On June 13, the first day of the 2019 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, three creatives—a performer, a photographer and a writer—took off from New Orleans, Louisiana and headed towards Manchester, Tennessee. It was each of our first times heading towards “the farm,” where tens of thousands of festival-goers and music fans descended upon the 700-acre grounds for the 17th annual event. We were there to cover the Louisiana presence, of which there was a robust offering. From the FREEWATER-curated camping plaza to performances from SOUL Brass Band, The Soul Rebels, Boyfriend, Naughty Horns and NOLA-adjacent Solange to the Festival’s name (some say inspired by a Creole word merging “bon” and “rue” in French), we didn’t have to go far to find ourselves at home.
Of course, it was hard to ignore Dr. John’s massive influence during Bonnaroo. After all, it’s named after his album/song, “Desitively Bonnaroo.” As Matt Inman wrote in the Bonnaroo Beacon paper distributed on site, “The exact definition of that album title has been debated somewhat over the years, partly because some try to attribute it to French and/or Cajun when, really, it seems like it’s simply just laid-back Louisiana slang for ‘positively the best.'”
Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment, which co-founded Bonnaroo with the New Orleans-born Superfly, said “I’m a huge Dr. John fan…Obviously, the festival is named after one of his albums and there’s that show he did with The Meters, where they recreated Desitively Bonnaroo, which was one of the epic moments of Bonnaroo history,” she said referencing the late Mac Rebennack’s 2011 performance at the festival he spiritually birthed. “Remembering his legacy is really important to us. He just embodied so much of what the festival itself helps to capture.”
After a night of requisite rest and a run to Walgreen’s for last-minute ear plugs, we headed out on Friday, June 14 and ambled on the Road to ‘Roo. Before heading out to hear some New Orleans music from some of our favorite local characters, we checked in with FREEWATER, the creative directors from the city who were tasked with curating their very own camping plaza, which they dubbed “Bayou Libre.” There, the crew comprised of videographers, photographers, performers, artists and more, got things set up in between rest stops at their teal green tour bus.
We began heading towards the media tent, eager to take advantage of clean(er) bathrooms and WiFi. It was a real exercise in spacial recognition trying to locate the damn thing, which existed in a Bermuda Triangle without any distinguishing signage whatsoever. We eventually got our bearings while memorizing where which stage was. Barely. With names like the Where Stage, Who Stage, What Stage and Which Stage, we were primed for the absurd. After about an hour of bouncing back and forth across the farm, we located the media tent in all her air conditioned glory.
Our first stop on the festival grounds, naturally, was the Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, a retrofitted barn inspired by New Orleans’ beloved dive. It was still early afternoon, a strange time of day to be standing outside Snake’s (the Carrollton bar is only open from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m.). Another stark difference was the price of beer. The $3 Miller High Life I usually ask my favorite barkeep, Juan, to send generously in my direction was replaced by $7 PPR. But once the music started playing, it wasn’t so bad. Plus, they had peppermint-scented “snow” pumping into the barn’s front yard, lending the sweet, minty scent of Christmastime to what was otherwise a sweltering hellhole.
The SOUL Brass Band, the New Orleans outfit anchored by drummer/vocalist Derrick Freeman and saxophonist James Martin, came to shake shit up. The group played material from its recent release, Levels, including the title track and “Open Your Eyes.”
It wouldn’t have been a Soul set without a sax-heavy cover of “Genie in a Bottle” (yeah, that one) followed by interpolations of “Still Fly” by the Big Tymers, Outkast’s “So Fresh and So Clean,” Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” “Holy shit, they’re good,” I heard someone say when the band seamlessly rejoined the Christina Aguilera chorus.
We ventured back to Bayou Libre (a 20-minute walk past tents and more tents and more tents), eager to arrive in time for FREEWATER’s daily, free crawfish boil. There, rappers Neno Calvin and Malik Ninety Five were joined by New Orleans DJs Lil Jodeci and G-Cue for the feast, which covered two long tables and included traditional New Orleans boil fare – mudbugs, corn and potatoes. The camping plaza was decorated to look like a swamp, complete with an alligator on stage, tree stumps and a rubber dinghy. Programming at Bayou Libre included Move Ya Brass twerking classes with Jenny Leigh, a performance from rapper Lil Debbie and more.
Later that evening, it was time to check out Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, aka Emmy-winning creator of “Atlanta,” aka Simba in “The Lion King,” aka Lando Calrissian…Seriously, this dude is endlessly gifted. As the sun set on a performance from The Avett Brothers on the What Stage, a younger (and higher) crowd moved into every empty nook and cranny to catch Gambino’s set. For us specifically, it was an opportunity to see him live after he was forced to cancel a headlining appearance at last year’s Voodoo Fest (he was replaced by Travis Scott).
Childish Gambino may have gotten his stage name from a random online Wu-Tang name generator, but everything about his artistry is deliberate. He weaved in between the genres that encompass his discography—soul, funk, hip-hop, some shit that doesn’t fit into any extant genre box—while singing “Algorythm,” rapping “Sweatpants” and dancing in unbridled joy to “Feels Like Summer.” During the latter, he eventually ended up flat on the ground, writhing shirtless on the stage. His hair was also deliberate. He wore it half-Afro, half-braided, intentionally highlighting his Blackness.
“I want you to put your phones down and focus on the moment,” he said at one point. I followed his instructions, but replaced my phone’s memo pad with a notebook. Towards the end of his set, he again mentioned putting away phones, because “we only do this song live.” He was referencing “Human Sacrifice,” which beckoned the crowd to morph into a singular, undulating unit. It was magical.
It was off to see Solange, the acclaimed, younger Knowles sister whose 2019 album When I Get Home was supposed to be a centerpiece at this year’s Coachella Festival. She backed out, rendering her Bonnaroo appearance as the first in the U.S. since releasing the album. It was worth the wait. Her stage set-up was simple – a staircase was as ostentatious as it got. Instead, it was the bodies of her dancers and bands which served as props.
Our weekend ended with The Soul Rebels, who performed on the Which Stage in the early afternoon sun. Warmed up by an upbeat, positively effusive performance from Boston, Massachusetts band Ripe, the eight-piece band from New Orleans took the stage to perform a mix of long-standing set mainstays like “Rebel Rock” and the hometown anthem “504,” plus new material ostensibly from the band’s forthcoming album, Poetry in Motion. The new material, including a song called “Blow the Horns,” places more focus on singing and MCing. Trumpeter Marcus “Red” Hubbard and trombonist “Big Paul” Robertson sang, while trumpeter Julian Gosin and trombonist Corey “Passport P” Peyton rapped. The band served up renditions of Nas’ “If I Ruled the World” and closed with a newer addition to their cover repertoire, Chance The Rapper’s “No Problems.”
All photos by Laiken Joy.