published Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Maturing Bonnaroo: For some that means a better festival; for others it just means "old"

Stevie Wonder performed at Bonnaroo in 2011 to a sold-out crowd of 80,000, most of whom sang along to every song from start to finish.
Stevie Wonder performed at Bonnaroo in 2011 to a sold-out crowd of 80,000, most of whom sang along to every song from start to finish.
Photo by Barry Courter.
  • photo
    Paul McCartney is among the headliners for the 2013 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. The four-day festival, held on a rural 700-acre farm, will be held June 13-16, 2013.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

Tickets for Bonnaroo, which range from $254-$269 (not including fees), go on sale Saturday at noon EST at bonnaroo.com. The festival runs June 13-16.

As the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and its fans have matured, it could be argued that it is still a tattoos and ponytails event, but the ink has faded some, and the ponytails are graying a bit.

Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your perspective.

The lineup for the inaugural Bonnaroo in 2002 was top heavy with jam, or "hippie," acts such as Trey Anastasio of Phish, Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident and Gov't Mule.

But over the years, Bonnaroo has brought in older classic rock and country acts such as Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Kenny Rogers -- and with them their fans. And with each new lineup, the festival has heard accusations of either selling out -- or perhaps worse -- getting old.

Jeff Cuellar, director of connectivity with AC Entertainment, which co-produces the event, says the festival has not changed who it is trying to attract or how its lineup is built. The audience simply has grown as the festival has matured, he says.

"I would not say that we have shifted our focus," he says from the AC offices in Knoxville. "If anything, we are carrying our core group of fans who have been with us since the beginning and they've gotten older."

The lineup for the 2013 festival was announced Tuesday and includes former Beatle Paul McCartney, who will turn 71 on June 18, the final day of Bonnaroo; Tom Petty, 62, who headlined there in 2006; ZZ Top, whose three members are all 63; and 53-year-old "Weird Al" Yankovic.

To be fair, Bonnaroo has a total of 125 musical acts and the majority of them are newer artists that provide an eclectic mix of new, old, hip-hop, bluegrass, electronica, blues, country, alternative and indie. Mumford & Sons, which is on this year's bill, recently took the Album of the Year

Grammy and they will be joined by The Tallest Man on Earth, Macklemore, Pretty Lights, Of Monsters and Men, the Lumineers, Gaslight Anthem and Animal Collective.

But each year, a lot of attention gets paid to the headliners -- the big-name draws -- and in the past few years, especially since Petty's show in 2006, the names have gotten bigger, as in legendary, as in older, including such stalwarts as Alice Cooper, the Beach Boys, the Police, B.B. King, Buffalo Springfield and Willie Nelson.

Organizers have said from the start that they never intended Bonnaroo to be just a jam-band festival. In addition to putting together a lineup that would attract fans, it had to attract fans that would be willing to camp and, in the beginning, it was fairly primitive camping. Over time, they have improved the 700-acre farm site and increased the number of VIP opportunities for fans who might prefer an air-conditioned RV to camping in mud, dust, rain or 100-degree heat.

Cuellar says that each year festival organizers have made improvements to the tract of farmland in an effort to make the four-day experience better for everyone.

AC, along with partners Superfly out of New Orleans, purchased 530 acres in 2007 and has been making incremental infrastructure changes each year. They added electricity in 2009, and this year Bonnaroo planners announced the completion of a fully operational solar array, which will generate 61,000 kilowatt hours per year, about 20 percent of the festival's power.

Last year, crews planted a tougher blend of Bermuda grass in the main Centeroo area in an effort to make walking and sitting more comfortable and to keep dust down. Over time, roads have been added and some of the land has been graded to allow for better drainage.

To provide some shade, 110 indigenous trees were planted last year, according to AC president Ashley Capps.

"We own the property, so we plan to be here for a long time," he said in 2012. It is a sentiment he has expressed many times since the festival began.

Future changes include making it easier for noncampers to get in and out of the festival each day.

"We've improved the shuttle service and the day parking," Capps says. "We want people to know there are great places within an easy drive from Nashville and Chattanooga. You don't have to camp, but we are making that better also."

A filtration system has been added to the pumps that supply well water to campers and group camping has been added at the request of fans. This allows people to reserve a camp site for everyone in their group. In the past, campers were placed next to whomever entered the site in front or behind them and you not allowed to save spots.

The VIP areas for camping and viewing the main What Stage have also seen improvements such as better showers and catering, which lead some to believe the festival is leaning more to older, wealthy people.

Julie Brackett attended her first festival in 2011 with husband, Dr. Rick Brackett and daughters Natalie and Chloe, 24 and 19. They stayed in the VIP area in an RV, and Julie Brackett says that made things more comfortable. "We absolutely had a great time."

The best part was getting to know the campers around them, but she says it was still an outdoor, four-day event.

"You spend a lot of time outside and you are still in heat waiting for bands to play," she says. "It is not a luxury vacation. You go to experience the music and just have the experience. And, it is so close. Manchester is just up the road."

What separates Bonnaroo, which sells all or nearly all of its 80,000 wristbands every year, from some other festivals, Cuellar says, is that it is a camping festival and organizers strive each year to improve that experience for everyone.

"It's all part of Bonnaroo," Cuellar says. "It's a place for young, old, male, female and all races. It's a place where people come for the pure enjoyment of live music."

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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