A massive, sweaty, psychedelic kaleidoscope of music and oddity blooms in the forests of Tennessee for one weekend each year: The Bonnaroo Arts & Music Festival, the best music festival in America.
For a decade or so I’ve covered nearly every major festival on the circuit, from Coachella to Sasquatch to Lollapalooza to Austin City Limits and beyond, and as far as I’m concerned, theres nothing that comes anywhere close to Bonnaroo. It’s a massive destination event with all the right elements, tucked away in the lush Tennessee forests on a 700-acre farm 60 miles south of Nashville, with a total lineup of more than 100 bands and over 20 comedians, late night parties, locally-sourced benefit dinners, all-night jams and so much more.
On this episode we’ve got Leigh Grainey and Jake Whitener, two music publicists for Bonnaroo and Big Hassle Media, who work with and under the incredible Ken Weinstein. We dive deep into Bonnaroo, go behind the scenes, and talk about favorite memories & iconic moments, what makes Bonnaroo different from an operational perspective, and why with Bonnaroo, often times, music is secondary to the experience on the whole – you go for the culture, stay for the music. In an increasingly claustrophobic world, Bonnaroo is one of the few places you can truly escape.
The first day of ‘Roo often doesn’t have a full-fledged headliner, opting instead for a soft-start production that allows attendees to get their bearings as they set up camp and familiarize themselves with the festival’s unique campground culture. It’s a greast way to start things off, and ultimately, that’s the spirit of Bonnaroo. It’s as great a sense of freedom as anyone can possibly have these days, at least surrounded by 80,000 other like-minded music lovers. The energy is joyous, with little concern for ego, machismo or authority. It’s what separates this festival from all the others, and gives this little corner of Tennessee forest a genuinely beautiful energy.
I remember what might be the first standout moment for me at Bonnaroo, back in 2010. The overall festival mood hit its highwater mark during the Flaming Lips’ full-album run through Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moom, particularly “The Great Gig In The Sky”. I remember all these wide-eyed dilated-pupil masses near the front, just pulled into a vortex of psychedelic alchemy. To those lucky few hundred or so up front, too immersed in the moment to be concerned with the crush of bodies and rivers of midnight sweat enveloping them, memories & impressions were made that language has difficulty expressing.
Ultimately, moments like these are exactly what makes the hassle of trudging out to the middle of the country in swamp-air season worthwhile. It’s something that makes all the trolly debates with the “festivals suck!” crowd futile, entirely useless. It’s an experience that can’t be replicated through a digital stream, good speakers or a vicarious retelling. If you’re in love with the music, as so very many of us are, your freedom awaits you in the pit, in the fountain, in the middle of a field.
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