361 days out of the year the city of Manchester, TN is not unlike any other quiet country haven with plenty of open spaces and beautiful, rolling clouds to lose yourself in. Over the last fifteen years, however, Manchester has hosted a much larger, louder immersive experience in the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival which has been at the forefront of the emerging US festival culture since its inception.
Bonnaroo 2016 marked yet another stride forward as the festival continues to hit upon the perfect cross section of conservation and taking care of attendees. I have personally been attending Bonnaroo every year since 2009 and although the framework of the stages and tents remains largely intact geographically, plenty has grown and evolved since then.
That 2009 year was a scorcher without nearly the bevy of hydration and shade options that have been made available since with 2016's high temperatures flirting with triple digits Fahrenheit. The biggest roll out for 2016 would be reserved for the new permanent bathrooms inside Centeroo that, in context, were quite the sight to behold. This, among other changes, likely shifted the site of the infamous Silent Disco tent to the back of the Which Stage field which used to be a sprawling open field that hosted career making sets like this one. More on the Which Stage later.
Despite not actually being on the lineup, credit for show stealer of the year undeniably goes to Chance the Rapper who made four unscheduled appearances throughout the weekend, not including the surprise Coloring Book listening party at the aforementioned Silent Disco. Since first appearing at Bonnaroo in 2014, Chance has turned up in guest roles consistently since including last year's Superjam.
It would be shocking if Chance didn't land near the top of the bill in 2017, but even if he doesn't it will be fascinating to see how these vibrant partners in the artist and festival continue to work with each other. Clearly, Chance The Rapper has found something in Bonnaroo as a fan that plenty of other have. Oh, and if you were hoping that Death Cab For Cutie would play "Little Wanderer" during their Sunday set, you have Chance to blame for that omission. Here's hoping a Chance x Death Cab collaboration actually sees the light of day unlike the never released Jack White x Jay-Z material promised by H.O.V.A. during his 2010 headlining performance.
So with plenty of new, shiny toys and shifts to consider, Bonnaroo is, at the end of the day, one of the best, most unique music festivals in the country and there was a whole lotta shakin' goin' on down on The Farm this year. Let's dive in.
The first day of Bonnaroo has always been reserved for spotlighting rising talent and 2016 was no exception. Although pangs of LCD Soundsystem sound checking for their headline slot on Friday could be heard well into the campground, the first course of talent would make plenty of marks before anybody danced themselves clean.
In the midst of a busy Summer that will see her reissue early Waxahatchee recordings and tour with a reunited P.S. Eliot, Katie Crutchfield and co hit the This Tent on Thursday with a polished set that included my personal favorite cut, "Coast to Coast." The This Tent would continue on in a similar, excellent style with blistering performances from the Nashville-born Bully and the wild psych-punks Twin Peaks.
Over on the other side of the festival/spectrum, Hundred Waters blended a healthy mix of their experimental tendencies and their more recent, poppier leanings to, on their own merit, win over plenty who may have been looking for a Chance drop in that was not to be. While GoldLink certainly held it down over at the Other Tent later on, it was Lizzo who took home the MVP award for Thursday. Biting at times and silky smooth at others, Lizzo's flow and swagger were on full display during her prime time That Tent show which had plenty of fest-goers bouncing until the stroke of Friday.
The second day of Bonnaroo opened up the full festival grounds to include the two main stages, the What and Which. The five stage and tent sprawl that comprised the bulk of the homes for the bigger acts did not include the smaller Who Stage which saw a trio of consecutive sets from the cathartic Mothers, to the rowdy Public Access T.V. (who gave a big tongue in cheek shout out to the circling plane pulling a Trojan Condoms ad) and the wonderfully breezy, country-tinged sounds of Whitney.
Over on the other stages, Daughter held a mid-afternoon audience enrapt with the same emotional weight and a more powerful overall live sound than when I last caught them at CMJ back in 2012. They would be immediately followed by the West Coast punk rockers FIDLAR who ratcheted up the level of moshing and crowd surfing exponentially.
The happy hour timeslot offered plenty for all highlighted by the tailor-made-for-festivals eclectic stylings of Kamasi Washington and the ever evolving Shamir who continues to improve in the live arena as the stages get larger and larger.
Although I had high hopes for CHVRCHES and their What Stage slot, previous experiences with the band on their first tour and last Bonnaroo appearance left me a bit wary. Well, the electro-pop trio smashed any preconceived notions I may have had from the outset as they have significantly upped their game since dropping their second LP, Every Open Eye, last Fall. With each new synth twinkle and bass pop, you could feel the swell of confidence Chvrches were riding as singer Lauren Mayberry now stalks the stage with a newfound ferocity. The band is certainly establishing themselves as main stage mainstays in 2016, with a drop in from Paramore's Hayley Williams on "Bury It" keeping the excitement needle exactly where it was rather than putting it over the top because CHVRCHES were already there.
The highlights of the night, pre-headliner-wise, turned more towards the hip hop side as Vince Staples brought most of Summertime '06 to life directly before Tyler, the Creator raged through a set of new and old classics despite only being 25 years old.
Then it was time for LCD Soundsystem who moved from having Wayne Coyne tackle a stage crasher during their set at the This Tent in 2010 to the wide open expanse of the main What Stage in 2016. Devoid of any new material, the reformed NYC party starters ran through a collection of their greatest hits with a sense of urgency that can only be born out of the anxiety of never knowing if you'd hit that same high in performance ever again after the band called it quits. The material off of the group's third and most recent LP, This Is Happening, moved in new and exciting ways leaving much beyond the stone cold classics like "All My Friends," "Someone Great" and "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" to sound only the slightest bit dated.
If you've never been to Bonnaroo, the night time fun is really only getting started as the headliner takes the stage. Friday brought the first slate of late night acts to the fore for the weekend with Aussie psych-rock champions Tame Impala hitting the Which Stage right at 1am. As the band continues its path towards musical world domination following the release of their third LP, Currents, last year much of their setlist was comprised of cuts from that album and breakout hits like "Elephant" and "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards."
There did seem to be some confusion, however, as Tame Impala had been billed for a two-hour time slot and ended up playing only about eighty minutes or the length of a regular tour stop. Sensing that people were conserving their energy for a longer set or surprise guests, Kevin Parker started hinting at the crowd that they should probably start grooving if they had planned on it as the Rihanna-covered "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" closed the set. All in all, another great and perfectly acceptable Tame Impala festival performance, just maybe not what people were expecting.
In all the years I have been attending Bonnaroo, fest organizers have not had to evacuate people from the grounds for any reason. That all changed on Bonnaroo Saturday 2016 as the rolling clouds that offered a much-needed respite from the Tennessee sun around dusk churned into much more ominous storm systems.
But before all that, the day portion of Saturday's lineup featured plenty of stellar sets from an eclectic selection of talent. The one-two punch of songwriter Natalie Prass and trip-hoppers The Internet steadily raised the stakes from a relaxing mid-afternoon blanket spreader to a good vibe heavy dance party. Indie-rockers Beach Fossils would take it from there as their warm, dreamy constructions were swept up into the occasional breezes.
Returning from a relatively long dormancy by their standards, Two Door Cinema Club triumphantly returned to Bonnaroo for the first time since 2012 with a set heavy on bangers from Tourist History. The band had news business to attend as well as frontman Alex Trimble announced that a new album will be released later this year before diving into "Are We Ready (Wreck)."
Over on the What Stage, experienced Bonnaroo-ers Band of Horses celebrated the release of their latest LP, Why Are You Ok?, with the new material sounding as dramatic and fully realized as staples like "The Funeral" and "No One's Gonna Love You." In another great back to back, buzz sensations Oh Wonder certainly impressed despite only making their live debut back in the Fall of last year while sister act Haim rocked through their surprising-when-you-actually-think-about-it number of hits with an intimidating level of efficiency.
Just as things were really starting to heat up as the Sun went down, a bolt of lightning cut across the sky. Unfortunately, the strike was not an isolated incident nor a viral marketing campaign for Pearl Jam's last album, Lighting Bolt. Following a storm where eighty people were affected by lightning at Rock am Ring earlier this year, fest organizers seem to be taking very little chances with the weather this year with Governors Ball canceling their Sunday portion only a week prior. Thus, the call came over the speakers that everyone was to go to their cars and wait it out. Kudos are certainly in order for the people at the Bonnaroo controls who made that call with luck seeming to be on everyone's side as sets continued pushed back later into that night.
The aforementioned Pearl Jam were up to the task of ratcheting up the energy level for one last push on Saturday, as they expertly ran through legendary alt-rock anthems and singalongs. Eddie Vedder was front and center, as he is wont to be, the whole time as he welcomed his Daughter up to the stage and had the crowd sing Happy Birthday to her and waxed on some political issues. Unbeknownst to likely everyone in the What Stage field, as Vedder railed against discriminatory bathroom laws, the deadliest mass shooting in US history was taking place a little over six hundred miles south in Orlando, FL. It was certainly an interesting thing to ponder as the news came down to everyone shaking off the cobwebs Sunday morning.
With the details of the aforementioned shooting beginning to come to light throughout the day Sunday, the strong senses of peace and love further permeated the air in the campgrounds. Bob Weir of Dead & Company would later end the band's festival-closing, two set masterpiece with remarks on the subject.
With the real world looming at the end of Bonnaroo Sunday 2016, fest goers were treated to a host of excellent performances from a number of prominent rock bands and artists well equipped to instill some classic American romanticism, ironic or otherwise, into the final moments. A triple dip of Kurt Vile & The Violators, Father John Misty and the Chance the Rapper homies Death Cab For Cutie brought a warm calm to an otherwise incredibly stressful day for the nation outside, with Josh Tillman providing plenty of trademark quips to leave the uninitiated just a bit unsettled.
The major outlier playing on a smaller stage was the dark-psych trio Sunflower Bean who have certainly elevated their game since getting out of NYC consistently on tour.
With the reunited Ween closing down the Which Stage in great form, it was time for Dead and Company to end Bonnaroo's fifteenth anniversary in the most Bonnaroo way possible. As Bob Weir, John Mayer (who was stellar) and the rest of the Dead took a bow, the book closed on another great, albeit certainly different Bonnaroo in 2016. Here's to another fifteen years and beyond of great art, innovation and community down on The Farm.