Cage The Elephant (Photo by FilmMagic)
In creole, the word “Bonnaroo” roughly translates to “best on the street” or “for a good time.” New Orleans legend Dr. John used the term as the tile of his 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo—a funk classic produced by Allen Toussaint and featuring Big Easy house band The Meters—which provided this festival with its now iconic name. And, for over 15 years, that “good time” mentality has remained Bonnaroo’s guiding principle.
While Bonnaroo’s offstage offerings have grown over the years, and its stylistic focus has shifted and widened, the festival’s singular vibe remains its best booking—and, simply put, there is no better way to have a big, broad, coming-of-age, Woodstock camping experience than a long weekend on The Farm. That’s never more apparent than on “Bonnaroo Thursday,” a day reserved every year for reuniting with old friends and discovering new sounds. With Bonnaroo’s What and Which Stages dark until Friday afternoon, there is a decentralized focus that allows the festival’s other offerings, and overall collective energy, to shine.
This year, The Farm’s campground Pods have been retooled into new Plazas—festivals within a festival that capture the homegrown, communal excitement of a celebrated Burning Man camp. With these new Plazas comes a reinvigorated campground experience that officially extends Bonnaroo’s activities into a truly 24-hour party. So before Nashville’s Ernest K kicked off the 17th annual Bonnaroo with a hot hip-hop set in That Tent at 3:15pm—another Bonnaroo tradition is showcasing Tennessee talent on opening day—fans were already able attend a grilling and cocktail master class by world-class chef Tim Love, engage in a face painting and glitter gathering or take part in a “Saturday Morning” Cartoons event curated by Cage The Elephant frontman Matt Shultz as part of Happy Roo Day!
House of Yes, a Brooklyn, N.Y. art space and venue that has always felt like a late-night festival stage that somehow detached from its field and floated into an urban warehouse, has also taken over Plaza 3 and, last night, fans were treated to an evening of inspired, theatrical performances alongside fellow Kings County multi-media collective Little Cinema. (Their screening of “Dark Side of the Oz” had a cosmic kinship with The Flaming Lips’ signature take on Dark Side of the Moon on the Which Stage a number of years ago.) The SuperJam concept has become more of a open invitational, too, with Fan SuperJam Camp preparations already under way while Big Red, the spirited, high-rolling clown-car mascot of Plaza 2, served as master of ceremonies for a number of pop-up parades.
For those who haven’t quite given into their Bonnaroo ADD yet, there were some decidedly more relaxing options as well. In the Grove, campers spread out in a forest of colorful hammocks and museum-quality art; nearby in The Ville, tourists were able to sample a bit of authentic Music City flavor, including Jack White’s famed Third Man Records and some local acts; in Plaza 3, a super-sized Shakedown Street kept the festival scene’s original tie-dye ethos alive with vendors that mixed Grateful Dead family merch with some 21st-century updates like fan-produced Portugal. The Man pins. Even in Centeroo proper, a new lighting design illuminated Great Stage Park’s longstanding trees and forestry—the true witnesses to Bonnaroo’s long, strange trip—like featured attractions.
Speaking of new twists, yesterday Bonnaroo’s comedic offerings officially stepped out of the once-enclosed Comedy Theatre and into the ether, and a variety of comedy sets will take place in unconventional spaces around this 800-acre property throughout the weekend. Sheng Wang, Martin Urbano, Taylor Tomlinson and Drennon Davis have all already performed in the Plaza 7, while Wang, Tomlinson, Sasheer Zamata, Shane Torres, Jon Gabrus, Shane Torres and Kyle Ayers held court in the Christmas Barn. (Then, again what’s funnier than Christmas in June.)
Later this weekend, Reggie Watts and Adam Devine will become the first comedians to play the already humorously titled This and That Tents. Watts’ booking is particular notable: 2017 marks the 15th year since his first Bonnaroo appearance, and he remains one of the only entertainers to appear at the festival as both a comedian and musician—blurring the lines between those mediums every step of the way.
Lissie (Photo by John Patrick Gatta)
Of course, Bonnaroo’s ever eclectic musical offerings are still core to the entire experience and, like every Thursday since almost the first Bonnaroo, yesterday’s schedule highlighted a new generation of future festival stars. Nashville rockers Blank Range, Philadelphia art-punk guitarist and former Toy Soldiers member Ron Gallo, LA electro indie-pop group FRENSHIP and Illinois-raised, Iowa-based indie-folk musician Lissie all oozed with the same “on the verge” sense of excitement that helped Ray LaMontagne, MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Alabama Shakes, alt-J and Courtney Barnett ascend to future headlining status during their Thursday spots in previous years. (Lissie is actually the rare Thursday performer to have played Bonnaroo before; way back in 2010, she played a tiny but packed lounge set and this year she made the move to That Tent.) Everyone celebrated in their own way. Blank Range covered The Band’s “Ophelia” and worked a nod to The Farm into their lyrics; Ron Gallo referenced the fest’s free-spirited vibe repeatedly and led a meditative group chant; Lissie took the stage barefoot and led her tight band through an electric set; and FRENSHIP tested out new tunes like “Remind You” and “Love Somebody.”
Later in the day, soul revivalists The Spencer Lee Band and Durand Jones & The Indications held back-to-back Apollo-style revues in That Tent. The Spencer Lee Band had some technical difficulties early on but quickly rebounded with a high-energy, horn-heavy spot that bled into a beautiful “magic hour” Southeast sunset. Emerging indie-act Arlie, gospel group Victory and Glassnote singer-songwriter Jade Bird also won over new fans on the intimate Who Stage.
Last year, Bonnaroo unveiled a brand-new electronic music zone dubbed The Other and, if Thursday’s sprawling, rage-stick clad crowd was any indication, the space—and its beach-and-volleyball-themed neighbor The Oasis—will be a mainstay for years to come. New Jersey-bred producer Space Jesus, glitchy New Zealand bass scientist Opiuo and self-described Chicago beat-bumper Manic Focus were among the open-aired space’s highlights. Electronic sounds could be heard elsewhere too, whether it was Jim Tamborello of The Postal Service holding court in Plaza 7 or the fire-breathing, pre-dawn Kalliope stage.
Spafford (Photo by John Patrick Gatta)
Bonnaroo’s roots stretch back to acts like the Grateful Dead, Phish and Widespread Panic and, every spring, the festival still nods to that community by awarding a few improv-leaning bands prime slots. This year, Arizona outfit Spafford and Baltimore, Md. quartet Pigeons Playing Ping Pong held down the emerging jamband quadrant of the weekend’s diverse lineup, and both acts understood the weight of their performances. Spafford held court in This Tent, and guitarist Brian Moss wistfully opened their set by saying, “Bonnaroo! I never thought I’d say that. Thank you for being here,” before busting into the carnival-friendly “Electric Taco Stand.” Later, after showcasing their classic, jamband-revivalist style, they covered Tears For Fears’ “Mad World,” with bassist Jordan Fairless tackling lead vocals. (Oddly enough, Tears For Fears played the same song on the same stage in 2015).
Pigeons’ late-night slot opened with an extended “Porcupine” and “Somethin’ For Ya” and a creative “Julia” that included a riff on The Little Mermaid tune “Under the Sea.” The Revivalists horn section of Rob Ingraham and Michael Girardot also emerged for the weekend’s first big sit in, accenting PPPP on “The Liquid” and a version of “Whoopie” that moved into Prince’s “1999” (marking what would have been The Purple One’s 60th birthday), “F.U.” and “Doc.” Though last night marked Pigeons’ first Bonnaroo performance, the band’s history with the festival is much more involved. Not only did lead guitarist Jeremy Schon attend as a fan in 2007, but that weekend was also his first-ever festival.
However, no performance encapsulated Bonnaroo’s enduring spirit more than Cage The Elephant’s surprise midnight appearance in the Plaza 9 barn. Shultz has taken in Bonnaroo on both sides of the rail, and Cage’s anthemic, freeform shows have always had the lightning-in-a-bottle excitement of a great festival set. His Plaza—affectionately dubbed Baby Roo—has been already among the weekend’s most buzzed about attractions. Cage took the stage to a largely shocked audience and jumped into “Crybaby.” Then, they proceeded to run through tracks like “In One Ear,” “Spiderhead” and “Cold Cold Cold,” turning the surprise show into Thursday’s unofficial headlining set. “This reminds me of the shows we used to play, the old house parties,” Shultz—who was dressed to the nines in a white button-up and black skinny tie—told the revved-up audience. In almost any other setting, Cage would be a top-tier offering, but for those lucky enough to see their stealth set, it was just another unexpected weekend bonus. “I just wanna take a moment to thank Bonnaroo for letting me have a ‘happy Roo day,’” Shultz said, “I’m still trying to figure out how they let me throw a party in the campground and then play it.”