For Bonnaroo’s 15th anniversary, the festival put together a lower-key, looser experience than in recent years. There wasn’t the firebrand of having someone like Kanye headline like in 2014, when it was the Second Coming Of Yeezus for some and a reason for others to proliferate the unfortunate “Fuck Kanye” Bonnaroo sometimes-slogan. There wasn’t the overwhelmingly universal star power of an Elton John or Bruce Springsteen in the Sunday slot. There was Dead & Co., and there was Pearl Jam — two bands that fit very well into the stereotypical Bonnaroo ethos. This year, there was a lot of rock and Americana, a lot of guitars, quite a bit of jamming. All around, it came across as a mellower affair. It wasn’t exactly a blowout anniversary party, but it was one fitting for Bonnaroo: friendly, easygoing, with a generally great lineup.
Kamasi Washington’s Outer Space Funk Jazz
Things were skewed towards Friday this year, which had a ludicrously strong lineup that couldn’t help but make the rest of the weekend feel a little meek in comparison. In the evening, fans packed and spilled out of This Tent for a sweaty, groove-driven set from Kamasi Washington, the saxophonist who, against most odds in the contemporary music landscape, has become a jazz musician that a lot of young people know and love. Like, this was one of the most crowded and enthusiastic tent sets of the weekend, with people dancing wildly to a new song called “Ibrahim.” In this setting, it was enough to make jazz feel like a young and vital and sweaty art form again. Washington’s an anomaly, but hopefully people like him can keep the genre from getting too academic. He mentioned having something like eight more albums ready for release, so we’ll likely see a lot more of him soon — an exciting prospect considering how joyous and addictive his live shows are.
CHVRCHES Are Stars Now
When CHVRCHES played Bonnaroo two years ago, they had a crowded tent set, and it was pretty good, but nothing overwhelming. My main memory from that show is a guy dressed like Gumby dancing in the field right outside the back of the tent. This year, on the strength of steady buzz and their sophomore album Every Open Eye from last year, CHVRCHES have ascended to the main stage in a similar time slot (mid-evening). And, damn, they were pretty impressive. I’ve been mostly ambivalent about them in the past, but there was no getting around how massive, how muscular they now felt in front of a sizable crowd in Bonnaroo’s main field. Lauren Mayberry always had a presence, but now she commands a presence; she went from being someone that felt like a person you knew and could relate to, to someone who could scale those feelings up to headliner-level, communicating them on a larger scale to a larger mass of people. She came across like a star, and all the throbbing-then-glistening music from CHVRCHES latest album backed her up.
(Mayberry is still affable and conversational, too. She was bemused by the festival trend of people carrying “random shit,” i.e. totems. She pointed out the “frog on a bicycle.” Judging from the past two weekends, seems like dat boi is going to be a thing at festivals all summer.)
Vince Staples Puts On A Proper Rap Show
If there was one realm where Bonnaroo felt a little lacking this time around, it was rap. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis headlining does not count, especially when you consider the sting of that downgrade relative to the fact that last year we had the option of seeing Kendrick and Run The Jewels back-to-back. In light of that, Vince Staples was a crucial and welcome presence, a visceral wake-up set right at the moment where you were like “Oh, man, I am seeing so many rock bands this weekend.” Staples is still touring behind Summertime ’06, but that was our #4 LP of 2015, so it’s still worth taking every chance possible to see Staples burn through those songs. So much of Bonnaroo 2016 was either a big party set (M83, Tame Impala) or felt like sitting in on a chill jam session (Steve Gunn, Jason Isbell). In hindsight, Staples’ ferocity was a much-needed breath of fresh air in the proceedings this year.
M83’s Celestial Dance Party
M83 probably should’ve had one of the late night, 1-3AM type sets. They played just as night was falling on Friday, and it immediately felt like the kind of party that should be taking place much later at night, not as a precursor to everything else but as the moment where the night’s peaking further down the line. Anthony Gonzalez played stuff from his new, perplexing album Junk, naturally, and some of it sounds great and goes over really well. (The initially-divisive “Do It, Try It,” in particular, already goes off like a M83 classic early in the set.) But if that album raised any questions about Gonzalez’s comfort with his level of success following 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, he doesn’t let that come across in the live set. The band tore through favorites from Hurry Up and Saturdays = Youth, and people were losing their shit. M83 emanated from a stage drenched in multi-colored lights, and each huge synth break or refrain in the likes of “Reunion” or “We Own The Sky” was greeted with totems bouncing in the air, people jettisoning handfuls of glowsticks, and a crowd that hardly stopped smoking weed or dancing long enough to take a breath.
LCD Soundsystem Take Over The World
A recurring thing you’ll hear about LCD is how their fame/reach/impact is overblown — that they only matter to New Yorkers, or city-dwellers, or indie nerds, or people who work in the media. There has to be some truth there; they are not the generation-defining band with a string of massive singles. But they are a generation-defining band, and the mantle seems much clearer now, during their triumphant reunion tour. This was my first time ever seeing the band outside of New York, or at a festival. And their power still translates. Sure, “Losing My Edge” and “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” aren’t the most universal singalongs for a festival field. But does that matter when you have “Someone Great,” “Yeah,” “Get Innocuous!,” “Home,” “Dance Yrself Clean,” and “All My Friends” in the same set alongside them? LCD might not be as big a name as Bonnaroo’s headliners in past years (beyond their reunion buzz and festival headlining tour this summer), but there was a palpable excitement: that a lot of people were here to see them this weekend, and that this would be the untouchable peak of Bonnaroo 2016. By the time the band got to closing with “All My Friends,” which never fails to totally overwhelm and unite a crowd, there was no doubt that there wouldn’t be a better moment at Bonnaroo this year.
Steve Gunn’s Hazy Road Music
Steve Gunn’s new album Eyes On The Lines is a logical extension of what his live show has been like for a while now — more rock-oriented, looser and jammier, full of meandering vocal melodies and guitar lines with the occasional sweltering burst of distorted soloing. Playing an early evening set at This Tent, Gunn was the perfect comedown music from the dizzying high point of LCD the preceding night, and the right kind of ambling rock set to set the stage for another night at Bonnaroo. Also, Eyes On The Line is a really great album for driving through Tennessee, and for road trips in general. By the time Gunn closed with a pseudo-noisy freakout at the end of “Way Out Weather,” it made total sense to be watching him in the humid, oppressively hot Tennessee evening.
HAIM’s Slick Professionalism
Last week at Governors Ball, I was struck by HAIM on that festival’s mainstage. They carried themselves like much bigger stars than they already are, and it was convincing. People loved it. Bringing the exact same show to the slightly smaller environment of Bonnaroo’s Which Stage, the show business-y elements of it all got more obvious, and a little cloying. They were like, “That was SO FUCKING COOL, Bonnaroo!” after like, every song. They talked about how much they loved Bonnaroo and how it was one of the first festivals they ever played (in 2013) and how they wanted to play this song because it reminded them of that time. (“This song” turned out to be their cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” and no, there doesn’t seem to be any logical connection in that statement.) Anyway, the new songs are really good so far, so I’m kind of hoping they catapult HAIM to a higher level of stardom, because as much as this stuff works on the big stage, it was a little weird and eyeroll-inducing to see it again in a less fitting setting so soon after being semi-converted by them.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Were There
Pearl Jam Play All The Hits
The Pearl Jam that’s existed for the last ten years or so is a much different Pearl Jam than their reputation would suggest from most of their career. At some point, these guys turned a corner, and became more comfortable in their own skin, and cracking a smile, and having fun onstage and playing sprawling shows that were as magnanimous emotionally as they were in terms of playing a range of music all the corners of their fanbase could appreciate. At any given Pearl Jam show, you’re going to hear some of the heavy-hitters: “Evenflow” is a given, “Alive” and “Daughter” almost every night, even “Jeremy” has been popping up a lot lately. Still, it’s rare to see them play a set akin to the one from Saturday night, in which they eschewed new material almost entirely (just two songs from 2013’s Lightning Bolt and otherwise nothing post-2002) and delivered a set mostly made up of material from Ten and Vs.. Which is to say: they played a set including virtually all of their most recognizable songs, which in turn means all the people who don’t give a damn about what Pearl Jam have been up to since the grunge days could still sing along if they wanted to. It’s not the kind of set some Pearl Jam fans would want, but it was a hell of a headlining set, with Pearl Jam leaving everything else on Saturday night feeling like an afterthought.
Jason Isbell Sets Fire To The Air
Sunday afternoon was the sort of disgustingly, impossibly hot day that makes you wonder if it’s still safe to be outside breathing this awful air, and whether you will ever feel like a normal person again. Given that Sunday’s lineup was easily the weakest and least interesting of the weekend, it was tempting to pack it in early, figuring, hey, I saw LCD and Pearl Jam, what’s the use in killing time in this inferno anymore? Jason Isbell is currently touring his last record Something More Than Free, another of our favorites from 2015, and he was one of the best selling points for Sunday. For much of his set, his oscillations between rock and country fit the scorching afternoon well. But the really transcendent moment was in closer “Children Of Children,” when Isbell ignited the end of the set with his incredible, beautiful slide solo. There was melancholy and victory mingling there, and it was a far more emotional moment than was needed at the tail end of a festival, but it was also one of the single most stunning two or three minutes I witnessed all weekend.
Father John Misty As Standup Comedian
We talked about Father John Misty’s performance at Governors Ball last weekend, so instead here’s a selection of random sardonic nonsense Josh Tillman said to the crowd yesterday:
[Referencing a glowing question mark sign that stands over the field in front of the Which Stage] “This giant question mark sign does not do much to contribute to the existential quandary of getting out in front of thousands of college kids on mushrooms…and talking about your feelings.”
“This next song is for everyone peaking right now,” before “Funtimes In Babylon,” the opener/mission statement from FJM’s first album, the Southern California drug odyssey Fear Fun.
[After audience members yelled “I love you!,” as it happens] “I love you, too. I know it’s a little early, still. It’s still just all about the sex. But we’ll get there. I’m a very selfish lover. Are you OK with that?”
[Referencing a balloon of a naked person thrown around in the crowd during “Bored In The U.S.A.”] “This balloon that’s being tossed from person to person could not be a more apt visual for this song. [pause] So while you might think it’s some subversive act, it’s in fact getting me very much…off.”
“Bonnaroo! How we doing tonight! How about this side!” [gesturing to other side of crowd] “Don’t let that side beat you now! Yeah, motherfucker!” [suddenly de-escalating to confused, aggrieved deadpan] “Who am I, what is happening…” [During “Now I’m Learning To Love The War”]
“Tame Impala used all the fucking available confetti last night, so you have them to thank for the fact that that song did not go anywhere.” [After the same song]
Death Cab For Cutie Make Chance The Rapper’s Day
At some point in the middle of Death Cab’s set on the mainstage, Ben Gibbard got an acoustic guitar and stepped up to the mic and said, “This song was a request. We weren’t going to play this song tonight, but when Chance The Rapper asks for a song, you play it.” Apparently Chance The Rapper likes Death Cab! The song in question was “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” by the way.
Bonnaroo booking Dead & Co. for a four hour block of time including two separate sets to close out the weekend is a perfectly fine and perfectly Bonnaroo way to end their 15th anniversary run. But, look, the Dead may be progenitors for a lot of the sprit that defines Bonnaroo, but they are not hitmakers in the sense of Billy Joel or Elton John or Bruce Springsteen. Those Sunday sets work best when it’s someone who’s just massive and can bring a huge crowd of sweaty and exhausted people together for one final push at the tail end of four destructive days. It’s sacrilege, I know, but some of us don’t really care about the Dead, or especially about seeing them play with John Mayer. So, instead there was D?WN, tucked away at the miniscule Who Stage space for what felt like a backyard-party-turned-club-night. Vibe-wise, you couldn’t get much further from what was happening over on the main stage — Dawn Richard’s synth dude and DJ flit from one song to the next, hardly ever pausing, as if it was a DJ set that never let the music stop. At one point they dropped “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2” and Richard and her dancers just danced, because why not, I suppose? It was like a secret party hidden away in a tiny corner of what remained of Bonnaroo 2016, a ruthlessly catchy series of beats and synths for those of us who didn’t want a laidback Dead set. Outside that context, though, Richard was a captivating performer all around. In years to come, I doubt she’ll be playing the alternative option at the Who Stage. She seems destined for much bigger things.