Ready to Rock

Tennessee Not Impressed By Bonnaroo

The locals might be laughing but the slick, wealthy crowd is here and ready for an explosive weekend at the legendary festival.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

McMinnville, Tennessee is less than a half-hour from “the farm” where the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival takes place. But today it could be a thousand miles away.

A group of local teens in the small town got a chuckle out of the “rich kid” driving a “funny ass car.” The Mini Cooper driver must be going to Bonnaroo said one of them. He certainly was, I don’t know if guy in the blue and white Mini was truly wealthy but the statistics say he is aged between 21 - 34 years (69%) and almost certainly college-educated (92%).

With this kind of educated and youthful audience, and with ticket prices ranging $234 - $747 per person, it is no wonder vendors such as PayPal and Teva view Bonnaroo as a rich environment to promote their brands, goods and services.

My inbox is flooded with emails from publicists seeking attention for their performers, which is not surprising, but there’s also a growing volume of emails from commercial enterprises. Corporate interests have yet to seize control of Bonnaroo the way they have at at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. But given the audience demographic, one might assume that the marketers are coming—and soon.

But it is day one for the four-day festival, so most attendees are walking straight past the vendors en route to the 13 stages and tents to soak in music performances from artists such as ZZ Ward, a 28-year-old bluesy rock performer with a growing following.

“I had a ball, it was so much fun, I wish it lasted longer,” Ward said during our conversation backstage—Muddy Waters, her dog, sticking close by. The charming Ward performed 14 songs that included her “Last Love Song” and “365 days.” Her voice is strong and full of full of character; her harmonica playing swift and powerful.

“They appreciate music, I could tell that about them,” Ward continued. “It was packed, before I even started, they were ready for me—there’s no feeling like it in the world; that is why I am an artist.”

Thursday at Bonnaroo has a warm-up feel to it; none of the headliners appear on the first day and the festival’s two main stages, “What” and “Which” are quiet other than a couple of mid-day sound checks.

White Denim, Real Estate and Pusha-T each performed to enthusiastic crowds in places such as “Other Tent” and “This Tent." But there was one performance that really snuck up on me, Big Sam’s Funky Nation. The group from New Orleans electrified the small stage in the VIP area of Bonnaroo, just steps away from the massage tables, hammocks and air hockey tables.

Big Sam and his band played to a crowd of a hundred with the same energy and enthusiasm I expect to see when they take to a bigger stage later in the week. They’re obviously having fun, which rubs off on everyone.

The first day of ‘Roo is all about fun. There were no visible signs of issues, the admission process was smooth and the lurking storms remained just outside the festival grounds. The crowds were upbeat, supportive, and polite.

The slower Thursday schedule was welcomed by this mid-forties music fan. Friday’s schedule is packed with huge performances from Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, Ice Cube, Skrillex and of course Kanye.

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I got to my tent at 2:15AM, knowing that this is the earliest I will get to bed at Bonnaroo. As I prepared for bed by hitting the VIP showers, I could not help but think about the people I met down the road in McMinnville; if I see them again I will most certainly report that this Bonnaroo thing is pretty sweet.