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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

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    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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    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

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    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


    Mothers

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    As one of the opening acts on a steamy Friday afternoon, CoSigned quartet Mothers were fielding a roasting crowd and high expectations. Natives of Athens, Georgia, the band was born in the summer heat, and they handled an antsy crowd with poise. Sporting the big sibling, little sibling duo of Gibson Les Paul and Gibson SG, Mothers produced the kind of gritty surf rock that comes with growing up far from a real beach. Songs like “It Hurts Till It Doesn’t” and “Copper Mines” were especially well-received, highlighting primary songwriter Kristine Leschper’s vocals. They also gave a left-field rendition of Glenn Frey’s “The Heat is On”, which put an interesting twist on a song originally produced for Beverly Hills Cop. With Frey’s passing early this year, perhaps it was in tribute. I just thought of Axel. –Kevin McMahon


    Public Access T.V.

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    Photo by Pat Levy

    The Who Stage is a little side stage wedged between a donut stand and a fake church, and it played host to some of the weekend’s more exciting small font acts. New York City’s Public Access T.V. was probably the band I saw build the biggest crowd from start to finish. Their first couple songs were played to just a few dozen, but by the end of a set full of damn near album quality music and pretty stellar stage banter (including an “LSD” chant and a thanks to the constantly circling Trojan Groove plane for flying them in), the crowd had grown to almost fill the capacity of the Who Stage’s available space. They’re certainly a candidate for the “most fans gained” award. –Pat Levy


    Givers

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    It takes a lot of energy to excite a crowd in 95-degree weather on the last day of a festival. But Givers came prepared, with enough pep to wake even the most hungover fans. Crowdpleasers like “Up Up Up” and “Noche Nada” got the audience moving, while vocalists Tiffany Lamson and Taylor Guarisco playfully joked around onstage. Still, the show felt lacking–perhaps because it came on the heels of Lamson’s performance at the SuperJam the night before. Her jaw-dropping cover of Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” proved she can do much more than harmonize to a drumbeat. Givers’ music is all the jumpy camaraderie of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes with none of the soul and substance. Now, we know that Lamson possesses that, too, but where is it in her music? –Mandy Freebairn


    Death Cab for Cutie

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    Death Cab For Cutie // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Few musicians are able to have two extremely successful musical projects. Fewer still are able to do so with an incredibly awkward haircut. Ben Gibbard is one of those musicians. As Bonnaroo filled the What Stage for one final descent into evening, Gibbard and his ‘do wielded incredible power. Live, Death Cab for Cutie’s music comes through forcefully with a rock and roll bite that doesn’t quite make the studio versions. From “Black Sun” into “I Will Possess Your Heart”, Death Cab led the crowd seamlessly, showing a mastery that only comes with time. Even Chance the Rapper made his way into their set, requesting Gibbard play “I Will Follow You Into The Dark”. Only at Bonnaroo. –Kevin McMahon


    Post Malone

    Post Malone // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Post Malone’s show was exactly what you would expect his festival sets to be like. His DJ came out to spin a few Top 40 tracks before Post took the stage to “White Iverson”, starting the song but cutting it short and saving the rest for later, forcing everyone who just wanted to hear it in its entirety to stick around. Aside from “White Iverson“ and “Too Young”, none of Post’s other songs seem to have stuck much with the crowd. There was a carefree and loose energy to the set, though it was difficult to tell if that was coming from the stage or the crowd. One highlight was the fact that Chris Bosh was in attendance. –Pat Levy


    Ellie Goulding

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Leaving Ellie Goulding’s delayed set was a mixed bag. On one hand, her seriously strong vocal performance and her songs’ dance/pop accessibility made it easy to see why she’s so huge. On the other, her relative lack of stage prowess and originality made it hard to see why she’d commanded a closing Which Stage set. Much of her show was screens and lights, while her dancing involved mostly pacing the stage at a clip while spinning or twisting her body so that her hair made giant plumes around her. The fact that she was wearing a crisp white Pearl Jam 2016 tour shirt was cute, but its freshness also indicated she’d bought it from the festival’s own merch tent, which made it feel almost pandering. Goulding’s a fine pop star worth more than her weight in gold in that crowded field, but on the one stretching out from Bonnaroo’s second stage, she may have done better in a pre-HAIM slot. –Ben Kaye


    Judd Apatow & Friends

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Judd Apatow headlined the Bonnaroo Comedy Theatre after not doing stand-up in almost 20 years. Since then, all he did was become one of the biggest names in comedy as a writer, producer and director. Along the way, he’s picked up his fair share of connections, so he took the “& Friends” route for his headlining set, much like Dave Matthews does when he head Bonnaroo. This meant Apatow would come on stage for about 25 minutes of stand-up, before acting as MC the rest of the show. Apatow’s set revolved mostly around his family and sex. It was all well-trodden territory, and none of his jokes were too surprising, but he’s a likeable and self-deprecating guy who knows how to deliver a punchline, and he got plenty of laughs from the relatively small crowd. The biggest laughs of the night came from a story of his youngest daughter’s “vagtriliquism.”

    The two other billed performers for the late show — Beth Stelling and Nate Bargatze — were up next, and they each delivered low-energy but effective 15-20 minute sets. Then came surprise guest Kevin Nealon, who leaned into some touchy subjects in his short 12-minute set, but didn’t step on any toes. His brief foray into transgender issues ended up just being a dick joke, but not at the expense of anyone but himself. Pete Davidson, billed on the first show but not scheduled for this one, rounded out the night by doing a short set while self-reportedly tripping on mushrooms. Like most Apatow productions, the show went a little long, and some people may have been disappointed after the first show got Eddie Vedder as a guest, but it was still a solid night of comedy. –Carson O’Shoney


    SuperJam

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Bonnaroo SuperJams are often the stuff of legend: D’Angelo, ?uestlove, Jim James, R. Kelly—it’s consistently the most unpredictable musical event of the year. This year’s revue was led by the incomparable Kamasi Washington, dressed in a luxurious red and gold full-length dashiki, who served as both musician and story teller. The entire performance recanted the proud story of Tennessee through the lens of its most celebrated music: Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, BB King, Issac Hayes, and countless others were represented.

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    More talent passed through that stage in two hours than most venues in an entire year. Tiffany Lamson of Givers offered a beautiful rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You” and Nathaniel Rateliff’s rendition of the Bobby Bland classic “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” was similarly flawless. A few questionable decisions were made—Third Eye Blind’s Stephen Jenson on “Ring of Fire” and everyone involved with the decision to play “Party in the USA”—but once again, the SuperJam proved to be a must-see occurrence. –Kevin McMahon


    Jason Isbell

    Jasojn Isbell // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Sunday began on the most somber of notes. The horrible events in Orlando filled the air with more weight than all the heat and humidity of every Bonnaroo combined. Jason Isbell did his best to remind the crowd that music and the celebration of how it connects us all is what we must hold on to most during difficult times. Though he only mentioned Orlando once, with the optimistic sentiment that there’s more good than evil, his music spoke louder than words. “Cover Me Up”, an earnest love song written for his wife—who happens to be the violin player in his band—was a genuinely tender moment. The song culminated with the two, eye to eye, gliding the song to a halt. Being able to share that kind of intimacy with so many people is plenty of reason to keep the faith. –Kevin McMahon


    Dungen

    Dungen // Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Photo by David Brendan Hall

    Swedish four-piece Dungen kicked things off Friday with an eclectic set that hit all the notes of a great early-afternoon Bonnaroo show. Their psychedelic side arrived strong as they jammed their way through a mix of instrumental songs and jams in their native tongue, complete with plenty of soaring solos and improvisational moments. The highlight of the set was undoubtedly the flute jam as Gustav Ejstes twisted his solo flute tune into a clap-along that eventually boiled over into a full-blown song. While his claim that it might be the first flute played at Bonnaroo is probably false, he might just have a claim for best flute solo the Farm has ever seen. –Carson O’Shoney


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