The third annual Bonnaroo, held June 11-13 in Manchester, Tenn., recorded the festival’s best numbers yet for gross and attendance, but the death of two festival-goers cast a pall on the event’s strong performance.
More than 90,000 fans braved sweltering heat and the occasional severe thunderstorm to watch more than 80 bands take the stage on a 700-acre farm about 60 miles south of Nashville.
Bonnaroo is co-produced by Superfly Productions and A.C. Entertainment, which estimate this year’s gross at $14.5 million. That figure will likely be enough to make the festival tops among all engagements for the year. Last year’s Bonnaroo grossed $11.5 million, second only to Bruce Springsteen’s record-setting 10-night stand at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
But while Bonnaroo 2004 was a huge success operationally, musically and financially, the deaths of a 22-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man overshadowed the achievements. Both attendees were taken from the festival grounds to Manchester Medical Center, where they died. Authorities suspect drugs as a factor in both cases, pending autopsy reports.
These were the first deaths at Bonnaroo, and producers say they made every attempt to be prepared for such emergencies.
“I would say we have one of the best [Emergency Medical Treatment] staffs out there,” says Jonathan Mayers, co-owner of New Orleans-based Superfly. “Our medical director has been on a lot of these type events, [including] Woodstock and the Phish events. He knows how to handle these situations, and how to react carefully. People’s safety is the No. 1 concern out here.”
Bonnaroo’s track record in terms of safety has been good, Mayers points out. “When you have this many people out here, the percentages are that there will be some incident,” he says. “We’ve been fortunate so far that it’s been a small percentage. It’s a big responsibility when you’re out here.”
Bob Dylan, the Dead, Trey Anastasio, Dave Matthews & Friends, David Byrne and Steve Winwood were among the acts on the bill. Winwood replaced Willie Nelson on Saturday after the latter was forced to bow out because of carpal-tunnel injuries.
This was the Dead’s second appearance at Bonnaroo, after closing last year’s festival. “This is just a stop on the road, man,” says bassist Phil Lesh. “A way station. To wherever or whatever. It’s all about the journey.”
That said, the veteran band seems impressed with how Bonnaroo is run. “They really have it together,” says drummer Mickey Hart. “They have the formula down. There are no great lines out there, and everybody seems really happy.”
Other acts on the bill included Primus, Wilco, Burning Spear, String Cheese Incident, Ani DiFranco, moe., Gov’t Mule, Los Lobos, Galactic, Yo La Tengo, Femi Kuti, Gomez, Yonder Mountain String Band, Damien Rice, North Mississippi Allstars, Hill Country Review, Beth Orton, My Morning Jacket, Gillian Welch, the Del McCoury Band, Taj Mahal, Sam Bush Band, Vida Blue featuring the Spam Allstars, Los Lonely Boys, Grandaddy, Kings Of Leon, Bill Laswell’s Material, Soulive, Neko Case, Calexico, Leftover Salmon, Cut Chemist, Chris Robinson, Umphrey’s McGee, Maroon5, the Black Keys, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Bad Plus, Marc Broussard, Donovan Frankenreiter, Blue Merle and Medeski, Martin & Wood.
Mayers hopes to continue improving the festival. “Every year you’re learning,” he says. “Every time you think you’ve got a handle on it, new situations happen. That’s why every year we step it up, and we know next year’s gonna be better, and the next better than that.”