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Bonnaroo Festival Review 2017: Top 10 Sets

Bonnaroo's 16th Year Soars with U2, Lorde, and Chance the Rapper

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    At 16 years old this year, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival reached its true adolescent peak, which was reflected in a few significant alterations to its format and flow. Most notably, the typically diverse Other Tent was transformed into a dedicated EDM stage (now simply and perhaps somewhat surreptitiously dubbed “The Other”), and, breaking the tradition for the first time ever of a headlining rock legacy or jam band hearkening to Roo’s roots, a pop star (The Weeknd) capped the fourth and final day.

    To be clear, Bonnaroo hasn’t grown into some immature teenager. If anything, it has improved in its capacity as one of the most creatively presented, professionally organized, and safely run festivals in the world. Rather, the changes are more reflective of some relenting to the paradigm shift – increasingly younger attendees craving more currently popular acts – sweeping practically every multi-day music event trying to stay relevant and financially afloat among the seemingly exponentially growing numbers crowding the about-to-burst festival bubble.

    It’s mostly still intact at the moment due to major money backer Live Nation, which holds the controlling share of Bonnaroo, and it’s fair to assume that organizers had the fest’s best interests in mind by recognizing the inevitable: the younger generations will be (and largely already are) the thrust behind current and future ticket sales, so you’ve gotta give ‘em more of what they want. But hey, they still managed to rein in U2 for their first ever US fest headlining performance and first Stateside fest appearance since 1983, which not only guaranteed significant retention of older Roo purists, but also served as a reassertion of the fest’s preeminence.

    All in all, the gamble appears to have paid off – after alarmingly low ticket sales in 2016 (about 45,000 compared to the usual ballpark 75k), this year’s attendance was reported between 60,000 and 70,000. And yes, it was apparent surveying the masses that average age of attendees now hovered closer to the fest’s 16 years.

    It was certainly strange to realize that so many of them were newborns when this thing started, which led to the ultimate, most important question as the weekend began: would the Bonnaroovian Code – the festival’s ethos hinging on the mantra “radiate positivity,” which prevailed unspoken for more than a decade before it was laid out in text – hold up with these young’uns? Would they respect that mindset, or would the pill-poppin’ lyricism of Travis Scott and the like now prevail as paramount?

    The final answer to those questions remains to be seen as these changes become more ingrained, but it was certainly surprising to witness tons of teenage faces bopping ecstatically along to U2’s The Joshua Tree and soaking up the nostalgic selections of Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s “Soul Shakedown” Superjam, even if they didn’t know a single lyric. Surprising, and heartening, because it suggested that the festival’s incomparable magic, the effect of egos shed as people pass underneath the iconic Bonnaroo arch, had prevailed.

    Once you enter, suddenly thrust into a challenging yet epically fun environment, the social playing field is leveled, and the best can be made of any situation (it helped that the weather was absolutely perfect all weekend – no rain or mud, no stress). The hope is that the new generations of attendees will take this unique, unifying experience – one where a common denominator of humanity and unconditional love is experienced by way of love for live music – and prescribe it to their lives outside of the festival. Truly, a pledge to radiate positivity is needed more than ever in these trying times. Thanks as always, Bonnaroo, for the inspiration.

    –David Brendan Hall
    Contributing Writer

    Click through to read about our Top 10 sets of the weekend – those that best upheld the Bonnaroovian Code – and peep our exclusive photo gallery.
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    10. Welles

    “Bonnaroo still likes rock ‘n’ roll, right?” asked Welles frontman Jeh-Sea Wells during the Nashville-based band’s Thursday afternoon That Tent kick-off show. This was just after a hat-trick of heavy, catchy tunes that harkened to sonic realms ranging from Nirvana to the Black Angels to Ben Kweller’s ‘90s grunge phase with Radish (the latter was especially apparent on “Codeine”, title track to the quartet’s debut EP released in April).

    The question came off slightly cautious – perhaps Wells was all-too-aware of the Roo’s increasingly younger attendees, many of whom prefer EDM and darling indie acts. Yet the resounding cheers in response from an attentive throng of Bonnaroovians – who heartily head-banged along to those first few cuts – confirmed a lingering love for guitar-driven compositions and cutting Cobain-esque screams. The band’s passion for those raw elements was readily apparent and prevented songs like “Seventeen” (an homage to Radiohead’s “Creep” with a slight melodic twist) and psychedelic new single “Are You Feeling Like Me” from coming off derivative. Likewise, a cover of Father John Misty’s “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” could’ve proven a poor choice, but ramped up raucousness and a blood-curdling intonation inserted into the final refrain of “Someone’s gotta help me dig” shaded the rendition with a visceral, in-your-face energy that makes Welles a wonderfully authentic candidate to help lead the burgeoning resurgence of heavy bands. –David Brendan Hall


    09. Royal Blood

    When Royal Blood played on the Which Stage a mere two years ago, they were nearing the end of their tour cycle behind their debut self-titled disc. This meant they were deep in the pocket, drawing enough fans to their catchy brand of riffy raucousness to fill up a formidable portion of the larger What Stage field.

    So it was only appropriate that upon their return to the Farm on Sunday afternoon – one of their first U.S. fest appearances behind new album How Did We Get So Dark? – they graduated to the massive main stage. The British duo performed with enough swagger and sheer volume that it was clear they weren’t taking the upgrade for granted, but their set flow played it somewhat safe. The only new songs (“Where Are You Now?”, “Lights Out”, “I Only Lie When I Love You”, and “Hook Line and Sinker”) appeared within the show’s first half, a strategy to keep the fans waiting for the cared about most. At one point during that beginning run, bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr announced that he was having a technical difficulty.

    “But I don’t give a shit,” he decided. “I’m just gonna keep fucking playing.”
    You’ve gotta love ‘em for that – even though they’re rapidly rising to a level where they can draw massive audiences, they still operate like they’re throwing a show in the garage. Loyal fans crowding the front pit area certainly responded to that devil-may-care commentary. It spurred them to form a legit ‘90s-era circle pit (for real, ya’ll, it was the rowdiest thing I’ve seen at Bonnaroo since Metallica in 2008) for “Figure It Out” and keep it going, Day 4 fatigue be damned, throughout other first album tunes “Loose Change,” Ten Tonne Skeleton” and “Out of the Black”. The last of those saw drummer Ben Thatcher venturing briefly into the audience to give these Bonnaroovians a proper head-band-worthy sendoff. –David Brendan Hall


    08. Major Lazer

    Even though Major Lazer didn’t take the stage until after one in the morning, the rabid crowd showed few signs of fatigue. Diplo, Jillionaire, and Walshy Fire cruised through a non-stop set of originals, remixes, and other surefire party starters. The DJ trio came ready with dancers (who sometimes doubled as drummers), flame-spitting cannons, and enough bass to rumble the Which Stage and the half-mile radius surrounding it. Everything from a Twenty One Pilots’ “Ride” remix to DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” to Lil John’s “Get Low” made appearances through the set. By the time the trio’s own hits “Lean On”, “Pon De Floor”, and “Light It Up” rolled around, it only cemented the group’s status as one of the strongest EDM artists working today. It was easy to get caught up in the madness and Diplo’s crew ensured that this show was far from a DJ pressing play on their laptop. –Andy Belt


    07. Car Seat Headrest

    It felt like business as usual as Car Seat Headrest began their Friday afternoon set, but that isn’t a slight. The Seattle-based quartet, led by Will Toledo, enthralled immediately with their customary festival intro of “Vincent” and “Fill in the Blank, ,with an audience spilling out the sides of This Tent heartily belting out “You have no right to be depressed/you haven’t tried hard enough to like it!”

    The remainder of the set similarly played out just as it has at countless other recent fests, save for one key moment. Before the band launched into one of their catchiest, “Destroyed By Hippie Powers”, drummer Andrew Katz shared a story about a fan who had been messaging him videos on social media for six months showing “her and her friends just smashing the fucking cowbell” to that tune. As she was present in Friday’s audience, he decided to bring her up on stage to let her rip on it. The result – a young fan overcome with emotion, leaping around everywhere as she lived out a dream with her favorite band – was heartwarming and hilarious enough to make a typically stoic Toledo crack a huge grin. With this, the band created a quintessential Bonnaroovian moment: everyone in the audience could relate to the excitement of a fantasy coming to fruition, so the tent’s overflowing positivity – emanating equally powerfully from the band and their crowd – only enhanced Car Seat Headrest’s already consistently superior indie rock chops. –David Brendan Hall


    06. The xx

    Chatter among The xx’s audience before they took the stage Friday night suggested that quite a few in attendance had witnessed the band’s first of three Bonnaroo performances in 2010. The opinion was almost unanimous that the debut – which took place in the relatively tiny That Tent – had been somewhat static, shadowy, and unengaging.

    Safe to say, many of these faithful Bonnaroovians were blown away by what the British trio presented on the main stage this night. It was a fearlessly lively and brightly lit (by way of dazzling moving mirrors and dramatic side-lighting) performance that should’ve negated any doubtful notions. The band manages to soar both with the most danceable off new album I See You (a rollicking run through “Say Something Loving” to start and the horn-heavy house pulse of “Dangerous”) and slightly more upbeat tweaks by Jamie Smith to old favorites (most notably “VCR” and “Shelter,” which melded perfectly into the producer’s club-ready solo cut “Loud Places”).

    Perhaps it was the group’s tenure on the Farm combined with the fact they were effectively opening for U2 (Bono was watching from side stage and gave them a shoutout during the band’s following set – NBD), but this gig was imbued with a sort of magnetic, uplifting energy even that made it the most convincing argument yet for the trio’s newfound fest headliner status. –David Brendan Hall


    05. The Weeknd

    Given that Bonnaroo’s fourth and final day is historically capped by a rock legacy act like The Dead & Co., Tom Petty, and Elton John, Sunday’s fest-closing set by The Weeknd represented somewhat of a test. Would the first big-time contemporary pop artist to fill this slot draw equal numbers, or perhaps even more?

    As the Canadian R&B star began his set with the title track of his latest album Starboy, with showers of sparks raining down from his triangular Tron-esque lighting rig, the latter appeared to be the case. While Lorde enjoyed a slightly smaller crowd, The Weeknd appeared to have attracted swarms of Bonnaroovians freshly hyped from Travis Scott’s performance on the Which Stage. So, though there were inevitably a few folks among the throngs passed out after hitting the Day 4 fatigue wall, the audience’s numbers rivaled many other Roo headliners that came before.

    While that’s due in large part to a younger crowd dominating the fest’s ranks this year, The Weeknd was deserving of the attention regardless. Throughout a 75-minute stream of hits that concluded with double-whammy megahits “I Can’t Feel My Face” and “I Feel It Coming” back-dropped by a dazzling fireworks display, the 27-year-old singer’s smooth tenor never faltered, and neither did his energy. With his giant geometric rig rotating around him like spaceship, he bounded, jumped, and sashayed constantly, handily owning the enormous main stage space.

    “I’m gonna have to come back to Bonnaroo. I’m not gonna lie,” he said.

    Based on the success of his spectacular show, it’s a good bet that could happen. Certainly, it wouldn’t be surprising if Bonnaroo continues booking big pop acts for all future Sunday night closing sets. –David Brendan Hall


    04. Chance the Rapper

    He may not have been on the bill the past few years, but Chance the Rapper is no stranger to Bonnaroo. In fact, he’s become such a staple at the festival that Bonnaroo’s newspaper has dubbed him “mayor of Bonnaroo.” He didn’t let a headline spot on this year’s lineup distract him from this role: he was spotted playing volleyball at Bacardi’s Beach Oasis, came onstage for Francis and the Lights’ “May I Have This Dance”, supported fellow Chicagoan Malcolm London during his set at the Who Stage, and performed two covers at the SuperJam after his own set. Bonnaroo isn’t just another tour stop for Chance, and it’s significance to him came across in spades during his Saturday night performance.

    Accompanied by Surf collaborators Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment, Chance took the packed stadium on a journey that included not only the majority of last year’s Coloring Book, but also included hits from Acid Rap and Surf, as well as several popular features from songs by DJ Khaled and Kanye West. The show was bolstered by a powerful set of visual graphics, from brightly colored geometrics during “Sunday Candy” to a Grammy award outline emblazoned with the word “undiverse” during “No Problem”. But the true beauty of the set came from the energy of the performer himself, which culminated in the angelic singalong to “Blessings” that ended the show. Even for the most skeptical of audience members, Chance the Rapper’s performance was about as close to a religious experience as one can get at a concert. –Mandy Freebairn


    03. Preservation Hall Presents: The Soul Shakedown – A Bonnaroo Superjam!

    Hey Bonnaroo, can you please book the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to lead every Superjam from here on out? Add a slew of horns to almost any song and it sounds better, but after last year’s somewhat underwhelming “Heart, Soul & Spirit” edition, the insane chops and unbridled party-starting energy of the storied New Orleans group’s “Soul Shakedown”, which closed out Saturday’s lineup in This Tent, was a revelation.

    The set of thirteen covers, which ranged from classic soul and funk to contemporary hip-hop and R&B performed by a ridiculously talented roster of special guests, was packed with highlight hits from start to finish. PHJB themselves administered the first shot of adrenaline with blaring trombone, trumpet and sax on C+C Music Factory essential “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”. Boyfriend and her dancers slayed during Rick James’ “Super Freak” (and snippet of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”) with a dazzling dance routine (it’s incredible how perfect the choreography was given they don’t rehearse these shows before the weekend starts). Lukas Nelson and Margo Price traded country roots for riveting, riff-heavy funk with their duet on Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”. Portland sister trio Joseph nailed the most resplendent harmonies of the weekend on TLC’s “Waterfalls”. And Chance the Rapper lived up his name more than ever before with a slick sashay through Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nothin’ But a G Thang”.

    For the finale, Chance – veritably Bonnaroo’s 2017 Man About Town with more cameos across the grounds than anyone else – was joined by nearly the entire Superjam’s roster for a rousing rendition of Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”. That tune almost lost momentum when Chano’s delivery got perhaps a little too jazzy/airy on the “shake it like a Polaroid picture” bit, but he had the likes of Nicole Atkins, Boyfriend, and Flint Eastwood to the see the chorus through to its raucous-refrain ending. Truly, this Superjam was the necessary day-three late-night rally, with everyone leaving the tent with a jolt of dance-powered energy to propel them into Roo’s fourth and final day in all-time-high spirits. As James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem said last year about Grace Jones’ set at FYF Fest, “If you missed it, you fucked up.” I mean, just look at this absurdly awesome set list:

    Everybody Dance Now (C+C Music Factory cover w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
    Happy (Pharrell Williams cover w/ Jon Batiste)
    Get Up Off That Thing (James Brown cover w/ Flint Eastwood)
    Super Freak (Rick James cover w/ Boyfriend)
    Little Red Corvette (Prince cove
    r w/ Rayland Baxter)
    Hand Clapping Song (The Meters cover w/ George Porter Jr.)
    Can I Kick It (A Tribe Called Quest cover w/ Lecrae)
    Love and Happiness (Al Green Cover w/ Lukas Nelson and Margo Price)
    Time is On My Side (The Rolling Stones cover w/ Nicole Atkins)
    Waterfalls (TLC cover w/ Joseph)
    24K Magic (Bruno Mars cover w/ Jason Huber of Cherub)
    Keep That Same Old Feeling (The Crusaders cover w/ Tank and the Bangas)
    Nothin’ But a G Thang (Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg cover w/ Chance the Rapper)
    Hey Ya! (Outkast cover w/ everyone) –David Brendan Hall


    02. Lorde

    Lorde has certainly proven herself a stunningly confident performer – miles more comfortable on stage than she was touring a few years back behind her first album – but a sound issue at the start of her Sunday evening runner-up headliner set threatened to shatter that poise.

    Not once, but twice, as she launched into the intro snippet of “Green Light,” her in-ear monitors cut out, causing her to fumble her words and stop abruptly. After the second pause, she and her band had to leave the stage for 30 minutes while engineers worked out the issue. Yet, rather than let the disaster dominate her show, the 20-year-old Kiwi singer gracefully praised her audience.

    “Bonnaroo, they told me about you,” she said wistfully. “They told me you’d be an indescribable crowd. I can already tell how fucking magical you are.”

    If that was meant to elicit patience while the problem got fixed, it worked. Barely anyone moaned and groaned (instead, fans took up a chant of “We love Lorde”), and when she returned and busted into heavy hip-hop swagger of “Tennis Courts”, the reaction from tens of thousands watching was nothing less than supportive and ecstatic. She responded in kind by pouring all her energy into pleasing her fans for the remainder of the show, which, to the fest’s credit, played out in-full despite the delay. She drew some of the most spirited sing-alongs of the fest with new sure-to-be-super-hits “Homemade Dynamite” and “GreenLight” and old faves “Royals” and “Team”, the last of which saw her taking a lap through the pit to slap as many front-row fans’ hands as possible. Bangers like those were balanced by piano-only-backed “Liability”, performed fireside-chat style with Lorde sitting on the edge of the stage. Whether stripped down or amped up, Lorde’s Bonnaroo debut served as proof that she’s become of a master of connecting with her fans to the point they feel indispensable by the end, as if they’re her best friends partying in a small room with her rather than at an enormous festival. Almost certainly, the beginning sound snafu was completely forgotten by the set’s exultant “Green Light” ending. –David Brendan Hall


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