As music genres become more and more fluid, and ticket prices for concerts continue to rise across the entire country, consumers have developed an insatiable appetite for music festivals.
Many people can more easily justify spending $200 for the opportunity to see fifteen artists they are familiar with over the span of three days than spending upwards of $100 just to see one artist perform for ninety minutes.
In an attempt to satisfy this incredible demand, promoters have been introducing brand new music festivals across the country. They’ve been popping up all over the place, ranging from one-day, genre-specific lineups to ten-day-long events. Some are successful, many are not, but every single one of them shares the same goal: to become the industry standard.
Few festivals remain such a cultural staple as Bonnaroo. Coming to mind immediately alongside festivals such as Coachella, Lollapalooza, Summerfest, Electric Forest, Outside Lands, and Burning Man, Bonnaroo has brought millions of artists and music lovers alike to Great Stage Park in Manchester, Tennessee over the last two decades.
Many of the annual attendees of Bonnaroo do not consider the event just another music festival though. They consider it a way of life. It’s described by everyone who attends as an event unlike anything they’ve ever experienced, the kind you need to be a part of to truly understand.
New Bonnaroo attendees are often referred to as “Roo-Kies,” with the annual attendees affectionately being called “Roo-Vets.” Many people who congregate on the official Bonnaroo subreddit enjoy sharing stories of taking their friends or family members to Bonnaroo for the first time, relishing the chance to relive their first time on the grounds through someone else’s eyes.
Growing up a huge fan of music, and even having some family that lived in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, I was very familiar with Bonnaroo. Over the years I have talked to many people who have attended, some only one time and others who are annual attendees. They all ended the conversation with the same sentiment: “You need to go to Bonnaroo.”
2019 was the year I finally got to make that happen. I made the trek from Minneapolis down to Manchester to finally experience Bonnaroo, live and in person, and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
Instead of breaking this down hour-by-hour and awkwardly walking you through each of my days step-by-step, I want to give you the highlights (and some lowlights) of my entire weekend. If there is one thing I learned during my time at Great Stage Park, it’s that everyone experiences a different Bonnaroo. It’s a sort of real-life “choose your own adventure” game. You can get as much, or as little, out of your days on the grounds as you want.
I’ll break down individual performances that I enjoyed, what my experience was camping by my car, the concessions, layout of the grounds, fun and interesting conversations I had with other attendees, and everything in between!
Hopefully, this article can give you some insight on what a potential “Roo-Kie” could experience, or maybe give a “Roo-Vet” some new ideas for things to try next year. Maybe no one will care, either way, I had a hell of a time, and I can’t wait to do it again!
The “Squarch” – The Bonnaroo Arch has been a staple of Bonnaroo since its very first year in 2002. Each year it looks a little bit different, and people have grown very, very attached to it over the years.
Unfortunately, earlier this year the arch had to be destroyed. Bonnaroo released an official statement afterward that read; “This incarnation of the Bonnaroo Arch had significant structural issues and needed to be removed. The Arch has changed throughout the years, and we’re excited for its newest incarnation.”
As stated above, I am new to this. I have no prior experience with any incarnation of the Arch and have no feelings of attachment to it at all. I understand the significance of it to annual attendees, but as someone who thinks the ideology of “We have to keep things the same because it’s a tradition!” is incredibly dumb, I loved the new arch!
It’s a bit blocky, sure, and if it’s turned off or experiences a malfunction, it looks a bit awkward, but literally every single time I walked under it to enter the grounds, it looked different, and that’s cool! It’s interactive, and changes constantly, much like the hustle and bustle of Bonnaroo. It can literally become anything you want it to become, and I feel that fits the spirit of Bonnaroo better than any permanent fixture possibly could.
I liked it, other people liked it, a lot of people hated it. If you are going to judge an entire festival based off the giant piece of metal and plywood (or in this case, LED screens) you walk under to enter, I guess we just have different priorities.
Car Camping – Each year, Bonnaroo offers a multitude of camping options. Ranging from RV camping sites complete with power generators, to luxury tents that are set up for you upon arrival, all the way to totally basic car camping, there is something that fits everyone’s needs and price range.
Part of my media credential included a basic car camping pass, something I was admittedly unprepared for. I’m not a huge festival guy, and although I’m from Wisconsin, I have literally never been camping in my life and thus own no camping equipment at all. So, my solution was to take my mom’s Ford Escape (instead of my much smaller Chevy Malibu) and just set up camp in the back of it.
My camp was about as barebones as it gets, but I was surrounded by plenty of people who had multiple tents set up with air mattresses and tapestries, charcoal and electric grills, and coolers full of food to survive the weekend. Not only were the camps immediately surrounding me impressive, but some of the setups you see while walking to the festival grounds (referred to as Centeroo) each day are mind-blowing.
For my needs, my set up was enough. I’m just one dude who was going to be spending as much time as he could inside the grounds and designated media areas, so I really only needed a place to put my head at night.
However, if you are coming with at least one other person, or just want to take part in the true camping experience, I would certainly recommend doing some more planning for that. There are plenty of members of the Bonnaroo subreddit that would be happy to answer any camping-related questions you might have!
Bonnaroovians – I don’t think I had a single negative interaction the entire weekend. While it will become shockingly clear almost immediately that Bonnaroo brings in people from all walks of life, and with an enormous range of musical preferences, everyone I encountered was extremely respectful and would literally go out of their way to make sure everyone’s experience was as great as possible.
Whether it’s high-fiving and wishing everyone a “Happy Roo!” while snaking through the gates to enter, or singing Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” in unison while waiting for acts to take the stage or while walking back to camp, everyone wants everyone else to have the best experience possible, and that is truly wonderful.
Grounds Layout – Another thing that sets Bonnaroo apart from almost every other festival in the world are the grounds on which it is held. In a word, this location is perfect.
Great Stage Park in Manchester, Tennessee is a beautiful, sprawling landscape of vast patches of grass, small hills, and just enough woodland to separate it from nearby Interstate 24.
The entire patch of land stretches nearly 700 acres and is kept immaculately clean, or about as clean as it can be with over 80,000 people living on it for nearly a week. This location is just as important to Bonnaroo as the lineup, the workers, and attendees, and even Dr. John himself. It’s really something you need to see to believe.
Once inside of Centeroo, I can’t think of a single complaint about how things are laid out. Stages are far enough apart from each other that noise pollution is at a minimum, there are tons of spots to lay down a blanket in the shade and chill out for a little while, and even when 60,000+ of the 80,000 attendees surround the What Stage for Post Malone or Childish Gambino, there is still room to breathe.
Concessions, restrooms, water filling stations, and medical tents are never more than a few hundred yards away, and things never feel too cramped, regardless of how busy it is. It’s hard to imagine how there could be so much extra room with that many people in attendance, but someone there is, indeed, imagining it.
Concessions – Something that often gets overlooked when planning a festival, or any concert really, is concessions. Everyone remembers to get the basics; water, beer, pizza, and more beer, but going above and beyond the bare essentials is something many events fail to do.
That is absolutely not the case for Bonnaroo. I’m not sure if it’s southern hospitality, or just having a crew of people that really respect good food, but this is something that the team here does not forget about.
Both inside and outside of Centeroo, there are literally hundreds of options for food, drinks, snacks, desserts, and anything else you can imagine. No one wants to eat & drink the same thing for upwards of five days, and Bonnaroo makes sure you do not have to.
Individual Performance Breakdown
Childish Gambino – I could honestly put a period after Gambino and just call it a day. This was far and away the best performance of the entire weekend, and it’s not even that close. The production was out of this world, the sound quality was some of the best I have ever heard, and the overall performance was impeccable.
I wrote in my “notes” that this was not a concert, it was a spiritual experience. At one point, Gambino even stopped to say “This isn’t a concert, this is church service.”
I am a different and better person for attending this performance, that’s all there is to it.
Post Malone – I went into this performance with fairly low expectations. I don’t dislike Post Malone, he’s really just not on my radar or someone who’s music I actively seek out. I’ve wanted to catch his show for some time now, though, because I believe that experiencing an artist live as early as possible after discovering them is the best way to find out if you like them or not.
Well, if we are basing my enjoyment of Post Malone on his show at Bonnaroo, I am one of his biggest fans in the entire world right now. This was an absolutely amazing show, with solid production value and an expertly-curated setlist. His stage presence is one of someone twice his age, and his ability to connect with each member of a crowd of over 50,000 people was really special to watch.
Out of all the amazing artists I saw at Bonnaroo this year, he is the one I most want to see again.
Courtney Barnett – I went through a fairly significant Courtney Barnett phase while I was dealing with a tumultuous year in 2018. Her ability to lay things out in such an open and honest way spoke to me, and her music truly helped me work through some stuff.
That being said, I had not yet been able to catch one of her performances, so when the Bonnaroo schedule came out and I found out we were approved to go, she was the biggest circle on my schedule.
She lived up to every single expectation I set for her in my head, and then some. If it wasn’t for Childish Gambino literally changing the way I looked at the world after his performance, this would have been the #1 for me. A truly incredible experience and I highly recommend anyone who even remotely likes her music to check out her show.
Hozier – Once again, Hozier was someone with whom I was certainly familiar, but who would have been nowhere to be found on the “recently played” section on my Spotify.
Before his performance on Saturday, he did a brief Q&A session inside of the media tent, which I was able to attend. During this talk, he broke down his relationship with his incredibly popular song “Take Me To Church,” and some of the inspirations for his latest record.
After listening to him speak so eloquently during this session, I knew I wanted to check out his show later in the evening, and I am really happy I did. This dude is so talented, and his voice is truly something special. Much like Post Malone, my biggest takeaway was his interactions with the crowd, and how much joy he appeared to get out of this performance.
Some artists have the tendency to “pack it in” during giant festival performances. They know a large segment of the crowd might not be their fans, or even familiar with their music, and the crowd just wants to hear the hits. This was definitely not the case for Hozier, and his latest album has already been downloaded on my phone for a listen on my drive back to Minnesota.
Lil Dicky – This was likely the performance I was most looking forward to on Sunday. I’ve been a Lil Dicky fan since the early days of his YouTube success but had yet to make it out to one of his shows.
While the overall performance lacked a general sense of direction, it was possibly the most fun I had during any show of the weekend. There was tons of humor mixed in, and at one point Dicky and the entire crowd sang the National Anthem after he found out that it was the fourth and final day of Bonnaroo and no one had done that yet.
Besides The Lonely Island who performed on Saturday, this was probably the most laid-back and humorous show of the weekend, and it was a very nice mid-afternoon break for everyone on Sunday.
Bishop Briggs / Kacey Musgraves / Odesza / Cardi B – These are all shows I really enjoyed or were extremely surprised by. Both Briggs and Musgraves I fully expected to be great, and both totally lived up to the hype.
During Musgraves’ performance, she took a pause after her first two songs and said “Bonnaroo is my fucking favorite! I have been looking forward to this for a while because I know you guys are going to fucking bring it!” The crowd gave her a rousing ovation, and you could tell she was feeding off the energy for the rest of the set.
Cardi B and Odesza both surprised me, but for totally different reasons. I’m not going to lie, I expected Cardi’s set to suck. I like her music, but something about her didn’t feel like it would translate well into a live performance.
I’m happy to announce that I was incredibly wrong. She drew one of the largest crowds to the Which Stage all weekend, and the number of people attempting to “shakedown” security members for the opportunity to get into the pit located in front of the stage was massive.
Odesza surprised me because of the overall production that went into their set. I’m not a big EDM guy, and rarely seek out those types of shows, but I’ve been told by plenty of people that they were a group I needed to see. All of those people were absolutely correct, and I had a great time.
Lonely Island – There was nothing wrong with this performance, but it simply felt like more of a “novelty” to me than something I would seek out after I leave Bonnaroo. Don’t get me wrong, it was really fun to see these guys perform their most popular songs, and a surprise performance by Chris Parnell was great, but I’m not sure I would attempt to snag tickets to a show in the future.
Juice WRLD – I’m not mincing words here, I hated this performance. It started with a ten-minute intro by, what I can only assume is, his 43-year-old uncle DJing and blasting other people’s music. Then, when Juice WRLD finally came out, he was rapping over his own vocals the entire time. It was a huge slap in the face to all the truly talented people performing at Bonnaroo this weekend, and I have no issue saying how little enjoyment I got out of it.
The National – This was definitely one of the smallest crowds I saw all weekend at the Which Stage and this timeslot ended up being a perfect time to take a nap if you needed a break in the middle of the day.
Solange & Phish – In an effort to not end this section on a sour note, Solange & Phish were two of my “wildcards” from this weekend, and I’m happy to say both of them totally held up.
Neither of them really fit my “taste” in music, but I certainly respect the talent. They both put on exceptional performances that the crowds were absolutely loving. And, of course, seeing Phish play Bonnaroo is something you should not pass up.
Room For Improvement
I’m not going to attempt to sound like I would even know the first place to start if I was tasked with planning an event the size of Bonnaroo. The things I’m going to list by no means should be taken as a slight against the planners of this amazing festival, and are only things that I observed during my time that could be addressed heading into next year.
Poorly Lit Camping Areas – This is sort of a weird one because I found myself in a different situation than most others. I arrived at the grounds a little late, getting to the gates at around 4:30 PM on Friday. Because of this, about 90% of the people camping had already been given their spot, and likely were already in Centeroo.
Where I ended up was a small pocket towards the back of the grounds, tucked away in an area about the size of three football fields side-by-side, surrounded by trees. There was only one entrance going in or out, which had a giant generator with bright lights above it. However, there were absolutely no lights located inside the actual camping area.
With some performances going until 4:00 AM each day, you can get back to your campsite when it’s very, very dark out. I fully understand that having too much light means no one will get any sleep, so it’s sort of a tightrope walk in this scenario. But in my opinion, and a few others surrounding me, it felt a little weird walking back late at night with very little light guiding you.
Changing Concession Prices – Listen, I was a business student. I fully comprehend the economic model of Supply & Demand, and certainly take advantage of it whenever possible. However, some times it just feels like a dick move.
One morning, a breakfast burrito + cup of coffee costs $14. A little outlandish, but it’s a music festival and you can expect higher prices for the convenience. All of a sudden, less than 24-hours later, the very next morning, that same burrito and cup of coffee costs $17.
This wasn’t just outside of Centeroo either, every single lemonade stand inside the grounds had used a sharpie to cross out the original price of the product and write a higher price. Everyone knew there was going to be a ton of people. Bonnaroo had been announcing for weeks they were close to selling out and confirmed that on the Wednesday before the festival.
It’s not the consumers’ fault you underestimated the demand for your product. You didn’t plan ahead, that’s your fault, don’t pass the buck to us so you have enough product to last until Sunday night.
Additional Porta Potties – Bonnaroo 2019 sold-out before the gates even opened. I’ve heard that means somewhere around 80,000 tickets were sold. Let me state that I have literally no idea how many porta potties are needed for a crowd of 80,000 people, but I think they could have increased their estimate a smidge.
I understand this is another tightrope-walking situation, as you don’t want to have a huge bank of bathrooms right next to someone’s campsite for up to five days, but I believe a few more sprinkled throughout the grounds would have been very, very helpful.
*Going along with this, I want to give a HUGE shoutout to the cleaning staff that Bonnaroo employed this year who were tasked with keeping the porta potties clean. Both inside and outside of the festival, you guys did an incredible job, and no matter how much you were compensated, it wasn’t nearly enough!*
Pick-Pocketing/Stealing From Campsites – Do you know how easy it is to not be a piece of shit? Seriously, grow the fuck up. Stop stealing things and be a responsible adult. I understand people should be smart and lock up their belongings, but one simple mistake shouldn’t immediately cost you $300+ for a new phone because some worthless piece of trash decided he could make a quick buck. Everyone hates you and truthfully wishes nothing but the worst for you in life.
Hecklers – I have a very strange taste in music. I’m willing to see almost anyone perform live and when I’m alone in my car, I listen to some pretty obscure shit and draw very harsh lines when it comes to my personal preferences.
You know what I don’t do, though? Shout things at performers because I don’t like the music they are playing. If this is you, see the last bullet point. Everyone hates you and you are offering nothing to us. No one is handcuffing you to this stage, go somewhere else Mr. Pissy Pants. It’s not rocket science.
Wednesday Entrance / Monday Exit – Once again, I’m not even going to pretend I know what could be done about this. You have 80,000 people in what I would conservatively guess is at least 40,000 vehicles. Good fucking luck directing all of that traffic in a timely manner.
What I do know is that some people were waiting upwards of 10 hours to get into the grounds on Wednesday night, and while things were not nearly as bad for me trying to leave on Monday (it took me a little over two hours) it was still a struggle.
Honestly, if someone told me Bonnaroo has been studying this for the last fifteen years and did everything humanly possible to fix this, I would believe them. Sometimes the game is the game and you just have to deal with it. So, I guess this is just more of a warning to potential Roo-ers. Plan ahead! Fill your tank and bring a couple of extra Gatorade bottles (bigger hole for aiming) because it might be awhile.
Odds & Ends:
Here are a few things from my “notes” folder on my phone, completely unedited and transcribed exactly as they were. I was in varying states of mind while writing these, sometimes intoxicated, sometimes just extremely tired from literally sleeping in my car, so please excuse any grammatical errors or utterly ridiculous quips.
Day 1 –
“First performance: K.Flay. 3rd time I’ve seen her in a month? Kicks ass always.”
“24 oz. PBR is $10. I fucking love this place.”
“On the rail for Courtney Barnett 20 minutes before start. Holy fuck she sounds incredible. Facing the sunset. She fucking shreds too. Could play bass but fuck that.”
“Childish Gambino. I really don’t have words. I’m drunk and having the time of my life. I literally never say this but this isn’t a concert it’s a spiritual moment. Who the fuck am I lol”
“First night in the car, not bad! My camping area is a little separated from the rest, and is surrounded by trees with only one entrance/exit. It’s as “secluded” as you can get here I suppose. Nice barrier from the thumping of the bass all through the night, but close enough that you still feel involved.”
Day 2 –
“Woke up to the sound of two women screaming bloody murder about a spider in their car. I understand not being a fan of spiders or other insects, but it’s 9:30 in the fucking morning and a large portion of our neighbors didn’t get back to their camp until after 3:00 AM have some common sense. Happy to report their entire tent blew away right before I left to enter the grounds, though. Karma is fun.”
“Jesus Frisbee – shoutout to people who can have level headed conversations about religion. And thanks for free frisbee!”
“First set of the day: Hippo Campus, nice to hear some familiar sounds. Performing for mostly Juice WRLD fans, made the best of it.”
- “Why do so many people give handjobs at music festivals?”
“Marren Morris why is she so afraid to just be a pop star? Put down the guitar. The two chords you can strum aren’t adding anything of value.”
- “Marren Morris is a Great Value version of Taylor Swift.”
“I love how Bonnaroo stacks their bands. They put two completely different kinds of acts back to back, introducing literally thousands of people to new acts they might not have heard otherwise. Examples include Hozier before Odesza, The National before The Lonely Island, The Avett Brothers before Childish Gambino.”
Day 3 –
“Holy shit I’m not sure how much longer I can sleep in this car.”
“It’s very, very hot today.”
- “Holy shit this brisket covered Mac & Cheese is better than any orgasm I’ve ever had.”
“This thing has been going on for four days and no one has sung the national anthem?”
“I swear to god if Cardi B’s DJ says “Give it up for CARDI B!!!!” one more time I’m catching a manslaughter charge”
“I just watched a group of eleven people do acid together in preparation for this three-hour Phish set. I have no additional comments.”