The 17th annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival kicked off amidst gorgeous late spring weather conditions, in the rural Manchester Tennessee countryside, on June 7th. The unique festival has struggled to maintain its distinctive identity in a world smothered with ever increasing cookie cutter festivals. This year's festival felt like it had turned the corner in providing a unique experience to its participants while maintaining its relevance in an ever-changing pop music demographic and landscape. The festival drew the largest crowd in several years, an estimated 80,000 plus music lovers.
Much like the country as a whole, Bonnaroo has increasingly become more of a tribal experience, with music fans gravitating to specific musical genres and their respective social circles. To this end, Bonnaroo has wisely expanded their festival experience to reach into nearly every corner of the campgrounds, as well as the main Centeroo festival grounds.
In recent years festival promoters have worked hard to improve every aspect of the Bonnaroo camping experience. Using the knowledge garnered from tracking festival-goers movement via their electronic wristbands, developers were able to determine that as much as a third of the patrons were hanging in the campgrounds on a regular basis. Permanent showers and bathrooms were installed across the vast expanses of the camping area and in Center itself. This year a full-service laundry faculty was even added. The Launderoo allowed concert goers to maintain a clean wardrobe throughout the festival. But the most significant change has been the commitment to offer a wide range of food, art, entertainment, and facilities across the nine distinct plazas that make up the general campground area. At Plaza 3 a barn was transformed into the House of Yes housing a nightclub and performance space. Events included day and night activities featuring, a circus, DJ dance parties, and a cinema. One of the most significant changes in Centeroo this year was the removal of the comedy and cinema tent, with those activities moving to the campgrounds.
Bonnaroo veteran Matt Shultz, the animated lead singer of Cage The Elephant was given a free hand at Plaza 9 to create his own multimedia presentation featuring interactive art and live performances. In fact, on this first day of Roo 2018, Cage The Elephant played a not so publicized set to 700 lucky concertgoers who squeezed into the venue. The comprehensive Bonnaroo app listed all the special events at the Plazas in great detail, but it took some studios research to find all the secretive information. Shultz was a masterful performer, as usual, leading the crowd in sing-alongs of the bands hit songs like, "Come a Little Closer" & "Shake Me Down." Later in the evening, the venue featured a set by the new Bowling Green, Kentucky quartet Dan Luke and the Raid. The band was fronted by Daniel Shultz who is the younger brother to Matt and Cage guitarist Brad Shultz.
Other Plazas offered individual experiences throughout the 4-day festival, catering to the different tribal tastes of this year's festival attendees. Plaza 7 was known as The Ville, curated by the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. The venue featured local Nashville artists and musicians, with a distinctive Americana flare. The Plaza also featured a nighttime karaoke bar. Plaza 2 featured The Love Shack restaurant, a tequila bar, and a public grilling area. There was also late-night music at the venue. Plaza 6 featured a New Age chill zone, complete with Yoga instructors, meditation centers, craft booths and vegetarian food. At night the venue featured the ambient electronic beats of Tonalism. Plaza 4 featured a place for festival-goers to leave their mark on the history of Bonnaroo, with a Yearbook, Sketchbook project, and the Bonnaroo Census.
But of course, Bonnaroo is mostly about the music and this year's festival did not disappoint. The first day of the celebration, in many ways is always the most interesting. With the two main stages shut down and many festival goers establishing their campsites and getting their bearings, the five musical stages are readily accessible to eager music fans. The bands on the first day are a collection of unique up and coming new artists, world music and obscure acts that cater to open-minded music lovers. Local Nashville country music singer turned Hip-Hop star Ernest K. kicked off Roo 2018 on Thursday afternoon. Also, from Nashville, Blank Range brought some country-tinged rock to Centeroo. The former frontman for the band Toy Soldier from Philadelphia, Ron Gallo played a spirited Indie set. Frenship, a Los Angeles pop duo brought some fancy dance moves to their high energy set just before sunset.
The girls graced the first day of Roo 2018 with diverse sets including Lissie. The barefooted Iowa based indy folk singer wowed the crowd with her vocal prowess. Young pop siren CYN from Michigan played a well-received set. Her fresh young voice captured the attention of Katy Perry, who signed her to Perry’s new record label. The Other stage, which evolved into an all EDM mega stage last year has become the most sophisticated multimedia stage, and EDM fans were treated to some spectacular sets on an opening day. Representing the girls, DJ, CloZee brought her own take “Glitch hop” to an adulating crowd. The young DJ is a 21-year-old student from Toulouse, France, majoring in Sound Engineering. She brought all her skills to bear in an impressive set. Finally, representing the girls, up and coming female synth-pop star Elohim, from California played a late-night set that had the whole tent dancing to her catchy songs like “Fuck Your Money.”
For those who love traditional soul music, there was plenty to celebrate on the first day of Roo 2018. Both the Spencer Lee Band and Durand Jones and The Indications brought new interpretations to the genre, much to the delight of soul music aficionados. R.Lum.R from Florida played some excellent neo R&B music. No Roo would be complete without Jam bands, and Arizona’s Spafford and Baltimore’s Pigeons Playing Ping Pong brought well received late night sets to the faithful.
Popular DJ’s like Space Jesus kept up a multimedia assault on EDM fans until 3 am on The Other stage. But for the hardcore EDM fans, the music didn’t stop there. Snake and Jakes Christmas Barn and the silent Disco both returned offering up dance music until dawn. But the real late-night action happened at the Kalliope. The multimedia EDM stage returned after a hiatus last year and offered up guest DJ sets and with pulsating beats, lights and video until well after sunrise. By the end of the first day, it was already a non-stop 24-hour party for many hardy young and very enthusiastic concertgoers.