As the sun was setting on the fourth and final day of Bonnaroo, Strokes singer Julian Casablancas faced a dilemma. Even at dusk, the temperature was still in the 90s – but the leather jacket he was wearing looked so cool. Casablancas moved to take it off, then stopped, then started, then stopped again. Finally he decided to keep it on. After giving a shout-out to gypsy-indie troupe Beirut, whom he’d just finished watching, he had a message to the crowd: "You guys have so many options. Thanks for choosing us."
Bonnaroo is all about the options. At that very moment, festivalgoers could have chosen from any of a half-dozen quality acts. Across the field in That Tent, the annual SuperJam was heating up, featuring the team of New Orleans R&B legend Dr. John and Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach. Over in This Tent, Austin instrumental quartet Explosions in the Sky (makers of the soundtrack for NBC’s Friday Night Lights) were playing jams so stirring and epic they made even the sunset feel like a come-from-behind win.
Actual sports fans were watching Mavericks dismantle the Heat for the NBA championship. Best of all was Robert Plant, performing on the main stage with his Band of Joy, who played a couple of folkified Led Zeppelin songs ("Rock and Roll" and "What Is and What Never Should Be”), roaming the stage with his hair flowing and his shirt halfway unbuttoned, like a post-coital lion.
And that was all just at 7:30.
The last day at Bonnaroo is a bit of an endurance test. By this point, most of the 80,000 campers have gotten so sun-fried they could take a Frisbee to the face and not blink. (If you ever wanted to see what a hacky-sack-playing zombie looks like, Sunday was your chance.) So it fell on the artists to whip them into shape. One who did was Swedish pop queen Robyn, who celebrated her birthday with a disco party that felt more like midnight on a Friday than a hot Sunday afternoon.
If people were dragging, though, you could hardly blame them. The previous three days were almost exhaustingly full of great sets. Rockers My Morning Jacket and the Black Keys made the most of their main-stage debuts with sets that were by turns supersized and stunning. (Comedian Aziz Ansari, who introduced the Keys in character as "Ken Bonnaroo," were a last minute fill-in for the Black Eyed Peas, who’d been in "a terrible hot air balloon accident caused by Taboo," he joked.) Hip-hop headliners Eminem and Lil Wayne injected some rare (and not altogether unwelcome) notes of menace into the fest’s blissed-out vibe. British folkies Mumford & Sons proved how much they’ve exploded in the past few months, playing the second stage for a massively enthusiastic throng that could have easily filled the first. And their fellow Londoners Florence and the Machine also overperformed, as frontwoman Florence Welch worked her witchy magic on a crowd that spilled outside the tent.
One of the nicest running themes was the warm welcome all the veterans got from the largely youngish crowd. Buffalo Springfield, playing only their ninth show since reuniting for the first time since 1968, sounded not at all like they were 40 years of rust. ("We’re Buffalo Springfield," joked Neil Young, "and we’re from the past.") On Saturday night Dr. John partnered up with another New Orleans institution, funk giants the Meters, to play his 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo, which inspired the festival’s name. And if there was a grander dame than Loretta Lynn, dressed to the nines in big hair and sequins and blowing kisses to the crowd, we sure didn’t see her. She even showed off a sense of humor about the place’s druggy rep, winkingly referring to the "Cokes" people were drinking before adding slyly, "If they want to mix that Coke with something, that’s their business."
That’s the kind of live-and-let-live attitude that typifies the Bonnaroo ethos. Unlike, say, Coachella – which is so filled with Hollywood VIP-types it may as well be the Warner Bros. company picnic – at Bonnaroo, laid-back is the rule. The celebrities who did turn up felt satisfyingly random. (John Waters? Ron Jeremy? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?) And even having a hit TV show and movie is no guarantee of special treatment, as actor Zach Braff learned when he was rebuffed from watching onstage during the Black Keys' set.
General consensus was that this year didn’t really have any of those transcendent, all-time moments that will get talked about around the mushroom fountain for years to come. But what it lacked in history-making awesomeness it made up for with little moments of surprise and wonder – like the half-dozen parachuters who fell from the sky at the end of My Morning Jacket's set, sprinkling trails of glowing LED lights behind them like pixie dust. (If you happened to be tripping at the time, so much the better.)
Sometimes what didn’t happen was more exciting than what did. This year’s Bonnarumor mill was in overdrive with stories that didn’t pan out: No, Lil Wayne didn’t get arrested and have to miss his set; no, Phoenix wasn’t flying in to perform a secret late-night show. Even the supposed once-in-a-decade plague of cicadas that some people had warned about never materialized. (Only the first big rumor of the weekend – that a 32-year-old woman had been found dead in the campground Thursday night – turned out to be, sadly, too true.)
One of the best sets of the weekend belonged to Arcade Fire, who brought their arena-sized nostalgia jams to the main stage Friday night. Frontman Win Butler started out the evening playfully mocking, announcing, "All right you fucking hippies, let’s do it!" before the band launched into their recent rager "Month of May." But by the end of the set he was solidly pro-hippies, and even provided a nice summary of the weekend’s appeal. "Any festival where you can see My Morning Jacket and Lil Wayne," Butler said to cheers of agreement, "is OK with me."
Watch the Best of Bonnaroo in Video Highlights
Eminem, Buffalo Springfield Rule Bonnaroo Day Three
Arcade Fire, Lil Wayne Burn Up Bonnaroo Day Two
Sleigh Bells, Wavves Kick Off Bonnaroo With Hard-Charging Sets
The Sheepdogs Drink, Rock and Rile Up Bonnaroo Crowd
Lelia Broussard Takes On Bonnaroo with Energy and Attitude