FESTIVAL REVIEW: Highlights from Bonnaroo 2017

photo by Jorgenson Photography via Bonnaroo Facebook

Four years in the Tennessee heat. Bonnaroo 2017 was my fourth year heading to “The Farm” and despite grumbles over Live Nation buying the fest, Bonnaroo remained true to its core: filthy, socially conscious, and driven by the music.

After flying into Austin, we traveled up to Dallas to pick up the rest of our gang and then made our way to the rolling hills of Tennessee. Every year, we camp with the Reddaroo Groop: like-minded music nerds who know how to use the internet. Our Reddit friends organize elaborate drinking games, a craft beer exchange, and can be found dancing wildly each year to the left-hand side of the main stage.

Four days of non-stop music (the Farm doesn’t shut down at night) may seem intimidating, but Bonnaroo regulars know that it’s all about pacing yourself; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Naps throughout the day are required if one is planning on dancing back at The Grind in Pod 7 til 6am. Only a novice drinks craft beer all day (coconut water is a must-have). And if you’re not digging the show you’re at? Get up and find another. The lineup this year was dense, with impressive headliners like U2, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Weeknd; the undercards were equally stacked, boasting indie favorites like Cold War Kids and Glass Animals. We had to edit this list several times for length, a sure sign of a successful Roo.

July Talk dished out the sexual tension.

Thursday at Bonnaroo is usually the day to do a quick tour of the grounds, take inventory of the fried food vendors, and make friends with your camping neighbors (when Sunday comes, you may be out of beer, after all). However, our Canadian campmates talked us into trekking out early to see Toronto favorite July Talk. Singer Leah Fay’s borderline saccharine voice battles with guitarist and co-vocalist Peter Dreimanis’s guttural growl; the pair denies any private romance “for personal reasons” but the often physical, “Push + Pull” nature of their onstage interactions make it difficult to think of anything else.

The Strumbellas lifted spirits.

Canada hit it out of the ballpark this year, introducing the Bonnaroo crowd to The Strumbellas on Friday. The band’s 2016 release Hope is full of… well, hope. Despite the Tennessee heat, the audience danced and sang along as though they really needed those lyrics to feel true, the lines “And I don’t want a never ending life / I just want to be alive while I’m here” hitting close to home. The Strumbellas have been vocal about their positive vibes, telling AXS “We get a lot of really awesome messages from people, saying how the lyrics have helped them through hard times, like depression, or anxiety, or PTSD.” With a foot-stomping Americana sound to back it up, it’s no wonder they’re picking up fans south of the border.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kx0nn-RJDv0

In the shade with Michael Kiwanuka

The near-sunset set is always a coveted slot for performers, their audience sitting placid after a day of running around in the heat. After hitting up Tegan And Sara on Saturday, we moved over to the This Tent to watch Michael Kiwanuka perform. Songs like “Black Man In A White World” reflect Kiwanuka’s diverse background, having been raised by Ugandan parents in North London. Kiwanuka doesn’t shy away from the controversial, explaining in a recent interview with The Telegraph that “A lot of people who are way more famous than I am say they don’t feel obligated to speak out on important issues, but I do. One of the cool things about Muhammad Ali or David Bowie is that they always stood for stuff; it wasn’t uncool to believe in something and follow it through.

Dancing is required for Cage The Elephant.

Matt Schultz, the lead singer of Cage The Elephant, danced shirtless on stage, channeling a young Iggy Pop with his spastic, sexual movements. The crowd sang favorites like “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked,” “Cigarette Daydreams,” and “Come A Little Closer” word-for-word, their energy matching Shultz’s. Our group was so taken with their performance it was difficult to leave early for the Chili Peppers; we ended up splitting up (I remained bouncing up and down until my group dragged me away).

The Soul Shakedown makes Bonnaroo unique.

What sets Bonnaroo apart from a festival like Coachella? Many things, but the yearly SuperJam is definitely a gem unique to the fest. Each year, the SuperJam is curated by a specific artist or band. 2017’s SuperJam was presented by the Preservation Jazz Hall Band and featured performances from Chance The Rapper, Margo Price, Tank And The Bangas and more. “Hey Ya,” “Waterfalls,” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” were just some of the highlights from the horn-infused set.

Umphrey’s McGee Tears It Up (TWICE).

Shpongle was the reason my brother decided to go to Bonnaroo this year. I myself listened to Shpongle for hours in preparation for their late-night Saturday set. Due to visa issues, they couldn’t make it. Devastation. “After 18-plus years of performing more than 100 concerts annually, releasing nine studio albums and selling more than 4.2 million tracks online, Umphrey’s McGee might be forgiven if they chose to rest on their laurels.” Thus read Bonnaroo’s description of the band that would replace them: Umphrey’s McGee. I was not familiar (neither was my brother). Umphrey’s late night jam set made us forget our Shpongle woes (if only for a few brief hours) as we danced with wild abandon next to Bonnaroo’s hippie tribe.

Margo Price brings outlaw country flair.

On certain Sundays, the Reddaroo crowd doesn’t go into the festival grounds til dusk. This year, however, I had made a date with Margo Price. Price was cool as a cucumber, despite the grueling sun. She sprinkled tales of time spent in jail and her struggles as a musician in a male-dominated industry throughout her set. “Tennessee Song,” “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” and “Four Years of Chances” got the crowd on their feet and dancing. My attention was only diverted by a man struggling to dance with his scarf despite dropping it every few minutes.

Bonnaroo 2017 was chock full of outlandish characters, outstanding performances, and motivating messages. As I roamed the festival grounds, I couldn’t help but be moved by sentiments of love and community. “Some people may think

[Martin Luther King Jr.’s] dream is dead, but not at Bonnaroo tonight. Maybe the dream is just telling us to wake up,” Bono said passionately during Friday’s performance. As the Weeknd closed down the festival Sunday night, I looked around at the large crowd, singing at full voice into the darkness, and thought: We’re awake.