GREAT STATE PARK, Tenn. — If music festivals were categorized as lovers, Bonnaroo would be the unforgiving, poisonous kind. Bonnaroo is the unrelenting lover who calls you in the middle of the night, needing you and only you, willing you to rush to their side. Bonnaroo is the lover who places their needs above your own, who is unable to understand where the romance ends and the reality begins. Bonnaroo leaves you out in the rain and thunderstorm, out in the heavy, heavy heat, dirty and overtired, begging for more. Bonnaroo has you listening to the sad, sweet Donny Hathaway because he’s the only one who understands your battered, pretty pain. Bonnaroo isn’t for everyone; many people fear it. It’s a love so intense it could burden you for life, or even possibly kill you. But for others — for the impassioned ones of strong heart and spirit — Bonnaroo could be the love of one’s life.
The delicious difficulty of Bonnaroo felt especially apparent for the 15th anniversary edition of the long-running festival. Incredible, beloved acts of the past like Dead and Co., Pearl Jam, LCD Soundsystem and many more came back to showcase their talents and maybe even say their goodbyes to a love that has fought on between the audience and artists for so long. Younger, newer, and 21st century popular acts weaved fresh drama into the love story. They captured crowds and dragged them out of the drudgery of the heavy heat.
Dead and Co, Pearl Jam and LCD Soundsystem headlined this year’s festival and effectively coaxed back in an older demographic of past lovers. LCD Soundsystem’s Friday night performance was an undeniably intense and unforgettable culmination of skill, attitude, instrumentation, nostalgia and cynicism. The music of James Murphy’s band worked just as it has marketed itself to be: a sound system of incredible force and feeling that washes over any audience it meets. Together and almost as one the audience worshipped at the feet of this ’90s band, delighting in the sarcastic and funny candor that they also brought along the way. A heavy bass resonating through the grass of the main stage and into the bodies of everyone attending, connecting us all in the beloved music anthology of this seemingly hard-to-reach band. “Dnce Yrslf Clean,” “Someone Great” and “Losing My Edge” were some of the most notable performances, but that seems diminishing. The thrills of the show didn’t end until Murphy and his band walked off stage.
Eddie Vedder and the rest of the old timey Pearl Jam jump-started the Saturday night festivities with a set heavy in rock ’n’ roll and high energy. They thrashed into their new material and strung in some of their classic, bringing out the fans of the new, the old and the unaware. With a magnificent firework show to match, Pearl Jam was powerful and unrelenting in their awaited performance.
Many of the attendees of this year’s Bonnaroo had surely never imagined they would be able to see at least some of the Grateful Dead perform in this lifetime. Many of the attendees never thought that John Mayer would be the one to make that happen for them either. But as the culminating act of the 15th year of this festival, the Grateful Dead remake, Dead and Co., proved to be an unexpected but natural fit. Mayer, a longtime champion of the guitar, filled in the edges and holes of the recovered band with modest skill. “Franklin’s Tower” and “Bird Song” brought the dead-heads out for the first half of the four hour set with “Touch of Grey” bringing us all in to celebrate the spirit of our shared lover in the final twelve minute song of the second set.
These Aussies followed the LCD Soundsystem on Friday night with a funky, futuristic, wonderfully produced set of far-out, melt your mind tracks. With confetti, humor and a little bit of alcohol, the impressive Kevin Parker and his band matched their audience with the sonic waves emanating from the “Which Stage.” Blown up visuals matched the production of their tunes and technicolor light arrangements emphasized the psychedelic nature of the band’s music. Although the set was relatively short, the men of Tame Impala fully impressed their audiences and proved, once again, why they do in fact deserve the praise and acclaim they consistently receive.
The funkadelic, let’s-get-down-tonight-to-a-trippy-bassline, unassuming, dorky and beloved University of Michigan natives were the highlight of the festival’s opening night. In between their playful on-stage antics and nerdy humor, the band put on a show for their fans that could neither be unpleasing nor unsatisfactory. They were clever, in both their musicianship and performance, to keep it familial, keep it original and keep it positively, thickly funky. Vocalist Antwaun Stanley arrived on stage to deliver all of the band’s classic in his perfected, soulful and celebrated vocals. He brought the crowd, lifting this young band even higher, and produced for everyone a tangible kind of musical enjoyment that is so infrequent and sometimes so hard to come by.
Led by the vocals of the fierce and ferocious feminist Lauren Mayberry, CHVRCHES returned to Bonnaroo this year to put on a mesmerizing, all-feeling performance. Obviously experienced in the art of performing, Mayberry keeps the audience’s eyes, hips and hearts in line with her energy. She ran back and forth around the stage — guided by the beats and drums of the band’s boys on her left and right — sometimes even punching the ground and writhing on the stage floor. A minimalist band with a heavy sound and strong female lead to get everyone going— the band CHVRCHES could be a well-structured feminist project. Paramore’s Hayley Williams stepped on stage for the penultimate ballad, “Bury It,” to bring the show back up before its end. In the exhausting, all-consuming heat, Mayberry and Williams threw themselves and their voices around the stage in a give-it-all-you’ve-got manner that dragged the distant audience from the hazy heat of the afternoon sun.
SuperJam with Kamasi Washington and Friends
Bonnaroo’s SuperJams are often a dream-fulfilling experience, bringing together artists that commoner’s had only ever been found side by side in their Spotify playlists and musical daydreams. SuperJams of the past have brought artists like ?uestlove, Jim James, Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo to its stage to collaborate, connect and have fun with artists above and below their holiness.
This year’s SuperJam was no different. Kamasi Washington was both the MC and crown jewel of the event, bringing up acts of new and old to coalesce with his sexy, smooth saxophone. Dressed in a full-length red and gold dashiki, Washington and his chosen, visiting guests celebrated the music of Tennessee and the city’s most celebrated music. Renditions of the classics like Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, BB King, Isaac Hayes, Bessie Smith, Tina Turner and countless others were given to remember and reignite the flavors of the city that so heavily supports this music festival.
Washington was obviously unafraid of mixing it up, and brought on acts to perform surprising, sometimes confusing covers. These included the sensual Miguel arriving to cover Tennessee native Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” L.A. band Chicano Batman’s quirky cover of the Shaft theme song and an especially confusing rendition of Miley Cyrus’s infamous “Party in the USA” made an appearance. The night ended on a high-note, however, with Lizzo’s explosive cover of the Tina Turner classic “I Can’t Stand the Rain” performed with parts of Missy Elliot’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).”
While the skill was undeniable, and while it was easy to enjoy the softer, ambient sounds of such a celebrated and beloved band, some records are better heard in the stereo. While engaging, Oh Wonder did little to add variety to the perfectly produced arrangements of their self-titled debut album. It was slow, it was sweet and it was sad, but it wasn’t much else. As excessively talented as the band remains, the set was undeniably dull.
Father John Misty
He came out microphone swinging. A black button-down falling from the frame of his thin, wonderfully awkward body. Dripping in an indescribable, but certainly undeniable, sexuality that explains the numerous lyrics of previous lovers who once coveted his drugged-up, folksy romance. Misty left it all onstage, dragging himself and his furious fashion around to express the emotion and seriousness of his aesthetically silly songs. “Bored in the USA” and its social commentary had the audience engaged, as did other blow up numbers like “Holy Shit” and “I Love You, Honeybear.” This man belongs on the MainStage for he knows how to control it, how to get the most of out his audience and how to seduce even the coldest of hearts.
If your head wasn’t placed firmly under a rock for the past year and half, you have heard of Leon Bridges. And if you are a frequent, journeyed listener of soul, this crooner has absolutely passed through your ears in some recent capacity. With infectious dance moves, incredible spirit and smooth like whiskey vocals, Bridges brought his audience to a Texas carnival, back around to a gospel choir and then into the 21st century pop scene with a silky rendition of Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Soul music hasn’t left us just yet, and we have Bridges to thank for some of that.
They are California rock pop queens, if you didn’t already know, who consistently put on a full throttle performance for any and all audiences they meet. The three sister clones haven’t put out new music for over a year now, so their songs are known. And while that stagnation could be hurtful to some artists and could effectively slow their progress, this band remains unaffected. Amid incoming thunderstorms and changing weather, the sisters still finished strong, guiding their performance into an inspiring, pretty pop rock finish.
It was a beautiful perform, surely, put on by the young, ambient band. Their focus on sonic oneness was clear in the shared glances and intensity of their instrumental precision. But within this sought-out perfection was a relatively lackluster performance. The kick-drum and live DJ performances against lead singer Nicole Miglis’s piano added depth and feeling to their slower, chiller songs that isn’t found on the band’s debut and only album. So was it engaging? Most of the time. Was it memorable? Mildly. Some performances are made for the mad fans, others can draw anybody in.