The 2012 Bonnaroo Festival: A First-timer's Review

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Waiting for The Beach Boys to arrive
Waiting for The Beach Boys

A couple weekends ago, I took a few days off from work to head down to Manchester, TN, for my first Bonnaroo. In fact, it was my first ever music festival, so I kind of dived into things head first. I went because Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beach Boys, and Mogwai were going to be there, but I also used it as an opportunity to discover bands I hadn't heard of before, so that I might expand my playlist.

Coming from a first-timer's perspective, I must say that this Bonnaroo was run extremely well. The band selection was excellent, the venue was (mostly) clean, and everybody was really friendly. Not having been to a festival before, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but now that I've been there, I'm sorry it had to end.


My tent at Bonnaroo
My humble abode for four days

After packing up clothes, a tent, a sleeping bag, and something that could hold a lot of water, I headed down to Tennessee. I chose to fly in and then take the shuttle from the airport. This had the advantage of being able to jump ahead of the line during the final leg of the approach to The Farm (I've heard of people waiting up to 10 hours to get in), but as someone going alone it also meant that I couldn't quite bring every recommended item. Not without paying an extra airline fees, anyway. So I was without extra shade at my tent and couldn't bring food, but it worked out this year as temperatures were lower than usual, and the prices for food were not that bad.

Once at Bonnaroo I began my search for a spot. I'm not sure whether it was just because I was new, or because I was working on two hours of sleep, or some combination of both, but I was quite disoriented at first. I wandered around sort of confused, and at first began setting up my tent in one of the camps with rented tents, until someone told me I was in the wrong area. So I tried to find a different spot, and by some kind of first-timer luck, I was able to find one in the tent-only area about as close to Centeroo (the main festival area) as possible. To explain it best, most people seem to have to walk at least 15 minutes to get there. My walk was only three or four minutes at most.

The experience

Bonnaroo is equal parts music and experience, and the organizers went to great lengths to provide a great experience this year. After some brutally hot weekends in the past couple years the staff set up extra areas for shade by putting up canopies, extra trees, and air conditioned enclosures where people could go to cool off. I greatly appreciated this on the first day, when I'd been walking around and setting up for a long time before entering Centeroo. I chose to head to the comedy tent for a show, and it was great to have somewhere to go for a while that was air conditioned.

Creative umbrellas at Bonnaroo
Bonnarooians are known for their creativity.

In that same respect, I couldn't have gotten throughout the weekend without water, so having access to water filling stations throughout the site was a relief. The only thing about them is that one of them seemed to run out of water by the end of the day on Saturday and Sunday. I guess there is a finite supply at any given station, but it could have been a problem if temperatures were higher.

In all, the entire experience was fantastic. My fellow Bonnarooians (is that the term?) were friendly, and I met several great people while there. Also, the volunteers and staff kept the place clean, even if the attendees sometimes didn't. My biggest surprise was the porta-potties. I was expecting a lot of nose pinching, but not once did a nasty smell past through my nostrils. That right there completely made my weekend.

If I had one complaint, it was that it was near impossible to get into the comedy tent to see Aziz Ansari unless you gave up several hours of sets to stand in line for a ticket. I overheard one person say that the staff should have set up screens and speakers in the relatively empty field outside the tent, in order to accommodate overflow. This would have indeed let more people see the show, but maybe there was some reason they couldn't do it. However, not seeing Ansari didn't break the experience for me (I also ended up missing Mogwai to ensure a good spot at Red Hot Chili Peppers).

The music

At Bonnaroo, there are no bad bands, per se—the team there is good at developing a lineup consisting of fantastic acts—but everybody has their preferences. I went into Bonnaroo really excited for Chili Peppers and The Beach Boys, but came out of it just as enthused for Dawes, Gary Clark Jr., The Roots, and Rodrigo y Gabriela.

After a great Red Hot Chili Peppers set
After a great Chili Peppers set

Dawes was easily my favorite discovery of the weekend. I came across them at the Sonic Stage on Saturday, but now that I've heard them, I'm disappointed that I didn't see them at The Other Tent on Friday. I think they were also one of the biggest draws to the stage that day, as the crowd seemed to spill well outside the tiny area it occupied.

Rodrigo y Gabriela was another surprise. I hadn't intended on seeing them as I had with Dawes, but I ended up at What Stage on Friday night, and ended up staying for the greater part of the set before heading over to Foster the People. The two artists, along with guest C.U.B.A., gave a highly energetic performance, and the music sounded great.

The set that I noticed seemed to have mixed reviews on site was Red Hot Chili Peppers. I enjoyed it a lot, but some people seemed to think it sub-par. I guess some in the crowd just weren't that into it, though the opposite seemed to be the case where I was standing. I thought the band really came through on the songs, and the great chemistry between Flea and new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer was obvious, especially when they jammed.

The last day of the festival was marred by on-and-off rain, but it didn't slow anything down, and luckily held off for most of the afternoon. The Beach Boys showed that, even after 50 years, they still have what it takes to give a great performance. With a long history of hits, they were able to keep the audience pretty much in a constant state of excitement.

The final set by Phish was just as excellent, though more relaxing than exciting (which for Phish is not a bad thing). I didn't think I'd be able to last through four hours of a single band, but time seemed to completely slip away, and before you knew it the concert was over.

In conclusion

As a first-timer, I'm impressed at what the Bonnaroo team has put together. This festival was absolutely worth the money it took to get down there. The bands were awesome, and although I only expanded on a few of my favorites here, every band I saw gave a solid performance, especially Flogging Molly, Sara Watkins, Trixie Whitley, and Phantogram.

Additionally, the Sonic Disco was fun, and overall the entire four days was just great. I definitely want to go again, and my experience there this year has me greatly anticipating next year.