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Bonnaroo 2015: A Preview

There is nothing else like the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Some festivals (Lollapalooza, Coachella) offer the same staggering scale, and others still (Electric Forest) offer the same 24-hour otherworldly escape. But none of them combine the two quite like Bonnaroo. For one weekend--this weekend--every year, tiny Manchester is transformed into the sixth largest city in Tennessee, with music running on one stage or another from Thursday afternoon until midnight on Sunday all across the 700 acre farm. Whether you’re making the trek yourself or following along from home, this guide should help you get the most out of the weekend. 

Enjoy it on the farm

The best way to grasp the sheer scope of Bonnaroo is to be there. It’s an all-camping festival, and the tent city sprawls across miles of farmland. Your campsite is luck-of-the-draw; you may be mere steps from the entrance at the Arch, and you may be as much as a half-hour walk. But no matter what, you’ll experience the wild, weird world that is Bonnaroo.

People attend Bonnaroo for any number of reasons, but the heart and soul is always the music. This year features one of the most eclectic lineups yet, with headlining sets from classic rock mainstay Billy Joel, the newly-electric English crew Mumford and Sons, dubstep titan Deadmau5 (with his shiny new stage setup), and rapper Kendrick Lamar, fresh off of his triumphant new To Pimp a Butterfly. The mid-section is stacked, with Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, Louisville rock monsters My Morning Jacket, and southern soul purveyors Alabama Shakes. But often, it’s the artists on the lower lines of the poster who put on some of the most unforgettable performances. Here are a few of my picks.

On Thursday, Philadelphia rockers Strand of Oaks have an early slot in This Tent, and their packed show at MOTR Pub last August was one of the best I saw all year. Following them on the same stage is Danish post-punk outfit Iceage whose jagged riffs have graced two fantastic LPs in the last two years. In That Tent, we have (relative) locals Houndmouth, hailing from New Albany, IN, whose popularity is exploding exponentially. Art rockers Glass Animals, who have a July date scheduled at the Taft Ballroom, are expected to draw a gargantuan crowd to The Other Tent, but it would be well worth sprinting from the end of their set to catch Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett back in This Tent, whose album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is one of the finest releases of 2015 thus far. I’m closing out my evening in That Tent with Jungle, the London-based soul collective who have only recently started playing shows.

The festival expands to its full breadth on Friday, with the two massive stage areas open for business. Pennsylvania rockers The Districts kick things off, but things really heat up with southern metal heroes Pallbearer and Texas-based Latin funk crew Brownout performing a Brown Sabbath set: groovy Black Sabbath covers with horns. These sets overlap, but whatever you choose is sure to satisfy. Tanya Tagaq, winner of last year’s Polaris Music Prize, makes a rare festival appearance in This Tent performing her Inuit throat singing which needs to be seen to be believed. Unknown Mortal Orchestra just released a wonderful new LP, and they’ll be in The Other Tent immediately after. Dawes and Midpoint Summer Series regulars Moon Taxi face off on the two stages at 5:30 PM, but things really get serious at 7:30 when Alabama Shakes take the stage. 80s synth rockers Tears for Fears will bring a fantastic nostalgia trip to This Tent in the lull before the weekend’s first headliner Kendrick Lamar takes to the massive What Stage field. Late night at Bonnaroo is a tangled mess--there are always agonizing conflicts, but the whole compound is aglow with light, and anywhere your feet take you is the right choice. On Friday, I’m inclined towards R&B legends Earth, Wind, and Fire on Which Stage followed by Flying Lotus in The Other Tent, but you’ve also got your pick of Run the Jewels (come on Midpoint, can we get these guys on there?), Odesza, Deadmau5, and more.

On Saturday, start your day with So Percussion, the classical ensemble whose remarkable work was on display at MusicNOW back in March. They’ll be performing works by MusicNOW founder and National guitarist Bryce Dessner, one of the few Cincinnati connections to this year’s festival. Currently-exploding English rockers Catfish and the Bottlemen will be in This Tent, fresh off their Bunbury appearance, and Minnesota bluegrass crew Trampled By Turtles start off Saturday’s What Stage slate. The War On Drugs, creators of my favorite album of 2014, Lost in the Dream, mark their first return to Bonnaroo since 2012 at 5:45 on Which Stage, and country outlaw Sturgill Simpson faces off against English superproducer Jamie XX immediately afterwards. One of the banner sets of the weekend comes from My Morning Jacket, whose connection with the festival is legendary--this is their seventh Bonnaroo appearance, and their previous shows have included all-night rave-ups and three-hour marathons. Thrash metal legends Slayer will be sure to start a circle pit in This Tent before headliners Mumford and Sons come on. Unlike in years past, Bonnaroo is no longer scheduling the headliners completely unopposed, and if you lose interest in Mumford, you can meander over to Midpoint alumni Tycho at midnight. Soul legend D’Angelo plays at 1:00 in This Tent, and the annual Superjam runs until at least 3:00, featuring everyone from Chance the Rapper and Pretty Lights to Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and Reggie Watts.

By Sunday, you’re bound to be exhausted, but you’ve also almost made it through. Rouse yourself for a giant collection of roots artists, including Pokey Lafarge and Hurray For The Riff Raff. Hiss Golden Messenger is one of the best artists in America right now by my book, and his This Tent appearance is not one to be missed. Austin-based indie rock legends Spoon take to What Stage at 4:45, fresh off of an appearance here at the Madison the night before. Incredible Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs brings his collaboration with producer Madlib at 5:45, but many people may be already posted up for a spot at Florence and the Machine. This is already projected to be one of the most crowded sets of the weekend, and with good reason: their new How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is only increasing her already-high profile. Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant closes out the weekend over on Which Stage before the weekend’s headliner Billy Joel rounds out the whole festival with a night of inevitable singalongs 

Enjoy the rest of it

Need a break from the music? The food at Bonnaroo is incredible, there’s a B’rooers Festival full of craft beer, a Comedy Tent headlined by Reggie Watts (careful--you need to wait in line for a separate ticket), and a Cinema Tent with sneak peeks and documentaries all weekend. The Kalliope stage features World Cup Soccer and Stanley Cup games during the day, but turns into an all-night rave once the sun goes down--last year, Skrillex played a surprise set as the sun rose at 7 in the morning. There are vendors, yoga lessons, and sustainability classes in the Planet Roo area. As hard as it can be to pry yourself from the wall-to-wall music, take some time to check out these other sections of this incredible event.

Enjoy it in Cincinnati

Several bands from last weekend’s triumphant Bunbury Festival are winding their way down to Cincinnati, including Twenty One Pilots, Royal Blood, Bleachers, Atmosphere, Kacey Musgraves, Shakey Graves, and more. Additionally, quite a few of the artists performing at Bonnaroo have shows scheduled in Cincinnati (or nearby) over the next few days. These include:

Rhiannon Giddens Taft Theatre, Friday, June 12
Hiss Golden Messenger MOTR Pub, Friday, June 12
Catfish and the Bottlemen Zanzabar, Louisville, Friday, June 12
Shabazz Palaces Haymarket Whiskey Bar, Louisville, Friday, June 12
Spoon Madison Theater, Covington, Saturday, June 13, also Newport Music Hall, Columbus, Friday, June 12
Hozier and Dawes Horseshoe Casino, Friday, June 14, also LC Pavilion, Columbus, Tuesday, June 16
Belle and Sebastian with Jungle and Son Lux, Sunday, June 14, LC Pavilion, Columbus
My Morning Jacket, June 23 and 24, Palace Theater, Columbus
Against Me! Bogart’s, Saturday, June 27

On top of that, Bonnaroo artists Sylvan Esso, Pokey Lafarge, Strand of Oaks, and All Them Witches have already been announced for September’s Midpoint Music Festival in Over-The-Rhine. 

Enjoy it at home

Deciding what to watch on Bonnaroo’s webcast can be almost as intimidating as actually being there. This year, the stream is being offered by Red Bull TV, and the schedule is as extensive as ever--featuring everything from headliners Billy Joel, Mumford and Sons, and Deadmau5 to tent sets from Against Me! and Run the Jewels on three channels over four days.

Enjoy it safely

Don’t forget to drive safely on the way down there. Tennessee police are on the lookout for Bonnaroo attendees, picked out as easy targets for drug and alcohol arrests. Once you’re at the farm, hydrate, hydrate, HYDRATE. I’ve consumed as much as three gallons of water in a single day while on the farm--having to stop into portapotties frequently beats the alternative of winding up in the medical tent. And if you are going to partake in illegal substances, make sure you trust their source.