The Evolution of Bonnaroo Through the Eyes of Burning Man's Social Alchemist

Article by: Bear Kittay|@beartopia

Tue June 16, 2015 | 00:00 AM

In June of 2003, I had just turned 18 years old. I graduated from high school and immediately hitchhiked to Manchester, Tennessee for a pilgrimage that would transform my life in ways I could not have expected – and what a journey it was.

Bonnaroo was my first festival ever, and over the following four straight years I attended, I went from high school to college age; from barefooted camper in the furthest campground to a vendor bringing Crocs to Shakedown Street scene; and ultimately, a political organizer, working with Headcount in 2006 to register thousands of festival attendees to vote in Tennessee, a key swing state.

Bonnaroo 2015 Marco Sanchez   45

Photo by: Marco Sanchez

In 2009, I moved from my native New York to San Francisco, and dove headfirst into the next metamorphosis of my life. I was introduced to Burning Man that year, and it has for me, like so many others, drastically altered the trajectory of my destiny. Though I’ve been drinking the Burner kool-aid for awhile now, I decided that 2015 was the year for me to return to my live music roots and make the pilgrimage to Manchester once again.

But back to the early days for a moment. Like Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock, Bonnaroo and its organizers, Superfly Presents , created a massive space for many tens of thousands to get together as a community and experience some of the greatest live music on the planet, in order to reincarnate the legendary festival gatherings of America’s past. But it wasn’t just about the music: Much like Burning Man, it functions almost as a temporary city surpassing 100,000 attendees, the vast majority of whom camp for the duration of the event and let their freak flags fly.

Bonnaroo 2015 Marco Sanchez   37

Photo by: Marco Sanchez

There was something so potent and new emerging from Bonnaroo’s southern-hippie-meets-hillbilly-meets-soul mixture. The festival’s infancy had a wildness and a pioneering energy to it, but was also racked with heavy drug use, strung out situations, dehydration, and medical emergencies. For anyone new to Bonnaroo, the fest’s sprawling campgrounds and confusing labyrinth of stages with intentionally elusive names like "Which Stage" and "The Other Tent" could seem intimidating. But, much like the festivals Bonnaroo was built to honor, it was clear that its alchemy of different social and economic groups, generations, and musical genres had the power to be cathartic for everyone present – simply by being mashed up together into one huge, glorious festival setting.

What Bonnaroo provided was a context for pilgrimage, not unlike Burning Man or Woodstock before it. The sheer audacity of its scale – 70,000 attendees in Year One – and its consistently eclectic musical lineups that appealed to a broad range of tastes inspired other producers and entrepreneurs to follow suit. Superfly’s template, alongside Goldenvoice’s Coachella model, for festivals spread gradually throughout North America, eventually resulting in the explosion of multi-day, multi-faceted music festivals we’re currently experiencing.

Bonnaroo 2015 Marco Sanchez   06

Photo by: Marco Sanchez

Returning this year – almost a decade later – was a fascinating experience. I got to experience a totally different side of the Bonnaroo, while simultaneously seeing more of it than I ever had before. The infrastructure was dialed, operation flawless. Some of the stages and buildings are now permanent structures on the Farm, and there are plans to have up to 4 separate events on the same grounds throughout the year, including a country music festival. This was a far cry from the early 2000s – Centeroo (the main area) felt like a well-oiled, well-kept theme park instead of the muddy, anarchical space I remembered.

And the demographics too seemed to have changed. It could just be my memory, but I witnessed a more wealthy, less druggy crowd of attendees, and the costumes were impeccable and resembled more of what I have experienced in the Burner-inspired West Coast festival culture than the Deadhead vibe they once exuded. People were certainly tired and intoxicated, but the crowds weren’t as edgy as I remembered from previous years. Behind the scenes, things ran smoothly; the institutional learnings of the production team and volunteers created a very orderly scene. Backstage, I found a thriving ecosystem of music industry meets innovation. It was like a mini South by Southwest. The only disappointment I had was the trash; there was heaps of it, and plastic bottles all over the ground. Hopefully participants can be brought into a Leave No Trace mentality for future events. Perhaps having a water bottle that comes with the ticket could help to make an impact.

Bonnaroo 2015 Marco Sanchez   31

Photo by: Marco Sanchez

And the music! It has definitely evolved, yet has retained its eclectic heritage. Sound Tribe Sector 9’s late-night, electro-tribal set was out of this world, and the legendary SuperJam! Medeski, Martin, Scofield and Wood held it down with their exquisite jazzy fusion. And there were the electronic acts and crossover acts, a highlight of which was Deadmau5's parody moment pressing play and hanging out on stage with his friends with a cigarette in his mouth – clearly making fun of the whole "DJs just press play" stereotype. There were beautiful live performances by Tycho, SBTRKT and dozens more from newer acts.

There is now even a mini film festival, during which my friend Wayne Price premiered his film Heartworn Highways Revisited, as well as quite the vending scene featuring artisans with goods from throughout the world, and representing a diverse array of subcultures – from the hippie and tribal scenes to Southern rock n’ roll style. My favorite was a booth where local Tennessean Dustin Headrick sold his handmade guitar picks made of coins.

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Photo by: Marco Sanchez

Planet Roo and The Non-Profit Village were active with environmental and political advocacy as it has always been, and it made me happy to see that many of the non-profit and green efforts, like Rock the Earth and the fest’s Solar Powered Stage, had grown.

For those of you who, like me, attended Bonnaroo in the early days, I highly recommend the voyage back. It has certainly evolved over the years, but there’s still nowhere else quite like it. If you've never been, put it on your list. And keep tabs on Outside Lands and other new events put on by Superfly Presents, because these guys know how to put on soulful events.

Bear Kittay is a musician, entrepreneur and global storyteller. He’s represented Burning Man on six continents and participated in 10 regional burns in 9 countries, acting as an ambassador for the growing global culture. He’s also worked with the founders on special projects and initiatives as part of the organization's new non-profit endeavors.