Bonnaroo loves to compare itself to Las Vegas. Centeroo -- Bonnaroo's sprawling campus of concert tents, food vendors, merch stands, and enormous stages -- is open non-stop from the moment the gates are opened Thursday until the last headliner takes their final bow Sunday night. Like Sin City, Centeroo becomes 24 hour party central.
If you've been to Vegas at any point in the last twenty years, you probably know that the desert oasis isn't just the bastion of hedonism it used to be. Between the Wynn resorts and the utter transformation of The Strip, Vegas is a town that caters to everybody's needs. If you like gambling or women (or men) or food or shows or golfing or even amusement parks, you're taken care of. The seeds of Bonnaroo's own transformation to a one-stop, one-size-fits-all music haven have never been more clear.
I'm one of those people that likes to try and pick fights with Live Nation. I have trouble keeping my inner Bolshevik in line (what's good, Jeremy Corbyn
). My big fear ever since it was announced that Live Nation had acquired Bonnaroo from Superfly Productions was that Live Nation's unwavering commitment to the bottom line would rob Bonnaroo of the personality it had so carefully cultivated over the last decade and a half. Capitalism is still a nihilistic death cult but Live Nation haven't forgotten or pushed aside what makes Bonnaroo the most magical place on Earth. Or at least the most magical place this side of Orlando.
Like Coachella and Lollapalooza before it, Bonnaroo has finally embraced mega-festival style booking to match its mega-fest status. Bonnaroo has been one of the Big 3 American music festivals for a decade now, but its lineup (minus the headliners) has always traditionally leaned heavily into bluegrass, jam bands, and beloved indie rock and pop. Those bands are still represented on this year's lineup
. Greensky Bluegrass, Umphrey's McGee, and Tegan and Sara fit that bill to name a few, but the lineup's texture has been expanding dramatically over the years. This year's Thursday lineup was a perfect microcosm for how Bonnaroo found the way to balance the needs of long-time Roo vets while finding a way to update the East Coast's best festival for a younger audience.
The first set I caught Thursday was rising country star Luke Combs. Last year, Bonnaroo graced us with performances from alt-country titans Chris Stapleton
and Jason Isbell
. There aren't any country performers on the bill of quite that stature but Combs drew a massive crowd. His single "Hurricane" raced up the country charts last year, and although his music falls a little too firmly into the realm of redneck country for my tastes (not a disparaging remark; I come from a long line of West Virginia rednecks), there's no denying Comb's hellaciously powerful voice and tightly tuned Appalachian sound. Considering the This Tent was packed to capacity with a massive crowd hanging outside and everybody singing along, Luke Combs is going to be making a big mark in Nashville.
That won't be our only fill of country for the weekend. We've got CAM and Margo Price penciled in for Sunday, and something in our gut is telling us Margo Price is going to leave us stunned.
Minnesota pop-rockers Hippo Campus
took the This Tent after Combs and were the damn near platonic ideal of a Thursday Bonnaroo set. At 21, Hippo Campus join Lorde
and a handful of others as being easily the youngest performers at the fest, but you wouldn't know it from watching them perform. Hippo Campus have the explosive stage presence of a band that's been doing this for years and years.
If any up & coming act this weekend has that "it" factor to become a crossover pop smash, it's Hippo Campus. Their combination of Vampire Weekend/Graceland world pop with Talking Heads-infused post-punk/funk is modernized with the barely contained whirlwind energy of Grouplove. They drew one of the largest Thursday crowds since alt-J in 2013, and I saw guy and girl alike swooning in appreciation for a band that will be playing one of Bonnaroo's two main stages in the next three or four years. You can take that to the bank.
And the rest of Thursday's lineup was a buffet of great tunes from as many styles as you can imagine. Did you want blues rock dripping with so much sexuality that it might get you pregnant? July Talk
had you covered. That's only half hyperbole. July Talk's two lead singers basically fuck on stage. Watch our Brooklyn Bowl concert with the band if you doubt the claim
Were you jonesing for EDM? Goldfish and Haywyre were throwing down at Bonnaroo's newly christened The Other stage. Bonnaroo has made a major commitment to electronic acts in the last four years. They have to if they want to draw younger Millennials and even post-Millennials who are now old enough to attend the festival. We have no clue what the hell you call that generation. Maybe "we're all getting old as shit and we'll all be dead before we know it." That's not quite catchy enough. Baeble readers, help us out if you can.
Even if wanted a little bit of old fashioned, punk-adjacent rock & roll, the Orwells
called Thursday home this year and are another band that we won't be surprised to see taking over a Bonnaroo stage in years to come. Their Jersey forebears, The Front Bottoms
, are kicking off the What Stage tomorrow and if any Jersey punkers have earned it, it's them.
To bring that Vegas metaphor full circle and to bring our tale of Bonnaroo 2017's Thursday to a close, we've got one last little anecdote for you. Vegas casinos have a ton of tricks to make their patrons lose track of time. Respectable folks usually don't want to spend all day gambling against the house so they make sure respectable patrons don't know what time it is. There are no clocks. There are no windows. Therefore, the good times never stop rolling.
I'd been awake for over 24 hours by the time I rolled back to my tent Thursday evening. I figured I'd sleep an hour or two and then roll through shows til the wee hours of the morning. I woke up bathed in bright light and figured the sun was still out. I was wrong. I was camped right underneath a massive spotlight. It was midnight, and I decided to just go back to sleep. Bonnaroo's organizers like to remind you that it's a marathon and not a sprint. Be happy that you've never seen me try to run either.
We're here for the long haul, and we'll have all of your Roo needs covered for the rest of the weekend. U2
is headlining tonight (not to mention performances from the xx
, Portugal. The Man
, and Big Gigantic
), and we're sure we're going to have one hell of a weekend.