MANCHESTER, Tennessee — In the end, it wasn't so much the heat as it was ... OK, it was pretty much the heat. But the 2011 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is now in the books, having come to a close Sunday night with an evening full of nods to its noodle-y roots: a fest-capping performance from Widespread Panic, the semi-annual Superjam set, the instrumental grandeur of Explosions in the Sky and, uh, the Strokes, who occasionally play songs longer than four minutes.
As the crowds began to file out of the dusty 700-acre farm that the fest has called home for 10 years now, the question was: Who managed to steal the show? Of the 120-something acts on the Bonnaroo bill this year, which was the best? The buzz from those exiting through the gates might surprise you.
Because, sure, we heard plenty of praise for the bands that fell within the traditional parameters of Bonnaroo — the String Cheese Incident's late-night performance on Saturday (complete with an inflatable dinosaur that descended on the crowd) earned high praise; as did Gogol Bordello's marathon set that same night; the walloping, womb-like low-end of Bassnectar; STS9's hippie trance; Dr. John's re-telling of his Desitively Bonnaroo album (with the Original Meters and Alain Toussaint in tow) and My Morning Jacket's darn-near-yearly jaw-dropping run. But there were also more than a few mentions of the nontraditional acts, namely, headliners Lil Wayne and Eminem.
But somewhat fittingly, it was the artists who managed to bridge the gap between those two camps who seemingly won. Folks went gaga for Mumford & Sons' sunset gig, a de facto victory lap for the current kings of "new-grass" (or whatever you want to call it), that included crowd-rousing versions of hits like "The Cave" and "Little Lion Man" and a sweat-drenched take on "Amazing Grace," aided by the Old Crow Medicine Show. High marks were also given to the Black Keys' rattling, rocking Saturday night show and the Arcade Fire's hard-working headliner on Friday night, too.
All of that is appropriate because, after putting the finishing touches on it's 10th year, Bonnaroo finds itself in a rather interesting position. Over the past few years, organizers have slowly inched hip-hop onto the mainstage, with mixed results (Kanye West's late-starting debacle in 2008, Jay-Z's well-received turn in '10. But in 2011, they placed two of the genre's biggest acts in night-capping slots, and the gamble paid off. And while the Sunday-evening sets — and, really, most of the day, too — seem reserved for jammier bands, one has to wonder if, in 2012, the balance might shift even further away from the fest's crunchier past. Could more hip-hop be headed to the big stages (like Wiz Khalifa's Saturday-evening set on the massive What Stage this year)? And, if that's the case, will the fans turn out in droves like they did this year?
Or maybe, they'll decide to play it safe and book more bands that tend to unite the festival's seemingly ever-growing, diverse fanbase: acts like Portugal. The Man, Robyn, Florence and the Machine and Beirut, all of whom also shined at this year's event. The future, it seems, is anybody's guess.
But even for a festival whose future might be cloudy, the present is sweet indeed. Bonnaroo 2011 was a sold-out success, a rollicking four days of great music and life-affirming (and genuinely shocking) positivity. Throughout the weekend, though there are questions about where things go from here, the same time-tested truths also were readily on display. Kids had the time of their lives; they got shirtless and sweaty and probably did some things they might regret one day. The bands had a blast, playing long and hard and with a genuine sense of purpose. And, of course, people complained about the heat. They're the things that will never change, and they make Bonnaroo great, year after year. No matter who's playing.