Though it was the first year Live Nation had fully taken over, Bonnaroo began and ended just as it always had for the past 15 years: with crawfish. The annual Manchester, Tennessee-based music and arts festival kicked off Thursday (June 9) night with a crawfish boil hosted by Chris “Shaggy” Davis of NOLA Crawfish King whose tent, refrigerated trucks and 4,000 pounds of crustaceans remained nestled in the woods among a sea of tents and pathways lit by string lights over the four day event.
In its own way, Davis’ personal history with the festival captures the way Bonnaroo has managed to retain an air of humility over the past decade-and-a-half despite changing with the times. “We did everything from red beans and rice to crawfish for free for 250 people in the beginning. We’d spend our own money to make it happen and we created such a vibe that the festival asked us to continue what we do but on a larger scale,” he told Billboard of the initial soup kitchen setup. “Eventually Bonnaroo asked that we vend things instead of keeping it free. We don’t mind it but we we’re not making a lot of money and we were never here for the money.”
Most different, he said, was the way Bonnaroo has increasingly become genre-bending to appeal to a younger demographic. “When I first started coming here, all the music was my stuff — the jam band scene. I’m a veteran of Grateful Dead — I saw them over 200 times,” said Davis, who has served cuisine to everyone from Dave Matthews to Skrillex. “I saw a Jack Johnson set around 2007 — back then we strapped a backpack cooler with a case of Sierra Nevadas on, the shoot dropped us off behind the big stage… and it was just stupid fun,” he recalled nostalgically.
While the 2016 lineup included many of the names hitting other festivals this summer — LCD Soundsystem, Death Cab For Cutie, Haim, Ellie Goulding and Father John Misty among them — it also nodded to its jam band roots with a closing double-set by Dead & Company, the John Mayer-fronted group consisting of former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. “Over the years it’s pretty much just changed with the times. Obviously the 40-somethings are not out camping at festivals. My daughter who is now eighteen and started coming here with me when she was 15 — she knows every freakin’ band on the list like I did back in the beginning.”
New this year: 300 flushable toilets for the 80,000 attendees, though portable toilets still had the greatest presence. “This right here is my favorite part of festivals,” soul singer Leon Bridges joked of the Spot-O-Pot stench that permeated the grounds at times. Maybe it was because of the rural, farm-based location — but noticeably absent at Bonnaroo were the branded beauty bars and designer-sponsored stands that have made their way into other large-scale festivals over the years. Women in tie-dye with glitter sprayed onto their faces, arms, legs or topless chests opted for henna tattoo and jewelry stands with healing crystals. “It’s all part of the vibe that makes Roo special,” one attendee said.
All in all, there were more than 100 sets across five stages with names that annually confuse festival-goers: Which Stage, What Stage, This Tent and That Tent. But most people just followed the sound of music while wishing one another a “Happy Roo.” Ultimately, though, it all ended with Davis. “I am the last show at Bonnaroo,” he said shortly before Chris Stapleton’s set started on Saturday (June 11). “At 12 midnight, post Dead & Company, there’s not another thing going on at this festival aside from me and the 1,000 pounds of crawfish we boil for everyone.”
Here are 12 behind-the-scenes moments we saw, heard and loved in between:
— Borns joined pals Vulfpeck before playing his own set at 10:45 p.m. on Thursday. “They’re from Michigan, too, and they’re amazing musicians — always hamming it up,” he told Billboard while sipping a smoothie before taking the stage. “We’re playing the single ‘Back Pocket.’ There’s a female vocalist who’s not here tonight, so I’ll be doing some of the high parts with Theo Katzman. All their stuff is super groovy — super good feel.”
— Lucius gave their best Pearl Jam impression. Peter Lalish and Dan Molad of Lucius sang their version of “Better Man” while frontwomen Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig changed into their Nudie Cohn-inspired tour looks by Austin-designer Fort Lonesome before playing on Friday (June 10). Members of group stayed through the weekend to catch Pearl Jam’s headlining set on Saturday (June 11).
— Buses, airstreams, tents and RVs. The dopest of them all belonged to Lee Ann Womack, who had a vintage silver airstream complete with pink flamingos set up for the entire festival. “I just love the music here. People have a spirit of discovery here, it’s not that it’s being shoved at them,” she said of Bonnaroo. “It’s sort of a family affair this year. I have the airstream and my family here; my daughter [Aubrie Sellers] played [on Friday]. It was so hot and I’m standing there as a mother thinking ‘Oh gosh, is she too hot?’ And then I’m also like, “Give ‘em hell girl!’”
— Bob Weir brought the vibes. Dead & Company’s Sunday night headlining set featured a surprise appearance by Donna Godchaux, who, along with her late husband Keith Godchaux, toured extensively with the Grateful Dead. To the delight of Deadheads in the crowd, Godchaux, who calls Weir “Ace,” joined in on “Bertha,” “Playing in the Band,” “Bird Song” and the rock opera-esque “Terrapin Station.” Despite the tragedies in Orlando which happened overnight, and Weir addressed separately, good vibes spread from the tour bus to the stage.
— The Knocks, who revealed they’re at work on a project for Baz Luhrmann. “We’re working on a Baz film right now, he really knows music and is such a legend. It’s been amazing but also a little nightmarish because we’ll send something, then he’ll hear something and want something different. If it works out though, it’s going to be really amazing,” B-Roc said. The duo also reminisced on the most they’ve roughed-it at a music festival. “We tried to camp out once at Camp Bisco [in Scranton] — we got a bunch of friends together and pitched a tent but then it rained,” laughed B-Roc. “I’m from New York City and didn’t grow up camping,” JPatt added. “I slept in the car.”
— Andra Day’s two special guests. At her Friday (June 10) set, Day brought out saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who ruled Saturday with a Miguel-assisted Superjam. “He’s one of the most important artists of our time,” she told Billboard. But the day was special for another reason, too: Day brought out a cancer-surviving fan who had initially been diagnosed with stage four cancer and given no hope of living. “They said they listened to ‘Rise Up’ every day, every time they’d be going to chemo. They told me it was the song that would get them going. It’s a reminder that you’re not here to be super rich and famous and make a bunch of money, you can be healing if you let music be that way.”
— #BonnaGrannies. Sitting on stage at Chris Stapleton’s incredible Saturday set — which was attended by Pharrell and Miguel — were Bonnaroo’s four oldest and by far most popular attendees, the BonnaGrannies. The Nashville-based women in their late eighties received cheers from the crowd every time the camera panned to them. Their sparkling red and blue cowgirl hats were swapped out for baseball caps that Stapleton and his wife gifted the women after the show. “I cried during his show. When they sang ‘You Are My Sunshine’… oh I’m going to cry again,” laughed Alice Ann Barge. “He gave us these hats and the record, I can’t wait to get home and play it. He and his wife seem to be so in love with each other,” she said before entering the festival’s Silent Disco. “Tonight we’re going to see Pearl Jam.”
— Haim played two new songs for a cheering crowd before a lightning storm temporarily halted the festival on Saturday (June 11). “There are a ridiculous amount of babes in here,” Alana Haim shouted from Which Stage, where she and sisters Danielle and Este ran through hits like “Honey and I” and “Don’t Save Me” with some seriously on-point synchronized movements. Fans were also treated to two new tracks: “Give Me Just A Little Of Your Love” and “Nothing’s Wrong.”
— Les Claypool and Sean Lennon talked about their new record, Monolith Of Phobos, and fake realities before having their portrait taken by Danny Clinch. “Elon Musk just said it’s a billion times more likely that we are living in an artificial reality than the one reality because future aliens would be able to make fake realities,” said Lennon. “We are a part of some alien video game or interactive experience,” added Claypool, who has been playing with an Italian bass from the 1960s for his shows with Lennon. “Because we’re doing a lot of throw-back psychedelia I’m utilizing an old echo fiddle bass, which is really cool. I used it in the past with some old Primus stuff but it really fits with this.”
— Bonnaroo veteran Grace Potter, who talked her solo album Midnight and festival staples. “It’s not my first time at the rodeo, but Bonnaroo has been particularly special this year. The lay of the land has stayed pretty much the same,” she said after her set. “But everything has changed since I’ve taken ownership of my career. Fame and fortune is just kind of gross and I was constantly consumed in what it was doing to other people instead of focusing on myself and what it was doing to me. I never had a break down, I never had to fall off the deep end but this is the closest I’ve ever come,” she said of eventually breaking away from The Nocturnals. As for the item she always has on hand at festivals? “Coconut oil. If you get gum in your hair, dirt on your face — it will get it all off. Plus you can use it as lube for sexual encounters. It’s good for everything.”
— X Ambassadors’ Sam Harris on the somber reality of the shooting that transpired the night prior in Orlando. “It hits so close to home,” said Harris, who had performed in Orlando three days earlier. “Yesterday I called my parents, I called my girlfriend — all I wanted to do was go home, but I can’t and nor should I. We can’t be afraid to continue to come out, to see music, to dance, to perform,” he told Billboard. Hours later he would rip off his shirt during the song “Naked” before ultimately jumping into and surfing an ecstatic crowd that raised him up during “Renegades.”
— Heat and signage. With a heat index that hit 110 degrees on Saturday, festival-goers clung to the shade when they weren’t at water-filling stations. The torrid temperatures, however, didn’t stop them from raising an assortment of homemade signs high up in the air. Among them: ”Pee-Wee Roo” and a Yoda with the face of Eddie Murphy.
— ’90s nostalgia ran rampant at Third Eye Blind’s Sunday night set. Hits like “Semi-Charmed Life” and “Jumper” had the crowd cheering for an encore for a solid five minutes after the band left the stage. “If that happens next year, we’re coming back out,” Jenkins told Billboard. Earlier in the day, he spoke candidly about the violence in Orlando. “The fact that we are the only country in the world where this happens is ludicrous. I’m so tired of this period of grieving, we have to take action. The Republicans have the control of the whole gun industry and that’s a problem,” he said. But he and his band loosened up before the show by speaking in fake Australian actions. “We get loose and funny just before we go on and when the five of us are like that I feel a connectedness to them and I get an openness.”