“I’m very pleased that the whole concept of ‘festival’ is still viable,”
says Phil Lesh. “It’s probably the best way to really enjoy music, because you can go there and spend a weekend, and you’re not worried about going to work or getting home. You can camp out and relax and have a good time and immerse yourself in the music. That was the spirit we always tried to evoke at Grateful Dead shows.”
These words from the Dead’s bass player embody the spirit of Bonnaroo. With Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, the Grateful Dead’s founder never got to experience ‘Roo, but his love of musical improvisation lives on every June in Manchester. Since the first gathering at the Farm in 2002—when Phil Lesh and Friends, including Bob Weir, appeared—various configurations of the band have often been part of the proceedings. The reassembled, slightly renamed Dead played in ’04, and Weir’s band Ratdog and Phil Lesh and Friends have returned several times over the years.
Bob Weir Interview 2007
Artists who were heroes and collaborators of Garcia and the band, such as jazz innovator Ornette Coleman, have appeared at ‘Roo, as well as the Dead’s many acolytes, foremost among them Phish. Inspired by the nomadic Deadheads who turned Grateful Dead concerts into little countercultural communities, Phish developed their own like-minded festivals in the ‘90s. Says Rick Farman of Superfly Presents, one of Bonnaroo’s producers, “As fans of Phish, we saw what they did – how they treated their fans, incorporated art installations, and how they fostered community at these events—which served as a model for what were were looking to do at Bonnaroo.”
Ornette Coleman interview
As for the music presented at Bonnaroo, improvisation has been a key element of many of those hitting the main stages, from the Allman Brothers to Widespread Panic to My Morning Jacket, culminating in the annual Superjam. The Grateful Dead’s love of all types of sounds—from bluegrass to jazz to experimental to blues—has also been a model for the five-plus stages at ‘Roo (not to mention the campgrounds). Again, in the words of Phil Lesh:
“Just the idea of being able to wander around and follow your ears to hear some music that you haven’t happened to hear before is a great thing, and it’s something that’s really important. I like to see roots music, I like to see improvisational music. I even like electronica and dance music. The Grateful Dead was all of those influences fused together. I think it’s important that everybody understands that there’s so much variety and richness and range in American music that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you only listen to the blues, if you only listen to pop music, if you only listen to rap. There’s just so much, and it all hangs together in that it’s American music.”—Holly George-Warren