For hosts on an NPR Music radio station that started in 2020, and is based just an hour’s drive from the Manchester, Tennessee property that hosts Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, the delayed, then rescheduled hootenanny (set for September 2021) was an exciting prospect. And then Mother Nature had other plans.
So after cancellations due to COVID-19 then weather in back-to-back years, Bonnaroo — 20 years on, but in its 18th installment — was finally held this past weekend. I put my Morning Host back into it, leaving from the station mid-morning Friday to spend a hot 13-ish hours on the farm, in the pursuit of live sets and conversations, so that you (as they say) didn’t have to. Hear and read who made the day.
Artists On Stage
The Weather Station played Thursday night before I arrived to Bonnaroo, but I caught up with the Toronto project’s singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman on-site midday Friday. At an umbrella-covered picnic table after a wind-and-lightning evacuation that had prevented both of us from entering the “Centeroo” festival grounds as early as planned, and yet cooled down the afternoon by a lovely number of degrees, I asked Lindeman about the experience sharing songs from her newest record How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars and the one that preceded it by just a number of months in 2021 called Ignorance (both released on Fat Possum Records). Listen:
Here pictured is Lindeman at The Weather Station’s June 16 set:
Some time after local artist (and former WNXP Nashville Artist of the Month) Briston Maroney played a set high on energy and words of encouragement*, Program Director Jason Moon Wilkins and I ran into Maroney and his partner Samia, whose music we also love playing on 91.ONE. They both exuded joy for being on the farm, though Sam admitted she missed their new puppy (about whom I’d inquired). We had one of their friends snap a photo that kind of looks like we’re a nuclear family but I’m not mad about it.
*Here’s a snippet of Maroney’s Friday afternoon set before fan-favorite closing song “Freaking Out On The Interstate”:
Here is our family portrait:
Artists as Fans
It was actually to the side of That Tent, where Maroney just finished, that I spotted now-local artist Jason Singer of Michigander — whose collaboration with Atlanta band Manchester Orchestra, “In My Head,” is getting ample spins on WNXP — and finally met him in-person. Singer introduced me and WNXP Jason to his friend and fellow artist Abby Holliday, whom he said will open for him on the next tour. Both recent transplants to Middle Tennessee, Singer and Holliday gushed about their first Bonnaroo experience, maximizing their energy by sleeping back at home in Nashville each night vs. camping. Hear the front-of-house chat with these two:
And then we got a pic, natch:
Festival-Goers in from Near and Far
Despite the proliferation of music-makers supporting friends and fellow artists at this fest, within striking/short driving distance from Music City, U.S.A., Bonnaroo is still primarily designed and executed for us normal folks — music appreciators expending precious PTO and pricey petroleum to sweat it out in the sweltering Tennessee summer. I found many such folks “Have a happy ‘Roo!”-ing each other in wristband scan lines, mouths watering while ordering at food trucks, and of course awaiting the start to memorable music moments shoulder to shoulder before stages.
I met first-time Bonnaroovians Oday and Ian braving a treeless, tentless expanse inside Centeroo at the hottest part of the day, in hopes of catching the pop-up acoustic Japanese Breakfast set that was just announced on the Bonnaroo app. (Lord, I remember when it was only a quarter-inch thick flipbook with the master schedule, procured upon entry, that you’d highlight and dog-ear and try desperately to keep dry for the full weekend. Your Bonnaroo Bible. “OK, grandma, let’s get you to bed.”)
Michelle Zauner would ultimately perform solo with suuuuuuper thumpy dance music coming from The Other Tent straight ahead, which wasn’t great planning. But before we knew this, Oday and Ian told me about their trip, including the excitement for seeing artists like Isaiah Rashad:
Traipsing around from stage to stage over the afternoon hours, I caught partial and full sets from the likes of local Maggie Rose, Dayglow, Izzy Heltai, The Regrettes, Robert Plant + Allison Krauss and The (absolutely outstanding) War on Drugs. While it was certainly warm out, festival attendees didn’t seem too worse for the wear — spirits seemed high, nobody fouling out just yet from dehydration or intoxication (or both), not within plain view, anyway.
The crushing festival reality, as always, was that I missed sets I’d originally intended to see. Like the full-band Japanese Breakfast, when a change of clothes and phone-charge at the car took precedent to zig-zagging back across Centeroo before the classic rocking of Plant and Krauss.
Had we not hosted Arlo Parks for a sweet Sonic Cathedral session this winter, I never would’ve skipped her festival gig, but alas. I could hear but not see J.Cole. Later on, I chose to miss a Still Woozy This Tent set to ride the rail for Cali cowboys Lord Huron at Which Stage.
But once the sun set, The Chicks showed the What Stage how it is done — it meaning captivating tens of thousands, leading us as if a jubilant choir in screaming tunes ranging 25- to two-years-old, and leaning way into the same brand of blistering socio-political commentary that had them blacklisted in commercial Country music at the peak of their career. (Their headlining set A/V elements included the names of U.S. cities that have been sites of mass shootings, and the names of Black Americans who have died at the hands of police. Animated likenesses of Ted Cruz, Senator from The Chicks’ native Texas, and Russian President Vladimir Putin were threatened by sea monsters, missiles and erupting volcanos. Nothing subtle about this imagery, all quite provocative.)
The gaggle of Nashville women I posted up and danced next to, who I learned coordinated a shuttle down to Manchester just for the day, gave me the history lesson of The Chicks’ music’s meaning for them:
I would ultimately leave the farm far too late for someone of my age and early riser status, but once I’d made it that long I had to experience some up close goodness from indie jam-band torch-bearers Goose, who previously sold out two Nashville shows at Brooklyn Bowl this spring and rocked from 1 to 3 a.m. at Bonnaroo. (Their new album Dripfield is out this Friday, June 24.)
Prior to the beginning of Goose, though, I posted up as close as I could to experience the uber-prolific King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. The crowd was LIT and pulsing with anticipation before the Aussies took the stage. I captured a Biz Markie sing-a-long and the sonic swell of the full tent before Giz launched into an incredible, 11-song psych-prog-metal set that never took a breath:
After a full day and most of the night at Bonnaroo, I confirmed my body is no longer fit for the full four-day experience, though the mind and heart are forever willing to consume as much live music as possible. Undersold — at just over half capacity from its 85,000+ peak years, it was reported — but not under-enjoyed by those who did venture to Manchester, Bonnaroo 2022 was a triumphant return to form. For all of you (OK, us) still recovering, I tip my hat and clink your pint of Pedialyte.
See you on the farm in 2023!