Bonnaroo 2015: The Highs and Lows

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Review By: Evan Yerega

Ah, Bonnaroo.  Ever since my mother blocked my attendance to the inaugural incarnation, citing common sense as the mother of a 16 year old (and a general distaste for all things pachuli), it’s been my mission to attend.  Since then, I’ve had some incredible experiences on the farm.  2015 marked lucky number five for me, and, as always, the number five did not let me down.  

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Armed with OCD  and an undiagnosed but palatable form of FOMO (fear of missing out), I was in rare form to see as many bands as humanly possible.  Needless to say, I did not disappoint.  Here’s a quick rundown of some highlights and not-so highlights.  Despite my status as a proud  ‘man of more than a few words’, I’ll try to be brief.

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Least Surprising Highs

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Despite bellyaching superfans clambering for another epic six hour late night set, Bonnaroo stalwarts My Morning Jacket absolutely rocked their two hour main stage slot.  The Waterfall is as good as anything they’ve put out, and hearing old tunes such as “Lay Low” and “Gideon” was pure ecstasy, even for those of us not partaking in any mind-altering substances.

florence

After Florence Welch broke her foot at Coachella, there was understandable concern over whether Florence + the Machine could shine without her usual galavanting.  I’m not sure what it was — a cortisone shot? a potion from her gypsy past? normal healing patterns? —  but she was spry as ever.  Whatever her methods, the band put on a powerhouse (albeit short) showcase that culminated in the ubiquitous hit “Dog Days are Over.”

After years of just missing Belle & Sebastian in town, they did not disappoint, with a patently whimsical set leaning slightly heavy on the new album.  An introduction by Zack Galifinakis and cameo by Jon Hamm (who threw gummy bears into Stuart Murdoch’s mouth) only helped matters.

Bonnaroo has come a long way from its humble jam-heavy roots, but Sunday’s bluegrass-only tent proved that the original spirit of the festival is (at least sort of) alive and well.  Honestly, after the wildness of the previous three days, just listening to these magicians at work (Hurray for the Riff Raff, Bela Fleck/Abigail Washburn, Punch Brothers, and the annual Ed Helms-led Bluegrass Superjam proved to be a cathartic, soul cleansing experience.

Robert Plant

What else?  After a laryngitis scare, Robert Plant was in top form, treating the crowd to a bevy of Led Zeppelin hits and blues standards, despite the notoriously spotty Which Stage sound;Spoon

(Arguably) the most consistent (live and on record) band of the past ten years, Spoon never disappoints;courtney barnett

You can go ahead and believe the hype on Courtney Barnett;

Flying Lotus

Despite a sheer curtain and mask never showing his face, Flying Lotus took everyone for a ride;ben harper

Ben Harper continues to do Ben Harper things, and the previously dormant Innocent Criminals didn’t miss a beat.

Most Surprising Highs

alabama shakes

Alabama Shakes really John Mayered us all, didn’t they?  I’ll be the first to admit that their debut album was, to be frank, derivative Black Keys-lite crap with a schtick (i.e. Brittany Howard’s pipes).  Was it all an elaborate ploy?  I’d tend to think so, as Sound and Color is some unexpected, funky, outer space shit that just feels…right.  On the main stage Friday night, Howard ate up the massive crowd and put on a stunning showcase of the new album.  And, low and behold, their breakout single ‘Hold On’ was nowhere to be found.

Look, I’ve always been a fan of Dawes’s music.  But ever since coming across a band-penned bio which declared themselves to be the second coming of the Lord in Laurel Canyon song form (I’m paraphrasing), they’ve been a walking punchline of self-seriousness. However…they absolutely killed their first main stage set.  And – get this – they were visibly gracious to be up there in front of the throngs.  There was a sense of gratitude in every note, and the crowd (myself included) hung to every word.  Having seen them play the tiniest cafe stage of the festival years ago, their set was a welcome reminder of what exactly makes Bonnaroo so special.

Elle King

What else? Elle King, looking like Little Red Riding Hood gone wrong, easily surpassed the career highs of her sort-of-famous-by-way-of-Adam-Sandler father (Rob Schneider)…Rhiannon Giddens has the voice of an angel (and some very understanding Carolina Chocolate Drops band members, who backed her up)…Brownout’s funky take on Black Sabbath was a thing of beauty, including the lead singer’s “fuck heatstroke I’m wearing a poncho in 95 degree weather” attitude…Unknown Mortal Orchestra, despite some technical difficulties, were able to completely talk the entire crowd out of polyamory with their unique meld of R&B and psych…King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard made a strong claim to be this year’s Tame Impala-style breakout.

Highly Questionable

billy joel 1

After last year’s fantastic festival closing set by “Don’t Call Me Mr.” Sir Elton John, hopes were high for Billy Joel (or Billy Grohl, the bastard father of Dave Grohl, as Ed Helms coined him earlier).  And boy, did he ever disappoint.  Cutting out 45 minutes before the end of his scheduled closing time?  Come on.

Kendrick Lamar

The crowd seemed to eat up Kendrick Lamar’s set, which relied HEAVILY on his first two records.  In fact, he didn’t even touch his newest masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly, until the last five songs or so.  Don’t get me wrong, these songs were good, but there was a stark contrast between the Kendrick of old vs. the Kendrick of new.  He’d best solve this identity crisis quickly and figure out how to integrate the new songs in with the old.  I mean, can you imagine a call and response or “which side of the audience is louder?” battle on any of the new tracks?  Yeah, me either.

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Photos from Bonnaroo Publicity

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Mike Gerry

Head music fiend at OpenEars Music

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