I experienced my first Bonnaroo over the weekend and, against overwhelming odds, remembered a few things.
The four-day festival in Tennessee featured an incredible array of musical choices — including Americana, bluegrass and classic country — perfect weather and 80,000 of the most interesting fans I’ve ever met. At one point, I hung out with a giant turkey who happened to be a big fan of club music. His feeble bird brain failed to grasp the delicious irony.
Paul McCartney, Jack Johnson and Tom Petty headlined the massive event — which is spread over 600-plus acres and eight stages — but here’s a list of some of my favorite partial memories of the festival which took place Thursday through Sunday (June 13-16):
The Lumineers (Saturday)
What started as a sizeable crowd quickly became enormous when the Lumineers arrived just after sundown. Singer Wesley Shultz jumped into the crowd for a few heartfelt songs about community and then led a massive sing-along of “Stubborn Love.” Sneaking onto a freezer behind a beer tent, I think I had the best view at the ‘Roo.
I’ve been a Jonny Fritz fan for a while, but this performance was really special. His band was cooking and included Josh Hedley on fiddle, Spencer Cullum Jr. on steel and Jeremy Fetzer on guitar. Cullum used a talk box (a la Peter Frampton) on his steel, and Fritz showed up in a goofy neck brace. Everyone really dug the speedy “Ain’t It Your Birthday.”
This was my first time seeing the virtuosic folk band from Oregon. Their style varied widely from bluegrass to klezmer, and I can’t help but love Jenny Conlee’s accordion. Plus, I discovered a new instrument — the Stroh violin. It’s a cross between a violin and a trumpet, apparently.
Dwight Yoakam (Saturday)
I overheard some skeptical fans walking toward Yoakam’s set on Saturday, but I’ll bet they came away believers after his eclectic performance. The ‘Roovians loved Yoakam’s signature dance moves and ate up his quirky way of pronouncing “your” during the chorus of “Little Ways.”
Sam Bush and Del McCoury (Sunday)
As close friends with a mutual admiration, it’s simply a joy to watch Sam Bush and Del McCoury collaborate. Playing alone and frequently trading off instruments, the duo told jokes, smiled uncontrollably and burned through some of the hottest bluegrass and high harmonies anywhere. Recognizing that they both tend to bend the “rules” of the genre, they dedicated “‘Cept Old Bill” to the late Bill Monroe.
Rising Americana star John Fullbright won the (fake) award for Most Oklahomans in Your Audience when he mentioned his home state and their need of help after the May tornadoes. He sang a set heavy with spiritual imagery and a bit of social commentary, plus offered a new love song called “When You’re Here” and a soul screamer called “Poster Child.”
Kacey Musgraves (Sunday)
Many fans had clearly heard Musgraves’ Top 10 single “Merry Go ‘Round” and rolled out of their tents for her opening set on the festival’s second-biggest stage Sunday morning. Her breezy voice was a perfect match for the sunshine. After singing her free-spirited “Follow Your Arrow” she asked, “Can you get behind that Bonnaroo?” Yup.
Former SteelDrivers frontman Chris Stapleton is embarking on a solo career, which I think is excellent news. His first single “What Are You Listening To?” shows off his powerhouse voice, although not quite as much as the bluesy “Sometimes I Cry.” My personal favorite, the sexy “Probably Leave,” turned a scorching afternoon stage into a cool basement bar for a few minutes.
Jason Isbell (Friday)
With the release of his Southeastern album earlier in the week, Isbell played a mixed set of new tunes and old and seemed delighted that many fans already knew the new material. “Cover Me Up” and “Live Oak” were standouts, while older tunes like “Outfit” and “Alabama Pines” added a bit of regional sensibility to the party.
Rock ‘n’ roll revivalist J.D. McPherson helped kick off the festival on Thursday evening, adding more evidence to my hypothesis that it is physically impossible to see him play and not start dancing.
Paul McCartney played for three straight hours, taking two separate encores.
Of Monsters and Men drew a large crowd to hear their Icelandic folk-pop hit, “Little Talks.”
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band performed twice — once on their own and once as part of a super-jam with Jim James, John Oates and others.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros started performing at the precise moment that the hot and sunny weather suddenly turned windy and dark on Sunday — spooky. After the set, Sharpe led a parade of fans through the festival grounds.