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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 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."

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Best In-Air Light Show: Zedd

Zedd's blinking, bursting lights looked great from the clear across the festival and looked even better close up. Though he usually makes the kind of house music robot would fight to, it was his gentle hit "Clarity" that provided a peak before his set's final minutes.

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Best Education: ‘Take Me to the River’ screening and concert

If 73-year-old blues funkateer Bobby Rush doesn't get a full Syl Johnson-style renaissance in 2014, someone is dropping the ball. In Take Me to the River, a film where Tennessee and Delta legends explore what narrator Terrance Blanchard calls the "integrated music utopia" of Memphis and pioneers are teamed with contemporary talent, he collaborates with a geeked Frayser Boy, Yo Gotti is sprung on Bobby "Blue" Bland and Skip Pitts spends studio time with Snoop.

At Bonnaroo the film came to life with a performance by a 13-piece band (including Bar-Kays trumpet player Ben Cauley, the only survivor of the plane crash that killed Otis Reddingthat blasted through nearly 50 years of Southern music history as one revue. Stax hitmaker William Bell brought stunning theatricality and dynamics to his 1968 smash "I Forgot to be Your Lover" and Al Kapone used the same band to tear through 2005 get-buck anthem "Whoop That Trick." Rush and Frayser made a great team on Rufus Thomas' "Push and Pull," but none of this monster band's power could match Rush's solo harmonica blues rendition of "Garbage Man" — at once gorgeous, deep, moving and hilarious.

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Best Opening Lines: Brooks Wheelan

The SNL freshman has some serious stand-up and improv chops. After his hellos, he leapt into a short anecdote: "7.5 hours ago … at that festival … a man's ponytail touched my mouth … So that's what I've been thinking about." 

Griffin Lotz

Best Late Night Vibe-Out: Darkside

Sound-art duo Darkside treated nighthawks to a beautifully doomy set of not-especially-deep bass tones, artificial bursts of synth and ricocheting guitar. House music by the loosest definition (more like "darkwave jazz"), the duo pulsed into the night with serious venetian-blind creep-out vibes while many Rooers were snuggling in their sleeping bags. The mood was enhanced by smoke and mirrors — literally, as their eclipse-centric stage set-up was little more than the interplay between smoke machines (at the back of the tent), a rotating mirror and some beams of light.

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Best Addition: The Kalliope Stage

The brand new Kalliope Stage wasn't anything fancy — just a large LCD screen, some speakers and a DJ booth — but it was major addition to a festival that keeps improving. Every day during the fest, thousands of soccer fans, a population too big to fit in the still-too-small Cinema Tent, would congregate in the field surrounding the Kalliope to watch World Cup games on the giant screen. When the day's matches ended, the screen would broadcast random sporting events — we caught a Mets game — until sundown. That's when the Kalliope Stage transformed into a hot dance club with DJs pumping out EDM and hip-hop until 4 a.m.

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Best Makeover: Broken Bells

Let's be honest: The Shins, although great in the studio, were notoriously lousy in a live setting. With Broken Bells, James Mercer has redeemed himself. Guided by Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton on bass, Broken Bells perform with a self-confidence and meticulousness that eluded Mercer's other band.

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Best Alt-Country Escape: Cass McCombs

Folk troubadour Cass McCombs provided some much-needed alt-country to the Tennessee crowd, bringout out a lap steel guitar and some intense six-string interplay. McCombs played the type of music we wish Wilco still made, including a beautiful rendition of "County Line."

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Best Non-Jam Jam Band: White Denim

Eager to get their midnight set at the That Tent going, White Denim started 10 minutes before scheduled. They made the most of that extra time as the Austin indie rockers jammed out their usually condensed songs. In the crowd, an exorbitant number of gray hairs filled the air with weed smoke, which makes sense, since White Denim play the type of music old dudes like to get stoned to: Bluesy grooves that lay the foundations for Phishy guitar solos and vocal melodies that sound like Jack White checking into the Mars Hotel.

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Best Intimate Session With a Star: Wayne Coyne

Hours before the Flaming Lips performed to tens of thousands of festivalgoers, frontman Wayne Coyne sat down for an interview at the Solar Stage with just a few hundred fans. The topic of the conversation was "Social Change Through Music," so Coyne discussed his work with helping homeless dogs in Oklahoma City and Amnesty International. Coyne is one of the most loquacious dudes in rock, so the topic often veered into unexpected areas, like Coyne's love of Barack Obama and why he considers R.E.M. to be punk rock. Coyne also revealed that the Lips' Sgt. Pepper's cover album should be finished by October, and that some proceeds from the release would go to causes that he supports.

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Best Use of Underused Instrument: Carolina Chocolate Drops

North Carolina old-time folk historians Carolina Chocolate Drops stopped by the Solar Stage to break down the weighty history behind their songs and talk about breathing new life into old compositions. One of the best ways they do the latter is by playing the bones, the clicking clacking castanet-like wooden sticks that helped power folk musics of America, Ireland and Canada. Their triplet rhythms couldn't be further removed from contemporary dance music around Bonnaroo — to the point where this old instrument sounded weirdly fresh. 

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Best One-Band ‘Nuggets’: The Allah-Las

Before the Allah-Las hit the stage, they had their work cut out for them: The "Hey Ya" sing-along broke out during the pre-set music a somber reminder Bonnaroo is probably the only music festival that the reunited Outkast didn't attend. The Los Angeles rockers quickly overcame this with their brand of psychedelic garage by way of the Modern Lovers — deep bass grooves, rich distortion and messy harmonies. Sound problems plagued the early portion of the set, creating a sunny, reverbed stew.

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Best Way to Beat the Heat: The Parachute

People would lay under it and teamwork would do the rest. Just like gym class without the fear of dodgeball day looming on the horizon.

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Best Tension Breaker: Animals as Leaders

You could sense tension in the air as security streamed into Miller Lite's cozy, cramped New Music on Tap Lounge, bracing for what frantic shred-metallers Animals as Leaders were about to unleash with 20 fingers on 16 strings. However, their set ended up being more like a crunchy, gnashing jazz-fusion record arranged for distortion pedals. The crowd in the packed house mostly headbanged politely, watched in awe or went for a quick crowd-surf in a banana costume. 

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Best Sociology Lesson: A Tribe Called Red

Ottawa's A Tribe Called Red are "an all First Nation DJ crew" that "remix traditional pow wow music with contemporary club sounds." Their live show works as the funkiest socio-political experiment around, exploring European relationships with Native American culture … in real time. When they drop the problematic Atlanta Braves "tomahawk chop" into a song, are you supposed to dance or riot? When white people appropriating headdresses stop by to dance, do you lecture them or simply gawk at their ignorance?

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Best Drake Cover: ZZ Ward

This bluesy singer-songwriter gave the festival its first "passersby stopping in their tracks" moment Thursday when she shared her bouncy, acoustic rendition of Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home" on an unsuspecting crowd.

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Best Real Estate Lookalikes: These dudes

The plainness of the New Jersey indie rockers — their software engineer style with the wire glasses and the polo-and-khakis combo — was popular among thousands of Bonnaroovians, so much so that even our photographer was tricked into believing that the fellows posed here actually were the Atlas crew.

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Best Use of the Worst Slot: The Preatures

This Australia quintet were given the unenviable position of That Stage's Welcome Mat slot — a 3 p.m. Thursday gig when the majority of festivalgoers were still stuck on Highway 24 — but lead singer Isabella Manfredi immediately won the crowd over with her dream pop arrangements. The performance also showed how amped Bonnaroovians were for the World Cup: Drummer Luke Davison's USA shirt elicited chants from the crowd.

 

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Best Not-So-Silent Disco: DJ Logic

Just passing by the Silent Disco, you could tell what DJ Logic was spinning by what the raucous crowd would be singing, in unison, into the air — the hooks to "ABC," "Gold Digger," "Rapper's Delight" and "Mo Money Mo Problems." Though he's known for downtempo beats and jazz-scratch excursions, nothing was going to keep DJ Logic from playing the hits. Once we actually got our headphones on, you could hear that he was blazing through all of them with deft cutting — DJ sets are a dime a dozen at every festival, so how rare is it to hear actual scratching in a mix set?

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