The agony of the year long wait was finally over: the 2023 edition of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival was finally here! Located in Manchester, TN, just a short drive down I-24 from Nashville, the festival witnessed a sold-out crowd of over 80,000 revelers pour through its gates this year. This was personally a special year—our 10th time spending a weekend at Great Stage Park—or as we prefer to call it: The Farm. Yet, our anticipation was as high as ever. It never gets old and, we promise you, no one is too old to enjoy it. While much of the festival feels the same as when we first turned off exit 111 and drove past the now-forgotten clock store to head into the festival gates, Bonnaroo is also an evolving festival. For example, this year saw one of the largest lineups the festival has booked to date, filling both day and night with music. Additionally, EDM music has certainly made its presence known on The Farm in recent years while things like the Comedy Tent are but a distant air-conditioned memory. However, the genre diversity of Bonnaroo still provides plenty of opportunities for nearly any musical taste. We can still say today as the first time we went, there’s something for everyone.
This year, early birds could arrive on The Farm on Tuesday and Wednesday for some limited concerts, but mostly with plenty of extra time just to chill out. We, however, took the traditional approach and planned our arrival on Thursday—the day when the full festival lineup comes to life. Driving down from Nashville, we arrived just in time for a storm delay. However, the festival did a solid job of updating set times and pushing out alerts on the app to make sure that we still got to see most of the bands on our schedule.
Traveling light to waste little time setting up camp, we were quickly on our way into the main festival grounds called Centeroo and ready to get the year officially started.
Before we get to the music, it’s time for the annual reminder that the stages at Bonnaroo have names like What, Which, That, This—a quirk that creates the occasional Laurel and Hardy “Who’s On First” moment for all of us.
MOLLY TUTTLE & GOLDEN HIGHWAY
We arrived at That Tent just as fellow Nashville transplant Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway were wrapping up their first song. For those unfamiliar, Tuttle is an expert bluegrass guitarist—a talent often recognized by the industry including awards such as Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2018 Americana Music Awards and Guitar Player of the Year from the International Bluegrass Association in both 2017 and 2018. In a festival full of rock, hip-hop, and EDM artists, this was the first of many examples we saw this weekend of the increased interest in genres that usually fit in under the Americana umbrella. We found That Tent already filling up with a larger than normal crowd for it being so early on a Thursday afternoon. Tuttle and friends did not disappoint the growing masses. Whether tearing through fiery solos, coming together for jamming interludes, or leading fans on singalongs with hits like “Dooley’s Farm” and “Take The Journey,” Tuttle & Golden Highway had the tent clapping and dancing along. The group also found some time to mix in some new songs from the now released new album, City of Gold—which, based on the cheers following the performance of the recent single “Next Rodeo,” was a hit with the Bonnaroo crowd.
ANGEL SAINT QUEEN
As we were approaching the Who Stage, Nashville’s Angel Saint Queen was just getting their set started; the stage bathed in the mist of smoke and light. As we approached, we found the crowd already nodding along to the airy indie rock-pop that was filling the humid evening. The group’s music has a lightness to it that feels like a daydream. Yet at the same time, they have a second gear that kicks their songs solidly into the realm of true indie rock. This combination sparked memories of when we started going to Bonnaroo, back when it was dominated by indie acts. The group may be newer to performing together with their first single being released in 2022, but this didn’t stop them from showcasing their potential. In particular, the audience was already well-familiar with that first single, “Diablo Lake,” as many sang along, knowing all of the words.
VENUS & THE FLYTRAPS
Staying at the Who Stage, we found ourselves standing along the rail ready to watch our third consecutive Nashville band of the night. With the heat of the sun behind us, it was time to kick the energy up a notch with the alternative rock sounds of Venus & The Flytraps. This set was all about the band and crowd feeding off each other’s growing energy. The audience soaked in the chemistry between singer/guitarist Brenna Kassis and singer Ceci Tomé on their hit, “Boys Are Cuter When They’re Crying,” and nodded along enthusiastically to the band’s more grunge-filled songs like the building rocker, “Scaredy Pants.” It was the kind of set that had enough punch to make you stay for the whole thing—even if that meant being late to the next band you wanted to see.
Making our first stop at The Other Stage for 2023, it was clear that Bonnaroo’s investment into EDM was paying off with crowd attendance as we found a sea of bodies swaying and dancing to the wavy electronic sounds of Daily Bread. With a blend of pop, hip-hop, and R&B tracks in the mix, Daily Bread created a sonic tapestry that was fun and more melodic than some of the darker, drop-filled EDM mixes we often think about. Don’t worry, there were still plenty of drops to keep the energy high and the Bonnaroo crowd appreciated each one of them.
After leaving an EDM set at the Other Stage it would have seemed unlikely that we would find more dancing and more bodies moving to a beat over at This Tent. However, the emerging Afro-Cuban star Cimafunk was ready to make that happen. Supported by a full band…and we mean a full band with guitars, drums, keys, saxophone, trombone, and rhythm percussion…this show felt completely different than anything else we had seen so far. Funky enough to make even the most stoic nod or shuffle along, the band had most of the tent dancing to the rhythm. On top of that, Cimafunk himself had an infectious energy that seemed to push his talented band to keep sounding bigger and better. It was one of the most talked about sets on Friday morning—we definitely need to see Cimafunk in concert again soon.
This blog often gets accused of using the word “energy” too much. However, by 12:30 in the morning, energy was a must. Enter Nashville’s Diarrhea Planet. The self-described “serious band with a funny name” had been on hiatus since 2018 except for two special appearances around Thanksgiving of last year and a well-deserved, yet surprising, pre-festival stopover at The Ryman the night before their Bonnaroo et. With the crowd arriving early to get the best spots and then spilling out of That Tent, it was clear that the wild rockers had been missed. Using every inch of the stage to spotlight about a million guitar solos, the setlist crossed off almost any song that could be on a Diarrhea Planet fan’s wish list. From “Field of Dreams” to “Bob Dylan’s Grandma,” the audience moshed, crowd surfed, and sang along. It felt like it had just started when those of us up front could see someone backstage telling the band they were already running out of time. As the band kicked into fan favorite, “Ghost With A Boner,” you could feel the intensity of the crowd ripple around you. However, the band wasn’t finished. The crowd roared in anticipation as “Ghost With A Boner” ended and the unmistakable opening chords of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls On Parade” rang out. As lead singer Jordan Smith belted out the words, a frenzy of guitar riffs and sticky bass had the tent jumping. Unable to resist joining in the fun, the finale saw Smith crowd surfing while singing the last choruses of the song—a sight that will be remembered by all the Bonnaroo faithful who were lucky enough to be there.
It was now well past our bedtimes, but there was no way we were going to sleep with New Orleans bounce music star Big Freedia coming up right behind Diarrhea Planet. Having already served earlier in the day as the Grand Marshall of Bonnaroo’s Pride Parade, Big Freedia could have been excused for taking it a bit easy at 1:45 in the morning. However, “The Queen Diva,” as Freedia is nicknamed, was ready to party. With a DJ blasting out the beat, Freedia belting out the hip-hop inspired lyrics, and The Divas backup dancers doing a whole lot of booty-shaking, the weary Bonnaroo audience was quickly jolted back to life. While the whole set felt like one big dance party, there’s always that fan favorite—in this case the hit “Karaoke”—that sends everyone into a frenzy.
ZEDS DEAD – AT WHERE IN THE WOODS
With so many things we wanted to see on this Thursday night/Friday morning, we had unfortunately missed Zed’s Dead on The Other Stage. However, this year’s Bonnaroo offered a lot of second chances to see artists in different settings across The Farm. After not visiting Bonnaroo’s new EDM playground, Where In The Woods in 2022, the opportunity to see Zed’s Dead was enough motivation to make the trek out of Centeroo, past several campsites, and to the beckoning glow of WITW’s entrance. Inside we found a festival inside the festival as some people danced to the music, some gathered around the various seating and other attractions, and others lounged in hammocks.
Approaching WITW, we could hear the beckoning sounds of Zed’s Dead’s beats reverberating through the forest. “Just follow the sound of the music,” is what we were told when we asked for directions to the site. Weaving through the crowd and peering between groves of trees, we finally saw the artist on stage mixing the infectious tracks. Between us and the stage were thousands of revelers who were pushing through the day’s exhaustion to move to the music. The size and energy of the crowd that showed up at this early hour of the morning wasn’t lost on the artist either. “They said this was an afterparty, but this feels like the whole f-ing festival!” he shouted as the forest quaked under a sea of bass.
It was now 4:30 in the morning and the party was still going strong. Zed’s Dead was scheduled to play another thirty minutes and the revelers around us seemed ready for whatever afterparty they could find when the official music ended. However, we knew that it was time to head back to camp or risk missing all of the things we were looking forward to on our Friday schedule. With a hat tip to everyone’s endurance, we started the walk back through the woods to camp. Thoroughly exhausted and recapping our favorite memories of the day, we already knew that 2023 at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival was going to be a good one!