Words by Mark Ortega | Photos by Alexandra Cole
Bonnaroo in 2016 was the first year to see LiveNation’s full involvement, which meant better facilities (flushable toilets on site along with improved water-refill stations), but also a more expensive ticket than in year’s past. Attendance was reportedly down and it was quite noticeable, particularly during LCD Soundsystem’s Friday headlining set, which was a sparse crowd.
There was a mild lightning storm scare that caused a delay Saturday, forcing Pearl Jam to take the stage an hour-and-a-half later than anticipated. Attendees were sent back to their cars until further instruction, and when the storm passed, people weren’t checked as they came back through the festival gates. This made the guy who brought a backpack full of Bud Lites back into the festival the true winner of Bonnaroo 2016. Here’s our rundown of the other top winners and losers at The Farm this year.
Chance the Rapper
Who would have thought that Bonnaroo’s 2016 MVP would be someone who wasn’t even officially on the bill this year? The burgeoning rapper made appearances at a number of sets – from J. Cole to Macklemore to Miguel to Bryson Tiller. He later led an impromptu listening session of his new album Color Book in the festival’s Silent Disco. Chance is just the latest in a line of high-profile musicians who have embraced the festival for its unique features – most notably the “radiate positivity” mantra that has become a trademark of The Farm.
Those who attended the run of M83 > LCD Soundsystem > Tame Impala on Friday night
Friday night at Bonnaroo easily jumped out to me as the best stretch of any single night at any festival I attended this year. M83 went on at 9:45 PM, LCD Soundsystem took the main stage at 11 PM and Tame Impala went on at 1 AM on the second-biggest stage. Each of these three sets sit among the best performances of the weekend, and I can only imagine how these must have been under the spell of some Bonnaroo psychedelics. Though Tame Impala didn’t play close to the two-hour set they were listed to perform, they delivered one of the grooviest sets of the festival. M83’s light show was an incredible pairing with their multi-layered synthscapes. LCD Soundsystem had one of the highest-energy sets of all four days.
Synthpoppers CHVRCHES have only two studio albums to their name but they have quite a bit of great material to pick and choose from when playing a festival set. It was awesome to see them slip in the song “High Enough to Carry You Over,” one of only a few songs that features Martin Doherty on the lead vocals (and also a song that I could’ve totally seen 90’s Lenny Kravitz singing). The Bonnaroo app promised fans a special surprise during their set and those that turned up got to see Paramore’s Hayley Williams join them on “Bury It.” A version of the song featuring Williams is now available as a single and it sounded fantastic live. CHVRCHES singer Lauren Mayberry has really grown as a performer since their first festival run, her stage presence immensely improved.
This might be the last year where Leon Bridges isn’t on a festival main stage. I was stoked to see him perform on one at Sasquatch a few weeks earlier, but weather caused his set to be canceled, though he decided to play on an acoustic guitar in the middle of the field. At Bonnaroo, Bridges proved that Motown is far from dead as he had the entire tent moving as the sun began to set on the festival’s hottest day. He even threw in a Leon Bridges version of Ginuwine’s “Pony” that went over extremely well.
Despite a lightning scare delaying their set, Pearl Jam delivered the best of the headline shows at Bonnaroo, traversing their extremely deep catalog of tunes over the course of two hours. The best cover of the whole weekend came in the form of PJ doing Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Eddie Vedder was on fire, to the point that even his political talk couldn’t slow down the fast-paced tempo of their set. They played more than a half-dozen songs from their benchmark record Ten, and everyone in the crowd seemed to know every word. Closing out with “Rockin’ in the Free World” was a great way to end a long Saturday.
The SuperJam itself wasn’t that disappointing. When I found out Kamasi Washington was going to lead it, with Vulfpeck and GriZ also taking part, I was immensely excited. This promised to be the funkiest SuperJam in recent memory. It lived up to that expectation in part. Allen Stone singing B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” was easily the top moment, but it was pretty closely followed by the set’s lowest moment – Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins singing a very lackadaisical version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Rumors floated all throughout the day that Justin Timberlake was going to make an appearance, or that even Jack White would show up. Neither did, and though the set featured some awesome contributions from Miguel (doing J.T’s “Sexyback”), Tiffany Lamson of GIVERS, and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child fame, it lacked the superstar punch that people come to expect from a Bonnaroo SuperJam.
Brian Anthony Wiley and Trevor Franklin Watson III were caught trying to sell drugs at Bonnaroo. This kind of thing happens regularly with over 100 arrests being made for drugs annually at the festival. But the amount of drugs these guys had in their possession is bamboozling. Wiley was in possession of 202 jars of THC oil (weighing about 15 mL), two bags of mushrooms (weighing ~7 grams each), three bags with ~60 panes of blotter acid, 241 bags of about 120.5 grams of what appears to be ketamine, 22 backs weighing ~144.5 grams of what appears to be cocaine, six Xanax bars, and 220 bags weighing ~1,210 grams of what appears to be marijuana. Watson was found to be in possession of slightly smaller amounts of THC oil, marijuana, cocaine, MDMA, and ketamine. Jesus. Christ.
Grateful Dead fans who overdosed themselves
I’m not much of a jam band fan but had an excellent time watching Dead & Co. tear up the main stage for three-plus hours to close out the festival. There were a ton of Deadheads, and I just ended up feeling bad for a dozen or so that seemed to go overboard with the hallucinogens for the show. One guy I saw strip off most of his clothes and bump into people before being tackled by security as he was about to whip out his junk. He was far from the only one a little too far gone but he stood out the most. I can only imagine what waking up Monday morning felt like for those poor souls.
Fans who lost their spots waiting in line for Pearl Jam when storm warning hit
I met more than a few people who were bummed they had waited several hours in a pit line for Pearl Jam’s headline performance on Saturday, only to be sent back to their cars when a lightning warning came. They ultimately lost out on their spots (though some were smart enough to bring beer back through the line since security wasn’t checking people as they re-entered the festival). Their loss was ultimately my gain as I found myself in the pit for PJ with a very good spot, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for those who spent a sizable amount of their day trying to position themselves for the show.
People who spent money on showers
I consider myself a relatively clean person but Bonnaroo is the one festival the past few years I haven’t taken a single traditional shower. I’m not gonna shell out eight to ten dollars for some cold water to wash over me. I made do with these wipes you can find in the incontinence section of any drug or grocery store. I couldn’t fathom dropping $40 on showers over the course of a weekend, especially when most people seem to embrace Bonnaroo as the smelly and weird festival that it is.
Bonnaroo will go down as my favorite festival among those I’ve attended in the first half of 2016 and it’ll be hard to top. The vibe of the festival can’t be matched elsewhere and though the lineup dipped from what it was in 2015, I discovered so many worthwhile elements of the festival that I might not have if I was running from set to set the entire time. I’ll be back next year without question.
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