Where is it possible to see country-music mainstay Loretta Lynn, lo-fi rockers The Black Keys, rock legend Neil Young, and rapper Eminem all in one evening? Then to continue that evening -- morning at this point -- with jam band The String Cheese Incident and the Santa Cruz electronic group STS9? And then to do it all over again the next three days?
Nowhere on planet earth, that's for sure.
That is, unless you count the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival as rooted in terra firma -- which, as anyone who has ever attended could tell you -- it truly isn't.
The festival just celebrated its tenth anniversary this past weekend, June 9-12, 2011 and it did so with a bang.
Photo: C. Taylor Crothers. C. 2011, Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival
For those unfamiliar, Bonnaroo is an annual, four-day long music and arts festival held every June on a 700-acre site in Manchester, Tennessee. There are five main performance venues, a slew of smaller stages, and countless local artists and vendors selling the most eclectic goods under the (absolutely unrelenting) Tennessee sun. In a time when people say that all the big festivals are homogenizing their lineups, this year's Bonnaroo lineup was remarkably diverse, featuring big names from every genre. (Organizers created a "Bonnaroo Mindreader" featuring sample tunes by most of the bands in the schedule. Check it out to get a feel for the variety of music on offer.)
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy at Bonnaroo. Photo: Adam Susaneck
This diversity of acts is one of the aspects of Bonnaroo that make it so unique compared with other similar music festivals (an April NPR Music post noted that Bonnaroo is one of the most "inclusive" festivals). What truly separates Bonnaroo from the rest, however, is the bubble from reality that the festival engenders. Bonnaroo has its own culture, one where sleep and comfort and basic hygiene become secondary and everybody becomes cheerily extroverted due to the shared experience of being plastered with dirt, soaked with sweat, and inundated with sound (be it the sound of the eclectic collection of artists, the varied sounds of anguish and ecstasy emanating from the camp grounds, or the traditional Bonnaroo greeting and cheer: "Bonna-ROOOO!").
This culture is a function of both the length of the festival -- the grounds opened on the night of Wednesday, the 8th, and the last people were leaving on the morning of Monday, the 13th -- and that nearly all of Bonnaroo's 80,000 patrons (and 5,000 staff members) either camp or RV. As well, despite the fact that the festival is geographically in the south, the sheer diversity of flags flying over people's campsites -- being used as landmarks for people to find their way back -- can attest to the international audience the festival attracts. Near me: United Arab Emirates, Australia, and Norway. (I'm proud to say that my Californian flag attracted a healthy number of "Go Bears" and even prompted a conversation with a passerby over the merits of the hotlink vs. the traditional frankfurter at Top Dog .)
Musical highlights of the festival included Canadian indie-rockers Arcade Fire, playing a set well-balanced across all of their albums. The Kentucky group My Morning Jacket played an epic set at dusk, blasting their unique mixture of psychedelic rock and country music from Bonnaroo's main stage, the "What Stage." Also notable was singer Florence + the Machine's proud recognition as she removed her high heels that, "people always think from my voice that I'm six-feet tall; well, this is my real height!" Santa Cruz electronic group STS9 also played an incredible set, starting at 2:30am, only to be cut short by the dawn.
You can hear a sampling of Bonnaroo's musical offerings with the live radio webstream provided on the festival's website. As well, be sure to keep an eye out for Ben & Jerry's new Bonnaroo themed ice cream the next time you're at the supermarket!
Bonnaroo is a pilgrimage of sorts, one which I whole-heartedly endorse. Bay Area residents would have felt right at home in Centeroo what with the stress on being environmentally friendly, the incredible food (organic, vegetarian, vegan, etc.) and drink (microbrewed, of course), and the unique melting pot of people, which closely mirrored what I've noticed at least in Berkeley (ie, you had your hippies hanging out listening to music with college jocks, your hipsters mingling in the crowd with the -- decidedly older -- Neil Young and Robert Plant fans.)
Pre-sale tickets for Bonnaroo 2012 just went on sale Friday, June 17.