Has Bonnaroo Gone Too Mainstream? Organizers Say No

Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in 2016
Josh Brasted/WireImage

A general view of the atmosphere at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 9, 2016 in Manchester, Tenn.

Where have all the fest's signature jam bands gone? And why?

With U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Weeknd and a collection of pop, hip-hop and EDM headliners, Bonnaroo has veered more sharply than ever from its origins as a jam-band festival in a dusty Manchester, Tennessee, field. You have to drop down to the fifth line of the 2017 poster to find a heavily improvisational rock band -- Umphrey's McGee -- which is unusual for the festival, even in recent years.

"Historically, the Sunday-night band has been that classic-rock jam band, and that certainly is going to be different this year," says Dean Budnick, editor-in-chief of Relix magazine, which is devoted to The Grateful Dead and its successors. "There's no doubt about that."

Adds a high-ranking concert-business source: "This might have been the year where there wasn't the perfect [headliner] that sort of fit that hippie mold."

Bonnaroo drew some 45,000 fans last June, a 46 percent drop from its peak in 2011, and organizers were undoubtedly under pressure to fix the problem quickly. (Live Nation, the world's biggest promoter, bought a controlling interest in the festival in 2015, then purchased one of its founding promoters, AC Entertainment of Knoxville, Tennessee, late last year.) U2, which recently announced a stadium tour, had been informally discussing the possibility with Bonnaroo organizers for two or three years until the timing finally clicked in.

Although festival headliners in recent years have been mainstream rock and pop stars such as Billy Joel, Kanye West and Paul McCartney, Bonnaroo has always included a top jam-band attraction such as Dead and Company last year and My Morning Jacket in 2015. Bonnaroo's debut, in 2002, starred Widespread Panic, Phish's Trey Anastasio, String Cheese Incident, Govt Mule, Galactic and others who wouldn't have seemed out of place on the H.O.R.D.E. Festival from the previous decade. By contrast, this year's lineup resembles that of pop-and-rock-oriented competitors such as Lollapalooza and Coachella. 

But Bonnaroo's organizers say they don't view the festival as tethered to Jerry Garcia guitar solos, and haven't for many years. "We certainly have jam-band roots from the first year, but our goal wasn't to create a jam-band festival. The goal was always to create a great music festival," says Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment, Bonnaroo's founding promoter. "If there's a governing principle, it's to keep it fresh and exciting and new and not repeat ourselves -- it's a fine balance between maintaining continuity while still celebrating the moment today."

Almost every Bonnaroo lineup in recent years has contained one prominent jam band, and the festival has taken pains to play up its all-star "Superjams," which have included Derek Trucks, Dr. John and The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach in recent years. That has changed for 2017: Beyond Umphrey's, improvisational bands such as New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Greensky Bluegrass and this year's Superjam are in tiny print on the poster.

Could that be because of an increased Live Nation presence? Rick Farman, co-founder of Superfly Productions, Bonnaroo's other founding organizer, says "We haven't changed our overall view of how talent should come together. We're another year integrated with the Live Nation team and to be part of their team and knowledge base is a huge asset for Bonnaroo."

Adds the high-ranking concert-industry source, "I don't think the undercard is influenced by that at all. All these festivals are trying to put on the best shows they can."

Capps says that booking this year's festival "was pretty much the same thing as always -- there were a couple more voices in the mix, which is always healthy." He echoes Farman in saying that Live Nation's muscle has helped the festival evolve. "The access to resources has started to have an influence," he says. "Last year, for the first time, we had running water, we were able to put in showers and bathrooms.

"Then, of course," he adds, "Live Nation is responsible for U2, who we started dreaming of having on our lineup a decade ago ... I'm sure it didn't hurt!"