Being at Bonnaroo makes it easy to accept that different people have different tastes and that they construct their own agenda based on the kind of music that they like. What is harder to quantify in words, though, is the effect of being on a concentrated plot of land with such a wealth of choices at your disposal. I spent a lot of my weekend this year gushing about the most perception-shattering performance I’d seen in a very long time, a Friday afternoon set from Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq. I could expand on what exactly throat singing is, but it would belabor my point here. While it’s highly likely that I could have just continued ignoring her music in favor of the infinite amount of options available online, all I knew of her was the glowing recommendation from a friend that saw her perform at a festival in Knoxville, and that she beat out Drake for a major Canadian music award. Though the crowd was predictably scarce to get up close to a sound that I could best describe as resembling a very rhythmic panic attack, those like myself who gave it a chance were rewarded with an inarguably amazing feat of the human body.
It feels good to be able to keep a secret like that to yourself over the course of a long weekend of music. It also feels good to have a lot of elbow room at these shows. As someone who suffers from the occasional bout of claustrophobia, sets by popular musicians can go from being ones that you would love to stick around for to a test of how clever you are at devising escape routes. Sandwiched between a irresistibly fun set by California surf goths The Growlers and an impeccably uninspiring set by cult hero Mac Demarco, Australian export Courtney Barnett’s late Thursday night set stands as one of my favorites of the weekend mostly because I was able to finagle a spot in a viewing area separated from the massive herd of bodies that tends to travel like a particularly aggressive airborne toxin on the first night of the festival, when the two biggest stages are dark and the crowd adrenaline is at an unsustainable high. Though I’ve been guilty of succumbing to the Thursday excitement the past two years in the form of expending myself before the sun goes down, I was rewarded this year by the chance to join in on one of the great singalong moments of my concertgoing career, though it came unexpectedly during “Depreston”, Barnett’s somber rumination on settling in the suburbs. Not exactly life-affirming material on paper, but it’s hard not to feel like it is when you’re shouting it back at the stage with thousands of others, thousands of others that are thankfully on the other side of a steel rail.
There are of course, other times where it’s essential to get in the pit. It was laughably easy to waltz into the one at the main stage for Alabama Shakes. While I expected that they were poised to blow the theoretical roof off the place given an incredible sophomore record and a time slot during the always beautiful Friday evening sunset, the proximity to the stage also allowed for a perfect spot to bear witness as star frontwoman Brittany Howard effortlessly vaulted herself into the upper echelon of contemporary musicians. I watched a recording of the set before I sat down today to try and convey what exactly happened out in that field on Friday night, but the task is insurmountable for both myself and an actual video document. All fans of music live for those “you had to be there” moments, something that’s rare in condensed festival sets, especially when it concerns a non-headliner on the main stage. And while it’s presumptuous to be speaking in such hushed tones about a band on their second album, it’s a near certainty that the sun will have long gone down the next time Alabama Shakes plays the main stage.
Speaking of solar radiation, it’s essential to learn quickly that you should preserve your energy during the day in order to enjoy the entirely different world cultivated during the night. And then sometimes, the scheduling gods decide to present you with a day that tests your desire to make sensible choices. Saturday was one such day. Starting at 2:15 pm with Songhoy Blues and ending sometime before 4:00 am with D’Angelo and The Vanguard, my agenda took me all over maps both geographic and sonic.
Songhoy Blues played a spirited brand of blues imported from their home country of Mali, which they fled after it became clear that they would not be able to pursue their dreams following a religious coup. If you’ve ever needed proof that music actually does not know boundaries, watch as the groove of a band from a small African country takes over a crowd that is likely unfamiliar with anything about said country, let alone the native tongue of the lead vocalist.
If you’ve ever wanted Real Estate to sound more like a psychedelic country jam band, take solace in the fact that such a strange desire could be immediately satiated by Woods, a five-piece from Brooklyn whose otherwise passable noodling benefited heavily from being stoned. n need of further stimulation, I caught a bit of SZA, an R&B artist signed to Friday night headliner Kendrick Lamar’s label. Unlike her boss, she actually sounds better live than on record.
Bleachers, the power pop project of former fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff, was shaping up to be an appropriate burst of midday energy that I mostly passed on in favor of a set from The War On Drugs, a band that is the polar opposite. Newly signed to Atlantic Records on the strength of last year’s warmly received Lost in the Dream, they have quickly become festival mainstays on the strength of a setlist that serves as perfect ambience for having a full conversation or maybe even throwing a frisbee.
Speaking of new Atlantic Records signees, burgeoning country superstar Sturgill Simpson threw what looked to be a raucous hoedown for a large and adoring crowd. It was suitable music to dance step over to Jamie xx’s set, an oddly scheduled early evening rave that was nonetheless exciting to witness on the strength of his excellent debut record, In Colour.
The next two hours of the marathon were split between Bonnaroo legends My Morning Jacket on the main stage and proto-Drake rap star Childish Gambino on the second stage. The former gave a performance befitting of the main stage, but the latter drew a crowd that would fill more space on its lawn. It turns out that a cult Southern rock band on a new album cycle is no match for an Internet-famous rapper whose last album came out in 2013.
A few irrelevant side excursions later and it was finally time for D’Angelo and The Vanguard to take the stage. Having disappeared from the public eye for a period eclipsing Bonnaroo’s entire existence, D’Angelo was making a highly anticipated return to the venue where he began his comeback as the special guest in 2012’s ?uestlove-curated Superjam. Or at least I thought it would be highly anticipated. While a late scheduling snafu caused him to be moved up from the slot that was printed on the maps that get handed out upon check-in, it seemed as if most of the crowd had already decided to scatter to presumably dancier options like the inexplicably popular Bassnectar or the Pretty Lights-hosted Superjam. However, by the end of his 90 minutes in the thick of the evening, it was clear that we had been blessed by the evening’s true master of ceremonies. The sense of privilege that comes with being able to witness an artist thought to be long taken from us was fulfilled and matched by the man himself, who brimmed with intense energy in leading one of the most downright funky bands I’ve ever had the chance to witness. If there was a single person not dancing in that crowd, then I didn’t see them.
Sundays, the last day of the festival, are known mostly for dealing with the hangover from the previous night’s events. This year was no different, as myself and many others struggled to exist in the face of the hottest day of the weekend, a day that thankfully offered scarce pleasures in the form of programming. Shabazz Palaces delivered another great and strange midday diversion in the vein of Tanya Tagaq and Songhoy Blues, playing tribal-inflected and bass-heavy trip hop tunes to a crowd that found a second (or fifteenth) wind and responded in kind with a form of dancing that I only ever see out on The Farm – lots of hip twisting, hands in the air, which I guess could describe all forms of dancing but you get the picture. Shortly after that, veteran indie rockers Spoon took the main stage to play their uniquely odd brand of divorced dad rock, justifying their placement through pedigree alone while not really inciting any enthusiasm in a longtime fan like myself. Then again, maybe I was just spent by this point, as I waited around for Florence + The Machine to take the stage and make seemingly everyone else standing near me lose their minds while I had nothing left in me besides the ability to stand and observe. Florence has rebounded pretty well from that foot she broke two months ago, running all the way through the crowd and pirouetting across the stage like it never happened. She was perfect for the sunset slot and she probably deserved much longer than the hour she was given, but she’ll be running this festival circuit until someone just gives her the money to start her own. After this, the decision was made that it was time to make a great escape before the Billy Joel crowds caused congestion both to and from the main venue.
Soon enough, seemingly as it had started, Bonnaroo 2015 was over. Whenever the lineup was released, I was not alone in being underwhelmed but it ended up being a nicely scheduled weekend of music that allowed for pacing and diverse options. I can safely say that I caught the most polyamorous set of gigs I have in the three years that I’ve attending, resulting in the best experience I’ve had on The Farm so far. Next year will be the first year post-Live Nation, so it will be intriguing to see how the programming shifts as a result, along with how their presence affects the experience of all of those who loved Bonnaroo prior to its corporate branding.
Words by Kevin Brown /// Photos by Christian Ayers, more of which can be seen on Flickr