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Bonnaroo 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

LCD Soundsystem, Pearl Jam, and Ween are just three top acts among 55 reviews

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    At its core, Bonnaroo is about cathartic collective experience via live music. So at the risk of sounding egotistical, I’m starting this piece on a personal note: This year marked my 10th consecutive Roo, a truly personal milestone considering I can count the things I’ve done that many years in a row without fail on one hand. The benchmark felt particularly significant given that Bonnaroo celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. But plenty of people have me beat: a fairly large throng of folks have returned to Manchester, TN for every single one, essentially giving birth to a localized subculture unlike any other in the U.S.

    So what makes it worth the annual pilgrimage? It’s difficult to narrow down the reasons, but for starters, there’s no sound ordinance with its rural location – on “the Farm,” as we Bonnaroovians call it – which means that headliners can play special, lengthier than normal late-night sets, including the insanely stacked Superjams of lore. There’s also the communal magic of the campgrounds, which often feature plenty of planned and unplanned pop-up parties and shows, and sprawl about four times the size the Centeroo (main fest grounds). And in general, there’s the attraction of what the fest calls the Bonnaroovian Code, a list of suggested ethics that existed long before they were written down several years ago. Chief among them: Radiate Positivity. People walk through the iconic arch – this year outfitted with Dr. John’s feathered cap, whose album Desitively Bonnaroo is the fest’s namesake – and shed their egos, often without even realizing. It creates the closest thing we have to the spirit of Woodstock, with a contemporary utopian twist where the jocks and the hippies get along, where the young and old can play together without ever getting caught up in preconceived opinions.

    Bonnaroo 2016 // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Despite those reliably recurring elements, ticket sales for this year were reported by fest organizers to be “slightly lower.” Sounds like no biggie, but some were speculating attendance between 40,000-50,000, which, if true, would be a massive decrease from the past few years’ typical 90,000. How could that be, one might wonder, with Roo’s reputation for proliferating transformative experiences? I mean, shiiit, that Pearl Jam set was for the history books, and there were some undeniably special bookings, including a confetti-splattered, late-night set from Tame Impala, another incredible dance party from LCD Soundsystem, and two back-to-back, two-hour, fest-closing sets from the Dead & Company, the new incarnation of the seminal group featuring the ever-gifted John Mayer. And don’t forget the undercard stocked with surefire stunners like Haim, recently reunited Ween, Band of Horses, J. Cole, Big Grams (Big Boi + Phantogram), and Blood Orange.

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    But under the microscope, the lower turnout isn’t surprising: There are only so many fiercely dedicated PJ fans that would (and probably did) dish out the cash for the weekend pass just to see their favorite band, and LCD Soundsystem – though seriously badass in this magical setting – is booked virtually everywhere this year, effectively killing their “get” factor. As for the Dead & Company, they attract a limited demographic – mostly of an older generation that may not be as willing to endure four days of camping in crushing heat, the threat of dangerous lightning storms (fortunately, Saturday’s brief evacuation proved to be a false alarm), and minimal sleep across 96-plus hours. Sure, the fest featured EDM titans like Griz, Flosstradamus, and Chainsmokers (which boasted a guest showing by budding pop star Halsey), but there was nothing like Deadmau5’s main stage headlining spectacle of last year to convince tens of thousands more millennials to buy in. Perhaps Macklemore’s presence could be argued a sufficient draw, but the lingering buzz of his “Thrift Shop” blow-up has long since waned.

    Bonnaroo 2016 // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Yet, to say that the decreased attendance caused problems for the fest would be contrary to the long weekend’s overarching, unmistakably Bonnaroovian vibe. It makes sense if you think about it: a smaller gathering means more intimacy, which proliferates more connection and shared, music-induced euphoria between everyone involved. The average Bonnaroovian wouldn’t have even noticed the difference, however, because the fest’s footprint was tightened to fit the adjusted attendance.

    Even though these details are important for the fest’s history books, they likely matter very little to anyone who was actually there. That’s because it’s extremely probable the majority of this year’s ticketbuyers were the types who would’ve splurged for the experience no matter what lineup was attached. We were fortunate this time around to be surrounded by tons of those super-dedicated music fans that form the bedrock of the fest’s unshakable subculture.

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    Anyone that’s worried about Bonnaroo fading away for ticket sales-related reasons is sliding down the slippery slope of Mt. Assumption. If anything keeps the fest alive, it will be the event’s unwaveringly dedicated organizers and this year’s core fan group, the true Disciples of Roo.

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Eddie Vedder put it succinctly on Saturday night: “Bonnaroo was one of the first fests like this to take hold in the States. It’s not just the people who put it on, but the people that come here – you – who [create] the positivity it takes to take care of each other when it’s too hot, when lightning comes …”

    Little did Vedder know just how meaningful his words were on this particular evening. As the band approached the conclusion of their exhilarating set, the deadliest mass shooting in United States history and worst terror attack since 9/11 was committed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL. The juxtaposition of events underscored just how important it is to promote a set of caring ethics like the one Bonnaroo upholds. The preservation of our humanity depends on it.

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    Inevitably, Bonnaroo will kick your ass – doesn’t matter if you’re working, just enjoying, staying in a hotel, or camping – we’re all-in, all together. With that attitude, there’s always a sunny side to any moment of adversity. It was these people and their optimistic outlooks that pulled Bonnaroo through one 15-year period – essentially a lifetime when you take stock of the fact that many of this year’s teen attendees were born on or around the same year as the fest. Idealism can be dangerous, but it’s also a fundamental facet of every great music festival. With that in mind, there’s every reason to believe that these same diehard Bonnaroovians will help propel the festival through another extraordinary epoch.

    Click through to check out our reviews of this year’s notable artists, from worst to best, plus a massive exclusive photo gallery.

    –David Brendan Hall
    Contributing Writer


    Tyler, the Creator

    Tyler, the Creator // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    If you had a focus group sit in a room and watch the music videos for “Yonkers” and “IFHY” and then try to guess what a Tyler, the Creator festival set might be like, they would come up with Tyler, the Creator’s set on Friday evening. Sure, it was high energy and hectic, but that’s the brand he’s created for himself and this set seemed like a very boilerplate Tyler show. Throughout the show, Tyler and his onstage Odd Future cohorts Jasper and Taco threw up an insane quantity of middle fingers to the crowd and to each other. But honestly, the entire set felt like Tyler giving a middle finger to being interesting. That being said, “Bimmer” still slaps and the two Cherry Bomb tracks he played sounded great. –Pat Levy


    Steve Gunn

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Steve Gunn might have had a better show if his stage had not been sandwiched between two others. The thumping bass at Post Malone and piercing vocals at Two Door Cinema Club overshadowed Gunn’s mellow guitar, visibly frustrating him. Even a slew of new, more rock-heavy songs could not stop the show from fading into the background. The music was good enough to have been saved by some audience participation, but Gunn’s half-hearted efforts to engage with the crowd fell short, and the show suffered as a consequence. This one’s on Bonnaroo for messy scheduling, but Gunn himself should learn to roll with the punches. –Mandy Freebairn


    Tame Impala

    Tame Impala // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    After floating over to the Which Stage on the heels of LCD Soundsystem’s jaw-dropping performance, a rambunctious crowd settled in for one of the most anticipated shows of the weekend: Tame Impala. The mood was right, the lighting was right, and all traces of the blistering heat that will likely have Bonnaroovians flaking dead skin for weeks had vanished (for a few hours, anyway). Yet, almost immediately after an entrancing introduction to “Let it Happen”, a wave of apathy rippled through the crowd.

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    The Which Stage, for its part, has always been on the low end of the totem poll stacked against Bonnaroo’s other performance spaces; the sight lines can be atrocious even at a reasonable distance from the stage, and the sound decomposes similarly. With such a heavily attended concert, Tame Impala was doomed from the start.

    Their performance cast a few hundred foot net—within it, the confetti filled psychedelic dream world was in full force. “Elephant” hit hard and led beautifully into the introspective “Yes, I’m Changing” as its hypnotic melody rolled more than a few eyes back in their respective heads. For those trying to enjoy from a medium distance or beyond, however, it can only be compared to being served a flat beer after a long hot day. –Kevin McMahon


    Third Eye Blind

    Ben-Kaye-Bonnaroo-Third-Eye-Blind-5

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Despite what may have been the worst SuperJam appearance in the last five years, I was really looking forward to Third Eye Blind‘s Sunday evening set. And so were many others as The Other Tent was more packed than I’d witnessed all weekend. Unfortunately, the band performed with such unearned ego that it was just another letdown. Stephan Jenkins, in some sort of half-dress apron, started the set essentially hidden at the back of the stage shrouded in fog and strobes, leaving the audience unsure if he’d even appeared. Hits were spread too thin and covers of Beyoncé and Prince felt flat. It would’ve been just as well had Jenkins walked off the stage when he dropped the mic during the second song, a move he was so proud of that he had to tell keyboardist Alex Kopp how cool he thought he was. Which just goes to show how uncool it really came off. –Ben Kaye


    Hundred Waters

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    Ben-Kaye-Bonnaroo-Hundred-Waters-3

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    First day at The Other Tent is often dubious. It’s hard to place a finger on why, but no other stage has such a consistent issue with the live mix. Hundred Waters were not immune. The energy at the beginning of the show was lackluster at best, and with the bass rumbling over everything besides the peaking high end, we were not off to a good start. Luckily, as the crowd filled in, Hundred Waters seemed to as well. “Down With the Rafters” began the upswing with a thumping kick-drum much livelier than the studio rendition. The momentum carried as frontwoman Nicole Miglis breathed new life into her wispy vocals. By the end, the crowd was engaged, I was sweating, and Miglis appeared much more comfortable in her translucent pink saran-wrap ensemble. –Kevin McMahon


    Two Door Cinema Club

    Two Door Cinema Club // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Two Door Cinema Club are a fine band on record, and live, they faithfully recreate their songs to a T. That said, there’s nothing surprising about the show they put on Saturday afternoon. They played a high-energy set of crowdpleasers like “I Can Talk”, “Something Good Can Work”, and set-closer “What You Know”, but some of that energy was lost on the massive Which Stage. Perhaps they would have been better served playing a prime slot in a tent, or maybe I just wasn’t feeling super high energy after dealing with the Tennessee sun for a day and a half. One way or another, they didn’t stick with me — a fine performance, just not too substantial. –Carson O’Shoney


    Bryson Tiller

    Bryson Tiller // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Despite being new on the scene, Bryson Tiller knows what makes a hip-hop show. This is not necessarily a good thing. Tiller’s show was everything you’d expect and nothing you wouldn’t –mostly hits, some light joking, a short anecdote about starting at the bottom. Even Chance the Rapper’s cameo (his second of the night after coming onstage during J Cole) was unsurprising. Nevertheless, Tiller garnered a large and enthusiastic crowd. The good thing about starting off knowing the basics is that you have a leg up on those who are still figuring out stage presence. Tiller’s music is good, and he has potential to be a great performer; he just needs to find his own style rather than imitating others’. –Mandy Freebairn


    GoldLink

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    All you can hope for during what passes for late night on a Thursday evening is a set that brings the highest energy possible to get your spirit up after the long trek to the Farm. Though it wasn’t the most enlightening performance ever delivered, GoldLink’s closing show over at The Other Tent at least met that requirement. Backed by a slowly forming three-piece band (two-piece, if you exclude the DJ), the rising DC rapper was full of fire as he bounded about the stage. An early cover of (I believe) Tyga’s “Bouncin’ on My Dick” was an interesting choice, but you couldn’t deny how hyped up it got the crowd. Certainly not my personal bag of hip-hop tea, but if it works, it works. –Ben Kaye


    Wet

    Ben-Kaye-Bonnaroo-Wet-1

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Dream pop creates a fragile medium in the live space. Maintaining a trance-like atmosphere without losing the crowd to conversation or an REM cycle is a genuine struggle. Wet toe this tight rope well, sure-footed and steadily improving their sound. Guitarist Marty Sulkow astutely borrows from the pages of The xx and Beach House over beats that pay more dues to the electro of artists like Emancipator and Odesza. While Kelly Zutrau’s lyrics leave something to be desired—think recently dumped teenager—her command of melody and ice cream sweet tone make it ultimately forgivable. To the unfamiliar, Wet offered what the Who Stage was built for, a promising band growing up right before our eyes. –Kevin McMahon


    CHVRCHES

    Ben-Kaye-Bonnaroo-Chvrches-2

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    As the first bit of sun crested behind the What Stage, an ominous beat drew Lauren Mayberry and company onto the floor of Bonnaroo’s gleaming main attraction. For long time supporters of CHVRCHES, seeing them become the kind of act that can handle one of the largest venues in North America is supremely inspiring. One thing was immediately clear: Lauren Mayberry has spent some time meditating on what it is to be an entertainer. Her energy—jolting from side to side on the stage like a cross-country runner—pulled the crowd out of their late afternoon doldrums.

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    “Keep You On My Side” saw Mayberry kneeling and punching at the ground with the kind of genuine emotion that doesn’t often come from synth-pop. Her newfound ability was even more evident when Martin Doherty took the stage to sing lead on the ballad “High Enough to Carry You Over”. Immediately, a great deal of momentum was lost. Doherty is a capable singer, but the drop off in presence both vocally and physically was just too much to overcome. Mayberry was able to bring the show back up quickly with the addition of Paramore’s Hayley Williams on “Bury It”, but hiccups, no matter how long they last, are incredibly frustrating. –Kevin McMahon


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