Since its inception in 2002, the Bonnaroo festival has evolved from a jam-band-heavy, new millennium neo-hippie hoedown to four days and nights of performances that are staggering in their diversity. Indeed, it's now possible for every attendee to leave on Sunday with a completely different experience, their Bonnaroo shaped by their tastes and inclinations. In recognition of the fest's breadth of style and sound, we present four completely different, completely unique festival experiences – all of them happening in the same field, over the same weekend. (For the entire schedule, visit Bonnaroo.com.)
Who you see depends on what you like. Here's how to do Bonnaroo from start to finish – whether you're a blogger, a classic rocker, a beatmaster or a traditionalist.
The Blogger started coming to Bonnaroo in 2006, when Radiohead performed. They've been keeping an eye on the fest over the last few years, and this year, they have more buzzy bands to see than there are hours in the day. This is the Blogger's Bonnaroo.
Wavves, Thursday, 5:30 p.m., This Stage
With his bratty charm, brash onstage demeanor and big, brawling songs, Nathan Williams – chief persona behind Wavves – provides the perfect snapshot of a rock star in training. His latest album, King of the Beach, buries hooks galore beneath layers of scuzz and grime. Live, he steps up his game considerably, a full-force blast of volume and velocity certain to shake the sand from your eyes.
Best Coast, Thursday, 7:15 p.m., Other Tent
On record she may sound shy and retiring, but live Bethany Cosentino proves her band may just be the second coming of the Shangri-La's. Her songs have a bright California lilt, and they are as charming as they are instantly memorable. But the true shocker here is the power of Cosentino's voice: it may be hidden in the shadows on debut outing Crazy for You, but in person it's rich and commanding, impressive in both range and force. That the band occasionally toss in a few unlikely covers – everyone from Blink-182 to Loretta Lynn – makes their set that much more unmissable.
The Drums, Thursday, 8:45 p.m., Other Tent
Indie rock is by no means short on New Wave revivalists, but the Drums are one of the best of the breed. Sunshine spills over every square inch of their songs, from the bounding "Let's Go Surfing," which is sewn up with silvery guitars, or the hazy Beach-Boys-by-way-of-OMD dreaminess of "Down By the Water." It doesn't hurt that vocalist Jonathan Pierce knows only two methods of delivery: desperate and aching. Backed by his group's steady bounce, it's the perfect combination of sour and sweet.
Sleigh Bells, Thursday 10:15 p.m., Other Tent
The one question asked most often at a Sleigh Bells show? "How can two people make that much noise." Part pep rally and part apocalypse, Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss take a perverse pleasure in pushing everything well into the red. They perform before an imposing wall of Marshalls, Miller unleashing demonic howls and shrieks from his guitar, Krauss leaping and punching like a cheerleader in the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It's a marvelous, unholy racket – dance music that gleefully beats you into submission.
Deerhunter, Thursday, 11:30 p.m., That Stage
One of indie rock's more mysterious, compelling figures, Bradford Cox writes lovely, languid songs that surround his tender voice with a latticework of shimmering guitars. It's hard to pinpoint his exact m.o.: one minute, he's delivering a swirl of sound that wouldn't be out of place on an early 90s shoegaze record, the next he's whispering out a ballad over arpeggios that twinkle like suncatchers. His late-night set is sure to be beguiling, the perfect, gentle release after a long, hot day in the sun.
Sharon Van Etten, Friday, 12:15 p.m., Which Stage
With her rich, smoky voice and songs that speak equally of heartbreak and resilience, Sharon Van Etten is quickly – and justifiably – gaining a reputation as a songwriter of both depth and emotional gravity. Her latest album, Epic, is just that – sharply focused snapshots of love and loss delivered via Etten's bare acoustic strum and her band's taut, precise arrangements. Live, they crackle with determination, and Etten's brittle, potent alto can even make phrases like "peace sign" sound vaguely threatening.
Matt and Kim, Friday, 3:15 p.m., This Tent
Matt & Kim's reputation as a live act precedes them – and justifiably so. Simply put, they are a two-person dynamo, frantic, tightly wound and full of good cheer. Their performances are as physical as they are musical. Kim, who is generally beaming from ear-to-ear for the duration, spends half the set standing atop her drum kit, pointing her sticks heavenward, egging the crowd into increasingly raucous behavior. Matt's no slouch, either: He pounds the keys, pogos in place and eventually launches himself into the audience. For the sheer adrenaline-per-second, no other band comes close.
The Decemberists, Friday, 5:30 p.m., What Stage
For a while it seemed as if the Decemberists had refocused their energies, abandoning erudite, guitar-driven pop in favor of something that could best be described as "indie prog." Their latest outing, The King is Dead, proves that was just a dalliance. Gone are the epic, winding song structures and formidable track lengths – they've been replaced by bright, summery guitar arpeggios that recall early R.E.M. and lyrics that dole out the booksmarts sparingly. They're the perfect band to watch as the sun sets over Tennessee.
Florence and the Machine, Friday, 6:45 p.m., This Tent
Last year's big breakout is a live force to be reckoned with. Florence Welch's voice soars and sails, equipping the songs from last year's Lungs with even more power and heft. The quiet moments scale up perfectly – "Rabbit Heart" becomes dark and tribal, "A Kiss With a Fist" suitably bruising and of course, "The Dog Days Are Over" stretches out wide and triumphant – a big, glorious anthem that will sound majestic from a festival stage.
Arcade Fire, Friday, 11:00 p.m., What Stage
The reigning kings of indie rock, Arcade Fire have handily proven that it's possible for small bands to supernova almost overnight with little more than the power of their convictions and the kind of stridency and self-confidence that powered early U2. And while more than a few people may have been flummoxed by their Grammy win, anyone who catches their show at Bonnaroo will find them impossible to forget. This is the exact setting their music is built for: their triumphant, thundering anthems will expand to fit Bonnaroo's endless acres, closing out Friday with the requisite sound and fury.
Smith Westerns, Sunday, 12:30pm, This Tent
Judging by their latest effort, Dye it Blonde, the once-shambling lo-fi band have suddenly discovered a whole cache of David Bowie records. No other young band has glammed it up so effectively: brazen guitars, pouty vocals and chugging tempos make this Chicago three-piece unlikely ambassadors for the virtues of Seventies FM radio. You never knew "All the Young Dudes" could have so many thrilling, distinct iterations.
Iron and Wine, Sunday, 4:30, Which Stage
Gone is the hushed, tender Sam Beam of yesteryear, the guy who seemed to be singing directly into his enormous beard most of the time. In his place is Sam Beam, neo-psych songwriter. On his latest effort, Kiss Each Other Clean, Beam ably expands the Iron and Wine m.o. to make room for twinkling synths and layers of hazy guitar. It works because the songs are still grounded in Beam's tender, loping melodies. He may not be writing lullabies anymore, but there's still something about Beam's music that soothes.
Beirut, Sunday, 6:15pm, Other Tent
Zach Condon is a musical omnivore. His initial efforts found him at home with the bleary horn charts and oompah percussion of Balkan brass, but later efforts saw him growing increasingly restless, incorporating synths and strings and sinewy melodies. There's no telling which Condon will show up at Bonnaroo, but no matter which it is, a spectacle is guaranteed.
The Strokes, Sunday, 6:45, Which Stage
When the Strokes reconvened last year, it seemed curiously arbitrary. Their absence had been long and quiet – not a formal breakup so much as an unannounced dormancy – and the scene to which they belonged (specifically: the early '00s New York rock contingent) had quietly expired. But over a series of remarkable comeback gigs, the group has ably proven their right not only to carry on, but to prosper. Julian Casablancas is still the kind of the disaffected, and the sound of his lazy croon sailing over top of the group's icy stabs of guitar has lost none of its potency. To see them live is to remember why you ever loved them in the first place – and to be genuinely thrilled they've decided to return.