This Crazy Dream Called Bonnaroo

Part 1 of NYS Music's Bonnaroo Music Festival coverage

“I want you to take one moment to be present enough [in this dark world] to realize that you’re surrounded by people that you may never see again, but for some reason we all came here today. And we get to be present. And we get to be right here with each other. So no matter what you are going through, I know this doesn’t make it go away. But for one second, just be present, enjoy music, and lets just fucking do this!”

Hayley Williams, Paramore.

Williams speech, as she sat cross-legged at the edge of What Stage, embodied the spirit of Bonnaroo for artists and fans alike. We were truly one – over 60,000 pieces woven together for the 17th annual gathering on The Farm. With 150 performances, art & culture, community building and sustainability efforts, it was effortless to make Bonnaroo your personal oasis out of the masses. But, we hardly had time for the music – chasing back to back sets which quickly wore holes through our shoes, top and bottom. Artist big and small, including Paramore, made their debut-Roo appearances and revealed unheard material. It’s only to be expected when you hear the word Bonnaroo. It swallows and consumes. It sucks you up and spits you out four days later of non-stop musical bliss. Welcome Bonnorovians.

Bonnaroo Part One: Thursday and Friday

There is no void in the wake of DREAMERS, a powerhouse rock trio with heavy New York roots. Lead guitarist and vocalist, Nick Wold’s feet tuck into his chest and plummet to the Who Stage, kicking off their first Bonnaroo performance at 5pm. They’re abrupt – snapping you into consciousness. The band drifts from punk, alternative and electronic music in its bare form.

“A triangle is the strongest shape in music,” said Wold, as he form his hands accordingly. Debuting their new single “Screws,” the band shows off an eclectic mix of grunge guitar, electronic drums and bass that moves. “It’s about composition and playing tight together to communicate exactly what we wrote,” added Wold. “We are excited to express this thing we have been feeling and working on.” The driving chorus of “Wolves” picked the crowd off their feet while the breakdown in “Painkiller” sent everyone into oblivion.

“Bonnaroo is one of those holy grail festivals. So it is a cool thing for us to be here,” said Wold. The band is excited to soak in the music vibe and become one with the audience to see all the new acts throughout this lineup.

Iowa’s Lissie, continued at That Tent with the title track of their forthcoming album Castles, featuring an all female front with bassist Megan Mahoney and guitarist Toni Lindgren. Swelling peaks and valleys made the set dynamic, heard in “Love Blows” and “Feels Good.” Lissie sang with heart and makes a vivid connection to the lyrics in real time with “Best Days.” The soulful singer was in control, engaging the crowd. The performance strayed away from the electronic record with Luke Anderson on acoustic drums.

Stripped down at On Tap Lounge, R&B singer Jalen N’Gonda revealed “Medicinal Fix” for the first time live. Accompanied only by a Cajon, N’Gonda’s set was jazzy and syncopated, stretching each chord higher than the last. Songs like “Honey” (If Only Honey Was As Sweet As You) were soothing, displaying N’Gonda’s pun personality. “I hope you think it’s sweet.” A solo guitar take on “Hollar” was proof Jalen is just as strong with or without his full band.

As night fell, New Jersey bred Jasha Tull, known as Space Jesus, gave Bonnaroo new life. “You can have all the psychedelics you want, just don’t get paranoid out there. Drink lots of water and hug your friends all day!” The love was real and bass roared across Centaroo from The Other Stage. Massive screens surrounded the DJ with psychedelic visuals sucking you into the wormhole. Festival-goers, two females in particular, were stretched over the barricades head-banging with each drop. As the rave settled, Tull called a friend up on stage, who proposed to his fiancé for their first Bonnaroo. YES!

If you haven’t hear the name, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, it is exactly what it sounds like – an overwhelmingly energetic jam-funk band bouncing from one groove to the next. Fans gathered in That Tent for an epic hour and thirty minute set, like a flock of pigeons taking the name way too literally. Getting lost in “Horizon” while actual ping pong balls soared across the stage covering the floor post-set. Lead vocalist Greg Ormont’s eyes nearly popped out of his head singing neverending songs like “F.U.,” while the band swung in unison with their flock.

“We’re all staying for the rest of the weekend to hang out with you guys,” said Ormont, and the crowd went nuts. The band featured trumpet and sax players of The Revivalists, Michael Girardot and Rob Ingraham for many tunes. It was only Thursday and us Bonnaroovians couldn’t get enough. “Welcome to the flock. This one goes out to you!”

As Thursday rolled into Friday morning in Manchester, the party was still going with various DJs across the campgrounds and a secret set from Cage The Elephant at Plaza 9. The main stage lineup was impressive; featuring Paramore, Manchester Orchestra, The Revivalists, Sturgill Simpson, Muse and Bassnectar.

With the sun high, dripping sweat, our 15-hour trek around Centroo began. There were just too many good artists to pass up. In route to Which Stage, the second largest at the venue, edgy post-glam Pop lured you into the intimate On Tap Lounge.

Nude mannequins stood on either side of the drums – headless, wearing ball caps. “Undies! Undies!,” lead singer, Julia Lauren Bullock screams. She pressed her lips to them and launches them back at the packed tent. “Yeah, that’s a big fucking pair of underwear.” The ambient keypads lingered in the Tennessee heat. Bullock, stretches the mic cable through her dirty blonde hair, back facing the crowd, dancing with it.

Meet The Foxies. Bare syncopated drums kick off “Our Blood Is Fire,” from their 2016 EP Oblivion. The band sets off, inviting ‘our friends’ up onto stage. The trio screamed the hook, ‘fire – fire – fire’ pressed up against guitarist Jake Ohlbaum’s cheek. It was a party-gone-wrong and Bullock was the antagonist. The Nashville based band continued with their latest 2018 single of “Be Afraid Boy,” in your face and full of attitude.

Early on, New Orleans iconic brass band sound blew north with Trombone Shorty & New Orleans Ave. Troy Anders, a.k.a Trombone Shorty conducted the band with conviction, cueing each syncopated hit and crescendo. The rhythm section with dirty-growling horns moved in the breeze, left to right in unison – making the set as visually funky as it was sound. The Alto Sax player was breakdancing and dragging staff from backstage into the groove. Screaming arena-rock guitar solos contrast the driving second-line style, making mashups of The Jackson 5 and RHCP’s “Give It Away” riveting. These guys are truly masters of their craft – constantly moving on stage and switching instruments seamlessly.

Trombone Shorty walked back from behind the drums dripping in sweat, as if he had just emerged from a Louisiana Swamp. “One more time,” Shorty calls out and the horns scream with the crowd – Ba-Da-Da-Daaaaa. Five minutes later the energy cuts abruptly, with an outro only possible at Bonnaroo. His arms spread to the ceiling of This Tent, folded across his chest and burst back out in the air slowing the band. “We love you Roo, see you next time.”

Vivid clouds and clear skies paint a soundscape for the love that is Bonnaroo. One can’t help, but to be submerged in the culture and essence of each band, being, and walk of art that roams The Farm. Manchester Orchestra appears on Which Stage blowing your thoughts to the back of Centroo and filling your mind with sound. Now, you’re just hanging on for the ride.

“I’ve Got Friends,” is energetic with landscape overtones pouring from the band. “Cope” amplifies intensity with raging distorting leads. The band disappears into their backdrop and the music becomes faint. Hairs rise on your skin as Manchester Orchestra drives up in melodic progression. Rock-cinema pours out of the lower 108 speakers spread in front of the stage. Ending with bassist Andy Prince, dangling his instrument from its headstock, over his shoulder to the floor – ringing in discord.

No introduction is needed for Paramore. It was only 6:15 and we had been lost in musical paradise. “It doesn’t seem like life just, suddenly got better once we sang about it, but I will say that singing about it and dancing about – it sure makes the time go by a lot more fun, I guess,” Hayley rambles on.

Williams was frisky and vibrant. In between her intimate prose with all of Roo, she jolted up for Paramore classics including “That’s What You Get,” “Ain’t It Fun” and “Ignorance.” Williams’ Bowie inspired makeup, megaphone, and high-kicks made the set anything but, hard times, a-play-on she kept throughout the show, even After Laughter.

What made Bonnaroo’s stages so exciting is that the bands always spiced up their music. Paramore, in particular, gave “a little Roo treat” featuring their drummers band, HalfNoise. Zac Farro go out from behind the kit to sing “French Class” alongside Williams, while excerpts from the music video played on screen.

With nearly 90 degree heat, we needed a wakeup call. “Y’all ready to Rock n’ Roll?” David Shaw of The Revivalists screamed across Which Stage. Saxophonist Rob Ingraham, was strapped into a 4-point harness, twirling his sax and jumping across stage.The guitar stacks followed suit. As the band took on “Wish I Knew You” and “It Was A Sin” the wood began to bow beneath their feet like a trampoline. Michael Girardot bounced his feet in the air crashing into his keyboards, as the whole rig tipped back into one of the two dueling drum-sets. Everything was ready to come down. But it didn’t.

Shaw, dressed in overalls, was ‘The Farmer’ rounding up his roo-cattle engaging them at every chance he could, pointing the mic out into the fields. “I don’t know if Shaw is late for the Hoot-N-Nanny or early for the Okie Dokie (a later band playing the Who Stage),” said Ingraham. The energy was real. Shaw jumped on and off stage relentlessly, eventually charging the gates around the pit screaming out, lost in the crowd.

Red as David’s beanie, an apple rockets on-stage inches above the monitor. Shaw reaches down and snatches it up. Crunch – It sinks into his teeth. He then throws it out to the herd for feeding. Shaw had made it home – all two tons.

The chaos continued with Country artist Sturgill Simpson performing on the What Stage on his birthday. His footsteps onstage cued the ovation of “Happy Birthday.”

British Rock trio MUSE was overwhelming, shoving their discography down your throat with little breath in between. Opening with “Thought Contagion,” “Hysteria”, and “Interlude” to name a few. Despite their fame, it was MUSE’s first appearance at Bonnaroo. Eleven screens backed the drummer featuring live video onstage an kaleidoscope effects. The band carried on with precision, playing their hi-tech carbon-neck instruments and touch sensitive picking. Before their six-song encore, the band tributed Rage Against the Machine’s “Guerrilla Radio” into “Back In Black,” by AC/DC.

For “Madness” lead Matt Bellamy wore 3-D style glasses revealing the lyrics in real time to the slow electrified trance. Giant balloons soared during “Starlight,” as hands clapped in uniform with the snare. When they burst the sky was filled thousands of tiny silhouettes falling like snow, cannons and confetti tying everyone together.

The night would not come to and end without the infamous Tom Petty Superjam at This Tent. Heavy attendance was required to fill the shoes of Petty. Cage The Elephant’s Matt Shultz, David Shaw, My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan, Sheryl Crow, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.

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