From the Friday ‘Bonnaroo Beacon’: The Ole Home Place
Photo by John Patrick Gatta
Bonnaroo has long been a sacred space for the thousands of music fans who make the pilgrimage to Manchester, Tenn., each June, but it wasn’t until last year that a set of actual chapel pews showed up onstage. That’s when the Grand Ole Opry, a now 93-year-old institution, arrived at Great Stage Park for a special broadcast, bringing along their famed announcer, Bill Cody, intrepid dancers and, of course, wooden seats. And, last night, the Grand Ole Opry returned to The Farm for the second year in a row, moving from Sunday to Thursday and, for the first time, giving the festival’s traditionally populist opening night something of an unofficial centerpiece act.
Taking place in That Tent, the live radio program once again featured announcer Bill Cody and some fabulous square dancers, as well as Opry members and Bonnaroo veterans Old Crow Medicine Show, who served as the evening’s host band. The inclusion of Old Crow—the first act to play what is now known as the Which Stage way back at the inaugural Roo in 2002—helped bring the entire presentation home. Returning every few years throughout Bonnaroo’s own evolution, Old Crow have grown into one of the event’s house bands, joining in various hootenanny-like situations and shooting the cover of their first LP backstage.
Even in the wilds of that kickoff year, Bonnaroo already elicited a number of warm and wistful emotions, likely because that early iteration felt like the culmination and confluence of the various jamband festival scenes that, in certain musical circles, defined the late 1990s. Combining that blueprint with a concurrent revival of Southern roots culture and some good, old-fashion, late-night New Orleans Jazz Fest revelry, founding producers Superfly and AC Entertainment were able to bring the party to a national level—and Old Crow have always fit snugly into that Venn diagram. (Speaking of full-circle milestones, this summer marks the 20th anniversary of the first large-scale festival held on the site that has housed Bonnaroo from the beginning. In August ‘99, this property hosted Itchycoo Park—a Woodstock-style celebration named after a Small Faces song that featured Dave Mason, John Entwistle Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, Badfinger, and Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, among other classic-rock acts. Though smaller in scale than Bonnaroo, the multi-day gathering proved that Sam McAllister’s farm was ripe for live music.)
From 6:30-8:30 p.m. last night, Old Crow welcomed Opry members and Bonnaroo vets Ricky Skaggs and Riders In The Sky, and special guests Steve Earle and The Dukes, Morgan Evans, Ashley Monroe, Molly Tuttle and Wendy Moten to their Grand Ole Opry offering, for what will hopefully become a new Thursday evening tradition. “Wherever [Grand Ole Opry] plays is home sweet home,” the program’s anchor said between songs. Old Crow frontman Ketch Secor echoed that statement, promising songs of the “prairie and wild West,” and leading his ensemble through one of Tennessee’s official state songs, “Rocky Top,” before launching into “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Old Town Road,” “Wagon Wheel” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Riders In The Sky, the longtime Opry regulars who turned heads last year, racked up a few more young fans Thursday as well, working Bonnaroo into the lyrics of the sing-along “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
Of course, Bonnaroo’s first night has always been a time of discovery—the first time now marquee acts like Kendrick Lamar, Vampire Weekend, alt-J, Alabama Shakes, Courtney Barnett, The National and Ray LaMontagne appeared on The Farm before returning as known entities. Despite the presence of a lauded radio program, yesterday’s lineup was still stacked with emerging acts, allowing Bonnaroovians to bounce between tents while the What and Which stages remained dark and the gates to the main concert field’s new, Phantom Tollbooth-like LED Bonnaroo Arch remained locked. (Though, Clean Vibes founder Anna Borofsky, whose company has overseen the site’s recycling program since the beginning, did use the What Stage to marry her partner, Brendon, who she met outside the main concert field in 2002, during a touching ceremony.)
Peach Pit, a self-described “chewed bubblegum pop” act from Vancouver, officially kicked off the weekend’s musical festivities in That Tent, dressed in Ned Flanders dad-wear that paired well with Christopher Vanderkooy’s post-jam guitar riffs. Vocalist/guitarist Neil Smith was understandably visibly excited to see the overflowing crowd, admitting that it was “the most people” he has ever played for and commenting on the “coldest” (but extremely pleasant) Bonnaroo weather he’s heard about.
Shortly after, New Jersey-bred, LA-based singer/songwriter Donna Missal, a frequent collaborator of past Bonnaroo performer Sharon Van Etten, opened This Tent with a set of R&B-influenced alternative sounds, while reminding the crowd that women need to serve as festival “headliners” and in other positions of “power and influence.”
Each year, Bonnaroo’s booking team traditionally spotlights a few Tennessee bands on Thursday, and this go around was no exception. Nashville outfit All Them Witches, who have worked with producer and area tastemaker Dave Cobb, ran through a set of blistering, bluesy stoner rock in This Tent while Boone, N.C. psych act The Nude Party and Miami alt-pop party starters Magic City Hippies both represented other regional Southern musical dialects in That Tent. The Nude Party paused to wax nostalgic at one point, reminiscing about rolling into Bonnaroo as fans six years ago.
On The Who Stage—perhaps the purest space to catch tomorrow’s stars on the rise—Austin psych-soul combo Kalu & the Electric Joint, LA-based R&B/disco artist Mk.gee (one of two artists named Mike Gordon performing this weekend), German pop singer bülow, Chicago rock band Friday Pilots Club and Brooklyn indie/electro/pop performer Evan Giia all racked up some new fans. Likewise, in This and That Tent, Colorado livetronica act SunSquabi, Chicago rapper Saba and Kentucky hip-hop artist Jack Harlow were each part of cosmic threads that can be traced through the Bonnaroo lineup poster to the weekend’s headliners. Melbourne indie favorites Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever were perhaps the day’s most traditional “guitar-rock breakout band,” running through a set of surf-influenced tunes and reminding the audience to pace themselves for “the long haul.”
The Other, the open air, EDM-focused performance space that debuted in 2017 in place of The Other Tent, returned in full force last night too, with fans raising their rage-sticks to producer Dorfex Bos, a collaborator of Bonnaroo regular Bassnectar, before parking in their spots all the way through a special all-night bass summit that weaved in Space Jesus, Eprom and Shlump.
Some of Bonnaroo’s most unique bookings veer outside the confines of a traditional stage and, as campers got acclimated and reacquainted with their neighborhoods for the weekend, the Plaza’s mini-villages were firing on all cylinders. Sample wizard Chuck Sho-Hoo held court in The Grove, a mix of Nashville comedians entertained in Plaza 6’s The Boogaloo and Plaza 2 was transformed into the Sanctuary of Love wellness area curated by Hayley Williams of Paramore. The Farm’s newest amusement park, Where in the Woods, was also up and running, offering a mix of R&B and funk DJs and chill-out zones while the sun was up and some house wax and the music of tropical bass darlings after magic hour.
However, for many, this year’s Bonnaroo really boils down to the return of Phish. The Vermont Quartet’s late-‘90s campouts not only inspired Bonnaroo in the first place, but many of the event’s key production staffers and creative teams also worked on those large-scale events more than 20 years ago. Phish’s members have played Bonnaroo numerous times—including a closing set by Trey Anastasio in 2002—and Phish themselves headlined in both 2009 and 2012.
The Centerooo fan festivities kicked off with a Kasvot Växt celebration in Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Barn early this morning. A nod to Phish’s recent musical Halloween costume, where the band wrote new music under the guise of a fake Scandinavian band, the house party found New York DJ and producer Jesse Lauter, who has worked with Roo alums like Tedeschi Trucks Band, Craig Finn, The Low Anthem and Elvis Perkins, mixing Kasvot Växt cuts like “Turtle in the Clouds” with elements of the music he felt would have inspired the fictional band (including Scandinavian funk, the Krautrock of CAN and Guru Guru, and underground prog). Most in attendance wore white, nodding to the clothes the members of Phish wore on October 31.
Phish will return to the What Stage this evening for a late show slated to start at 11 p.m. The performance falls just a few shows into the band’s summer tour, which kicked off earlier this week with a two-night run in St. Louis. Both gigs featured material from the Kasvot Växt performance as well as the Phish debut of some tunes from Anastasio’s deeply personal Ghosts of the Forest project, which the guitarist toured behind this spring. Wednesday’s St. Louis show also boasted some arena-sized fun: Playing in the Blues’ hometown as they won the NHL championships, Phish opened their second set with their debut take on the hockey team’s own victory song, “Gloria.” The members of Vampire Weekend, who were headlining their own show nearby, stopped by for a bit to meet the band as well and ended up working up their own take on “Gloria.” They aren’t playing Bonnaroo this year, but there Bonnaroo roots run deep: some of the members of Vampire Weekend came as fans to see Anastasio at that first Bonnaroo in 2002.
You can follow Mike Greenhaus on Instagram @Greeenhauseffect3