Each year on the second weekend of June, thousands gather on hot, dusty 700 acres of farmland in Manchester, Tennessee, for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. The gargantuan event has set the standard for many other festivals worldwide, but Bonnaroo remains unique.
Last weekend, it had been 10 years since I first attended. Hangout Fest had made me lazy. Who needs two major music festivals within a two-month period, especially one like Bonnaroo? This festival is not amateur hour, especially for those who choose the camping option, as many do. Even the most seasoned festival enthusiasts may hesitate to make the drive to Manchester, due to the primitive living conditions and almost 24-hour festivities that take place throughout the weekend. I decided it was time to see for myself what’s kept the festival going all these years without major incident.
I arrived at Bonnaroo to discover a wonderful evolution that has taken place since my last visit. The “Bonnaroovian Code” had been established, which teaches Bonnaroovians to “prepare thyself, play as a team, radiate positivity, respect the farm, don’t be that guy/gal and stay true to Roo.” This code echoed throughout Bonnaroo 2015 and I quickly learned it had a positive impact on all aspects of the festival, especially the music and the campground.
Ten years ago, I started my first Bonnaroo with an eight-hour wait on Interstate 24 before finally entering the campgrounds. In previous years, I was stuck in traffic for at least six hours. This year, I was in the campgrounds and set up for the weekend within two hours of arriving in Manchester.
“Tent City” comprised thousands of cars and makeshift domiciles packed in neat lots, with avenues for vehicles and thoroughfares for walkers, which were quite well thought-out and convenient. These homemade living quarters could be considered the adult equivalent of couch forts, but instead of a couch, a vehicle and/or a tent serves as a structural foundation. Instead of cushions and sheets, tarps and psychedelic tapestries are used as walls and ceilings. Marxist interpreters would have a grand holiday analyzing each living structure.
The panorama of Tent City is almost apocalyptic, where normal life has ceased and the entire population has resorted to living in borderline primal conditions. If you think this is a harsh price to pay to experience Bonnaroo, consider that in years past grown men, weakened by exhaustion and intoxication, were brought to tears and sent running from the physical, environmental and psychological obstacles for which past Tent Cities were known.
This year, it’s evident Tent City has changed greatly, and these changes have been beneficial to the festival. First, only one section of the camping area has been designated as “Tent City.” The camping area appeared to be a cleaner and safer environment.
Bonnaroo still holds the title for cleanest outdoor toilets at any festival (always several rolls of toilet paper available). While local law enforcement remained vigilant in addressing illegal drug use, they maintained an attitude that promoted safety over prosecution. If Bonnaroovians gave no reason for law enforcement to involve themselves with their weekend, then the police kept to themselves. Otherwise, they gave no quarter to those who felt the need to blatantly use illegal narcotics in their presence.
Ultimately of course, the music is the biggest attraction to Bonnaroo. The festival always manages to bring the best of the best, along with quite a few surprises. However, the festival’s yearly lineup is always mired in controversy for some people who dwell in the past.
After the first few years with headliners such as The String Cheese Incident, The Dead and Widespread Panic, Bonnaroo was quickly labeled a festival for the jam crowd. But year by year, it featured more diverse musical acts and in 2015, EDM (electronic dance music) was a huge presence.
I consider Bonnaroo a rite of passage of sorts for young people in the post-high school, pre-professional world, a demographic that certainly made up a large portion of the crowd this year. Bonnaroo caters to the younger, electronic crowd with artists such as Deadmau5 and Bassnectar. As I walked through the festival and listened to these young people wax poetic about EDM, I heard some of the same concepts, ideas and statements I’ve heard about bands such as The Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic.
They spoke the same language of the jamsters but about a different genre. The “Steal Your Face” logo has been replaced by Deadmau5’s maniacal mouse logo and Bassnectar’s “Bassdrop” symbol. Bassnectar proved EDM’s dominance at this year’s festival with a mind-blowing late-night set that echoed an onslaught of low-frequency bass across the 700-acre festival compound.
I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend a weekend than reacquainting myself with Bonnaroo and witnessing how the festival has experienced positive growth and evolution over the years. I have to disagree with those who think it’s longevity is based on solely on the music. The creation of the Bonnaroovian Code has established the overall vibe that drives the festival forward.
Bonnaroo has become a positive environment, to the point that when things got hectic, Bonnaroovians spontaneously broke into Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” As said before, music is a big part of the festival, but Bonnaroo does not cater to one subculture or genre. The festival caters only to the Code. Bonnaroo recruits bands that promote a surreal, abstract atmosphere that continues to attract thousands from around the globe. With a sunburned face, blistered feet and filthy clothes, I can honestly say that this vibe is powerful enough to bring me back for more in the years to come.