To say the last few years have been really strange for Bonnaroo (and the world in general) would be an understatement, but, finally, after a sold out 2020 lineup was postponed then canceled due to Covid-19, and last year’s later-than-usual planned September ‘Roo was heartbreakingly rained out at the last minute, the long-running nearby fest (now in its 19th installment and 21st year) made its triumphant return over the weekend, boasting an event that felt both like business as usual, and also one with some welcome new tweaks. We’ve been covering Bonaroo now for over a decade, and two years off from festivals in general, and especially from ‘Roo in particular, reminded us just how special an annual tradition it is for us, and something we look forward too more than any other musical happening each year. There’s something about the magic of Bonnaroo- the place, the people, the vibes- that sets it apart, and even with the passage of time and inevitable changes both obvious and behind the scenes, it still manages to maintain that charm. After months of anticipation and preview coverage, we made our long-overdue return to The Farm, and, per usual, we have plenty of thoughts and photos in our full 2022 review below!
I’ve been a very Covid cautious person these past few years, and thus have only recently begun attending more shows again. My first festival back, both by choice and circumstance, last month, ended up also being my first time time catching Covid. On one hand, having recently recovered from the virus gave me the piece of mind that I would be unlikely to get sick again so soon at Bonnaroo; on the other, it made me aware just how vulnerable festival attendees still are, even as we strive to return to a sense of normalcy in our lives and entertainment, Well enough and cleared to attend, I did immediately realize I needed to pace myself, and after setting up camp in the heat, I had to forgo a few earlier sets I really wanted to see (particularly one of my favorite bands of the day, Nothing, as well as Nashville locals Sawyer and Bailey Brown). Fortunately, our photographer was able to run ahead and kick off our coverage with Congolese-American indie rocker Miloe, who, even with an afternoon set on the first full day, attracted an excited crowd.
After a break and once the sun had set, I was finally able to venture intro Centeroo (perhaps the latest I’ve kicked off ‘Roo in my all 15 years of attending) for some of Nashville native Bren Joy’s vibey set on the Who Stage. The stage itself got a major upgrade and a new location near the Which Stage this year- presumably of symptom of two years of extra time to plan out some necessary revamps- fitted with covering, lights, and better sound; a sort of mini tent rather than the more humble, tiny stage it used to be (it still hosted a great lineup of smaller artists this year though, thankfully; we love that element of the fest). Bren took full advantage, with vibey lights backing his excellent band, as he delivered his soulful, genre-bending tunes with his signature magnetism. I was only able to stay for a few songs before a schedule conflict pulled me away, but I really appreciated the stage placement, especially as Thursday night can tend to bottleneck with the What Stage area of Centeroo closed.
Indigo De Souza
I’d heard attendance was down a bit this year, but you wouldn’t know it by walking around the first evening, as, typical of nighttime, Centeroo really filled up at each tent as the top-billed performers of the day their stages (one change I hope doesn’t stick was a shift to just one point of entry from the campgrounds this year, apparently causing long lines and slow entry at peak times, which was noticeable as everyone ventured in after dark). I rushed over to That Tent from Bren Joy to watch Indigo De Souza, taking in the tweaks to the fest’s layout this year (for so long, Bonnaroo was dependably the same each year, so while nothing too major happened this time to Centeroo, the changes at the last few fests, whether moving more music into the campgrounds or getting rid of the Comedy Tent or even the omissions of long-running food vendors, are noticeable). I saw Indigo for the first time recently at Forecastle Fest and was absolutely blown away, and once again she delivered a nuanced, hypnotic, and earnest performance. Seeing her a bit later in the day (her Forecastle set was early) made the vibes even more perfect, and made her confessional, alt indie/pop tunes feel even more resonant.
After a dinner break and further stroll around the fest to take in the sights and changes (Bonnaroo is, perhaps, its most magical at night, with neon lights and dance parties and art instillations and so much to explore, all set to the backdrop of incredible music), I was thrilled to catch Goth Babe, a one-time Nashville resident and veteran of our former Acme Feed & Seed showcase series from years ago. I knew that Griff’s breezy, synthy indie pop had earned him quite a bit of attention over the years, but it was still a bit surreal to see such a huge, enthusiastic crowd packed into the tent to see him. Easily one of the most fun performances not just of the evening, but of the whole fest, Goth Babe cracked jokes, expressed his gratitude, and even initiated crowd surfacing on inflatable fruit-shaped rafts. What easily could have been something pretty low-key turned into what felt like a really exuberant, communal experience and was made even more magical by the midnight timeslot.
Since I got a later than planned start, I decided to make it a late evening, capping off my first night back at Bonnaroo with alt pop breakout ROLE MODEL. I’ve honestly not listened to a ton of his music, but I get the appeal; he’s cool, pop-friendly, and attractive, and the way he carried himself on stage seemed to indicate that he’s well-aware of that, making his seductive, stylish music feel all the more fitting for a middle of the night set. Given his buzz on social media, I expected there to be even more of a crowd (it was pretty late, to be fair), but the enthusiasm of the die-hard fans definitely made up for it. Ducking out early, I headed back to camp for some much-needed rest, only coasting by on adrenaline and a supreme sense of comfort in being back on The Farm.
Day one had me concerned about powering through the weekend only a few weeks recovered from Covid, but after a good night’s sleep and plenty of hydration- mixed with the invigorating atmosphere of being immersed in Bonnaroo, exhausting though it can be- I was in much better shape on Friday, kicking the day off early with Claud. Though I probably first heard one of their early viral tunes on a playlist, I really started paying more attention to the bedroom pop singer when they signed to Phoebe Bridgers’ imprint label, and Claud’s debut LP was easily one of my favorite records of last year. With two backing bandmates and minimalist production, Claud delivered the chilled out, intimate, and occasionally awkward performance I was hoping for, met with a small but excited audience for so early in the afternoon, quipping and engaging throughout. I’d like to see them in a club at a more musically appropriate time of day, but, still, it was a really cool, high bar to kick off my Friday.
Last year’s would-be Bonnaroo tried hard to salvage much of the canceled 2020 lineup which generated record ticket sales, but, in a move that was probably necessary after two canceled events, this year’s ‘Roo mostly went back to the drawing board for a fresh slate. A few performers- particularly on the undercard- stayed through each incarnation though, like Nashville’s Briston Maroney, who was meant to play both of the last two years. In the interim, Briston’s star has only continued to rise as he further hones his vulnerable, folky indie sound, perfected on last year’s debut LP Sunflower. Barefoot and rocking a sleeveless tee, Maroney was in a particularly fun and jokey mood, and the audience really gave back that same energy, enthusiastically singing along and engaging the young breakout like it was a local basement gig and not a performance to thousands on a huge Bonnaroo stage.
Here’s an important Bonnaroo PSA that we always try to mention in our preview coverage: download the app and turn on your notifications. That’s how we learned that ahead of a big, proper tent performance later in the day, Grammy-nominated experimental pop artist Japanese Breakfast was playing an acoustic pop up show at a Jimmy John’s activation. I was bouncing between too many stages to get there, but thankfully our photographer Mary-Beth Blankenship caught some shots of the magical ‘Roo moment that only a select few checking their phones or happening upon it were privy to.
Friday’s Who Tent slate was really on fire- especially with local talent- and I had to pop over to watch a bit of Cece Coakley, a local newcomer whose breezy, poppy indie rock has made her a fixture on our playlist. Seemingly as happy to be attending Bonnaroo as playing it (I noticed her watching other artists many times throughout the weekend, and her enthusiasm was palpable on stage), Coakley sounded awesome live, and performed with a scrappy, heartfelt earnestness that made her songs feel all the more personal.
In an effort to pace myself, I didn’t end up rushing across the fest to the What Stage for Tove Lo. I’ve seen her many times before though, including some very memorable prior Bonnaroo performances, and the couple songs I caught from a distance while grabbing lunch sounded even more epic, polished, and commanding than ever. Thankfully, we were able to get some great photos, documenting the lights and production and unpredictability and sexuality that exudes from a Tove Lo set, and I love that she’s been a returning fixture at the first over the years.
One of my favorite things about Bonnaroo is taking the time to pore over the lineup each year, and to find some new favorites to discover or catch up on. Even though I’m apparently later to the party than some of our other contributors, Izzy Heltai was one such artist for me this year, hooking me immediately with his folky, slick indie sound. Yet another great set on the Who Stage, Heltai and his band sounded great, and I fully expect them to graduate to the bigger stages in no time. With a lot of friends and ties to Nashville performers, I definitely hope to catch the singer-songwriter the next time he plays in town, as this show was just begging for the ambiance and intimacy of a room like The Basement or The High Watt.
I’ve been a fan of LA poppy punks The Regrettes since they were still in high school, catching an early show at a local record store as well as their Bonnaroo debut on a tiny stage a few years back. They’re grown quite a bit in popularity since, so it was no surprise to see a huge crowd waiting for their tent stage performance this time around. Their new record Further Joy going to land really high on my year end list, and perfects the polished, biting, propulsive punk and riot grrrl sound of their prior work, while also allowing for more synth and pop flourish; all things that are like musical catnip for me. Things got off to a bit of an awkward start, as some apparent technical difficulties caused a delay while the band themselves stood back to the crowd trying to solve them, but as soon as the sound came on, it was a really high energy and incredibly fun performance, especially the songs that call for big singalongs like “Monday” and “Barely on My Mind.” Frontwoman Lydia Night has always had a rock and roll magnetism, but I was impressed with just how confident and engaging she’s become in the last couple of years, absolutely working the stage and capturing the crowd like a performer who’s been doing it for a lot longer. I ended up staying for the whole performance- something I rarely do during the day thanks to scheduling FOMO- and The Regrettes were absolutely in my top 5 shows of the weekend.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
The legendary Robert Plant and Nashville’s own Alison Krauss have made some amazing music together over the years, and though, admittedly, I don’t tend to listen to a ton of Americana, I really appreciate their artistry, and enjoy both of their collaborative releases. Would I kill to see him belting out with Led Zeppelin at least once in my life? Of course, but I try to form an opinion based on the performance I’m watching, not the one in my imagination. The duo were laid back and let the songs speak for themselves, standing close to their incredibly talented backing band on the huge stage, and playing to a solid crowd for early evening. Coming down from the high energy engagement of The Regrettes, it felt perhaps a bit too low-key to me, but, still, they sounded great and were a wonderful segue into the night’s main stage acts.
I’ve been dying to see eclectic singer-songwriter and poet Arlo Parks for awhile now, and missed out on a couple of would-be chances thanks to the pandemic. She went on just as the mad dash of evening scheduling conflicts began, but I managed to watch the first bit of her set, and was so fully encapsulated by her soulful delivery the and lush, textured nature her songs take on live. She kicked into familiar tunes “Green Eyed” then “Cola,” and it was awesome to see an audience just as enthusiastic about watching Parks as I was, packing tight into This Tent. While she sounded incredible in a festival context- an artist of her talent would sound great anywhere- her show really made me wish I could see her somewhere more intimate and acoustically nuanced like The Ryman; which, I’m hoping I can manifest for next time around.
Continuing to dash around thanks to a punishing scheduling conflict, I wandered through The War on Drugs and Bleachers- two bands I love but have seen enough to feel ok mostly skipping- and stopped for a few songs of Nashville alt/indie rockers Goldpark at the nearby Who Stage. It’s a shame they got slotted in such a busy part of the day; they sounded awesome, their energy was high, and their fans were having a blast. I wish I could stayed for more, but it was onto the main stage to get a spot for The Chicks.
I know the name of our site is “No Country,” but that’s less a mission statement and more of a commentary on the changing musical landscape of Nashville. In fact, we dig plenty of country artists, and particularly the ones with an old school sound, a unique take, and something meaningful to say. Of course, The Chicks check all those boxes, and are a band who’ve been on my bucket list for many, many years now. I wasn’t sure how they’d be received at Bonnaroo- a fest also not particularly known for country music- but as I wandered into the What Stage field, I was met with a MASSIVE crowd waiting for them to begin. The trio, along with their extremely talented band, were met with an unbelievable reception as soon as they took the stage, opening with classic tune “Sin Wagon,” before bringing it to now with new tune “Gaslighter.” They played all the hits you’d expect, particularly from Fly, but it was nice that they also included several more cuts from that Jack Antonoff produced new LP Gaslighter, an extremely cool comeback record which, I think, isn’t getting enough due (with Antonff having just performed across the fest, I was surprised he didn’t appear on stage, but I guess nothing can really add to the star power of The Chicks on their own). Decades in, the trio still sound as pitch-perfect and polished as ever, and the urgency of their message- something which infamously harmed their career in the more conservative country music climate of the ’00s- is as fiery and at the forefront as ever, both in their visuals (images of war, poverty, discrimination, political leaders, and more flashed behind them throughout) and in how they chose to use their platform to speak out between songs. That they do that only gives me more respect for the group, but even if they kept it strictly about the music, the show would’ve been transcendent on its own, with classic hits like their cover of “Landslide,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” and fitting closer “Goodbye Earl” eliciting dancing, singalongs, and uncontainable excitement. I hadn’t really thought of The Chicks as festival top-liners, but they actually made so much sense in the role; they’re a band that, even if you don’t actively listen to them, you definitely still know their songs. And it made me so happy to see Bonnaroo turn out in a huge way with so much palpable enthusiasm.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
The long day, the energy I expelled into The Chicks’ performance, and the general festival fatigue was starting to set in, so even though there was a lot of exiting evening performances left, I opted to take a break, which turned into watching just a couple J. Cole songs from a distance (I respect his artistry a ton but I’ve never gotten super into him; still, he’s a great headliner choice and had a huge crowd), and then watching the absolutely wild Disclosure performance turned dance party from the live feed back in the press tent. Before calling it a night (I was hoping to stay up for Denzel Curry, but sleep was calling), I did take one more lap around the grounds and stopped in for a bit of King Gizzard & The Lizzard Wizard. With SO many releases to their name, you never quite know what to expect live, and this performance definitely leaned into the midnight timeslot, delivering a vibey, frenetic, layered, and genre-bending set to a packed out tent.
After a full second day, Bonaroo felt really, truly back, as if it had never missed a beat, and the bar was high for the remainder of the weekend. Check out the rest of our coverage in our Saturday and Sunday review!