For 15 years, Bonnaroo has lured festival-goers from all corners of the country with a unique mix of positive vibes, good food and great music. From Pearl Jam's monster headlining set and Chance the Rapper's many surprise appearances to Dead & Company's festival-closing bonanza and — finally! — flushable toilets, here are the 25 best things we saw, heard and tasted at the 15th anniversary of Bonnaroo.
Headlining Bonnaroo for the first time since 2008, when they became the only act to ever silence Kanye, and on the heels of an unfettered, "anything goes"-type tour, there were no limits for what Pearl Jam could have planned Saturday night. Would they play Ten and Vs. in their entirety? No Code backwards? Will new friend Jack White come out as a surprise guest?
Of the endless possibilities, Pearl Jam instead went with a simple, crowd-pleasing, non-stop, high-energy two-hour set that satisfied both longtime and hardcore fans as well as the majority of the packed crowd who probably weren't even born when Ten came out 25 years ago.
Pearl Jam unholstered immediately, first firing the bruising headbanger "Go" followed by the similarly breakneck "Save You." Knowing their audience, nearly two-thirds of Pearl Jam's 22-song setlist was dedicated to the band's first three albums; "Even Flow," "Corduroy," "Daughter" and "Jeremy" were all played during the main set, capped by a volcanic rendition of "Porch" that found Vedder rocking out with revelers in the pit. After a brief break, Pearl Jam returned for an eight-song encore, highlighted by a show-stopping "Black," a "Better Man" sing-along and their now-standard cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" with Vedder and his bandmates never stopping to catch their breath.
It is a marvel to consider the amount of duress Vedder puts on his voice in every song and yet, even two hours into the concert, it never wavers, like a starting pitcher still throwing 97 m.p.h. heat in the eighth inning. Vedder, at age 51, hasn't lost much off his fastball: He doesn't attempt the high notes on "Oceans" anymore, but his escalation on "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" is still perfect. Jeff Ament still runs full sprint all over the stage like he's training for a marathon. After performing "Alive" and "Porch" more than 700 times over a quarter-century, Mike McCready still goes to great lengths to ensure that every guitar solo is explosive and unique. There's a reason why Pearl Jam diehards happily scoop up the band's authorized bootlegs of every concert, like flannel-clad Deadheads.
Never one to mince words, Vedder the statesman used his platform to speak his mind. "There's a candidate out there who's talking about building a wall," Vedder said during a long speech slamming Donald Trump. "Maybe we should just build a wall around him. We'd pay for it, I'd pay for it. It'd be cheap." He also called out, by name, Tennessee representative Susan Lynn for trying to push a bill similar to North Carolina's controversial HB2 "bathroom bill" through the state government. Commenting on how this generation is more tolerant than its predecessors, Vedder said of Lynn, "Susan, you could be a part of history, or you could be history."
It might not have been the daybreak-pushing marathon set that Bonnaroovians were anticipating, but Pearl Jam's knockout performance went heavy on the durable songs likely be part of classic rock's backbone for generations.
In the 15 years since its inception, Bonnaroo has seen its audience change, its musical tastes expand, its culinary choices improve, its behind-the-scenes operations get better and its drug availability get tougher. It's almost unrecognizable from its 2002 origin, when bands like Widespread Panic would headline two nights, but the festival has always stayed true to its jam-band roots, and that was on full display Sunday night.
A year ago, Dead & Company didn't exist. Sunday, they headlined Bonnaroo. This festival is a strange place. The band, lit from the embers of the "final" Fare Thee Well shows, consists mainly of the Dead's Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann alongside guitarist John Mayer, who steps into the hole left by Jerry Garcia. At first, it is a bit jarring to hear Mayer's voice, just as it was hearing Trey Anastasio's voice, where Garcia's used to be, but that alien feeling dissipates after a few songs, and then you can enjoy the music for what it is: A group of elite musicians, three formerly of the Dead, playing the band's timeless tunes with precise and delicate care.
And perhaps no song encapsulates the spirt of Bonnaroo more than "Tennessee Jed," with Weir shouting into the humid June night, "Tennessee, Tennessee, ain't no place I'd rather be" along with tens of thousands of temporary residents of the state.
"Shakedown Street," another highlight, literally shook the bleachers with a funky undertone — courtesy of longtime Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge — that's sorely absent from the disco-plundering original version. Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann act as each jam's incalculably accurate timekeepers, always in step and syncopated no matter where Weir and Mayer bring them. Weir and Mayer's partnership, while still fresh, was also in correct alignment, with each knowing when exactly to lead or follow, when to explore a song or when to form the segue.
The remaining glowsticks were thrown, the last cannabis of the weekend was smoked and shared, the spirit of Bonnaroo pulsated and the kids in the audience — many of whom never shared the earth with Garcia — soaked it all in, knowing this is probably the closest they'll ever get to seeing the Grateful Dead.
Between the Saturday night festivities and Sunday morning, a tragic shooting, the deadliest in U.S. history, took place at an Orlando gay nightclub. As Bonnaroovians scurried awake Sunday, news of the tragedy spread across the campsite. On the festival grounds, there were more showings of LGBT pride than usual, with small rainbow flags tied around backpacks.
In the afternoon, Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir was the distinguished guest at a backstage Eats & Greets fundraising fete honoring him as the first recipient of the Les Paul Spirit Award for Innovation and Achievement. After speaking about the importance of music education, Weir closed out his speech with a reflection on the Orlando shooting as well as the religious rhetoric that fuels these acts of terrorism.
"As we know, there was a massacre in Florida, not far from here," Weir told the audience. "I'd like to point out that last week, a distinguished representative from the State of Georgia went on the floor of the House of Representatives of our country and started quoting bible verses in which he basically promoted, or at least rationalized, death to gay people as a reward for the way they were born.
"This morning, the lieutenant governor of Texas said that, 'Well, they’re reaping what they’ve sown.' Now, I wanna ask a question: how different are these peoples’ world views from the world views of the people with ISIS? It's the same hatred. They pull those hatreds out of different books, but it’s the same hatred and I’d just like to point that out."
For the third straight year, Chance the Rapper performed at Bonnaroo — even though he wasn't technically on the lineup this year or last. The Chicago rapper popped up as an unannounced guest during J. Cole's Friday main stage set to perform Coloring Book's "No Problem" before ferrying a golf cart to join R&B sensation Bryson Tiller on the That Tent stage a few hours later. The following night, Chance made two more onstage appearances, first with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to perform their collaborative This Unruly Mess I've Made cut "Need to Know" on the main stage before cruising over to Miguel's late-night set to cover the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy." Sunday, Chance had one last surprise: A "listening party" of his acclaimed Coloring Book at Bonnaroo's famed Silent Disco.
In its 15th year of existence, Bonnaroo added perhaps its greatest advancement: Actual working bathrooms on the festival site. These two architecturally pleasing, sparkling new structures on opposite ends of festival each boasted over 400 toilets combined, complete with stalls and partitioned urinals (and sinks!). By the weekend, the lines for these restrooms rivaled the size of the crowd at the nearby That Tent, but avoiding a fetid, 120-degree Porta Potty was worth the wait. Festival organizers were so excited about their new addition, they marked the sites with exclamation points — flushable toilets! — on the map.
Six years after holding an epic Bonnaroo late-night set — and five years after their quasi-breakup — LCD Soundsystem returned to the festival to headline the Saturday night party. "We're really happy to play for you. You seem to be in a good mood," Murphy told the joyous crowd of roughly 40,000. 'I'm a little hungover, we had a really good time last night. So I'm a little stupid but I feel I'm not alone."
After the small warm-up shows and Coachella weekends, LCD Soundsystem are back at full speed, which is good news for the crowds at Panorama, Outside Lands, Lollapalooza and whatever other festivals that will witness the band perform a near-identical set. (In a way, the band performed two shows at Bonnaroo: Their hour-long soundcheck early Thursday evening on the closed-off main stage was eavesdropped by dozens of early arrivers.)
Although the band is still performing a live incarnation of what could be their 'Best of' Apple Music playlist, the reunited LCD Soundsystem did show off some new tricks, like the chaotic segue that turned the cacophony at the end of "Yeah" into the siren call of "Someone Great," or the extra piece of songwriting advice Murphy gives to Captain Beefheart in "Losing My Edge." And they're still keeping their brand of dance music as pure as possible. When the climax of "Dance Yrself Clean" was greeted by fireworks — the apex of stadium-rock schtick — launching out from beyond the trees, Murphy was quick to point out that "that's not our gear."
Two songs into Haim's Saturday evening set at the Which Stage, as they've done throughout their 2016 tour, the sisters paid tribute to Prince with a faithful take on "I Would Die 4 U," right down to the onstage hand gestures seen in Purple Rain. As bassist Este Haim explained, the band made their first ever festival appearance at Bonnaroo in 2013, and without going into further detail, the classic reminded the Haim sisters of that huge stepping stone in their career. "That was fucking lit, Bonnaroo. I'm happy we got the party started," she said.
While the nearly three-year wait for a new album has been tough on fans, the moratorium has resulted in Haim really crystallizing their live show and the Days Are Gone material. Opener "If I Could Change Your Mind" was bolstered with a ferocious solo by guitarist Danielle Haim, while "My Song 5" now packs a more jagged edge than its sterile album version. The band also used the Which Stage to road-test some in-the-works material, like new banger "Give Me Just a Little of Your Love."
Instead of immersing themselves in the post-LCD Soundsystem music of Tame Impala or the Chainsmokers, a few dozen diehard Prince fans chose to celebrate the late legend at a 1 a.m. Purple Rain screening in the Cinema Tent.
Sixty-five miles up the road in Nashville, Chris Stapleton is an overnight country superstar. In Manchester, however, he found himself performing in front of the 4 p.m. brunch crowd groggily making their way to the main stage. Noting the sleepy audience, Stapleton asked, "Is it the heat or the drugs?"
Despite the early hour, the gritty, lived-in songs of Stapleton showed why artists like he, Sturgill Simpson and fellow Bonnaroo performer Jason Isbell are making it cool for rock kids to dig contemporary country again. "Smells good out there," Stapleton said before "Might as Well Get Stoned." Stapleton might be the toast of Nashville, but he's a rocker at heart; even pedal steel guitarist Robby Turner's solos were closer to Eddie Hazel's euphoric wanderings than country legends like Buddy Emmons and Sneaky Pete Kleinow. In addition to performing tracks off Stapleton's acclaimed Traveler, the set also housed a bluesy rendition of "You Are My Sunshine" sung by Stapleton's wife Morgane, capped by a scorching guitar solo.
"I've never seen a more luminescent audience," a beaming Kevin Parker of Tame Impala said as the tens of thousands flowing out of the LCD Soundsystem show parked themselves in front of the Which Stage. From there, the Australian psych-rock juggernaut, led by pop maestro Parker, unfurled a cosmic, confetti-soaked set that focused equally on the band's critically acclaimed first three LPs.
If there was one downside to Tame Impala's impressive performance, it's that the band's scheduled two-hour set ended 40 minutes early, leaving a handful of great Currents and Lonerism tracks unplayed. Still, if the band's dynamic late-night set proved anything, it's that Tame Impala is about one good album away from headlining major festivals like this one.
To thank the Volunteer State for hosting Bonnaroo these past 15 years, this year's all-star SuperJam paid tribute to Tennessee's rich musical history, with guest musical director Kamasi Washington and his band playing the role of Stax Records' Memphis Horns. One by one, artists filed onstage to pay homage to Tennessee legends of all genres, ranging from B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, the Memphis-born Aretha Franklin and Johnny Cash to contemporary exports like Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus and Chattanooga-raised Usher.
Highlights from the revolving door jam session included former Destiny's Child member Michelle Williams singing late Earth, Wind and Fire singer Maurice White's "Getaway," Miguel leading Timberlake's "SexyBack" and a slow, bluesy take on B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" with Allen Stone.
It wasn't a flawless tribute — a rendition of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" from members of Third Eye Blind was gruelingly unprepared — but it was another worthy entrant into the pantheon of special Bonnaroo SuperJams. "This is so much fun, I can't tell you how much fun I'm having right now," Washington said.
Ween, rock's merry pranksters and veterans of the first Bonnaroo in 2002, reunited in April following a four-year hiatus fueled by personal turmoil. Seven shows into their reunion tour, Gene and Dean Ween returned to Bonnaroo for a Sunday night performance for a crowd of diehards who missed them dearly. The fan-favorite set that touched on nearly all eras of the band's catalog including "Roses are Free," "Nan," "Take Me Away," "The Stallion, Part 3," to name a few. During "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)," Dean Ween played a solo that could've tore a hole in the fabric of time and space, which closed in time for the bubblegum-and-doom of "Happy Colored Marbles." Dean's still plugging his cigarette in the strings at frets' end during songs, the older stuff still has a faint whiff on Scotchgard and even the post-Mollusk material rippled with renewed focus. Ween might be noticeably older and their shows a little less deranged, but they've still got an awesome sound.
Bonnaroo has long led all music festivals when it comes to quirky images affixed to towering poles, and this year's 'Roo was no slouch, with everything from a Big Head of Hunter S. Thompson to a mash-up of Yoda and Eddie Murphy ("Party all the time, my girl wants to") utilized by groups of friends to mark their spot among the hordes.
The best beacons this year were dedicated to Donald Trump, including one that reimagined the mogul as Hitler and another that played on the presumptive GOP presidential nominee's love of the Mexican people. "Fuck Donald Trump, fuck him, fuck him, fuck him," a Twin Peaks member said upon spotting the Hitler Trump image in the dense crowd before inciting a chant of "Bernie!"
A day after dropping their new LP Why Are You Okay, Band of Horses hosted a huge album release party: a late Saturday afternoon set at Bonnaroo's well-populated main What Stage. Ben Bridwell and company spent the majority of their 60 minutes digging into that new material, including "Casual Party" and "Solemn Oath." Band of Horses still left ample room to raid their older catalog, like "No One's Gonna Love You" off Cease to Exist and "The Great Salt Lake" from The Funeral.
"I've never been here before. There's a lemonade stand and a water slide for white people," Long Beach rapper Vince Staples quipped during his energetic This Tent performance Friday afternoon. Staples, backed simply by minimal, throbbing bass, expertly commanded the mic, wading through the difficult Summertime '06 wordplay with ease. At a festival starring marquee hip-hop acts like J. Cole, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Tyler, the Creator, it was Staples who shined the brightest, even if his personal mentality conflicted from that of his Bonnaroo audience: As plumes of weed smoke darted out of the crowd, Staples advised kids not to do drugs because their "bodies are a temple."
Kamasi Washington staged perhaps Bonnaroo's most high profile jazz set since free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman collapsed mid-set due to heat stroke in 2007. The critically acclaimed saxophonist squeezed his three-hour powerhouse The Epic into a truncated behemoth during his Friday afternoon set. With the crowd on the verge of melting in heat that pushed 99 degrees, the Los Angeles jazz wunderkind presented a swirling, transcendental hourlong performance that featured the Epic material augmented by new music from upright bassist Miles Mosley, extended solos by keyboardist/keytarist Brendan Coleman and Washington's music teacher father Rickey Washington, a "conversation" between percussionists Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. and a symposium in scratching by L.A. legend DJ Battlecat.
The weather was not in sync with Les Claypool and Sean Lennon's trippy side project: 30 minutes before their set, Centeroo was forced to evacuate due to thunderstorms moving into the area. However, after a 45-minute delay where the rain never gained strength above a drizzle — "I'm happy to see you survived the raging storm that came flying through here. We were concerned," Claypool deadpanned — the Delirium was allowed to resume with their complete journey into Uncle Les' Funhouse, where the music takes so many sharp turns and sudden detours, you don't know where you'll end up.
One minute they're Hawkwind, the next they're Deep Purple; one moment Lennon's singing a track about Michael Jackson's pet chimp and then suddenly he and Claypool are engaged in an impromptu improv comedy routine. The whole time, Claypool's thumb acts as conductor, slapping out the see-sawing bass riffs that guided the unmapped exploration. In addition to the proggy cuts off their new album Monolith of Phobos, the Delirium also pulled some covers out of the grab bag, with Lennon covering his father's Beatles epic "Tomorrow Never Knows," the band running through an extra spacey take on Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" and a pair of songs from Claypool projects like Primus ("Southbound Pachyderm") and the Frog Brigade ("Up on the Roof").
When Bonnaroo unveiled their lineup back in January, this was the small font name that made us say "Whoa": Cymande, the little-known U.K. astro-funk outfit with a significant cult following, reunited its original members for the first time in 43 years, with Bonnaroo their lone U.S. festival stop. Sadly, the magnitude of the event was wasted on a too-early 1:45 p.m. time slot at the Which Stage, where a sparsely attended crowd of loyalists were on hand to welcome Cymande back from extinction.
Still, a small crowd at Bonnaroo is still bigger than what the group was accustomed to playing in front of on their first go-round. "We've been gone a long time but now we're back," singer Patrick Patterson said. "We're glad to see you, although many of you weren't here when we were here."
On a bed of dubbed-out grooves, Zawinul-like organ and serpentine, textured percussion, Cymande played an hour-long set starring old favorites like "Brothers on the Slide" and "Bra" as well as tracks off their new LP, A Simple Act of Faith.
As the night began to cool down a day that pushed the Heat Index to the limits of human tolerability, Leon Bridges and his stellar, fine-tuned backing band stormed the Which Stage Friday for a mellow soul session before the manic LCD Soundsystem dance party. Bridges' Bonnaroo set showcased how malleable he is as a soul singer: One song, he's preaching the gospel like Al Green ("Shine"), the next he's twisting the night away like Sam Cooke ("Smooth Sailin'") before summoning his inner Otis Redding on uptempo new tracks like "Golden Room." Bridges topped things off with a steamy take on Ginuwine's classic "Pony."
This year's fest leaned especially heavy on the emerging music flooding out of nearby Nashville. In addition to sets from established titans like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, Bonnaroo also lent its intimate Who Stage to up-and-coming country star Maren Morris, who was fresh off releasing her new LP Hero when she played Sunday afternoon. Morris' brand of country is more pop than twang, more 1989 than Pageant Material, but the Hero songs pack big league hooks, like "Drunk Girls Don't Cry," "How It's Done" and the biting "Rich."
Thursday night's must-see set belonged to Børns, the Michigan indie pop outfit led by charismatic frontman Garrett Borns, who slinked around the stage in a leather jacket like a Marc Bolan acolyte while packing the pipes of Shannon Hoon. In addition to rock radio smash "Electric Love" and crowd pleaser "10,000 Emerald Pools," the highlight of Børns' This Tent set was a mid-set covers medley of Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)" that pirouetted into David Bowie's "Heroes."
Borne of the same breezy surf-punk as Wavves, who Twin Peaks have toured with, emerging Chicago band Twin Peaks rifled through nearly an hour of sunny, crunchy garage rock laced with hints of Pixies, the Rolling Stones and the Stooges. Despite going from being an opening act for a few hundred people to a prime This Tent slot for a few thousand on Thursday night, Twin Peaks managed to keep things loose, with Cadien Lake James, one of the quintet's singer-guitarists, dressed like a Times Square Superman as they played songs about their native Windy City and "eating mushrooms, of the trippy variety."
"We came all the way from Spain just for this," Hinds' Carlotta Cosials told the crowd before their sundown set Thursday at the tucked-away Who Stage. Making their first ever trip to Tennessee, the up-and-coming Madrid rockers delivered a blistering set that spotlighted their unique blend of infectious lo-fi jangle pop that sounded like the Shangri-Las fronting a C86 band.
Festival-goers who reached the campsite early were fortunate to catch Zoë Kravitz and her Lolawolf project, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Thursday. The steamy set, featuring YouTube hits like "Ayo" and "Jimmy Franco," showcased the group's uncluttered electropop, sparsely decorated with drill beats, synth bursts and Kravitz's affected coo.
No disrespect to the top-notch food trucks that park in Centeroo every year, but the sheer volume of festival-goers that stand on line for those trucks diminishes the overall quality of the food. That's why the Amish Bakery Company's donuts — our Best Food choice for two years straight — are consistently our favorite: You're guaranteed a perfectly gooey donut every time.
However, this year, we found another food stall that provided consistency and great taste at a fair price point no matter how slammed: Philadelphia's Humpty's Dumplings, making their Bonnaroo debut, offered a half-dozen varieties of crisply fried, generously stuffed sweet and savory offerings, with options ranging from Bacon Mac n' Cheese and Chipotle Chicken to Spinach Mozz and their native Philly Cheese Steak. For $5, you pick and choose three dumplings that are filling enough to satisfy your protein-craving hunger yet leave enough room in your belly (and your wallet) to pick up an Amish donut for dessert.