Bonnaroo and I have a love-hate relationship. I love Roo, and I think Roo hates me. Every time I’ve gone to the fest something has happened to where I get sick or hurt and can’t enjoy it for all it is. This virtual format gave me a unique opportunity I haven’t always had. When the pandemic hit a lot of things in our world had to change and the music/live event scene was no different. When first presented with the “Virtual Roo-ality” lineup, I didn’t think much of it. (Ok, I thought “Get this out of my face. I want a real, in-person lineup.”) However, after attending the first night, I’m genuinely impressed.
The lineup is still presented in a timeslot format however the acts are a mix of live stream, socially-distanced performances, and iconic nostalgic performances from the farm in the past. This does an excellent job of bridging the generational gaps of the audience and feeding everyone’s appetite no matter age or music preference. The shows are seamlessly streamed on the Bonnaroo YouTube channel with Bonnaroo “commercials” as well as other specials for the arts, business, wellness, etc like you would get if you were actually on the farm.
The biggest thing I was concerned about was how it was going to transfer the feeling of community from the farm to our homes. They were able to accomplish this with the addition of a live chat. This was one of my favorite aspects. It provided a solid opportunity for everyone to share their favorite stories and talk about the artists on screen as well as who they are excited to see — much like we would do if we were there. The nostalgic jokes people were making made it even more enjoyable such as “Happy Roo!” “I’m going to get spicy pie. Anyone want anything?” or “I’m still waiting in the highway line,” or “Anyone going to Kalliope after this?” There were a lot of opinions (and virtual Bonnaroo high-fives of course) on day 1 from the chat, but here are my highlights.
Beastie Boys (2009) aka Their Last Live Show Ever
I saw someone in the comments in the live chat say “I never thought I’d be able to hear this much less see it!” and I had this sentiment also without realizing it. Before the iconic set began, the living members of Beastie Boys sat on a stage quietly talking about their time in Manchester, Tennessee before this Bonnaroo performance. They talked about how they had Nas meet them there since they were working on new music together and how they filmed funny little music videos in small grocery stores in Manchester while they were there. They said the “weirder” it was the more it was true to themselves. With tears in their eyes, they mentioned that they also had no idea that this would be the last time they would play together live before Adam “MCA” Yauch would get diagnosed with cancer that same year and sadly pass away from it a few years later. The set was iconic, full of so much energy and wonderful moments. I guess if this was going to be the last set you ever played, it’s not a bad way to go out. Also, I would give all my money for this live set to be released on vinyl for a future Record Store Day. Please and thanks.
Jack White (2014)
Jack White really is that damn guy. This set is in the top tier of his performances and is what he looks like at his best. The musical range he showcased, the personality, the charisma, the talent, the showmanship…it was all on high the entire time. There was a moment when he took the time to connect to the audience with tears in his eyes and gratitude in his voice. He talked about how he felt bad for musicians in the 30s who sang songs in a repetitive manner built for audience participation because many did not have large followings and would have to sing those repetitions on their own. White’s voice shook as he thanked everyone for him never having to repeat his own lines alone. He also then gave a motivational talk about how music is for the artist and the fans– no one else. Lastly, between songs, he mentioned for us to think about the artist the next time we go to a show and about what “home” means. “As soon as a musician decides to tour they no longer have a home because they belong everywhere. Just think about that– that not everyone has a home.” Someone in the chat followed this up with “Music is home.” You think these kinds of special concert moments can only happen at a live show and Virtual Rooality proved that it was possible to also have these moments in your living room, too. I was grateful for that.
Alabama Shakes (2015)
I believe this was their first time on the What Stage (the main stage) and right at the peak of when Alabama Shakes was becoming popular. I have more of an affinity for this set because I was there and remember how much love filled the entire area. Strangers dancing with each other, the sunset was perfect that night, positive vibes sweeping over everyone– it was one of my favorite live sets– period. Watching it back, I felt the nostalgia come over me again and it still holds true for me that this was one of their better performances.
These guys are good to listen to if jam bands are your flavor. This four-piece indie groove band is Connecticut-based and liken themselves to the soundtrack of what you sit around a fire in the woods listening to with your friends and a keg. The chat went absolutely insane for these guys as the longer they played they seemingly went off script and just jammed in their own world. If you are a “My Morning Jacket” fan, it was reminiscent of how that group gets when they start to get lost in their own jam sessions. This was an on-brand choice for traditional Bonnaroo fans.
This is an endearing folk group out of Athens, Ohio. Their set was 10 minutes and oddly placed between edgy Jack White and the heavy-hitting rap of Denzel Curry which threw off a lot of the fans in the chat. However, those that have an affinity for soulful folk were left wanting a lot more than what they received. This is a good group to check out if you like groups like The Head and the Heart or Blind Pilot.
Tank and the Bangas
This group comes to us vibes blazing from New Orleans. Fun facts about them are that they were the winners of the 2017 NPR Tiny Desk Contest, have performed on Jimmy Fallon, and were even nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist. This group is a funk, soul, and hip hop group that lays soulful and funky tracks out underneath Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s hauntingly smooth vocals that often seamlessly transition into spoken word slam poetry. Their stage presence is inviting and comforting yet exciting and interesting. As you listen you’re not sure what’s going to come next, but all the surprises are good ones. This group is a treat if you like artists like The Internet or Eryka Badu.
Briston Maroney is a gem out of Knoxville, Tennessee– a natural fit for a Roo appearance. Maroney started releasing his music in 2017 after dropping out of college and ending a relationship. His arguably most popular track “Freakin’ Out on the Interstate” is full of soft indie melody that is interestingly grunge-influenced at times while sounding folk-influenced at others. If that’s your thing, he will leave you wondering what else he has up his sleeve.
This one was a surprise for me. Subtronics is taking the torch from his predecessors like Bassnectar, DeadMau5, and Skrillex to entertain the next generation of bass heads. His collaborations include heavy-hitting names like Griz, Space Jesus and Ganja White. I didn’t intend to watch his whole set, but the thing is, I couldn’t stop. His visuals were insane. I didn’t know how this genre was going to reach the audience virtually since so much of electronic shows highly rely on the atmosphere to engage people. His visuals and his presence were so authentically undeniable I couldn’t take my eyes off him. They were interesting, innovative and his presence itself is one you can’t help but be drawn to. The fans in the chat had been asking for him all night and when he finally came on they lost their minds because not only are his mixes and visuals amazing, but he had announced everything he played tonight was previously unreleased and original. He also was one of the only artists to acknowledge the social and political climate we’re in by releasing a song to us that he did with Griz about BLM and police brutality. If this scene is your thing, you probably already know about Subtronics. If it’s just “sort of” your thing and you haven’t heard of him, put him on your list.
That’s a wrap on Day 1. Check the lineup below and be on the lookout for Day 2! If you watched Day 1 as well, share your thoughts below.