When Dr. John and the Original Meters took the stage at Bonnaroo’s Other Tent on Saturday night, with their friend Allen Toussaint in tow, it represented more than just another good set of music in a weekend full of them. The ensemble was there to perform Desitively Bonnaroo, the 1974 Dr. John album that inspired the name of what has become Tennessee’s largest, most successful, and most diverse music festival. It was sort of an extended rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Bonnaroo, which turned 10 this year.
So it’s worth considering what Bonnaroo means, as it prepares for its second decade. Although its roots are in the hippie-jam scene, and it still has a reputation for patchouli and pot smoke (both present, but less prominent than in past years), it has evolved into more of an all-purpose music festival. It is now one of the poles of a summer circuit that includes Coachella in California, Lollapalooza and Pitchfork in Chicago, and All Tomorrow’s Parties, imported from the U.K. to the vicinity of NYC.
The rosters at these festivals tend to overlap. Among the performers who did Coachella in April and Bonnaroo last week were Arcade Fire, the Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, Scissor Sisters, Robyn, and Wiz Khalifa. Eminem and My Morning Jacket had headline slots at Bonnaroo and will again at Lollapalooza. As Bonnaroo broadened its focus over the years, there were periodic grumblings from jam-band enthusiasts that “their” festival was being diluted, and that’s true to an extent. (In a good way, if you happen to be not much of a jam fan.) But there are still plenty of nods to those roots. This year alone saw big-stage performances by Galactic, String Cheese Incident, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and Primus. And as usual, the closing-night Sunday slot went to a jam perennial—in this case, Widespread Panic.
What Bonnaroo has done successfully—and admirably, in my opinion—is broaden its scope both commercially and aesthetically. By bringing megastar headliners in for Friday and Saturday nights, the festival has undoubtedly kept its box office healthy. Recent years have seen Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, and the Police, who don’t have much in common except for their ability to pack the big lawn of the What Stage. That has also brought a growing openness to hip-hop, which was at best a marginal presence in early iterations of Bonnaroo. The first hip-hop headliner, Kanye West in 2008, was a notorious flop, as he kept fans waiting until 4 in the morning before coming onstage. (“Kanye Sucks” graffiti on Bonnaroo’s wooden fences has become a festival tradition.) But that was followed the next year by sets from the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, and then in 2010 by Jay-Z’s triumphant breakthrough on the big stage. This year, there was so much hip-hop it was sometimes programmed against itself, as when Big Boi’s Saturday night set overlapped with Lil Wayne’s. But both drew sizable crowds, proving that rap at Bonnaroo is anything but a niche product. More to the point, Eminem’s Saturday night set on the What Stage by all reports completely packed the place. (I say “by all reports,” because I was back in my tent, napping before some later-night shows—one Bonnarooer can see only so much.)
But all that rock-star wattage has not dimmed the organizers’ commitment to other strains of music. For one thing, Bonnaroo has a lot of respect for its elders: Besides Dr. John (who’s 70) and Toussaint (73), there were sets this year from the 79-year-old Loretta Lynn, the 73-year-old Wanda Jackson, and the reunited Buffalo Springfield, with Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay clocking in at 65, 66, and 67 respectively. Past years have seen performances by elder statesmen like Kris Kristofferson, Ornette Coleman, and Charlie Louvin. The enthusiasm with which the mostly young crowds greet these veterans is always gratifying (not least to the veterans, who sometimes seem surprised the kids have even heard of them).
The festival also shows a consistent if unpredictable openness to artists from outside the Anglophone world. Some years that has meant an infusion of African or Latino acts. This year, it was a daylong procession of multi-ethnic ensembles overseen by Eugene Hutz, the leader of the berserk gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello. Included were performances by the hugely entertaining Mongolian folk-punk outfit Hanggai, the Italian singer-rapper Jovanotti, and the Brazilian folk-rockers Forro in the Dark. (Hutz’s own band capped it off with a typically nutso set that didn’t get going until 2:30 in the morning and ended sometime long after I wandered off to bed.)
Likewise, metal has had a growing and welcome presence. When bands like Tool first started showing up in headline slots some years back, it felt like an odd fit. But in recent ’roos, one of the smaller tents has programmed an entire day’s worth of metal—this year’s offering had Kylesa, the Sword, and Opeth playing back to back.
All of which is a long way of saying that what Bonnaroo seemed to be striving for in its 10th year—and seems to have, in many ways, achieved—is an identity built around the idea of musical connection: between genres, generations, cultures, and subcultures. It’s the kind of place where the same stage can play host one day to the sludge metal of Kylesa and the next to Loretta Lynn—and where it is refreshingly unsurprising to see many of the same people show up at both of them.