[REVIEW + PHOTOS] Bonnaroo 2017 | Thursday & Friday

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Ahead of its 16th year- an impressive feat for any music festival, but doubly so for one of its size- Bonnaroo was at something of a crossroads. With new ownership, an annual influx of increased competition, and amidst an ever-more fragmented music market, the behemoth, permanently nestled in nearby Manchester, Tenn., returned after a fraught year with record low attendance, under more pressure and scrutiny to prove that 2016 was simply a hiccup, and that the fest’s future would still be bright. Fortunately, both in the general atmosphere of Bonnaroo 2017, and confirmed by hard data announced immediately after, the fest was able to restore its crowd to typical levels, and this year, with a mix of top name and unique headline talent and in maintaining a commitment to diverse entertainment, it felt largely like the fest we’ve long attended and loved, with even a few new improvements and tweaks. As always, we sent our crew to the farm, to bring individual takes and a ton of photos documenting the best of what we saw; check out our review of Bonnaroo 2017 below!

THURSDAY

Welles_Bonnaroo17-Insert Welles. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Welles

“Is this your first Bonnaroo?,” my camp neighbor asked as I pitched my tent, arriving early Thursday afternoon and met by wonderful weather for another year on the farm- at this point something so consistent and seamless, settling in at ‘Roo feels like second nature. “I’ve been coming for… 12 years?!,” I responded, the shock of the rapid speed of passing time suddenly sinking in hard (it didn’t help that the kid camping next to me would have been an infant when I first attended as a teen). Even for No Country, this summer marked a half decade of covering in a press capacity- all a long way of saying, I’ve seen a ‘Roo or two, and like any large-scale event, I realize there will be some ebb and flow, and not every year will be 100% tailored to me, though, thanks to its sheer magnitude, I always know I’ll find plenty to love, especially after spending the proceeding months getting familiar with the whole lineup.

Thursday didn’t feel as jam-packed to me this time, but that allowed me to spend a little longer with each act and pace myself while I settled in, and I couldn’t have asked for a better first band than Nashville’s own buzzy up and comer Welles. My first time seeing him/them (it’s a band, technically, but situated around a singular musical force), I was blown away by the group’s polish, and seamless ability to mesh a sort of retro, psychedelic rock with more contemporary alternative. They don’t have much official music out yet, but with a set like that, I’m eager to see how fast Welles rise the ranks of the local rock scene- they’re the real deal. [PO]

Eager to get my seventh (and fourth consecutive) Bonnaroo officially underway, I told my Canadian camp neighbors I’d catch them later. After chugging a few more beers on the walk to Centeroo, I was feeling a little drunk. My buzz was mixing with the unique, but familiar euphoria of being back on The Farm, and a crowbar couldn’t pry the smile off my face. First on my list was Welles, upon a friend’s recommendation. I knew nothing about the power trio, and seconds into their first song it wasn’t hard to tell what they’d be all about. Howling vocals, over grunge riffs, drive by sludgy bass, and powerful drumming, that harkens back to the best ’90s alt rock. However, judging by the live show, Welles’ work isn’t just a regurgitated reinterpretation of Kurt Cobain. It has a dark, smarter, more focused, purposeful approach, with that cynical modern edge kids love. For my first show of the festival, I have to say I was very impressed, and have found myself saving the date for their next Nashville outing. [JR]

HippoCampis-Bonnaroo17-Insert Hippo Campus. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Hippo Campus

Though they only recently passed though Nashville, I missed out on Hippo Campus last time around; a great advantage of festivals, being able to play catchup with dozens of bands on the rise. Still a pretty new act, I was impressed by the indie rockers’ honed sound, and their energy was even more lively and wild than their cool, poppy recent debut record would suggest. Blasting through familiar tunes like “Way It Goes” and “Western Kids,” I found myself sticking around for most of the band’s engaging set, before breaking for food and wondering to the Which Stage to scope out the Stanley Cup playoff game being projected on the big screen. [PO]

JulyTalk-Bonnaroo17-Insert July Talk. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

July Talk

Hundreds of loyal Preds fans filled the field in a sea of gold, where Bonnaroo graciously projected the NHL Playoffs on the big stage (conveniently unused for Thursdays), and though I popped back and forth, the increasingly disappointing game become more of a buzzkill than a cool festival extra. Directly adjacent, Canadian alt rockers July Talk commanded a respectable crowd of their own at This Tent. The band’s animated, almost punk presence and the incredible chemistry of vocalists Peter Dreimaniss and Leah Fay makes them an incredible live force, and one perfectly suited for festivals, and their Bonnaroo set was the most impressive I’ve seen them yet. Songs like set opener “Picturing Love,” and singles “Push + Pull” and “Guns + Ammunition” really soared live, and from the crowd response, seemed to indicate that this band are on the cusp of even broader success- definitely a first night highlight. [PO]

TheOrwells-Bonnaroo17-Insert The Orwells. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

The Orwells

Easily one of my top “to see” acts of Bonnaroo 2017, The Orwells were a white whale I’d been dying to slay since I missed their standout performance at the smaller On Tap Lounge during Bonnaroo 2014. During that set fans were so rowdy, they climbed the scaffolding and light rigs, nearly tearing the stage down in the process. The Chicago based garage-rock punks have only grown in popularity since then, so it was only natural that they would get bumped up to That Tent. Professional wildman and lead vocalist Mario Cuomo came out in the highest cut-off, white over-alls I have ever seen. So high in fact, it seemed as if his manhood  might dangle out from the improvised short shorts at any minute. Their set was incredible. Implausible levels of energy by all five members, who were completely drenched in sweat by the second song. An onslaught of pure punk rock energy; dirty ass rock ‘n’ roll! They played most of their impressive new record, Terrible Human Beings, plus some older songs that I’d been jamming to for a few years now. The crowd was moshing through out, and countless beers/waters got sloshed over the heads of fans in the first twenty rows. By the end of their set, Cuomo had stage dived onto the crowd, his tall frame spread out over the outstretched hands, and then just disappeared into the masses. While that was going on, one of the guitarists proceeded to climb the two-story scaffolding with the guitar he’d just smashed into two pieces. Once he got to the top, in an effort to mark his territory, he proceed to wrap the shattered neck (with strings still attached) around one of the iron beams, and left the wreckage dangling there while he climbed down and exited stage right. Fucking epic!  [JR]

Fucking epic is definitely the only way to describe an Orwells show. Though it didn’t quite reach the weirdness of last summer’s Shaky Knees outing, the chaos of their ill-scheduled Bonnaroo ’14 stage, or the wild intimacy of their smaller early tours, The Orwells, now a few years removed from their high school beginnings, have managed to find a nice balance between their snot-nose skater punk unpredictability, and the consistency and honed performance chops of a big, buzzworthy punk band. They certainly got the job done, packing more intensity and punk spirit in than any other performer I watched on Thursday. [PO]

InnanetJames-Bonnaroo17-Insert Innanet James. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Innanet James

Crunched in the middle of perhaps the day’s worst scheduling conflict, I made the call to prioritize up and coming rapper Innanet James, after immediately finding myself hooked on his music ahead of the fest, and so I could scope out Bonnaroo’s new stage and perhaps most significant change in years- The Other. Formerly a tent like This and That, The Other shed its shell and was seemingly built from scratch, resembling a smaller version of the What and Which, but clearly more setup to cater to the hip hop and EDM that it played host to all weekend, with DJ stands, huge lightning rigs, and a nearby oasis for the party crowd to hang out in. The LEDs glowed bright as the dark of night settled in, and Innanet James, whose debut Quebec Place is one of last year’s most underrated hip hop gems, emerged with an intensity and confidence, delivering his jams to a mix of fans and newcomers. Announcing it was his first fest, James seemed overjoyed and humbled at the enthusiastic response, and though I only had time to see a few songs, I can’t wait to revisit this promising rapper the next time he tours. [PO]

CharlotteCardin-Bonnaroo17-Insert Charlotte Cardin. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Charlotte Cardin

On the way to The Lemon Twigs, I found myself with just enough time to watch a bit of Charlotte Cardin. The young, Canadian jazz-influenced pop singer got her start on reality TV, but has spent several years away from the spotlight cultivating a more personal, mature sound. The result is spectacular, and despite being slotted on a small stage during a pretty packed block of music, she attracted some enthusiastic fans, and had everyone hypnotized with her powerful, sultry voice and edgy, personal, and electro-laced songs. I was hooked, but the lure of the next block of music soon pulled me away; damn you, scheduling gods, and I hope to see you again soon, Charlotte Cardin. [PO]

TheLemonTwigs-Bonnaroo17-Insert The Lemon Twigs. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

The Lemon Twigs

Not just my most-anticipated Thursday act, but one of my highest priorities of the whole weekend, teen retro rock duo The Lemon Twigs are fascinating and impressive beyond their years. I missed them in Nashville last year, but after hearing how great they were, I knew I had to see them my next possible chance. Anchored by brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, and rounded out by a remarkable live band, the Twigs transcend what could be a gimmicky callback to golden era psych rock and baroque pop to harbor a genuine, timeless, genre-bending affinity for music no one’s making quite like this and certainly not with the same level of sincerity these days, everything from their look to their performance style feeling a bit out of place and time. Initially, something seemed a little off, but I soon realized that the band were just totally playing live, their harmonies, tempos and tones a bit more in the moment and real than set to tracks or crafted to be album perfect- this can sometimes leave something to be desired in a world where we’re so conditioned to some much artificiality on stage, but The Lemon Twigs still managed to sound stellar, if not a bit more raw and less shimmering than their recordings.

With rock and roll moves (stick twirling, guitar tossing), some great banter, and an obvious brotherly and band-wide chemistry, the group had a great presence too, and though they seemed young (they are), they still brought an air of honed, practiced chops and clear confidence. Songs like “I Wanna Prove to You” and “These Words” absolutely soared, and though I went in a fan already, it wasn’t hair to tell what high-profile Lemon Twigs supporters like Elton John, Boy George, and Gerard Way see in them. Needless to say, The Lemon Twigs have a long and prosperous career ahead of them, if they want it, and a much bigger Bonnaroo spot in their future seems like almost an inevitability. [PO]

TenFe-Bonnaroo17-Insert Ten Fé. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Ten Fé

With a few minutes to kill, our photographer and I popped into the New Music On Tap Lounge to grab some shots and watch a few minutes of England’s Ten Fé, checking off our final box of stage samplings for the day. Beyond the buzz they’ve been racking up and some of their bigger singles like “Elodie” I’d been spinning ahead of ‘Roo, I wasn’t super familiar with the band going on, but I was impressed by how big and anthemic their alt/indie tunes sounded on such a small stage, playing for a crowd so packed I could barely see. Definitely a band I hope to revisit. [PO]

EDEN-Bonnaroo17-Insert EDEN. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

EDEN

Thursday doesn’t exactly have headliners, per se, as Bonnaroo’s two biggest stages don’t kick into action until Friday, but with high billing and a prime slot, Irish pop singer EDEN seemed to more or less fill that role. Admittedly, I didn’t really know him ahead of the fest, but clearly the young artist has quite an impressive following, making the switch from more EDM-leaning early work to indie pop with his more recent work. Alone on stage, EDEN played guitar, keyboard, and employed samples, singing with creative vocal effects to achieve a sort of weird mix of earnest, almost emo pop stylings that seemed primed for a band, and that of a more conventional, teen pop lone-singer. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was impressed; the kid is clearly talented, and seems to have organically evolved in style rather than chased the next popular thing. Tunes like “sex” and “drugs” prompted big singalongs and a endless streams of Snapchat-able moments, and his cover of Billie Jean, a bold choice for a singer who employs a lot of vocal augmentation, was fun and different enough to work. [PO]

Kevin Abstract

After a much needed break for food, caffeine, and alcohol, I rallied and fought off fatigue to venture back into Centeroo for Kevin Abstract. Though not quite a household name, I think Abstract has the potential to be the next Frank Ocean, and with his ability to blend hip hop, r&b, rock, and indie pop, coupled with his personal, raw, earnest exploration of sexuality, race, and various other big topics, as well as his unbelievable eye for visuals and video direction, he’s an artist in a class of his own. His performance was every bit the epic, immersive spectacle I’d hoped for; like his music, a vulnerable, confessional, and personal experience, which Kevin used to address his complicated life in a very earnest way. A bit more minimalist than I expected from an artist so skilled in many mediums, the performance worked great as as dreamy, engaging late night set, and felt like a perfect end to the day- perhaps even my favorite show of all. [PO]

Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

FRIDAY

TwinLimb-Bonnaroo17-Insert Twin Limb. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Twin Limb

After a good night’s sleep and, shockingly, pretty pleasant weather (perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in many years of Bonnaroo), I woke up feeling great, and made sure to hydrate and caffeinate, before spending some time working at the press tent. Bummed at the cancellation of live podcast U Talkin’ U2 To Me, I was nonetheless happy to begin my Friday with Twin Limb, a Louisville based, My Morning Jacket associared group who are regulars in Nashville, and who’ve been very exciting to watch come into their own. Incorporating accordion and electronics into their atmospheric, indie pop sound, Twin Limb’s unique style is a delight to witness in person, and they managed to draw an admirable crowd to what felt like a perfect, pleasant start to day two. [PO]

Klangstof-Bonnaroo17-Insert Klangstof. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Klangstof

Dutch by way of Norway, indie rockers Klangstof are a very new act, but one clearly resonating quickly, earning a spot on the main stage for their ‘Roo debut. I really found myself hooked on their atmospheric, electro-laced recordings, and was thrilled to find that it translated perfectly in person, thanks espsescialyl to frontman Koen van de Wardt. Though early in the day, they did their best to recreate the dreamy, nighttime atmosphere where their music would be best suited, complete with a huge, glowing moon as their backdrop. [PO]

LEON-Bonnaroo17-Insert LÉON. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

LÉON

Keeping the day international, I wandered from the Which stage to the What, to see some of Swedish singer LÉON break in Bonnaroo’s biggest stage for the year. An artist I was really only familiar with from blogs and playlists, I remembered being enamored with her powerful, soulful voice, peppering in soul and classic rock with contemporary indie pop influences. With the backing of a full band, LÉON was an absolute powerhouse force, and reminded me of modern greats like Amy Winehouse- dazzling in the midday. [PO]

SpringtimeCarnivore-Bonnaroo17-Insert Springtime Carnivore. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Springtime Carnivore

Concurrent to LÉON, Springtime Carnivore played the On Tap Lounge, and I made a point to rush over to see some of her set as well. I’d seen Greta Morgan before as part of The Hugh Sound, but never with her dreamy, lush solo vehicle, something that’s been a primary focus for the past several years. Morgan performed with the polish of someone who’s clearly been doing this for over a decade, combining indie pop and folk to channel a sound and live style a bit reminiscent of Jenny Lewis. The downside of trying to cram a lot into Bonnaroo is not being able to fit as many full sets, and though I loved the bit of Greta I watched, I felt like getting the full experience would have been even more resonant and whole. [PO]

KevinMorby-Bonnaroo17-Insert Kevin Morby. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Kevin Morby

Per my usual the last few years, I haven’t arrived at Roo until around lunch time on Friday, and, after setting up our camp, we ventured into the familiar confines of Centeroo for a cold beer, delicious arepa, and to start our musical journey of Bonnaroo 2017.  The first stop was a visit to see Kevin Morby.  I’ve been following the career of Morby since his days as part of folky favorite Woods in the ’00s, and have been interested in his solo efforts since he broke out on his own in 2013, yet I have never seen him live.  So, catching the end of his Bonnaroo debut was the perfect start to my Roo experience.  His set of retro mellow rock vibes was perfect for the midday heat, and his sweet white coat showcasing his red and white Jaguar was a visual spectacle to be sure.  Catching only the last three songs wasn’t enough to satisfy my appetite for Morby, but it made me eager for the next time he returns to Nashville. [MH]

Apparently I hadn’t listed to enough Kevin Morby in advance of Bonnaroo, as I imagined him to be a more somber, Lou Reed-esque artist. A bit more lively and eclectic, I nonetheless loved the performer I was greeted with, and his bi-coastal existence and involvement in prior projects like Woods made for an interesting mix of sensibilities, both sonically and in his demeanor. [PO]

The Strumbellas

After waking up early to take a few laps down Shakedown Street, I came back to my camp to relax with the neighbors from up North over some beers and a smoke. I showed them my new wares, including a choice Grateful Dead tie dye I hadn’t seen anywhere else before. Huge fans of their countrymen The Strumbellas, my neighbors talked me into going with them to Which Stage to check out the indie alt-folk outfit’s set. Another band that I was not familiar with, I was imagining a Canadian version of The Head and The Heart, based on my new friends’ description. The six member collective certainly had elements of folk in their music (acoustic guitar, fiddle), but there was a lot more behind their sound than similar sounding bands. The Bellas have a much bigger engine under their hood than most in the current folk revival. Pure rock ‘n’ roll at times, with some pop friendly hooks, all-in-all, I got much, much more than I bargained for from their afternoon set. Equally cool was getting the back story, and play-by-play from my compadres, who had known the band since they were playing shitty dives in Ontario. Always awesome to catch a show with diehard fans when one is totally new to a band. [JR]

CarSeatHeadrest-Bonnaroo17-Insert Car Seat Headrest. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Car Seat Headrest

The best bands shine in the festival performance element and a Bonnaroo stage is unlike any venue stage. I had seen Car Seat Headrest at Teragram Ballroom during Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days In LA series before, where it was proven they know how to own an audience as they charmed with their indie, heavy, Cake meets Beck style of basement rock. From the moment the trio took the stage, it was electrifying and they set the perfect ambience opening with “Vincent,” an almost eight minute song that swells throughout an atmospheric journey with explosions and breakdowns for casting out intensity. Their captivity was undeniable. The band was also cool enough to pull a fan from the crowd on stage to contribute cowbell. Lead singer Will Toledo has a quirky way of songwriting that seems to convey a battle of the left and right side of his brain. The audiences for Car Seat Headrest will only continue to grow in size in response to well-deserved attention.  [LT]

I also last caught Car Seat Headrest in LA, a packed club affair, so seeing their show translated to a festival stage not long after was a cool point of comparison. In a year a bit light on straight up indie rock bands, their presence felt incredibly refreshing, and Will Toledo’s geeky cool, earnest and confessional, smart style helped make them a highlight of the day. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who thought so, as their crowd was absolutely stuffed into the tent and enthusiastically singing along throughout the whole performance. [PO]

Francis and the Lights

Slotted directly against Car Seat Headrest, Francis and the Lights’ main stage set was one I was bummed to miss, so I made the decision to ditch and little early to catch the end- if nothing else, but to see if frequent collaborator and de facto “Mayor of Bonnaroo” Chance the Rapper might come out. I was not disappointed- well, other than by the fact I couldn’t be two places at once, because what little I saw of Francis’ performance was absolutely epic. Alone on stage, the enigmatic performer commanded my attention with his effortless movements, suave demeanor, and hypnotic vocals, for a stunning set I can’t wait to see in full as soon as possible. Right on cue, Chance emerged for “May I Have This Dance,” faithfully recreating the music video’s synchronized choreography with Francis to dazzling effect and rapturous applause from the huge midday crowd. [PO]

ColdWarKids-Bonnaroo17-Insert Cold War Kids. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Cold War Kids

It’s wild that it’s been more than 10 years since I first obsessed over Cold War Kids’ unbelievable debut, Robbers & Cowards. They’ve put out lots of great music since, most recently L.A. Divine, and have gracefully aged into a perfect fit for festivals like this one, bridging familiarly to their many fans with accessibility for newcomers. Though I only had time for a handful of songs, the group sounded great as always, roaming around stage with their polished, punchy live show and great chemistry. I was glad they got to “Hang Me Up to Dry” a few song in- cliche or not, it’ll alway be a favorite. [PO]

DRAM-Bonnaroo17-Insert D.R.A.M. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

D.R.A.M.

Entering the mad dash of afternoon scheduling, I couldn’t pass up rising hip hop star D.R.A.M., who’s fast becoming a must-know name, set to join fellow ‘Roo veteran Kendrick Lamar on the road this fall. D.R.A.M.’s positive energy and happy demeanor are absolutely infectious, and from the moment he stepped on stage, there was just a great vibe. Of the first few songs, I only really recognized “Cha Cha,” but it was a blast simply watching him perform, set to huge, stunning visual swaths on the background screen. He’s far from a secret anymore, but if you’ve been sleeping on this talented up and comer, time to check him out! [PO]

JaySom-Bonnaroo17-Insert Jay Som. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Jay Som

Cutting from D.R.A.M. early, I rushed to see Jay Som, an up and comer I only recently became aware of, but immediately connected with. The Bay Area native’s artsy, laid back and earnest indie rock is right up my alley, and her most recent LP, Everybody Works, is one of my favorite under the radar releases of the year so far. Well-suited for the intimate, On Tap Lounge, Jay and her band worked through faves like “Turn Into,” “The Bus Song,” and “Baybee,” delivering an inherently cool, no-frills performance that might have been better suited for a club, but was still very cool to see. [PO]

AngeliqueKidjo-Bonnaroo17-Insert Angélique Kidjo. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Angélique Kidjo’s Remain in Light

The schedule crunch continued as I made my way to Angélique Kidjo’s criminally under attended Remain in Light set, which almost certainly would have been a huge event had most Roo-goers known what it was. Opening with original tune “Zelie,” the Beninese singer, backed by a gigantic, unbelievable band, soon moved on to the Talking Heads covers she’s been putting her world music twist on as of late, even attracting the eye of David Byrne himself in New York. The performance sounded absolutely spectacular, and unlike anything else I witnessed at Bonnaroo all weekend, using the lens of something familiar to inject Kidjo’s own unique heritage and musical identity to dazzling results. If you missed this, you missed out on something truly spectacular. [PO]

Nightly-Bonnaroo17-Insert Nightly. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Nightly

Adjacent to Angelique, Nashville’s own Nightly brought their unique brand of indie pop to the Who Stage. En route to catch The xx, I walked up just in time to hear them close their performance with breakout single “XO.” Though visibly frustrated by some technical difficulties, I thought the group still sounded group, and the passionate group of fans who skipped Tove Lo and Angelique to be there seemed beyond thrilled. [PO]

Great Good Fine Ok

We were passing through Centeroo when I stopped in at one of my favorite stages at Bonnaroo, The New Music On Tap Stage, which for years has given me a glimpse into a number of up and coming artists that later move on to play bigger tents and stages at Bonnaroo and other festivals around the country.  During this stop, Great Good Fine Ok were revving up a crowd of rowdy revelers with their high energy synth pop with a funk flair, as if Justin Timberlake and and the late Prince collaborated on a record together.  I thought this was just going to be a quick stop in passing, but the high energy danceable tunes kept us there for a couple of songs before we moved on. [MH]

TheXX-Bonnaroo17-Insert The xx. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

The xx

After their unforgettable light night appearance in 2013, I was really looking forward to The xx’s Bonnaroo return. Though the constant blogosphere domination of their early days (at a time when Pitchfork-fueled indie was dominating rock) has seemed to wane, the band are as massive (boosted, in some part, perhaps, by Jamie xx’s solo turn) as ever, and that was evidenced by their huge crowd and primo slot. Dusk set in in time for their enthralling light show, and after a triumphant start with new tune “Say Something Loving,” they captured nostalgia with older tunes “Crystalised” and “Islands.” The chemistry and cool poise of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim has only seemed to grow with age, and the co-front duo brought a sort of effortless, honed and enchanting presence. In the past, Jamie had felt like a bit of a background player to the more conventionally rock-leaning pair’s performance, but as his stock has risen and clearly influenced the band’s latest work, he felt much more equal in presentation and visibility throughout their set (they even covered one of his solo songs, “Loud Places”). Singles like “VCR” and “On Hold” were met with uncontrollable enthusiasm from the crowd, a mix of xx diehards and festival goers planting in a good spot for U2, and by the one-two punch of “Intro” and “Angels” to close things out, I left feeling like it might have been the most well-balanced, best sounding xx show I’d ever seen. [PO]

Marking the fourth time that I have seen The xx, I was surprised to see that they were playing the What Stage at Roo.  I knew the band had gotten considerably more acclaim in the years since the release of their incredible self-titled debut record, but essentially opening for U2 on one of the biggest stages on the planet??  What a difference eight years can make.  They expanded their set with a little more energy than I have seen from them in a club setting, which was an interesting twist.  It didn’t keep my attention for too long though, before we headed out to find music to dance to. [MH]

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

With my motor revving on high as the sun went down, after two songs, I decided that I was not in the proper frame of mind to enjoy The xx. Nothing against the top billed players, but their more melodic, hypnotizing sounds were not satisfying my urges to shake my rump, so I made haste to  That Tent for Preservation Hall Jazz Band. My obsession with all things New Orleans, including, but certainly not limited to New Orleans brass, would be satisfied that night in the biggest and best ways possible. It was my third time seeing Pres Hall, but each time, the rotating line-up has been slightly different. For their Friday night Bonnaroo ’17 set, they were pulling out all the stops, and they also brought in some seriously heavy hitters, including Jon Batiste (of Stay Human, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) on keys. It was hot and sweaty New Orleans inspired dance party from start to finish, with incredible improvised jams, that would foreshadow the greatest Superjam I have ever seen at Bonnaroo. One of the few bands that I’ve ever seen, which has consistently impressed me more and more. [JR]

Rolling out of the xx’s cerebral stew and into the absolute mayhem of Preservation Hall Jazz Band at That Tent was exactly what the doctor ordered.  The finely tuned New Orleans based collective were locked in and the crowd was already in motion as we walked up.  Within minutes, we had joined in on the fun as the band played through some hits of the Crescent City and effortlessly mixed their funk infused jazz through multiple high energy solos.  In the numerous times that I have seen Pres Hall over the years, this goes down as the best I’ve ever seen them, and had my beyond excited to see them again as the house band for the highly anticipated Superjam the following night. [MH]

GlassAnimals-Bonnaroo17-Insert Glass Animals. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Glass Animals

Trying to find a break to refuel, grab a snack, and have a few minutes of rest before fighting my way to a good spot for U2, I only managed to squeeze in a few minutes of Glass Animals in passing. At this point, I’ve seen the indie group quite a few times, almost always at festivals, and they’re still as deserving as ever of their top billing- they know how translate their groove, layered indie sound to a huge stage and crowd. From what little I saw, their Bonnaroo performance was par for the course in their top-notch festival spots. [PO]

U2-Bonnaroo17-Insert U2. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

U2

I was born the year The Joshua Tree was released, and discovered U2 in the late ’90s, catching the tail end of perhaps their last few massively, culturally relevant records. While I won’t defend “Beautiful Day” U2 as anything close to the band’s more punk-adjacent ’80s origins, their continued later career success prompted by to revisit their whole catalogue, first though greatest hits compilations, and then through individual records. Even as a pre-teen, I had mixed feelings about different phases of the group, but loved The Joshua Tree unconditionally, every track essentially perfect from top to bottom. Despite a few (very expensive) chances over the years, I had never seen U2 live, so their announcement for Bonnaroo- which, I recognize, seemed less exciting for the slightly younger crowd who might not ever remember U2 being cool- had me absolutely floored, nearing the same degree of anticipation as Paul McCartney a few years back. Doubly so when I learned they were adapting their Joshua Tree anniversary tour in full; the most perfect first U2 show I could have ever hoped for.

I naively assumed that my excitement for U2, who regularly fill football stadiums, would be festival-wide, but this year’s very mixed bill and heavily young-skewing EDM slate should have tipped me off that not every Roo-goer would care. Their crowd was certainly big, but not the biggest of the weekend, and even arriving close to start, it wasn’t hard to slip up to the front. Their screen, somewhat adjusted to fit the Bonnaroo stage, was more massive than any I’d ever seen, save for, perhaps, Beyoncé’s monolith, and filled every possible space. Erupting onto the stage with little fanfare, the legendary Irish rockers launched into an unbelievable rendition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which smacked me with so much more emotional resonance than I expected, and immediately reminded me of why U2 are considered one of the greatest rock bands of all time. A few songs later, and The Joshua Tree portion began, the screen lighting up to project eye-popping visuals at a disorientingly massive scale, bringing to life album art, track imagery, and power social and political symbols. Just getting to hear “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You” back to back would have alone been enough to be my festival highlight, but in the context of the entire album, it was surreal and perfect.

Though they sounded phenomenal, the band were a bit more subdued than I expected, focusing on faithfully reproducing their songs, while occasionally strutting down a massive catwalk or roaming the stage, the focus, unsurprisingly on guitarist The Edge and famed frontman Bono. Bono’s young, punk informed rocker days have gracefully given way to a calmer, more reserved stage demeanor, but his musings on the history of the album, social urgency of the tracks, and general state of the world were no less impassioned. For an encore, the band stuffed in some of their biggest hits, and even tunes I could take or leave like “Vertigo” were phenomenally fun. A notable high point came when they reimagined “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” as something of a feminist anthem, projecting images of great feminist icons from a huge array of times and places, larger than life on their massive screens. Ending the night with a powerful performance of “One,” I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect Bonnaroo headlining set, and the fact that it came from a band who’ve never before played a U.S. festival made it all the more special and unique. Without a doubt my favorite moment of this year’s fest, I’m confident U2 will go down as one of Bonnaroo’s all-time most legendary performances. [PO]

For me, U2 is one of those bands that I am very familiar with despite never having a “phase” with them. They’ve always been in the background throughout my life, but never taken center stage. As a teenager I was all about The Doors, Nirvana, and east coast versus west coast hip hop. In college, I discovered Dylan, Cash, and jazz. Currently, I’ve been diving head first into The Dead, but I’ve never had that epiphany with Bono’s bunch. A little out of my head, watching possibly the greatest legacy rock set ever seen at Bonnaroo, on the largest, most high def jumbotron even created, got me pretty damn close to having my U2 realization. The fact that it was their first time ever playing a U.S. fest, and the first time they’d even played a festival in 30 years, made everything feel all the more magical, for the audience, and the band alike. U2, with careers spanning nearly four decades, have packed arenas all over the word for years on end and seen it all, but still seemed visibly moved. They played every single song I wanted to hear from their ridiculously stacked catalog, and managed to not reach Kanye levels of preaching, which I was a little leery of pre-show. They did run a spliced, and re-dubbed old timey movie snippet over their twenty story screens. It was an apt clip, about some religious fanatics, but, after some clever sound editing, it become obvious they weren’t worshipping a god, but rather a demagogue, whose name rhymes with dump. Also worth mentioning was the inconceivable amount of guitars Edge played; truly a mad scientist of rock and roll, always breathing new life into his signature mass distortion riffs. Kudos all around. [JR]

I wouldn’t say that I’m the biggest U2 fan out there, but I have spent a lot time with their records over the years, and even found myself at three different shows in three different cities when they were on their 360 tour.  All of the times that I had seen them before gave me even more respect for their catalogue, but also hammered home how great they were live.  As we walked up fairly close to the What Stage a few minutes before their set began was the first time that I had noticed the effect that the new EDM stage “The Other” was having on the festival.  Unlike in years past, when the main stage lawn would be bursting the seams with the sweaty and drunk during the headliner performance, the crowd for U2 was lighter than I expected, which allowed us to have some space while being close enough to enjoy the show.  In a move that almost had me wondering if there were technical malfunctions, the massive video screens flanking the stage were dark and the giant green Bonnaroo sign over the stage was turned off as U2 came on stage.  They started into some old hits like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Years Day,” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” before they started into the cover to cover performance of one of their most beloved albums, The Joshua Tree.  As a fan of the album since, probably, the day it came out, I was excited to relive one of the more important records of my youth.  However, until I saw them perform it live, I didn’t really realize what a personal record it is.  It lacks danceable tracks, and, after seeing this performance, I think would be best described as headphone music.  It was interesting to see the video images (which were reported taken by the same photographer that did the iconic cover art for The Joshua Tree) displayed on the giant screens surrounding the stage that helped to tell the story of the songs and the record. It was a heady hour for sure, and one that I’m glad I had the opportunity to see.  Surely knowing the gravity of music, the band finished things off with certified high energy mega-hits like “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation,” and wrapped the set with a sizzling version “One.”  It wasn’t the best U2 show that I’ve seen, but, for a band that is out of its element in a festival setting, they absolutely deserved to be the headliner at Bonnaroo.  [MH]

Major Lazer

My emotions were still on full tilt after a truly inspired performance by U2, so the shiny lights, and wobble bass vibrations emanating from Which Stage drew me in like a moth to the flame. It was Major Lazer’s turn to turn the party out, and turn it out they did. Far from a versed fan of EDM music, I do know enough to recognize that Lazer represents the OG generation of the modern EDM craze, and, after witnessing the spectacle live, it was easy to see why they helped spawn a movement. Their light show and graphics looked like like the Tokyo skyline on acid. Their fog canons bellowed endless plumes of smoke that accentuated the far reaching multi-colored lazer beams that bounced off the trees, and the platoon of choreographed fly girl-esque dancers on stage never took more than a few minutes off, as they led the rave dance party that was 10,000 strong. Their set went on until nearly sunup, but I tapped out about 3 a.m., for fear I’d miss too much the next day. [JR]

Riding the wave of elation following U2’s mind-blowing performance, I caffeinated and grabbed a few drinks at camp, making by way back into Centeroo for a late night snack and some more great music. Portugal. The Man were my nighttime priority, but I made a point to see at least a little bit of dancehall-infused EDM supergroup Major Lazer. Though I didn’t really bother to get close, Diplo and co. were doing their part to get the night owls sufficiently turnt, shooting fog and blasting lasers and pyro, a stage packed with dancers keeping everyone hype. From the sound of it, they were playing a mix of their original stuff while doing the typical DJ move of incorporating lots of other familiar work- at one point I heard the Legend of Zelda theme getting the dubstep treatment. Nice. [PO]

PortugalTheMan-Bonnaroo17-Insert Portugal. The Man. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Portugal. The Man

I adore Portugal. The Man, and have seen them more times than I can even remember, dating back to their earliest days of post-hardcore, DIY ties, and including several outings at Bonnaroo. I was very excited to see that they were slotted for a late night set this year, since they felt like one of the handful of acts that would make it extra special. Usually reserved for legacy bands, hip hop, oddball picks, late night dance artists, and the like, when a newer/more conventional band gets like night billing, it’s always a mixed bag how they might treat it. For instance, Tame Impala last year were great, but played what was essentially just a standard Tame Impala show, only late, falling short of the expectation of “something special.” Portugal. The Man nailed the something special.

Opening with a cover of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (which I unfortunately missed, arriving about halfway though), the band played a hit-filled performance to a gigantic crowd, pilled into the tent, brimming with an energy and unpredictability beyond anything I’ve seen from them before. PTM have done a remarkable job of spending a decade growing organically, first through the punk scene and more recently exploding in the alt rock mainstream, their latest Woodstock making the biggest splash yet, and the diverse and fervent fans they’ve amassed are well-earned. After one huge track after another, the band brought out famed photographer Danny Clinch to rock some harmonica on “Hip Hop Kids” and “Holy Roller (Hallelujah),” before trotting out Cage the Elephant’s own Matt Schultz, amped up to 11 and channeling Iggy Pop as always, to reprise their Oasis cover of “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” Matt stuck around for huge new single “Feel It Still,” which they’d already played pre-Schultz earlier in the show, but it didn’t matter because they were on goddman fire, sounding more transcendent than ever. Closing with a “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2” and “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” medley, Portugal gave U2 a run for their money as a weekend highlight. Man that was an incredible way to end the day. [PO]

Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

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[JR] Jacob Ryan
[LT] Lindsey Thompson
[MH] Matt Hall
[PO] Philip Obenschain

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