In 2016, Bonnaroo found itself with a massive disaster on its hands. LCD Soundsystem, Pearl Jam and Dead and Company sounded like a really cool lineup to me, a then 33-year-old white guy, but as I came to discover at the same time as the festival, it didn’t sound cool to literally any other demographic. Around 40,000 people showed up to the festival accustomed to hosting around 80,000.
Last year, they began a reinvention of sorts. The Weeknd closed the weekend; the first real Top 40 pop act to do such a thing. And this year, the festival continued moving in that direction. But this year, the festival seemingly scrapped a lot of the budget it would have typically used in the middle of the poster for experiences while keeping just enough acts that 35-year-old white guys like on the bill so they could sell $7 beers.
Here’s a thing I grasped last week: people between 18-25 don’t care about the music. They care about the experience. Or more specifically, sharing the experience. They care about having cool stuff to post on Instagram or Snapchat. And there’s not one thing in the world wrong with it, despite what old 35-year-old curmudgeons say. That’s the world they’ve known their entire lives, and that’s fun. But how do you combat that when you’re bleeding money and folks are actually asking if your festival can survive?
You pour money into the campgrounds, which is where young people have their experiences at Bonnaroo. It’s the largest camping music festival in America – maybe the world. In its entire 17 years – before the need to share was so deeply ingrained into our society – there have always been folks that never leave that campground. They just want to sit out there and do drugs and hang out with their friends. And the festival figured out how to solve the problem: go to them.
There are certainly still folks like myself that go to see live music. And the festival found a way to balance that: quality over quantity.
Or then, maybe they saved so much money by booking Muse they just blew it on experimentation. It seemed to work on the bottom line.
Here are the top ten things I saw at Bonnaroo 2018.
10. Muse – Muse is fine. Muse can write incredibly memorable guitar riffs, but they have no memorable songs. Muse has like six songs that you once heard in a video game or on the “Queen + Radiohead” Pandora station that you created.
But you do remember those guitar riffs. And you kinda hum your way through the rest of it and it’s a fun time. It’s a better time than you think it’s going to be because you had extremely low expectations. Like imagine if a guy that wanted to be Bono that kind of sounds like Thom Yorke was fronting a band that wanted to be Queen. That’s Muse.
9. Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene is lesser Arcade Fire. But I’ve always dug them and I’ve never seen them and this was a lot of fun. I probably should have placed Mavis Staples right here, but I saw her do one of the most amazing sets I ever saw at Hangout several years back and this one was on the worst stage in all of music – the Which Stage – and it was hot. So Broken Social Scene gets the square.
8. St. Paul and the Broken Bones – Or maybe it’s here where Mavis belongs; I only actually saw about 20 minutes of this set, but in that 20 minutes, Paul Janeway sprawled a carpet over the top of the audience and took a literal “Magic Carpet Ride” out to the soundboard, all the while singing “Broken Bones and Pocket Change” – then, he crowd surfed his way back to the stage – and never stopped singing. And it’s like, sure, I’ve see a lot of St. Paul and the Broken Bones shows before. But I’ve absolutely never seen that.
7. Dua Lipa – There was a very specific moment in this performance that I felt the course of this festival change from deep within my bones.
Dua Lipa performed her track “Scared to Be Lonely,” a track that she did the hook on for Martin Garrix. The way the song is structured is not unlike a lot of EDM these days, certainly Martin Garrix’s other work – the vocals almost serve as a bridge to the “hook” which is instrumental. And when her “bridge” dropped into his “hook,” in an instant, Bonnaroo felt like Coachella. And that’s where it’s going.
Bonnaroo and Coachella no longer have to be two completely different experiences because kids are separated from kids on the other side of the country the way there were 15 years ago. They are all on the internet and they all enjoy the same things and the same experiences.
The Dua Lipa performance – for me – was the moment that long, slow transition to Coachella became crystal clear. The festival built on wooks and Spreadnecks being able to come together over a shared love of Panic has crossed over into a pop festival that doesn’t have a curfew.
6. Sturgill Simpson – The best jam band at the festival built on jam bands was Sturgill Simpson. The last time I saw Sturgill tour, it was with a much larger band; I think there was a full horn section. This time out, it was a four piece. It really allowed Sturgill a chance to remind everyone that he absolutely wails on guitar. I think I’d forgotten that. And it was further evidence that Sturgill isn’t what a lot of the people that think they are his biggest fans want him to be and that he absolutely doesn’t care that he isn’t.
There have been times that it seemed like schtick; busking on Broadway and streaming it on Facebook Live, for instance. But at the core of what Sturgill has always done is that he’s done it the way he wants to do it and he’s an incredibly gifted musician. That shone through much brighter with a smaller band in front of a massive audience.
5. Chic – Well, Chic with Nile Rodgers or whatever they’re calling it now. The entire band did a good half hour in the middle of the set of songs that Nile Rodgers wrote for other bands, including “Get Lucky,” “Like a Virgin” and “We Are Family.”
4. Grand Ole Opry – The Grand Ole Opry has been on the air for 92 years. My grandparents loved it – it was probably the only music they really listened to then. So it was cool to be a part of this first union of the thing that made them love music and one of the things that I’ve loved most about music for the past decade. It was also a brilliant idea; what usually serves as commercial time for announcer Bill Cody, instead served as an advertisement for the storied institution. It was a way to show a young audience that this really cool thing still exists. And bringing people like Bobby Bare and Del McCoury to the same stage as Nikki Lane and Joshua Hedley furthered that mission.
3. Eminem – This performance has been grossly overshadowed by what people were calling “gunshot sounds” that were heard during the performance. Eminem’s publicist released a statement saying that the sounds were actually “pyrotechnic concussion” sounds. And I totally buy that. The only thing about the sound that was alarming was its volume. It was five times louder than the fireworks were that night. No gunshot is that loud. It could (and probably should) have been left out because that reaction should have been expected. But a much bigger deal is being made of it than should be.
What we should be focusing on in this performance is the way that a specifically 1999 performer managed to gracefully and artfully mature without pretending that the version of himself that made him a household name never existed.
He performed his latest single, “Nowhere Fast,” which has recently been updated to include lyrics about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It waxes poetic on – get this – gun control. Yeah, the guy that wrote “Kill You” no longer likes violence or wants to stick nine inch nails through each one of his eyelids. It also includes these lyrics:
But I’m devising this rhyme, cause I’m awake in your mourning;
That’s why I rise and I shine, like a new day has dawned on me;
Gusto guts bravado, nuts and plus I kick up dust and cuss a lot;
I must’ve got you in somewhat of a debacle;
Plus some stuff that’s awful;
Really don’t mean nothing, although;
There’s a lot of shit I said in jest that’s tough to swallow;
But if at times, my heart it seems;
Like it’s the wrong place, it’s because it’s on my sleeve;
Keanu Reeves, speed of light avoid it, veer or just steer towards it;
We’re only looking forward, but where we’re going, we have no idea
Shortly after that performance, the other rapper on stage went into some typical festival diatribe, “How many of y’all are getting [expletive] up tonight?”
And Eminem replied, “Man we used to get [expletive] up! Here are some of those songs we sang when we used to get [expletive] up.”
The two then did a minute of the three Slim Shady songs each. And encored with “Lose Yourself.” I imagine figuring out a way to evolve into 2018 is incredibly difficult for someone that’s success came between 1998-2001. It’s an entirely different world. When we were leaving, a 17-year-old kid was talking about how awesome the show was and he says, “Man, I know all of those lyrics.”
To which my friend replied, “But, like, you have no idea who Tom Green is or why that was funny to us, right? Like, let me tell you about Tom Green. We thought he was HI-LARIOUS.”
And the kid says, “No. No idea. But that must have been amazing to hear all of that for the first time when it came out.”
It was. And in 2008, “Love the Way You Lie” was released – Eminem’s first reinvention – at the exact moment I needed it in my own life. There’s a cynical side of me that thinks, “How thin is the line between Eminem being Everlast?” But then there’s the reality than Eminem struggled with an abusive relationship and addiction, he used his art to express all of those emotions – however gritty, raw and dated a lot of it is now – and he’s still reinventing himself 20 years later.
I hope it’s the beginning of a next act.
2. The Killers – The Killers are the last great rock band. They’re one more great record away from being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’re from Las Vegas and it’s probably why they know how to put on a show. I unapologetically love this band; they’re one of the best America has ever given the rest of the world. I hope their momentum continues forward and we’re beyond that “Human” debacle.
Oh, and another thing: I’ve never in my life seen teens go as buck wild as they did when The Killers opened their set with “Mr. Brightside.” Bananas.
1. SuperJam – I may be placing SuperJam too high, but at this point I’ve seen so many shows that I tend to weight things heavily toward things I will never see again. It was a tribute to Tom Petty, with the house band being My Morning Jacket’s rhythm section and Pat Sansone from Wilco and some other dudes.
Sheryl Crow covered “American Girl” with them. Vanessa Carlton covered “Learning to Fly.” Hayley Williams from Paramore, Matt Schultz from Cage the Elephant, The Wild Feathers, Langhorne Slim, Rayland Baxter, Japanese Breakfast, David Shaw of the Revivalists, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso, Moon Taxi and a ton more. It was just a really well done tribute on minimal preparation, short of the two dudes that didn’t know the lyrics to “Refugee.” And I don’t know what their name was. Those guys were terrible. Even Danny Clinch taking extended harmonica solos that were totally unnecessary wasn’t terrible. The bros that sang “Refugee” were.
But the rest was an amazing cool night on the farm. That was my eighth, and I’m getting old. And each year you think aloud to no one, “Maybe that was the last one for me,” but each year – even this year, when one of the least impressive lineups in the history of the festival on paper came out – I get sucked right back in.