The Roots of Bonnaroo 2017 Sunday Recap
The final day of Bonnaroo 2017 is over, Centeroo is closed, and the Farm has returned to being a farm with a lowercase “f” for another year. Sunday at Bonnaroo is always a feast for fans of roots music, not only because The Bluegrass Situation does their annual takeover of That Tent, but because the festival’s organizers tend to load Sundays heavily to Americana. Even this year when, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday you could go hours with no roots options, Sunday required some tough choices. So, for one last time in 2017, let’s see how it all fell out.
The Headliner: The Weeknd
This year was all about experimentation for Bonnaroo and nowhere was that more evident than in its choice of closing headliners. From the festival’s inception in 2002 through 2012, a jam band in the vein of Phish or Widespread Panic closed Bonnaroo. From 2013-2016, a classic rocker like Billy Joel or Elton John served that role. This resulted in many of Bonnaroo’s college-aged fans leaving on Sunday morning. With the addition of the EDM-themed Other Stage putting a full day of EDM on Sunday, Bonnaroo gambled that a youthful headliner would keep that coveted demographic around for another day. The gamble appears to have paid off. The crowd numbers for The Weeknd appeared to be similar to those in previous years, but skewed noticeably younger. This could be the beginning of a new trend for Bonnaroo.
Roots Performance of the Day #1: Margo Price
As I only saw one non-roots show that wasn’t a headliner on Sunday, I’m skipping the Non-Roots Performance of the Day and instead highlighting the two best from the day’s roots offerings. First up is Margo Price. The current darling of the Americana scene played a mid-afternoon set at Bonnaroo’s second biggest stage, Which. Despite the stifling heat at the mostly unshaded stage, Price drew a respectable crowd across a wide range of demographics.
Price’s hour-long set proved why she is the hottest female artist in Americana today. In addition to writing some lines you’d swear were pulled straight from the classic country songbook, Price has a fiery delivery and a stage presence that can’t be denied. When she drawls “sometimes my weakness is stronger than me”, you are simultaneously drawn into her story and compelled to check Wikipedia because you can’t believe in the entirety of country music’s songwriting history, someone hadn’t already thought up that zinger of a line.
Roots Performance of the Day #2: The Bluegrass Situation Superjam
For five years, this has been the highlight of the roots-loving Bonnaroo fan’s weekend. Ed Helms and his Bluegrass Situation team have made their annual Superjams a success with a simple two step formula: 1. Put some of the most talented roots musicians in a room together and 2. Encourage them to break some rules. This year, The Bluegrass Situation enlisted Bryan Sutton to lead the house band in addition to their lineup of performers that included River Whyless, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Greensky Bluegrass, and Mandolin Orange, and some guests like Martina McBride, Gaby Moreno and Baskery.
That alone would have made for a good Superjam. But it was in the additional surprises, and the collaborations that ensued that the magic happened. As with the Saturday Superjam, it would take pages to list all of the people rotating on and off stage, so we’ll focus on a few highlights.
The first was bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne taking the stage with Lillie Mae for a rousing audience sing-along of “Rocky Top.” That song, the fight song for the Tennessee Volunteers, is always going to be a popular one at Bonnaroo, but having the man who first made it famous teaming with one of Americana’s brightest young stars is the kind of magic that can only happen at a Superjam.
Another excellent collaboration were Martina McBride and Baskery, who combined their beautiful voices to tackle three of the most formidable singers in country history; Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris with their 1987 hit “Those Memories of You.”
But the thing most looked forward to at any Bluegrass Situation Superjam is the big surprise sing-along at the end and this year, they brought two American-themed tunes. The first was a giant group-sing on Lee Greenwood’s patriotic classic “God Bless the USA.” It’s a song that has been badly misused for some pretty jingoistic purposes since its release, so it was nice to see it taken back to its purest roots. Bonus points for cultural diversity to whomever’s idea it was to have Gaby Moreno sing the second verse in Spanish.
The second “America” themed sing-along was Aaron Lee Tasjan and a surprise Superjam participant Margo Price. The pair powered through John Mellencamp’s “ROCK in the USA” like a wrecking ball, taking no prisoners.
Best of the Rest:
The day began with New Orleans’ Tank and the Bangas. After winning NPR’s 2017 Tiny Desk Concert contest, Tank and the Bangas have gone from a regionally known act to a national sensation, as was evidenced by the full tent at such an early hour. Musically, Tank and the Bangas are impossible to pin down, aside from “New Orleans.” Elements of all of that city’s musical culture, from funk to soul, from rock to jazz, and from bounce to slam poetry, is represented by the group with an energetic intensity that is dazzling. Whether they’re belting out soulful lines or all twerking together onstage, Tank and the Bangas demand all eyes.
Following Tank and the Bangas was the Bluegrass Situation Tent’s opening performer, River Whyless. For those who caught their mini-concert on Saturday for Rock the Earth, this was an expanded version. One of the more socially minded young acts in Americana, River Whyless delivers their message of change, equality, and respect for the planet with such beautiful lyrics and melodies that it’s hard to not listen, even if you are on the other side of the political aisle. While I’d seen River Whyless previously at Americanafest, either I wasn’t paying enough attention or they’ve stepped up their game because I remember very little of that show but came away from Bonnaroo considering them my find of the weekend.
After having to make an agonizing choice of Margo Price over Aaron Lee Tasjan, the next performer on the Bluegrass Situation stage was Mandolin Orange. Whereas I think River Whyless has stepped up their game since I first saw them, I know Mandolin Orange has. The longtime duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz have expanded their sound on their last album and it shows in their live performance.
Rounding out the day was Greensky Bluegrass. It’s hard to believe a band founded in 2000 is the veteran act of the stage, but that’s the reality in the newer, younger Bonnaroo. Fortunately, they’re up to the task. The band has always been willing to bend genre limits to their breaking point, much to the chagrin of traditionalists who want more bluegrass in a band with bluegrass in their name. For this show, Greensky Bluegrass continued to do what they do best; taking traditional instruments and doing as many non-traditional things with them as possible.
Only at Bonnaroo Moment of the Day: You’ve Got What I Need?
As I walked under the arch for the last time in 2017, with the now traditional sing of Biz Markie’s novelty rap hit “Just a Friend” following me to my car, I reflected on that song’s core line. “You got what I need.” This has been a year of change for Bonnaroo. The festival is getting younger, the acts are getting more oriented to pop, rap, and EDM, and the push away from its roots has never been more pronounced. So does Bonnaroo still “got what I need?” After seeing some of the strongest music I’ve seen in nine years of Bonnaroo, I think the answer is yes, but it’s a qualified yes.
The Roots of Bonnaroo was just a silly name I came up with when I first covered the festival for No Depression in 2016. But in 2017, it became more. This is a festival I grew up with, a festival I’ve seen go through changes before, a festival I’ve come to think of as my own, and a festival I’ve seen broadsided for its changing direction in 2017. But people get older and new demographics come to replace you. That’s the Elton John-sung circle of life, commercial edition.
Are the roots of Bonnaroo still there? Yes. Absolutely. Angelique Kidjo, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, River Whyless, and Tank and the Bangas are all examples of artists who would have fit right in on all but the very earliest Bonnaroo lineups. But you have to dig for those roots a little more now. And there’s the rub.
Will the casual fan dig for those roots? Can a music-obsessed journalist who actually enjoys loading up a 150 band playlist to try to dig out the little roots-music club act who will knock his socks off be the standard we use for most people? I don’t know. For my part, I’m happy to have the memories I made these four days. If they’re the last ones, they ended on a good note. If they’re not, all the better.
What do you say, Bonnaroo? For now, maybe we can still be “just a friend?”