My Top 5 Shows of Bonnaroo:
Photos by Saraya Brewer unless otherwise noted
5) The Orwells
Of my four Bonnaroo experiences, the most rowdy Bonnaroo show I’ve ever seen was the Friday afternoon set by the relatively under-the-radar Chicago garage band The Orwells. Miller Lite’s New Music on Tap Lounge –– a very small stage with a semi-enclosed seating area decked out with bleachers, bean bags and Adirondack chairs, beneath a shady awning –– is a great place to chill out and eat a burrito between sets at the festival, and maybe catch a band you haven’t heard of. But for 40 minutes or so on Friday afternoon, it served as a venue for a chaos so wild that Bonnaroo’s security guards were utterly unequipped to handle it. Before the show started, I thought we had a pretty good spot, standing on the Adirondack chairs in the front row, directly behind a small standing-room only area that didn’t seem to be too crowded at the time. The opening comments from lead singer Mario Cuomo mentioned that the stage was smaller than a certain part of his anatomy, and within seconds of the first chord played, hundreds of fans exploded from out of nowhere and started pushing toward the stage in a frenzy. Within minutes, security barricades were broken down, fans were surfind on the crowd atop oversized bean bags, the chairs we were standing on had been broken and I had to pull out my Mom voice to sternly convince a hazy-eyed kid behind me not to toss a broken-down Adirondack chair into the crowd. Unable to see over the crowd, kids started climbing the rafters of the tent until about 30 of them were seated on the top of the awning. After about a half hour of clinging to the rafter with one arm and fist pumping with the other, my friend and I decided we’d gotten our fill; apparently the band got shut down twice after that, before their set was cut short by overwhelmed security forces. An unadulterated, uncensored flurry of teenage energy at its best.
4) Ty Segall
The last show we caught on our first night at Bonnaroo, Ty Segall took the stage around 1 a.m. with a 4-piece backing band that included rising guitar hero Mikal Cronin on bass. One of the most high energy garage sets of the weekend, the show featured several brand new songs as well as tons of favorites from Segall’s prolific discography, inspiring dozens of crowd surfers among the audience, who was hungry for more by the end of the set.
3) Elton John
We managed to get close enough to get a pretty good photo of the giant screen projecting Sir Elton John’s image.
The primary headliners at Bonnaroo are typically relatively low on my list of acts I’m concerned with seeing. That said, Elton John will always have a soft spot in my heart, and like Sir Paul McCartney last year, his Sunday night closing set on the monumental What Stage exceeded my expectations. Surprisingly, John mentioned that this was his first appearance at an American festival –– with a setlist that featured “Levon,” “Someone Saved My Life,” “Your Song,” and a special appearance by Ben Folds on “Grey Seal” (but no “Lion King” songs, much to the chagrin of many), the 90,000 fans packed at the stage were treated to an incredibly special and moving show.
2) Neutral Milk Hotel
Having seen Neutral Milk Hotel once before (and a solo set by frontman Jeff Mangum on another occasion), this was a show I was planning to swing by for a few minutes, but not necessarily stay the entire time. But from the moment they took the stage with “Two Headed Boy” to last encore song (“Two Headed Boy pt. 2,” of course –– Mangum performing solo for the last two songs), I was fully enthralled, and realizing over again why this reunion was so rightfully anticipated by so many of the bands (admittedly rabid) fans. The emotion was high, Mangum seemed confident and at ease, and his band sounded fantastic. For an act whose recordings teeter on lo-fi and wavering, their live show is absolutely brimming with energy, emotion and life.
1) Die Antwoord
The act I most anticipated seeing this year did not disappoint. The 1:45 a.m. Friday night time slot was a doozy after a day and a half of walking, sweating and dancing, and the band started 30 minutes late due to technical difficulties, leading some fans to speculate whether they would perform at all (the act cancelled the last handful of shows due to problems with Ninja’s voice). But the second the industrial rave weirdos took the stage, the tent was filled with energy and hundreds of jumping / moshing fans. A handful of gyrating stage dancers joined Ninja, Yo-Landi and DJ Hi-Tek on the stage, which was decked out in neon orange, black and white decor, and they performed a robust and high energy –– if somewhat dark and violet –– hour-long set list featuring a mix of tracks from all three of their full-length albums.
Honorably mentionable moments:
Participating along with hundreds of other R. Kelly fans in the rambunctious and emotionally charged singalong to R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” saga in the cinema tent on Thursday night.
Ford’s “The Garage” Tent -- a super cool air conditioned pop-up room with tons of couches and phone charging stations, which announced intimate sets by Bonnaroo bands on a small marquee just hours before they started. We stumbled into sets by Caveman (one of my faves) and Roadkill Ghost Choir (my favorite discovery on Bonnaroo)
The Food Truck Oasis, which featured a surprisingly tasty array of gourmet food trucks, including Lexington’s own Rolling Oven.
Sets by Frank Ocean, Real Estate, Dahkakahbra, Washed Out, King Khan & the Shrines, Goat, Little Dragon and A$AP Ferg all delivered.