Words & Images by: L. Paul Mann
10 Best Aspects Of Bonnaroo 2016 :: 6.9-12.16 :: Great Stage Park :: Manchester, TN
View a photo gallery below the list.
With Bonnaroo 2016 now in the past, here’s a look back at what I most liked about this years festival. Despite the rise in ticket prices, relentlessly hot weather and a false alarm weather evacuation because of a thunderstorm threat Saturday night, most people seemed to be having a great time at this year’s four-day marathon of music. Below are 10 of the best aspects of Bonnaroo 2016.
If there is any one reason to come to Bonnaroo year after year as a music lover it has to be the SuperJam (read my review of Saturday night’s SuperJam here). With loads of special guests playing a marathon jam session, SuperJam always offers up a unique one-time-only chance to hear veteran musicians of most every musical genre jam together. If there were no other reasons to endure the sometimes torturous process of attending Bonnaroo, the SuperJam itself stands alone as a singular enough reason to endure.
2. Dead & Company
It was hard to believe that several members of the band that brought over 600,000 people to Watkins Glen in 1973 could be headlining the lowest turnout in recent Bonnaroo memory. But miraculously – whether due to last-minute walk up ticket sales or people emerging from a long strange party in their campsites – the crowd swelled to many times it’s size of the previous days for the awesome finale. Some longtime fans of the band were worried that they were truly bidding goodbye to live Dead shows when the four surviving members announced the Fare The Well run last July in Chicago. But Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann decided to form Dead & Company, recruiting John Mayer as the second guitarist, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and former The Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge to form a new supergroup. For their closing two sets at Bonnaroo Sunday night they even upped the ante by bringing former Grateful Dead member Donna Jean Godchaux onto the stage for “Bertha.” The vocalist sang with the Dead for much of the 1970s, and her presence lent an air of nostalgia and credibility to the nearly four-hour performance. The beaming singer joined in on a handful of songs throughout the evening, and really stood out on “Playing In The Band.” State of the art live video mixing, interspersed with psychedelic images harkening back to the flower child days meshed perfectly to create a mesmerizing backdrop. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the amount of ardent young music fans in attendance, carrying their totems and related paraphernalia. It seems that the euphoric young fans were there to experience the historic jam band that long ago passed the torch of festival dance music to the younger crowd and they somehow had come to embrace the roots of their beloved dance trance music.
3. Surprise Appearances
Several unannounced appearances by Chance The Rapper and St. Lucia popping up on the campground stage (see below for more on both) helped Bonnaroo deliver on its mythical surprise appearance hype. Aside from the litany of surprises at the aforementioned SuperJam, other unannounced surprises included Jason Mraz playing a completely surprising set early on Saturday. It was apparently his first live performance in quite some time and his first appearance at Bonnaroo since 2003. Funky soul singer Leon Bridges popped in to join Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats on their hit song “S.O.B.” Eddie Vedder appeared earlier in the day to join Judd Apatow in a tribute to Garry Shandling, playing an acoustic song drawn from Shandling’s material. BØRNS made a surprise appearance with fellow Michigan musicians Vulfpeck on the opening night of the festival. On Friday night pop sensation Halsey made a surprise appearance with The Chainsmokers to perform their new song “Closer.”
4. Clutch & Lamb Of God
Bonnaroo always throws a few hard core ringers into the music mix and this year was no exception with two other metal master bands on display across Centeroo Saturday night. The Maryland-based hard rockers Clutch have been around nearly as long as headliners Pearl Jam. Even though they are far less well-known, they have developed a loyal fanbase over the years, releasing no less than 11 albums of music. Vocalist Neil Fallon led the four man group in an explosive headbanging one hour set that managed to finish up just before bad weather forced an evacuation. Later that night, heavy metal mavens Lamb Of God led perhaps the most headbanging, crowd surfing set of the entire festival. Often found on the heavy metal festival circuit, in recent years the Virginia-based band has worked their way up to headline status by touring relentlessly in support of their eight albums. The band turned the Other Tent into a late night sauna filled with sweaty, euphoric metal music fans.
5. Pearl Jam
Inclement weather delayed the start and cut short the length of Pearl Jam’s performance and though it wasn’t as long as their legendary three-and-a-half-hour-long 2008 Bonnaroo appearance, the respectable 22-song set was well-received by this year’s crowd. Eddie Vedder fired up the crowd between songs with a fiery diatribe against Donald Trump, “There’s a candidate out there who’s talking about building a wall,” Vedder said during a meandering lament slamming Trump. “Maybe we should just build a wall around him. We’d pay for it, I’d pay for it. It’d be cheap.” Vedder went on to chastise Tennessee Representative Susan Lynn for trying to pass legislation similar to North Carolina’s divisive HB2 “bathroom bill.” But it was the ferocious music that Vedder and the band pumped out for two hours that had the crowd in a sweating, dancing, fist-pumping frenzy. In the end, Pearl Jam simply offered up a great balls-out rock show.
6. Anything Wet
With near record temperatures reaching 90 degrees each day of the festival and virtually no rain or clouds (except for the brief evacuation period Saturday) anything wet was a big hit, especially in the midday summer sun. The giant Centeroo water fountain has been a big hit since its debut at the festival. In years past it was the only shower – because of the lack of other facilities – that many festival goers had over the duration of the event. But it also the best way to cool off in the heat, and this year especially it was a top destination for many attendees. The giant water slide, water misters, water stations and copious amounts of free water bottles handed out to music fans packed into the front of the stages were all welcome respites from the heat.
7. Chance The Rapper
In recent years, 23-year-old Chicago rap star Chance The Rapper, has made many surprise appearances at the festival and this year was no exception. Friday night the Chicago rapper popped up as an unannounced surprise during J. Cole’s magnificent main stage set to perform the track “No Problem” from his new album Coloring Book before heading across Centeroo to join R&B master Bryson Tiller in the That Tent. Saturday, after a two hour weather evacuation cut short one of the best sets of the festival by hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the set resumed after the all clear to the delight of their gathered fans. But the biggest surprise of the set was when Chance joined in for an epic rap battle with Macklemore. Later that night he even made it over to Miguel’s late-night set to cover the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” Sunday afternoon the young rapper made an appearance in the Silent Disco to lead the crowd in a live sing-a-long to his newly released album. The word spread quickly and the tent was swarmed on all sides by fans trying to get a glimpse of the performer.
8. Short Lines
Another benefit from the big drop in attendance this year was the virtual absence of lines for anything from the micro brew tent to port-a-potties. Most of the time hungry festival goers could walk right up to a food or drink stand, grab goodies and go. For veteran Bonnaroo attendees this was a welcome relief from years gone by when long lines consumed precious set times.
9. New Amenities In The Campgrounds
The often villainized take over of the festival by Live Nation corporation did offer at least some benefits, most noticeably in the general camping area outside of Centeroo. Veterans of the festival were delighted to find full functioning toilets and showers installed. In what used to be unsanctioned Burning Man like performance art installations popping up across the vast camping area, performing areas have been sanctioned and installed. These include stages where bands like St. Lucia popped in for surprise showcase concerts. There are also EDM dance areas and fully stocked bars and food stands, creating a whole newly infused 24/7 party vibe in the campgrounds.
Attendance figures are always hard to come by at music festivals, but it was obvious that Bonnaroo 2016 would be one of the most lightly attended in recent years. This was most obvious driving in on Thursday, the first day of the music. At least one daydreaming reporter blew past the exit offramp because there were no line-ups of traffic to get into the festival. Whether it was because of increased efficiency in recent years of the car check-in processes, the opening of Wednesday night before the festival for campers to arrive, or the lower attendance, music fans for the most part were delighted with this year’s lack of traffic jams.
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