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Festival of the Year: Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival

Image courtesy of Bonnaroo.com (via ABC News Radio)
Image courtesy of Bonnaroo.com (via ABC News Radio)

From our partners at Consequence of Sound .

Since its inception 11 years ago, Bonnaroo has undergone dramatic changes, shifting from a largely jam-centric gathering in rural Tennessee to an epic conglomeration of big name acts that provides an escape for over 100,000 camping fans. This year, their sold-out lineup continued Roo’s hot streak as one of the best booked festivals across the globe.

Nothing that happened this year could top Paul McCartney ’s legendary performance, a show that cemented itself in the Roo Hall of Fame alongside Radiohead ’s 2006 performance, My Morning Jacket ’s 2008 late-night set, and Neil Young ’s oft-discussed 2003 appearance. But that didn’t stop every artist on the lineup from trying their damndest, and their effort wasn’t wasted on the thousands of appreciative fans, with shows like Tom Petty ’s climactic festival closer and R. Kelly ’s religious experience standing out as weekend highlights. But, besides the music, Bonnaroo has expanded into an entirely immersive weekend experience that the attendees and employees come together to will into existence.

With dozens upon dozens of culinary choices, including state fair-quality fried Oreos and a pizza slice named after David Bowie (which comes adorned with jalapeños, ham, and honey), scattered around the camp and festival grounds, anyone would be hard-pressed to spend more than an hour with an empty stomach (and for the cheaper folk, a grilled cheese for a dollar is about the best deal you’ll find on this planet). The small area with circus rides that was once just a space filler between stages has birthed an entire Adult Swim carnival, which is just as insane of a place as you would expect it to be, complete with the enormous light-up Ferris wheel that the festival has unofficially semi-adopted as one of the mascots of the bizarre reality they’re concocting in Manchester, Tennessee.

The maturation of the festival culminated in the strongest and most eclectic festival lineup all year, equal parts legacy acts and respected veterans sharing elbow room with emerging young talent from all camps. Never again will anyone be able to say they saw Death Grips , Four Tet , and Weird Al all take the same stage in the same day. Never again will someone be able to say they walked out of a live Comedy Bang! Bang! performance to be greeted by a picturesque sunset, Beach House , and a free sample of Bonnaroo’s Ben & Jerry’s flavor. It’s these fleeting moments that become the lasting memories that define Bonnaroo, and with so much happening over the four-day run, it’s a shock they don’t pull a Costanza on the whole thing.

The festival’s comedy and cinema tents are no longer places to escape to for the free A/C, both drawing some of the biggest crowds of the weekend for the grab bag of talent featured within. Lines for Daniel Tosh ’s two stand-up performances on Friday evening stretched across the park, hundreds either hoping to score a coveted seat or be personally insulted by their favorite comic. The weekend’s sole live Comedy Bang! Bang! performance also stretched the tent’s capacity, and show hosts Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts helped all the fans forget about the bands they were missing outside, with a little help from James Adomian ’s Jesse “The Body”/“The Mind” Ventura .

Cinephiles also found an escape at the Farm, as the Cinema Tent expanded its traditional Adult Swim programming to accommodate documentaries, independent films, and guest speakers. The National ’s Matt Berninger , Police Academy ’s Michael Winslow , and comedian/director Mike Birbiglia stand out as notable guests. That’s not to say that there wasn’t ample material provided by Adult Swim and IFC. They fleshed out the remaining schedule, along with screenings of classics like The Goonies , The Rocky Horror Picture Show , and Sixteen Candles . It was an area worthy of five buckets of popcorn.

Few festivals, if any, this calendar year offered the rare opportunity to experience a headliner’s intimate soundcheck, but Paul McCartney did just that. The rock legend came across the loudspeakers mid-Thursday evening, taking some of the airspace from the indie representatives -- Purity Ring , Django Django , and Deap Vally -- spread across the three other stages. Fans craned their necks to get opportune vantage points at the partitioned-off main stage as Sir Paul brought out a short setlist of hits, some of which wouldn’t make it into his show the next night, only making the privilege of catching the spontaneous “show” all the more rewarding. It’s this unbridled freedom and opportunity to explore that the artists have at Bonnaroo that continuously make it a success.

The weekend was not without its hiccups, but none that weren’t hurdled within a few hours. Earl Sweatshirt was forced to pull out due to a case of pneumonia that sidelined him for weeks, but his time slot was filled admirably by DIIV, who introduced themselves as the ill (physically and lyrically) rapper before ripping through a ferociously mellow afternoon set. Headliner Mumford & Sons , who brought a large faction of dedicated fans, had to forfeit their primetime Saturday night set due to a medical emergency, but it was flip-flop aficionado Jack Johnson to the rescue. Having appeared as a special surprise guest at the ALO late night show the prior evening, Johnson found himself in the unique position of being a headliner-quality musician at a festival scrambling for a miracle.

Assembling a band and a setlist on the fly is no easy task, especially in the middle of Tennessee, but Johnson and the festival organizers made pink lemonade out of dirt-covered lemons, and Johnson’s Saturday evening show offered another example of the Roo’s magic. His cover of Mumford’s “The Cave” became the set highlight, with appreciative fans of the folk stars cosigning the headliner swap and commending the eternally chill Johnson by blasting “Bubble Toes” from their car speakers for the rest of the weekend. Wu-Tang Clan ’s bombastic reunion set was marred by mic troubles, with Ghostface Killah ’s mic barely working for the duration of the show. But, all was not lost, as Method Man and RZA took the stage later that night for the new Hip Hop Superjam, which effectively became a second Wu-Tang set for those who missed out.

The level of talent went deep. In the early afternoon, smaller bands performed with as much gusto as the late-night headlining legacy acts. Queens native Action Bronson used his 1:30 p.m. Sunday slot to showcase his unpredictable personality, and his trips from the stage out into the crowd mid-song gave some lucky fans a chance to get a crazy contact high just from touching the permanently stoned rapper. Across the park, JEFF the Brotherhood tore through portions of their catalog, battling the heat index with their brutal rock ‘n’ roll. The fact that two talents like this, a burgeoning rapper and an established indie rock act, would be so popular this early in the day speaks to the consistency of talent and dedication throughout the festival’s lineup and its crowds, respectively.

However, it took a long, muddy road to get here. You’ve gotta remember that in its early years Bonnaroo was primarily a jam festival, and only over time did the Farm open its doors to a wider scope of genres. To get a better grasp of the festival’s history and this year’s production, Consequence of Sound recently spoke with AC Entertainment founder Ashley Capps about the time and effort that goes into each of their newsworthy lineups. Needless to say, it’s not as easy as a simple e-mail.

What goes into making the lineup every year, and how was this past year’s experience different, if it was at all?
Well, what really goes into making the lineup for Bonnaroo every year is our collective passion for music and live performance. Everyone on the Bonnaroo booking team is a fan. Our love of music is what led us here in the first place. And we listen to other fans, too, of course. They often turn us on to great new artists. Beyond that, it’s a collective, collaborative effort to put together the most exciting lineup we can conjure up, taking into account obvious factors such as who’s available and touring.

Which artist was the biggest stretch to get last year, and who was the most rewarding to get on the lineup?
Paul McCartney obviously stands out in that regard. It was a process that started with a meeting in London back in 2007… and, at the time, we were angling for him to headline in 2008. But, due to scheduling issues and other circumstances, this turned out to be five-and-a-half years in the making, so it was quite literally a long stretch to say the least. And a rewarding one as well… What can you say? He’s an icon among icons. It was an amazing moment in Bonnaroo history.

Do you have a full wish list going into picking and reaching out to the bands, or is it just a lot of throwing out names and deciding if they’re realistic or not?
Of course, we have our wish lists, and we very actively reach out to those artists to bring them to the festival. And, as with McCartney, the process can take some time. There’s a lot of scheduling to be coordinated, for a major artist especially. And many artists and their managers and agents approach us as well. Beyond that, we are very aware that the breadth and depth of the lineup at Bonnaroo each year is one of the festival’s unique and defining characteristics. So, as the process unfolds, we look to create certain synergies and balances in the booking to ensure an exciting and multifaceted lineup. It’s an organic process, but a controlled one as well.

How do you balance trying to get older acts or reunions like Wu-Tang and Tom Petty with getting younger bands that are getting a lot of hype?
We always have an eye and ear towards balancing many elements of the programming. Our guiding principle is to create the most compelling lineup that we can imagine, and it’s always important to honor your great traditions while living in the present and keeping an eye on the future. Each year, we want to be true to the Bonnaroo traditions while continuing to grow and keep things fresh and exciting. There’s no precise formula. Ultimately, we rely on our intuition.

Do you try to anticipate success at all with newer bands, or do you usually wait for results before adding them to the bill?
Sure. Again, we’re all very passionate music fans, so keeping our fingers on the pulse of what’s happening on the music scene is second nature. We just can’t help ourselves. We love introducing new bands early, when it makes sense, because we love to turn everyone on to our new discoveries. But, with some bands, it makes more sense to wait a bit. So, it depends. There are no clear rules.

Is there a great white whale that you’ve been trying to get for years and haven’t been able to?
Yes. And we’re working on it. Always.

Any plans you can share for this coming year?
We’re very pumped about 2014, but it’s still coming into focus. Just yesterday there was an exciting and unexpected new development. And, beyond music, there’s always plans in the works. But I can’t share any details yet. Except to guarantee some wonderful surprises!

Next year has plenty to live up to, but that’s what’s special about Bonnaroo. Every year is different for every person at the fest; it’s the experience that you have on the Farm, though, that makes or breaks the weekend. This year’s stellar lineup and “agreeable” weather helped to craft the perfect fishbowl for a hundred thousand kindred spirits to interact and exist within. It’s the amalgamation of the elements that makes Bonnaroo special and keeps us all going back each and every year.

Anyone carpooling next year?

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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