50 Best Things We Saw at Bonnaroo 2015 – Rolling Stone
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50 Best Things We Saw at Bonnaroo 2015

From killer jams to a deadly ep of ‘Game of Thrones,’ a complete rundown of the fest’s essential moments

Best of Bonnaroo

Best of Bonnaroo

Kyle Dean Reinford; Theonepointeight

The 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival featured hundreds of artists, dozens of food trucks and more glitter than we can quantify. And thanks to top-notch headlining performances from Billy Joel, Kendrick Lamar and Mumford & Sons, it was another unforgettable, never-ending bonanza. We trekked from the Other Tent to the What Stage to the Cinema Tent to uncover all of 2015's can't-miss moments. From to the much-ballyhooed all-star SuperJam to a secret venue in the campgrounds, from a mega Game of Thrones viewing party to one incredible donut, these are the 50 best things we saw, heard or tasted at Bonnaroo 2015.

Billy Joel

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best of the Fest: Billy Joel

As expected from one of the few artists alive capable of selling out New York's Madison Square Garden on a monthly basis, Joel was more than up to the task of headlining, and his crowd-pleasing two-hour, 21-song performance served up the perfect blend of crowdwork, spectacle and generation-bridging. Going into Sunday night, the big question was whether Joel would orient his set list for the Bonnaroo crowd or if he'd stick to the mix of classics and deep cuts that he presents on his sporadic arena gigs. The answer was a little of both: After the opening salvo of "My Life" and "Pressure," Joel dipped into a string of non-singles ("Everybody Loves You Now," "Zanzibar," "All for Leyna"), but after festivalgoers weathered those lesser-known cuts, he dropped hit after hit after hit, including a one-two punch of "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" and "Piano Man" that closed out the main set before his the encore. 

Still, this wasn't just another gig for Joel, and his self-deprecating onstage demeanor quickly endeared him to the crowd. He joked about not even owning a copy of his first LP, Cold Spring Harbor, before "Everybody Loves You Now," and when newly lit paper lanterns filled the sky, a perplexed Joel banged out the Twilight Zone theme on his piano. As he has done in recent months, he invited his longtime guitar roadie Chainsaw to provide a rush of adrenaline with a cover of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," while ZZ Top's "Tush" made a brief appearance during the middle coda of "River of Dreams."

But what truly made Joel's Bonnaroo-closing set unique was the audience. There's something blissfully communal about witnessing tens of thousands of people — hardcore Joelees, Greatest Hits inheritors and the sweaty, glittery, glowstick-tossing kids who were bopping to Bassnectar the previous night — swaying back and forth, arms around shoulders, and collectively wondering aloud with Joel, "Man, what are you doing here?" Joel can perform at the Garden every month until he's 90, he could sing until the lights really do go out on Broadway, but there's nothing like Bonnaroo.

Kasey Musgraves

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best of the Fest (Tent Edition): Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves clearly loves Bonnaroo — during her geeked 2013 performance, she mentioned how she snuck in one year and saw Nine Inch Nails. Also, she blurted out "I fucking love Bonnaroo so much." She spent her 75-minute performance sneaking in little asides to the assembled Roovians, letting them kmow she was one of them: the outbound bus to Vegas in "Blowin' Smoke" went to Bonnaroo, the scotch in "Trailer Song" became mushroom tea, she introduced her pedal steel player and then threw glowsticks. Musgraves is clearly excited about (if not a product of) Bonnaroo's genre-mixing, the country version of all the stages bleeding into one another — this meant a Tracy Chapman style take on T.L.C.'s "No Scrubs," a New Wave-y take on Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" and a swing at Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." The rest was a mix of neotraditional country revivalism and pop savvy, part homage and part wink — check out those light-up boots and neon cacti, not to mention her little square dance in hit single "Biscuits." The best part of Musgraves' Bonnaroo journey was hearing her biggest hit "Follow Your Arrow" — in 2013 it was a buzzy album track that boasted blue-state politics and a motivational chorus, in 2015 it was a sing-along for thousands and she wanted "them to hear us on the fucking main stage." 

Kendrick Lamar

Theonepointeight

Best Improvement: Kendrick Lamar

"How many y'all were with me from the beginning," Kendrick Lamar frequently asked during his Friday night main stage performance. The "beginning" in this case was Lamar's messy 2012 gig at Bonnaroo, where the Compton rapper, then backed by just a DJ, dropped embryonic renditions of not-yet-released good kid, m.A.A.d. City tracks on a largely indifferent Thursday audience. A lot has changed in the past three years: the K-Dot of Section.80 is running game and got the whole world talking. His 90-minute What Stage set retroactively improved the live quality of those cuts, playing eight of them like a victory lap for a race everyone already knows he won a long time ago. Now that everyone can recite his rhymes back to him, his physicality carried the performance. Lamar stumbled around like he was drunk on sex during "Fuckin' Problems," exploding on every "yawk" in "m.A.A.d. city," and exploding even harder when he played "m.A.A.d. city" a second time.

bonnaroo wedding

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Story for Your Kids: Bonnaroo Weddings

Festivalgoers offered up the coveted plots of shade they had staked to form an aisle for Pablo and Danielle to walk down Thursday, the first of a handful of impromptu wedding ceremonies to take place at Bonnaroo. Overseen by an officiate wearing a tie-dye shirt, the couple said "I do" in a small, short ceremony outside the Which Stage in front of close friends and hundreds of strangers as a power ballad from a hard-rock band at the New Music on Tap Lounge provided an unsolicited soundtrack. For many of these unions, Bonnaroo had served as OKCupid, since the couples met for the first time on the festival grounds.

My Morning Jacket

Winston Marshall & Marcus Mumford

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Lighter-Raiser: Mumford & Sons

In 2013, Mumford & Sons' headlining Bonnaroo gig was canceled at the last minute after bassist Ted Dwane underwent brain surgery. "We're finally here, two years too late," the band quipped during its Saturday night set. Mumford & Sons opened the affair with an introductory video where the group — wearing full costumes that obscured their identities — ran around Bonnaroo high-fiving festivalgoers. Despite plugging in their guitars for their new album, Wilder Mind, the Mumfords opened up their 20-song headlining set softly, performing "Lovers' Eyes" and "I Will Wait." 

However, by the third song "Snake Eyes," the electric guitars came out, and the two-hour "fucking party" Marcus Mumford promised kicked off. The quartet strummed out one anthem after another, and even though they played to an audience that felt like pretty much everyone at the festival — excluding Slayer fans and kids waiting for a front row spot at Bassnectar — Mumford & Sons' performance was deeply intimate, full of the warmth and togetherness that Bonnaroo is always preaching to their attendees. 

There was also a pair of surprise moments during the concert: Actor and bluegrass maven Ed Helms brought out his banjo to accompany the band on "Awake My Soul," and members of My Morning Jacket, the War on Drugs, Dawes and Hozier all came out for the show-ending sing-along of Joe Cocker's rendition of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends."

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Workout: Florence and the Machine

Let it be known that Florence's foot is OK. She ran across the stage like she was trying to get away from the music, and by "Queen of Peace" she was practically sprinting. Her entire set seemed like she was trying to break down any barriers between herself and the very, very large audience, and she did a lot of running to make it happen. She bounded — barefoot — through the photo pit and around VIP to get closer to her fans. However, a simple sign that said HUG? meant that someone had to put in some work besides Florence. "If you can get to me, you can have a hug," she told the audience member holding the sign. She would ultimately give her two hugs.

Deadmau5

Theonepointeight

Best Subversion of Festival EDM: Deadmau5

Deadmau5 may be the most brilliant man in electronic dance music in spite of — or because of — his unquenchable desire to duck every stereotype, expectation or trope of a Saturday night headliner. A fan of acts like Aphex Twin and Nine Inch Nails (as evidenced by 2014's while(1<2)), Deadmau5 has no problem being a "dance" act who can play ambient sizzles and moody piano. His trademark mouse head was emulated in countless homespun varieties over the weekend, but seemingly spent most of his set laying disembodied on the stage instead of on his shoulders. When playing his 2012 song "The Veldt," he let a single synth line bug out with no beat, accompanied by a light show that was just a screen showing a sunrise, lighting up the night sky. Also, there was a hilarious super disco break where the guy whose official bio states he "doesn't like being called a DJ" pulled a great pisstake on the idea that EDM dudes are nothing but button pushers: He sat on a sofa while two folks in a "Left Shark" costume and hot dog suit danced next to an inflatable palm.

Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes @ What Stage

Theonepointeight

Best Barnburner: Alabama Shakes

The last time Alabama Shakes performed at Bonnaroo, in 2012, they were saddled with a late Thursday night set on one of the smaller stages. Three years later, Brittany Howard and her finely tuned roots rockers were performing to a Friday night crowd of at least 50,000 at the fest's main What Stage. "I never thought we'd be here, on this stage," Howard told the crowd before stumbling for words. "It's really hard to come up with something to say." She didn't have to say anything: The Alabama Shakes' sundown gig was yet another showcase of Howard's unparalleled vocal acrobatics as the tight group shimmered through slow burners like Sound & Color's "I'm Yours" and high-energy rockers like "Hang Loose."

Sooper Groop Tent

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Tent: The Sooper Groop Tent

This humble abode, just past Camp Han Solo in the Groop Camping section, probably didn't have the wireless Internet of your Airbnb but it did have its own inflatable guard lizard.

My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket @ What Stage

Theonepointeight

Best Return: My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket's insane midnight sets made them festival favorites in Bonnaroo's early years as Jim James and Co. would perform a mix of album cuts and unique covers deep into the morning hours. However, MMJ last appeared at the fest four years ago, making their return in 2015 one of the most anticipated sets of Bonnaroo. Tethered to just two hours of main stage time on Saturday night, the band's set list wasn't as freewheeling as those anything-goes shows, but they did use the time to showcase well-seasoned cuts off their new LP, The Waterfall, and mine deep into their catalog. Among the many highlights were standout renditions of "Victory Dance," "Gideon," "I'm Amazed" and an absolutely mammoth "Dondante." 

Robert Plant

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters @ Which Stage

Theonepointeight

Best Reason to Stop Moaning About How Led Zeppelin Aren’t Reuniting: Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters

It's easy to see why Robert Plant is reluctant to reunite with his old bandmates; he's having way too much fun with his new ones. Over the course of his Sunday night performance, a loquacious Plant was routinely cracking jokes and sharing anecdotes during a gig that alternated between Space Shifters material and Led Zeppelin classics. Some of Plant's Zeppelin oeuvre was radically transformed in the hands of the Shifters; "Black Dog" ran at a crawl and "Going to California" was warmed by rootsy, front porch feel as the inimitable Plant was accompanied by only acoustic guitar and mandolin. 

Any time Plant lulled the crowd with his Lullaby and. . . the Ceaseless Roar material, he quickly shook them awake with the Led cuts, including "Dazed and Confused" with a cover of Howlin' Wolf's "No Place to Go" serving as intro. Plant closed out his too-short 75 minute set with a love-themed medley that swept through "Crossroads," "I Just Wanna Make Love to You," "You Need Love," "Who Do You Love" and "Whole Lotta Love" before bidding the audience farewell with IV's "Rock and Roll."

raury

Raury @ The Who Stage

Theonepointeight

Best Star Turn: Raury

Up-and-coming songwriter Raury doesn't always sing in tune and he doesn't always have the best breath control — but, hey, the 19-year-old XXL Freshman is less a Frank Ocean–style prodigy and more a Tyler-style bloodletter out to make you feel his pain. He brought a tent-sized crowd to the tiny Who stage, and a main-stage–sized rock band too — keytar, background singers and a guitarist and bassist ready to indulge in Prince-ish choreography. If Kendrick and D'Angelo are out to make hip-hop and R&B go full Sly Stone, then Raury got the memo. He said, "I'm here to take you higher," before his SBTRKT-assisted "Higher," flashed double peace signs and (in a move that out-loves Woodstock) asked strangers to hug the person next to them. It seems like Raury is only going further out before he's fully famous: His new song, "Odyssey," was a chorusless blur of quick, Andre 3000-esque rapping that built to a shout.

Gary Clark Jr

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Use of Stage Time: Gary Clark, Jr.

The notes just tumble from Texas blues/jam/rock/funk guitarist Gary Clark Jr., and he could have spent his hour-long Bonnaroo set playing ripping solos and wailing near the top of his neck — which, to some extent, he did. But Clark, who's going to be on the road through July, tested some new material on a huge crowd. With the follow-up to his 2012 major label debut on the way, he worked on what may be a muted, soulful new sound. "Hold On" sounded like something between D'Angelo, Amy Winehouse and an echo suite for Stones Throw. "I feel like getting real intimate with you," he said before playing "The Healing," sans band. The song, a cross between John Legend and Alice in Chains, had never been played live before, but the way people clapped along, rapidly absorbed the chorus ("This music is my healing") and applauded at the end, made it seem like an old favorite, or at least destined to become one.

Donut

Amish Donut

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Thing We Ate: Amish Baking Company’s Donuts

We tried poutine, BLTs, reuben burgers, jambalya, fried chicken sandwiches, quesadillas and more, but for the second year in a row nothing can top the Amish Baking Company's sticky, stretchy sugarsplosions. They're still everything you love about donuts amplified — the sweetness is sharp, the doughiness factor is extra pliant. Hot, affordable and still the one to beat.

ryn weaver

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Move From Bonnaroo 2014: Ryn Weaver

This time last year, Ryn Weaver was just another body among the sweaty Bonnaroo masses. "I came here last year, I got acid over there," Weaver told the crowd at the Other Tent, pointing towards the Fountain. "Really glad to be playing this year." The California pop singer, packing vocal chops worthy of the Grand Ole Opry (about an hour up I-24), laced her Thursday afternoon set with synth-heavy stunners plucked from her upcoming LP, The Fool.

courtney barnett

Courtney Barnett @ This Tent

Theonepointeight

Best Grunge Show: Courtney Barnett

Don't let the singer-songwriter label trick you: Courtney Barnett's live show packs just as much bite as her piercing lyrics. At Bonnaroo, Barnett's Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit material roared, bolstered by a power trio configuration, sludgy bass and a grunge veneer. On the highlight "Small Poppies," Barnett slowly navigated the haunting balled toward cacophony before erupting into the coda, "An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye/I used to hate myself but now I think I'm alright." Later, Barnett executed a precise, intense rendition of "Avant Gardener," stabbing every syllable as the transfixed crowd mouthed along.

Slayer

Theonepointeight

Best Place to See Unexpected Kisses: Slayer

First and foremost, we won't attempt to do justice to the look Slayer vocalist Tom Araya gave a beach ball. Slayer shows are usually renown for their no-prisoners, no-pity, no-mercy, no-fucks-given attitude from the audience — but this is Bonnaroo after all, an event that kicked off the day with nearly three hours of yoga and meditation programming. So yes, people went berserk, moshed, started a huge circle pit and crowd-surfed. But, when one guy was pulled from the crowd, he kissed the "Safety Staffer" on the forehead. Another crowd-surfer grabbed a Staffer and kissed him on the cheek on the way out. And while "Dead Skin Mask," "Mandatory Suicide" and closer "Angel of Death" were all as lean, quick, precise and brutal as you'd expect, they were gently undercut by the way Araya said "Bonnaroooooo" like he was looking for a Scooby snack.

SuperJam/Rhiannon Giddens

Theonepointeight

Best SuperJammer: Rhiannon Giddens

With her slow version of the Police's "Roxanne," Rhiannon Giddens was one of the few high points in this year's SuperJam — though she may have been half a beat off. When the final choruses rolled in and she started vamping in her huge voice, it became obvious that a Giddens rock album needs to come down the pipeline in the next few years. 

However, moments like that were few and far between. The annual SuperJam no longer holds any semblance of an actual musical conversation, and is instead rock-star karaoke cloying for social media attention. This year's "Throwback SuperJam Dance Party" was basically the world's wackest JackFM playlist, with the addition of rando performers. Jon Hamm and Zach Galifianakis and Corey Feldman were all there to do things and be famous. Cherub's Jordan Kelley played Cameo's "Word Up," a classic funk song by any measure, alongside Richard Simmons footage for maximum nostalglols. Charli 2na doing "The Message" and Jamie Lidell doing "Sexual Healing" were so on-the-nose that they were practically unnecessary. Metallica's Rob Trujillo, a great funk bassist as evidenced by his days in Infectious Grooves, played versions of Ozzy's "Crazy Train" and Metallica's "Enter Sandman" for the thousandth time. Jack Antonoff completely bungled the words to INXS's "Need You Tonight." Curator Pretty Lights did something completely out of context with Prince's "Erotic City" inside of it. It wasn't exactly the SuperJam of our dreams.

Mac Demarco

Mac Demarco @ This Tent

Theonepointeight

Best Late-Night Stoner Bro-Down: Mac DeMarco

If last year's Bonnaroovians were aping the debate-team look of Real Estate, 2015 was the year that dudes embodied DeMarco's carefree style. "This is our second time at Bonnaroo, first time was crazy, hopefully this time is even crazier," the indie goofball told the Friday midnight crowd. Things got crazy: DeMarco's haphazard set was packed with broken strings, onstage tunings, awkward banter that openly mocked the "hipsters" in the pit and a cluster of unwanted feedback; the microphone ironically and repeatedly flared up as DeMarco sang "I just wanna go" on "The Stars Keep Calling My Name." However, the crowd ate up the technical difficulties, exalting into revelry by the time "Blue Boy" arrived.

Uber Helicopter

Uber Helicopter

Theonepointeight

Best One Percenter Mode of Transporation: Uber Helicopters

Bonnaroo teamed with Uber this year to provide a method of getting to the fest that 99 percent of festivalgoers couldn't afford. For just $1,500, the UberChopper ferried in wealthier attendees from Nashville, dropping them squarely on the helipad on the outskirts of the festival grounds that's used to bring in the marquee talent. However, the helicopter ride was only a one-way ticket, and while Uber offered a complimentary ride back to Nashville, that means even One Percenters had to sit in traffic Sunday on their way off the Farm.

Pallbearer

Pallbearer @ That Tent

Theonepointeight

Best Self-Zing: Pallbearer

Doom metal low-end spelunkers Pallbearer had the misfortune to play across the fest from Brown Sabbath, the horn-laden headbanger tribute act. But the timing at least allowed bassist Joseph Rowland to joke, "Unfortunately there's two Black Sabbath cover bands playing right now." Pallbearer slowly undulated and bent their strings with almost telepathic precision, but their jokey stage presence and otaku-y T-shirts (Creepshow, Frank Zappa) made them not at all menacing and more like a metal band you can blow bubbles at — which someone ultimately did.

unlocking the truth

Unlocking the Truth @ This Tent

Theonepointeight

Best Wake Up Call: Unlocking the Truth

As the third band of the entire fest, teen metalcore sensations Unlocking the Truth didn't let a 5:45 p.m. Thursday set go to waste. Lead singer Malcolm Brickhouse said right up front, "We wanna see this crowd go nuts, all right?" So by the first chorus of their first song a hand shot up indicating someone in the crowd had already lost a shoe. It was a decidedly heavy way to kick off the weekend. But this is Bonnaroo after all: a flip-flop went flying, a stuffed penguin headbanged and a pond of straw hats bobbed.