Bonnaroo’s ‘Radiate Positivity’ Ethos Was A Tangible Presence At Their 2019 Fest

Pop Music Critic
06.20.19

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After attending 20+ different festivals around the world for work, it gets easy to take the experience for granted. Mostly, because many festivals end up following pretty much the same format: Drop into a large grassy field somewhere outside a major city, explore the grounds a bit, pick up your credentials, go see some bands. Repeat three days in a row; try to synthesize the experience immediately afterward. Move on. And while that format may seem pretty standard by now, it’s easy to forget that a lot of the live music events that are popular today adopted it from one of the OG events — Bonnaroo. And while plenty of places have tried to replicate the ideal large, grassy field format, no one does large and grassy quite like Tennessee.

Spread across a sprawling several acres in the backcountry of Manchester, Tennessee — a solid 70 miles outside of Nashville, so buckle up — the journey out to “the farm,” as longtime Roo attendees affectionately call the grounds, is half the fun. Caravaning from all over the South, and other regions, too, a major proportion of Roo attendees embrace the old school approach of camping while they’re at the fest, eschewing nearby hotels or a long drive to the city after the last set is over.

With the majority of fans sleeping, eating, and living on the grounds, as well as watching music there, the communal aspect of the fest is already tenfold that of, say, Governor’s Ball, Outside Lands, or Lollapalooza. And while Coachella is another well-known fest that offers camping, the spillover of celebrity culture, day parties, estates, and hotels mostly eclipses any feeling of camaraderie for that event’s overall culture. At Bonnaroo, the camping — bare feet, campfire smell, bedhead and all — are welcome parts of the experience, not something to be avoided.

Bringing this sense of shared ethos into the crowds at the shows means a sense of respectfulness I’ve never encountered elsewhere. Instead of shoving past without care, people respected each other’s space, and mine, with a kind of tenderness I’ve never associated with festivals. The event’s own long-standing motto, “radiate positivity” is easy to feel jaded about, mock, or underestimate, but once you’re immersed in it, this strategy is irresistible, and a little bit magic. This generosity of spirit was present everywhere at the festival, from the artsy, swaying crowd at Solange on Friday night, to the gleeful turn-up of Post Malone’s headlining set on Saturday, and the gentle, devoted dancers at Phish, closing out Sunday evening with their second set of the festival.

More bluntly: The festival itself had an aesthetic that translated across performers — and therefore across generations, demographics, and status levels — proving the event’s own personality has more influence on the experience than any artist who might play it. This is a net positive, both for the fest (obviously), but also for attendees; it offers something special amid a market that’s so saturated, and so homogeneous, it can be easy to lose track of what separates festivals from each other.

So even though there was a little overlap with other major fests of the year, like Childish Gambino’s headlining set recalling his Coachella slot, the artists themselves also behaved in a different way on The Farm. For instance, Kacey Musgraves clearly didn’t enjoy her set at that event, but would not stop crowing about how much she loves playing down in Tennessee, unleashing a level of passionate, joyful playing that was next level, even for one of the most acclaimed artists of our moment (and potentially, this whole era).

After unfortunately needing to cancel her Coachella set because of production delays, Solange made it more than clear exactly what had required that extra time with a spectacle of dance and stagecraft so essential to her artistic expression that listening to When I Get Home without those visuals now feels like listening to Gaga songs on the A Star Is Born soundtrack without having seen the film. If you get the chance to her this performance at any point during this tour, absolutely take it, as it’s potentially the best live show I’ve seen since attending her sister’s Formation tour, back in 2016.

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