For the third time in my life, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting The Farm. An hour outside of Nashville, in a town that goes from quite low on the list to the top five in population of Tennessee during one weekend of the year, is the most glorious place in the world for any music fan. Bonnaroo just finished its 17th trip around the sun, and it was a magical one to say the least.
Our trip began early Thursday morning from Halifax. A bumpy flight started off the day, but no harm was done. After landing and getting stuck in line at the border (with only two border officers on?), we asked one employee if we would make our flight that was boarding at that moment. With confidence she replied “Oh yes, for sure. You have about a half hour.” Fast forward 28 minutes, and we were through customs and in a full-on sprint for the plane. We made it just before they closed the gates, and were greeted with pleasant news of our seats being moved from directly beside the washroom to two rows in front of it. #blest We landed in Nashville, hopped in our rental car, and to the open road we headed. After a stop at Target (we Canadians miss you), a couple of missed exits and turns, and a wild struggle to find a radio station that wasn’t either Christian or Country or both, we arrived at the illustrious Farm.
As the sun was setting on Thursday night, Jessie and I set up our tent, unpacked the car, and made our way down to Centeroo. Since we arrived late, we ended up in Pod 10 (of 10) which is approx a 20 minute walk to where the action happens. Being silly Canadians who saw frost warnings the week leading up in our home land, we made the mistake of wearing jeans on that walk. The sweat dripped down our faces, and my crotch chafed, but when you see the beautiful Bonnaroo arch lit up, it makes everything worth it. Because of my poorly planned flights, we missed the two shows we would have liked to see (Ron Gallo & Lissie), so we took to shopping. A couple of shirts and a poster were purchased, along with a bite to eat and back to camp we went. On our walk back, we obviously kept with the tradition we created that day and missed one turn. We strolled past the YES barn, which was curated for the purpose of being odd and wonderful. No questions asked, just YES to whatever the act was. Because of our missed turn, we tried to find our camp by following a blue med tent balloon (which our pod had). As it turned out, they had more than one blue balloon as a marker, who’d have thunk it. As we wandered closer and closer to the blue balloon, we realized there were no more markers that were familiar. We flagged down a bicycle cab nearby, and asked him to take us back to our camp. “Where is that?”, he asked obviously. “We have no idea”, we answered. “Thursdays are made for mistakes”, was his response, to which we agreed while looking down at our jeans. Eventually we made our way back to Camp David Wooderson, and crawled into our tent, collapsing in exhaustion to the soothing sounds of our neighbours doing Whippits until the sun came up.
Friday, 8:30 am, 30 degrees celsius. As we woke up 25 lbs lighter from the 4 gallons of sweat we released since the sun came up, we searched for the slightest breeze. Hanging our hands outside the open tent door was similar to the relief felt by Ace Ventura after exiting the rhino’s ass in When Nature Calls. We got ourselves together, put on layer after layer of sunscreen, and sat in the scorching sun with reckless abandon, with iced coffees in hand. Our first show of the day was at the What stage at 2:15. Australian pop punk Alex Lahey took to the stage full of piss and vinegar. In support of her album “Love You Like a Brother”, she poured sweat and rocked hard for her set. Songs like “Love you Like a Brother” and “Backpack” were the perfect start to the marathon of a festival we were about to endure.
We moseyed over to That Tent for one of my most highly-anticipated undercard shows of the weekend. 25-year-old country act Tyler Childers kicked off at 3:15. We sought some shade with our camelback and a lemonade, and enjoyed his sweet yet gruff voice serenading us for the hour. A multitude of Sturgill Simpson-produced tracks from his sophomore album “Purgatory” made the set list, such as “Whitehouse Road”, “Honkey Tonk Flame”, and the tear-jerkingly moving “Universal Sound”. During his set, Childers thanked the crowed by stating “There’s 100 other things y’all could be doing right now, but I appreciate that you’re here with us”. Among the jams in the set, Dr. Hook’s “I Got Stoned And I Missed It” made the cut. A sentiment I’m sure many in attendance would utter when they got back to work on Monday.
After I got overwhelmed at the beauty of Childers’ voice, we headed back to the the What stage for the Goddess that is Sheryl Crow. Hit after hit after hit, Crow was an absolute force. After almost every song started I would have to state, “OH YEAH! THIS SONG!”. “Every Day is a Winding Road”, “All I Wanna Do”, and “Soak Up the Sun” are just 3 of the many stellar tracks we were lucky enough to see. Crow spoke about her love for Bonnaroo, and that her then-11-year-old son got to meet Sting and The Police last time she attended. She, like Childers and many others, snuck an exceptional cover into the set as well. The very distinct guitar riff belonging to The Allman Brothers “Midnight Rider” was eaten up by all Bonnaroovians in the crowd.
After Crow’s set, on came one of Jessie’s top picks pre-Roo, Paramore. Knowing very little of their catalogue before the set, I had no expectations. The lack of expectations meant nothing though, since they would have immediately been blown out of the water. Front-woman Hayley Williams is a fucking powerhouse of a band leader if I’ve ever seen one. Long-time fans in the crowd sang nearly every word that came out of Williams’ mouth, and those of us who weren’t die-hards before the set were converted after the opening number. Her songs about anxiety and depression were laden with pop aesthetic and energy. Williams used every inch of the stage to dance, jump, whip her hair, and mug for the crowd. Not one note was missed, and every one was devoured by the adoring crowd.
Following Paramore was one of the oddest shifts in lineup that I’ve ever seen. From pop goddess Paramore, to country outlaw Sturgill Simpson. For Jess and myself, it was a godsend. The crowd cleared out and we headed up to the front of the stage. As we leaned on the barricade patiently waiting for my most-anticipated show of the weekend, we met a Nashville native who was a super fan. He was astonished that we knew who Simpson was and delighted that we were as big a fan as he was. He told us a story about seeing him in traffic one time, and he illegally u-turned to just pull up beside him. He fawned over how nice Simpson was, to simply roll down the window and acknowledge his existence. We couldn’t have agreed more about the niceness and we wore our jealousy on our sleeves.
Sturgill took to the stage on what was his 40th birthday. No backdrop, no fancy stage setup, and no light show whatsoever. He and his 3 bandmates let their massive amount of talent speak for itself. In his 90-minute set, it felt as though he only played about 12 songs. His set was strung together perfectly, with song after song just bleeding into one another. Looooong drawn out solos from the guitar virtuoso ran steady throughout the set, showing off all of his chops. This country outlaw’s set sounded more Rock than anything else, if you didn’t know any better. After an 8-minute long song that was probably originally clocked in at around 4 minutes, and possibly the first address to the crowd, Simpson exclaimed “MY MID LIFE CRISIS IS FUCKING DOPE”, to which absolutely everyone there agreed. Everyone can hope and dream to have a midlife crisis as dope as that.
Following the destruction of genres that was put on by Simpson, the headliners of Friday night took to the stage. The stage set up couldn’t have been more different for MUSE. As opposed to Simpson’s plain white light, Muse had 7 vertical billboard-style panels behind them that teamed perfectly with their sound. It was surreal, virtual reality-based, and an absolute trip. A massive light show was what pulled me in, but their sheer talent is what kept me enthralled with another band that I knew little to nothing about. Other than their early album Black Holes and Revelations, and a couple of singles on the radio, I wouldn’t have called myself a Muse Fan. Since the weekend, I can’t seem to get enough of their operatic post-prog sound. If Rush and U2 had a child it might sound something like Muse. Every song seemed to come to a massive crescendo that you couldn’t help but emote over. “Psycho”, “Dead Inside”, and “Plug In Baby” were some highlights in their main set. As they played their hit “Madness”, singer Matt Bellamy rocked shades that produced the words as he sang them. Something I’ve never seen and can’t even imagine how the idea came to be. The encore opened with the loud epic song “Take a Bow”, that you wouldn’t think could be outdone, but surprises are around every corner. They closed the night out with their mega-hit “Knights of Cydonia”. A song with such a crescendo that they’re lucky there wasn’t a roof over the venue, because they would have absolutely blown it off.
On my way over to This Tent to check out the Tom Petty Superjam that started at 1:15 AM, I stopped by Which Stage to check out a minute of EDM legend Bassnectar. Though it’s nowhere near my jam, so I’m not one to judge the music itself, the stage/light show was that of legend. If hard drugs were involved, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the shit out of it (not that I’d know what that feels like). I want to tell you all that I loved every second of the Tom Petty Superjam, with songs like “American Girl” sung by Sheryl Crow, and “Stop Draggin My Heart Around” by Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, so I will. The only issue is that I enjoyed it from the comfort of my tent because the sun got me good, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open for another second. This was a marathon, not a sprint. There were still two days left, so I couldn’t double down on the first day.
Saturday – 8:30 AM – What felt like 900 degrees celsius in the tent. The same mistakes were not made early in the morning by baking out in the sun from 9AM to 1PM. Instead, after hydrating and sunscreening, Jessie and I headed to Centeroo and sought the solace of the shade. We ate breakfast at Which stage and were serenaded by the phenomenally talented Bon Iver during sound check. We chatted with nearby folks, watched at least half a dozen people run around hilariously trying to fill their wind pouch seats, and had a delightful meeting with some roadies who offered to sell us weed, coke spoons, and nitrous pins. It’s amazing to me that these guys DEFINITELY never tried coke, and definitely weren’t still up from yesterday (I’m worried my sarcasm didn’t translate well enough on that last sentence). We met up with fellow Nova Scotians and buds Swanny and Kelly, who made us balloon giraffes and palm trees, got glitterized, and headed over to That Tent for a smidgen of Reggie Watts, who gave us some laughs before we headed back to camp to sit in the air conditioned car for a while.
We made our way back down to That Tent for 4:15 to support some Canadian talent by recommendation of Swanny. Jessie Reyez took the stage like a fucking hurricane. Her multi-talented set included Hip Hop bangers and acoustic serenades. Reyez’s lead single “Figures” brought extra choruses so that the crowd could get their fill of the singalong. The ravenous crowd couldn’t get enough of Reyez’s energy on songs like “Shutter Island”, and her new single “Body Count”. She told stories of her experiences on the #MeToo movement, and preached that this wasn’t a new thing. She jumped into a fiery rendition of “Gatekeeper” to tell her stories of the sexual harassment she’s faced over the years in the industry. Welled up with emotion from the song and the stunning support of the crowd, Reyez thanked everyone for showing their love upwards of 30 times throughout the set. I knew nothing of Jessie Reyez before seeing this set, but there won’t be a Reyez show nearby that I won’t be attending. It’s a patch of Canadian Pride to have such an insanely talented individual from our part of the world. It’s a name that you’ll hear for years and years to come.
We wandered over to The Who stage after the Reyez set to post up before another highly anticipated show on our radar. The up and coming The Regrettes were to take the stage at 5:45. The worst part about their set is that it was only half an hour. I could listen to this surf punk quartet all day. They rock hard, and have the stage presence of grizzled vets, though singer Lydia Night is only 17 years old. A couple new songs were thrown in amongst their songs from the “Feel Your Feelings Fool!” album, such as “Seashore”, “LADYLIKE/Whattabitch”, and “Hey Now”. Prior to playing “Picture Perfect”, Night stated “There’s no mosh pit yet, and that is kind of concerning”. Picking up on the inflection, the crowd immediately got into it and didn’t let up until the set came to an end.
Back over to the What Stage we went for a set of all the hits you’ve ever danced to in your life. Nile Rogers and CHIC took the stage and banged out classics that they’ve written over the years. What’s That? You’ve never heard of them? Ever heard the songs “Like a Virgin”, “La Freak”, “Get Lucky”, “We Are Family”, “Let’s Dance”, or basically any other disco song ever? Then yeah, you’ve heard of them.
We danced in the shade until we danced ourselves right over to That Tent again for one of the bigger crowds at a tent all weekend. Sylvan Esso took the stage for the sundown set and brought their trancey pop stylings to an eccentric crowd. We hung in back preparing for the rest of the night in store, but grooved to the jams and people-watched as costume after costume danced along. Unicorns, astronauts, tigers, painted boobies, and enough face paint and sparkles that you’d make a drag queen blush, were littered throughout the crowd.
We peeled from That Tent a little early to get a good spot for our pre-headliner show. Although I saw Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals at Halifax Jazz Fest last year, Jessie didn’t have a chance to get to that show. Also, as the rules of life go, if you have the chance to see Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals, you fucking do it. We got as close as we could, which was easily 10k people back, and started dancing during the first song and our feet didn’t stop until the last note. .Paak staggered and spun around stage throughout his energetic hip hop set, splitting his time between being front-man and drum soloist extraordinaire. New tracks such as “Bubblin” were welcomed with open ears, and hits such as “Come Down” were embraced with exceptional amounts of joy. A marriage proposal in the crowd midway through the set had the crowd swooning. Behind the kit, .Paak closed the set with the call and answer banger “Luh You”. A number of solos and breakdowns left the crowd wanting more and more. It was his first Bonnaroo, but I can’t imagine it will be his last. Though he’s only two albums deep, playing the pre-headline set seemed second nature to him. That will be his headline set in years to come.
Then came what everyone born between 1980 and 2010 wanted to see. Eminem was Saturday night’s headliner, and it was like a dream come true. My first Bonnaroo was in 2011 and Eminem headlined. For whatever reason, I didn’t go to the set. I don’t have very many regrets in my life, lots of bad decisions, but not many regrets. That is one of them. I’m so glad that I took this opportunity and got another chance at seeing a legend like Eminem. Em rapped like it was his first main stage show ever. Although he’s a veteran of the stage, this seemed like a performance that was special to just us. He sang just about every hit he’s ever had, including “The Way I Am”, “The Real Slim Shady”, “Kill You”, “Monster”, “Love the Way You Lie”, and “My Name Is”, and some deep tracks that hit that nostalgia note right on the button like “White America” and “Square Dance”. He was backed by a full string symphony and an elaborate stage setup that showed a town getting more and more destroyed as the show went on. When he came out for his triumphant encore “Lose Yourself”, which the crowd went fucking ballistic over, the town was shown as rebuilt and wonderful. I cried tears of joy and 14-year-old Mitch’s angst was satisfied for another day.
Sunday – 830 AM – A cool 29.5 degrees. Our plan for the day was to get up, pack up the tent, see some shows, and beat some of the traffic to Nashville to catch our flight the following morning. As we were about to start the process, we felt a drop of rain. Within 15 minutes, a full-blown thunder and lightning storm was overhead and an all-out downpour was on our hands. We had no choice but to sit in the car, turn on the A/C, and take a guilt-free nap. The rain subsided after 3 or 4 hours and created a mud bowl at every turn. Pools formed, campsites were rained out, and the humidity was turned up to 11. We tiptoed our way down to Centeroo until our feet sank under the first mud puddle, then our cares flew out the window and we trudged through the mud like a 6-year-old in their rain suit.
Back to That Tent we went for our first show of the day. Canadian mega group Broken Social Scene took to the stage, all 9 of them with their myriad of instruments. Their indie sound glazed over the wet crowd to the delight of everyone’s soaked tootsies. They encouraged everyone to continue under Bonnaroo’s magnum opus, to Radiate Positivity and to look after each other. Keep hydrated, pick up those that have fallen, and take care of everyone was the message they preached.
Following the great Canadian super group onto the stage was the insanely soulful St. Paul and The Broken Bones. Dressed in a beautiful kimono covering a sharp purple suit, singer Paul Janeway grabbed his gold-studded microphone and wailed through the set. His voice is that of legend. His range goes from Tina Turner-like highs, to Barry White-esque lows, all the while never sounding anywhere near strained. Janeway’s voice is utilized as a 7th instrument on the stage, surrounded by horns and smooth guitar licks. A number of new tunes whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and the classics brought tears to my eyes. During their hit “Broken Bones and Pocket Change”, Janeway rolled out a carpet over the crowd and used it as a magic carpet to travel to the sound tent. Half the set was spent on the rail screaming to the crescendo before jumping back on his carpet to take him back to the stage. At one point through the set Jess and I got absolutely lost in the music. When leaving the tent, it was almost as if we forgot the rest of the 80,000+ people existed and an entire festival was happening. And by almost, I mean that definitely happened just like that.
Over to Which Stage post-Broken Bones for what would be the cap of the weekend. The English trance pop trio Alt-J were the last show to grace the Which Stage that weekend. They kicked off their set with a new jam, followed by their first album’s “Fitzpleasure”. Their light show was mind boggling. Three separating sets of lights between the three musicians, all pulsating and acting in unison to create an overwhelming assault on the senses, in the best way possible. They plowed through an exciting set full of both new and old, such as “Left Hand Free”, “Tellestate”, and their big closer “Breezeblocks”. A quick bathroom break, a singalong to the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside”, and a stroll back to the camp site, then we were on the road.
Monday brought a massive lack of sleep, a wonderful shower, and easy flights. After landing in Halifax, we hopped in the car and relived the shows we saw via iPod on the drive to Cape Breton.
Then we hit a cat outside of North Sydney and the whole trip was ruined.