Bonnaroo Festival Review 2017: Top 10 Sets

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


    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.

    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

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