Today is the kind of late-spring afternoon in Manhattan’s West Village that’s made for playing hooky — a day for Frisbee in the park, not conference calls and Excel spreadsheets. But the staff of Superfly Productions, located in an unassuming office above a forlorn-looking outpost of a fitness chain, aren’t taking any breaks. They can’t afford to; this 11-person crew is largely responsible for the highest-grossing music festival in the country.
Now in its fifth year, Bonnaroo has slowly morphed from a little-noticed jam-band gathering in rural Manchester, Tenn., into one of the world’s most diverse and impressive summer festivals. This year’s event — held June 16-18 — features a dizzyingly eclectic lineup, including Radiohead, Beck, Death Cab for Cutie, Common, Damian Marley, Bright Eyes, the Streets, moe., and many more. ”Over the last two years they’ve been trying to expand their horizons,” says CAA agent Marlene Tsuchii, who represents Beck and The Streets. ”They’ve really been going for different types of artists.”
Inside the Superfly office, behind a desk piled with CDs by artists on hip indie labels, Bonnaroo co-founder and co-producer Jonathan Mayers explains the festival’s transformation. ”We’ve tried to open it up and diversify it,” says Mayers, who books the fest with his partners in both Superfly and A.C. Entertainment, ”because most people’s music collections are pretty diverse. And one of the cool things about a festival is you stumble across new things. Also, on the business end, we can’t put on the same show every year or else it becomes stale.”
Many fans seem to agree, embracing Bonnaroo’s increasingly varied roster. ”I personally think it would be boring if they had, over and over, Widespread Panic and Trey Anastasio,” says Dean Budnick, editor of the scene-centric website jambands.com. ”And I love those bands. But I would hope and think that people want more than that.” Budnick does acknowledge that a chunk of the core hippie audience feels deserted (”betrayed may be too strong a word”) by Superfly’s departure from jam-band orthodoxy. For many of these early fans, indie-rock stars like Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes are nothing more than interlopers. ”I think people feel a certain collective ownership in the festival,” says Budnick. ”There’s a lot on this lineup that will surprise a lot of kids who are more focused on traditional jam bands.”
It makes sense that Bonnaroo — Creole slang for ”good stuff” — would want to broaden its vision, but why are so many alt-rock bands lining up to play for the VW-van-and-veggie-burritos crowd? One draw may be the unique setting, what Mayers refers to as a sort of ”summer camp for bands.” According to Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Renaldo, whose band played in 2003 and will again this year, ”the vibe is really special. It didn’t feel like a typical festival somehow. It had kind of an edge to it — comfortable and warm and inviting.”
Unlike most major U.S. fests, Bonnaroo allows onsite camping, which turns the area into a carnivalesque mini-city, with tents offering movies, live comedy, a classic video arcade, and a place to make customized CDs. Last year, Superfly invited one of Radiohead’s managers. Apparently, he was impressed by the scene: Bonnaroo will be Radiohead’s first U.S. festival show since 2004. And even Death Cab bassist Nick Harmer, a self-confessed ”hotel guy,” is feeling it. ”I think I’m ready to camp in the mud for three days and just go for it,” he says. ”I’m really excited.”