On Thursday, June eighth the Bonnaroo music festival opened the gates to Centeroo, graced with the nicest weather forecast in the events sixteen-year history. With temperatures topping out in the 70s and much cooler lows in the sleeping hours it was a nearly perfect day. The weather forecast predicted slowly warming temperatures over the four-day festival, below seasonal averages and a near zero chance of rain. In past years temperatures had wreaked havoc on concert goers, even topping the century mark one year. Other years turned the venue into a rain-drenched mud bath.
But it wasn’t only the weather that made for a much more pleasurable experience at this year's Bonnaroo compared to past years. After some missteps, last year when corporate giant Live Nation gained control of the festival, the premiere live music event in the country was in danger of becoming obsolete. Ticket sales for 2016 dropped to an all-time low of less than 46,000. It was excellent news for attendees but not so good news for the promoters of the ambitious project. But with the help of classic rock giants U2 on the bill this year along with a robust and diverse four-day lineup, attendance was closer this year to the annual average of 75,000 people. With the exponential growth in festivals across the country, it has become increasingly hard to attract music fans from around the country and the globe to a faraway venue, especially one as remote as Manchester Tennessee. But, despite its growing pains Bonnaroo continues to be the music festival that all other US festivals are measured against. While Coachella has become the largest US music gathering, selling out 125,000 tickets for two consecutive weekends, Bonnaroo continues to be the superior immersive experience, with twice as many stages, full sets for all the performers (one of Coachella ’s biggest failures), collaborative jam sessions, and nearly continuous music 24/7.
Since the Live Nation takeover, there have been some lamented departures for the festival lore of Bonnaroo. Gone are the legendary marathon sets like the 6-hour Disco Biscuits set and three plus hour sets by the likes of Pearl Jam, My Morning Jacket, and Widespread Panic. There are less of the individual jam sessions and jam bands that have been the hallmark of Bonnaroo in the past. There are more empty slots in the schedule than previous years when it was nearly impossible to keep up with as many as 10 or 12 performances at the same time. The comedy and cinema offerings were also greatly scaled back this year, consolidating them into a single tent. Rising prices, including a new camping fee, have also raised grumblings among the Bonnaroo veterans.
But the many nostalgic losses to some of the favorite aspects of the festival are outweighed by the vast improvements in the overall Bonnaroo experience. Promoters have invested heavily in the infrastructure of the festival and concert goers no longer have to line up at porta-potties for hours in the hot sun. The plethora of portable toilets has been augmented by extensive genuine sanitation facilities complete with vast rows of flushing toilets and running water. The introduction of real plumbing is no small improvement in an environment where most festival goers live in tents for up to five days. In addition to a separate set of the permanent bathrooms in the campgrounds, other permanent structures have been built for live music presentations, chill sights to escape the heat and interactive projects like the new B-Hive.
The biggest change to the festival grounds, however, this year is a transformation of The Other Tent stage into a large outdoor stage complete with the latest EDM lighting and sound, including a Bass system that even Bassnectar would appreciate. The massive stage has been expanded with a new beach area called the Oasis. Bacardi offered up all sorts of rum drinks while festival goers lounged on the sandy beach or played volleyball, in full view of the new stage. Dedicated solely to EDM and Hip-Hop music, The Other tent became a focal point for the younger generation of music fans.
The opening day of Bonnaroo is traditionally a showcase of new music for the most part and this year was no exception. One of the first performers to open the festival was country rocker Luke Combs, one of the few country acts to appear at this year's festival. Judging by the enormous crowd gathered at This Tent for the performance there was no shortage of country music fans in the audience. Coming on the same weekend as the CMA awards in nearby Nashville it is surprising that there wasn't more cross-pollination between to two events, with Combs being the exception.
But Indie rock was the dominant genre in the first day of the festivals. Welles, a 22-year-old Grunge rocker from the Ozarks and his blazing band, channeled the energy of Nirvana with their unique take on the genre. In a vent, more along the lines of The Bleachers, Indie rockers Hippocampus riled up a large crowd as the summer sun began to set on the first day of Bonnaroo. The Turntan, Stitches, Espo, and Beans made up the quirky quartet that connected with a young audience.
Just after the sun went down, the Toronto band July Talk played what may have been the most intense set of the day. With the energy of Sleigh Bells, the band is led by vocalists Leah Fray and Peter Dreimanis. The pair bounces off each other like a pair Sumo wrestlers, while singing and playing various instruments. Dreimanis’ throaty lyrics are often compared to the vocals of Nic Cave. July Talk is an exciting band to watch. Hailing from Long Island New York, The Lemon Twigs brought a nostalgic 70’s rock sound to the early evening crowd at Bonnaroo. Fronted by the D’Addario brothers, their over the top trip into glam rock is a welcome journey for those witnessing the show by the talented duo. Singer-guitarist Brian brings a Bowie-like persona to the stage while singer and drummer Michael eerily channels Keith Moon in both style and substance. His drumming alone is a reason to catch a live show by this band.
As the evening wore on multiple stages began to simultaneously come alive with new music as festival fans dressed in all manner of proper festival regalia took advantage of the unlimited food and beverage stands that had been expanded to meet any demand. On the tiny New Music On Tap Lounge Brewed By Miller Lite, (yes that is the actual name of the stage), The London band Ten Fe played an astounding set channeling the best of 80’s rock. This tiny stage has presented some legendary performances over the years at the festival, including one-midnight performance several years ago by Capital Cities.
As the night wore on the music turned funky with the appearance of the nine-piece power funk group Turkuaz. The band had fans young and old dancing. But the young dance fans were just beginning in a near all night dance party with a late-night set on The Other Stage, and more intimate sets in the eclectic Snake & Jakes Christmas Club Barn venue and of course, the ever-popular silent disco. As the air cooled to jacket water by the early morning hours, it was clear that many festival goers were on a 24/7 music mission this first day of Bonnaroo 2017.