Despite being the most undersold year in the festival’s history, Bonnaroo 2016 ended up being another incredible event. Still, even those who appreciated the extra breathing room likely worried about the future of the veteran music fest. Was this the beginning of a decline? Another sign of festival over-saturation and ubiquity?
Now that the 2017 lineup has dropped … well, sadly those worries still hold. To its eternal credit, Bonnaroo has well-earned the sort of devotion that will bring people down to The Farm regardless of who plays. Still, that doesn’t change the feeling that this year’s bill feels like an unfortunate sign of the times. Call it the curse of the ever-premature booking practices (‘Roo founder Ashley Capps even told us “it starts earlier every year it seems”) or the homogenization of the scene, but it just doesn’t feel inspired.
One has to wonder if the cash spent on U2, the festival’s one big get, handcuffed organizers. While they deserve major kudos for booking Bono and the boys, it’s strange to see them on this particular lineup. Rock fans only have the Royal Blood, Glass Animals, Cage the Elephant, and Cold War Kids sort of bookings to work with leading up to the headliners, and that’s a hard thread to follow. Where are the mid-tier legacy acts and classic rockers?
Any sort of metal or hard rock performances look to be totally absent this year, as do a lot of Americana styles. What little there is (Margo Price, Greensky Bluegrass, Kevin Morby) is so sparse it seems tacked on to fill the That Tent slots leading up to Ed Helm’s annual Bluegrass Superjam. Jam fans, meanwhile, are sure to be disappointed with only yet another Umphrey’s McGee show to tide them over.
In place of these once trademark sounds is the commercial giant that is eating up bill space across the board: EDM. Alas, even those bookings fall flat, with Major Lazer and Flume feeling like a case of the last-years, and acts like Marshmello, Borgore, Getter, and NGHTMRE likely leaving electronic fans itching for something of a palette cleanser.
Of course, even a poorly constructed lineup has its bright spots (Car Seat Headrest, Gallant, No Name, Lucy Dacus, Flatbush Zombies, The Lemon Twigs). But even the killer comebacks (The xx, Lorde) and risers (The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper) fail to give the bill distinction in 2017. Perhaps in trying to appeal to ever younger and changing tastes, the festival has sacrificed the types of surprises that used to add such an unrivaled wow factor. Literally — we usually do a Most Surprising category in these recaps, but couldn’t even find enough to even write about. Instead, we get another Red Hot Chili Peppers headlining spot and Tegan & Sara being the festival’s most unique billing.
Throwing a music festival has never been harder, what with the influx of competition and the decrease in truly standout booking possibilities. It’s reassuring to know that Bonnaroo’s legacy and community is strong enough to endure any downturns; at the same time, it wouldn’t be surprising if this year’s lineup failed to make up much ground on the ticket sales lost over the last half decade.
Still, it’s a bill worth considering, so read ahead for our complete breakdown.
Photo by Philip Cosores
Booking U2 is one of the biggest coups of the year for any North American music festival. Bono and co. have been storming through stadiums and arenas for the last two decades, so seeing them “slum it” on The Farm is the type of rare opportunity that brings us back to the glory days of the music festival, back when headliners were unique and the actual experience would be unparalleled. What’s more, it’s a big catch for Bonnaroo as the Irish rockers have been rumored for Coachella multiple times over the years. However, unlike Coachella, whose booking of Beyoncé is a similar if not greater coup, Bonnaroo didn’t exactly design a lineup to support their newly mounted white whale. They’re kind of just … there. –Michael Roffman
Photo by David Brendan Hall
Well, at least there’s always the SuperJam. It’s almost unfair to call this one of the standouts, as it’s always an expected part of any ‘Roo. But it’s also a highly anticipated part, so give it some credit. Even a lackluster set like last year’s can turn in memorable performances from its ever-rotating slew of surprise guests. At this point, imagining who might be involved or what the theme might be (if there even is one) is pure guess work. Bono might step in to sing “Walk This Way” with Chance the Rapper backed by Big Gigantic and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band while Future Island’s Gerrit Welmers plays synth, Royal Blood’s Ben Thatcher pounds drums, and Flea slaps bass. Unlikely? Sure — but completely possible at the SuperJam. Things like this are why Bonnaroo will never die. –Ben Kaye
Photo by David Brendan Hall
It’s been a couple years since The Weeknd closed out Saturday night at Coachella, even though, technically, Jack White was the headliner that day. The set that the Toronto pop sensation brought to the Polo Fields was a statement that he was ready for the top of the posters, and it’s no surprise that’s exactly where he wound up. For Bonnaroo, they booked the guy as he sets out on his biggest tour, supporting his biggest album, and, so far, they’re the only US festival to do it. Bottom line: It’s good get an artist in their prime, especially when no one else is. –Philip Cosores
Chance the Rapper
Photo by Ben Kaye
Yes, Chance the Rapper will be everywhere in 2017, but it’s Chance the Rapper, and headlining Bonnaroo is radically different than headlining, say, Governors Ball. Both are honorable feats, sure, but there’s a certain prestige that comes with topping one of America’s most enduring festivals, and it’s the type of feat that Lil Chano will most certainly stick at the top of his resume. Let’s also not forget that Manchester, Tennessee, is hardly a stone’s throw away from his hometown of Chicago, Illinois, where he’s already headlined Pitchfork Music Festival. In other words, we expect to see him headlining Lollapalooza, but Bonnaroo? That’s a tougher hurdle to leap and one that will be a joy to watch. As he might say, “No problem.” –Michael Roffman
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Photo by Philip Cosores
Bark and bitch all you want, but Red Hot Chili Peppers will draw tens of thousands of happy-go-lucky Bonnaroovians and everyone will sing along to “Otherside” and “Under the Bridge” and every hit song of theirs that’s been on the radio forever and ever and ever. Because of this, there’s financially very little argument against the booking, except for the fact that it’s straight-up comfort food and adds zero spice to a lineup that desperately needs it. Even worse, the Chili Peppers will be a year removed from their last album — quick, name it! — and by June it’ll seem like old hat if it doesn’t already. (It does.) –Michael Roffman
Boring Commercial Rock
Photo by Philip Cosores
Commercial rock has been an issue across the spectrum of fest announcements this year, but Bonnaroo lacks in many of the cooler billings that would have balanced it. Sure, the Chili Peppers, xx, and Lorde at the top of the bill could fall into the category, even if two of which are a couple of the fest’s most exciting acts, but further down you have Kaleo, Glass Animals, The Head and the Heart, The Strumbellas, Royal Blood, Cold War Kids, Milky Chance, Cage the Elephant, and Bad Suns. These artists all vary in quality, but they represent a faction of popular music that is struggling for relevancy. –Philip Cosores
Too Many Packaged Acts
Photo by Robert Altman
By now, we know that every festival is going to have at least a dozen acts that are all going to be shared across any given summer. For Bonnaroo, however, it seems like those acts make up a hearty stake of their lineup: Tegan and Sara, Future Islands, Car Seat Headrest, Travis Scott, Jon Bellion, Tory Lanez, Francis and the Lights, The Front Bottoms, BadBadNotGood, Big Gigantic, Marshmello, and the list goes on. Couple all of them with the pre-packaged commercial rock acts above and you’re starting to see a lineup that more or less says: “We got U2, The Weeknd, and SuperJam.” –Michael Roffman
Photo by Jeff Kravitz
A huge part of the Bonnaroo legacy is their relationship with jam music. Whether it’s Phish, Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, The Dead, or even a more contemporary analog like My Morning Jacket, it’s often the beating heart of the festival. So with just Umphrey’s McGee appearing in the middle of the lineup as the only real appeal to the crowd that Bonnaroo has largely been built for feels like a slight. Our interview with co-founder Ashley Capps attributed this to just the natural evolution of musical tastes, but with the John Mayer-enhanced Dead headlining just last year, it’s hard to imagine that jam bands don’t have a place as a central piece of Bonnaroo. –Philip Cosores
Photo by David Brendan Hall
Take a look at Coachella’s 2017 lineup. Sure, there’s plenty of populist EDM like Dillon Francis and DJ Snake, but you’ve also got Justice, Nicolas Jaar, Four Tet, and Röyksopp balancing the taste level. Bonnaroo’s 2017 lineup is unfortunate in its one-sidedness. Major Lazer and Flume are the biggest dance bookings, but both played festivals in mass last year, making Roo late in their best gets. Elsewhere, the likes of Marshmello and Crystal Castles are providing disparate dance parties, but they’re the same ones you’ll find across the country. For a festival that seems to be losing its identity, this doesn’t help. –Philip Cosores
A Little More Classic Rock
Photo by Amanda Koellner
What has traditionally separated Bonnaroo from the rest of the Big Four — outside of maybe Austin City Limits — is its willingness to book some good ol’ classic rock. Granted, U2 fills that void, but only to a degree, and again, they didn’t surround them with like-minded acts. For example, when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band headlined in 2009, they were paired with Phish, David Byrne, Al Green, Elvis Costello, and a slew of familiar veteran acts. This year, there’s none of that for U2, and rest assured, the offerings are out there: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, David Gilmour, Depeche Mode, Stevie Nicks, Sting, Phil Collins, hell, even Foreigner, could have used a festival set or two. Who knows, maybe the fest was cashed out. –Michael Roffman
Photo by Nathan Dainty
Not to pigeonhole Bonnaroo, but its proximity to the country music capital has long made it a place where a few country music acts were welcome. There was Sam Hunt last year, Kacey Musgrave in 2015, and the likes of Alison Krauss and Zak Brown Band in the festival’s history. This year lacks any big-name country stars on the lineup, with only Margo Price located way down in the smaller font to draw a direct line to Nashville. With the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton crossing the line to perform at major music festivals in the last several years, not to mention available legends like Dolly Parton and returning champ Shania Twain, Bonnaroo’s lineup feels like a weird step back and from the least likely festival to do so. –Philip Cosores
Anything From 2017
Photo by Heather Kaplan
What’s with the lack of artists from this year? Coachella, Governors Ball, Panorama, and now Bonnaroo have all failed to dip very far into the well of talent returning in 2017 — and trust me, it’s a deep, deep well. At the beginning of the year, we assembled a hefty list of 50 anticipated albums due out before 2018, and hardly any of the acts are on any of the lineups so far. That means we’ve yet to see: Gorillaz, Japandroids, St. Vincent, The Flaming Lips, Dirty Projectors, Sky Ferreira, The Jesus and Mary Chain, HAIM, yada, yada, yada. What gives? Do we really need another rehash of 2016? Sad! –Michael Roffman