To be honest, Billy Joel was one of the main drawing points to attending my first ever Bonnaroo. In a time where there are seemingly endless music festivals, it gets harder and harder to land a legitimate festival headliner. Billy Joel fit the mold quite well, a legacy act and Rock n Roll Hall of Famer with a ridiculously deep catalog of tunes that appeal to all demographics.
With pretty much the entire 80,000 Bonnaroovians taking in his set as there was nothing going against it, Billy Joel ripped through a memorable set that put the energy back in people who had spent the previous four days in the humidity with precious few showers.
“I went to Woodstock,” Joel remarked at some point during his two-hour set. “I didn’t play it — I just went there. This is what it might have looked like.”
Joel tore through his hits — from “Zanzibar” to my personal favorite “Movin’ Out” to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to “Piano Man.” One surprise during the set was when Joel brought out his roadie of thirtysomething years named Chainsaw and he sang AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” while Billy played the guitar. “And that’s how it’s done, bitches!” Chainsaw exclaimed as he exited the stage after nailing the performance.
Billy Joel’s five-song encore began with “Uptown Girl” and completed with “Only the Good Die Young.” There were many sprawled out on the ground with their eyes closed, but many more that stood up and took in the last set of the day with extreme enthusiasm. There were even many who were bummed out that the set ended at 11 PM, a full thirty minutes earlier than the scheduled end time. Despite four days of music that often ran until 5 AM or later, people wanted more — perhaps because it meant the move back to reality could be put off just a little bit longer.
During her weekend one performance at Coachella, Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine broke her foot jumping off the stage. It hindered her during her tour dates that followed, but by the time she took the main stage at Bonnaroo, her injury was a thing of the past. Welch ran across the stage and through the crowd like a madwoman, getting in an insane amount of cardio in the process.
Welch’s vocal prowess was complemented nicely by the work of her excellent band. “Shake It Out” was one of many songs where the backup vocalists pushed Florence to up her game. A slowed-down tempo for the Calvin Harris song “Sweet Nothing” gave the large crowd goosebumps.
Florence was truly humbled by the large turnout and support for her recently released album How Big How Blue How Beautiful. When it came time to perform the title track, Florence asked the crowd to look up at the sky, which was quite beautiful as the sunlight lasted not much longer.
One highlight of the set was when Florence spotted a sign that said “HUG ME.” Florence said if she could make it to the front she’ll give her a hug. Seeing the Bonnaroo crowd help the girl make it quickly to the front of the crowd and onto the stage was an awesome sight to see, and the female fan got TWO hugs out of it.
Florence + the Machine capped what might have been the best set of the weekend with “Spectrum” and “Dog Days Are Over.” They proved with this performance that they are bonafide festival headliners of any level.
Sunday’s undercard was a nice variety of upbeat sets to help carry people to the finish line. 2015 festival regular MØ was one of the mid-day highlights with a high-energy set in one of the tents.
MØ would jump to the front of the crowd and throw water at them, cooling them down as she heated them up with her sexy dance jams. From “Walk This Way” to her cover of the Spice Girls’ “Say You Will Be There,” MØ had the crowd in the palm of her hand. When it came time for her to crowd-surf during the set-closing “Lean On,” it became one of the favorites of many for the entire weekend.
Robert Plant and the Sensational Shapeshifters delivered another awesome festival performance as Plant had a great time sharing some Led Zeppelin favorites as well as tracks with his new band. The problem was that during the more quiet songs, you could hear rapper G-Eazy very clearly from one of the tents.
G-Eazy is where all the youngsters went after Florence’s set ended. The tent was packed with the youthful demographic that still had enough energy to go hard for the hour-long set.
Last time twenty-one pilots were at Bonnaroo, lead singer Tyler Joseph climbed the stage as high as he could go. When the band finally took the stage later than the posted time, Joseph claimed that he was forced to sign something saying he wouldn’t do it again on Sunday. Despite this, they still delivered a high energy set including drummer Josh Dun drumming on top of a platform that was on top of the crowd.
Some of the other sets you could hear people talking about later in the evening were rappers Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Brandi Carlile, AWOLNATION, and Spoon. There was a little bit of everything for everyone, except electronic was noticeably missing from the final day — perhaps as a way to keep the drug usage down as people got prepared to head home that night or the next morning.
Heading back to camp after Billy Joel, there was a certain afterglow to Bonnaroo. People kept shouting “BONNAROO!!!” at the top of their lungs, high-fiving each other on the way out the gates. Despite four or five very long days in the blistering heat, you could see that most people didn’t want the experience to come to an end. As I got back to my campsite, across from me was a guy dancing on top of his car with some glowsticks — his night was clearly not close to over and I’m sure that went for a lot more people.
Final thoughts on Bonnaroo
It was the deep lineup that got me to Tennessee this year for Bonnaroo, but I’ll be back again for more reasons than that. I’d say it’s the second biggest U.S. festival behind Coachella at this point, but with a much better vibe. I didn’t spot any negativity the entire weekend, and it wasn’t all about the Instagrams and being seen the way that Coachella can often times be for some.
Bonnaroo was also a festival I saw the most amount of drugs at despite claims heading in that there was a new district attorney in town that was cracking down. The security hardly patted people down on the way in. They had you empty your pockets occasionally but never checked what was in your hand. People brought in their own booze and drugs with no problem. That definitely played a part in the amount of people that were passed out all across the fields at all points of the day, and the high number of people that had to be taken to the medical tent.
Bonnaroo released numbers that said despite 80,000 people, only 474 showers were used for around an estimated 30,000 showers the whole weekend. I’m not sure what validity can be placed on those numbers, but that tells you an accurate story at just how dirty everyone was by the second and third days. Bonnaroo was by far the smelliest festival I’ve been to — but it didn’t take away from the experience at all.
At Bonnaroo, it was never an issue talking to the people around you — about what you saw that weekend, what you were excited to see, and just the general enjoyment of the festival. People were nice when it came to trying to get closer to the stage. When someone accidentally bumped into someone, they usually gave heartfelt apologies and were met with “It’s all good” from the other side.
What separates Bonnaroo from the other festivals I’ve gone to is that it’s more like a community than a festival. A large percentage of people you encountered were on their second, fifth, tenth Bonnaroo or something similar. When I told these people it was my first time, I was met with a look of genuine excitement for me at what I was about to experience. When the weekend came to an end, I knew exactly why — because Bonnaroo is that escape from reality where weird is normal and you can pretty much do anything you want within reason and you won’t be judged for it. It was an intoxicating feeling that will have me back on the Farm before too long.
Words: Mark E. Ortega
Photos courtesy of Bonnaroo