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Bonnaroo 2015 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Forty-four reviews that prove The Farm is more or less a permutation of nirvana

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    bonnaroo logans cosWe all come to Bonnaroo for one reason or another: love, escape, freedom, “fuck it.” Whatever brings you there usually brings you back. That’s because The Farm is more or less a permutation of nirvana —  a raw, unrivaled experience that, yes, includes unbearable heat and the occasional whiff of feces, but also one where the positives squash the negatives like a water bottle that’s been dropped in the middle of a Deadmau5 set. Hyperbole? Possibly. But nowhere I’ve traveled — be it a festival, a foreign country, or a small town in Iowa — has ever been so welcoming.

    Like many people, I’m often one to avoid public interaction with strangers, instead diving into my phone or using my ear buds to create an artificial wall, so I won’t be bothered. But not at Roo. For four days, I’m among new friends who are willing and able to hold a pleasant conversation. This is a beautiful tradition of Bonnaroo and one they’ve kept going for 14 years strong. Here’s why that’s important: The further we all drudge into the abyss of adulthood, the more we cherish these moments. Time passes while life spaces out and speeds up. Making the most out of this time is what Bonnaroo has always been about. What’s more, each year is vastly different, from additions and evolutions to lineup changes and our own expectations.

    It’s hard to ever walk in knowing what to expect.

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    This year, those who visited Manchester, Tennessee, were treated to a few new “luxuries”: flushable toilets (I’m obsessed), new stages, and even a grove-of-sorts featuring hammocks and one Instagram-ready forest chandelier. The Who Stage was a small, black-bannered home for bands who otherwise might not have made the cut. Off to the side was a tent where the same artists could interact with their fans and sign goodies. Not so hot was the buzzkill Kalliope Stage, which was tucked in between This Tent and The Other Tent, sort of like that sweaty guy who crams into your friends’ circle halfway through a show. The stage’s endless barrage of generic techno and dubstep plagued any ambiance being crafted on the more celebrated main stages.

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    However, as I walked with the crowd on my way back from watching the bloody season finale of Game of Thrones — Bonnaroo is very pro-Westeros, thank God — the communal “That was amazing!” feeling remained stronger than ever. We saw the potential artist of our generation (Kendrick Lamar). We saw a member of Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant). We saw a collection of some of the best artists in different genres (Caribou, Run the Jewels, Tears for Fears). And though I will likely have a month-long hangover, it was worth every second. The best part? We’re already counting down to Bonnaroo 2016!

    In the meantime, read ahead for our full report from this year.

    –Kevin McMahon
    Staff Writer

    Kacey Musgraves

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    That Tent — Friday, 7:15 p.m.

    “Let’s stay for five songs and bolt for Alabama [Shakes].” That was the consensus of the several gentleman behind me during Kacey Musgraves’ evening set. After taking in the cheesy Western milieu onstage, which included light-up cacti, I was on the same page. To be fair, Musgraves deserves plenty of credit for her work, which has inspired quite the following since her start on Nashville Star in 2007. Better yet, her songs fall perfectly in line with the medium-rare portion of the pop-country steak with platitudes and lyrics that taste good and go down easy: “Mind your own biscuits, and life will be gravy,” she sings on “Biscuits”. Thing is, I’ve just never been a steak guy myself. –Kevin McMahon

    Temples

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    The Other Tent — Thursday, 8:30 p.m.

    As the sun set on the first of four constitution-testing days on the farm, UK psych-rockers Temples took the stage to a noted sigh of relief. The quartet donned their standard ’70s garb, and off we went. 12-string lead melodies on tracks like “Colours to Life” and “Shelter Song” punch to the front and stick with you. Vocal harmonies sound like calls to the countryside set in another time. In all, Temples seem like the next logical progression in European psychedelia. While the word “recycled” comes to mind, it’s not meant in bad taste. We’ve got to recycle if we are to survive; it’s a good thing. –Kevin McMahon

    Bear’s Den

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    The Who Stage — Thursday, 9:00 p.m.

    After a 10-minute delay due to some rough soundcheck difficulties, Bear’s Den proved greatly worth the wait for the well-packed Who Stage crowd. Though the band’s heartbreak folk isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly connected with the girl who was brought to tears at the first note of opener “Elysium”. With warm vocals and spot-on harmonies, the British band delivered a gentle set that simultaneously beat with a solid energy, with guitarist Andrew Davie and banjo player Joey Haynes playing into each other as much as toward the crowd. There’s an earnestness in their show, and it clearly works. –Ben Kaye

    Iceage

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    This Tent — Thursday, 8:15 p.m.

    Apparently, I avoided some awkwardness by arriving to Iceage’s set a few minutes late: The controversial Danish punks started playing their “On My Fingers” only to stop a minute or so later. After a separate lighting issue was resolved, though, the band finally launched into their hard-charging sound for good, and at its best, it was mesmerizing. Even when guitarist Johan Wieth chugged out an entrancing, standalone riff toward the end of the set, all eyes were on frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, whose phantom-like presence was as intriguingly theatrical as it was strange. Credit where it’s due, though, because Iceage’s other three members were locked in in their own right, with drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen smashing away at a near-scary velocity. One quibble: Iceage’s overall gloominess isn’t exactly conducive to cheery festival vibes, and they didn’t modify much to help that. –Michael Madden

    All Them Witches

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    The Who Stage — Saturday, 12:00 a.m.

    On record, Nashville’s All Them Witches are a heavy mix of Southern blues and hard rock psychedelia. They brought that same sound to the Who Stage as the clock struck midnight Saturday night, but perhaps inspired by Bonnaroo’s roots, they expanded their sound and ventured into more jammy territory. With Mumford’s fireworks blasting behind them, they tore through cuts from Our Mother Electricity and Lightning at the Door. It was a confident performance from such a young band, but could have used more of the muster that’s found on the records. Regardless, these guys have a bright future ahead of them. –Carson O’Shoney

    Gary Clark Jr.

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    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Which Stage — Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

    With B.B. King’s symbolic passing last month, the blues need a chosen son now more than ever. If Saturday evening at Bonnaroo is an indication, Gary Clark Jr. seems to be up to the job. He embodies the face-lift rhythm the blues needs if it’s to remain a widely valued staple of music in 2015. His updated version understands, embraces, and incorporates the music the blues has influenced: from country to rock, hip-hop and beyond. At the end of April, Clark mentioned he was about finished with his second album in an interview with Rolling Stone. It might just turn out to be a stumbling genre’s defibrillator. –Kevin McMahon

    Mini Mansions

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    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    The Who Stage — Friday, 5:30 p.m.

    To simply label Mini Mansions a Queens of the Stone Age side project is doing them a disservice. Sure, QOTSA’s bassist, Michael Shuman, is involved, but the band is really about the keys and vocals of Tyler Parkford and the drums and vocals of Zach Dawes. Their mix of Marc Bolan-esque glam, late-era Beatles psychedelia and glitzy synthpop was a perfect fit for the new Who Stage. Highlighted by a slowed-down cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”, they thrilled their small audience, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see them back here on a bigger stage soon. –Carson O’Shoney

    Dej Loaf

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    That Tent — Thursday, 6:45 p.m.

    Even with her candied melodies, which make her music closer to TLC than Trick Trick, Detroit rapper/singer Dej Loaf showed up in Manchester distinguished by her street sensibilities. A member of XXL’s 2015 Freshmen class, her Bonnaroo set was a chance to see whether the hype is warranted. She got some serious mileage out of “Try Me”, performing the hook with and without the beat at separate points during her set. It’s her hit if she has only one, but the thing is that she has (or has been featured on) other unstompable earworms, too: “We Be on It”, Kid Ink’s “Be Real”, and The Game’s “Ryda”, among others. Onstage, she coolly performed these songs and more, with accompaniment coming from Detroit rapper Oba Rowland. Buoyed by chants of “Detroit vs. Everybody,” Dej and co. confirmed there’s a movement in her city worth siding with. –Michael Madden

    Cameron Esposito, Kurt Braunohler, Ron Funches

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Comedy Theatre — Thursday, 4:00 p.m.

    With an eclectic mix of performers slated for the first show of the weekend, the comedy theatre opened with a bang. Our Comedian of the Year for 2014Cameron Esposito, kicked things off with a hilarious routine focused on lesbianism and periods. Adorable soft-spoken goofball Ron Funches came next, warming the hearts of the audience with his giggle alone and making them giggle themselves with his views on his newfound richness. Jamie Lee fell a little flat after those two, as a self-proclaimed “basic bitch” telling gross-out jokes. Luckily, Kurt Braunohler closed the show on a high note, from stories of proposing on a hot air balloon (tip: don’t) to messing up his marriage within days of tying the knot. It didn’t hurt that he told the crowd how much better Bonnaroo was than Coachella, aka “desert prison.” A little Bonnaroo love goes a long way, but this crowd loved him either way. –Carson O’Shoney

    BRONCHO

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    New Music on Tap Lounge — Thursday, 11:15 p.m.

    Closing down the On Tap stage on Thursday, BRONCHO shifted seamlessly between shoegaze, garage rock, and punk, all with hooks that just ever so subtly register in pop. Drummer Nathan Price started the set with a cigarette between his lips and kept his head down over his kit the rest of the time, cutting his drums with whip-sharp hits. Frontman Ryan Lindsey twitched about with a jerky, mumbly energy, all yelps and sputters, but in a good way. He glared down at the crowd with something that looked like disinterest or even hostility, but he was actually just having a ball, and so was the highly responsive late-night crowd. –Ben Kaye

    Unknown Mortal Orchestra

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    The Other Tent — Friday, 4:45 p.m.

    Fresh off the heels of their excellent album Multi-Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra provided a perfectly breezy afternoon set. With low-key grooves, a lovely daytime light show, and a few drum/keyboard/guitar solos, UMO bridged a gap between their brand of lo-fi psychedelic pop music and some of the more jammy roots of the festival. Singer Ruban Nielson connected with the audience in more ways than one — he sang from the rails during one song, even switching hats with a fan for the rest of the show. There weren’t many highs, but there also weren’t any lows — it was just a consistently fun and groovy set throughout. –Carson O’Shoney

    Sylvan Esso

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    The Other Tent — Friday, 6:30 p.m.

    Sylvan Esso took the stage riding the edge of day two’s descent into evening. As they did, lead singer Amelia Meath took a moment to scan the crowd. When she had finished, her assessment was brief: “You set the vibe. Let’s do it,” she beamed. Meath’s black dress, spotted with glittery eyes, shimmered in the twilight. For someone who is new to the the front woman position, her grace is something to behold. This poise is crucial to the success of a Sylvan Esso performance. Without a large visual accompaniment, all we see is Meath and Sanborn, who is preoccupied with creating the eclectic brand of beats Meath’s soothing pop vocals rest on. Meath’s sincerity and ability to engage a large audience mitigates the emptiness of the stage. What we’re left with is a dance show capable of doing a lot with a little. –Kevin McMahon

    Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    The Other Tent — Sunday, 1:15 p.m.

    Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas brought out as big a crowd as you could hope for an opening slot on the final day of Bonnaroo. The heat was sweltering, but so was the band, with Hernandez herself commanding all the attention. She’s a petite woman with not just a big voice, but a big presence, stepping high and hopping about with seemingly endless energy. As they ripped into recent hit “Don’t Take My Man to Idaho”, it struck that Hernandez is a mid-’90s Gwen Stefani with a blues twist, and the band is a ska soul outfit, all energy and fire with a whiskey edge. –Ben Kaye

    Jamie xx

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    The Other Tent — Saturday, 6:00 p.m.

    Electronic producer Jamie xx, aka Jamie Smith, is not one for excess. As masterful as it sounds, and as many musical histories as it pays homage to, his new In Colour is dense enough to show off his formidable musical IQ and no more. Naturally, Smith dressed modestly for his Saturday set and didn’t touch a mic once. He spun favorite records including The Persuasions’ “Good Times” (sampled on In Colour‘s Young Thug- and Popcaan-featuring “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”), but it was the material taken from his album that truly showcased his good taste, the beats hitting with a perfect balance of grandeur and sleekness. Frankly, Smith resides at the cutting edge of electronic music, even if his stripped-down visual aesthetic indicates something less high stakes. –Michael Madden

    Courtney Barnett

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    This Tent — Thursday, 10:45 p.m.

    For Courtney Barnett, the “singer-songwriter” label is a bit misleading. It’s true — she does write and sing her songs — but as evidenced by the number of times I heard “I was not expecting that!” after her show, most just assume that label means solo and acoustic. Not so with Barnett, who came out guns blazing on Thursday night with a loud and grungy 45-minute set. The energy stayed high, the crowd was as hyped as a Thursday crowd gets, and in between songs she charmed the pants off everyone with her Australian accent and sly sense of humor. It was everything you could hope for in her Bonnaroo debut. –Carson O’Shoney

    The War on Drugs

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    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Which Stage — Saturday, 5:45 p.m.

    You’ll never see more people on drugs cheering for something called The War on Drugs than at Bonnaroo. Their dreamy, jangly rock was suited well for an afternoon underneath the Tennessee sun. It was the perfect set for laying on a blanket, beer in hand, surrounded by friends and contemplating life. And on the third day of a long, hot, sweaty weekend, sometimes that’s exactly what you need. –Carson O’Shoney

    Dawes

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    What Stage — Friday, 5:30 p.m.

    “This is our third time playing Bonnaroo,” Taylor Goldsmith said early in Dawes’ Friday afternoon set, “but our first one the main stage. And let me tell ya, it’s a completely different experience.” Thankfully, it was an excellent experience, as well. Goldsmith used the larger performance space well, taking large strides towards members and the front of the stage as he tore into solo after solo. New bandmate Duane Betts, son of The Allman Brothers’ Dickey, blended in well, and Dawes remains one of the most engaging Americana live bands around. And it doesn’t get much better than a crowd belting of “When My Time Comes”, especially with the Goldsmith brothers putting in an extra bit of oomph for the Roo crowd. –Ben Kaye

    Mac DeMarco

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    This Tent — Thursday, 12:15 a.m.

    Does anyone belong at Bonnaroo more than Mac DeMarco? After watching the musician joke and tear through four cigarettes in just the sound check, we had our answer: No. Simply put, the fans want DeMarco as much as they want to hear his music. He’s like a giant human dimple; everything he does is charming, whether he’s handling broken strings like it’s part of the show or crowd surfing with ease. The guy does his best to strip down any ego, so everyone can just “hang out”. His music ain’t too bad, either. “Salad Days” was a goofy yet pleasing opener, his cover of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” was Pure DeMarco, “Still Together” wrapped things up with its Lion King-partitioned chorus, and his quick cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was a legitimate encore. What a wonderful ending to day one. –Kevin McMahon

    SZA

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    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    The Other Tent — Saturday, 4:15 p.m.

    R&B singer SZA may be seen as a secondary figure in TDE’s stable, having arrived after the core four in Black Hippy, but that doesn’t mean she’s not ascendant. Looking like a festivalgoer herself in a crop top and a skirt, the 24-year-old sang and danced with a bubbly sense of freedom. But the atmosphere could only be so relaxed; she’s also prone to tender introspection a la TDE’s Kendrick Lamar and Isaiah Rashad, emoting uninhibited in the pockets of “Childs Play”. That goes for both times she played the song: once solo, capably handling Chance the Rapper’s stop-and-start verse, and once with Chance himself. However, neither Chance nor SZA’s other guest, Anna Wise, could distract from the soulfulness of her performance, one that included a rare and enthusiastically received encore. SZA has resources, but considering her control as a vocalist and her incisiveness as a lyricist, she should be fine no matter how many she uses. –Michael Madden

    Tanya Tagaq

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    This Tent — Friday, 3:15 p.m.

    It’s hard for anyone to adjust to Tennessee heat in the middle of June, but Tanya Tagaq takes the cake for least equipped to deal with this weather. “I’m from 200 miles away from the North Pole. This Eskimo is HOT,” she proclaimed as she took the stage. She spoke with the crowd for a good five minutes, explaining what throat singing is and that they improvise most of the set so this exact one will never happen again. Her polite and sweet personality shone in this opening, proving much needed context before the music took over and transformed her into something else entirely. Plenty of artists lose themselves in the music – but none quite like this. She became something else entirely. Something primal. She connected the past and the present by bringing this traditional Inuit throat singing into a modern context with experimental accompaniment by a drummer and a violinist. It was intense, guttural, moving, and beautiful — almost too weird for Bonnaroo. The crowd was small, but the true experimental music fans loved every minute. –Carson O’Shoney

    Antonio Sánchez’s Live Score of Birdman

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Cinema Tent — Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

    I’d never seen a live scoring of a film, and I’d never seen Birdman, so when I saw that Antonio Sánchez would be drumming in the cinema tent for the movie, I thought it would be a perfect way to experience both for the first time. I was right. The amazing continuous-shot editing of the film gives it a hard sense of forward momentum, and having Sánchez there skittering around his jazzy score amplified the urgency to the nth. An intense, immediate film was made even more so thanks to live music. You only get to see a movie for the first time once, and I can’t imagine a better way than this. –Ben Kaye

    Glass Animals

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    The Other Tent — Thursday, 9:45 p.m.

    Every year, Bonnaroo finds a way to put the buzziest bands in the smallest of tents on Thursday night. This year, Glass Animals got that treatment, as their enormous crowd sprawled out from the Other Tent to beyond the Ferris wheel. The problem? Unless you were inside the actual tent, you couldn’t hear anything but the faint sound of bass — it was hard to even guess what song was happening at any particular time. Reports from inside the tent indicate that it was a fun and solid set, but the majority of fans never found that out for themselves. –Carson O’Shoney

    Elle King

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    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    The Who Stage — Friday, 4:00 p.m.

    Coming out with squirt guns blazing is an easy way to win over a crowd on a steaming-hot, midday show, but Elle King wasn’t there for a cool down. King delivered a pounding set of feminist country rock, complete with personal hits like “Good Time to Be a Man” and a cover of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”. She admitted she’d been called a man-hater for writing the former, but contested, “That’s not true. I’d sleep with all ya’ll,” as she shot silly string over sweaty faces. With banjo swagger, a bit of weirdness, complaints about the heat, and a powerful vocalist and presence, it was really a quintessential Bonnaroo set. –Ben Kaye

    Reggie Watts

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Comedy Theatre — Sunday, 1:00 p.m.

    You never quite know what you’re going to get at a Reggie Watts show. The thing is, neither does he. Nearly every song at every show is improvised. For this show, after a special intro from Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, he started with a riff about the backstory and legend of Bonnaroo as seen through the eyes of a Glastonbury-goer and some physical bits; then he got to the songs. Some were unintelligible — riffing on cadences, inflections, accents, and more rather than actual lyrics — while others weaved in Bonnaroo-related lyrics that the crowd ate up. Near the end, Reggie made one of his beats with an extra impressive beatbox, and the beat was so good that almost half the crowd rushed to the front of the stage to dance, making it probably the first dance party the Comedy Theatre has ever seen. –Carson O’Shoney

    Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    The Other Tent — Sunday, 5:45 p.m.

    He can be dark and merciless with the best of them, but Gary, Indiana-bred rapper Freddie Gibbs, celebrating his 33rd birthday, was pretty lighthearted on Sunday, comically (and yes, filthily) flirting with several female Bonnaroovians from his spot onstage. Joined by DJ Madlib, the pair cycled through selections from their excellent collaborative album, last year’s Piñata, as well as non-Madlib-produced Gibbs material like “Rob Me a Nigga”, “Lay It Down”, and “Pronto”. Chance the Rapper made a cameo mid-set, as he does, and Gibbs proceeded to call the Chicagoan one of his generation’s most talented songwriters and one of the few rappers he finds worthy of genuine respect. The shout-out was evidence of Gibbs’ distaste for fakery in the rap industry as much as it was a compliment sent Chance’s way. Gibbs knew that no other rapper at Bonnaroo deals in his kind of unapologetic toughness, and he wanted to leave a definitive impression of where he’s coming from with that style. –Michael Madden

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