There’s a real magic about Bonnaroo. You don’t need to be VIP, a super fan, in love, or on drugs to experience it (although copious water intake helps). It dances throughout the crowds, lingers on the stages and hovers over the miles of tents and cars. You can see it on the faces of strangers around you, hear it when an audience erupts into cheer, laughter and song, and feel it when you dance, sway, close your eyes or receive a high-five.
Backstage at the This Tent on Sunday, June 12th, just 30 minutes before taking the stage, Adam Deitch of Lettuce and his fellow funk masters reflected on the magic, vibe and people of Bonnaroo. “They’re the most interactive crowd I think I’ve ever seen,” he told me. “They’re very vocal and just so into it. It’s amazing!” Having performed a sold out show at the majestic Red Rocks Amphitheatre just two days prior, that statement carries some weight. During Lettuce’s Bonnaroo set, there was a man to my left who shared my 15 years of love for the band, and a man to my right who was experiencing them for the first time – – both cheering wildly and bouncing in unison with gigantic smiles on their faces.
Rewind to Friday afternoon, the second day of the festival, but day one for this kid. After taking a lap around Centeroo to remind myself of the lay of the land, I wove into the front of the crowd under the This Tent to catch the end of Rayland Baxter’s set. The audience was calm and happy, though seemingly sleepy from the heat, with room around each person to spare. As that special electric guitar riff came in on “Yellow Eyes,” everyone seemed to gently awaken and float forward, closer together. The combination of my heart’s perspective, tired from a recent breakup but reignited by new love, and Bonnaroo’s omnipresent fairy dust, made Rayland Baxter’s lyrics hit especially deep. “Yesterday, how it seems so far away, and I’ve said all I can say. Now it’s time I get to goin’. Now it’s time I get to find my own way.” It hits me, much sooner this year than last: this is exactly where I need to be. If Bonnaroo was a spiritual guru, it would not only teach its motto, “Radiate Positivity,” but prove itself to be a manifestation of the power of being present.
Friday’s magical moments continued when Daughter emotionally seduced the crowd under the That Tent with “Smother” at exactly 4:20 pm. The band’s combined restraint and vulnerability were so beautiful it hurt. A gentle, light lead into “Youth” had their super fans cheering for their anthem, and the delivery of, “We are the reckless, we are the wild youth,” prompted even those in the back of the tent to throw their hands up.
Later that evening, Leon Bridges made a case for being one of the best entertainers of the festival, getting every single body under the Other Tent moving. Headliner LCD Soundsystem then schooled many of the “press play” acts with one of the most impressive displays of musicianship I think the What Stage has ever hosted. I watched folks over 55 completely lose their shit, the most skeptical-looking of attendees jump higher than an amped up, circus-trained dog, and I, too, couldn’t help but worship through dance.
On Saturday, a barefoot Grace Potter reminded us why she’s a rock ’n roll goddess. As a fan since 2005, I was pleased that she performed a pre-Hollywood Records Grace Potter & the Nocturnals tune (“Nothing But The Water”), as well as Nocturnals’ crowd favorites like “Paris (Ooh La La)” and “The Lion the Beast the Beat,” and of course strong new solo songs like “Look What We’ve Become.” Grace Potter set the bar high for the rest of the day on the What Stage, and Band of Horses was up for the challenge, showcasing a substantial amount of killer new material.
That afternoon, I had the honor of interviewing DJ Logic, who performed two days at the Silent Disco. We chatted about his collaborations with artists like the Roots, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Kyle Hollingsworth of the String Cheese Incident and Ben Harper, among others. Perhaps the coolest part of our conversation, though, was about the vibe of Bonnaroo. DJ Logic is a true veteran of the festival, having performed multiple times, including at the inaugural one back in 2002, so if anyone can identify the magic, it’s him. “They’ve been all good years, all special,” he said. “There’s a lot of love and community here.”
Love and community were ever-present on Saturday night when Bonnaroo calmly evacuated the grounds due to a lightning storm, and Bonnaroovians kindly and generously helped one another out. Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam proved to be warriors of love with a performance of both mind-blowing music and genuine conversation, both of which the crowd accepted with open, loving arms and dancing feet. At a festival that boasts 80,000+ attendees, it feels like only those with magic powers could guide that much energy in one direction.
In retrospect, processing the Orlando tragedy while at Bonnaroo on Sunday was an experience I’ll never forget. We were thousands of strangers on a 700-acre farm discovering, mourning, and healing together. The Wood Brothers’ set that afternoon under the That Tent was especially affecting when they reminded us with “Luckiest Man” that “fighting is foolish” and to “lay down [our] weapons.” Every performance that followed, particularly those from Lord Huron and Dead & Company, felt like a reminder from the guru to be present, to radiate positivity, as well as to be grateful. “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”