By: Joseph Kathmann
New Paint Job, Same Old Roo
Another year, another Roo. I, like many, was pretty disappointed when the 2017 Bonnaroo lineup dropped. Gratuitous amounts of hip hop and EDM found its way into what was once a hippie-fest, and I was very concerned that those fans wouldn't come to Roo in droves. After all there are dozens of EDM festivals out there, why would those fans come to Roo when none of the headliners are in the genre? Well, the answer was.....many. To my surprise, Bonnaroo's attendance actually increased from 50k last year to just over 65k this year. However, this still marks the third lowest-attended Roo since 2006, so we have a long way to go to get back to the 75k average the festival had before Live Nation purchased the festival. And, despite being one of the older fellas at the festival, I still felt like it was the same old Roo. The vibe that brings me back every year was alive and well despite the lackluster lineup, and I still felt like I was right at home on the farm once again. While 2014 is still my favorite Roo, I can say with absolute certainty that this year's Roo was more enjoyable than 2016's. And believe me when I say I was not expecting that heading into the festival this year.
Best Set: Royal Blood
I'm actually pretty surprised I ended up calling this my favorite set of the weekend. Heading into the festival I was looking forward to other sets far more than Royal Blood's. Shows like Future Islands, U2, Lorde, and Portugal. The Man, caught my eye far more than this British rock duo. But boy was I wrong. Frontman Mike Kerr puts on a heck of a show. He is the vocalist, guitarist, and bassist.....all simultaneously. Needless to say it was pretty mesmerizing watching him play these incredibly complex bass/guitar on one instrument while singing. And it also helped that his drummer, Ben Thatcher, was pretty dang good too. Royal Blood is on top of the rock world right now, and with a new album dropping that is my favorite of the year so far, this is one set you shouldn't miss.
Best/Worst Set: Lorde
I wanted to include Lorde's set on here for one main reason:. From the get-go her set was marred by technical problems, as it actually started with a 30 minute delay as the crew tried desperately to fix her monitors. Whatever solution they finally presented was a very shoddy one, as it seemed the crew merely put a band-aid over the problem and told Lorde that was the best they could do. What followed was confirmation of why Lorde is one of my favorite people in the business: she came out and she gave Roo her all, despite the fact that her sound issues were nowhere near solved. She kept signaling off-stage for the crew to adjust her monitor's EQ, and several times she just took out her in-ears so she could actually hear. She was clearly frustrated, and yet she did everything she possibly could to give her fans the best possible show she could. Lorde may only be 20 years old, but that night on the farm she acted like a 20 year veteran.
Worst Set: Cage the Elephant
I really didn't see a bad set at Roo this year. Cage just gets this title because frontman Matt Shultz was sick. No fault of his, just bad luck, but because of this their songs sounded, well, terrible. Shultz had to take most of the songs down an octave to compensate, and he didn't even try any of the screams. Fortunately for his fans, he didn't hold back in his performance. He was the same ol' Shultz we know and love there, he just sounded terrible. That and the fact that I have to have a "Worst Set" category are the only two reasons Cage finds itself on this list. Thank God the great Red Hot Chili Peppers followed them up.
WTF Set: Travis Scott
I came into this set a bit late as Lorde's technical difficulties caused her to go 30 minutes over, but once I got there I was almost wishing I had made my way over earlier. Apart from the rapper putting on a really solid set, the dude had a GIANT eagle animatronic on stage. See him in the picture? Kind of? Ya, that's a freaking eagle, because why not? As I continue to watch more and more rap sets, I've seen a certain trend develop: memorability comes not from your skills as a rapper, but the show you put on. The more crap you put on your stage, whether it be fire or confetti or whatever, the more people will go nuts. Travis Scott definitely recognized this. Did I mention it also breathed fire? Because.... why not?
Biggest Disappointment: Chance the Rapper
Heading into Bonnaroo, this was one of my most anticipated sets. After all, Chance had become the unofficial "Mayer of Bonnaroo" over the past few years, frequently making surprise appearances at various sets (he made a cameo at Macklemore's set last year) and even stealing a surprise set at the Silent Disco back in 2016. But he was never given a full set until now. Who was going to show? Was fellow Chicago native Kanye West going to make an appearance? Lil Wayne? Future? Francis & The Lights? (Who was at the festival just a day earlier, too) Anyone? Sadly, the answer was no, and Chance stayed on stage for his 75 minute set (that might as well have been a headlining one) by himself. While his set was good, I couldn't help but be devastated by the thought of what could have been. This was an easy choice for biggest disappointment of the weekend.
Biggest Surprise: Tank and The Bangas
A very last-minute addition to the festival, Tank and The Bangas have been riding a wave of success after NPR named them the unanimous victor of their 2017 Tiny Desk concert. Their set was clearly tacked on-they found themselves opening one of the tents at 12:30 (which is stupid-early for a festival that goes until 4 or 5 AM every day) on the final day of the festival. A small, very exhausted group of festival-goers (including myself) stumbled over to the "This Tent" for their early set, most brought together by NPR's coverage. And we quickly discovered that the hype was real. The group's marvelous (and unique) combination of gospel, psychedelia, and hip hop plus the energy and vigor of the group's frontwoman, Tarriona "Tank" Ball, helped the small crowd wake up for the final day of the festival in a big way. While the band will probably never reach star status, they will likely be a festival staple of years to come. Thank you, NPR.
Overall, Bonnaroo continues to set a great standard for how a big festival should be run. The flush-able toilets continue to be a wonderful addition for the festival, but it still didn't prevent the port-o-lets from being a crap shoot by Sunday, despite considerable efforts to keep them at least somewhat clean. Food is crazy-expensive, which can be a little frustrating since you're on an island at Bonnaroo, but the food out in the campgrounds was very reasonable and delicious. Nothing like a coffee and a breakfast burrito for $5 to get your day started. I also made it over to the cinema tent for the first time this year, as I had the chance to get in Centeroo early on Saturday to check out a screening of Donnie Darko with director Richard Kelly on hand to answer questions afterwards. Personally I don't see much appeal in skipping out on music to see a comedian or movie (though I know that's one of the things that makes Roo so unique) but the space is certainly nice, and it's always great to get into some a/c to escape the Tennessee heat. I'm also glad Bonnaroo is going the route of Lollapalooza and giving EDM its own stage. "The Other Tent" has increasingly housed the EDM acts of Roo, (last year the only set I saw there was Third Eye Blind) and this year the festival finally built the stage from the ground up for EDM, removed the tent, and changed the name to "The Other." I went over there for a bit just to check it out, and the stage seemed to be a wonderful haven for EDM/hip hop fans, as there were ample video screens on the stage for the artist to play with and the EQ was overwhelming bass-heavy. This is how all festivals should do it because if not you'll get a bass heavy EQ at the main stage like Bunbury did just a week prior. Dear God, PromoWest, can you please look at Bonnaroo and run your festival even half as efficiently as Live Nation does?
At the end of the day, despite the less-than-stellar lineup that featured WAY too much EDM, my love for these few short days spent on the farm has never been stronger. I have every intention of making the pilgrimage again next year, no matter how EDM-heavy the lineup is. Bonnaroo will never die, it just has a new makeover.
Who are we?
Derek Jung and Joseph Kathmann -- Just two ordinary (debatable) guys that love talking about music. You can read more about us here: