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45 Best Things We Saw at Bonnaroo 2014

Lionel Richie rules the night, Kanye West requests press and Skrillex runs a cross-generational Superjam

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Bonnaroo 2014 has come to a close. Dogs were corned, potties were ported and the jams were indeed super. Here are the 45 best things we saw, from Kanye West's killer comeback to Skrillex's homage to music that makes people freak out to Neutral Milk Hotel's weep-a-thon. By Christopher R. Weingarten and Daniel Kreps

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Best of the Fest: Lionel Richie

Yeah, we were surprised too. With a sense of humor and a backing band more professional than anyone at the fest (not to mention a drummer that could probably dunk on the sticksman for Meshuggah), Richie made soft rock… kind of rock. His set has the tight gags and masterful improv of a good stand-up, even painting the singer as sort of an easy-listening superhero to the heartbroken. ("So you go home. You grab your album. You grab your cassette. You grab your 8-track… You call on… Lionel… Richie"). He plays every song you wanted to hear ("Dancing on the Ceiling") and every song you didn't know you wanted to hear (as someone pointed out to us this weekend, it's easy to forget that "Brick House" is a Commodores song). He also retreated for some "Bonnaroo juice" and joked, "This is terrible." (Read our recent Richie Q&A here.)

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Best Comeback: Kanye West

Not that you exactly have to prove anything when you're the "Number One motherfucking rock star on the planet" (his words, but we're not arguing it). But after 2008's fiasco — where he hit the stage late (after 4:30 a.m.) and left to "Fuck Kanye" spraypainted on the fences… Well, we'll let the man take it from here.

"I did Bonnaroo six months after my mama passed. Pearl Jam went three hours late. Fuckin' daylight was coming on, they said I was running late. They blamed my motherfuckin' tanks, with all my pyro. They wrote Fuck Kanye on that shit. Y'all wrote that shit in the press. Where the press at? Is y'all gonna write about all these motherfuckers puttin' their hands up right now? Where the press at? Where the press at? Where the press at?"

As for the show itself, it worked almost like a send-up of his own fame. The press is going to blow him up and make him look negative? Well, he'll get a jumbo screen to play reflect him blown-up and in negative. He'll do a festival set with lots of hits, but not the hit. He'll stand silently in a spotlight or rap in a mask. He'll get 90,000 people to sing along to "There's leaders and there's followers." He'll perform noise-rap as a shadow on a red LED Rothko and then say, "If y'all are having a good time, make some noise." Heart-bearing, fang-baring and smarter than the press will give him credit for.

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Best Reason Not to Leave Early: Elton John

The Sunday night headliner at Bonnaroo is usually greeted with dwindling crowds as festivalgoers rush to beat the traffic. Not Elton John, as it seemed like half of Tennessee packed onto the lawn to watch the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer close out the 2014 Bonnaroo. Even though some of the songs were four decades old, Elton managed to breathe new life into them, either through new arrangements or different approaches or extended codas. Take "Rocket Man" for example: Thanks to a jazzier, almost-Shatner-esque intro and an outro that soared to an interstellar climax, hearing "Rocket Man" at Bonnaroo wasn't the same as hearing "Rocket Man" on the radio. In many ways, it was better. Elton's set did feature one surprise: Ben Folds — in town for the Superjam — guested on "Grey Seal." In the performance's most tender moment, Elton dedicated "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" to Casey Kasem, who passed away earlier in the day.

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Best Excuse to Complain About EDM: Jack White

If you didn't jump on board with Skrillex and Kaskade this weekend, you're gonna find yourself staring back from the wrong side of history, but Jack White's all-analog blues-rock explosion is maybe the best thing going before the robots take over. It was a true testament to human ability — everyone in his band is a power player, from his over-extending drummer to his mustachioed steel guitarist — but it was also a true testament to the importance of occasionally ignoring those abilities — as evidenced by what they could do with the simple pound of the White Stripes' "Hotel Yorba."

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Best Wedding Band: Skrillex Superjam

As tempting to think of this as "the moment that Mickey Hart and Mystikal were on the same stage, briefly," the Skrillex Superjam was really just an all-star salute to the songs that make people lose their minds. The stars got the headlines and they all took turns doing rap (A$AP Ferg handling Biggie's "Juicy") or jock jams (Warpaint helping with Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam") or classic R&B (comedian Craig Robinson did Bill Withers' "Use Me"). But it first took flight when Janelle Monáe launched into James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)." Second time was Cage the Elephant's Matt Shultz covering "Break on Through" with one of the actual Doors, guitarist Robbie Krieger. No amount of A$AP Ferg asking for moshpits and Fatman Scoop calling out bass drops can compete with the classics.

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Best Thing We Ate: Amish Baking Company’s Donuts

The ingredients are simple: warm, cottony dough and glaze so sweet it put Krispy Kreme's to shame. At a festival with big name food trucks, culinary choices spanning from Chinese to Greek to Cajun, and bacon from multiple states, the Amish Baking Company's donuts were the best thing to hit our taste buds all weekend — and at one of the lowest price points ($4) of any food offering festival-wide. The legend of these donuts spread quickly throughout the Farm, and there was always a long queue to grab one. 

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Best Transition from Small Stage to Big Stage: Vampire Weekend

The last time Vampire Weekend played Bonnaroo, in 2008, they played a festival-opening Thursday gig at the comfy That Tent. Six years later, the worldy New York rockers have graduated to the main stage and a slot serving as warm-up for Saturday night headliner Jack White. The group was up for the challenge, electrifying the audience with cuts off all three of their albums. They also received a big assist from Mother Nature as the temperatures cooled down after a hot day, giving festivalgoers a second wind to dance along with "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and "Cousins."

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Best Commitment to Character: Wiz Khalifa

"OK, real quick. Who's high as a motherfucker right now?" asks Wiz Khalifa's DJ Bonics. "Where my stoners? … We about to get high Bonnaroo."

Then Wiz comes out in sandals. "Where my smokers at," he says. "Y'all smoking that good weed out there? … Y'all smokin' with Wiz Khalifa tonight."

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Best Breakout: Dakhabrakha

Ukrainian folkdrone Björkpunk quartet Dakhabrakha went into Bonnaroo as unknowns but ended up with one of the most receptive crowds of the weekend. They got cheers for mournful accordion and apocalyptic cello sawing. Animal noises and bird whistles and howls got the audience to return favor, turning the tent into a happy menagerie. 

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Best Reason to Leave Kanye Early: Disclosure

Despite only being on the scene for only a year, Disclosure has somehow already attained festival-favorite status, packing the Other Tent before Kanye West even capped off his set with "Blood on the Leaves." "This set is the place to be," Disclosure told the crowd minutes into their midnight set. Armed with one of the weekend's more impressive stage designs, the U.K. dance duo blistered through an hour-long set of hits like "When a Fire Starts to Burn," "F for You" and "White Noise." To the surprise of no one, Sam Smith, who performed on the same stage earlier in the day, returned to assist Disclosure with their joint hit "Latch."

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Best Reinvention: Pusha T

"Let's be clear," said Pusha T. "G.O.O.D. Music makes the hardest records in hip-hop," which could be one of the kindest ways to say that he's only performing one Clipse song in a 60-minute set. That didn’t matter, though, because the Virginia rapper was hard-driving and sweat-soaked, opening with "King Push" ("I don't sing hooks"), headbutting on the "headbutt" line in "Numbers on the Boards," yelling "Yah!" and letting his DJ go berserk on manic scratch solos. If you think an opening week of 74k does not a superstar make, then you haven't heard a crowd react to Pusha T. However, Kanye West is indisputably a superstar, and the run of "So Appalled" (an album track, by the way), "Mercy," "Runaway" and "I Don't Like (Remix)" was the set's most palpable crescendo of energy.

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Best Star Turn: Broad City

If audience reaction is any indication, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City are next in line to be Dane Cook-style comedy rock stars. After a flight cancellation grounded them on Saturday, they finally hit the stage on Sunday with a half-baked, nearly half-hour bit about songs to score your life (e.g., Papa Roach for hair removal). It lacked the sharpness of their cult hit Comedy Central sitcom, but their personalities were so infectious that they still had the crowd in the palm of their hands.

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Best After Hours Sing-Along: Frank Ocean

The Channel Orange singer packed the Other Tent with thousands of disciples who joined Ocean in singing every single lyric to every single song. The only people who didn't know all the words were those who didn't get the mass text message informing them that Skrillex's Superjam had been moved from the Other Tent to That Tent. Even "Crack Rock," a track about social injustice, took on a campfire feel. When the crowd finally did stop singing along — during the last third of his opus "Pyramids" — he abruptly stopped the song and demanded the crowd sing along, then restarted the section with audience participation.

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Best Rapping: Ms. Lauryn Hill

Her new reggae-rock arrangements may not please everyone (and the whole 27-minutes late thing never stops being annoying), but when Ms. Lauryn Hill goes into one of the raps from her classic days — like "Lost Ones" or "Final Hour" — she hits them running like Twista, pushing herself to lightning speeds. In the process it reminds everyone that before she was a reclusive genius eccentric song-writer, she was one of the most valuable lyricists in hip-hop.

 

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Best Alternative to Daft Punk: Kaskade

Kaskade's late, late Saturday night set was enough to make everyone forget that Daft Punk keeps turning down festival invites: Their dual-level LCD screens, smoke and confetti machines and amazing laser works were every bit the eye candy as the French duo's storied pyramid. At 4 a.m., when the DJ dropped an EDM rendition of Foo Fighters' "Best of You," the glow sticks were still flying in the night sky.

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Best Pork Pull: Hamageddon

Yes, you can purchase a "bacon flight" at Baconland  — that's applewood smoked, hickory smoked, peppered and sugar-cured bacon from five different states. But no one goes ham like the Sparseland collective, who cooked two pigs inside of this flame-shooting steampunk mecha-piggy. "They were torturing us with their bacon this morning," says collective member Scott about the smells coming from nearby Baconland. "So we're going to torture them with our pig."

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Best Rager: Danny Brown

The only place tougher to endure than a hot Bonnaroo Port-a-Potty was the pit at the Danny Brown show. Those kids crowd-surfing to the stage weren't thrill seekers; they were people just looking for an exit out of the suffocating, impenetrable human wall that had formed as the crowd anticipated the rapper's arrival. The pit for the Danny Brown set was easily the rowdiest, craziest, most aggressive of the whole weekend, and it was emblematic of the bro-ification of the Bonnaroo demographic. The Widespread Panic-loving hippies that graced the festival in its early days are in the minority as tank-topped dudes acting wild because the semester just ended now dominate. However, Brown's performance was awesome enough to satisfy the boisterous crowd.

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Best Unofficial Superjam: Damon Albarn

"I've never played a gig like this in America, it's a dream come true," Damon Albarn told the What Stage crowd during his midday set. Although Albarn is the frontman of two wildly successful bands — Blur and Gorillaz — he'd never performed a U.S. solo show of this magnitude, so he brought a little help with him. Like Jack White later that night, working as a solo entity allowed Albarn to roam his entire catalog, so when the time arrived to perform Gorillaz' "Feel Good Inc.," De La Soul came running out onstage. Del the Funky Homosapien reprised his role on "Clint Eastwood" and a brass ensemble and a vocal group came onstage for "Broken." That's all in addition to Albarn's new backing band the Heavy Seas, who helped sharpen the Blur material and even busted out "Kingdom of Doom" from Albarn's the Good, the Bad, and the Queen side project.

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Best Accidental EDM Show: Omar Souleyman

He's pushing 50, his stage movements are mostly walking around and clapping and his stage banter is "Hello" or "Hey, hey, hey!" Still, the crowd treated Syrian dabke singer Omar Souleyman like a hot superstar DJ. Well, obviously he makes dance music, but his trebly, winding keyboard lines aren't exactly the powerful bass drops coming from Skrillex. At Bonnaroo, Souleyman's performance was full of all the fun and chaos of a great EDM set — flags, beach balls, a guy in a Gumby suit, inflatable lobsters, thrown water and even a few crowd surfers.

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Best Free Massage: Deafheaven

In what has to be the first black metal set at Roo (though that "black metal" is in quotation marks), Deafheaven brought a unique level of extreme to the weekend. Live, they're best thought of as four shoegaze/mathrock/art-metal sound-sculptors (yeah, that includes vocalist George Clarke's precise screeches too), all anchored by sinewy drummer Daniel Tracy. Together they're a wash of triumphant, majestic noise over a high-volume, high-speed throb that could probably sooth any aching muscles close enough to the speakers. Clarke responded to the gush of sound with a gentle crowd surf and an evocative stage ballet that was once theatrical, intense, sensitive, and a little humorless — an metal combo of Bono, Rollins and Morrissey.

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Best Performance by a Group on Thursday Night: San Antonio Spurs

Basketball fans lined up for hours outside the Cinema Tent to watch Game 4 of the NBA Finals. As the hordes of San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat fans filled the auditorium, the room took on an almost soccer-arena atmosphere as chants of "Let's Go Spurs" and the Heat's interpolation of "Seven Nation Army" were volleyed back and forth. At tip-off, the air-conditioned area was completely packed, but by the time the Heat entered halftime down 20, Spurs fans had conquered the Cinema Tent like it was the Alamo, driving their opponents back out into the festival.

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Best Entrance: Janelle Monáe

The ArchAndroid singer sure knows how to make a cinematic entrance. After her band took their places to the sounds of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," Monae was wheeled onto the stage Hannibal Lecter-style, wearing a straitjacket. When she was finally freed, she showed her charisma and personality was big enough to fill the main stage, captivating the audience with hits "Tightrope," "Cold War" and "Electric Lady."

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Best Tearjerker: Neutral Milk Hotel

With two songs, Neutral Milk Hotel turned the This Tent into a screening of The Fault in Our StarsThe devastating combo of "Ferris Wheel on Fire" and "Oh Comely" — two poignant, beautiful tunes about destruction and atrocity — had tears pooling in festivalgoers' eyes. For many, it was an emotionally overwhelming moment to see the near-mythical Jeff Mangum — now with a long gray beard but the same unmistakable voice — and his merry henchmen perform these 16-year-old songs live, a possibility that seemed implausible just a few years ago.

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Best Non-Rock Rock Show: ASAP Ferg

"It's time to get ratchet. Feel free to mosh pit." For his debut Bonnaroo gig, A$AP Ferg pulled out all the elements of a good rock show: Crowd surfing, mosh pitting, stage diving. There was even some Girls Gone Wild-style debacuhery during an interlude where Ferg and his hypeman brought female audience members onstage to flash the crowd. To Ferg's frustration, none of them did. 

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Best Daytime Slow Jam Party: Sam Smith

"This is my first festival in America, I didn't think anyone would show up," Sam Smith told a crowd that was uncomfortably packed with Bonnaroovians, a rarity for any 2 p.m. slot. This concert served as an album release party for Smith: His debut LP In the Lonely Hour finally arrives in the U.S. on June 17th. Highlights from the set included the single "Money On My Mind," Smith's Naughty Boy hit "La La La," and a cover of Arctic Monkeys' "Do I Wanna Know."