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It has to be a toss-up between Coachella and Bonnaroo as to which is our most iconic currently active American festival. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I found the earlier years of Bonnaroo somewhat mythic — I had friends who would make summer trips down to the festival, and they talked about it like it was Burning Man or something. Still, even as festivals all start to look a little too similar, Bonnaroo seems to have retained some of its original spirit, and when I finally made it there for the first time this past weekend, I found it to be unique, and in many ways my favorite festival experience. Any festival is predicated on that all-you-can-eat approach — that’s the whole model for its success, really, the ability to have this communal experience and consume as many acts (or substances) as you want, everyone agreeing to sustain this alternate reality for three- or four-day stretches. Bonnaroo is just several degrees more extreme in that regard. With so many people staying on-site, that alternate reality quality got amplified by a few levels, so much so that each night as I drove away I felt as if I was exiting some sort of surreal bubble — and also missing out on all the craziness that’d unravel into the latest hours of the night and the earliest hours of the day.

That all-you-can-eat quality is also heightened there. Not just in the partying sense — though, as the many people I saw passed out on the grass on the festival’s first night can attest, that’s up for grabs, certainly. But rarely have I been to a festival that has such a stacked, expansive lineup. It’s disorienting in a good way, and then utterly frustrating because there’s no way you can schedule it so you get to see all the good stuff. And, inevitably, there’s something shocking that you miss out on. That being said, I saw some things that knocked me right down this weekend. Here’s a list of the stuff that lingered with me on that final drive away from the farm.

Comments (15)
  1. Stereogum may need to send someone else to Bonnaroo next year. Here is a list of some conspicuous misses on the “10 Best Sets at Bonnaroo”:

    1. The Orwells: After putting on a great late night performance on Letterman, the Orwells were equal to the task at Bonnaroo. Inexplicably, the Orwells were placed in the Roo’s smallest venue: the Miller Light Stage. The Orwells responded in kind by drawing an ever-increasing number of fans. The fans began to climb the scaffolding, sitting on the tent, to get a better view of lead singer Mario Cuomo’s antics. Cuomo’s looks are reminiscent of Axel Rose and he seems to have the same innate ability to control a crowd. At one point, the show was stopped until Roo security was able to clear everyone off the scaffolding.

    2. Jack White: Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Jack White nor the White Stripes (or any other of his projects). I came fully prepared to rip his performance; but was a bit thrown off by his ‘southern’ charm and folksy disposition. Jack White relayed little anecdotes between sets that lay somewhere between John Cougar Mellencamp and zen buddhism. His Tennessee twang is spot on despite being born and raised in Detroit. This is by no means to imply that he is a poser. On the contrary, he seems a true aficionado of country music, rock music, and all things Nashville. White’s passion was contagious and sustained over his extended set and I imagine fans will be talking about this spirited performance for Bonnaroos to come.

    3. Speedy Ortiz: Like the Orwells, Speedy Ortiz performed in the smallest venue, the Miller Light Stage. Sadie Dupuis combines energetic guitar riffs with sonorous vocals to get your blood going and hit something a bit deeper. This is a can’t miss show if they come to your town.

    4. Neutral Milk Hotel: Need I say more? Their 1998 seminal album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was an amazing contribution to ballad-driven independent music. I regret that it was not until 15 years later in 2013 that I purchased this album and fully appreciated its depth and magnitude. See this band before they stop touring.

    5. James Blake-If you like electronica music or R & B, you have to see James Blake. If you don’t like either, you have to see James Blake. His crisp, hearty beats combined with a dulcet voice make for a truly unique performance.

    • The best part of seeing James Blake is the audible female swoon that happens every time he starts singing. Hilarious. In all seriousness though, his albums and his live show feel totally different. Bass drops that sound subtle and barely there on the record are just thunderous live. So good.

    • “Stereogum may need to send someone else to Bonnaroo next year” – Ouch, that seems a little harsh now doesn’t it?

      I went to a few of these shows and I totally fucking agree with Chris about Nick Cave, that was probably one of the best shows I’ve ever seen out of 150+. Damon Albarn and Cloud Nothings were both pretty fantastic as well.

      I agree with you on Speedy Ortiz and NMH, those were great fun and definitely rank among the top shows I saw. Speedy Ortiz in particular completely exceeded my expectations, I’m so glad I checked them out. Also, sorry to say but I wasn’t really enthralled by James Blake’s set, it just really wasn’t that engaging to me but to be fair I was waaaaay way back near the food vendors for most of his set.

  2. Neutral Milk Hotel and Chance the Rapper both destroyed. I was ready to pass out at the beginning of Chance’s 2:30 AM set (I’m at the age now where staying up past 2 AM is a chore) but he woke me right up.

    Also, no mention of Elton John? Hearing 50,000 or however many people singing Tiny Dancer and Rocket Man was pretty magical.

    I was also really into Lucero’s brand of depressing ass Southern rock, but that may just have been because I was super stoned for that.

  3. I’m sorry to also feed the Kayne ego machine, but I have to agree with him having the best set, up to a point though. The first half of his set was absolutely fucking amazing and that was the most standout for me. I’ve seen about 100+ different acts so far this year and that was about as good as I’ve seen and heard. He was on. He put so much emotion and anger into his performance. With the flashing red lights, it was really powerful. However, I walked out during his rant. I couldn’t stand him any longer. If he’d just STFU, in my book he would have easily had the best set. But seriously, Fuck Kanye.

    Lionel Richie’s set was also fucking amazing. He was entertaining, funny and he sounded great. I’m sorry, but he closed with We Are The World. That’s pretty epic to me. I loved it.

    Elton John was great and he front loaded most of his most popular songs which was really an interesting move. Perfect opening with Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. The only thing was his voice was starting to give. Still, I loved seeing a legend play in front of that many people as they sung along.

    I think Jack White rocks. He sounded great and was very entertaining. His band is HOT. But I’m sorry, I got bored after an hour or so. I feel like I heard the same song over and over.

    The Flaming Lips were fucking amazing. They pulled away so many people from the Skrillex super jam, I found it humorous actually.

    Janelle Monae was really amazing. She’s 100 mph the whole set. I would love to see her play a later set with lights.

    Not surprised you had Diarrhea Planet on here. I missed their set but I caught them at Hangout and they were fucking great.

    I loved Polica. They had a great, stand out set for me. Watching lead singer Channy Leaneagh sing up close, she is hot.

    I caught all of Disclosure’s set, up close. Really great. Although it was really predictable that Sam Smith would come out and do Latch for the closer, it was still really cool to see and the place went nuts.

    First Aid Kit sounded great. I really dug them.

    Umphrey’s McGee killed it as usual.

    The Avett Brothers were awesome.

    Banks was one of my more anticipated acts to see. I thought she was great but not standout.

  4. I came here to see where Jack White was ranked and to my shock he was not even on the list! I don’t know if you’re familiar with Jack as a performer, but the stuff he said in this show is the kind of stuff he’s been saying in concert since the early WS days. The only difference is he was not very talkative before. I’m pretty sure he said more at this show than he ever has, but I think that can be chalked up to alcohol and he’s possibly trying to be more affable on stage since that whole Radio City thing. Anyway, if you think the kind of stuff he said is a shtick (and there is a level of that I’m sure, he is a performer you know), then it’s one he’s had for a very long time and something you would already be aware of if you’ve seen him live before.

    As for the music itself, well holy fuck I thought it was incredible. His music will likely never be as immediate and visceral as it was with the White Stripes, but this guy knows how to put on a fucking show and I just can’t imagine how anyone could classify it the way you did unless you simply just aren’t a Jack White fan. Jack is one of the few performers who is completely spontaneous on stage. You truly never know what you can expect at a Jack show. Nearly everything he does live is off the cuff. He just plays whatever pops into his head even if it’s in the middle of another song that sounds nothing like it. I love how exciting and unpredictable his shows are. No Jack White show is the same. There aren’t many performers, especially at his level, you can say that about.

  5. Jack white was the true standout for me. If I had to rank:
    #1. Jack White
    #2. Janelle Monae
    #3. Elton John
    #4. Kanye West

    Not sure what I’d go with for number 5. I had an awesome time in the pit during cloud nothings, I’d probably go with that.

  6. Really want to like Janelle Monae but…… really lacking in songwriting and seems like some overly pre-packaged deal. I like her style but I can’t see enough substance in it.

  7. Interesting list… heres mine…

    1) Darkside





    2) Disclosure
    3) Arctic Monkeys
    4) Jack White
    5) Nick Cave
    6) Elton John
    7) Skrillex
    8) J Roddy Walston & The Business
    9) Vampire Weekend
    10) Cloud Nothings

    • That Darkside set was absolutely incredible, man I’d love to hear a live album from them because those re-worked arrangements were stunning. Excellent light show as well, that “light bridge” type beam they had going on was beautiful.

  8. Always surprised how well Nick Cave handles a festival crowd. He totally decimated a crowd full of people camping for RHCP at Coachella last year.

  9. Did anyone find a Marine Corps challenge coin? My boyfriend lost it somewhere at the farm and it means an awful awful lot to him. Please get in touch with me on the Bonnaroo facebook page if you did!

  10. Thank you for calling out Jack White as the bullshit nostalgia wanker he is.

  11. Ty Segall made it the best thursday ever. Wave Goodbye was easily the most fun I had at roo.

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