Compared to most other major US festivals, it seems that Bonnaroo has always had the highest expectations to grab the best acts. After all, this is the event that nabbed Paul McCartney and Tom Petty in 2013, Radiohead in 2012, a re-do from Kanye West in 2014, along with Elton John and Lionel Richie (and that’s just the headliners, don’t forget Frank Ocean and Damon Albarn). So when bands like Kings of Leon, Dave Matthews Band, or a (allegedly) lip-syncing Eminem are booked, it’s pretty disappointing for the legions of fans who make the pilgrimage to Manchester, TN.
While this year’s lineup may not have the power of Jack White or the bonafide historical nature of a Macca set or a controversial Yeezy mulligan, it’s still pretty damn good. Like Coachella’s inclusion of Steely Dan, Bonnaroo decided to book another oft-unfairly derided act from the ‘70s in Billy Joel, an inspired choice that’s sure to induce some much deserved critical reevaluation. There’s also Robert Plant, who’s sure to have a setlist boasting a smart blend of Led Zeppelin classics and new songs. For its part, Mumford and Sons will be able to finally headline the festival with a healthy bassist, Ted Dwane, after the lamest (shortest) hiatus ever.
Below the main headliners, though, is an excellent middle slot featuring My Morning Jacket, The War on Drugs, Belle and Sebastian, Caribou, Run the Jewels, Against Me!, and many more. Even acts billed fairly low, like Hiss Golden Messenger and Hurray for the Riff Raff, highlight the festival’s incredibly diverse and exceptionally talented pool of Americana acts. Though Bonnaroo has always had some tricks up its sleeve, welcome and surprising additions ranging from Kendrick to Earth Wind & Fire to Slayer and the David Byrne-led William Onyeabor tribute group will prove that there’s going to be something for everyone.
However, no lineup is perfect. Like any wide-ranging festival that attempts (and usually succeeds) in pleasing most music fans, there are undoubtedly going to be some duds. Notable omissions like Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie seem glaring while having deadmau5 headline and human vanilla wafer Hozier take a high billing seems a bit off. Despite all that, it’s not going to take away the fact that Bonnaroo is still a must-see destination festival.
How do you follow up a British piano-playing superstar like Elton John as your legacy headliner? With the Long Island-bred “Piano Man” himself, Billy Joel, of course. And as great as those “Tiny Dancer” and “Crocodile Rock” sing-alongs were, it’s easy money there will be even more voices ringing out over the course of Joel’s surely festival-closing set. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, “New York State of Mind”, “My Life”, “You May Be Right”, “Only the Good Die Young” – the guy’s list of hits just goes on. Hearing them in succession in that big ol’ field is going to be a highlight for many this summer. And if you have any doubts, just go back and read some of our past live coverage on Joel. To quote Paul de Revere, “It was one of the best live sets I’ve ever seen from anybody anywhere.” –Ben Kaye
Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters
Photo by Nathan Dainty
Between the still ongoing Led Zeppelin reissues and his 10th solo album, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, Robert Plant’s 2014 may have eclipsed that of any classic rocker. lullaby… was backed by The Sensational Space Shifters, a band first introduced to Plant fans on his 2012 Live in London album. With members ranging from bassist Billy Fuller and keyboardist John Baggot (both collaborators of Massive Attack and Portishead) to Gambian multi-instrumentalist Juldeh Camara, The Shifters form one of the most musically cognizant groups Plant has worked with. Bonnaroo is their biggest planned show of 2015, though it’ll follow three Lollapalooza appearances (in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil). –Michael Madden
Tears for Fears
Photo by Autumn Andel
Don’t call it a comeback. Tears for Fears have been slowly making the rounds the last couple years – with 2014 being their most active year since the release of their last album in 2004. They played the initial Project Pabst in Portland, released a covers EP (including songs by Arcade Fire & Animal Collective), went on a small tour, and even appeared on the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!. This year looks to be even bigger – with a new album, an accompanying tour, and a prime set at Bonnaroo. AC Entertainment has always had a knack for these kinds of bookings: bands from a different era who seem to not fit the festival on the surface, but make sense once you see them on the farm. Tears for Fears is one of the best possible versions of this type of booking, with plenty of mega-hits that will make for a big, cross-generational sing-along. –Carson O’Shoney
Mumford & Sons
Derision aside, this is a powerhouse of a booking. For one, Mumford and Sons haven’t played an official show since September 2013 (their Glastonbury Gentlemen of the Road stage doesn’t count). And two, makeup bookings are a surprisingly rare thing in festival land, especially headliners. Roovians still bummed by the band’s unfortunate cancellation in 2013 now have their second chance. Add one and two together, and you’ve got the formula for one hell of a comeback gig. –Ben Kaye
My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket are Bonnaroo, so while they’re already booked at loads of festivals this summer, this one’s special. They’ve been on the farm a grand total of six times, and their seventh marks their third as a top 10 act. Some will argue over why they’re not headlining, but really, it doesn’t matter where they are on the bill — their set will be epic either way. They’re known for bringing out special guests (here’s looking at you, Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens) and melting faces for hours on end. And if they have another late night spot like they did in 2008, expect another performance for the ages. With a pair of new albums coming over the next two years (the first due in April), they’ll have plenty of new material to tear through until the wee hours of the morn. –Ben Kaye
Unlocking the Truth
The lowest billed act on the poster is actually one of the most exciting and interesting of the whole festival. SuperFly has carved out a nice niche of metal music at the fest over the years ever since Tool headlined in ’07, so bringing in these headline-grabbing youngsters makes a lot of sense from a curation standpoint. But rather than just a curiosity, you have to give major kudos to the band members themselves. With no member over the age of 14, Unlocking the Truth have managed to go from Times Square busking to Bonnaroo performers before most of us even kissed a girl. And Bonnaroo isn’t just going to book someone because they get media attention and a $1.7 million record contract; they have to be able to play. They’ll get a chance to work out some kinks of performing in front of a festival-sized crowd when they play Rock on the Range in May, so this is shaping up to be a Thursday night show not to be missed. –Ben Kaye
Best in Today’s Americana
Photo by Ben Kaye
One of the biggest surprises of Bonnaroo’s lineup reveal is how jam-packed it is with some of Americana’s best acts. Even with alt-twang stylings of My Morning Jacket nearly topping the bill, the most exciting additions come with the newcomers of Sturgill Simpson, whose breakout album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, deserved all the praise it got, and Hurray for the Riff Raff, who finally have a chance to woo the festival crowds. Even Hiss Golden Messenger, a band known for being an obscure hidden treasure, has finally made its Merge-assisted transition to being a festival draw with a respectable placing. Coming in from Wisconsin are the lovable collective Phox, a six-piece fronted by the magnetic Monica Martin. Playing songs from the band’s infectious debut album like “Slow Motion” and “1936”, they’ll appeal to the Mumford and Sons crowd without pandering to it. Not to mention roots mainstays Trampled by Turtles and Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens, who will be making her solo debut. Look for “Arkansas-soul” crooner Christopher Denny and Austin, TX one man band Shakey Graves to make an impression with early sets as well.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Even bands that don’t fit cleanly into the broad catchall definition of Americana, like Benjamin Booker, Strand of Oaks, and The Districts, will be playing the Manchester, TN, festival. All three acts are already established live draws (the ferocity from Booker and the Districts alone make them worthy draws despite their youth), and all three have skirted folk and blues in some capacity. Before Strand of Oaks released Heal, his bombastic and cathartic ‘80s rock love letter, he was known for his quiet, acoustic-driven folk songs that were often minimal and earthy. For his part, Booker blends all kinds of American music from blues to punk in order to produce his whiplash-kinectic brand of rock while the Districts did its best Dylan impression for the band’s biggest hit, “Funeral Beds”. Armed with an astute knowledge of American musical traditions and a progressive mindset to make these inspirations sound fresh, these bands will have well-rounded and somewhat twangy sets you won’t be able to find at any other major festival. –Josh Terry