In this life we live, our worlds are made up of our definitions—limited triggers about what we love, hate, and learn based on experience and stubbornness. The trick is to dissolve or distance yourself from stagnating definitions in order to expand your capacity for enlightenment. It’s easier said than done. Believe me, I know. That’s why it’s called a “Comfort zone.” Art and music are no different. So what better way to reinforce a paradigm shift than at Bonnaroo?—a place whose ever-changing definitions are the cornerstone of its own ethos.
So as Kerry and I embarked on our annual trek to the multi-fest, I made a firm commitment to change up my game plan—even down to a new camping arrangement (thank you Josh and Caitlyn). Aside from a handful of bucket-list bands, this year’s lineup was not the most favorable to my radar. But instead of being bummed about it, I set out to see as much as possible without the isolation tactics of genre, fanbase, and all the stigmas that come along with them. (I think it’s hilarious that people still think we sleep in a steamy puddle of mud and sit around listening to jam bands all day.) Sure, the ‘Roo has its fair share of hippies, hipsters, bros, and zombie-tweens; but as I get older, I become less and less enthralled with these words of separation and more enlightened by honesty and connectivity. What I chose to see (among many things) were families sharing an experience together—fathers bonding with their daughters; mothers connecting with their teenage sons. It’s a beautiful thing but still just a small piece of what stood out to me this year. The rest of my time will be awarded in superlatives for my highlights and inevitable lowlights.
Most likely to impersonate a Swedish female pop star: Taran Killam
On the first night we wandered into a packed house at the comedy tent. And by the powers of the media wristband, we were ushered right up to the front row, just in time to see Saturday Night Live cast member Taran Killam perform Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” dance in its entirety. I met Taran at a press conference where I asked him how long it took to learn that dance. “I haven’t stopped watching the video.”
Most impressive performance by an artist without a debut album: Sam Smith
A rising star indeed! Before the 22- year old Englishman had ever released his debut album, he was already clocking his first major American appearances that included Saturday Night Live and of course, Bonnaroo. Not only was he performing, but he was packing the house! A truly beautiful performance by a soon-to-be stellar musician/vocalist.
Most likely to satisfy a bacon craving: Bacon Land
The newest food addition to the festival, complete with Hamageddon—a two-ton steel pig sculpture/mascot. Vegans be warned!!!
Most illuminated/Most expected: Flaming Lips
Oooh… shiny! If you’ve ever been to a Flaming Lips show, you know the deal— lights, lasers, balloons, and party favors. This, of course, was no different. And why should it be? They do it better than anyone else. Despite a departure from the spaceship/hamster ball routine, Wayne Coyne and company still offer more than enough visual stimulation to compliment a set list heavy with neo- classics like “Don’t Use Jelly,” “Race for the Prize,” and “Do You Realize.” The encore cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was the final piece of magic in an already dazzling late-night show.
Most emotionally driven set: Neutral Milk Hotel
Admittedly, I should probably be more familiar with this band than I am. But, there is no doubt about the energy spent and transferred during a NMH performance. Jeff Mangum is, of course, a brilliant singer/songwriter and his supporting cast was just about perfect. Some fans had been waiting about 15 years to see this band. So it was no surprise to see people being carried out in a puddle of their own tears. That’s the power of being a ‘90s rock icon shrouded in mystery.
Most likely to throw a French dance party: Phoenix
After escaping the emotional rollercoaster of NMH, it was time to find a party… and Phoenix was hosting. The guest list included about 20,000 of your closest friends for the weekend and the high-energy French pop rockers were serving up the hits. They came out blasting “Entertainment” and “Lisztomania” and didn’t stop until the entire park was singing the chorus to “1901.” What started out years ago as a guilty pleasure paid off in a pretty moving moment.
Most likely to get me to walk a mile for a late night snack: The Amish Donut
It seems that the secret is out. The Amish bakery estimated they would sell more than 10,000 donuts by the end of the weekend. But it’s not just any donut. It’s the best donut you will ever have! I’m usually partial to the fried Oreos, but in this year of new definitions, I needed a new fix—and I got it more times than I care to admit.
Most intimate show for 20,000 people: James Blake
It’s an incredible feat to create that kind of intimate grip on so many people. Despite a last minute venue change and major equipment failure in the beginning, James Blake’s set was ironically the smoothest in performance and personality. The chill in the night mirrored an icy set-list that borrowed heavily from the soft-spoken Englishman’s sophomore album, Overgrown. Lucky for me, I simply love that album, so I was all teary-eyed smiles that night.
Most unexpected humble enthusiasm: Damon Albarn
“This is my first American music festival. It’s a dream come true.” While showcasing songs from his newest solo album, Everyday Robots, the glow and sincerity of the former Blur/Gorillaz frontman was too much to hide as he took full advantage of his time on stage—even bringing out De La Soul and Del tha Funky Homosapien to help perform Gorillaz singles, “Feel Good, Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood.” I’ve been a fan for a long time but for some reason, I just didn’t expect this Brit to be so dynamic and fun. It went down as one of the best shows I’ve ever attended.
Best show to hear from a mile away: Wiz Khalifa
The best part about camping within “close” proximity to the front gate is that you hear all of the things you normally wouldn’t listen to. It sounded fun, but I don’t regret my “at home” position during this one. You have to take your breaks at some point. I usually take mine during the “N-word” references.
Worst show to hear from a mile away: Danny Brown
Don’t get me wrong. It sounded great! I just should have been there. The worst thing about being able to hear shows from the tent is that your exhausted brain will trick you into thinking you are there when you’re really asleep in a chair at the camp. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten pretty good at this over the years.
Best photobomb: The kid with the Yeezus tour shirt
I ran after three guys so I could take a picture of their homemade “Fuck Kanye” t-shirts, which I thought was funny enough. Little did I know, the picture would get even better when a kid sporting a “Yeezus” shirt would wander into the side frame, flashing an unabashed thumbs-up. It was brilliant and beautiful!
Best serenade with a TV show theme song: Washed Out
Ahhh… the little moments. Sometimes the energy of those Sunday shows is at the mercy of crowd exhaustion. So, just as my brain and body decided to commit to this synth extravaganza, I was sucked in by the sounds of Portlandia. It was like a little reward for an exhausted Sunday decision. Didn’t I just feel like the belle of the ball.
Most unexpectedly hilarious: Lionel Richie
These classic acts are always the best! I remember listening to my parents’ Lionel Richie tapes when I was a kid, so this show was extra special for me. Among a two-hour set crammed with solo hits and Commodores classics, he would take breaks to crack jokes with the crowd. At one point, he even called out a fan who was wearing a ‘70s-era Lionel Richie costume, complete with afro and mustache. “It’s weird to look out into the audience and see yourself. Hey, my mustache is crooked.”
Most disconnected to the festival: Kanye West
In this world of yins and yangs, I suppose every circle needs a villain. Kanye West just plays the role better than anyone else. So kudos to whoever made the call to book him on the night of Friday the 13th. It could not have played out anymore perfectly. I might have actually enjoyed the show if he had just, you know, played songs. But who was I kidding? It’s not a true Kanye show without a self- absorbed, incoherent maniac on stage. He stopped the show several times to perform auto-tuned rants about (but not limited to) Shakespeare, Howard Hughes, and of course, the media. He even declared himself “The biggest rock star on the mufuckin’ planet,” to which he received a hail of booing. Yes, the proverbial train wreck definition of the asshole rock star is yours for the taking, sir. Congratulations. The problem is that the festival at which he happened to be performing is traditionally about musicianship, connection, humility, and integrity—none of which could be found that night.
Most connected to the festival and Best superhero: Jack White
After all the bitterness from the night before, it was up to the Saturday night headliner to bring back the true ‘Roo spirit. Luckily, The Third Man was on fire and poised to give the most rip-roaring rock’n’roll show of the weekend! With blue lights and blazing guitars, he and his band dove right into “Icky Thump,” a White Stripes fan favorite. Bam! The crowd was his and he didn’t let go for the next two- and-a-half hours. In that time, we were treated to a gamut of solo material, White Stripes, and Raconteurs songs. He even found room to talk up the crowd about life’s opportunities and spending time with his family at the festival that day. “I try to bring my mother everywhere I go. Hug your mothers and fathers.” Whether you want to believe it or not, this charmer is one of the most dynamic musicians of our time and has already etched himself a strong foothold in rock’n’roll folklore. That night, he just cut a little deeper.
Music royalty: Elton John
At the end of the weekend, it’s always nice to have that big send-off. Sir Elton was easily the biggest and most crowded Sunday night closer I’ve ever attended. The guy’s hit list runs deep and he played just about all of it. Now, I’m not the biggest Elton John fan but I’m not about to pretend that I don’t understand the gravity of his countless contributions to music, art, and human rights. Plus, singing “Tiny Dancer” with 80,000 strong was a pretty incredible moment.