Of all the festivals I’ve traveled to the past few months, I felt least prepared for Bonnaroo. Flying in from LA I could only bring a small one-person tent and carry-on bag but I lucked into camping with people a bit more prepared.
We got into the line of cars to pull into the campgrounds at 4 am Thursday morning and didn’t park until close to 10:30 am. Despite that and no sleep, I rallied to see some awesome stuff the first night as well as a jam-packed Friday.
Kendrick Lamar only performed one song off his critically-acclaimed and culturally-significant album To Pimp a Butterfly at Sasquatch! a few weeks ago. At his main stage set Friday at Bonnaroo, Lamar packed in a few extras, including favorites “King Kunta” and “These Walls.” It wouldn’t be the last you’d see of the Bonnaroo veteran on Friday.
Legacy act Earth, Wind & Fire put together a greatest hits-type set that culminated in Kendrick and Chance the Rapper freestyling over their awesome jams. It was the most polarizing set in terms of demographic, with people of all ages jamming out to songs that have meant the world to people for half a century or so.
We were there when Ben Harper played with the Innocent Criminals for the first time in almost a decade this March, and his Bonnaroo set with them was one of Friday’s true highlights. His set spanned the duration of his time with the Innocent Criminals, largely regarded as Harper’s best work. Harper largely left his politically-fused tunes at home, performing crowd-favorites like “Steal My Kisses,” “Diamonds on the Inside,” and “Burn One Down” to go along with their more alt-rock material. I happened to be on the rail for this set and Harper saw my Pied Piper shirt from the HBO show Silicon Valley during his set and said something to me about it from the stage.
Two acts who have been hitting the festival circuit as hard as anyone are the electronically-themed Sylvan Esso and ODESZA. I’ve now seen both either four or five times this festival season and they proved again Friday that they have things handled. Sylvan Esso is unique in its folkness thanks to vocalist Amelia Meath’s songwriting and singing style. Her freeness in her dance moves also inspired the crowd to let loose, and a massive beach ball made an appearance before Meath talked the crowd into passing it on stage.
ODESZA’s 1am set came after a deadmau5 set that hyped people up, and a lot of people were obviously spending whatever they had left jamming out to the duo’s funky grooves. They’ve really honed in their set over the course of festival season and though it was less of a dance-athon than their daylight set at Hangout Fest, the visuals they brought helped those that were still tripping balls enjoy themselves.
Thursday’s highlight came in the form of a stretch that ran from Houndmouth to Tove Lo to Jungle in That Tent. Houndmouth had a large gathering, and their cover of classic song “Runaround Sue” was a great way to wrap up their set.
Tove Lo has made it her trademark to flash the crowd during her sets these days, and she delivered on that during “Talking Body.” That was the set’s high point, ironic given the popularity (and track title) of “Habits (Stay High).”
Jungle was in a logjam with Mac DeMarco and Gramatik to end Thursday night, and many who were up front at Tove Lo booked it out of That Tent and I was able to secure a railing spot for the funky vibes of Jungle.
Jungle has proven something: disco is BACK. Listening to their music it comes as a surprise to some it is fronted by two white guys, but Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland are the integral parts of their funky sound. Fellow vocalists Andro Cowperwaithe and Rudi Salmon were awesome additions during their live performance, particularly when Salmon soloed at the end of hit “Busy Earnin.” During set-closing “Time,” I was getting grinded on by three girls who thought there was someone coming after Jungle finished.
Ryn Weaver has been a favorite of Grimy Goods for a while and she was in full force Thursday at The Other Tent. An hour’s worth of her culminated in a sing along to “OctaHate” — after seeing this I have no doubt she’s on her way to mainstream pop success. At one point she mentioned how the year before she had been to Bonnaroo and tripped on acid not far from where she was singing.
Music ran all night Friday with most people ranting and raving about Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes at sunset on the main stage. Bonnaroo seems big on bringing people back and the Shakes were no different. They pulled in one of the largest crowds of the weekend so far and delivered a mesmerizing set.
LA rockers Dawes were also veterans, though singer Taylor Goldsmith made mention of it being their first stop on the main stage. Old favorites “Time Spent in Los Angeles” and “If I Wanted Someone” were mixed in with songs from their newest album.
British rockers Royal Blood helped kick things off Saturday as many people head banged to their set with much enthusiasm. People around me couldn’t believe the sounds that were emanating from just two men on stage and there was some early afternoon raging during “Figure it Out” among others.
Words: Mark E. Ortega
Photos courtesy of Bonnaroo