Up until I picked up my wristband Friday, I didn’t really expect Bonnaroo to actually happen.
My best guess here is that I was guarding myself after the very-very-late (read: days before) cancellation of 2021’s festival after hurricane storms had rendered the campgrounds unusable. Moreover, this was my first proper festival (Pride doesn’t count, soz, and it also got rained out on day 2) since Music Midtown back in 2019—and Lord knows we’ve all gotten used to cancellations.
I get the impression the festival organizers, too, were feeling tentative. And after three separate cancellations (twice, for 2020 after it was first postponed due to early-COVID optimism, on top of the aforementioned hurricane snafu), who could blame them? If the messaging coming from their socials—the lateness of the schedule, the general lack of promotion up until days before the event—felt hesitant, there was certainly good reason for that.
Thankfully, any concerns I had about that dynamic bleeding into the festival itself dissolved once I set back foot on the Farm. The vibes were as famously good as ever, with crowds of sweaty festivalgoers swarming stages with artists thrilled to finally be playing.
Friday, boasting the strongest daily lineup, presented a problem I hadn’t faced in years: set conflicts. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to see Tove Lo, The Chicks, Japanese Breakfast, Bleachers, Lord Huron, Disclosure, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, and John Summit. Certainly a first-world problem to have but one that feels a bit more egregious when it doesn’t stick around for the whole weekend, with Saturday and Sunday representing marked declines from Friday’s highs.
But who am I to scrutinize this too closely; I saw The Chicks, dammit! By far the best standard set (more on Superjam in a bit), the trio’s performance was nothing short of revelatory. Classics like “Goodbye Earl,” “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and “Cowboy Take Me Away” all felt right at home on the Farm, a sort of full-circle moment for a crowd who’d known those songs for decades by now. And sure, it was their tour set (barring a few songs cut for time), but that’s hardly a bad thing when the set is as strong as this one. With the discography they have, they could have easily played it safe, targeting the hits and cuts from 2020’s Gaslighter. But keep in mind these are the same women who lost everything in the early aughts on account of their (accurate) embarrassment at George W. Bush. Playing it safe was never really their gig.
Regarding the Superjam: this, by design, is always going to be an event. The structure is rather simple: a band leader (this year, Jack Antonoff) and various musicians form a jam band covering songs from a theme (this year, 1984) with various special guests. Antonoff, as now-infamously well-connected as he is, was a no-brainer here; just look at the Minions: The Rise of Gru soundtrack for evidence of his pull. Moreover, 1984—which, thankfully, referred to the year and not Orwell—was right in his wheelhouse. It’s the year Born in the U.S.A. dropped, and what is Bleachers if not Springsteen persevering? Antonoff has production credits on an endless number of 80’s inspired cuts: think Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods,” Troye Sivan’s “Heaven,” St. Vincent’s “Sugarboy.” He was destined to hit it out of the ballpark.
The set itself was a jam-packed ninety minutes with appearances from Claud, CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry, Goose’s Rick Mitarotonda, Joy Oladokun, Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Nicole Atkins, Blu DeTiger, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner. Even when artists chose to cover ballads, the energy and morale were high, capturing a unique moment in time that’s hard to place. Jepsen was by far the crowd favorite, owing largely to the shock factor; she wasn’t on the lineup at all, where most everybody else was.
Other weekend highlights included Disclosure’s late-night set at the Other, CHVRCHES’ theatrical turn on the Which Stage, and Tinashe’s choreo-filled production at That Tent. Stevie Nicks, too, delivered an utterly transcendent set—despite a late start and some pit drama, the most intense crowd of the weekend.
The last time I went to Roo, back in 2018, it was a different world and a different festival. Four years later, the experience isn’t quite the well-oiled exhilarating everybody-say-lovefest that it once was. But this iteration, following years of letdown after letdown, promised a bright future for Bonnaroo. I’d be surprised if 2023 doesn’t see it back in all its glory.