B O N N A R O O 2 0 1 5
Words by Henry Lyons
Photography by Isaac Rosenthal
In Association With
Squarespace and WeTransfer
It was a hot and sweaty afternoon in Manchester, Tennessee, and I was making my way through the back entrance to the “Other Tent,” a name that had been the source of some confusion earlier that day. As I approached the daunting white wall of the tent, I could hear the bassy reverberance of Jamie XX’s set. Between the thumping kicks and syncopated bass, I tried to distract myself from the knots in my stomach. If I went backstage—if I crossed that boundary—would festivals still be the same for me? Where does the magic of a festival lie?
In the days leading up to that weekend, I was nervous. Being home at my parents’ house in San Francisco was so comfortable. I was back on the West Coast after finishing my freshman year of college in New York, hanging out with old friends and doing all the things that I used to do in high school. We bummed around San Francisco’s Mission District and Haight-Ashbury, exploring weird shops and relaxing in the eucalyptus-scented parks. All the while, I was conscious of the fact that I was about to embark on an assignment to Bonnaroo—a world I knew nothing about.
My name is Henry, and I’m 18 years old. I live in a small NYU dorm in Greenwich Village along with three roommates. I first fell in love with music when I learned to play the piano as a little kid, and the passion has followed me ever since. As I started thinking about what I wanted to do after college, I was drawn to the industry by a genuine passion for the record-making process and a deep belief in the power of music. My first day of my first real job (with The Manifesto) was about five months ago. I had only made the decision to pursue working in music about six weeks before that.
Up until January of this year, I had no experience whatsoever in the music business. Not only would it be my first time at Bonnaroo, but also my first time experiencing a festival from both a fan and an industry perspective. This was my first real assignment, and it was a big one. I was on a mission to make my way through the festival and meet the people that make Bonnaroo, Bonnaroo.
Two companies organize Bonnaroo: Superfly Presents and AC Entertainment. Every year, the festival sees about 80,000 people, making it the seventh largest city in Tennessee for the four days the festival lasts. It was started in 2002, making this year the 14th Bonnaroo, and is held in Great Stage Park, a 700-acre plot of land about an hour outside of Nashville. This past year, Live Nation acquired a controlling interest in Bonnaroo, carrying out the first change of management since the festival’s founding. This leaves a question hanging over the festival’s head: will Bonnaroo be the same next year? With the Live Nation purchase, the independent status of the festival dissolves. What will a more corporate Bonnaroo look like? At this point, it’s hard to say.
I expected Tennessee to be arid and barren. I imagined a place I’d seen in country western films—dusty and blisteringly hot, with tumbleweeds bouncing off into the distance. My biggest worry was whether I would find the personal connections I was searching for. In only a couple of months of working as an Editorial Assistant at The Manifesto, I’d already seen how serious the hustle can be. I was scared that I’d be too incompetent—that I’d get crushed by more experienced people. What if all the other journalists were able to find better stories than I could? On the night before my flight from San Francisco, I only managed to fall asleep at 3:00 a.m... before waking up at 5:00 a.m. to catch my flight.
My mom dropped me off at SFO early Wednesday morning, wished me luck, and gave me a hug goodbye. I dragged my two huge suitcases onto the curb and, before I knew it, I was on my way to Tennessee. There was a point somewhere over Illinois when I looked out of the window and down at the clouds below the plane. A thought echoed through my head: “How did this happen? I’m 18. I’m barely responsible enough to do my laundry. How the hell am I covering an assignment at Bonnaroo?
Wednesday, June 10th
ARRIVING IN TENNESSEE
I landed a little before 6:00 p.m., and the second I stepped off the plane I was hit by the heat. At baggage claim, I met up with Ike Rosenthal. He’s the photographer I was paired with for the assignment and my sole companion for the weekend. Ike is a true New Yorker. He was born and raised in the Lower East Side and still lives there with his wife. He’s tall and tanned, with a goatee and black shoulder-length hair, always covered by a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. When you first meet him, he can seem a little rough and tumble, but he is one of the kindest, most loyal, and sincere people I’ve ever met.
We quickly got on our way to Manchester. After a brief detour to grab Ike a fifth of Jack Daniels, we arrived at the Holiday Inn and picked up our press passes. Waiting in the parking lot for our shuttle to the campgrounds, we found ourselves in an eerie setting. In the pale dusk light, occasional vans rolled up to the curb to pick up staff members who were mostly chain smoking and enthralled in lively conversation. In thick southern accents, they talked about working at the festival, year after year, in the same way they spoke about their cigarettes – Just one more hit.
After about twenty minutes, we realized that we were waiting for a shuttle that didn’t exist. We asked around and no one seemed to know what was going on. We were about two miles from camp, and we both had huge suitcases to lug over with us. In the 90-degree heat, that wasn’t an option. We’d barely been in Manchester for half an hour, and we already had to deal with our first big obstacle.
I noticed that the staff had no trouble getting in the vans that were moving back and forth between the campgrounds and the hotel. Seeing no other option, I went up to the driver of one of their shuttles and went for the honest approach.
“Hey, I’m Henry. My buddy and I are kind of in a bind here and stuck without a ride. Is there any chance you could take us to the festival grounds?”
“Sure, as long as the van doesn’t fill up.”
It didn’t. We got on our way down the VIP route that we weren’t even supposed to know about. We were driven by Preston and Savannah, who had both worked at the festival for a number of years. They couldn’t believe it was our first time.
“Enjoy it! There’s nothing else like it.”
ARRIVING AT CENTEROO
That night, after setting up our tent, Ike and I decided to head to the press compound to see what it was like and charge up our phones for the night. Not knowing any better, we went the long way around the perimeter of the main festival grounds, nicknamed Centeroo. Looking through the gaps in the fence, I got a look at colorfully painted walls and lines of vendor tents labeled with the food they would start selling the next day. When we finally got to the press compound, we found a massive empty white tent and an unlit trailer. It was a creepy atmosphere. None of the press had arrived yet, but chairs, tables, and outlets were set up waiting for the festival to begin. It was dark and humid, but wandering around the compound felt like a dream. I kept catching myself staring at my green “media” wristband in total disbelief. Who cares if it’s a dingy trailer? They let me in!
Once our batteries were charged, we began the trek back to the tent. In an effort to save some time and energy, we found ourselves wandering inside an empty Centeroo. We saw the lights being set up and covered in a tarp, in case of rain.
Strolling deeper into the maze of tents, we met a group of girls who worked at a food truck that traveled from festival to festival serving poutine, a Canadian snack of gravy-covered fries. We stopped, and I found myself talking to a girl named Ash. When I told her I’d never been to Bonnaroo, her expression slowly warmed into a huge grin.
“You’re about to get your cherry popped, Henry.”
When we got back to our tent, we met our neighbors Brandon, Charlie, and Kyle. They were all working at the festival for a program called Rolling Like a Rockstar, a premium ticket option for people who want to go to Bonnaroo in style. You’re given a state of the art tour bus to live in, staff to shuttle you around wherever you want to go, and backstage access passes. And it costs around $5,000 per person.
Unfortunately for my neighbors, they didn’t have the package themselves; they just worked as shuttle drivers. Nonetheless, it gave them a view of the festival that not many people have. I didn’t realize this until later, but meeting them was my first taste of the real spirit of Bonnaroo. From the minute we met, they shared with us anything and everything that they had, whether it was food, shade, or a chair. Without hesitation, they made clear that we were now family. Inspired by their openness, Ike and I slowly crept out of our New York self-defense and Ike offered his whiskey. Before we knew it, we were embarking on our first excursion into the culture of Bonnaroo.
Complete with road signs to match, the campgrounds are built to feel like a bustling town. For the few days that it exists, “Tent City” is constantly humming with throngs of people flowing through its veins, giving it life. From self-hired DJs who play music out of their pickups to official food tents and shops, the complex often felt busier than the streets of New York City. But the metaphor doesn’t carry, because there is an overwhelming sense of friendliness and hospitality between the campers. Because we were all camping at Bonnaroo, we had something in common that was significant. As I walked down Shakedown Street, the town center of Tent City, people were not only willing to meet one another but would go out of their way to get to know new people. All you had to do was yell “Bonnarooo!” and you would be met with a swarm of high fives and the echo of others yelling “roo!” back at you.
That night, I went to sleep anxious about the next day. I can be a bit anxious in general, but this assignment was taking it up a notch. Before the music even began, I was scheduled to conduct my first ever artist interview. The prospect was daunting. I chose bands to interview based on their interesting and innovative work. I thought Parlour Tricks had a cool and unique look, Rudimental were incredible performers, and Flume had gorgeous and groundbreaking production. In the end, I wanted to talk with people who might have interesting thoughts on festivals and the music industry in a larger sense. But all that was very intimidating.
What if I wasn’t cool enough? How am I supposed to connect with people I look up to? As overjoyed as I was to have my media pass, it was a lot of pressure. I’d never been invested in so heavily before, and I felt like I might mess it up and let my boss down. But in equal opposition to the dread, I felt desire and excitement. I got into music because I deeply love and believe in its power, and now I was closer than ever before to my heroes who made music happen.
That same night, I had a dream about meeting Flume. I was simultaneously hopeful and terrified, and as much reading about the festival as I did, I had no idea what was about to happen. Finally, at 2:00 a.m, I fell asleep.
Thursday June 11th
I woke up no thanks to my phone alarm, but because of the pool of sweat I found myself soaking in. My tent acted like a greenhouse and trapped all the heat inside. Ike was already up and taking pictures by the time I finally headed to the showers, where I realized I didn’t have shampoo and had to wash my hair with Clearasil.
I spent that morning with my neighbors trying to prepare for the day. I wrote dozens of potential questions for the interviews in my notebook, and spent a lot of time figuring out how to start talking to the artists. I’d never conducted a professional interview before, so I tried to think about what I enjoy being asked in conversation. I couldn’t start with too deep of a question. I decided to bounce ideas off my neighbors.
“What about, ‘Are you excited for your set this afternoon?’”
“No, that’s stupid,” said Brandon.
“You’re right, OK. How about ‘Whose show are you looking forward to seeing?’”
“No, end with that. Don’t start off talking about other people.”
After bouncing ideas off of Brandon and Charlie for an hour or so, we found the perfect question. It’s not too hard to answer, so it’s easy to start with—but not boring or disengaging. It was a work of art.
“How’s Bonnaroo been for you so far? Dealing with the heat OK?”
Once I felt like there was nothing else I could do to prepare, Ike and I made our way into the festival. It was around noon. The music wasn’t going to start for another five hours, but it was already full of activity. People were dressed up in festival gear, making their way through the shops and food vendors. If they weren’t moving, they hugged the shade to try and escape the brutal sun. Sitting on towels, chatting, and in some cases sleeping, the footprints of the shadows of trees and buildings were matched by people lounging in the shade.
We made our way through the tents and found a massive fountain filled with soaking wet people trying to counter the heat. People were splashing each other and playing games with strangers. They were all there for the same reason, and it didn’t matter where they were from. Because today, they were all Bonnaroovians.
Parlour Tricks are a six-piece band from New York. Their music has pop sensibility, but it’s genre-bending with a variety of influences. On stage, they’re made up of three singers, a guitarist, bassist, and drummer. As they sang harmonies with each other, the three women in the band wore matching outfits that blew in the wind. Lily, the lead singer and namesake of the band’s old name, Lily and the Parlour Tricks, sang each song genuinely and with a lot of soul. The emotion showed on her expression throughout the set. Unlike a lot of other bands, even at a festival gig they took the time to not only coordinate outfits but also pulled off a few synchronized dance moves.
“It’s definitely a big part of what we do, almost as much as the music,” Lily explained to me, “it’s limbs on the same tree. We want what we’re doing sonically to match what we’re doing visually.” This was more than a set; it was a show. The audience loved it. There looked to be around 200 people at the set, crowded together and energized. Everyone was engaged and danced along.
After dinner that night, I met the DMA’s for an interview. Based in Sydney, it was the first time the DMA’s played Bonnaroo. They describe their music as “garage-pop,” and are made up of just three guys: Johnny Took, Matt Mason, and Tommy O’Dell. I was less nervous for this one after having had a few successful interviews, but that quickly changed once I got to the press tent. They were just coming off of another interview, and their publicist, Grace, was in the middle of introducing us when they started talking to her about the interview they’d just finished.
“That was the worst fucking interview I’ve ever done. That guy was awful. He kept cutting us off before we were through speaking.” Grace was at a bit of a loss for words before she quickly jumped back in.
“OK. Good to know,” she said, “This one will be much better!” I was terrified. They kept ripping on the poor interviewer for a few more minutes, and then we sat down. I started to record. “We’ll give you honest answers,” said Johnny Took, the band’s guitarist, “No pressure.” Christ.
We started out talking about coming all the way from Australia, and the misconception that the country more removed from Western culture than it is in reality. “It’s so easy these days to just be influenced by anything,” said Took, “It’s just Google. It’s the same stuff whether you’re here or in Sydney.”
“That’s a double-edged sword though, right?” I added, “When you have so much stuff to listen to, it can be easy to ditch a song after only listening to 30 seconds of it.”
For them, it came down to inspiration. “I know a lot of bands in Australia only write music with the hope that it’ll get played on one or two radio stations. And that’s not cool. It’s like, why? Is your main inspiration getting played on the radio?”
“Then what inspires you?”
“When I write music, I want to make people feel something. I want them to tell a story,” he said.
Friday June 12th
The next day, my first appointment was an interview with the Dø, a European electro-pop duo. They’re made up of Finnish singer Olivia Merilahti and French producer and multi-instrumentalist Dan Levy. They told me they felt a lot of contrast between playing in Europe as opposed to the States. “I think there is something quite fresh here in the U.S. because people are not as familiar with us,” Olivia explained, “We’ve never played a festival in America before.”
They are on tour promoting their new album Shake Shook Shaken, which was released in late 2014. Unlike their previous albums, where they took time making sure that their sound was uninfluenced by outside music, this time around they allowed the music to be impacted by other artists. They cited Kanye West as a huge source of inspiration. “Yeezus was kind of a slap in the face when we were working on the album,” Olivia told me, “It happened at the right moment. We always want to rise above and do something new. Yeezus was so raw. It challenged us to do something more stripped down where every sound is what we want.”
After my interview with the Dø, I was in the press tent taking down notes from the day, when I saw Killer Mike and El-P of Run The Jewels walk in with their manager. I’m a huge Run The Jewels fan. Coincidentally, I’d actually spent some time with Killer Mike just a few months earlier. Back at school, I helped out as part of a group that brought him to campus to give a lecture. After he spoke, I was able to hang out with him and trade stories about the industry. I asked him for advice about how to avoid getting hustled and left in the dust. He told me to find people that I trust and to stick with them because, when I get played, it’ll be easier if I have some people to fall back on. I knew he would recognize me, but I was still nervous to go and say hello. While Mike and El were in an interview, I decided to go for their manager.
Entering a conversation you have no good reason to be a part of is a difficult task. The biggest hurdle is getting over the intimidation so that you have a clear enough head to think of something to say. I had a hard time with this, and before every instance of it my stomach was in knots, and I’d start to psyche myself out. Over the course of Bonnaroo, I developed a particular phrase that helped me pull this first step off: “Hey, I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Henry.”
The key here is to shake hands so quickly that the other person doesn’t have time to realize that’s a completely ridiculous excuse to interrupt someone’s conversation. Once you hit them with the handshake, go straight for the jugular by saying something so conversational that they’ll forget how they started talking to you in the first place. “You probably don’t remember me, but we met briefly at NYU in March.” He nodded. I was in.
After some quick small talk with the manager, I snuck in a few sentences with Mike while he was walking from one interview to another.
“Hey Mike, it’s Henry from NYU.”
“Yeah, I remember you. How did you get back here?”
“I have a press pass. I’m not sneaky like that!”
“You should be, Henry. Be sneaky!”
And as fast as we started talking, he was gone. But the sentiment echoed in my head for the rest of the festival: be sneaky.
That night, Kendrick Lamar performed. The Compton rapper has been taking the world by storm since the release of his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city. His newest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, has been widely praised for its poetic lyrics and unusual production. From the second he stepped on the stage, there was a connection between him and the audience. The relationship between the two was extraordinarily supportive. He gave everything he had on stage and they gave it right back. Kendrick seemed to understand Bonnaroo. His elated and thrilled expression made it clear he realized it wasn’t just another music festival. The community was stronger than that. It’s less corporate, there are fewer rules, and genuine human connection is what defines the weekend.
That’s why it almost didn’t surprise me when he and Chance the Rapper were surprise guests at the end of Earth, Wind and Fire’s set. They freestyled back and forth over the band, collaborating not only with the soul legends but also with each other. Even though the acts come from totally different eras, they flowed together without a hitch.
While seeing the performance, I could feel my understanding of the culture of the festival deepening. That set couldn’t have happened so organically anywhere else. There’s a freedom to playing at Bonnaroo that comes from open-mindedness in the audience. The festival attracts people who love live music to a degree beyond what’s normal, and, as a result, everyone is game.
Saturday June 13th
ROLLING LIKE ... JOHN WEEKS
After lunch on Saturday, Ike told me about a kid that he met while he was shooting scenes around the festival. His name was John Weeks, and he had purchased the Rolling Like a Rock Star package. John had apparently offered to take us around the festival and get us in wherever we wanted to go.
Minutes after I met him for the first time, we tried (and failed) to get backstage at the main stage, so instead we went to the Comedy Tent to see what it was like. By that point, it already felt like we’d known each other for a little while. That was typical of John, who had the ability to instantly make you feel like a good friend.
At the Comedy Tent, we happened to catch a surprise guest performance by Zach Galifianakis that included a brief cameo from Jon Hamm, who he also appeared with on his hilarious online talk show, Between Two Ferns. There had been rumors that Zach might show up. He was hysterical, and once he finished and went off stage, John leaned over towards me and Ike and whispered, “Let’s head backstage. We might be able to meet him.”
Escorted by John, Ike and I had no problem getting past security and behind the tent. When he was between conversations, I went up to him:
“Hey, just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Henry.”
“I’m Zach,” he said.
He looked me in the eye and gave a firm handshake. He said he wasn’t able to be in any pictures with us, so one of John’s friends asked him came up with the idea to have Zach take a photo of us instead of being in it. In the bottom of the picture, he stuck out his hand and gave a thumbs up.
Ike and I rolled like rock stars for another couple of hours before we grabbed a golf cart to John’s campsite. As part of the package, he lived in a gorgeous air-conditioned tour bus. It was a little different from the miniature sauna of a tent where I slept when it wasn’t too sweltering or the music wasn’t too loud.
John was indeed rolling like a rockstar. He showed us around the bus and introduced us to the rest of his crew. He was traveling with his band, Wren. We hung around the bus while he played us some of his music. We stayed for an hour or two before duty called, and I had to leave to conduct another interview.
On my way back to the press compound, I realized that within the span of a few hours, I’d experienced more with John than I had ever before with someone I’d just met. He’d let us tag along with him from show to show and even brought us into his private bus. I found that at Bonnaroo, relationships develop at lightening pace because the culture of the festival inspires friendliness and spontaneity. I started to understand that the reason you could make friends so easily is because everyone has so much in common. Everyone camps, everyone deals with the heat, and everyone goes to the same concerts. But most importantly, everyone is surrounded by a truly positive atmosphere.
After hanging out with John, I went to see BASECAMP play the Who Stage. They are a new electronic trio who I first discovered on Soundcloud when they posted their cover of “All That She Wants” by Ace of Bass. They took the original production and vocals and refreshed them with modern baselines and raspy male vocals. Their phenomenal set consisted of chill, downtempo electronic songs that were at the same time both sonically unique and danceable. Because they’re a band with a small following, most people watching didn’t know who they were. Seeing the show was a fascinating experience not only because of the music, but also because you could see fans being made. All through the crowd, I heard people saying, “I don’t know these guys. How do you spell their name? This set is crazy.”
Based in Nashville, the trio saw a lot of Tennessee reflected in the way the festival came together. “I wouldn’t say that it reminds me of Nashville,” said Aaron Harmon, who sings lead vocals for the group, “It’s too big for that. The influences are broader. But I can definitely see it as very Tennessee. If it wasn’t here, the people wouldn’t be the same.”
Back at the press tent, I was feeling exhausted. Long days of sweltering heat with only three or so hours of sleep each night was starting to have an effect. The more exhausted I got, the more I committed to being fully in the Bonnaroovian headspace. I became more friendly and easygoing, and I was up to doing whatever seemed right in the moment. There’s a utopian element to the festival that manifests itself in all sorts of daily experiences—mostly generosity and respect from everyone attending. And with each day, I felt like I had become even more of a part of this family.
(Always Meet Your Heroes)
Back in the press tent, I was going through my schedule with Ike when Flume walked past us. He was with a girl and a guy who was wearing a t-shirt sporting the Future Classic name. I was paralyzed and completely star struck, but once Ike snapped me out of it (“Don’t drink the Kool-aid Henry!” he would say) I went to go talk to them. “Hey, I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Henry. So great to meet you.”
We shook hands, I apologized for—well …everything—and then I admitted what a huge fan I was. When he had to go in for an interview, I stuck around with the girl he was hanging out with. Her name was Maryanne, and she was from Canada. She told me that she knew Flume’s music before she met him, while living and working in Sydney, “and here we are now!” Before long, Flume finished his interview, and they both had to leave.
“See you tonight!” I yelled after them. Maryanne waved goodbye.
A couple of hours later, I’d managed to sneak into the VIP section for Flume with another group (“Always be sneaky”). He opened with “Some Minds,” his latest release, and played several new songs during the set. Towards the end, I saw Maryanne and I waved. She waved back, and I went over and danced with her for a little bit. After the set, I walked backstage with her, keeping my hands stuffed deep in my pockets so security couldn’t see my press wristband. She introduced me to another girl who was also traveling with Flume. When I asked her what her role was on the tour, she laughed at the question.
Flume had to go quickly inside his trailer, but before I left, I asked Maryanne if he would be out soon and if it would be OK if I got a picture with him. “Oh, you’ve definitely earned a picture,” she said, “Hang on.” She darted inside the trailer and came back out with Flume. She took a picture of us on my phone.
“Smile!” yelled Maryanne.
Sunday June 14th
By Sunday I was exhausted, but somehow still had enough energy to produce anxiety. I spent the morning stressing about my last interview: it would be with Rudimental. Hailing from the U.K., the band makes soulful and funky drum and bass electronic music. With more than 800k likes on Facebook, they are very established as talented musicians and energetic performers. I kept thinking about how many interviews they had done, and I was worried that all of my questions had been asked before. I didn’t want rehearsed and flat responses to boring questions, but instead wanted to encourage the artists to help me understand their craft.
Finally the moment came, and I sat down with Amir Amor and Piers Agget, two of the four members of Rudimental. Having seen them play live last summer at Outside Lands in San Francisco, I was excited for what I knew would be a fun and eccentric set. They told me this energy comes to them naturally. “We’re all great friends,” Piers told me, “we grew up together, so we just go up there and have a party.”
For Rudimental, this show also served as an opportunity for them to connect with an American audience of genuine music-lovers. Amir was excited about the setting, and when I asked him why, he told me that “the festival scene in America is a really good place for us to showcase our music, which is fairly eclectic, because people aren’t just here to see EDM or hip-hop. They’re much more open.” Beyond the people in the crowd, Amir said that the festival had this mentality from the top down, unlike other big U.S. festivals. “Coachella’s beautiful and amazing, but there are simply more rules. There’s much more freedom here.”
Not long after the interview, Rudimental played their set. From the very beginning, it didn’t sound quite right, but once the song dropped, the issue became extremely detrimental to the performance. Once they finished the song, the four members of the band tried to figure out what was wrong. Instead of awkward silence, the band improvised a new song for the crowd. Based around a vocal riff, the band crafted a grooving jam track, complete with harmonies from the background singers. The showmanship and raw talent shined through, and because they maintained a musical presence while the issue was being fixed, they didn’t need to win the audience back once everything was sorted. We never even started losing interest.
In the late afternoon of our fifth day at the festival, Florence and the Machine played the main stage, backed by a band of ten instrumentalists. It was a spiritual set that moved me unlike any performance I’d seen before. Florence was energetic and exuded freedom and positivity. There was a real sense of passion and love—not only between the artist and the fans, but amongst the fans as well. I was in the middle of the crowd, surrounded by other people who were just as amazed as I was and primed to feel the energy and vibe of the set. Being at the set felt inspiring and left much of the audience in tears. “It was a religious experience,” said Jake Fain, VP of A&R at Sony/ATV, who has been to the festival almost every year for the last decade. “And it couldn’t have happened anywhere but Bonnaroo.”
THE MUSIC IS THE MEDIUM
The final show of the festival was Billy Joel and I was looking forward being in the presence of a living legend. Because of his leading role in my parents’ record collection, I grew up listening to his music. Ike and I arrived at around 8:30 p.m., and we took position in the middle of the crowd, ready to take it all in and see an emotional and jubilant show from one of the most esteemed American musicians from the past few decades. But Billy didn’t deliver. Not for me. Maybe it was that we were at the end of a long four-day festival? Maybe we weren’t what he needed? It feels almost wrong to be putting this to print, but the whole set fell flat. He was calm and chilled out, and to me he looked almost disinterested. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Did he know that we weren’t connecting with him? Did he feel it too?” He ended the performance about a half hour before he was due to finish.
The problem with Billy Joel’s set wasn’t the musicianship. He’s an exceptional performer, but to me it seemed like there was a cultural divide. Billy didn’t seem to understand Bonnaroo. Am I allowed to say that? He didn’t seem to know just how much we wanted for him to be a part of the community that we had built since arriving at the festival four days earlier.
As Billy played “Allentown,” I gazed up at the huge green Bonnaroo sign above the stage, and I thought about what my expectations had been back in San Francisco. My biggest fear that drove all of my other anxieties was that I would walk away jaded—that I would see the festival from the inside and that my innocence would be gone. Since recently committing to the music industry for my career, I’ve worried that the more I learn, the more I might lose my passion. Bonnaroo didn’t weaken my love for music, but instead was right on time in validating my adoration. Beyond being simply a music festival, Bonnaroo serves as a medium for creating community. Getting a small step closer to the stage didn’t dampen my aspiration. It showed me that if you put the music above all else, people want to feed off of each other’s devotion. Music can transform us, and that’s why Bonnaroo is known to be a spiritual festival experience. Being at the festival taught me about what it means to connect with someone over a shared passion. The ease and simplicity of the new relationships I made there was elegant and honest. My new friends were completely genuine because everyone was so excited to be at the festival, and that was our common ground.
On our last legs and definitely feeling weary, Ike and I flew back to New York on that Monday. Upon arriving back in the city, looking forward to my first good night’s sleep in what felt like forever, I called my editor to tell her that we were back. “So what happened?” she asked.
“I can’t explain it,” I said, “It’s Bonnaroo.”
*Special thanks to our friends at Squarespace and WeTransfer, who helped make this journey possible.