a circle.
The comedy tent not only provided a break from the heat, but big name comedians such as Jimmy Fallon and the Daily Show All-Stars.
The 2009 version of Bonnaroo again exceeded expectations. Phish played two nights – with Friday being far superior to Sunday –Bruce Springsteen urged the audience to “build a house of love” during his ultra high-energy set and I found several new bands to obsess over the next few weeks: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, The Steeldrivers and Bon Iver.
I didn’t see all the bands I wanted to, but I knew that was impossible going in. I did spend four dirty and sweaty days in a field in Tennessee. I ran from one stage to the next trying to soak in all I could. Bonnaroo may sound crazy to many, but to the devotees, nothing can compare.
To quote a cliché, I guess you just had to be there.