After running down the best performances, highlights, surprises, and changes we experienced Thursday and Friday, in the first half of coverage of Bonnaroo 2018, we have the rest of our take on this year’s fest with our Saturday and Sunday report below. We already talked about some of the great tweaks like the addition of Plazas this season, but another strong factor to highlight is just how well-balanced and excellently curated this year’s lineup was in general. The background process of putting a festival lineup together is extremely tough and tedious, and with more stages than many other events, a wider net of genres typically explored, and a huge range of ages, backgrounds, and demographics to cater to, Roo always managed to bridge the old and new, feeling fresh and relevant while still mixing in plenty of legacy performers. Once again, we were impressed this year with how well-balanced it all felt, and were often scrambling to be in two places at once. Luckily, we had a whole crew on-site to cover, so check out our review of the rest of Bonnaroo 2018 below, along with some more excellent photos from contributing photographer Mary-Beth Blankenship!
Reggie Watts. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
I mentioned in our Thursday and Friday coverage that Bonnaroo made some drastic changes to its comedy presentation this year, nixing the long-running Comedy Tent in favor of splitting smaller comics between the Christmas Barn and a new campground-based Plaza, and slotting headliner Adam Devine with short sets ahead of musical acts. One exception, however, was Reggie Watts, who’s as much a musician as a comic. With long-running Bonnaroo ties (I imagine he’s a comedy contender for most appearances at the fest), it was a natural fit for Watts to return and try out his act at That Tent, and with even more publicity now from his role on James Corden, he definitely has the pull, even for an early afternoon slot. Unfortunately, I was finishing up work in the media tent and missed most of Reggie’s set, but even the few minutes at the end put a smile on my face to start the day, and our photographer tells me his surreal, joke meets musical experimentation style was on full-display. [PO]
Pond. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Schedule conflicts abounded from the jump on Saturday, and while I was tempted to stay planted after Reggie Watts for Knox Fortune’s subsequent set, I decided to run across the field to watch a few songs from Australia’s Tame Impala-linked Pond. Admittedly, I’ve not given the Nick Allbrook led outfit much time, but their vibey, psyched out sound is right up my alley, and live, they were just as cool, and even a bit more energetic than I expected. Definitely a band I left wanting to hear more of (I’ve somehow always missed their Nashville stops), and one I couldn’t help but think would be more suited to a late night set. [PO]
Knox Fortune. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
I fully admit that I (likely like many others) only discovered Knox Fortune through his associations with Chance the Rapper, but in doing my Bonnaroo prep, I really connected with his fresh, original tunes, propelled by his distinctive, high-pitched voice. As I suspected, I spotted the “Mayor of Bonnaroo,” Chance himself in the crowd, who has a reputation for coming up during ‘Roo sets and showing up to partake in the fun many more years than he’s officially appeared as a performer. While Chance indicated that 2018 would be a just for fun, low-key ‘Roo, it turned out that he did, in fact, have time for one guest feature with his friend Knox. After a stunning and soulful set of originals, backed by his vibey live band, and an out of nowhere yet really cool rendition of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Chance emerged to perform “All Night,” the song which helped propel Fortune to widespread attention. Given that it was a modest mid-day crowd for an artist who’s still on the rise, it was one of the smaller Chance features I’ve ever witnessed; an extra special treat, and one of those standout moments you only get at Bonnaroo. [PO]
Billie Eilish. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Up until recently, I was only really familiar with 16 year old rising star Billie Eilish thanks to her oft-playlisted breakout tune “Ocean Eyes.” Ahead of Bonnaroo, I went back and dug into last year’s debut, Don’t Smile at Me, as well as her scattered singles since, and was absolutely blown away by the freshness, depth, and raw talent possessed this electropop up and comer, barely older than the fest itself (she’s got them by six months). I also discovered just how well she’s leveraged her style and social media presence to attract a fervent, internet-forged cult following, all of which helped explain how Eilish was slotted on the festival’s 2nd biggest stage her first time playing.
If there was any question whether Eilish belonged at such high billing, she squashed it from the jump, emerging with a larger-than-life presence, looking cool but unfazed in baggy black clothes, and performing with a cool confidence I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another teenage performer posses in such strides. Not to keep making it about age, but there’s something that that time in youth that lends itself to a mixture of naive no-fucks-given ambition and an earnest willingness to see the world without such a jaded lens, and Billie, no doubt a MASSIVE star in the making felt as personally artistically intriguing as she did musically accomplished. Give it two, maybe three years, and I have no doubt she’ll be headlining this thing. [PO]
Billie Eilish is a punk rocker disguised in layers of accessible pop hits. I felt like I was watching Hayley Williams at Warped Tour 10 years ago. How the hell can a 16 year old be so damn COOL without seeming pretentious? Billie moved with the grace and swagger of a seasoned performer well beyond her years. Her look when she’s dancing can only be described as “filth face” and I am HERE for it. She delighted her fans with a guest appearance of her brother and co-writer Finneas who totally owned his moment, delivering a soulful r&b pop song of his own. Billie made sure to acknowledge everyone in the crowd as she closed her set: “if you fuck with me, thank you. If you don’t fuck with me, thank you too.” [LM]
I had never heard Jessie Reyez before and after her set I will follow this woman to the ends of the earth. Entering the That tent I was tired, cranky, and heat stroke-y, and her set was like smelling salts reviving me, empowering enthralling and exhilarating me – I let my freak flag fly sky fucking high. Reyez is a force. To introduce her song “Gatekeepers,” Reyez delivered a powerful speech about the #metoo movement: “if you don’t fuck with misogyny, put your hands up!” she screamed. She noted, “if this triggers you, I hope you wake the fuck up.” Then “Figures” was a tender moment, as Reyez, on her acoustic, was so moved by her fans loudly singing every word that she was momentarily speechless. Her fans had her back though and carried the ballad forward with vigor. The way she lit up was pure magic.
Baller move- showcasing her side gig as a songwriter by performing one of her hits, Dua Lipa’s “One Kiss,” which she couldn’t help but shout out to her manager for giving her the “industry O-K” to address the fact that SHE WROTE THAT SONG for one of the headliners on stage the day before that headliner was about to perform that song. Several other times throughout Roo we caught other bands teasing bits of The Killers, T-Pain, and Eminem’s greatest hits, and it all sounded sour in our tired overheated ears. But Jessie sheepishly yet proudly announcing that she wrote one of Dua Lipa’s biggest hits was yet another “ladies to the front” moment without having to name itself as such. Yas, Bonnaroo, YASS. [LM]
LANY. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
While it seems to be often overlooked in their lore (and because they’ve been LA based since shortly before striking it big), breakthrough indie pop trio LANY actually got their start in Nashville a few years ago, and notably played Bonnaroo in ’16 on their ascent, commanding an impressive crowd for an opening night set. It feels fitting that they retuned this year after really becoming a huge pop fixture, and their afternoon main stage slot is a testament to the group’s meteoric rise. In front of a huge, glowing LED, the group reminded me that despite their pop bent and electronic flourish, they are, at their core, a band, impressively bringing to life their infectiously catchy songs on organic instruments, while dazzling with immersive crowd work and incredibly high energy despite the afternoon heat. With singalong-ready tunes, propulsive momentum, and upbeat vibes, LANY feel like a perfect festival band, though I’d love to see what they’re up to now with more involved indoor production. [PO]
Mavis Staples. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
With a musical career spanning seven different decades, and the absence of the usual true legacy and classic acts on this year’s Bonnaroo bill, r&b and soul singer Mavis Staples seemed to carry the unlikely mantle of most accomplished and legendary performer at this year’s fest. Deservedly given a big stage and primo slot, Staples and her soulful backing band delivered a lovely, uplifting, and often socially conscious mix of original tunes and covers, showcasing her acclaimed voice and warm and inspiring attitude. I always seem to see Staples at festivals, and I love that her association with the likes of Jeff Tweedy and Gorillaz has helped bring her career into the contemporary era and find a younger audience, but I’d love to see the soul singer really shine at a show that’s all about her, in a more intimate venue space. [PO]
The Regrettes. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Though this year’s lineup didn’t offer much in the punk canon, The Regrettes made up for the deficit all on their own. I headed over to The Who Stage after a late start to the day to catch the young up-and-comers, whose set was at the very top of my list. Lydia Knight, just 17, proved her prowess as a frontwoman. Her pragmatic lyrics came to life via her commanding, rich voice. “I don’t really see any moshing happening. It’s a bit concerning. I feel like that’s such a big part of rock, no? You wanna mosh?” She commanded the crowd to start a pit, and they did despite the midday heat. The entire band was effortlessly L.A. cool with an added layer of authenticity— not to mention raw talent. The highlight of the set for me was “Ladylike / WHATTA BITCH.” Knight oozed with confidence and played to a diverse, engaged crowd. The set was a nice break from the typical ‘Roo performances. [OL]
Since first catching them at Fond Object last summer, then Chicago’s Riot Fest a few months after, I’ve been absolutely stanning for precocious LA punk upstarts The Regrettes. They’re catchy and sharp, commercially accessible without feeling manufactured, and edgy and socially conscious enough to feel substantive but not so much that they can’t have fun, fusing punk rock bite with ’60s style girl group hooks. 17 year old singer Lydia Night has, impressively, already generated buzz with some prior projects, so despite her age, she already feels like a confident and seasoned rockstar (not unlike fellow young’n Billie Eilish). They played the tiniest Who Stage, which is honestly exactly where I want to see a band like The Regrettes, their up close and personal energy and crowd engagement transforming the tiny chasm of ‘Roo into what felt like a dingy punk dive for half an hour. My love of punk isn’t usually fulfilled at this particular fest’s lineup, but acts like The Regrettes certainly help to remedy that. [PO]
Chic. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Chic featuring Nile Rodgers
After splitting my time between Mavis Staples and The Regrettes’ overlapping sets, I ditched out early and booked it to the What Stage, hoping to get as close as possible for Chic- without a doubt one of my most-anticipated bands of the whole fest, as they’re of the most legendary bands still touring that I’ve never seen live. By some happy miracle I managed to get into the front pit, as close as possible the the stage, and planted mere feet from where Rodgers would soon stand. Emerging in a colorful suit that created the appearance of being draped in abstract art, his signature long locks dangling across the front, the guitar virtuoso and legendary songwriter got the crowd amped from note one by launching into the band’s massive disco hit “Everybody Dance,” followed by equally huge “Dance, Dance, Dance.”
Though Chic’s current incarnation doesn’t seem to include many original players, Nile alone is enough to sustain the legendary group, and took much of the meat of the set as a chance to showcase all the massive work he’s penned for other artists, including Diana Ross hit “I’m Coming Out,” Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” and more, all expertly recreated by Chic’s versatile players and backing singers, with Rodgers’ signature disco defining guitar work and vocals tying it all together. I knew Rodgers was responsible for those songs, but hearing them back to back in person, recreated by their writer, really reinforced just how massively important Nile’s work has been to the course of popular music.
By the finale of the band’s most memorable and influential original tunes, “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” the afternoon main stage crowd was one enormous dance party, and though it was one of the coolest, best, and most memorable Bonnaroo performances I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t help but imagine how even more perfect it would’ve been as a late night set. Still, I’ll take what I can get, and like The Beach Boys and Paul McCartney a few years prior, checking the legendary Chic off my bucket list was a huge weekend highlight an experience I won’t soon forget. [PO]
Old Crow Medicine Show
I’ve been trying to see Old Crow Medicine Show for years, but, somehow, the opportunity was always missed. So I was beyond excited to finally see the raucous string outfit right at home in Tennessee, as the sun went down over the Which Stage. The mayors of Manchester and Coffee County presented Ketch Secor and the gang with a key to the city, a traditional Bonnaroo honor that’s also been bestowed upon the likes of Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Merle Haggard. They started off with a rollicking cover of “Rainy Day Women #5” by Bob Dylan, throwing in a clever “they’ll stone you down at Bonnaroo” lyric, drawling out each and every syllable. They played old cuts like “Tell It To Me” and newer ones from their latest LP, Volunteer. Beyond crowd favorites like “Rocky Top” and “Wagon Wheel” that had everyone in the crowd singing along, the highlight for me was their magnificent closer: a lively rendition of gospel rock classic “Spirit In the Sky.” [OL]
Sylvan Esso. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
I couldn’t miss the epic dance party finale of Chic, so I was a little late getting to That Tent for electropop duo Sylvan Esso. By the time I did, their crowd was already so massive I could barely get a spot with visibility- a sure sign that the band are due for a stage upgrade. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the group several times since they first broke up with their debut in 2014, both in smaller clubs at festivals, including Bonnaroo a few years ago, but this was my first show since last year’s great second album What Now. As soon as I found a spot with some visibility, I was immediately stuck by how cool and rock and roll they’re looking nowadays, with singer Amelia Meath rocking a sparkly, tasseled jumpsuit, and moving around the stage with so much energy and confidence, high kicking and amping up the crowd. Of the numerous electro-laced, pop friendly, internet-forged, modern pop duos who’ve risen to prominence in recent years, I’ve always though Sylvan Esso had some of the best and most timeless music at their core, and each time I see them live, I’m reminded of that fact, hearing stellar live renditions of killer tunes like “Die Young,” “Coffee,” and “Hey Mami.” [PO]
Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals
After wrapping up at Old Crow, I found a friend and booked it to a center spot for Anderson .Paak over at What Stage. He came out, no holds barred, breaking out hits like “Come Down” from 2016’s Malibu, which attracted critical acclaim and likely most of the audience there. Just as the crowd got warmed up and rowdy for the late night portion of Saturday, the lights dimmed and he proclaimed, “Does anybody feel glowed up in this bitch? Like you’re doin’ a lot better than you were last year?” He received a spirited response as the first chords of “GLOWED UP” filled the air. .Paak’s vocals were astounding. He rolled along with newer material and I was sad to have to leave early to catch up with the rest of our crew, but nonetheless satisfied. [OL]
First Aid Kit. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
First Aid Kit
I’ve been a massive fan of Swedish indie folk sister duo First Aid Kit since whenever it was I first discovered them- I believe around the release of their breakout 2012 sophomore album The Lion’s Roar– and still regard their 2014 Bonnaroo debut as one of my favorite sets in my all of my years at the fest. I’ve seen them at The Ryman as well, which is probably too perfect to top, but with long-in-the-works new album Ruins out earlier this year, I was excited to hear some fresh material in rotation, which they delivered on from the start, opening with new tunes “Rebel Heart” and “It’s a Shame.” With flawless harmonies, mesmerizing chemistry, and an alluring sound, I always find myself absorbed and euphoric at every First Aid Kit show, but after awhile I pried myself away to see the end of Duckwrth at the nearby On Tap Lounge (more on that below), only to return to the last bit of First Aid Kit upon his conclusion, right on time to hear the duo deliver an insanely cool cover of Heart’s “Crazy On You,” followed by some of my favorite songs in their repertoire, “Emmylou” and “Silver Lining.” Definitely a weekend highlight. [PO]
Duckwrth. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
After a late tweak in the On Tap Lounge schedule, eclectic rapper Duckwrth’s set ended up slated entirely during First Aid Kit, but, fortunately, their stages were some of the closest together, so I was able to slip back for his last few songs. Despite a modest crowd, the LA up and comer was absolutely slaying, shirtless and jumping around the stage, eliciting crowd response, and just generally dialing it up to 11 as if he were rocking a big hall (and, to my amusement, I spotted Billie Eilish back in the corner of the tent going apeshit throughout). I was happy to catch “MICHUUL.,” one of my favorite Duckwrth tunes, which he recreated with hard-hitting, unrelenting energy and magnetism. I’ve often said though Bonnaroo’s hip hop slate is modest, it’s always well-curated, and this year that rang true even on the small stages, where Duckwrth, who feels poised to be a big, breakout star before long, gave one of the most exciting and impassioned hip hop sets I’ve ever seen at the fest. [PO]
Post Animal. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
I’m a huge Bon Iver fan, but having seen them at The Ryman not long ago, and knowing I’d have a chance for two sets in one night, I opted to wander to the Which Stage a little late, in favor of catching the start of Post Animal. The type of propulsive, energetic psych rock I always love to see on the bill, the band famously count actor Joe Keery among their ranks, and though he rarely performs live with them anymore, I wondered if a special occasion like this (and an excuse to hang at ‘Roo) might be the first time I’d see him in the mix- not so. But no matter, the band are excellent on their own merits, and have really become an impressive fixture in the indie scene in recent years. Opening with tunes from their recent full-length, When I Think of You in a Castle, “Gelatin Mode” and “Tire Eyes,” before kicking it back to older cut “Alabaster,” the group were met by a somewhat small but very enthusiastic crowd of fans. It was cool to see them on the Who Stage, but a Thursday tent would’ve been more suited to Post Animal’s reach. Even I couldn’t resist the pull of Bon Iver, and found myself wandering down the path to the Which Stage before long. [PO]
Bon Iver. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Perhaps the most intriguing part of this year’s Bonnaroo lineup announcement was two Bon Iver sets. Late night spots are a legendary part of the fest, and so perfectly suited to Justin Vernon’s vibey presence and extensive catalogue, but with his massive following and particularly festival friendly appeal, it also makes sense to slot Bon Iver more like a headliner; thus, the best of both worlds letting him play twice. Up until the schedule was announced, I was curious how they’d handle it; if it’d be split by days or stages (in retrospect, setting up all the gear twice or moving it doesn’t make logistical sense), or just rotated before and after another performer. It was, of course, the latter, with Bon Iver providing the bread to an Eminem sandwich, his two sets making a 2+ hour whole (which, in many years past, was par for the course for many singular closing performances, but this year seemed to have somewhat shorter headliner times). I always assumed the first performance would be the “normal” one, if that’s even a thing for Bon Iver, and that proved to be the case, with Vernon commanding the stage clad in headphones with his signature synth and guitar rig, and big (and trombone heavy) backing band engulfing the stage.
Like the stunning Ryman performance I caught last fall, 2016’s 22, A Million is still very much the vibe that Bon Iver have settled on for the time being, largely eschewing the raw indie folk and more pop rooted style of earlier releases in favor of the weird, eccentric, electro-laced art pop of their latest. It wasn’t until midway through the set that we heard one of just a few cuts from 2011’s underrated Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and not until almost the very end that they played the one and only tune from fan-favorite debut For Emma, Forever Ago, “Creature Fear,” leading me to wonder if late night might turn into a nostalgia trip. While it felt like I’d seen essentially the same show a few months ago, it was still magical to see Vernon’s profound artistry and stunning musical evolution brought to life on stage once more, his trance-like, commanding yet loose presence the lynchpin for a whole, skilled backing outfit, like a conductor leading an experimental orchestra. Firmly convinced that the second yet would be truly unknown territory, I took off just a bit early to make my way up close for Eminiem. [PO]
Eminem. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
At 30, I’m essentially in the prime demographic to be an OG Eminem fan. I was preteen with the trailblazing MC took the world by storm with his smash breakthrough, The Slim Shady LP, and a teen at the height of his popularity, dominating TRL, scoring radio hits, selling millions of albums, and changing the landscape of hip hop in popular culture. And, while it’s true that I downloaded his music off Napster with the best of them, and burned friends’ CDs to avoid my parents finding out I had them, giving plenty of spins to at least the first three LPs in Em’s repertoire, and staying at least mildly dialed into his releases throughout the ‘00s, I can’t say I was ever a diehard Eminem fan, always finding his music a tad bit too violently angry and not as resonant as the pop punk and alt rock I was starting to discover, and the ’90s grunge I was clinging onto. Still, I’ve been intrigued by Mathers’ personal and professional comeback in recent years; even if his somewhat subdued reinvention feels lacking in the punk spirit of the early days, it’s still nice that his insane technical chops and legacy are still finding an outlet. I kind of wish I could’ve have seen him live in my teens, when it would’ve been the most exciting and relevant to me, but, still, Eminem is an artist whose legacy I have high regard for, and one of the few major stars of my lifetime still touring that I hadn’t seen live, making him, while not my first choice to top Roo, still one I was decently excited for.
While he’s done a decent job of finding a way to make music that’s commercially viable and relevant to the modern musical landscape, there’s no doubt that, at his core, Eminem is an artist of a different era, and while that doesn’t excuse some of his language and actions, I went in knowing what I was getting into; shock value or not, the rapper’s rampant lines about violence against women, homophobia, suicide, and abuse feel at odds with today’s cultural landscape, but he’s far from the only figure in hip hop with this kind of rhetoric, so I’m not going to anchor my review on on calling him out on it- I went to an Eminem show knowing it was an Eminem show, and I’ll leave it at that (I’m also not going to focus on the gun shot effect his DJ frequently used, which, understandably, seemed to alarm some unsuspecting fans, and has since made music press rounds- I was close to the stage and it was obvious to me that it was a sound effect, but I think given the aftermath of Vegas, clearly fake sound or not, it’s time to retire that particular element of the show).
A more positive consequence of Eminem being an artist from a different era is that he still puts on an old school, DJ, MC, and hype-man driven performance, which fully feels like the work on someone who came up in the ’90s, influenced by the pioneers of the ’80s and the early ’90s gangsta rap scene. A lot of hip hop has gone fully pop produced, chock-full of samples, and leaving the technical prowess of rapping as an afterthought, but Em is still a powerhouse, with the skill and charisma to carry a performance by sheer virtue of his talent. That’s not to say there was no production- it was a pretty cool stage with dynamic lights and screens and video clips, but clad in sweats and on his A-game technically, the real focal point was definitely Eminem himself. Exactly as I’d hoped, the performance was a sprawling career retrospective, especially heavy on tunes from classics The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show, as well as mid-period comeback Recovery and last year’s pretty great Revival. An especially powerful moment came when he invited out vocalist Skylar Grey, to sub in for Rihanna and Beyonce on two of Em’s biggest late career hits, “Love the Way You Lie” and “Walk on Water,” which she notably co-wrote, as well as tackle Dido’s verse on classic tune “Stan,” adding some softness and emotion to an otherwise bombastic set. Throughout, the sizable crowd seemed pretty hyped up, especially for nostalgic jams like “My Name Is” and “The Real Slim Shady,” and by encore “Lose Yourself,” Bonnaroo turned into perhaps the biggest hip hop singalong I’ve ever witnessed. Maybe not the most memorable “legacy” set I’ve seen on the Farm, but a damn cool one nonetheless. [PO]
Shoutout to Jason Piffier (WXNA Melted Clock Radio) for bringing a pound of cooked spaghetti which he and Atticus Swartwood (Molly Rocket) unleashed in the middle of the crowd during “Lose Yourself.” Mom’s Spaghetti helped make up for those vibe killing gunshot noises. [LM]
I surprised myself by opting to stay until the very end of Eminem’s set (those really old jams that I’ve been dying to hear for 20 years sucked me in), and after running a bit late, then wading through the crowd back to the Which Stage, Bon Iver was already well into his late night performance by the time I walked up. Still commanding a sizable crowd, though a bit smaller than before, I was able to find a spot on the field to plop down, fixated on the screen while I simultaneously took an overdue breather, and vibed out to what I expected to be a chilled out counterpart to his earlier show. I certainly wasn’t wrong. While I had my fingers crossed for a fan-service-y For Emma type set, what we got instead was much weirder, more beautiful, and unique (in fact, only one song from what album, career-starter “Flume,” made the cut). Vernon and co. played just two Bon Iver songs that were familiar to me, instead filling time with incredibly etherial covers and what I believe to be brand new music, going heavy on the synth and jam elements, and inviting out a revolving door of friends. As I arrived, Francis and the Lights was out, an expected guest but still an awesome one, doing some of his famous collabs that feature Vernon, but soon things got particularly interesting and artistic when Minnesota contemporary dance troupe TU Dance, who’ve collaborated with Bon Iver in the past, took the stage to add stunning accompaniment.
Appearances from Moses Sumney, Sylvan Esso, and Naeem Juwan followed, for a string of cool covers and reinterpretations, but the biggest surprise had to be Aalayah Eastmond, a survivor of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, who arrived to deliver an impassioned speech about the need to combat gun violence (which I couldn’t help but compare to Eminiem’s tone-deaf use of gun shot sound effects just an hour before). By a vibey Sylvan Esso cover of their tune “Coffee,” and the return of Francis and the Lights (and friends) to end the evening with “Friends,” I knew I’d witnessed something incredibly special and unexpected; the type of late night set that makes Bonnaroo late nights so unique, and one that’ll certainly go down in festival history. [PO]
Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.
Mikky Ekko. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Part of my Bonnaroo experience the past several years I’ve been attending for press is balancing the fun, busy schedule, adequate rest, and on-site workflow, and that usually means long mornings on my computer catching up on notes, write-ups, and schedule planing until it’s time to spend the day in Centeroo. That makes earlier sets hard to catch without sacrificing work or sleep, which is always a bummer, but something has to give. As much as I wanted to get to the Which Stage to see Nashville’s own Mikky Ekko kick off the final day on the Which Stage, I had to settle for listening to the breakout pop singer from a distance at the adjacent press tent. I’m told his performance was a great way to start the day, however, and I look forward to seeing him more around town soon when he inevitably finally drops his new album! [PO]
Parker Millsap. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Like Mikky Ekko, it just wasn’t in the cards for me to make it to see Americana rocker Parker Millsap, a late addition to the Roo schedule this year. Still circled on my lists of acts I had hoped to cover, our photographer was able to snap some photos so you can at least see how great his early afternoon performance looked. [PO]
Noura Mint Seymali
Noura Mint Seymali is psychedelic blues meets traditional Mauritanian griot, and when I came across her in my pre-Bonnaroo research, I knew I wanted to see her set. Things started out slow, but heated up fast into an explosion of sound. Seymali’s set was genre-spanning and a bit avant-garde. It seemed like something I’d see at Big Ears Festival— reminiscent of Bombino and taking cues from krautrock by incorporating improvisational jazz into a sound with an emphasis on drum and bass. Mediative and hypnotizing, I was pleasantly surprised that it turned out to be the perfect cool down before trekking through the last day of Roo. [OL]
Rich Brian. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
By the time I was finally organized and able to commit to spending the day in Centroo, I arrived to the Which Stage just in time for 18-year-old Indonesian viral rap star Rich Brian. Formerly known as Rich Chigga (the name change was well-advised), the internet-born sensation literally learned English from listening to hip hop (and now speaks English without a hint of an accent). While he’s certainly a novelty, his ability to mimic the flow and diction of western rap, as well as the polish of his sound on this year’s debut LP, Amen, make Brian an artist worth legitimately taking seriously, and his Bonnaroo set, definitely a bit silly and flashy, proved that the young up and comer does have impressive chops. I also love the underdog story of a hip hop loving kid from Jakarta blowing up on Vine and earning a spot on the Bonnaroo main stage, making this, by default, one of the more memorable moments of Sunday. [PO]
Amadou & Miriam. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Amadou & Miriam
The first big scheduling conflict of Sunday for me was seminal indie rockers Broken Social Scene against blind Malian husband and wife world music duo Amadou & Miriam. Though BSS are the band that mean the most to me, Amadou & Miriam are exactly the kind of group I specifically seek out at Bonnaroo, since they’re something I’m not as often exposed to, so I made a point to walk over for at least a few songs. With loving chemistry, excellent harmonies, and exuberant enthusiasm, the pair dazzled with their Malian and worldbeat sound, eliciting palpable joy from the modest midday crowd, and reminding me so much of the vibe of Bonnaroo a decade ago, when the lineup was a lot more worldly, diverse, and jam-y. [PO]
Brothers Osborne took the stage, red solo cups placed in their mic stands and the giddy audience reflected in their chrome sunglasses. I didn’t get to see their entire set, but what I did catch of the first half was high energy and, pleasingly, left out any bro-country gimmicks. They played a straightforward lineup of hits from Port Saint Joe, which was the album that piqued my interest in seeing the duo live. [OL]
Broken Social Scene. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Broken Social Scene
I traversed through the mud pit that was Centeroo to That Tent for a band that hold a special place in my heart and I had waited all weekend to see: Broken Social Scene. Their set was reverent and enchanting, as they employed saxophones and rambling harmonies to accent the nostalgic setlist. “Cause=Time” and “Texico Bitches” were my personal favorite by the collaborative Toronto group. “We lost some people this week, we lost some people last week. We’re gonna continue to lose people… we gotta help each other through the storm,” they said, in reference to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death that broke the previous morning, transitioning into the dually heartbreaking and comforting “Anthems for a 17-Year-Old Girl.” I enjoyed their set so much that I went to see them at Third Man Records, where they recorded a live album to vinyl, the next day back in Nashville. [OL]
I know I’ve seen seminal Canadian indie rockers Broken Social Scene before, but as I walked to their tent stage set, I was scratching my read to remember exactly when- it’d definitely been awhile. Their early ’00s efforts were instrumental in expanding my musical taste and pulling me away from listening to only pop punk and emo, so I was in heaven as I realized that their Bonnaroo set was more than half made up of songs from 2002’s fan-favorite, You Forgot It in People. Relatively new vocalist Ariel Engle was a stellar addition to the group’s core lineup, seamlessly filling the spot that has previously been occupied by stars like Emily Haines and Feist. The band’s effortless, confident cool was at an all-time high, and their layered, harmonically dense, and singalong-worthy tunes sounded unbelievable, especially since they had the foresight to play to the festival crowd with a nostalgic trip to some of their best-known, earlier work. They were already one of my most-anticipated bands of the weekend, but Broken Social Scene sounded even more amazing than than I could have hoped, giving me the boost of excitement I need to get through the fourth and final day. [PO]
*repeat repeat. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Local sun-drenched garage pop outfit *repeat repeat played to a packed out crowd at the Who Stage – which was especially impressive considering they shared a timeslot with Broken Social Scene and Jungle. The size of their audience – and the palpable thrum of enthusiasm – wasn’t lost on the band. They reciprocated the love full force delivering an energetic and touching performance of their crunchy upbeat tunes. They even treated the crowd to a surprise guest bringing R.LUM.R (Reggie Williams) on stage to lend his sensual shredding on guitar. [LM]
One of our absolute favorite local bands for years now (since their very first show), and an act seemingly destined to really break out in the near future, having recently announced that they’re working with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney on a followup to their buzzy debut LP, Floral Canyon, husband-wife indie pop/surf rock duo *repeat repeat were long overdue for a Bonnaroo appearance, and, honestly, probably could’ve leapfrogged to a tent had they been slotted for Thursday. Still, a Sunday afternoon Who Stage set is nothing to scoff at, despite some tough scheduling conflicts, and the band, beloved by many in the local scene, drummed up quite a sizable crowd. Tunes like “Girlfriend,” “Mostly,” and “Plugged In” all soared with their sweet harmonies and frenetic energy, bringing some great midday pep despite the heat. And a nice surprise high point came with pal R.LUM.R. joined in on guitar for a random cover of The Hives. [PO]
Dua Lipa. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
It’s rare that Bonnaroo books acts two years in a row, and rarer still that when they do, it’s not a club stage to big stage jump, but rather a big tent to main stage, without any sort of new album or promotional happening in between. But such was the case this summer for English pop singer Dua Lipa who, fittingly, I caught for the first time live at last year’s Roo. Her 2017 outing came just a week after the singer’s eponymous debut LP arrived, and in the time since, she’s grown from promising rising pop figure to undeniable star, with a string a big hits, huge guest futures, television and festival appearances, and worldwide tour dates. I can’t think of another time in my life I’ve seen the same singer play almost exactly the same set (in a different order, with just a couple of her recent featured tracks added) at the same festival just one year apart, but it served as a stunningly effective testament to her rapid artistic growth. While last year was a great, albeit more spontaneous, introduction, Dua’s main stage debut was a massive, confident, pop spectacle, complete with a huge, intricate stage of LED lights, background dancers, a bigger band, huge production, and an increased aura of polish and confidence. Songs like “Blow Your Mind,” “IDGAF,” and “New Rules,” which, again, I just saw Lipa play last summer, were impossibly huge and so much more effective, boosted, of course, but the gigantic crowd that could’ve passed for an evening headlining set. I’m sure I said last year that Dua Lipa was destined for big things, but even I’m shocked and pleasantly surprised that it happened so fast. Next stop: proper headlining status. [PO]
I didn’t know much about Dua Lipa before Bonnaroo, but after agreeing to stop by her set on the What Stage with some friends on Sunday, I was enamored and stayed until the very end. She looked great, sounded great and her backup dancers served synchronized realness. “Be the One” and “IDGAF” were showstoppers, and I haven’t stopped listening to her since. The pop queen seemed to revived the hungover, tired and sun-drenched day four Bonnaroovians. [OL]
Daniel Caesar. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Daniel Caesar was definitively my favorite set of Bonnaroo 2018. Crowds rushed over to This Tent but thinned out quickly for an intimate experience. Caesar has the voice of an angel, and the soft glow of cool stage lights and vintage film inspired videos flashing behind him reiterated that sentiment. “Hold Me Down” was just the beginning of heart-melting hits that flowed from the R&B singer and guitarist. The audience seemed to really enjoy the show, as I looked up and everyone around me was engaging in some… heavy petting. “Take Me Away” and “Get You” were drawn-out, even better than the recorded versions, which is just about all you could ask for from a festival set. The hazy performance was almost therapeutic– soulful, simple and heartfelt– his passion transcended to the listeners with ease. [OL]
The start of a hell of a tough three-way scheduling conflict with Biyo and Moon Taxi, I resolved to catch a little of each, and made the long trek from Dua Lipa to This Tent for r&b singer Daniel Caesar. I wasn’t super familiar with him before researching for the fest, but he immediately shot into my most-anticipated list after being drawn in by his soulful, expansive, and beautiful musical style. A relatively intimate and stripped-down affair, the start of Caesar’s set reminded me of a similarly transcendent, low-key performance from Frank Ocean a few years ago, and though it didn’t quite have that much of crowd, it was clear that I was still late to the Daniel Ceasar game; not only did people pack in, but they grooved along and let themselves escape into the vibey, Sunday service on stage. Though I wish I could’ve stayed for it all, and hope I can see a proper show at a spot like The Ryman in the future, I ducked out to support some local favorites, as the Sunday mad dash hit full swing. [PO]
Biyo. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
We love rising indie/electro/r&b duo Biyo, and have no doubt they’re going to continue to break out to bigger audiences, but Bonnaroo might’ve overestimated their reach a bit when scheduling them against Daniel Caesar and Moon Taxi. Though they didn’t have a huge crowd, it was definitely an enthusiastic one, and the local outfit, rounded out with a live drummer, played with enough passion to be on the main stage. Their music’s very electronic and production-heavy in recording, but live, their background in more conventional bands is apparent, with guitars, synths, and drums bringing more organic flair to beats and samples. The demise of Vinyl Thief still stings, but frontman Grayson Proctor feels like he’s approaching Biyo as the natural evolution of his musical arc, which, coupled with their modern and catchy sound, seems to have all the ingredients to make them one of Nashville’s next breakout bands. [PO]
I actually didn’t expect to have time to see Moon Taxi this year, but ended up getting to watch a few songs in passing. It’s no secret that the local outfit have had a huge several years, and already had graduated to the big stage at Bonnaroo last time around. This outing, however, they got a primo, near-headliner time slot, and definitely drew the crowd to justify it, packing in masses of fans to hear their catchy, jam-y, alt rock tunes. After a great rendition of old standby “Morocco,” I was happy to get to see the local breakouts play recent single “Two High” for the first time, a track that has, this year, elevated the band’s broad commercial appeal more than ever before, all but guaranteeing their legacy as a sustained festival draw is set in stone. [PO]
Future. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
Eminem was, undoubtedly, the biggest hip hop name on this year’s Bonnaroo bill, but Atlanta staple Future is a huge, prominent artist in his own right, and is probably more relevant to the younger festival goers. That definitely seemed to be the case as I arrived at the What Stage, and noted the makeup and hype level of his crowd (now’s a good time to add that I’m so glad that the older Gen Z festival crowd seem to be digging on internet-bred hip hop, pop, and r&b, and, finally, we’re beyond the DJ-pocalypse of recent festival seasons). Admittedly, I’m not too hip to most of Future’s catalogue, and only know him from bigger hits and features, but the dude’s had an absolutely crazy amount of albums, mixtapes, and collabs come out in just the last six years, giving him an impressive breadth of material to pull from. Songs like “Jumpman,” “Low Life, “Relationship,” and “Mask Off” were particularly awesome, as Future largely coasted on his smooth style, innate charisma, and ability to tap into the modern trap and cloud rap appeal that’s dominated the genre in recent years, and has become a favorite of young, festival going crowds. [PO]
Grand Ole Opry
The live radio show that made country music famous made its inaugural debut at Bonnaroo this year. Slotted just before the weekend’s closers, The Killers, I got to That Tent a bit after it started to see The Grand Ole Opry’s unprecedented two-hour set on The Farm. I was pretty curious as to how this would go down; I wondered how the audience would respond to the quick pace, commercial plugs and host-artist dialogue. It felt strange to see the Opry inside of a tent of sweaty festivalgoers as opposed to its formal home stage, which I’ve frequented quite a bit in the last year, but it ran seamlessly and charmed those who stayed long enough into the weekend to see it. It felt like the weekend came full circle, as it rounded up all the best country acts I’d seen over the past few days. The Op-Rooo, as Old Crow’s Ketch Secor deemed it in conversation with Bill Cody, mixed classic country with Americana and pulled out some surprise stops. Joshua Hedley and Nikki Lane covered the Loretta and Conway classic “After the Fire Is Gone,” Riders in the Sky shocked the millennials around me by playing their contributions to the Toy Story soundtrack and even Bobby Bare came onstage. The coolest takeaway from the this was people who had never been to the Opry were having fun, and taking genuine interest in the historical facts shared throughout the show. They were surprised to enjoy it so much; the risk to merge audiences paid off. It all closed out with a hearty performance of “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show. Overall successful, it was a pleasant clashing of two worlds that I’d love to see happen again next year. [OL]
Another big change in typical Bonnaroo tradition this year was the absence of Ed Helms’ long-running Bluegrass Situation SuperJam in favor of a Bonnaroo edition of Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry. It’s an idea so obvious I believe it took them so long to try it (though, to be fair, country’s always been a bit of a Bonnaroo afterthought), and with rumors of a country fest in consideration for the Bonnaroo grounds (like how Coachella has Stagecoach and Shaky Knees has Shaky Boots), getting Opry on board to potentially test the waters seems like a smart move. While the two-hour event, which very much mirrored what you’d see any night at the Opry House in style and presentation, simply transported to an outdoor tent, featured Opry members Old Crow Medicine Show, Bobby Bare, Del McCoury Band, and Riders In The Sky, as well as Joshua Hedley, LANCO, Nikki Lane, and Maggie Rose. I only had time to see a few songs from Hedley, who sounded excellent, but just the sheer experience of seeing an iconic piece of Nashville transported to Manchester was surreal and very cool. I’m curious to see if this is going to be an ongoing fixture, a placeholder for Bluegrass Superjam’s eventual return (or both), or simple a one-time experiment. Either way, it was a super cool addition to this year’s fest. [PO]
The lead up to The Killers’ festival-closing headlining set was full of artists I was equally curious to check out, so as my friends went to the What Stage to try for a close spot, I opted to grab some food, take a breather, and do one last lap around the grounds, catching a sampler of several late Sunday sets. After Opry, I strolled to This Tent for a few songs of Thundercat, the futuristic, neo soul and jazz fusion artist who I first came to know through his work with Kendrick Lamar, and then last year’s unbelievable solo effort Drunk (and I’ve since come to realize just how many incredible artists I love he’s had a hand in working with over the years). I was shocked not to see a bigger crowd, but the folks there, excellent taste the lot of them, were absolutely stoked, and let the weird, eclectic, impressive technical prowess of one of the most talented artists making music today transport them to the vibe of Bonnaroos past. [PO]
Realizing I hadn’t watched a single performance on new stage The Other (a 2017 introduction in place of The Other Tent, which largely caters to electronic and hip hop- the latter of which pulled me in several times in 2017) all weekend, I decided to remedy that by checking out Australian electropop DJ, singer, and producer Alison Wonderland, one of the few EDM acts that piqued my interest in researching the fest this year (that side of the music scene is definitely a blind spot for me). While I didn’t really know the music, Wonderland was an engaging force, encouraging audience participation, peppering in enough pop hooks to keep things interesting, and satisfying all of the very excited out of their mind dance music fans looking to keep the party going as late as possible. [PO]
Sunday really killed me with the scheduling, and another one that stung hard was alt-J being slotted right before The Killers. As a huge Killers fan, and not having seen them in around a decade, getting a good spot for their finale was my top priority, which means I resigned early on that I’d probably be mostly missing alt-J (after seeing them from the front row at The Ryman a couple years back, every subsequent experience has struggled to compare anyway). Still, after my late night goodbye lap and blitz of closing night set samplings, I was stoked to walk up just in time to see the band play their infectious jam “Left Hand Free.” It was late, The Killers were going on shortly, and there was a lot of competition, but the English indie rockers still managed to attract a huge audience, all singing along and dancing to every note. I hope their next Roo is like a Friday late night set, because I imagine they’d do wonders with the spot Tame Impala were given last year. [PO]
The Killers. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
When Bonnaroo booked The Weeknd in the Sunday night slot last year- often and historically reserved for jam bands and older legacy acts- I wondered if it was a symptom of scheduling, or an attempt at a new precedent. Given the massive crowds for that performance, organizers clearly dug what they saw, and once again chose to buck the Sunday reputation this year to install a younger-skewing (but still seasoned enough to be a legacy band to Gen Z-ers) headliner in The Killers. And, once again, it felt like an inspired choice, providing an end to the weekend that felt fresh and relevant, and curbing the Sunday night exodus that always seemed to begin during less exciting closing acts. They’re not trumpeting some reunion, going through a period of career reinvention, or making a festival appearance out of character, nor are they close to the biggest band in rock these days; yet, still, The Killers proved perfectly suited for the task of headlining, possessing the sort of mass appeal, a catalogue that includes some mega hits that literally everyone knows, and a charismatic frontman in Brandon Flowers, who embodies that sort of old soul showmanship of the band’s hometown of Las Vegas, and an earnest love of presenting rock and roll at is essence, that makes the group feel like they live in a perfect sweet spot between contemporary and legendary.
I worked my way as close to the stage as I could, and noted just how packed in the crowd had become. I saw The Killers once in their early days, and again as they headed into their middle period, but was excited to revisit them many years removed. As they emerged on stage to rapturous applause, the band did something that truly shocked me right off the bat- they opened with arguably their biggest and most recognizable hit of all, “Mr. Brightside.” What a bold and badass thing to do, and from that moment on, an immediate energy builder and epic singalong, they had the crowd in the palm of their hands, energized and early hanging onto to every word. I was stunned, too, when they got to “Somebody Told Me” by song three, and started racking my brain as to what they might even be saving for the end. It turns out, it didn’t really matter where the hits showed up, because The Killers’ catalogue is full of such a great and engrossing mixture of songs, which they seemed to have carefully curated in sequence for maximum emotional effect. Affable and soft-spoken, the sharp dressed Flowers sounded better than I’ve ever heard him, and has gracefully aged into a humble and easygoing torchbearer for the post-punk revival of last decade. All throughout the show, he seemed genuinely thrilled to be able to command and impact such a huge festival crowd still, putting in the work to engage with the audience, and repeatedly thanking the fest.
Nostalgia flooded over me as the band played epic tunes like “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” “Smile Like You Mean It,” “For Reasons Unknown,” “Read My Mind,” and “All These Things That I’ve Done,” and a cover of Tom Petty classic “American Girl” was a surprising and cool way to pay tribute to a legend who’d occupied that very Bonnaroo slot (though it did leave me wishing The Killers had dropped in on SuperJam). After an emotional and gratifying, nostalgic and sing and dance along heavy performance, they band bowed out, only to return a few minutes later with Flowers decked out in a shining gold suit, an absolute embrace of the band’s flashy Vegas roots, to play “The Calling” (from last year’s Wonderful Wonderful, which I haven’t given enough attention to, but the tune was a cool, dramatic encore addition) and then “When You Were Young,” maybe not the most obvious choice for a set-ender, but one of the most important songs in the band’s catalogue to my teenage musical taste. Flashing a Vegas style “Drive Carefully. Tell All Your Friends” sign, they departed, ending one of the most epic, strong, and surprisingly moving Bonnaroo sets I’ve seen in years. As I walked back to my tent, for one last sleep (I usually take off Sunday evening, but The Killers were enough to keep me late), exhausted and smiling and reflecting on the weekend, I already began to miss my favorite fest. Until next year! [PO]
Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.
[PO] Philip Obenschain
[OL] Olivia Ladd
[LM] LunaSea Media