Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival – Review
June 11-14, 2015 • Manchester, TN
Alabama Shakes, Robert Plant, My Morning Jacket,Flying Lotus & more!
By Nicole Bryan
It doesn’t matter if it is daytime or nighttime, there is something about that bright Bonnaroo archway that has the power to make any festivalgoer grin. Somewhere under the rainbow archway, festivalgoers feel a strong sense of belonging, and Dorothy’s phrase, “there’s no place like home” couldn’t ring truer for fans of live music.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to be there for the first day of Bonnaroo. Thursdays are a coveted time for Bonnaroovians. Not only are they necessary for snagging a supreme camping spot (if you’re lucky), but they are also the beacon of phenomenal up and coming music. It was heartbreaking to miss incredible acts such as The Growlers, Ryn Weaver, Dopapod, Glass Animals, Mac Demarco, Gramatik, and last but certainly not least, Courtney Barnett. Australian singer and songwriter Barnett, known for her deadpan delivery was the talk of the rest of Bonnaroo, with her name echoing well into Sunday.
Friday was met with scorching sunshine and humidity drenched air, but this did not weaken the enthusiasm festivalgoers felt for a long day of music ahead. Bonnaroovians beat the heat with daytime dips in the famous Mushroom Fountain and light naps under the various trees. Dawes, Moon Taxi, Against Me!, Sylvan Esso, and Guster gave fans a good taste of what was to come for the rest of the evening, supplying festivalgoers with incredible music but also an intensely difficult time in deciding their schedules for the day.
The Alabama Shakes
As 7:30PM rolled around, it was clear where every soul in Bonnaroo was gathered – the What Stage for the Alabama Shakes. Brittany Howard brought the entire audience to their knees with her gospel and blues infused voice. Her stage presence is magnanimous. She is impossibly infectious with a beauty that is terrifyingly real, which is mirrored in her voice. Howard and the rest of the band powered through a packed set, with favorites from their first album, Boys & Girls, such as “Rise to the Sun” and “Hang Loose”. “Rise to the Sun” begins with a delightfully catchy guitar riff played by Howard that suddenly moves into a tragically heartbreaking down tempo. Guitarist Heath Fogg slides into the song with fresh guitar melody in between Howards riffs, while Steve Johnson keeps the drum pace steady, mimicking the heartbeat of the crowd. As the sun set across this gorgeous scene, one couldn’t help but take in the beauty of this set. This was one of those moments in live music that you thank yourself later for taking a moment to acknowledge. You recognize the cosmic significance of where you are at that exact time and realize how blessed you are to experience this. As the sun fell across the sky and the moon worked its way into the cotton-candy colored backdrop, Alabama Shakes gave the crowd impressive ethereal songs like “Gemini” and “Color and Sound”, entrancing the crowd in a wave of swaying and singing smiles. “Gemini” gave the audience another rare moment of Howard putting down the guitar to really share that part of her voice that harkens to a grittier Nina Simone. After the crowd had a minute to savor this rare moment, Howard slings her guitar back on and relishes the rest of the song with careful guitar sways. For those who stayed till the very end of Alabama Shakes, the lyrics of “Over My Head” lingered delicately above the heads of the crowd, with gorgeous keyboard melodies sweeping across the stage from Ben Tanner. As this song finished, Howard gave a truly humbling goodbye and thank you to the crowd, showing the capacity for which her heart feels for performing.
Tears For Fears
The This Tent brought all of the nostalgia to Bonnaroo with Tears For Fears, a classic new wave band that gave the 1980s a taste of sweatpants and high pitched vocal harmonies. Although they didn’t grace the stage with sweatpants this time, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith gave the audience all the dreamy synth pop rock they are famous for. They got the party started with the ever-popular “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” a song that proves that Smith’s voice has still got it. Sheer silence fell over the crowd while Orzabal maneuvered his way through the song with familiar guitar playing. Calling Tears For Fears a nostalgia act seemed appropriate going into this performance, but those words quickly fell apart as soon as the band got past their opening number. The band moved into “Secret World” a song that reminds you of their abilities to write a song that not only intrigues you with its lyrics but also gives you goose bumps in its execution. Tears For Fears kept the crowd energized with plenty of Orzabal side comments to the audience and Smith dancing around the stage. They managed to “Break it Down Again” for the crowd with their explosively synth heavy song. The men danced around stage, saluted to the audience, and Smith proved he could still handle the bass guitar. They churned out more of their classic hits like “Change”, “Closest Thing to Heaven”, and “Head Over Heels” and finally closed with an explosive “Shout”. As the band shouted the words that everyone knows so well, all that could be heard was a sea of awe-struck Bonnaroovians, singing along at the top of their lungs. Tears For Fears truly proved they have not lost it in the least bit.
Droves of festivalgoers made their way back over to the What Stage for a highly anticipated performance by the Los Angeles based hip-hop artist, Kendrick Lamar.As Lamar entered the stage, the crowd went wild. He gave the audience a well-rounded performance featuring songs new and old, with help from a superb backing band. Lamar’s traditionally popular rap songs were given a breath of new life with the addition of the live band experience. With more and more rap and hip-hop artists taking note from The Roots and even with Chance the Rapper’s Social Experiment live band that crushed the stage in Bonnaroo 2014, maybe this will become a permanent trend within this community? Regardless if this trend is here to stay, it worked in favor of Lamar, whose performance became a festival best of this year. As soon as Kendrick Lamar’s set came to a close, Medeski, Scofield, Martin, & Wood wasted no time getting their unique brand of improvisational jamming started in the That Tent. There is no surprise why these four men are considered musical legends, especially after their Bonnaroo set. An hour and 15 minutes of straight jamming could leave some dizzy, some even confused, but for the small crowd that reveled in that intimate performance, they were in pure ecstasy.
The night provided plenty of electronic music opportunities for EDM and IDM fans alike. Deadmau5, Odesza, STS9, and Flying Lotus all took to the various stages at conflicting time slots. For the sake of where my musical tastes led me, the night began and essentially ended at Flying Lotus. It had been a solid 2 years since Bonnaroo had seen the face of Steven Ellison, the man behind the jazz and hip-hop infused identity of Flying Lotus. This years set saw a couple of new developments than the previous year he performed. For one, he brought with him his new stage design, a three-dimensional set that blasted the audience off into a whole new world. Ellison has a silk screen behind him as he performs projecting imagery, while a screen stands in the front of him projecting another set of imagery. This creates a surreal 3-D image that fluidly moves about as music spins from his set up. To top that off, just last October he released a new album titled, “You’re Dead!” which would serve as the theme behind this horrifyingly brilliant set. When you walk into a Flying Lotus set, it is impossible to have any expectations other than having your mind blown. It is best to leave them on the outside of the Other Tent because Flying Lotus let the crowd know “you’re dead” before he even got any of his music started. As soon as he let the crowd know they were dead, everyone went insane, as the jazz whirlwind of “Theme” took over the audience. This dizzying track left the crowd’s brain in a spinning vortex. Images manifested in front of Flying Lotus, while lights beamed in different directions. Often times, the images were hard to look at. Sometimes it was the graphic nature of the images, other times it was the sheer dizzying effect that they created. Yet, here is where some of the true beauty of a live Flying Lotus performance lies – he is creating imagery that is hard to look at because not everything in life is beautiful. He evokes the reality of life, which a lot of times is gilded, a mere beautiful shadow cast on an ugly truth. He played Cosmogramma classics like “Zodiac Shit” and “Do The Astral Plane” eliciting utter excitement from a crowd of devoted Flying Lotus fans. The mood of the crowd was taken on a rollercoaster ride, shifting rapidly between scared, confused, shocked, and blissful. At times, the music fell deep. The lights would stop, the screens would blacken, and the imagery would be dark, leaving the audience feeling terrified. Through the rollercoaster of emotional reactions to his set, he gave the crowd plenty of times to dance and just overall lose it. There was a beautiful moment during his performance, where he let the crowd know he missed his good friend and talented bassist, Thundercat, in which he then proceeded to play “Oh Sheeit, it’s X”. A song that truly reflected the feelings of missing your best friend and wishing they were there to have a good time with you. Chance the Rapper made a phenomenal appearance, showcasing his fresh new verses for “Ready Err Not” and showing off his impeccable dance skills to the audience. From Captain Murphy material to improvisational mixing, Flying Lotus gave Bonnaroo something truly special. After the show, he stuck around and hung out with his fans, furthering his reputation for being an absolutely humble musical genius.
Saturday was another brutally hot day on the farm. Sunscreen, hats, and portable misting fans were the trending festival fashion this year. SZA, Hozier, The War On Drugs, Bleachers, Bahamas, and Jaime XX were the top artists of the early to late afternoon slots that could absolutely not be missed. Festivalgoers found prime spots to view these afternoon tunes and made sure to keep cool in the process.
Gary Clark Jr.
Gary Clark Jr. played a delightfully heartwarming set on the Which Stage to a crowd that was happy to receive the positive energy. As Gary Clark Jr. sang his heart out and shredded the guitar for the audience, he played fun hits like “Bright Lights” while mixing in new material. Channeling the blues in his music, he got the crowd moving as the sun set. While Gary continued his unique brand of Austin blues, many started to head over to My Morning Jacket, a Bonnaroo staple and house band of sorts.
My Morning Jacket
Coming off of their new album that they just recently released, The Waterfall, the crowd was highly anticipating this particular My Morning Jacket performance, eagerly awaiting what kind of southern rock these men would bestow upon everyone. The set opened with “Believe (Nobody Knows)” a song off of the new album. Jim James, with his big hair and psychedelic getup spearheaded this song in front of a waterfall backdrop. As the backdrop dissipated, James sang the lyrics of this song over a catchy melody played by Bo Koster on the keys. My Morning Jacket settled into their places on stage and rallied through an incredible list of songs like, “Off The Record” and “Tropics” all giving the crowd a wonderful taste of their musical talents as a band. The electric guitar riffs of “Tropics” gave the audience a surge of momentum as they rocked out to this songs cool and classic feel. “Tropics” is the kind of song that reminds you of Led Zeppelin and is sure to be a staple in their future sets. “Gideon” was another incredible highlight with beautiful guitar melodies by Carl Broemel, which danced around James’ exhilarating vocals. My Morning Jacket gave the audience a taste of their psychedelic side, with the song “Evil Urges” a whimsical and trippy track that left the audience swaying to James’ high-pitched vocals. The night came to a close with the disco-inspired track, “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Part 2” leading into “One Big Holiday”. Just the name of the track summed up how festivalgoers felt who stuck around for their entire performance. A fan favorite track and an oldie, the audience sang these lyrics with James, as Patrick Hallahan destroyed the drums over simple guitar riffs.
Childish Gambino graced the Which Stage, with a vibrant red backdrop, silhouetting the body frame of Donald Glover, as he wasted no time getting into the swing of things. Spewing track after track, Glover even released a new song he had been working on. The audience went wild, dancing to every track while an appreciative Glover didn’t spare a minute letting Bonnaroovians know how much he loved them. The That Tent housed IDM legend, Tycho, who performed an amazing visual and musical performance. Scott Hansen, the man behind Tycho, showed off his ability to blend down-tempo guitar melodies with unique synthesizers. The crowd clapped to many parts of his performance, as Hansen wasted little time and performed with barely any breaks in between. He played a number of tracks from his album “Dive” an ambient and IDM success. On the other side of Bonnaroo at the Which Stage, Bassnectar was giving the crowd his own brand of electronic music. Bassheads made haste forming around the perimeter of the stage, getting ready for Lorin to do what he does best – bring the bass. Bass boomed and Bassnectar mixed, as glow sticks flung into the air in unison, showing just how unified the Bassnectar community really is.
Choosing between D’Angelo and the Vanguard and the SuperJam was a tough move for any Bonnaroovian. It is best to not think of what was missed and instead focus on what was seen. In this case, the SuperJam provided a ton of incredible moments in the Other Tent. With Derek Vincent, the man behind Pretty Lights, leading this conglomerate of artists, the night exploded with musical genius. If you came to Bonnaroo for the nostalgia, then this set was the move for you. A ton of 1980s hit songs came alive on the stage ranging from Notorious B.I.G. to The Talking Heads. It saw talent from all over including Eric Krasno and Chance the Rapper. DMC from Run DMC gave the audience a taste for old school hip-hop, as he danced around the stage and even did a special performance with Rob Trujillo of Metallica. Lovers of jam music were treated to an array of incredible performers like Oteil Burbridge, Karl Denson, and John Medeski. The interplay between the hip-hop artists and the musicians was harmonious. Smiles were all over the faces of every artist that performed and you could even see them still smiling when they were off stage watching other artists play. Vincent stayed relatively quiet, giving the other artists on stage a chance to do their thing. During occasional moments, the quintessential Pretty Lights lights would blast through the audience and a moment of electronic liquid would pour out. Jaime Lidell and Jack Antioff sang a ton of classic songs, giving each one their own unique touch. The night was a success in terms of collaboration and every person there felt lucky to have been able to witness it.
As the sun rose on Sunday morning, tired Bonnaroovians emerged from their tents, crowding around Centeroo looking for coffee and tea to get the day started. The day got off to a quick start with Twenty One Pilots hitting the stage in the afternoon. Also getting the day underway were Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Spoon, M0, and the Punch Brothers. Bonnaroovians made their way to their respective stages or found their place at The Grove, a new hot spot filled with shade and art instillations. The Grove served as the perfect place for festivalgoers to kick back and relax and reflect on all of the incredible music they had seen that weekend so far.
Florence + the Machine
Florence + the Machine got the night going with a gorgeous set that was met with the sun setting over the What Stage. If you have yet to see Florence for yourself – make it a point to do so immediately. Not only is her voice absolutely sensational, she is breathtaking live. She has a harsh beauty amidst her bright red hair that has the power to stop any man or woman dead in their tracks. She looked like an angel on stage and sang her heart out to an audience that needed that sort of power-female vocals after a long break from strong female vocalists on the What Stage.
Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters
Over on the Which Stage, Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters were giving the audience a delicious dose of Led Zeppelin meets Robert Plant’s brain. They played Led Zeppelin classics like “Going To California” which got the crowd feeling some type of way. As Plant sung “C’mon kids” the crowd cheered, as if they were the children he spoke of and as if he were beckoning for them to come with him. The crowd obliged and followed him on this strange musical journey. “Black Dog” got the crowd moving, as Plant showed off his ability to still hit those high notes. The familiar guitar riffs and “uh uh” sung by Plant left the audience rocking out. Thank goodness for Plant’s ability to project because the crowd was singing every single song at the top of their lungs. Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters covered Bob Dylan’s “Fixin’ To Die” a bluesy classic that fit Plant’s voice like a glove. If anyone out there was upset that they would never see a Led Zeppelin show in their lifetime, that feeling quickly melted away. Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters gave all the Zeppelin enthusiasts out there a taste of the past with a revamp of classic hits, such as “The Wanton Song”. If Robert Plant wasn’t your cup of tea or you just needed some bluegrass, the Bluegrass Situation SuperJam gave the Bonnaroovians an hour of straight bluegrass over on the That Tent.
As 9PM rolled around, music on the other stages came to an end and festivalgoers shuffled towards the What Stage for the highly anticipated closer to the festival, Billy Joel. Coming off of the beautiful performance by Elton John last year, it created a dueling pianos of sorts for Bonnaroovians. Though Elton John would be hard to beat, Billy Joel did give him a run for his money. Joel is the kind of performer where age has barely any affect on his vocals and his ability to shred a piano. He opened the show with “My Life” on the piano, making sure the crowd was prepared for two hours of rich piano goodness. Joel performed a ton of classics like “Piano Man”, “Big Shot”, and “Uptown Girl” and even performed a few rarities like “All For Leyna”. With Carl Fischer on trumpet, Joel performed an extraordinary “Zanzibar” which got the crowd moving. A night filled with predictably sweet moments by Billy Joel was even greeted with a few surprises, such as the “Highway To Hell” cover, where Joel even played guitar, as his guitarist sang these classic ACDC lyrics. As Billy Joel finally left the stage and Bonnaroovians began to walk towards the exit to their campsites, there couldn’t help but be a feeling of joyous connection that everyone felt. In that moment, it wasn’t sadness that overwhelmed the festivalgoers, but instead immense joy that a four-day weekend of music could be so fulfilling.
Two different things happen after Bonnaroo ends on Sunday night. One is that some people pack up and prepare for a long night of driving ahead of them. The other is the all-out joyful mayhem that is experienced throughout the festival campgrounds for those who stay. A celebration happens, whether it is felt internally on the way home in the car, or felt between friends sharing their final beers at their campsite. This feeling is universal for those who have survived a long weekend at Bonnaroo and can only be understood by the individuals there that weekend. For those that haven’t made the trek to Manchester, I suggest you do because the shared feeling that you get after it is all said and done is truly the most remarkable part.