Sunday started out on a good note. I was able to catch about 15 minutes of Princess, the Prince cover band formed by Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum. Their covers were airtight and funky (thanks in large part to an excellent band) and their stage presence was charming and energetic. It was a lot of fun to watch.
Little did I know that it would be my favorite set of the day.
I left halfway through their set to go see Hobo Johnson and the Lovemakers, who were playing on the Which? Stage. Hobo Johnson is proof that music can be introspective and creative without ever being good. He has the emotional immaturity and awkward sexual frustration of Pinkerton-era Rivers Cuomo without any of the musical talent. “We should go and get a friggin' cup of coffee / And I’ll act friendly and I won’t pull any stunts / But I’m a little stunt puller from birth / So I don’t know what to tell you.” Gag me. To my surprise, Hobo had amassed a sizeable crowd, many of whom were adoring fans singing along word-for-word. There’s no denying that he is a passionate performer. I feel bad trashing his set, as he looked really happy while on stage. I hope he and his fans all find their peace someday.
I used to love WALK THE MOON and was looking forward to backsliding to my 2013 self during their set. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed. I was close to the front and felt absolutely no energy. On several occasions, frontman Nicholas Petricca would extend the microphone out to the crowd only to receive a feeble murmur in return. One of the band members threw up his hands in exasperation when the crowd fell particularly flat during “Tightrope.” It was uncomfortable. The band played a pretty solid cover of “Burning Down the House,” and the crowd seemed to find their voice come “Shut Up and Dance” and “Anna Sun” — but it was too little, too late: It felt like watching the dying embers of a fire.
Next up was Lil Dicky. It was the worst show of the weekend. Self-awareness only goes so far. His humor is tepid, his actual rapping is second-rate. But at least he’s in on the joke? Jesus, at least Hobo Johnson seemed to give a shit. After about twenty minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore and left for the Lumineers show across the farm.
The Lumineers were a welcome respite. Their harmonies rang honest and true, their sincerity an excellent contrast to the sickly parody of Lil Dicky. They don’t make particularly interesting music, but their folky pop was a soothing late-afternoon balm.
The honor of closing out the festival was bestowed upon phan-phavorite and Bonnaroo phrequent phlyer Phish, an influential jam band who helped to create the modern festival scene in the 1990s. Worn down after many days of the Bonnaroo lifestyle, I bought an alligator po-boy and sat on the grass to watch Phish’s three-and-a-half-hour (!) set.
To be honest, I don’t get Phish. It sounds like music that your friend’s weird stepfather plays in the car. There must be something I’m missing — there’s no way they’ve acquired such a famously devoted fan base without being good. Maybe people just really miss the Dead. They’re certainly talented — their music is harmonically complex and technically demanding; they had a confident presence on stage, obviously seasoned veterans. It’s far from unpleasant, it just … doesn’t sound that great. I think I might not have been on the right drugs for it.
Although Bonnaroo 2019 didn’t end on the highest note (unless you like Phish), the festival as a whole is the best live music experience I’ve had to date. Part of that is due to some excellent performances, but more important is the unique atmosphere they’ve cultivated — the festival is weird, passionate and unfailingly accepting in a way that doesn’t feel forced or artificial.
As I drove off the farm Monday morning, I felt a profound sadness, as though I was leaving something special in Manchester, Tennessee that I couldn’t bring with me. I guess I’ll just have to wait until next year.