In festival years, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is entering old age (unvetted stat: 99% of festivals don’t make it past their third birthday) and fifteen looks good on the American institution founded way back ’02 in the beautiful rolling hills of Middle Tennessee. The 700 acre farm that plays host to the annual four-day event reached ‘hallowed grounds’ status years ago after staging such grand epics as Paul McCartney in 2013, Jay-Z in 2010, Radiohead in 2006 and any number of late night sets that are revered as the proverbial ‘stuff of legend’ (STS9 in 2005, My Morning Jacket in 2006 and 2008, The G.R.A.B. Superjam with Phil Lesh in 2006 Nine Inch Nails in 2009 are some of my personal favorites to name a few…).
As it goes with reaching a certain distinguished age, the Roo has made some grown folks upgrades to the farm, installing two large permanent bathrooms, a much-improved drainage infrastructure and an earlier bedtime (scheduled sets are slated to end at 3am this year instead of 5 or 6 am like in year’s past – we will see if that actually happens). The earlier bedtime is mainly in jest, but it is curious that the sets are scheduled to wrap earlier than usual this year.
As per usual, this year’s artist and comedy slate is both genre and generation-spanning, running as wide of a gamut as it has for at least the second half of Bonnaroo’s current lifespan. With one headliner rooted in the 60’s (Dead and Company), a definitive 90’s band (Pearl Jam – yes, I know founded in the ’80s) and one of the definitive bands of the 2000s (LCD Soundsystem), and recent heirs to the headlining throne (Tame Impala), the top line is built to appease many different musical taste buds. Also, it must be noted that EDM’s ascent, dominance and infiltration into the top lines of festival posters may have reached a generational apex from 2012-2015. While this year’s lineup has no shortage of dance acts and DJ’s, there is no DJ headlining the main stage this year. Instead, live dance titans LCD Soundsystem make their return to Manchester for their first set since 2010’s late night bash to headline What Stage on Friday night for what should (hopefully) be one of the more rollicking headlining sets in the festival’s history.
There’s just no place like Bonnaroo. Bands arrive to Great Stage Park (is that still the name?) each year with a different kind of energy and this electricity is generally palpable throughout the event and felt by artists and fans alike. Artists playing for the first time certainly appreciate and respect Bonnaroo’s place and lofty stature in the festival landscape.
Here are some of the big themes, picks for sets and a few can’t miss smaller acts playing in 2016.
Return of the Dead
For the first seven years of Bonnaroo (2002-08), Grateful Dead-related projects were a mainstay on the main stages and, to a lesser extent, a tangential presence by way of tribute acts. In recent years, for one reason or another, acts like Phil Lesh and Friends, (the now-defunct) Furthur and The Dead, and Ratdog have been conspicuously absent from the lineup. The sour taste left by Phil Lesh and Friends’ set getting the plug pulled for a Kanye West set that ended up being three hours delayed probably left a sour taste for many in the Dead family and fanbase.
However, here we are in 2016, fifty-one years after the band’s founding and the latest arena-filling project Dead and Company is slated to close down the fifteenth anniversary of the festival. John Mayer and Oteil Burbridge (The Allman Brothers Band) join Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and Jeff Chimenti for the newest post-Jerry iteration that has been receiving rave reviews for their musically exploratory spirit and energy largely infused by Mayer and Oteil.
Not perhaps since Alabama Shakes meteoric overnight ascent a half-decade ago has an artist so quickly made a name for themselves and gained the amount of respect required to be given the keys to the Bonnaroo superjam. Although Brittany Howard hasn’t led one (yet, surely the day will come), Kamasi and Howard share the status of being rare generational talents who’s rarefied skill set was almost instantly recognized by peers and fans alike. Washingon has the chops, vision and respect of peers to vault jazz music back into the ‘mainstream’ in a way unseen since Herbie Hancock did the same years.
Kamasi Washington leads the a Tennessee-inspired Superjam
Three of the best live bands of the 21st Century are teed up in succession on Friday night, kicking off with M83 on Which Stage. I caught the tour opener in April in New Orleans and, although the Junk LP isn’t quite as consistent and sweeping as past records, the songs are generally more dancefloor-ready and should play well to the Friday night crowd at dusk and especially once the sun goes down. M83 is touring with quite a visual aesthetic these days and this one should be the perfect lead-in for LCD Soundsystem on the main stage right after.
There have been some great ‘party’ acts over the years on the main stage (Jay-Z, Phish, Widespread Panic to name a few), but perhaps no non-EDM headliner has been as dance-centric as LCD and James Murphy and Co. have been proving their mettle as a live force all over the place at festivals around the world. Their 1:30 am set in a tent in 2010 was a blast and Murphy’s level of snarkasm towards the Bonnaroo crowd was high. Expecting nothing less on Friday.
Not sure any set during the weekend has my interest as much as Tame Impala’s 1 am set on Which Stage. With a two hour late night slot, the possibilities are quite endless. It’s been written a million times since the release of Currents last year but bears repeating: Tame Impala might be the perfect crossover band to hold down such a slot. Equal parts psychedelic and danceable these days, their set is going to go in a lot of different directions sonically and folks should buckle down for quite a ride deep into the night.
Every major festival tends to make a big effort to backload the lineup for the final day to avoid folks from making Sunday ‘optional’ as can be the case after a long weekend. This year’s Sunday looks to be a slog similar to the one in 2010 (the last time Ween played a late afternoon set. Even with scorching highs projected in the mid to upper 90’s, with a slate like Sunday’s, it’ll be worth making the final push to see this slate.
Cymande – 1:45 – 2:45 on Which Stage
British funk band from the ‘70s playing one of their first American festival sets in decades to kick things off. Check out the befitting “One More” from 1972 and pass it along to friends who might be trying to drag off early on Sunday:
The Screaming Eagle returns to the main stage to inspire, give hugs and likely still give thousands of fans chills in the heat of the Tennessee summer. If you haven’t heard his brand new Spotify Sessions live set, you can stream it here.
The Wood Brothers in That Tent – 3:00 – 4:00 in That Tent
Bassist Chris Wood is one of the few artists appearing this year to have appeared at the inaugural festival in 2002 with his Medeski, Martin and Wood. Although MMW is slated for a long-awaited new studio record this fall, his main squeeze in the last 7-8 years has been gigging and releasing consistently high quality with his brother Oliver. The live shows build on the strength of the impressive studio output and this kind of front porch Americana always seems to fit the Sunday midday vibe perfectly at the Roo.
Kurt Vile and the Violators – 3:30 – 4:30 on Which Stage
Since leaving War on Drugs to focus on his solo work several years ago, KV’s notoriety and stature has grown steadily over the past five years largely on the strength of a trio of critically-acclaimed studio releases Smoke Ring for my Halo (2011), Wakin on a Pretty Daze (2013) and last year’s b’lieve i’m goin down. KV’s live shows range from underwhelming to mesmerizing depending on the band’s energy levels on a given day, sound quality (too many intricacies to overcome shoddy sound) and the venue itself. It will be interesting to see KV and the Violators in such a large setting and I highly recommend parking right in front of the soundboard, that usually does the trick to take in the many layers.
Jason Isbell – 4:00 – 5:00 pm on What Stage
Speaking of artists who left their former main squeeze year’s ago, Jason Isbell’s profile has risen to unforeseeable places in recent years since the former Drive By Trucker cleaned up, linked up with producing maestro Dave Cobb for Southeastern (2013) and married Amanda Shires that same year. You get a feeling these days Isbell is as energized and inspired as ever, he’s got that can’t-miss aura and last year’s Something More Than Free is further proof that Isbell is in the midst of a career peak. Something to behold.
Father John Misty (5:15-6:15) and Ween (7:00 – 8:15)
On Sunday, it will be an unspoken and unplanned competition to see who can get weirder between the final two acts playing the second main stage. While Father John Misty’s weirdness may (or may not) be some what of a put-on (honestly who the f*** really knows), there’s no question that Gener and Deaner are actually just borderline insane. This should be a fun three hours and Ween’s set has to be one of the most highly anticipated sets of the weekend. I know it is at least for me.
Finally, don’t miss these five stellar acts:
The London Souls – 6:00 – 6:45 (Thursday, 6/9) in That Tent
Dungen – 2:15-3:15 (Friday, 6/10) in The Other Tent
Chicano Batman – 2:15-3:15 (Saturday, 6/11) on Which Stage
Natalie Prass – 3:30-4:30 (Saturday, 6/11) in That Tent
The Claypool Lennon Delirium – 9:00-10:15 (Saturday, 6/11) in That Tent
See you on the Farm!