New Orleans: Birthplace of Bonnaroo

Superfly Presents founders Jonathan Mayers, Rick Farman, Kerry Black, and Rich Goodstone first met in New Orleans, and promoted concerts there for five years before making the leap to create Bonnaroo. In honor of New Orleans week on Bric-a-Brac, the group took some time to remember those early days, and talk about how the culture and vibe of that magical city still infuses every aspect of the festival.

—Alison Fensterstock

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Jonathan Mayers: I still remember the first time I heard the Meters. It was “Look-A-Py-Py” on a tape. That’s dating myself, but it just blew my mind and I got totally immersed in the local music scene. I got an internship at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, and right after I graduated from Tulane I started working at Tipitina’s—hanging up posters, booking bands, picking them up at the airport. I loved being a part of it.

Kerry Black: I came into the fold because I had a car. Jon was working at Tip’s, and we were putting up posters and flyers for him. He started doing his own thing, and we all sort of banded together.

Rick Farman: I first met Kerry in the dorm, and pretty instantly music was the total connection. I went out to shows as much as I could afford, and I met Jon when Medeski, Martin and Wood were playing at Tip’s. They’d opened for Phish in New Orleans and pretty much blew me away. I walked into his office and asked if I could help. Kerry had a car, so we put up posters for him. He said, “If you want to help out more, I can get you into shows for free.” That was all I needed to hear.

Rich Goodstone: Jon had a job, and I had a job in New York, and Rick and Kerry were still in college, but we still found time to do Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras concert series. That first year after we decided to do concerts year-round, I moved down.

KB: Jon had already done a show as Superfly Presents, and we all thought it sounded cool. We were all big fans of Curtis Mayfield. When we went down to New Orleans City Hall to incorporate (in 1997), the woman looked at the paperwork and looked at us and said, “Y’all don’t look super fly.”http://www.tipitinas.com/

KB: Our first show was “Take Funk to Heaven: Mardi Gras ’97.” The first night was the Funky Meters with Galactic opening, and the second was Maceo Parker with George Porter, Jr. and the Rebirth Brass Band opening. We rented one cell phone to share. It probably would have been smarter to have two.

RG: I remember all of us standing onstage watching Maceo, and watching two thousand kids have the best time. I couldn’t get the smile off my face. At the first Bonnaroo we got to stand onstage in front of 70,000 people and thank everyone for coming, but being up there at that first event was even more special. It set us on the path.

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RF: When Maceo was playing, I felt like, “Wow, we just accomplished something here.” Right around the time I graduated in ’99, we had some opportunities to put on shows more regularly. And Jon said, “I’ll quit my job and see if we can do this full-time.”

KB: At one point we almost quit. We lost a bunch of money over four or five shows—we got clobbered. We had already decided to go to the first Coachella that year and we went, thinking we’d have to get real jobs after. But it revived us. That was a turning point for the company—we got serious about starting something special we could call our own.

RF: It took about two more years for us to really start to investigate doing the festival. We met Ashley Capps (of AC Entertainment) and started to focus on the idea of Tennessee.

RG: We were looking for names for the festival for quite some time. You hit on a thousand wrong ones before you find something good. I think it was Jon who found it, Dr. John’s Desitively Bonnaroo album. We had even landed on a different name, but it wasn’t right.

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KB: We were going to call it the Axis Festival. Then George W. Bush gave his “Axis of Evil” speech.

RF: We were sitting in our office and Jon was searching around on something like Allmusic. The name just popped up and we gravitated to it.

JM: I wanted a name that had some reference point, some story to it. I was looking through old albums, and it just visually jumped out at me. I looked it up and ”bonnaroo” was a Creole slang term for “good stuff.” It just fit what we were trying to do perfectly.

RF: Out of all our events, it was the easiest to name by far. There was very little debate. We loved that it connected us to New Orleans.

RG: New Orleans is just such an amazing, vibrant culture. It’s so rich—the music in your local bar, the level of skill it’s played at, the way people greet you with a smile. We’ll always pay homage to it. New Orleans is a thread that runs through everything we do, because it’s who we are.

KB: I still go to New Orleans three or four times a year. New Orleans has more culture per capita than any other city in the country.

RF: Before I moved to New Orleans, I had a pretty good grasp of the power of music. But not the community nature of it there, the feeling of it baking into every part of life.

JM: That spirit of New Orleans is what we wanted to carry forward with Bonnaroo. A second line—to me, that’s just pure joy. Dancing in the street, everyone coming together. New Orleans has such a distinct character and it’s been instrumental to everything we do. We wouldn’t be who we are without New Orleans. Hopefully, it shows.

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 How do you feel the New Orleans vibe at Bonnaroo?