Bonnaroo 2015 Recap

The Farm doesn’t let you down. Everyone ventures to Manchester for different reasons: a surreal rat race escape, an inspiring community experience, a neon freakout, an adrenaline-fueled brodown. When the (pixie) dust settled after Bonnaroo 2015, what was left behind was a kaleidoscope of individual experiences that combined into a wild and whimsical whole. One thing, though, connects all things at Bonnaroo: incredible music (honourable mention: scorching heat and ghastly porta-potties).

Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of highlights:

THURSDAY

Houndmouth
The classic pink neon sign glowing over the performance gave the stage a divebar feel, which was just about right. Houndmouth’s roots lie in country-informed Americana, but on this night their sound it was pure booze-soaked throwback rock, complete with a setlist laden with songs about scraping by, being strung out, and running from the law. The guitars ripped, the vocalists howled, and the rowdy southern crowd gobbled it up. The only thing missing was a sawdust floor littered in peanut shells.

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Mac Demarco
Ever the rabble-rouser, the quirky and unpredictable nature of Demarco et al’s stage presence made the atmosphere for this set nothing short of a party, complete with an attempt at “the world record for most people on other people’s shoulders”. Marking the occasion, Demarco consistently pushed the tempo, with a headbanging extended version of “Ode To Viceroy” noticeably faster than usual, and “The Stars Keep On Calling My Name” and “Let Her Go” nearing double time. Although equipment malfunctions made the musicianship less than advertised—guitar tunings, broken strings, and mic feedback gave Demarco fits all night—if there was a title belt for zaniest inter-song banter these guys would be champs.
Odds and ends:
The BonnaRoots Dinner in Planet Roo is a highly recommended way to kick off your Bonnaroo experience (Thursday night’s edition even featured a makeshift wedding ceremony)…Raury’s set seemed to elicit a polarized reaction—those up close lauded his charismatic performance and impressive backing band, while the others couldn’t get past delays, sound issues, and a way-too-small venue (the awkward and outmatched Who Stage)…Tove Lo may have garnered the biggest reaction of the day when she flashed the crowd mid-song…Benjamin Booker’s voice usually sounds harsh and raspy, but when he let loose during his 11pm set his shredded vocal chords came right off their moorings into a blown out banshee wail…If Courtney Barnett’s music was meant to be singer-songwriter stuff, nobody told her—her set was thrashy powerchord bangers top to bottom.

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FRIDAY

Sylvan Esso
In a two-piece where one member stoops over a drum machine and/or synthesizer the entire time, it takes some magic from a vocalist to turn a show into a celebration. Luckily, singer Amelia Meath is a gamer. Decked out in perilously tall sequined platforms and a madcap eyeball-covered dress, her wild dancing and jubilant delivery turned the tent into a sock hop, complete with the biggest beach ball you’ve ever seen.

Alabama Shakes
This set was spiritual. As the sun sank below the horizon and the organs shimmered, Brittney Howard’s unparalleled vocal fire had conviction, turning her swaying background singers into a choir and the outstretched hands of festivalgoers (at least 50,000 strong) into a congregation. Even without “Hold On”, it was nothing short of moving.

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Kendrick Lamar
Although To Pimp A Butterfly is a landmark album for Lamar, he generally chose to leave its more complex, racially charged, politically conscious tracks on the shelf for his Bonnaroo set, choosing instead to electrify the crowd with hyped up versions of good Kid M.A.A.D City cuts. His aim was to give the people what they want, and they wanted a party. “Last time we were here we gave an 8. This time we’re going for a 10” said Lamar at one point, later recanting “fuck 10, we’re going for 20” before launching into an extended version of “m.A.A.d. city”, which he played in its entirety twice in a row.

Motion Potion
Since the beginning, Bonnaroo has been one of the pioneer venues for the silent disco concept, and the Bay Area’s Motion Potion is widely considered to be the country’s pre-eminent silent disco DJ. In a confluence of these factors, he actually holds the title for longest running Bonnaroo artist. His breakbeat remixes of Radiohead and the White Stripes may have been confined to headphones, but the enthusiastic hoots and hollers from the dancefloor could be heard across the grounds.

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Odds and Ends
Just when This Tent seemed like it couldn’t get any more frenzied, Odesza concluded their set by trotting out a live brass section for “Say My Name” and the show turned into an all-out riot…Earth Wind and Fire (with bell bottoms and keytars in tow) scored the surprise guest appearance of the festival when Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper joined them onstage for a freestyle session…Ben Folds & Ymusic appeared complete with a strings, brass, and woodwind section that began the set with a 10-minute classical composition…Is there anyone besides Ben Harper that can bring people to their feet by whipping out a lap steel?…Flying Lotus won the night owl award by returning for three encores as he closed out The Other Tent…a late night groove jazz set was a bit of a Bonnaroo curveball, but Medeski, Martin & Wood brought what may have been the most technically proficient musicianship of the festival.

SATURDAY

War on Drugs
They’re relative newcomers, but War on Drugs have a classic feel. Though not exactly a jam band, their set felt vaguely like a southern throwback, and the crowd steadily grew throughout their set until it stretched far along Bonnaroo’s lawns. Playing live, the band sounds scruffier, toothier than in the studio; the guitars’ driving textures were lush and lead vocalist Adam Granduciel’s vocal tones had just enough reedy rasp to hang a lyrical haze over each song. Key song: “Under The Pressure”.

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Gary Clark Jr.
Clark’s set came in with a whimper and ended with a bang. He strode slowly onto the stage alone to strum through the newly penned “Church”, pensively singing “I need your helping hand” with furrowed brows. An hour later, he was blowing the roof off the What Stage with a full band, marching up and down his Fender in festival-best solos. Blues has a new torchbearer, and the flame is burning bright.

Mumford and Sons
Let’s get the frivolities off the table to begin with: 1) some people adore this band and some people detest them, and 2) they played some of their older acoustic stuff and some of their newer electric stuff. With these blinders out of the way, something was eminently apparent during their Saturday night What Stage closeout: Mumford and Sons is comprised of three sort-of dorks and one total badass—for two hours, Marcus Mumford led with all the snarl and sweat of a purebred rockstar. Nowhere was this more apparent than during an impassioned rendition of “Dust Bowl Dance”: he led the song from the drums, smashing them like his life depended on it while the smoke from the cigarette hanging from his mouth trailed above his head. He tore through a trashcan ending before kicking over the snare and high hat, stumbling to the front of the stage, and leading the crowd in a final accapella refrain. If you were watching this song on mute, you’d think he was some kind of jacked up Taylor Hawkins acolyte, and the word “folk” wouldn’t cross your mind. Mumford and Sons’ finale also stood as the festival’s most heartwarming moment: a singalong of Joe Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” complete with Hozier, Ed Helms(!), and members of Dawes, My Morning Jacket, and The War on Drugs joining them on stage.

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Odds and Ends
Not only did Jim James perform pure wizardry upon the crowd as My Morning Jacket cemented themselves as festival legends with their inspired What Stage set, he looked the part, too…Childish Gambino brought the noise for his colourful and explosive evening set that arguably pulled in the biggest non-What Stage crowd of the weekend… Best things eaten from Bonnaroo food vendors: 1) BLT, with bacon courtesy of Hamaggedon 2) deep fried gator tail sandwich (really) 3) fresh amish doughnuts.

SUNDAY

Pokey Lafarge
Watching Pokey Lafarge perform on the Which Stage was like observing an impossible social experiment. Imagine going back in time to some kind of vaudeville tavern, ordering a mint julep, and seeing a ragtime band in saddle shoes perform songs about riverboats, kudzu, and escaping the St. Louis summertime heat. Now imagine plucking them up and dropping them onto a 2015 Bonnaroo stage. The audience, mystified at first, gradually grew closer to the stage, enchanted by the distinctively unironic delivery. The music—complete with a clarinet, trumpet, harmonica, and occasionally kazoo—is old-timey, but the energy is real. When Lafarge tips his hat, he means it. Now you’re on the trolley.

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Florence + The Machine
If you flinched when Florence + The Machine were announced as replacements for the Foo Fighters as Glastonbury headliners, you shouldn’t have; as she showed at Bonnaroo, Florence Welch can engage a festival crowd like few others. She made sure everyone was drinking enough water. She made sure anyone who wanted a hug from her got one. She floated. She whirled. She purred. She wailed. She sprinted across the stage barefoot (I guess that foot is okay). She bounded across the photographer pit and VIP boundaries to leap into the crowd, several times. Succinctly, she rocked. Her boundless energy and earnestness made her backing band of eleven somehow seem not enough to support her. Florence is a machine.

Odds and Ends

The biggest queue of the festival was for Reggie Watts’ comedy tent session, the line snaking halfway across the grounds… If Spoon isn’t in your personal list of best pop-rock bands going, what more will it take?…Caribou won the dubious award for most unfortunate timeslot with his late afternoon Sunday gig, a shame as a late night Friday set would have brought the house down…Shakey Graves brought an impressively raucous crowd through the midday sun to watch him switch back and forth between earnest one-man-band folk and ragged full band alt-rock.
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With such an incredible list of things to look forward to at Bonnaroo, it’s impossible to take it all in, and there’s even more that’s not on any program: the Kalliope stage had no publicly available schedule, and the mysteries of the Grove were left essentially unannounced—and that’s to say nothing of Bonnaroo’s famed surprise Superjams.

Looking across the slowly vanishing campsites on Monday morning, you might not guess that so many wobbly, bleary-eyed, sunburned people were so sad to leave. Ask any one of them, though, and he or she will glad tell you—everyone finds what they’re looking for on The Farm. Roo on, you guys.


WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: Brett Fillmore

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