By Bill Foster, Rusty Odom and Kent Oglesby
All photos by Bill Foster
The times are a-changin’ at Bonnaroo, but it might not be a bad thing.
In its beginnings, Bonnaroo was the most reserved festival in the land in terms of shoving corporate sponsorship down attendees’ throats. It wasn’t by accident, and it ended up paying off.
Instead of naming stages after huge brands, AC Entertainment and Superfly Productions decided to add a bit of humor to the stage names in lieu of big marketing dollars. This, That, The Other, Who, Which and What are the words at the top of each venue, and if you’re wondering … yes, it is as confusing as it sounds.
The names haven’t changed, though, even with a partnership with Live Nation, the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the festival world. And 2018 seems like it could be remembered as the year when the partnership really found its stride.
The lineups have been tweaked a bit to include younger artists and a bit more pop, but that’s the game nowadays. And, overall, things are getting much more pleasant onsite.
Perhaps the most glaring addition in the festival’s 17-year history is the upgrade to general admission camping. At least 50,000 strangers from all over the world make up this campground area. In the past, it’s had a bit of a “Thunderdome” feel to it. This year (and it’s been trending this way for a few years), GA is a legitimate draw, with little villages called plazas with barns full of stages, retail, pop-up restaurants, medical areas, showers, permanent art installations and tons more. When we first started attending Bonnaroo, the pods didn’t even have showers. Oh, and Cage the Elephant played a surprise show at midnight at Plaza 9, in the nucleus of General Admission. We can’t remember a band of that magnitude playing the other side of the arch.
It’s been a fascinating ride for the team behind the scenes, and AC Entertainment President Ashley Capps spread credit around during a Friday morning press conference. He was especially thankful to the local community in Manchester, Tennessee, and Coffee County as a whole.
“The smartest thing we did was engage them from the very beginning,” said Capps. “That relationship is key, and it’s based on trust. That’s been a key ingredient to the festival.”
Bonnaroo bought a local school new band uniforms after the festival’s Genesis project, and the Bonnaroo Works Fund was born. They’ve continued to donate to local efforts since then, and the partnership between festival and community is still strong all these years later.
After one day, a few things are apparent, and they all are good things. It’s nicer, it’s more comfortable and it’s certainly not Itchycoo Park.
Here’s a look back at what we enjoyed during day one. – Rusty Odom
Philadelphia-to-Nashville guitarist/songwriter Ron Gallo took the stage at That Tent at 5 p.m. He famously filmed a guerilla video on Lower Broad across from Robert’s Western World, but if you were expecting bachelorette-party music, you were in for a surprise because Gallo brought a rock ‘n’ roll explosion to a delirious and large crowd.
Backed by the fuzz bass of Joe Bisirri, the thunderous drumming of Dylan Sevey and a keyboardist added for the show, Gallo’s punky but literate songs shone through. His deadpan delivery brought a welcome burst of humor between songs, but this was about the interplay between the musicians, a cross between the Ben Folds Five (minus the piano) and The Stooges. Gallo’s glitchy, staccato burst of noisy guitar punctuated each song, but it was his lyrics – honest, ironic, clever and observational – that carried the day. Check out his most recent album, “Heavy Meta,” and keep an eye out for upcoming shows; this is someone to track. – Bill Foster
The Brummies from Birmingham, Alabama, have opened for St. Paul and the Broken Bones and NEEDTOBREATHE, and they recently recorded a duet with Kacey Musgraves. Normally a three-piece, the band made its Bonnaroo debut as a six-piece in the Miller Tent, playing material from its newest record, “Eternal Reach.” First and foremost, The Brummies strike one as a BAND. While there are solos, the emphasis always is on creating a cohesive background that allows the band’s lush melodies and tight harmonies to shine. This is a band with room to grow, but it’s one that is certainly on the right path, as well. – BF
One would think that rocking a leather jacket on the uncovered Who Stage in the relentless Manchester sun would be ill-advised; however, Arlie frontman Nathaniel Banks remained unfazed. Arlie came to ‘Roo on a mission: to pour every bit of energy they had into their 45-minute set. It’s this kind of enthusiasm and determination that make these shows on the smaller stages at Bonnaroo so special. Knowing that the Nashville four-piece had a golden opportunity to make a name for themselves, they really went after it. Their stuff was poppy, fast-paced and a lot of fun. There were a lot of effects on the vocals, and the backup ‘oooh oooh ooohs’ really made for some fun festival vibes.
Arlie’s set closed with a hard-hitting, chaotic rendition of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Banks hopped about the stage like a man possessed. He leaped off the front of the stage into the crowd, he hopped back on stage and he rolled around like a lunatic, the crowd loving all of it. Each band member emptied out every bit of energy they had left in the tank. This is a young band with a lot of potential that is definitely worth checking out. Heads up to music festival fans: They’re playing Forecastle in mid-July. – Kent Oglesby
With a heavenly, incredibly smooth voice, Jalen N’Gonda captivated a huge early-evening crowd at the Miller Lite Stage. Walking through the crowd, you could see the delighted looks on people’s faces and overhear chatter of comparisons to Leon Bridges. As the harsh sun was just beginning to set on the farm, N’Gonda’s set provided a much-needed breath of fresh air to prepare the enthusiastic Bonnaroovians to charge hard into a jam-packed Thursday night.
The official title of the stage is the New Music on Tap Lounge: Brewed by Miller Lite, meaning this is supposed to be the place to go for new music discovery. That’s why it was kind of a surprise to hear so many people singing along to a few of N’Gonda’s songs. Crowd participation helped make this show special, as everyone there was willing to clap along or respond to whatever was asked of them. All of that was credit to N’Gonda’s abilities as a performer.
The craziest thing about all of this is that N’Gonda was able to really wow this audience with just his voice, a guitar and an accompanying cajon. There was some sound bleeding over from other stages, but that didn’t matter. At one point, he even put down the guitar and went a cappella. No problem: He still had every soul in the crowd singing along, clapping their hands and fervently chanting for one more song at the end of it. He obliged with an encore, and it was a celebration. Then, to show their appreciation, some presumably brand-new fans mobbed him as he exited backstage. What a way to kick things off at the Lounge. – KO
It isn’t often that you see someone and know – and I mean KNOW – that one will be seeing that person in front of 10,000 folks in the near future. That certainly was the case for Topaz Jones, and if you don’t want to take our word for it, ask any of the 500 people crammed into the Miller Tent at midnight, screaming every word right back at the young Brooklyn rapper.
The son of an activist mom and a funk-guitarist father, Jones alternated between spitfire rap and slower funk that screamed for the addition of a live band. As it was, Jones prowled the stage like a panther, pointing to the crowd and spitting out rhymes that were in turns introspective, honest, political and funny as hell. Think pre-Kardashian Kanye with a different flow. A star is born. – BF
Three Star Revival
We’ve gotta show some love to the hometown boys because it is well deserved. Knoxville’s Three Star Revival may have sounded as good as they ever have late Thursday night (technically early Friday morning, if you want to be that guy about it) in the barn at The Ville at Pod 7 in GA camping. Their sound really filled up the room that was illuminated by a disco ball. The scene was wild. It was a great way to cap off a Thursday night at Bonnaroo and a perfect way to keep the party going after Cage the Elephant put on a special secret show just two pods over.
If the party is going late into the night and the situation requires someone with a lot of energy who can lead both the band and the crowd, there is no one better than Three Star frontman Ben Gaines. Tyler Reddick’s bass grooves were hitting super hard, and Bo Kitzman was keeping it tight on drums. Gregory Walton was really putting on a show with his keys solos, and he was playing with his keyboard tilted up to where everyone in the crowd could see his fast fingers work. It was a very nice touch. Last but most certainly not least, Cameron Moore is a special lead guitarist who puts on mind-blowing moments one after the other every time he performs. These guys really have something cooking.
Starting a set at 2 a.m., a band really needs to be crushing it to amass and then hold a crowd. TSR did not disappoint in the least in either regard. It seemed as though everyone who walked within earshot was drawn to the barn. They really represented well the state flag for which their band is named. – KO