Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival
Great Stage Park
June 9 to June 12, 2011
The sun had just set on the third day of Bonnaroo when comedian Aziz Ansari got onstage to make an announcement. Introducing himself as festival founder “Ken Bonnaroo,” he told the crowd that scheduled headliners the Black Eyed Peas had canceled because of a “terrible hot-air-balloon accident caused by Taboo.” Instead, fans would have to make do with the Black Keys, who proceeded to make the most of their first time on the main stage with a thrilling earth-scorcher of a set.
It was all a joke, of course. The Tennessee skies would rain tie-dyed hacky sacks before Fergie and Co. would play the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, which, in its 10th year, has ballooned into a 150-act, 80,000-fan blowout that, for four epic days, turns this 700-acre farm outside Nashville into the sixth-largest city in the state. “It’s kind of nerve-racking,” said Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. of the gigantic crowd as he waited backstage before the band’s set. “But somehow we seem to pull it off.”
Turn up at any of Bonnaroo’s five stages between noon and 2 a.m., and it’s a pretty good bet you’ll see something great. While the Strokes were rocking the second stage, Robert Plant‘s Band of Joy were on the main stage, thrilling with seven Zeppelin tunes (“Black Dog,” “What Is and What Should Never Be”); New Orleans legend Dr. John was getting swampy with Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach at the annual Super Jam; and Texas indie instrumentalists Explosions in the Sky were churning out majestic guitar jams that made a perfect sunset soundtrack. There was so much going on that Strokes singer Julian Casablancas showed up late to his own set because he’d been across the field watching Brooklyn crew Beirut. “You guys have so many options,” Casablancas told the crowd after racing over in a golf cart. “Thanks for choosing us.”
The festival has mushroomed in every musical direction: dance pop (Swedish sparkler Robyn celebrating her birthday with a sweaty disco party), world music (Mongolian folk group Hanggai, a sleeper hit) and most notable this year, hip-hop headliner Eminem tore through a ruthlessly efficient set on Saturday, urging the ladies in the crowd to “grab a titty” and shout “Fuck you” to the man next to them (almost certainly a Bonnaroo first), while the night before, Lil Wayne and Big Boi staged dueling sets that introduced a welcome bit of menace to the chilled-out vibe. Then again, stoner-rap fave Wiz Khalifa had no trouble fitting in with the hemp-and-sandals crowd: “I felt really at home,” he told RS after his Saturday set. “I’m a sweaty hippie myself.”
It was pretty much impossible not to be sweaty. “This is about 10 to 15 times hotter than Glastonbury,” joked a ruddy-faced Marcus Mumford of U.K. hit makers Mumford & Sons, as he stole some shade backstage before his band’s set. Fellow Brit Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine, had some issues with the heat as well: “I felt like a screaming, sweaty dust ball,” she said after her witchy set, which had Faith Hill watching from the side of the stage. “But in the end, I was just like, ‘Fuck it.'”
By Sunday, many of the attendees had been so zombified by UV punishment that they looked like they could take a Frisbee to the face and not even blink. To top it off, the seasonal rains that usually provide relief were AWOL this year, leaving the farm a giant expanse of dust. (The heat also turned tragic, as a 24-year-old man fell victim to hyperthermia and died at the hospital. A 32-year-old woman was also found dead at the campground, of as-yet-undetermined causes.)
Heat aside, the vibe was consistently sweet. “The kids are like flower children . . . so pure and innocent,” said R&B legend Mavis Staples. “They may not be,” she added with a laugh. One band that played for the original flower children was Buffalo Springfield, touring for the first time in 43 years. Backstage, Stephen Stills joked that the young crowd would have no clue who they were: “They’re going to go, “Who are those old guys? Mommy, who’s that old man?” But when they took the stage Saturday night, Neil Young and Stills traded fierce solos without a trace of rust.
Some of the biggest moments of the weekend didn’t actually happen, as rumor after rumor failed to pan out. Lil Wayne didn’t get arrested for drug possession; Phoenix didn’t jet in for a surprise set; the once-in-a-decade plague of cicadas that locals had worried about failed to materialize. But what it lacked in history-making momentousness, it made up for with moments of surprise and wonder. The best came Saturday night, after My Morning Jacket‘s sweeping two-hour turn on the main stage, when a half-dozen parachutists floated down from the sky, with twinkling LEDs trailing them like pixie dust.
In the end, one of the best moments of the weekend belonged to Arcade Fire, who have mastered the art of arena-size intimacy. Win Butler kick-started the crowd with an impassioned “All right, you fucking hippies, let’s do it!” before cranking out nostalgic jams like “The Suburbs” and “Wake Up.” But it was Butler’s tribute to the diversity of Bonnaroo that the crowd found most agreeable: “Any festival where you can see My Morning Jacket and Lil Wayne,” he said to wild cheers as the evening drew to a close, “is OK with me.”
This story is from the July 7th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.