What’s The Best Festival Set You’ve Ever Seen?

Our seasoned staff of festivalgoers reflect on years of greatness

Cage the Elephant // Photo by Joshua Mellin

    Photo by Joshua Mellin

    When it comes to festivals here at CoS, we tend to focus on the here and now – ranking lineups the moment they drop, discussing the relevancy of headliners set to play the summer stages, and traveling hundreds of miles to cover the year’s most anticipated musical gatherings. While that’s all well and good (and super fun), we thought it’d be interesting to take a step back – in time, that is.

    Collectively, we’ve seen a lot of festival shows over the years. Spanning coast to coast (and across oceans), our staff is full of veteran festivalgoers who have seen just about everything. And while each season offers a decent number of memorable performances, any fest fanatic knows that there are always a few special ones that leave such an impression that you remember them for years to come.

    Maybe it was the Jack White show where you moshed front row during “Seven Nation Army”. The Girl Talk set where you danced onstage next to Gregg Gillis. The Frank Ocean performance that drew tears from your eyes. Those are the moments we, like all festival junkies, live for. Why else would we spend hundreds of dollars to trudge through hoards of people in sweltering temperatures?


    Without further ado, join us as we take a nostalgic journey through some of the best festival sets we’ve ever seen. We know our readers have some great stories up their sleeves, too. So, by all means, tell us: What’s the best festival set you ever saw?

    –Danielle Janota
    Staff Writer



    The 2005 edition of Lollapalooza was my first festival experience, and considering the intense heat and sandstorms kicked up on the arid baseball diamonds used for some stages, it was a trial by fire. But I was there to see Arcade Fire, and I wouldn’t let the heat beat me — though I’d seen it make Tegan (or was it Sara?) crumble to the stage. On the back of their revelatory Funeral, the Montreal outfit’s performance was a true religious experience. The dresses and suits (worn despite the heat), the crowd’s raised hands in unison during “Wake Up”, the furious energy — it was more an explosive christening of an indie powerhouse than the rite of their album’s title. To this day, it’s one of the best performances (let alone festival sets) I’ve ever seen. –Adam Kivel



    KoRn’s distinctive sound and relevance had begun diminishing in the mid-oughts. News about Brian “Head” Welch’s departure, his finding of Jesus, Davis suddenly latching on to dubstep, and the disaster that was KoRn III: Remember Who You Are were all signs pointing to the end. Then, on a hot summer day at a long-forgotten racetrack in the Tar Heel State, these former bandmates were all in the same place again after nearly a decade of hostilities. In speaking with Jonathan Davis that day, I still don’t know what finally buried hatchets.

    But I do know three things: he was never in better spirits, the on-stage reunion yielded oceans of fan appreciation, and as evidenced by a recent album output and a 20th anniversary celebration, those fans are as rabid as ever and remain so. Even if the band dissipates tomorrow, the mosh pit wounds are eternal, and you have to admire a metal act that found a way to make bagpipes and daddy issues cool again. –David Buchanan



    As someone who religiously listened to Brand New in middle and high school but had never seen Jesse Lacey and Co. in concert, I knew I had to change that when Riot Fest announced that the Long Island rockers would play its 2013 Chicago edition.

    After two beautiful late summer days to kick off the fest, Sunday (when Brand New was slated) brought plummeting temperatures and frigid rain. Their set took place in the evening on a baseball field, and when the band hit the stage, the crowd compressed so closely that you could see steam rising from the mass of bodies. As the moshing began, the sand underfoot turned to ankle-deep muck, threatening to steal any shoes that weren’t tied tightly.

    Although I’d have to wait till a later show to hear them play my favorite track, “Limousine,” it was amazing to hear some of the other tracks I love like “Jesus” and “Play Crack the Sky,” which featured surprise guest vocals from Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull. –Killian Young


    Rage Against the Machine

    Rock the Bells 2007

    When Rage Against The Machine broke up, they were as dead as Elvis. I don’t remember who got back together first or when the trend of reunions for cash became painfully commonplace, but I do remember when they announced their Coachella performance. Nobody expected them to tour any more of the festival circuit, but Zack de la Rocha and the gang said they’d do Rock The Bells in New York City for two dates.

    There were two fences for the entire show, but the second the opening note of “Testify” hit, the first fell and I was five feet from the stage. I’ve seen over 1,000 live bands and been in my fair share of pits; but there is nothing like being at a Rage Against The Machine show when you think you’ll never see them again. Anger is an energy. I have scars from that show, scars that were worth it. –Dan Bogosian



    I ditched my friends (and The Shins) so that I could wait an hour and a half in the front row to see M83′Anthony Gonzalez play one of my favorite albums of all time: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Joyfully basking in purple glow of the fluorescent stage lights, Gonzalez took me to another galaxy, just as his cosmic music intends to do. I danced nonstop for the full hour of the set, reveling in personal favorites like “Reunion”, “We Own The Sky”, and of course, a pivotal song for that year: “Midnight City”. Not only was it the best festival show of the weekend and possibly my life, my batshit-crazy dancing landed me in Rolling Stone’s fan pictures and the 2012 Lolla highlights video. –Danielle Janota



    September 2013 presented a conundrum for me. I refuse to pay upwards of $80 for any festival show where I’ll be 200-300 yards away from any band I like (or scrunched up front for an unbearable amount of time) unless it’s a truly monumental occasion. The reunion of my favorite band, The Replacements, was such an occasion. My friend and I spent way too much of our budget to go to Riot Fest Denver, but you know what? It was well worth every dime. Frequently, reunion shows are sloppy money grabs by artists long past their prime but The Mats (well, Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson) were everything I ever hoped my favorite band would be live. They were witty, they came out in cowboy outfits, and their encore featured all the band members horribly playing different instruments. It was one of my favorite shows and the best festival show I could ever imagine. –Don R. Lewis



    You never forget your first. This versatile aphorism holds true for a broad swath of adolescent experience; our recollections of sex, booze and music festivals are all bolstered by primacy. I’ll refrain from recounting the lurid details of my initial forays into coitus and chardonnay, but my first (and best) festival show warrants a retelling. Although All Points West folded in 2009 after just two seasons, the utter bliss of hearing The New Pornographers harmonize “Myriad Harbour” as I gazed at the Manhattan skyline and Lady Liberty’s verdigris bulk across New York Bay is a feeling I’ll never relinquish. Dan Bejar’s eccentric, wry lyrics; A.C. Newman’s peppy power pop riffs; and Neko Case’s spirited, spunky harmonies all blended together to usher a sense of shameless optimism.  Barefoot, my best friend and brother by my side, baking under the midday summer sun, I’d never felt so privileged for the present and assured about the future. –Henry Hauser

    Iggy and the Stooges

    Riot Fest Chicago 2012

    There’s almost no way to describe seeing Iggy Pop and the reassembled Stooges play live. Virtually every aspect of the experience is unique or unrivaled to any other band’s performance. As soon as the band stormed the stage like commandos, I was literally swept off of my feet as the crowd surged forward. The band left no stone unturned, propelling their way through classics like “No Fun”, I Wanna Be Your Dog”, and “Loose”, while the sea of faces surrounding me, already tattered and weary from three days of sun, music and traversing from stage to stage walked the line between pure excitement and sheer terror. They just don’t make bands like that anymore. –Ryan Bray


    BONNAROO 2013

    Action Bronson has been my favorite rapper pretty much since he first set foot in the rap game. And while I’d seen him a few times in venues before, Bonnaroo was my first chance to see the man in an outdoor setting, which is ideal because at an Action Bronson show, you should smoke as much weed as possible.

    Action has a unique habit of leaving the stage during most of his shows to interact with fans, swaggering through the crowd like a prizefighter on his way to the ring. When he did this at Bonnaroo, I had a perfect window to hop on his back for a piggyback ride as he passed me. Surprisingly, he was totally cool with it, and I rode atop my favorite rapper for roughly a minute with a blunt hanging out of my mouth. Not only was this my favorite festival set, it’s arguably the best moment of my life thus far.

    After Bronson’s set, all I could do was sit on the ground, staring at the clouds in a daze as Wild Nothing played and my friends crowded around to ask what it was like. I was in total awe of what I’d been lucky enough to experience, and couldn’t really quantify it with words for a few hours. To this day, I can barely comprehend how lucky I was not to get suplexed. –Pat Levy



    ULTRA 2012

    Ultra was never really my thing. All the EDM and neon short shorts and girls making out with trees – it was not for me. Usually I’d pass and stay as far away from Downtown Miami as possible. But in 2012, New Order somehow found themselves on the bill under the “Live Band” lineup, so I finally bit the bullet and popped my Ultra cherry, because the ’80s were calling to me. The Live stage was one of the smallest of the eight that encompassed Ultra, and New Order were set to play at 6:40 p.m., before Miike Snow and Pretty Lights, which was downright disrespectful, since no one on the lineup would even exist without the foundation of dance music that New Order paved.

    But, whatever. I’m not holding a grudge or anything. With the sun shining brightly down on them, they killed a nine-song set, closing with my favorite, “Temptation,” which made me kind of emotional. Bernard Sumner danced towards me and my newfound friends (a group of late 40-year-old dudes and Neon Indian, who had performed earlier that day), and we totally had a moment. I was told that I had “the musical soul of someone far older,” which made me feel really cool. So, after pushing past all the light-up pacifiers, glow sticks and bros, Ultra was worth it. –Rebecca Bulnes



    My fiancée took a photo of Major Lazer, tagged it on Instagram, and won us passage on a party boat that would go from Treasure Island back to San Francisco following Beck’s headlining performance the second night of the festival. We gathered with the other winners (about 20 of us) and set sail, enjoying the crisp air and fading neon lights as the festival wrapped and we pushed farther into the dark, still waters. The whole day I’d been taking grief for being late to the show and missing a band called Lord Huron, whom I was told were “totally up my alley.”

    As we went below deck to devour free refreshments, I saw four dudes wedged into one corner of the small boat, trying to find space for their guitars, cords, amps and drums. They were inches from the buffet table, and I took a spot next to the guitarist, adjusting my knees so as not to knock into him when the show started. It was, of course, Lord Huron, booked to play an incredibly tiny post-festival show to a chilly, tired group of onlookers. With the bay splashing up against the portholes, they tore through a makeshift set of gorgeous ballads, no amplification required, serenading the room for what can only be considered the most awesome introduction to a band one could ever dream of. –Zack Ruskin



    I don’t know if this is my favorite festival set ever, but it was certainly the most punishing. Then again, maybe that’s too negative of a word. Powerful, maybe? The third and final day of Riot Fest had gotten off to a real shitty start, with the Chicago rain causing all sorts of sound problems and turning Humboldt Park into a quagmire that Rocket From The Crypt frontman John “Speedo” Reis accurately dubbed “Diarrhea Island.” Most of the bands who played early in the day seemed exhausted by the inclement weather, with no one delivering a particularly memorable set.

    Until Bob Mould.

    Upon taking the stage, he and his band (the tightly ratched power trio of himself, drummer Jon Wurster and Jason Narducy) surveyed the rain and clouds for a split second, made a telepathic decision to say, “fuck it,” and launched right into “The Act We Act”. They rarely paused to address the crowd, instead using the thunder and lightning as fuel to pummel the audience with distortion and fills–not banter.

    From that point on, every band seemed fully invested in what they came there to do. The Replacements played the most important (and arguably best) set that year, but I wonder if they would have been as energized if not for the day’s second wind from Mould. –Dan Caffrey



    CATALPA NYC 2012

    I’m certainly not a festival-going veteran like my peers here, but you’ll just have to believe me when I say that Zola Jesus at the short-lived New York City Catalpa Festival 2012 was life-changing.

    Obviously, battling the elements and dealing with a sometimes capricious Mother Nature is part of any festival and/or outdoor music experience, but nothing could have prepared me for her set. As soon as she took the stage, it seemed as though dark armies of clouds rolled in at her behest. She tore through track after track from her 2011 album, Conatus, a stormy and epic record in and of itself, as the sky put on a light show. Frazzled lightning bolts set the atmosphere ablaze momentarily and deafening thunder shook the very ground I stood on.

    Eventually, the wind and rain joined in, and the stage’s roof acted like a funnel, sending cascades of water onto the little people below. Standing directly under one of those impromptu waterfalls, I was soaked within the first 10 minutes of Zola’s set. Sometimes, between streams of water, I was able to get a look at her if I timed my blinking just right. She continued to command the attention of the audience (and the weather, probably) like some kind of goddess, her arms outstretched, her head tilted up toward the heavens, as though she were drawing more and more strength from her surroundings.


    There were moments where I was legitimately scared that a tornado or something would pummel through at a moment’s notice (not totally unheard of during times of violent, unpredictable storms), but mostly I felt grateful that the planets had somehow aligned to give me that very short period of cosmic perfection: where music and the earth felt like one entity.

    Of course, once the set had ended, the sun grew brave enough to come back out and all was right in the world again — well, I would go on to be soaked through to my underwear for the next six hours and the festival area was muddy as shit the rest of the weekend, but oh well, right? Totally worth it. Now go listen to Conatus! –Michelle Geslani



    It’s rare that Lollapalooza ever has any artist play unopposed. Even the likes of Sir Paul McCartney — a former Beatle, for Christ’s sake — will have to strum “Yesterday” against The Weeknd, Kaskade, and Flying Lotus in a few months. That wasn’t the case for Radiohead way, way back in the summer of 2008. On that breezy Friday night, the colossal AT&T Stage was the place to be and, as such, the entire southern end of Grant Park was flooded with diehards, devotees, veteran fans, and curious passersby, all waiting to see what the UK outfit would do with the allotted time. It felt like the entire city of Chicago was watching, and the excitement and buzz was contagious.

    Now, you have to remember what it was like around this time for Radiohead. They were less than a year out from In Rainbows — arguably, one of their top three albums to date (hey, I’m staying positive) — and considering its pay-what-you-want release, it was one of those rare records that seemingly everyone had heard. So, not only did you have a crowd starved to see the band, but also equally hungry to hear the new material. When the sounds of “15 Step” reverberated across the field, the screams and hands and momentum was enough to fuel Silicon Valley for an hour or two. That never dwindled, at least not where I was (some 20 rows back), and things ascended naturally.

    There was no “three-hit punch” or “right hook encore.” The entire night was a two-hour appeasement, one that gradually built and never peaked too early. There were moments, sure, like when Soldier Field’s fireworks ignited the sky during “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Fake Plastic Trees”, but then they followed that diamond memory up with an aggressive rendition of “Bodysnatchers” and eventually two encores. The latter included surprise appearances by Amnesiac‘s “Dollars and Cents” and Kid A‘s “Optimistic” and finally shut down with what can only be described as a sonic orgy between “2+2=5” and “Idioteque”. Never again has Lollapalooza seen a true dance party like that. –Michael Roffman




    As an American in a foreign country seeing a band I had yet to fall in love with, I didn’t expect Blur‘s set at Primavera Sound to be the one I’d never forget. I went to the festival alone, expecting to be swept up by the music, but it was so much more than that; it was an experience.

    Blur came onstage casually cool to a moonlit beach. Alex James lit a cigarette while his bass hung from his shoulders, Graham Coxon did a lackadaisical strut and Damon Albarn fixed his jacket collar. Nearly 100,000 people gathered to see them, most of which were Brits. Then, those opening notes of “Girls & Boys” rang out. The crowd launch into a sea of jumping frogs, shooting into the air with their friends tucked under their arms. A group of British 28-year-olds pulled me into their group and we howled all the words. Blur kept the energy high with the gritty guitar of “Trimm Trabb”, sing-a-long cheers of “Parklife” and weird atmospherics of “Caramel”.

    Between everyone falling in love to “Beetlebum” and the utter chaos of “Song 2”, where the crowd trampled several chairs to bits, Blur’s best moment came from a spell they cast over the crowd. The four cleared the stage following “Tender”, but thousands joined forces to sing the chorus as loudly as they could, over and over, until the band came back. Leaping ahead as the best act at a festival that routinely books the best lineup isn’t an easy feat, but Blur did it without losing their steam for a single second. –Nina Corcoran



    BONNAROO 2008

    I’m the first to admit that it’s strange I ended up working in music media. My musical renaissance came far later than most in this business, and it took my college friends to really instill in me a different love and appreciation for sound. So it was fitting that following our graduating year, we packed up the cars and headed south to experience Bonnaroo for the first time. I’d heard the legends of what late night at the fest could be, but nothing could have possibly prepared me for what My Morning Jacket ended up delivering.

    The sheer epic length of it (a double set that stretched for four hours), the covers (“Hot Fun”, “Tyrone”, “Cold Sweat”), the guests (Metallica’s Kirk Hammett on “One Big Holiday”, Zach Galifianakis in a Little Orphan Annie dress for “Home Sweet Home” — yes, these things really happened) — it was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before, or frankly have since. Even the weather added an otherworldly magic to it all as Jim James seemed to control the varying intensity rain with the rise and fall of his voice.

    (Yes, I was on acid at the time — I recall vividly and repeatedly getting lost in the starry sky above and turning to grab my friend by the shoulders as I reminded myself aloud, “I’m in the middle of Tennessee, in the middle of a field, watching My Morning Jacket be incredible!” — but ask any MMJ fan: Jim James commands the weather.)


    That performance sealed the deal: I was a festival junkie for life, My Morning Jacket was my favorite band and now here I am. Like a drug, I’ve spent seven years chasing a similar performance from anyone, anywhere, but much like the dance I did to “Get Down On It” as we returned to the stage after a food break during the intermission, it has yet to be emulated. –Ben Kaye