[REVIEW + PHOTOS] Bonnaroo 2018 | Thursday & Friday

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Now in its monumental 17th year, Bonnaroo is, without question, one of the most legendary and important American festivals, and we’re fortunate that it takes place in our backyard. It’s also no secret that the festival landscape has changed rapidly in recent years, booming with an advent of new events, and then stabilizing, as some become more boutique, some fade away, some hold fast to their legacy, and some evolve and adapt. Though it’s experienced some behind the scenes changes, ‘Roo has, by and large, been slow to make drastic changes in the near-decade we’ve been covering- changing its musical makeup as fans age and tastes change, sure, but largely keeping with its same format and approach. After a record-low attendance a couple years ago, however, which the fest managed to improve upon already last year, it became clear that Bonnaroo’s rate of change might need to get a little more drastic. This year’s ‘Roo, which took place June 7-10 at the event’s permanent site in Manchester, Tenn., definitely felt like the most dramatic and necessary leap forward in single year ever, rethinking the elements that make Bonnaroo unique, utilizing the robust data at hand to better cater to their audience, and being mindful not to mess with the vast number of elements that still work well.

The result was a leaner lineup, a rich offering of acts that felt broad and accessible without pandering, tweaks to longtime mainstays like the comedy and cinema slate, and, most notably, a total reinvention of the campground’s “Pods,” which have now been dubbed “Plazas,” and include a whole array of interactive activities, performances, entertainment, community, and art. After realizing just how much time festival goers spend at camp- a unique facet of Bonnaroo’s rural, self-contained setup- organizers had the brilliant idea to move elements of Centeroo- mostly non-musical, but a few performances as well- into the grounds themselves, establishing each Plaza with its own theme and identity, and dramatically changing what we think of as the event grounds. The result seemed to be overwhelmingly well-received, with local art and food vendors, yoga, cooking demonstrations, chill DJ sets from a member of The Postal Service, a secret Cage the Elephant show, and so much more taking place mere steps from where the bulk of attendees spend all of their time outside of Centeroo.

We’ve long felt that Bonnaroo has a certain magic and originality that no other festival in the world quite conjures, and we’ve been rooting for its perseverance and organic evolution every year, so seeing the beloved insinuation find its footing and double down on what gives it that identity made this summer on the farm a particularly special one, and has us more excited for the future than ever! And that’s just the experience; as expected, the music, Bonnaroo’s true core, was as diverse, dazzling, and packed as ever, with an unrivaled mix of local and national talent that made up so many great memories, we’re still working to recount them all. Read our extensive review of the first half of Bonnaroo 2018 below, and keep an eye out for our Saturday and Sunday review shortly!

THURSDAY

BlankRange_Bonnaroo18-Insert Blank Range. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Blank Range

I’ve now attended Bonnaroo eight times, six as press, and though it certainly manages to always find ways to tweak, update, change, and innovate, the logistics and organization of the fest remain largely unchanged each year- something I love. I know what to pack, where to go, what to expect, and where everything will be, so showing up, checking in, setting up camp, and getting settled is a total breeze. After yet another easy in, I got myself together and made the trek into Centeroo early to start my year with a few local faves; first up: Blank Range.

Though I missed the start of their performance, the psych and Americana drenched garage rockers will sounding phenomenal and playing for a decent-sized crowd already when I walked up. An early Road to Bonnaroo winner, back in 2014, it was especially cool to see them graduate to a significantly larger tent stage this time, and getting to kick of my fest with some quality local tunes set the day off on a high mark. [PO]

RonGallo_Bonnaroo18-Insert Ron Gallo. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Ron Gallo

One of the biggest highlights of Bonnaroo 2018 for us was seeing so many Nashville artists have their moment to shine on the farm. First up were resident “nice guys” Ron Gallo. The band brought their signature energy and shtick with full force. Ron’s stage plot doodle used in place of traditional backdrop visuals really set the tone for the band and served to contrast his hard hitting lyrical content. For an artist that strives not to take himself too seriously, Ron isn’t someone that takes his platform lightly. His intro speech carried a message on the importance of being present. He later told the crowd “Take a deep breath… maybe the first of today… maybe the first of this week… maybe the first of your entire life” before leading them into an OM chant which delightfully transitioned into their hit “Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me.”

Toward the end of the song Ron casually beckoned side stage and brought up a “Young Lady” (for reference I’d guess around 16) and gave her his guitar to shred. It was the nod to the “ladies to the front” moment without having to acknowledge itself as a “ladies to the front” moment – which are always cooler when they aren’t labeled as such. If this was only the beginning of the weekend, but any doubt about Bonnaroo’s ability to bounce back after losing a little muster in recent years was about to collapse in on itself. [LM]

Keeping the local streak going, I trekked from Blank Range to resident garage punk favorite Ron Gallo, performing at another tent across the grounds. Since breaking out last year with his excellent HEAVY META, and reminding us not too take him too seriously with this year’s sarcastic and self-deprecating Really Nice Guys, Gallo has been on a breakout trajectory, attracting national press and ever more high-profile tour dates. The fact that his bow at Bonnaroo was on a big stage was no surprise, nor was the receptacle afternoon crowd.

Kicking off with a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “Something’ Stupid” because, why not, Gallo’s set was delivered with a bit more earnestness and polish than I’ve seen in the past, not with the punk bite and lighthearted spirit, but definitely calibrated to maximum effectiveness for a bigger, less-familiar crowd. Ron’s a real natural- cool, confident, magnetic on stage- and his band, who are also called Ron Gallo, play well to the frontman’s strengths. Maybe a later set or smaller stage would’ve worked best to truly feed off his energy, but nonetheless, I was impressed at how well Gallo stepped up to the big stage, and have no doubt he’ll continue to become a bigger, more successful name in the coming years. [PO]

CYN_Bonnaroo18-Insert CYN. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

CYN

Before researching Bonnaroo, I wasn’t familiar with Detroit electropop newcomer CYN, but as soon as I pressed play on her anthemic, epic music (which, so far, amounts to just a handful of singles), I knew her set would be a highlight. Often, singers at a similar stage in their career would bow on the smaller Who Stage or On Tap Lounge (as buzzy names like Betty Who have in the past), but as a protege of Katy Perry, CYN had already amassed enough hype to land a tent slot.

Performing to an enthusiastic and young audience, the petite and demure singer absolutely exuded an innate cool, seemingly humbled by both the fervent response and the festival experience as a whole. Her voice was powerful, her delivery confident, and her minimalist band tight, leaving plenty of room for the rising pop star to really showcase her personality and confident showmanship. With much of her material unreleased, I wasn’t super familiar with a lot of the songs, but still found myself hypnotized by her catchy, hook-laden delivery and infectious warmth. An artist I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on, I left dying to see CYN at a club show ASAP! [PO]

TheBrummies_Bonnaroo18-Insert The Brummies. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

The Brummies

With so much excellent music and a ton of different stages, the scheduling conflicts of Bonnaroo always sting, and leave me weighing between old favorites, new finds, press obligations, and local roots. Ducking out of CYN a few minutes early, I wanted to see the last few songs of The Brummies at their Bonnaroo debut. I knew the group well when they were formerly John & Jacob, and with this new incarnation (more or less the same group on paper, but with a distinctive difference in sound) they’re better than they’ve ever been, channeling a sort of retro, etherial, psychedelic soft rock. I didn’t get to see much, but man those pitch-perfect harmonies and layered, tight instrumentation soared, and the crowd at the On Tap Lounge was packed in tight. [PO]

Arlie_Bonnaroo18-Insert Arlie. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Arlie

Keeping the local momentum going, I hopped from The Brummies to Bonnaroo’s other club stage (do they even use that term anymore?) the Who Stage, for Arlie. A band that sprung from Vanderbilt- in of itself a rarity- the eclectic, retro psych infused outfit have been quickly amassing buzz, and have been on my must-see list for a bit, though this was my first time finally getting to catch them. Still relatively new, with only a handful of tracks to their name, it’s obvious that the group came up in the house and DIY scene, since they already perform as a well-honed unit. All of the ingredients are there to be a breakout band, and given their charisma and enthusiasm live, I have no doubt that the next time they play Bonnaroo, it’ll be on a much bigger stage. [PO]

Lissie

Don’t know what I was expecting from Lissie but she blew me away. She’s a rockstar. Lissie’s tenacious stage presence exuded organic sexual power a la Grace Potter or Stevie Nicks and a sweet, captivating command all her own. “THAT KEY CHANGE! Didn’t think it was possible to get goosebumps in this weather.” Goosebumps and tears became our new barometer for Roo (and life to be honest; who says what happens at the farm stays at the farm? I’m taking that feeling with me). Lissie’s sweaty set was like a B12 shot to the sticky, heat exhausted crowd. She carried herself with an easy swagger and cultivated a genre bending sound that would make Jenny Lewis and Neko Case proud. Lissie closed the set with an uplifting speech focused on protecting our resources and ourselves “thrive don’t just survive” before segueing into her cover of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” where she was joined onstage by a bumblebee holding a “protect our planet” sign. [LM]

Victory_Bonnaroo18-Insert Victory. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Victory

After taking a quick breather and finding relief that evening was setting in, I returned to the Who Stage for one of my most-anticipated performers of Thursday: Victory Boyd, who makes music simply as Victory. A product of raw talent and viral success, Boyd grew up singing with her musical family, busking daily in the park after relocating to the New York area. Videos of the Boyds went viral, capturing the attention of none other than Jay-Z, who signed the whole family to a record deal, and fast-tracked Victory’s solo career.

A transcendant, once-in-generation talent, the young singer conjures legends like Nina Simone, one of a handful of artists she also covers, and builds on a background of soul, folk, and jazz with contemporary flair. Warm, uplifting, and exhilaratingly positive, Victory and her band, which seemingly included some family members, delivered perhaps the most underrated set of the day, coming across charming, soulful, and jawdroppingly gifted. An old soul with a smart, complex approach to her craft, soul and r&b needs more singers like Victory, and with the guiding hands of some major musical figures, I hope she quickly finds all of the success she sincerely deserves. [PO]

flor_Bonnaroo18-Insert flor. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

flor

I’ve been seeing so much buzz around northwest indie rockers flor for awhile now, especially since nabbing a deal with tastemaking label Fueled By Ramen ahead of their 2017 debut LP. Unlike many of their labelmates, the group aren’t really rooted to the pop punk scene, building instead on a stylish, modern pop sound. En route to another band, I made a point to stop off and watch a few songs of their On Tap Lounge set. They sounded great and seemed full of energy, though I did get the impression that they were new to much of the crowd. It’s those hidden-gem sets that I love though, especially when you get to see a band appear slightly outside of their normal scene and adapt to a different audience. I wish I could’ve been in two places at once, and I’ll definitely be checking out flor again the next time they play Nashville. [PO]

ChaseAtlantic_Bonnaroo18-Insert Chase Atlantic. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Chase Atlantic

I missed Chase Atlantic when they opened for Lights earlier this year, but I’ve been fascinated by the group since first coming across them. They’re like a hybrid of the 1975 and 5 Seconds of Summer, with more edge, a goth undercurrent, and a healthy dose of Good Charlotte’s radio sensibilities (that group’s core duo, The Madden Brothers, helped develop them). Clearly aimed at a young crowd, in the overlap between boybands and edgy emo, I found their material stylish and intriguing enough, and figured, at the very least, their big tent debut would be worth covering.

With checked expectations, I actually found myself blown away. I don’t think these guys normally play to crowds this big stateside, but they worked the stage (and massive, excited audience) as if they’ve been doing this for years, awash with cool lights, artsy an angsty visuals, and cool, disaffected appeal. Singer Mitchel Cave, with his open shirt, funky hair, and impossibly tight jeans felt ripped from any rebellious teen’s fantasy, but seemed, also, as focused on his artistry as his visual presentation. I didn’t expect to dislike them, but I also didn’t expect to get it quite so much. This band are legitimately cool (or so uninterested in being cool, that they’re cool? they had a SAX player!) and, I think, more than capable of evolving into something even more interesting and enduring. Don’t sleep on them! [PO]

DurandJones_Bonnaroo18-Insert Durand Jones & The Indications. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Durand Jones & The Indications

What started as a fun one-off exploration of their shared love of soul and r&b, Durand Jones & The Indications have blossomed into full-fledged, buzzworthy permeant fixture over the last couple of years, fusing their old school, revivalist sensibilities with a knack for modern flair. We’ve written about their Nashville stops before, but I hadn’t personally had the opportunity to catch them live, so I was looking forward to their Bonnaroo debut.

Jones, a soulful, incredibly cool, magnetic frontman, conjured up vibes that reminded me of some great festival outings from the late, great Charles Bradley, and his band brought the big, brassy, tight delivery reminiscent of local staples Alanna Royale, with whom they recently performed. Running late from doing some work in the press tent, I wasn’t able to stay for their whole show, but Durand Jones & The Indications felt like a perfect festival act, and I’m looking forward to my next opportunity to see them. [PO]

JadeBird_Bonnaroo18-Insert Jade Bird. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Jade Bird

I’d only recently become aware of young, English singer-songwriter Jade Bird, but with her unbelievable raw talent, perfectly adapted folk and Americana influence, and strong and confident persona, I was immediately hooked. Much like Sweden’s First Aid Kit, if you heard a Jade Bird song on the radio, you’d probably guess she hailed from the American south; that’s the kind of spot-on authenticity that comes with steeped-in understanding, not mere coopting. Last year’s full-length debut, Something American, is a masterpiece of a first album, and her primo set on the tiny Who Stage was one of my most-anticipated of Friday.

Performing to a decent crowd (though she deserved a much larger one), Jade was every bit the musical great in the making I hoped she’d be, showcasing intimate, deconstructed renditions of her songs on acoustic guitar and keyboard, anchored by her powerful voice and palpable charm. Endearingly humble, between each tune, Jade seemed overwhelmed with gratitude, proclaiming “thank you, thank you” in her thick English accent, and noting that this marked her first American fest (many more throughout the summer will follow). As great and captivating as she is now, I couldn’t help but think I was witnessing a singer who will truly be a modern legend someday, at the start of her exiting rise, and I’ll be following along with pride and anticipation. [PO]

RLUMR_Bonnaroo18-Insert R.LUM.R. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

R.LUM.R

Nashville’s very own R.LUM.R (Reggie Williams) made his Bonnaroo debut as one of Thursday night’s headliners. His soulful, dynamic performance landed like he had been a staple of Roo’s late night lineup for years. R.LUM.R makes sticky r&b infused pop music but this set really proved that he has superstar staying potential far beyond the current electropop movement. He had blues rock moments, playing heartbreakingly good guitar. He had some stripped down moments that showcased his grade-A songwriting. And then he had plenty of pop moments to electrify the audience. The crowd was HIS and he deserved every second of it. Full body goosebumps – my whole crew cried. [LM]

A lot of talented pop artists have come out of Nashville over the last few years, but few have had such a visible and swift ascent as R.LUM.R. A testament to that fact? His first ever Bonnaroo outing netted him the equivalent of headliner billing on Thursday, with an evening tent sent just late enough to see things slip into full-on vibey, late night, post-midnight territory. While he didn’t draw the biggest crowd of the day, the packed in and excited fans were nothing to scoff at, and R.LUM.R and band proceeded to deliver one of the most fun, surprising, and transcended performances of the day.

Before finding success in the r&b and pop realm, Reggie Williams was a rock fan with a focus on his guitar work, and that genre-bending technical background still dominates at his live show, complete with lots of soulful shredding which, likely, comes as a surprise to those who’ve only heard from buzzy playlist placements. Navigating the realms of the heartfelt and engaging tunes that make up his debut EP, Reggie owned the stage from note one, proving why he is one of Nashville’s most essential and interesting new performers. [PO]

TopazJones_Bonnaroo18-Insert Topaz Jones. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Topaz Jones

Ducking out of R.LUM.R a couple songs early, I hurried to the On Tap Lounge to get a glimpse of Topaz Jones ahead of Elohim (damn you, scheduling conflicts!). Though rooted in hip hop, Jones was raised on classic funk, and weaves that into his bold, substantive sound. Performing for a modest but exuberant late night crowd, Jones was fully bringing the house down by the time I arrived, adopting a smooth flow and charismatic style that left me disappointed I wasn’t there for more of his set. As a bonus, I got to see another artsy, buzzy rapper on the rise, Leven Kali, come out for a guest spot, easing some of FOMO I’d feel from skipping his subsequent set for Elohim. A magical, underground hip hop moment on a tiny stage at midnight; that’s what makes Bonnaroo so special. [PO]

Elohim_Bonnaroo18-Insert Elohim. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Elohim

While not the very last performer of the evening, enigmatic LA electropop singer and producer Elohim was the last on my list, and turned out to be a wonderful and spellbinding way to finish Thursday on a high note. I missed her recent stop at Exit/In, so Bonnaroo, late night, vibing in a tent, felt like more than adequate atonement. Part of her whole mysterious shtick is that Elohim never quite shows her whole face (and keeps her name and backstory hidden as well). I wondered how she’d manage this live. With sunglasses, and hair pushed over her face, it turned out, otherwise draped in a jacket and looking incredibly chic.

Starting out behind a tower of synths, the singer absolutely destroyed from the jump, elating diehard fans and certainly winning over legions of new ones. Building up mood through stylish and tasteful production, a few songs in, she jumped out front, mic in hand, flexing her versatility as a performer, musician, and bona fide pop star. Existing in the sweet spot between electronic and pop, music to soak in and music to dance to, Elohim was perfectly suited for this first night spot, free from bigger-name competition, and just hypnotic enough to capture the DJ-craving late night crowd. I knew she’d be good, but she was more incredible than I ever imagined, and after an excellent, full, and varied day, left me floored with Thursday’s final set. I knew, somewhere out in the campground, our pals Cage the Elephant were prepping a not-so-secret secret show, but I felt confident in my decision to make Elohim my evening’s headliner. [PO]

Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

FRIDAY

TheFoxies_Bonnaroo18-Insert The Foxies. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

The Foxies

Not many people could make me forget I was dangerously dehydrated but this year’s Road to Roo winners did just that. The Foxies’ infectious hooks and energetic performance possessed my tired body and before I knew it I was throwing my head back and howling at the moon. Frontwoman Julia Bullock writhed around stage like the lovechild of David Bowie and Lady Gaga, enchanting the crowd with her guttural high notes and disco-dance seduction.

Towards the end of the set she pulled Tayls, Molly Rocket and Atticus Swartwood (of Molly Rocket and Tayls) on stage, much to their surprise. Atticus: “Wait, we don’t really know all the words that well!” Julia: “I don’t fucking care! Get up here!” The trio singing along with the band was a sweet moment of rock’n’roll and community. In a city where bands often have to compete against each other (as these three bands did in Road to Roo), it’s important to recognize that we’re stronger together. [LM]

Local pop-infused indie rockers The Foxies won this year’s Road to Roo competition, and after catching some of their insanely cool Friday, it definitely felt well-deserved. The group, anchored and elevated by frontwoman Julia Bullock absolutely exude energy and fun, and despite the already sweltering heat by their early afternoon On Tap Lounge set, they powered through by pros, primed for considerably larger stages (and definitely destined for such, with their incredibly polished live show). I was late getting in, so I only saw the end, but I was impressed both by just how good they sounded, and by how wild the crowd was going throughout. [PO]

EverythingEverything_Bonnaroo18-Insert Everything Everything. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Everything Everything

Kicking my day off already hammered by scheduling conflicts, after watching the tail end of The Foxies, I only had a few minutes to see Everything Everything wind down their set. Though they’ve been around for awhile, I admittedly wasn’t super familiar with the UK off-kilter art rockers going into Bonnaroo, but as a big fan of kindred spirits like alt-J and Django Django, I knew immediately they’d be right up my alley. I was right! As they wound down the performance with familiar tunes “Can’t Do,” “Distant Past,” and “No Reptiles,” I was blown away by the group’s layered, weird stylings, and made mental note to keep an eye out for any future local dates. [PO]

JapaneseBreakfast-Bonnaroo18-Insert Japanese Breakfast. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Japanese Breakfast

As soon as I arrived at the festival Friday afternoon, I headed straight for Japanese Breakfast at This Tent. Philly rocker Michelle Zauner translated her psych-tinged lo-fi pop into a spectacle of a performance. The set felt like a dreamscape with guitar that gave major The Feelies vibes and a stage presence reminiscent of Karen O. Much anticipated track “Road Head” was mystical live. Zauner came across as a perfectionist on stage, entertaining at every second possible and executing every song with precision. [OL]

One of the most killer scheduling conflicts I would face all Saturday,  I was torn between Japanese Breakfast and Alex Lahey (two acts with similar enough appeal, I’m a little shocked were booked at the exact. same. time.). I opted to start with the former, since I missed them recently in Nashville, thinking I might split the difference. Unfortunately, the Friday scheduling continued to kick my ass, and Japanese Breakfast took the stage late, apologizing for technical difficulties.

Once they got going though, Michelle Zauner and co. sounded unbelievable, her gripping delivery and indie rock urgency elevating the earnest, indie material from the project’s two outstanding LPs. I regretted missing them at Exit/In, because this band’s music seems better suited for intimate rooms, but still, I was impressed with how great they sounded and how comfortable they seemed on a big stage. A few songs in and I didn’t want to leave, but my curiosity about Alex Lahey soon had me booking it to Bonnaroo’s biggest stage for the first time of the weekend. [PO]

Alex Lahey

Hailing from Down Under, alt rocker Alex Lahey is another welcome discovery of my preview research this year, and I was immediately blown away by her impossibly cool, disaffected garage rock meets pop punk style, which reminded me a bit of a more energetic Courtney Barnett, a fellow Aussie breakout. Slotted on the main stage for her Roo debut, I figured I was just late to the Lahey party, however the somewhat modest crowd would suggest that she’s still on the rise stateside (and, as I mentioned above, I’m sure being booked directly against Japanese Breakfast put a dent in both artists’ turnouts). After JB’s late start, I arrived to Alex’s set pretty late, but still managed to get a spot right up at the rail, just in time to see her launch into an incredibly inspired cover of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” immediately setting the tone for the sort of fun, not-too-serious vibe the rocker embodies. Transitioning straight into her most recognizable single, “Every Day’s the Weekend,” it was awesome to see some diehard fans dance and singing along like wild, and I was beyond happy with my decision to catch the few songs I was able to. One of the most impressive new artists I caught all weekend, I left itching to see Alex Lahey really shine in a smaller room. [PO]

ARIZONA_Bonnaroo18-Insert A R I Z O N A. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

A R I Z O N A

After a few hours out in the brutal afternoon sun, I was very much in need of a break and hydration, but before heading back to the media tent to cool off, I made a point to wander back to the Which Stage to see a bit of electropop outfit A R I Z O N A. Though I don’t know their work well beyond breakout playlisted tunes like “Oceans Away,” the band’s 1975 meets COIN, synth drenched, modern pop sound is a style I’m a sucker for, and I was pleased to see that live, they pulled it off nicely, recreating a lot of the synth tones and samples manually while frontman Zachary Charles anchored the set with his soulful croon and relaxed, cool demeanor. Bonus points for a a pretty fun cover of Drake’s “Passionfruit,” even if they’re hardly the first pop band to tackle it lately. [PO]

Tyler Childers

Tyler Childers has been a favorite of mine for a while now. I’ve had Purgatory (produced by Sturgill Simpson) on repeat since its release in 2017, and was lucky enough to catch him open for Margo Price during her three night run at The Ryman last month, so I was stoked to see him on The Farm. Childers’ performance was stripped-down and simple, backed by a setup that included a killer pedal steel that really sealed down the acoustic country sound. His amiable voice delivered songs about West Virginia back roads, coal mining, and heartbreak, punctuating deep cuts with hits like “Born Again” and “Honky Tonk Flame.” Childers played a newer song, “I’m All Your’n,” midway through his set. The reflective, earnest summer love song was a highlight as it showcased his songwriting ability and subtle power as a singer. Judging from the crowd around me stomping and dancing, it’s safe to say he gained a few new fans and is building a moniker among listeners across genre lines. [OL]

LowCutConnie_Bonnaroo18-Insert Low Cut Connie. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Low Cut Connie

Low Cut Connie’s set on the Who Stage Friday was one of the most fun ones I saw. It was a sweet reminder of how magical Roo can be (and why I endured the heat and sweat and greasy sunscreen). The eclectic audience was so friendly– I found myself dancing with strangers and thoroughly enjoying myself. Adam Weiner engaged the crowd, dancing on top of his piano and running into the crowd to hug fans. “These Kids Are Just Way Too High,” “Shake It Little Tina” and “Rio” were killer live. It was consistently high-energy. “We ain’t pretty but we speak the truth,” Weiner hyped up the crowd, ending with a poetic shirt rip. Their big band sound met rockabilly for something really special, that translated just as well at Bonnaroo’s smallest stage as it would have at drag clubs or a cozy dive. [OL]

I’ve been a fan of Low Cut Connie for several years now, and have written about their appearances in Nashville a handful of times, yet, somehow, had never had a chance to see the band live myself. The Philly rockers’ wild and unpredictable live show and frontman Adam Weiner’s magnetic live presence are something of legend, however, and even with a short window in which to see them, I still had to make it for at least a few songs. I’m surprised the band was booked for the Who Stage- Bonnaroo’s weird sometimes, relative to groups’ club draw- but it made for a more intimate and in-your-face experience, with Weiner hyping up the packed crowd, jumping off piano, swinging the mic, and just generally living up to the hype and showmanship I’d come to expect. The band’s retro streak and rocking chops really deliver too, making their show one of the most fun experiences around whether you’re familiar with their music or not! [PO]

ManchesterOrchestra_Bonnaroo18-Insert Manchester Orchestra. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Manchester Orchestra

One of my most-anticipated performers not just of Friday, but of the entire weekend, Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra have long harbored inexplicable crossover appeal, laying their roots in the emo and indie world, while, for years, also boasting broader, mainstream alt rock reach. They’re frequent festival performers, and, in fact, played ‘Roo once before in 2010, but this weekend marked my first time seeing them on the farm. It was especially cool to see a band I still remember as a scrappy indie upstart playing small rooms back in the day now rocking a main festival stage, but in truth Manchester have been a big deal for awhile, and their massive afternoon crowd was hardly unexpected. What what a nice surprise, though, was that the bulk of the band’s set came from older releases Mean Everything to Nothing and Simple Math, which doubled as both fan service, and trimmed the fat for maximum reach to the casual festival crowd likely to know their most popular work. They’re always a blast live, but frontman Andy Hull was especially feeling it this time, really rocking hard and undoubtedly winning over countless new fans in the process. Had any band other than Paramore been up next (yet another conflict of two acts with similar appeal), I would’ve stayed to the last second, but I ducked out a couple songs early to make my way to the What Stage, as the sun finally began to descend. [PO]

Paramore_Bonnaroo18-Insert Paramore. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Paramore

As we already mentioned in our preview coverage, it’s shocking and something of a huge oversight that Paramore, a band who’ve been Nashville based since their early ’00s beginnings, and have been a famous, renowned, alt rock powerhouse for over a decade, have somehow never played Bonnaroo- the closest thing we have to a major hometown festival. While the peak of their early mainstream success, or even their Grammy winning sonic evolution a few years ago, both warranted a slot, finally getting them to ‘Roo on the heels of last year’s stellar After Laughter, in support of which they’ve already delivered unforgettable turns at Exit/In and The Ryman, at least feels like a nice cap to a period the band have used to especially double down on their hometown roots.

Set, deservedly, on the main stage, the group eschewed the intricate production rig of their recent live shows to instead play a set more casual and song-focused (even their style vibe seemed more festival-geared; Paramore fans might say Parahoy-esque). With stripes of rainbow across her face, no doubt in honor of Pride moth, commanding frontwoman Hayley Williams burst onto the stage with the type of wild, frenetic energy not often seen so early in the day, getting the audience grooving with the band’s Talking Heads-esque AL standout single “Hard Times,” before hopping back to older tune “Ignorance.” Often, bigger bands like Paramore tend to gear their festival sets to causal crowds, and focus on the hits, but if you know the group’s recent history (original drummer Zac Farro rejoining, on the heels of a couple of years of hardship and personal drama, prompting something of a personal and musical reset before this new album), I wasn’t surprised in the slightest to see them buck nostalgia to instead lean heavy on After Laughter throughout their all-too-short set.

I’m sure the focus on the new inevitably bummed out a few longtime fans wishing hard to just hear old tunes like “Misery Business” and “Pressure,” but, honestly, the bulk of Bonnaroo’s scene doesn’t seem like it’d be a magnet for Paramore diehards (like a Riot Fest or Warped Tour would), and the decision to showcase the songs that best reflect them in the present (and, honestly, make up their best work ever) was a bold and admirable move, and really made for a special, palpably exciting, and propulsive performance. Throughout, Williams and her bandmates expressed constant gratitude, acknowledging how special it was to be home, and, as they have for this whole cycle, really seeming emotional, cathartic, and relieved that Paramore have managed to preserve and come out all the stronger for it. I knew beforehand that this would be one of my favorite moments of Bonnaroo, but even after seeing Paramore several times already this album era, I was blown away by the communal, earnest, and inspired feelings of this paired-down performance. By HalfNoise cover “French Class,” and After Laughter standout “Rose-Colored Boy” to close, Paramore had, for me, stolen the weekend with a low-key love-letter of set for the town that shaped them. [PO]

The Revivalists

New Orleans-based septet The Revivalists packed enough jazzy groove and electric presence to shake the funk out your ass (“All in the Family”) during their sunset performance at the Which Stage. After stumbling upon (and falling in love with) The Revivalists at a festival four years ago, it was truly heartwarming to see the 13-year-old band play to such a large, passionate crowd and finally getting the attention they deserve. Witnessing the entire crowd fervently sing along to “Wish I Knew You” left tears in my eyes. Favorite moments? Watching frontman extraordinaire David Shaw share an apple with a fan in the pit before “All in the Family” and later sing his way through the crowd in the middle of the song.

The Revivalists are a special band; every single member of the group is a crucial component to their eclectic sound (deftly woven funk, blues, jazz and unabashed rock and roll) as well as their commanding live performance. It’s no surprise that their authenticity and invigorating shows have attracted an ardent following I can only compare to the loyalty of Grateful Dead fans, appropriately dubbed RevHeads. [LM]

AdamDevine_Bonnaroo18-Insert Adam Devine. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Adam Devine

Heading into Bonnaroo this year, I noticed one of the biggest logistical changes in recent memory: no more Comedy/Cinema Tent (which, already, had been shrunk from two entities to one). I get it, comedy always struggled from a limited capacity, and never got the attention of the music side, and cinema, though really cool and well-curated, always felt like an afterthought. Neither likely sell many tickets, although they do set Bonnaroo apart. The lack of a dedicated space, fortunately, didn’t kill comedy and cinema altogether, it changed changed their presentation for 2018. This year’s focus on Plaza-based experiences, which were remarkably well-executed, and are likely to be a strong selling point for the fest in the future, caused some of the ancillary happenings to be absorbed into the campgrounds, meaning a somewhat less-flashy comedy slate who rotated between a plaza and the Centeroo-based Christmas Barn (cinema, too, moved to a plaza, though was unfortunately considerably scaled down).

One big question mark for me in the weeks leading up was how comedy headliner Adam Devine would be presented, as he was not on the schedule and wouldn’t make sense in a tiny setting. The answer was actually quite cool, and something I’d be interested in seeing more of: instead of a dedicated set, he had a few mini sets scattered throughout the fest, ahead of tent stage performers as fans waited. I caught his pre-T-Pain set, and while Devine specifically didn’t impress (he just kind of fucked around and riffed, like a hype man more than a comedian doing a tight 10), the idea of filling that dead space throughout the weekend with comedy is a brilliant idea, and one I hope to see explored more in the future. (I also think certain major comics like Bonnaroo has booked before could easily sustain a big stage late night crowd, should they choose to try that route as well.) [PO]

TPain_Bonnaroo18-Insert T-Pain. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

T-Pain

After that mini Adam Devine set was T-Pain. Or, at least, it was supposed to be. Like many a festival hip hop set, there was an extended DJ and hype man build- a cool way to get a crowd buzzing, to be sure, but tough when you’re trying to stick to a tight stage to stage schedule- during which I took the opportunity to grab some much-needed food. By the time I walked back, the crowd at That Tent was mind-blowingly huge, a contender for the biggest I’ve ever seen for that particular stage (and honestly a strong case for T-Pain to either been on a main stage or late night). It makes sense. T-Pain in the perfect festival performer- maybe not an artist everyone would seek out on his own, but one EVERYONE is familiar with, thanks to his massive array of hits and guest features. The singer and rapper is inescapable, and a chance to hear him play “Buy U a Drank,” “All I Do Is Win,” or any number of his other hugely memorable and party starting cuts is worth making him a festival priority. By the time he came out, I was already eyeing my schedule to see another buzzy rapper, but even catching a few T-Pain songs and experiencing just how HYPE he can get a crowd was well worth the wait. [PO]

PlayboiCarti_Bonnaroo18-Insert Playboi Carti. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Playboi Carti

Young Atlanta rapper Playboi Carti feels like one of hip hop’s most important rising stars, and after last year’s breakthrough eponymous mixtape, and recent critically-acclaimed debut LPDie Lit, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to catch him for the first time. The novelty of T-Pain was cool, but Carti reminded me more of Bonnaroos of years past where I saw performers like Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and Childish Gambino on the come up, and with his absolutely commanding, electrifying, and energetic performance style, impossibly cool swagger, and captivating ability to engage a crowd, Carti already feels like a huge force. Admittedly, I’ve only given his records a few spins, so while I wasn’t deeply familiar with every cut, the sheer magnetism of his show had me spellbound from note one. Only complaint? Booking him against T-Pain meant plenty of people missed out who would’ve been instant fans. [PO]

Sturgill Simpson

Friday nights are the calm before the storm at Bonnaroo, and Sturgill Simpson’s set before Muse was just sparse enough for us to grab seats on the side-stage bleachers with friends. Playing as a four-piece band with minimal lighting and effects, Simpson let his music do all the talking. The only other time I caught the Americana crooner, he was busking on Broadway outside the CMA Awards with a Grammy sitting in his guitar case, so needless to say, Bonnaroo’s What Stage was an upgrade that gave a chance to see what he really had to offer. His set included well-known pieces like “Turtles All the Way Down” and a handful of more obscure and classic covers. Simpson shredded the whole way through— turning hits like “Brace for Impact” into 10-minute jams. I’ve long held the belief that every good band is lowkey a jam band (think live recordings of everyone from Radiohead to Black Flag). Sturgill Simpson seemed to prove my theory; he was just as much prog-rock as country. “My midlife crisis is fuckin’ dope,” he exclaimed over a wave of applause, hinting earlier to the fact that it was his 40th birthday. It seemed he celebrated suitably. [OL]

By the time I pried myself away from Playboi Carti and ventured all the way across the festival site for local favorite Sturgill Simpson, he was well into his set, so I settled near the back and used the opportunity to take a breather and vibe out. I’ve seen Sturgill plenty, most often in festival settings, but this performance felt especially loose and open-ended, perhaps since it was also his birthday, and he was just jamming away. Navigating covers, old cuts, and new, it was a nice departure from the bigger, more carefully-orchestrated, and louder faire occupying lots of Bonnaroo’s later slots, and a reminder as to why Sturgill has really become one of Nashville’s most beloved, indispensable singer-songwriters. [PO]

Khalid_Bonnaroo18-Insert Khalid. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Khalid

For as much as I love seeing returning favorites and iconic legacy acts, one the most exciting and fundamental parts of any cool festival lineup is the breakout new talent; those buzzy crop of young artists who leapfrog their way into main stage slots with relevant, instantaneous, of the moment appeal, appearing at a time that’s so fresh and raw, and often laying down the groundwork for a long and enduring legacy. Barely 20 years old, r&b singer Khalid, who, like Saturday performer Billie Eilish, feels like a young performer whose swift ascent isn’t going to be a fad, debuted at Bonnaroo just months after a plethora of Grammy nominations, and despite his greenness (notably, his career started with high school SoundCloud recordings), he already feels like a star. Performing with a backing band on a gorgeous stage made up of a vibrant screens and lighting arrays, Khalid soared with transcendent renditions of cuts from his breakout 2017 effort (named by many as album of the year), American Teen, like “Location,” “Young Dumb & Broke,” and “8TEEN.” I was certainly looking forward to his set, but Khalid left me speechless and spellbound, likely stealing the night for many in his huge crowd, deservingly positioned right ahead of Muse. I suspect when we see him back at Bonnaroo, he’ll have the top billing. [PO]

OkeyDokey_Bonnaroo18-Insert Okey Dokey. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship

Okey Dokey

Were it any other small band, I would’ve pushed closer to the front and stayed for the entirety of Khalid, but with so many sets vying for evening eyeballs, I knew I had to go lend local faves Okey Dokey my support at the Who Stage before Muse. I’m particularly glad that I didn’t skip out, since the band, likely also aware that their set time would be competitive, pulled out all the stops and turned into a celebratory, local affair, inviting out fellow Nashville artists like Liz Cooper, Rayland Baxter, and even Brad Shultz from Cage the Elephant, for one big, epic, family style jamboree; something of an under-the-radar, Nashville mini super jam. Unsurprisingly, their crowd was modest, but man everyone else at the fest missed out one of the coolest moments of the weekend. Those are the types of things that make Bonnaroo so special, and why I always encourage everyone to explore and wander as much as possible; you never know what kind of awesome happenings you’ll find! [PO]

Muse

I must confess: while I definitely consider myself a Muse fan, I’d say I’m casual at best. I jammed the classics like Origin of SymmetryAbsolution, and Black Holes and Revelations quite a bit in my teenage years, and saw the band a couple times back in the day, but they’ve kind of fallen out of my rotation and attention over the past decade, for whatever reason. They’re cool, they’re certainly a sold fit to headline, but of this year’s top-tier slate, they just didn’t get me as excited as the rest. I was hoping someone else from our crew might be more enthusiastic, but apparently the Muse fandom still defaulted to me. I approached their set with an open mind, albeit an exhausted one, and was pleasantly surprised to hear so many tunes from those mid-’00s favorites of mine early in the set. Admittedly, it was the most rock and roll, loud, and energetic Muse show I’ve even seen, with frontman Matt Bellamy dazzling with his technical prowess and ability to rock a festival stage. They were good, great even, and the sizable crowd crammed in to watch seemed to agree. Still, halfway through, my exhaustion got the better of me, so I retreated to press to listen to a few later tunes from a distance while finishing my work for the day, then- and I full admit this is blasphemy- turned in early before the SuperJam, deciding being at 100% the second half of the weekend was my priority. [PO]

SuperJam

I grew up in Manchester’s “Sister City,” Tullahoma, TN and have been to Bonnaroo every year since 2006. The number one thing I’ve learned about having the best time I can possibly have is: Do Not Miss The Fucking SuperJam!! I’ve done it before, I’ve left to go see something else and came back only to hear about the crazy super star cameo that I missed out on. Tom Petty Tribute SuperJam definitely kept that tradition going as it was heart filled and star stacked!

The house band featured members of My Morning Jacket, Wilco, The Watson Twins, and The Texas Gentleman. Covering pretty much every popular Petty song even encoring with a couple Traveling Wilburys songs like “Handle With Care.” Super great appearances by Langhorne Slim doing “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” ,Sheryl Crow with “American Girl,” Sylvan Esso and Justin Vernon doing “Stop Draggin My Heart Around,” and Vanessa Carlton with “Learning To Fly” were some personal favorites and notable performances of the songs.

I felt just like I did seeing Tom Petty at Bonnaroo in 2006 and again in 2013…. “Free, Among All My Wildflowers, Where I Belong”  [LM]

Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

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[PO] Philip Obenschain
[OL] Olivia Ladd
[LM] LunaSea Media

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