Bonnaroo inspires a fervor few other major music festivals can match. The four-day event in south-central Tennessee often gets compared to a neo-Woodstock, not just for the camping and the remote location but for the spirit of the crowd. There’s camaraderie at Bonnaroo, built from traffic jams into the small town of Manchester and roughing it in the rain, mud, and heat. That’s also what keeps people like Amy Kalas and Derek Brovold coming back. The Chicago couple has been attending since the festival’s beginnings in 2002. Back then, Bonnaroo was a jam-heavy weekend with performances by Widespread Panic, Phish’s Trey Anastasio, and the Dead’s Phil Lesh. Impressed by the bonds they had formed, Kalas and Brovold returned the following year and cemented their status as Bonnaroo lifers when Brovold proposed during the drive in. “From there, it just made sense,” he says.
The two acknowledge they aren’t part of the typical Bonnaroo crowd anymore: Kalas is a 50-year-old freelance copywriter, and Brovold is a 47-year-old working in real-estate marketing. Yet they’re still excited for the smorgasbord that is the 2022 lineup — which includes Stevie Nicks, J. Cole, Machine Gun Kelly, the Chicks, and Tool — especially after two years away from the festival due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and flooding in 2021. To mark the event’s 20th anniversary and return, the couple reflected on past ’Roos, the worst set they’ve seen on the farm, and what they’re looking forward to this year.
What made you want to go to the first Bonnaroo in 2002?
Amy Kalas: We were dating. My friend Mark, I think he was rallying a crew, and we’re all kind of jam-bandy — we’d go to Dave Matthews or to Phish shows when they’d be local. He had an RV to go down to this camping festival. We got onboard a little later.
Derek Brovold: We were on the fence. Summers are busy here; there’s lots to do. As we heard about the festival, I’m like, Man, that’s a really strong lineup.
What were some highlights of that first year?
AK: Well, I have to preface my highlights by the lowlight of the traffic coming in. We had a nice trip down and then when we got to Nashville, I feel like we were in line for about 14 hours or something to get into the fest.
DB: It was overnight.
AK: You’re napping in your car, waking up like, Oh, okay. We got to move a couple cars ahead. Then you’d almost fall back asleep. But one of the highlights of that horrible 14 hours was the community — already getting a sense of people, sharing food and water. Everybody was so cool and trying to help everyone. There was beer and wine they made for Bonnaroo. It was already different. It felt more like old-school Dead shows. I had not been around something like that in forever. And then we got in and within an hour, we just forgot about the traffic.
DB: And man, then the show took over. That was a phenomenal lineup that year. I mean, Trey Anastasio.
AK: Phil Lesh & Friends. That was huge.
DB: Yeah. Widespread Panic.
DB: Yeah, the names rolled on and on. They would collaborate with different artists onstage, kind of the birth of the superjam, as it’s known now. It was clearly something different. And being on the farm, you didn’t have curfew time constraints, and that continues today. So after midnight, you can have a lineup that most fests would take as their headliners all weekend.
AK: It was definitely more jam-bandy that year, but we liked that. But yeah, I just remember thinking, I can take a nap at midnight and get up and then go see three more bands. This is crazy. I did a drum circle. I think I built a djembe drum that year. Just cool stuff that you don’t have time for or don’t get to do at a festival that goes from noon to 10 p.m. or whatever.
So from there, how did it become an every-year thing?
DB: I don’t think there was much discussion about whether we would go back. It was like, “Yeah, let’s start planning.”
AK: We started spreading the word to people, and it took a few years for friends to jump in.
DB: As timing would have it, we got engaged en route to Bonnaroo in a nearby state park before we entered the festival ground. That helped solidify it as an annual trip.
Oh my God. Tell me more about the proposal.
DB: I had a couple options, including locations around Chicago, and they didn’t seem like exactly what I wanted to do. That drive from Chicago to the Manchester area is around eight hours, and sometimes you’re faced with, Do I want to keep driving all night? Should we get a hotel? So I had the ring, and I decided to drive overnight so we could get a good spot. And in the wee hours of the morning, I was like, You know what? There was a song I was going to play to propose with, and I had my guitar. So on an atlas, I found Tims Ford State Park, which is very close to the festival ground. Ended up there right around dawn.
AK: I was sleeping.
DB: I had to make up a story for a reason for her to get up and get out of the car to see these deer I allegedly saw in the park. Then I led her around and played the song and popped the question. And she said yes.
AK: It was quite the start to our entrance to Bonnaroo to set up camp. So that was awesome.
DB: We did not get married at Bonnaroo. I know that’s an option these days.
You were talking about the festival getting less jammy over the years. Do you remember when you realized Bonnaroo was changing?
AK: I would say around the year that Beck and Radiohead played, in 2006, which I was not against. That was one of my favorite years, but I think that’s the first year I felt it was getting a bigger mix. But honestly, that helped friends start coming with us more because not all our friends are as jam-bandy. A lot of people either love or hate jam bands. There’s a stigma that everyone is completely strung out.
DB: One of the good things about a festival, especially a festival that size, is you get to see bands that you might not normally spring for an individual ticket for. I don’t know if I would’ve paid 50 bucks to go see Alice Cooper, but now I know that I would.
AK: And the campgrounds, too. We’ve discovered artists in the campground that started playing on the big stages later. Just set up tables by their campsite.
Let’s talk more about the camping. How has the feel of the campground changed over the years?
AK: For general admission, there are definitely less incidences of rain and flooding. Before, it would just be mud. You basically lose your shoes if you try to walk through the mud. They’ve fixed some of that. GA feels the same: car, tent, people next to you, you don’t know what you’re going to get. The facilities for bathrooms and things are better. It started off with porta-potties. Now you have a mix of that and actual bathrooms, nicer showers.
DB: People deck out their campsite. It’s cool to walk around and see how people set up their area and make a communal hangout area and cook over their stove or what have you.
AK: Some people do crafts. You could go make bracelets at someone’s site. You could do something to draw people to your site, like music. I love exploring all that.
Have you noticed the demographic of the crowd changing as the festival expanded?
AK: I think we were older than some of the folks when we first went to the fest. I always felt like there was a mix of ages, just due to the mass number of people. Even with the introduction of a lot of the EDM, that’s shifted a little bit over the years. I don’t feel like the type of people going or anything is that different. They’re still people that will be willing to camp for four days on a farm.
DB: I would say it’s younger than Jazz Fest in New Orleans and older than Hangout in Gulf Shores, Alabama. There’s probably a trend toward younger, but I don’t think it’s as pronounced in Bonnaroo as it is at other fests. I mean, looking at this year, the folks there to see Tool and Stevie Nicks are going to be closer to our age range.
As far as the lineup goes, what was the best year of Bonnaroo?
AK: Damn, that is hard. I don’t know if I can even fathom that. 2006, 2007, those were some years I remember really big moments from. I really think it was that Beck set the one year, and the Flaming Lips’ first one in 2007. It was one of those midnight sets that was mind-blowing. 2015 was a good one and ’16. This is hard for me.
DB: The 15th anniversary, in 2016, had a real strong lineup. Honestly, it’s not impervious to the lineup, but you have a good time regardless.
AK: I just have moments. I saw Phoenix in 2009. Seeing Florence + the Machine in 2015, that specific show was one of the best I’ve ever seen.
The comedy lineups are what I miss. That was one of my favorite things about Bonnaroo — hint hint, if anyone’s listening. We saw Flight of the Conchords, Conan O’Brien. We had Bob Saget. Crazy stuff. You’re seeing comedians I would probably be paying 60 bucks a pop to go see at a theater in Chicago.
What’s the worst set you’ve seen at Bonnaroo?
AK: I could say one — and this is an amazing band that I love; don’t get the band mad at me. I was looking forward like crazy to Radiohead in 2006, and for whatever reason, it just wasn’t that great. I don’t think it was the sound or anything. I’ve seen them before. That was not a great performance, and I was totally pumped up and super-psyched for it, and it just didn’t deliver. And I don’t know why.
Oh, and Kanye. I’m going to say Kanye in 2008.
DB: Oh, Kanye. Yeah.
AK: There is “F Kanye” written everywhere, every year, to this day. He just didn’t show up for six hours or something.
DB: We had friends who were very excited about that to the extent that they camped out to get a good spot, sacrificing watching the other bands that were playing.
AK: We saw like five other bands, and they just sat there.
DB: We said, “Okay, well, we’re going to go watch whoever. Check in with you in an hour.” And Kanye still hasn’t gone on. I feel like he went on at what, the wee hours of the morning?
AK: I want to say 4 or 5 in the morning. And then he played for 30 or 40 minutes, was just like, “F this, and blah, blah, blah,” and just left. So that was probably the worst set ever.
DB: Yeah, it lives on in Bonnaroo lore.
AK: Our friends were really mad. It was pretty funny.
Who are you excited for this year?
AK: I’m kind of pumped for some of the EDM. Oddly, the 50-year-old likes EDM.
DB: Let’s look at Friday. You got King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard with a midnight set. That right there is unprecedented.
AK: I like Bleachers.
DB: Japanese Breakfast is on the list that day.
AK: I love Japanese Breakfast. The Regrettes.
DB: I haven’t seen Lord Huron yet. I want to check Lord Huron out.
AK: I’m excited for Ship Wrek. I like Chvrches, Mt. Joy, Billy Strings. We’ve seen him a lot this year, but Billy Strings is pretty sweet.
DB: He’ll play probably an all-time set. Not that he’s known for not doing that, but the festival will bring it out, I think.
AK: Oh, I love Fletcher. We just saw Fletcher at Hangout. I want to meet her. COIN, awesome band, excited about that. Nathaniel Rateliff.
DB: I didn’t realize until right before this call that Herbie Hancock’s on the schedule. So, absolutely, Herbie closing out Sunday night before Stevie Nicks.
A lot of festivals haven’t happened over the past few years with COVID, and Bonnaroo had flooding last year. What have you missed about Bonnaroo?
DB: We had the car packed up and ready to go in ’21.
AK: We had a bad taste in our mouth after that. But then by this year, like the traffic jam, we’re just forgetting about that. We’ve been going to a lot of festivals where they’re not camping — all of a sudden it’s ten o’clock and it’s like, Okay, should we all go find a bar? What should we go do? And I’m like, If we were at Bonnaroo, we would all just go wander to the next thing. Once you’re there, you’re in Bonnaroo Town, and you live there.
And I want Spicy Pie because at all the other festivals we’ve been to, there’s no Spicy Pie. So I’m going to get a slice or two every single day. They took it out of Hangout this year, and people were not happy.
What would stop you from going to Bonnaroo at this point?
DB: Well, we had a pandemic and then we had flooding. We plan to keep going.
AK: Them not doing it, I guess. Really, if they’re doing it, we’ll probably go. There’s no good reason that we would not go just by choice of, Eh, we don’t feel like going this year. If someone’s getting married, I’d be like, “Well, if you want us there, try not to do it on Bonnaroo Saturday.”
DB: I guess one year we might look around and say, “We’re too old for this stuff.”
AK: But then there’s the Bonnaroo grannies who are in their 80s that come every year. So if they can be at Bonnaroo, I can be at Bonnaroo. And if Kenny Rogers, right before he passed away, did Bonnaroo, I can go to Bonnaroo.