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How to Do the 'Roo: Building the Perfect Bonnaroo Schedule

From Phish to Springsteen and Okkervil River to Neko Case, the fest's must-see sets

June 9, 2009 9:37 AM ET

Let's concede this right out of the gate: there is no one perfect Bonnaroo schedule. Given the wealth of talent on display and the impossible way they're stacked up against one another, it's almost a guarantee that you will, at some point, miss something amazing. But that doesn't mean that you can't minimize your risk. We've put together a list of Bonnaroo sure-things, hour-by-hour, to ensure that you make the most of your weekend in the sun.

Thursday

5:45-6:45 p.m. - Janelle Monae
Trust us: this is exactly how you want to start your festival. Monae's wound-up Grace-Jones-in-Fast-Forward stage show is breathtaking, a mind-blowing collision of throwback R&B and glitchy new wave. Monae is a wonder: decked out in a starched white shirt and balancing a mohawk shock of black hair, she is constantly in motion, making her adrenalized songs seem that much more manic and alive.

6:45-7:45 p.m. - White Rabbits
The perfect follow-up to Monae, Brooklyn's White Rabbits deliver ramshackle indie rock built from spindly guitars and banging barroom piano. Their music is relentlessly percussive, big beats bolstering wonderfully wobbly vocals. When all those elements are combined, it sounds like the apocalypse hitting a concert hall.

10:15-11:15 p.m. - People Under the Stairs
Ten years into their lifespan and PUTS remain as energetic and vital as ever. They defy anyone who claims live hip-hop doesn't work: their firebrand performances are the stuff of legend, demanding full-on audience attention and participation.

11:15 p.m.-12:15 a.m.- Passion Pit
There's a reason you've been hearing so much about Passion Pit these days. The latest to tinker with the "Dance + Rock" equation, Passion Pit have figured out a way to meld the grandiosity of Arcade Fire with the squiggle and thump of Pet Shop Boys. Their live shows are convulsive and energizing, the perfect late night dance party to wind down Day One.

Friday

2:00-3:00 p.m. - Vieux Farka Touré
Here's a standing rule for festivals like this: Always see anyone who is traveling from another country. Never mind the fact that Farke Touré is the son of the late, legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré — he's a genius in his own right. His breathless stacatto guitar runs and rich, soulful vocals pluck him cleanly from his old man's shadow and establish him as a legend-in-the-making.

3:00-4:15 p.m. - St. Vincent
Architect of one of the year's best records, St. Vincent (known to her parents as Annie Clark) is a tornado in a tight black top. Her odd, jagged songs sprout fangs live, the cockeyed synthesizers are replaced with feverish, gnashing guitars. She's a bit of a stoic presence, but that only makes her music feel that much scarier. She's the blank-eyed robot dishing out bad news one bitter note at a time.

4:45-6:00 p.m. - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The intensity and ferocity of Karen O cannot be overstated, and the trio's live shows have only gained in power over the years. The trick is going to be how they manage to replicate the synth-heavy It's Blitz! in the live setting, and how that shift in aesthetics will fiddle with their delivery.

5:15-6:30 p.m. - King Sunny Adé
To put it in basic terms, King Sunny Adé is like the Nigerian Phish. His endless, jam-oriented shows are nothing short of a marvel, and his loose, lucid guitar work has earned him a reputation as one of the world's greatest players. If there were a King Sunny Adé Guitar Hero, nobody would be able to play it. His Bonnaroo set time is merely a fraction of the length of his regular concerts, but in this case that's a good thing: forced to tighten up, Adé will have to pack in more thrills-per-second than usual.

6:00-7:30 p.m. - Al Green
We'll concede: this one is a crapshoot. You're never quite sure which Al is going to show up, or how many tangents he's going to indulge in the place of actual songs. Thing is, though, if he's on, he's on, and missing him would be one of your weekend's greater tragedies. Riding high off the flawless — and severely underrated — Lay it Down, Green is still the high archbishop of soul. When the spirit moves him, none of his peers come close.

6:45-8:00 p.m. - TV on the Radio
On the odd chance that the Reverend is having an off-night, your no-brainer backup plan is TV on the Radio. Rock, R&B, Afrobeat, jazz — there is no genre the group leaves untouched. But what makes them so remarkable is the way they synthesize them, writing songs that somehow manage to recall both Prince and Peter Gabriel. Live, the group is augmented by a brass section, ramping up the volume and making the songs sound positively regal.

7:00-8:30 p.m. - Amadou & Mariam
Be sure to book it from TVOTR to catch the last half-hour of blind Malian husband-and-wife duo Amadou & Mariam. Friday is inexplicably rife with expert African guitarists, and A&M are no exception. But where Vieux Farka Touré and King Sunny Adé stick mostly to traditional African music forms, Amadou & Mariam are more stylistically restless. Their latest album, the superb Welcome to Mali, features production work by Damon Albarn, and includes extended forays into electronic music and blues.

8:30-10:00 p.m. - The Beastie Boys
No matter their age or the length of time since their last masterpiece, the Beastie Boys still know how to work a crowd, and few things sound better at thousands of decibels than "Sabotage." Live, MCA, Mike D and Ad-Rock wisely stick to the hits, shaking things up with a brief instrumental set before diving back into their vast wealth of classics.

11:00 p.m.-2:00 a.m. - Phish
Duh.

12:30-1:45 a.m. - Public Enemy
The one act that's well worth ducking out of Phish for. Never mind the fact that Flav has willingly been transformed into a parody version of himself — 20 years in, PE are still a monstrous live force, ramping up the intensity of their no-compromise hip-hop to deliver a chest-pummeling show that has more in common with heavy metal than hip-hop. Chuck D's domineering delivery has only grown more urgent and angry with age, and even Flav's id-uncorked antics feel like one man's flailing against an impending apocalypse.

2:15-3:45 a.m. - Girl Talk
All of the chatter about Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, focuses on the way he flouts copyright law to make some of the dizziest and unlikely mash-ups imaginable. What few people mention, though, is how spectacularly this all works live. Gillis is a master showman, setting up tracks and then leaping into the audience, clapping and stomping and jumping in time with the beat. This is how you want Day Two to come down: breathless and sweating, grinding to the improbably perfect combination of Biggie and Bright Eyes.

Saturday

12:30-1:30 p.m. - Elvis Perkins in Dearland
There's a reason there's an "in" instead of an "and" in that moniker: Perkins' parched, folky songs sound like fairy tales, and the odd, endearing space he and his group creates feels more like a film than a concert. Possessing a pained, world-weary voice and buttressing his songs with bloodshot brass band arrangements, Perkins makes the perfect hangover music, cracked and crackling front-porch songs to help ease you into your day.

1:45-2:45 p.m. - Allen Toussaint
On a bill loaded with legends, few loom larger than Toussaint. The New Orleans pianist is an R&B pioneer, an expert at his instrument and a master of his craft. As his recent Grammy performance with Lil Wayne and Alan Thicke proved, Toussaint has still got it, capable of the same breakneck high-end runs he invented 40 years ago.

3:30-5:00 p.m. - Rodrigo y Gabriela
Call it acoustic metal: this fleet-fingered Mexican duo excel at blazing-fast riffage, turning out tunes as hectic and chaotic as a band of bumblebees. It's no surprise — both are veterans of the thrash metal outfit Tierra Acida. And while the duo clearly display a great affinity for Latin music (most of their songs bear the unmistakable ruffle of flamenco), they just as eagerly embrace rock and folk, creating the kind of endless instrumental jams perfect for whiling away an afternoon.

5:15-6:30 p.m. - Of Montreal
Even if you don't care for the songs, go for the spectacle. At a recent Of Montreal show Kevin Barnes took the stage on horseback, and another one ended with him completely disrobing. In short, Of Montreal shows are unpredictable. These are elaborate, costumed affairs, the whole band sporting painted faces and, just as often, Victorian-era getups. But don't let all the pomp and circumstance fool you: far from being pretentious art rock, Of Montreal instead skew playful — like a children's book come to life.

6:00-8:00 p.m. - Wilco
From alt-country to avant-garde and back again, Wilco have proven themselves masters of multiple forms. Their live show allows them to embrace every odd corner of their catalog, allowing artier offerings like "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" to mingle with loping old standbys like "Sunken Treasure." Expect the group to draw heavily on the forthcoming Wilco (the Album), and to acquit themselves with the kind of wryness for which they've become known.

9:00 p.m.-12:30 a.m. - Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Anyone who says they don't want to see this is lying. Springsteen's 36-year career is practically perfect, producing fewer duds than Dylan while maintaining an unmatchable level of both righteousness and relevance. And sure, saying "Springsteen is great live" is about as profound as saying "Ice cream is delicious," but, hey, you still love ice cream, right? The only question here is whether or not three and a half hours will be enough time.

1:00 a.m.-3:00 a.m. - Nine Inch Nails
Simply put: live, Nine Inch Nails are a force of nature, a big, furious animal trampling anything in its path. And even though Reznor says this touring iteration of NIN is "scaled down," it's virtually impossible to minimize the full-on angry impact of his snarling songs. It's not all pummel and scrape, though. Reznor is a master of subtlety, and even his loudest compositions are rich with detail. The group has their live show down to a science, and their impeccable combination of power and precision is not to be missed.

Sunday

1:30-2:30 p.m. - Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
An indie rock vet from way back, Leo is still a hyperkenetic live presence. His hot-rodding neo-mod songs are a tangle of needlework guitars and racehorse percussion, yanked along by Leo's fantastically desperate yelp.

3:30-5:00 p.m. - Erykah Badu
Badu's shows are positively mystic, long R&B jam sessions powered by dank basslines, steady grooves and Badu's otherworldly croak. She functions as a kind of medium, channeling in weird messages from the spirit world over searching soul grooves. She's evolved skillfully from neo-soul crooner to high priestess of future funk, and this late afternoon set is perfectly suited to her dusky tunes.

4:30-5:45 p.m. - Okkervil River
Okkervil have been tapped by many as the heir to Wilco's throne, and it's not too hard to see why. Frontman Will Sheff's parched croak is, at times, Tweedy-esque, and the group's literate indie rock draws heavily on folk music. But their cunning take downs of overstuffed pop stars and self-involved bohemian rich kids are uniquely their own, and their ability to sneak venom in memorable choruses makes them one of Sunday's must-see acts.

6:45-8:15 p.m. - Neko Case
It comes down to this: that voice. Case's singing is one of the universe's great wonders, and live her rich, ruby tones are enough to generate goosebumps. She's been slyly reinventing herself for the last few years, moving away from the rugged country stylings of her earliest work toward modern-day torch songs, heart-on-sleeve balladry that would be a perfect fit for Phil Spector if he weren't otherwise occupied. The lead track on Case's latest is called "This Tornado Loves You," and make no mistake — the tornado is her, and the power of her pipes will flatten trailer parks for miles.

8:30 p.m.-12:00 a.m. - Phish
Not that you have any other options, but if you somehow missed them on Friday, this is your chance to redeem yourself.

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