“The children of the sun begin to wake”- “Going to California”
The whole drive back from Tennessee, I was trying to work out how to even begin encompassing this past weekend. It’s a tricky thing; no two people have the same Bonnaroo. It’s a weekend of infinite permutations, maddening choices, exhausting marathons, and transcendent moments. At any moment you might stumble into a Super Soaker sneak attack from Chance the Rapper, an unexpected appearance by a Mad Man, a pop-up Queen singalong, or a portapotty line encounter with Denis Leary. Or your new favorite band. So really, the best I can do is try to convey the 14th edition of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival as a narrative of my own experience, just one of 80,000.
2015 found Bonnaroo at a crossroads, with a lot of long-running threads intersecting and reaching conclusions, some logical, some not so much. After their last-minute 2013 cancellation, Mumford and Sons returned and played to the biggest crowd of the weekend. Mere weeks before the festival, a controlling share was sold to industry behemoth LiveNation. There were artists making their first bids to be top-line headliners at major festivals, some of whom (Kendrick Lamar, Florence + The Machine) succeeded wildly, others (Deadmau5) fizzled awkwardly. There were legends in the house, some of whom (Robert Plant) delivered inspired reworkings of canonical material, others of whom (Billy Joel) phoned it in. And then there were mainstays. My Morning Jacket. The Bens (Harper and Folds). STS9. Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Faces that have been seen time and time again over the festival’s fifteen year long strange trip. There were left-field guest appearances, welcome nostalgia trips, and bands playing sets that will be used to define them for years to come. There is nothing else like Bonnaroo, at least not in the United States, and it was an absolute pleasure to watch as a new chapter was written into the annals of The Farm.
Things get off to a comparatively quiet start on the first night of Bonnaroo. The two outdoor stages are shut down (although road crews could be seeing Deadmau5’s massive new stage set in the early evening hours), and the music is confined primarily to the three massive tents. This is the night when the smaller artists at the festival get to shine. The don’t have to compete with huge names on the stages, and thus attract crowds far beyond what they would normally pull. From the minute we arrived in the campground through the fairly quiet East Entrance it was clear that there was a much larger crowd on hand than last year. Despite arriving at roughly the same time, we were placed in an overflow section that doesn’t even appear on the festival map, over a quarter mile past the edge of where the campsites ended in 2014. I wound up clocking my walk into Centeroo each day just shy of a mile and a half. This was no matter, though, it was worth it to avoid the hours-long line at the West and Highway entrances, and we found ourselves surrounded by the most delightful set of Bonnaroo neighbors I’ve ever had.
Thursday is a great day for discovery at Bonnaroo, the appetizer round, and if you don’t have an agenda you can easily walk from one tent to the other getting bits and pieces of different acts. This is sometimes easier said than done: Glass Animals attracted such a large crowd sprawling out of The Other Tent that any latecomers were doomed to no view and muddled sound, and Swedish indie pop singer Tove Lo had one of the biggest throngs I’ve ever seen at a tent set gathered a full half hour before she took the stage. But the MVP award for the night goes to Philadelphia rockers Strand of Oaks who gave an emotional, passionate performance of material from last years wonderful album HEAL, and lead singer Timothy Showalter was visibly taken aback by the audience’s response and size. The two-guitar attack of the current lineup reminds one instantly of peak Crazy Horse, and Showalter even quoted the melody of “Cortez the Killer” on the powerful closing number “JM,” a tribute to the late songwriter Jason Molina. When they write the book on Strand of Oaks, this set will get a chapter all on its own. These guys should not be missed when they play Midpoint in September.
Australian Courtney Barnett was the night’s other big winner to my ears, blitzing through songs from this years Sometimes I Just Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett fronts a power trio, and her exploding-amp feedback and left-handed playing aren’t the only things that would make one reasonably think “Nirvana.” This is rock royalty on the the rise here, and she wasted no time, starting off with “Lance Jr.” and the propulsive “Elevator Operator.” “Pedestrian at Best” was a giant fuzzfest that got the crowd moving, and the devastating emptiness of “Depreston,” where the narrator goes house hunting and realizes mid-tour that the house she’s in is a “deceased estate.”
English soul collective Jungle closed out That Tent with an hour of slick grooves from their self-titled debut. Expanded to a septet, they managed to expertly recreate the sound of the record, from the detailed percussion to the layered falsetto vocals. The whole thing ends up a bit monochromatic, but it’s exactly the kind of music that works perfectly at Bonnaroo once the sun goes down and things start to get weird. Earlier in the same tent Indiana crew Houndmouth continued to ride the success train with a rollicking, ragged set of tunes to “the biggest fuckin’ crowd we’ve ever played to.” Their logo burned behind them in bright pink neon, a nod to the sign in “Sedona,” which got the biggest reaction of the hour., and they closed their set with an unhinged run through Dion’s classic “Runaround Sue.”
Danish post-punks Iceage put on an alternately brilliant and uncomfortable show earlier in the evening in This Tent, struggling against technical difficulties throughout the evening. I love their music, and each of their last two albums is a near-masterpiece, but the dynamic aggression and dissonance of their performance was startling and felt out of place in the waning daylight. Teenage thrash metal Brooklynites Unlocking the Truth were much better suited to it, inciting circle pits and crowdsurfers. This is a ridiculously talented bunch of kids, 14 years old with a major label deal, and they took on the festival setting like seasoned pros.
Gramatik was still thumping away as I trudged back to my campsite in the dark, but it was time for some rest, what with a long drive behind me and three full days ahead.
The first full-scale day of the festival (also my 28th birthday) dawned brutally hot and humid. I’ve always had pretty good luck with Bonnaroo weather, but this had me ready to do a rain dance. Luckily, I was able to spend the late morning in the press tent, taking in a bit of air conditioning and conversing with Mumford & Sons’ photographer about things to do in eastern Iowa.
At the start of the day, I caught a bit of Pennsylvania outfit The Districts in The Other Tent, and found myself unmoved. Perhaps it was the day’s early heat, but the band came across as competent but indistinct. I moved fairly quickly over to This Tent for Arkansas titans Pallbearer, who absolutely crushed an hour of intricate, heavy pieces that intersected with the post-rock compositions of the likes of Explosions in the Sky but were always firmly rooted in sludgy southern metal. I heard a chunk of Austin group Brownout funking their way through Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots” as part of their Brown Sabbath set to open Which Stage on my way over to Tanya Tagaq’s show in This Tent. This was the most willfully weird set of the entire weekend, and one of my favorites. Tagaq, who won last year’s Polaris Prize, is a Canadian Inuit throat singer, and performed an hour-long improvisation with a violinist and a drummer. It was one of the sparsest tent crowds of the weekend, but there were curious onlookers who stopped through, and a dedicated crowd of roughly 1,000 stayed for the whole thing. She contorted herself, uttering rhythmic, guttural beats and near-operatic melodies. In a word, this set was insane, and the most unique of the weekend and one of my favorites.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra played a meandering, likeable set in The Other Tent, heavily skewed towards their solid new Multi-Love, but still got groovy with “Ffunny Ffriends” from their self-titled debut. I had never quite detected just how much Stevie Wonder influenced their music, but it was on full display here. I made it over to What Stage for Dawes, making their mainstage debut and playing a fun, slightly extended version of their current setlist opening for Hozier. “When My Time Comes” soared to the heavens, and they closed with the title track from this year’s All Your Favorite Bands and its “Forever Young” sentiment. Alabama Shakes had the sundown slot, and they owned it. Three years ago, they packed This Tent late on Thursday, but the massive assembly at What Stage was a different scale altogether. Almost all of this year’s wonderful Sound & Color was present, and Brittany Howard’s powerhouse voice roared over the gritty soul grooves of her band. A lengthy ride through the murky “Gemini” highlighted one of the best performances of the entire weekend.
I’ll cut to the chase: Kendrick Lamar made a compelling and unforgettable case for his status as a headliner. Billed one spot behind Deadmau5 but scheduled in the traditional headline slot, he ran through 75 masterful minutes of material. Early on, he stuck exclusively to tracks from 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d. city, leading some on the crowd to fear that Lamar's recent trend of eschewing this year's incredible To Pimp A Butterfly would continue here. But a little over 45 minutes in, he dropped the beat to Butterfly lead single "i" and the crowd erupted. As on the album, Anna Wise joined him to sing the chorus of "These Walls," and it was like a bomb went off when his band started into "King Kunta." Lamar's set was an incredible achievement, a coronation, and next time we see him back it will be as an undisputed headliner.
Late night, the conflict between Earth Wind & Fire and Run the Jewels was miserable, but having seen the latter once before, I went with the R&B legends and was not disappointed. Still counting three original members among their ranks (including unstoppable bassist Verdine White), the dozen-strong ensemble plowed through an hour of hit after hit, including the inescapable contagious energy of “September.” As they returned for an encore, they brought one of the biggest surprises of the weekend: Lamar, recovered from his mainstage set, and Chance the Rapper, present for the Saturday night Superjam, but he wound up being a regular face onstage all weekend. The two were clearly awed to be onstage with legends of their youth, and they spat freestyles over “Gratitude” for a good five minutes.
I went from there to catch progressive house producer Deadmau5 over on What Stage, the billed headliner for the night, and was astonished by what I found: the What Stage field was two-thirds empty, I could have easily walked within 100 feet of the stage had I tried. His much-ballyhooed new light setup was blinking away, utterly derivative of Daft Punk’s Alive stage, and the same blooping loop pattered on for awhile. Deadmau5 then took off his trademark head, proceeded to sit on a couch, and the sharks from Katy Perry’s Super Bowl set showed up and started dancing. I left. Fortunately, Flying Lotus was still going strong in The Other Tent. Twin projection screens (one behind him and one in front) gave disorienting depth to his visuals, and the rumbling bass kept a bleary crowd moving (it was, after all, roughly 2 in the morning). FlyLo hopped out front of the screens to rap and greet the crowd at the very end of the set, performing Thundercat’s “Oh Sheit It’s X,” before waving us on into the night. I caught bits of Odesza and the trance-like grooves of STS9 as I headed back towards my campsite, but it was a long, hot day, of which I had two more to power through.
After Friday’s marathon, I was gratified to find that things had cooled at least a bit for Saturday. Fortunately, I also had a relatively low-key option to start things off. Sō Percussion, the Brooklyn percussion ensemble that turned so many heads at Cincinnati’s MusicNOW festival in March, is a bit of a left-field pick for Bonnaroo, but they mesmerized a small but dedicated early afternoon crowd. The heart of the set was their just-released take on Bryce Dessner’s “Music for Wood & Strings,” performed on custom-made chordsticks (which are somewhere between hammer dulcimers and lap-steel guitars, but even that doesn’t quite do them justice). They also performed their Matmos collaboration “Needles” (which involves playing an electric cactus) and closed with an impossible intricate take on Steve Reich’s early piece “Drumming.”
Songhoy Blues are a Malian blues-rock crew, another in a long line of great world music sets Bonnaroo has scheduled on Which Stage over the years. These guys were tight, locking into sinewy grooves that exploded into huge hooks, as on set highlight “Soubou.” I wish more people had witnessed this one, but those who were there ate it up. I ran over and caught a few minutes of festival sure bets Trampled by Turtles on What Stage after they finished up, and they were as solid as ever, opening with “Are You Behind The Shining Star?” I sometimes wonder if their quirky name holds them back a bit; the Duluth ensemble is every bit as musically talented as their contemporaries Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, and if anything their songwriting is more interesting. And yet, here they are, early in the day. Hopefully this will be rectified someday. Rihannon Giddens, co-leader of Carolina Chocolate Drops and recent New Basement Tapes participant, performed a couple of songs from the latter project during her hourlong set on Which Stage. Giddens is an operatically trained singer, and her solo album gave her a few more chances to display those talents. All three of her fellow Chocolate Drops are in her backing band, along with a drummer and bassist, and the set ranged from Dolly Parton covers to Gaelic folk tunes. This was one of the most eclectic shows of the weekend, but you could feel that it only began to scrape the depths of Giddens’s talents.
The Which Stage crowd swelled in anticipation of The War On Drugs. Over the course of their 16 month tour behind Lost in the Dream (my pick for the best album of 2014), the Philadelphia sextet have become a dynamic, peerless live band. The breadth of Adam Granduciel’s guitar tone astounds on record, but realizes its full potential at concert volume. Dream made up the bulk of this set, “Red Eyes” and “Under the Pressure” building and breaking like tsunamis of warm tube amplifiers. But “Buenos Aires Beach” and “Arms Like Boulders” from 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues made very welcome appearances as well, and a lengthy meander through “Your Love Is Calling My Name” closed out a too-short set, one of my absolute favorites of the weekend.
Over in The Other Tent, English producer Jamie xx was spinning works from his new masterpiece In Colour, the thundering bass of “Stranger in a Room” rattling the tent’s sign as I walked up. Few artists working have an ear for texture and composition like his, and the album has been a permanent fixture of my last few weeks, but unfortunately this performance was just a bit too low-key for my afternoon. I stayed, grooving for about fifteen minutes, and caught Belle and Sebastian opening with “Nobody’s Army” before heading for a good spot at My Morning Jacket (I would later learn that I left mere minutes before Mad Men’s Jon Hamm showed up and threw gummi bears into Stuart Murdoch’s mouth).
My Morning Jacket is basically Bonnaroo’s house band. This was their seventh appearance in the festival’s 14-year history, a legacy that includes two all-night marathons and a 2004 set where they seemingly bent a thunderstorm to their will. So expectations were pretty high, especially given that their new album The Waterfall is easily their best in a decade. Right on time, they arrived with “Believe (Nobody Knows),” and never relented for two hours. This was the first time I’ve seen them play what amounted to a greatest hits set--a bit disappointing, as it would’ve been a good spot for them to break out some rarities, but such an unimpeachable selection that I have no complaints. They dug deep into Z, including a devastating “Dondante,” played several off the new record (notably the positively seismic “Tropics (Erase Traces),” and burned it all down with a closing “One Big Holiday.” No guests, no stage banter, just a confident run through two hours of blistering material on what’s become their home turf.
What can keep that kind of energy up? Slayer. Bonnaroo’s recent penchant for after-dark metal is a welcome addition to the festival, and the thrash legends had This Tent in a frenzy. Their spiky logo glowed blood red behind them, and individual eddies of circle pits broke out within the crowd. The band ate it up, queueing one rager after another. A last-minute set time change, communicated on the big screens but not in the pocket festival guide, meant that many people wound up missing the set, but it was an unforgettable burst of raw energy for those present. From there I headed to headliners Mumford & Sons. They are a band has failed to win me over, but I went in with an open mind. The crowd assembled was among the largest I have ever seen on the What Stage field; I am more than willing to accept that I am in a minority. But when it did start, the show failed to flow. The bright lights were only distracting from the quieter numbers, and the songs from this year’s Wilder Mind failed to spark. But comedian (and virtuosic banjo player) Ed Helms joined the group for “Awake My Soul,” tossing off a jawdropping solo, and the crowd sang along with every word. I had left for Tycho by the time the encore finished up, but they closed with a rousing “With A LIttle Help From My Friends,” joined by members of My Morning Jacket, The War on Drugs, Hozier, and Dawes.
For their part, Tycho put on one of the most unexpectedly great sets of the weekend in This Tent, the four-piece bringing the ambient jams of last year’s Awake to thrilling life in the early morning hours, joined by bright animated visuals. The new big screens installed outside of the three tents this year made it easy to flop back in the grass and enjoy. But from there, I went to my most-anticipated set of the weekend: D’Angelo and the Vanguard. The neo-soul legend made his first North American appearance in a dozen years at the 2012 Superjam with ?uestlove, ever since I’ve been desperate to see him. It’s not just my expectations talking here: D’Angelo’s set this year will go down as one of the greatest sets in the history of this event. Leading his impossibly good Vanguard, D’Angelo did his best James Brown at the Apollo for 90 minutes, complete with stop-start jamming, blazing solos, instrument swapping, yelps, howls, showcasing the best of last year’s Black Messiah and several songs from his 2000 classic Voodoo. His runaway train energy carried the set past 3:00 AM, and the closing “Chicken Grease” kept coming back for reprise after reprise. Without question some of the best live music I’ve ever witnessed.
Riding on the D’Angelo high, I wandered to The Other Tent to catch the end of this year’s Superjam, an 80’s Throwback party put together by Pretty Lights and featuring an insane lineup including Rob Trujillo from Metallica, Chali 2na (the acting MC), Chance the Rapper, DMC (of Run DMC), Jamie Lidell, Reggie Watts, and many more. I had already missed covers of everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Biz Markie, but fortunately made it for the set’s ridiculous end run. DMC arrived for a mini-set of his own classic hits, and the crowd went berserk as he dropped “It’s Tricky.” Many of the evening’s artists returned to the stage for a careening take on the joint Aerosmith/Run DMC hit “Walk This Way,” with Trujillo and Oteil Burbridge from the Allman Brothers Band holding down a funky low end. Lidell kicked off the encore with a huge singalong of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” before Chance The Rapper closed things down with Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It.” This was not the most cohesive Superjam I’ve seen, but it was unbeatable when it came to pure, unadulterated fun. The lights came up a little bit after 4, and the sun was peeking up over the eastern horizon by the time I found my way back to camp.
By Sunday, my feet were killing me, sleep deprivation was taking its toll, and I decided to take things a little bit easier. I caught one last press conference (hearing Ed Helms, Béla Fleck, and Abigail Washburn discuss banjo playing was an absolute pleasure), and ventured out for some of the last afternoon’s rootsy offerings. New Orleans-via-Bronx group Hurray for the Riff Raff had a breezy, enjoyable set in the Bluegrass Situation-curated That Tent. They played much of last year’s Small Town Heroes, and even played a couple of new songs. Later in that same tent, I got to hear Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn absolutely murder the intricate dual-banjo epic “New South Africa” from Fleck’s time in The Flecktones. But Hiss Golden Messenger was the big revelation. Joined by Nashville guru William Tyler on lead guitar, the North Carolina quartet played a dozen of M.C. Taylor’s brilliant songs, which stretched out and unfolded in new directions not predicted on record. At times (particularly on “Lucia”), they evoked the fluid possibility of the mid-70’s Grateful Dead, jamming but never aimless, intent on a fixed point beyond the audience’s view. Tyler got his best chance to let loose on “Brother, Do You Know The Road?” which sprawled out ominously verse after verse.
Spoon has to be one of the most consistent American rock bands of the last quarter century, and their What Stage set proved exactly why. They broke out a career-spanning barnburner of a setlist, ranging back to “Anything You Want” from Girls Can Tell. Only a handful of songs made it in from last year’s outstanding They Want My Soul, but fortunately “Inside Out” was one of them, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was well-represented. They also played a new song, “Satellite,” which makes me think that we may not have another four year wait for a new Spoon album. Near the end, they reprised last week’s electric Conan appearance with The Cramps’ “TV Set,” from the new Poltergeist soundtrack. Throughout the set, newest bandmember Alex Fischel was a kinetic force onstage, ripping noisy guitar solos and pounding the keyboards within an inch of their lives.
Rapper and Gary, IN native Freddie Gibbs seems to finally be finding some long-deserved mainstream success, thanks to last year’s Piñata, a collaboration with the great producer Madlib. Gibbs, shirtless, stalked the edge of edge of the stage, occasionally jumping down into the photo pit to aggressively deliver his verses. His breath control is second-to-none, and he frequently asked Madlib to cut the beat so that he could continue a capella. It was his birthday, and he was heavily (delightfully) intoxicated, and Chance the Rapper made yet another cameo to freestyle a song with him onstage.
Bonnaroo has never had a female headliner. Ever. It’s insane, a huge gap and shortcoming in their history. If it hasn’t happened by the time Florence + The Machine return in a couple years, they’ll be the first. They took the stage to “What the Water Gave Me” as the final sunset glowed over a crowd rivaled only by Mumford. I have always been a casual fan at best, but this was my conversion moment. Let me be very clear: the half hour I caught of their set was some of the most thrilling and exhilarating live performance that I have ever witnessed. Florence herself is an uncagable spirit, sprinting barefoot from one side of the massive stage to the other while her gigantic band creates the dense, layered music. The new “Ship to Wreck” soared, and “Shake it Out” was visibly the primary reason many around me came to the festival. Top lines of music festivals have been a man’s game for an unacceptably long time, and there’s no one better than Florence to shatter that glass ceiling. I have never been so miserable walking away from a set of music, but there’s only one lead singer of Led Zeppelin, and he was about to start up.
Robert Plant is one of the few 60’s survivors who is still making music that’s exciting, and his current band The Sensational Space Shifters are every bit as weird, psychedelic, and powerful as their name might suggest. Plant looks every bit of his 66 years, but as far as his voice is concerned, it’s still 1971, and he mixed seven Zeppelin songs into his setlist, including a jawdroppingly beautiful “Going to California,” which felt like the theme song for the whole weekend: “The children of the sun began to wake.” Plant’s voice, felled a few days earlier by laryngitis, hit every note of “Dazed & Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love.” Some of his best recent material made it in (including “Rainbow” from last year’s Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar), and the Zeppelin songs found their way in and out of old blues standards by the likes of Bukka White and Robert Johnson. This is how a classic rock artist should be touring his catalogue, not reliving it but rewriting it, letting it live and breathe.
After Plant, Billy Joel felt like an afterthought, especially in comparison to last year’s brilliant weekend-closing turn by Elton John. Joel started things off with “My Life,” but resorted from there to a lengthy string of lesser-known album cuts which never quite hit their stride. He made awkward jokes about his failed marriages and drunk driving arrests, and the rotating platform he performed from felt like every bit as much of a gimmick as when his roadie came out to sing “Highway to Hell.” By the time the setlist started to pick up, it was too late. The “Piano Man” singalong was something I’ll never forget, a truly great Bonnaroo moment, and “You May Be Right” into “Only the Good Die Young” is a pretty strong way to close a show, but Joel seemed sluggish and detached. “Miami 2020” and “New York State of Mind” never appeared in a setlist 30% shorter than most of his stadium shows. Joel wandered offstage, and the set ended a full 45 minutes before its scheduled 11:30 conclusion. It was a fun evening, and I’m glad I’ve seen him, but as delayed fireworks awkwardly popped above the half-empty field, I knew it was one of the weakest festival headlining sets I’ve ever witnessed.
The Way Home
It took awhile to get out of Manchester on Monday morning, we made it through most of the new Bedhead boxed set by the time we were on open highway. My campmates (my sister-in-law and her boyfriend) were out cold, and I had a lot of time to process on the drive home. I’ve been to many of America’s major music festivals, including multiple years of Bonnaroo, and I can really say that nothing else quite matches it. Bands come and go (I can’t imagine Kings of Leon or Eminem will ever head What Stage again), but there’s always a continuity to the event, to the grounds. There’s an institutional memory, and a collective memory among the showgoers. This is a dedicated bunch. Stages are never marred by corporate sponsor names. Bands that would be deemed too weird or too small by another major festival are given a real chance here. Could things change with the new LiveNation acquisition? Sure. Anything’s possible. But I’m inclined to stick with founder Ashley Capps’ promise that the spirit of Bonnaroo will remain intact.
As we pulled off of I-75 at sunset on Monday, I couldn’t help but be happy to be home. There were showers. There were real beds. But there were also only 51 more weeks until the next round.