Bonnaroo or bust: A reflection on the four-day music festival in Tennessee

A&E looks back on a weekend at Tennessee’s magical music and arts festival.

Katie Lauer

It wasn’t until The Weeknd broke into “Can’t Feel My Face” just before 11:30 p.m. on the final night of Bonnaroo that I realized what a dancing sea of 65,000 people looks like.

It’s an insane sight.

Somehow, the headliner’s crooning falsetto brought an energy back to the final hours of the festival. An energy that the sun — among other things — had drained.

The previous 80 hours had been filled with dancing, drinking, reading, tanning and napping. We had happily endured the 14-hour drive down to Manchester, Tennessee, waking up at 8 a.m. from the blistering heat inside our tent and walking for miles around the festival grounds.

That Sunday night, it felt like only a few hours had passed since our camping “neighbors” arrival early Thursday afternoon — slapping bags of Franzia and demolishing cases of Bud Light.

For me, that’s when Bonnaroo officially began.

By the time the lines of cars had been searched, the rows of campsites had been set up and the first cold ones had been cracked open with the boys, we’d managed to haul our tired bodies to where all the magic happened: Centeroo.

A Christmas-themed club in a barn, silent disco, Ferris wheel and a sand-filled oasis were all there to enjoy between the stages. Giant burritos, loaded fries, face-sized slices of pizza and smoothies were available to scarf down.

After a bit of exploring, it was time for Mondo Cozmo’s set. Teasing their upcoming debut album, they played their hit, “Shine,” a few slow jams and even a cover of “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” It was a lovely, energetic folk rock set, and I hope they graduate from “This” tent next time around.

No, I’m not just forgetting the name of the stage. That was its name … or “This” was. “What,” “Which,” “This,” “That” and “Other” were some of the venues scattered across Centeroo.

While the stages’ names were clever, they made rendezvousing hard. Imagine trying to wrangle sheep — inebriated sheep at that — when the answer to, “Which stage are they playing on?” is simply, “Yes.”

Other than a few EDM sets, Mondo Cozmo’s incredible show and a missed Hippo Campus set, there wasn’t much going on Thursday night. But that didn’t stop campers.

Bellows of “Bonna-WHAT?” “Bonna-ROO!” and “LET’S GOOOO” echoed between the tents of college-aged attendees. Ringing in my ears, the battle cries continued into the early morning.

But the festival spirit never dies, right? And who was I to kill it? Hell, if I hadn’t just driven until my body was numb, I might’ve joined in. After a quick three hours of sleep, day two began.

My Friday schedule kicked off with Cold War Kids. Having played the festival in ‘07 and ‘11, the morning set was cake for the Californian band.

Opening with the driving “All This Could Be Yours,” and ending with the well-known “First,” they breezed through their set list. Crowds gathered for new tracks “Love Is Mystical” and “So Tied Up.”

Then the firstfestival dilemmas began.

We missed James Vincent McMorrow for Kaleo’s insanely passionate, bluesy set. We sacrificed half of Tove Lo’s show to catch the soul of Angélique Kidjo. We even listened to Gallant from afar to snag a better spot for Glass Animals.

Scheduling conflicts are unavoidable with a great lineup, but one thing was for certain — there was no missing U2.

Playing under a full moon, the band’s performance of “The Joshua Tree in its entirety was magical. Met with a handful of other classics like “Vertigo,” “One” and “Beautiful Day,” their set was a festival highlight.

It’s now time for an unpopular opinion: Chance the Rapper was a little disappointing. Since we could hear our own breathing over his set, we decided to leave.

This may have been the best decision of the weekend (other than bringing excess toilet paper).

Plopping down in a bean bag, we were delighted when the bluesy, Californian rock sound of Cloves hit us at the “New Music On Tap Lounge.” Although we were already laying on the ground, we were floored by her soulful voice.

When it came time to rage with Cage the Elephant, front man Matt Shultz’s energy kept everyone on their feet, even if they (myself included) could only belt “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” There couldn’t have been a better opener for the power that is Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The funky rock quartet could have recorded a live “Greatest Hits” album. Opening with “Can’t Stop,” “Dani California” and “Scar Tissue,” I was already blown away. After bassist Flea handstand-ed his way back onto the stage, the band closed with “Goodbye Angels” and “Give It Away.”

When Sunday arrived, we decided to camp out on the grass for both Milky Chance and Lorde.

While my body was ready to head back, my ears couldn’t wait for The Weeknd and we patiently stayed. Every minute was worth it when the lights went down, the drums of “Starboy” filled the speakers and the denim vest-clad singer took the stage.

Without stopping, the set flowed from “Party Monster” and “Often” to “Wicked Games,” before closing with 2015’s “The Hills.”

The artist’s sultry and powerful voice was both relaxing and energizing. It didn’t waver once, giving me one last rush before starting the long, sad trek back to Minnesota.

I don’t think I truly appreciated the magic of Bonnaroo until I arrived back home 14 hours later and washed the dirt — which posed as a deep Southern tan — away in a much-needed shower.