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.

Earth Wind and Fire

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Curveball: Earth, Wind and Fire

Thousands of festivalgoers flocked to Flying Lotus' late-night set after Kendrick Lamar's main-stage performance hoping that the rapper would make an appearance, since the pair collaborated on the latter's "Wesley's Theory" and the former's "Never Catch Me." However, while Flying Lotus was lighting up the Other Tent, Lamar — along with SuperJammer Chance the Rapper — instead made a surprise cameo during Earth, Wind and Fire's Which Stage funk workshop, freestyling over the legendary outfit's textbook grooves. Before the rappers took the stage, Earth, Wind and Fire delivered a brilliant set featuring over a dozen members onstage, each playing an indispensable role in a well-oiled machine. The dense layers of guitars, horns, percussion and their extraordinary bassist Verdine White all locked into perfect sync as the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers ripped through a greatest-hits set that boasted "Sing a Song," "Shining Star" and "Boogie Wonderland."

Brown Sabbath

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Masters of Reality: Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath

Austin, Texas psych rockers Brownout brought their Ozzy-loving side project Brown Sabbath to the Which Stage on Friday, reinterpreting the Paranoid legends' music through a Southwestern gaze. Tony Iommi's crushing riffs were decorated with scorched-earth and Morricone flourishes, while Brown Sabbath's horn section brassed up "The Wizard" and turned "Children of the Grave" into a funereal death march. However, every great cover band is only as good as their lead singer, and Alex Marrero, dubbed "the Mexican Ozzy," did an as-advertised job.

Art walk

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Bonnaroonatic Nerd-Out: The Art Walk

Did you know there is a face (and hat) hidden in the design of the Bonnaroo Post Office? Did you know that, as a functioning post office, it's technically a federal building for the weekend? Did you know the sparkling disco ball atop the tower was designed by Radiohead's lighting pro? Early Thursday afternoon, Bonnaroo's bearded Head of Visual Design, Russ Bennett, led a small group of interested fans on a small "art walk," providing director's commentary on everything from the giant pig sculpture to the iconic fountain. However, as a docent, Bennett seemed more determined to be entertaining than educational: Spotting folks plopped on bales of hay, he quipped "that's the art of sitting."


Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Reason to Skip the SuperJam: D’Angelo and the Vanguard

Any hope Bonnaroovians had of catching both D'Angelo and the subsequent SuperJam later in the night slowly dissipated after the singer arrived 30 minutes late. However, the wait was worth it once he and the Vanguard finally took the stage as they delivered seductive neo-soul and ground-shaking funk for 90 straight minutes. The gig boasted a ferocious rendition of "The Charade" that was dedicated to Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, the astro-funk rave-up of "Sugah Daddy" and an remarkable, non-stop encore where the band reached a James Brown and the Famous Flames-level of energy, intensity and passion, not once taking a foot off the gas as they ripped through cuts like "Left & Right" and "Back to the Future." Throughout the performance, D'Angelo was eager to share the spotlight with the Vanguard, giving each individual member of the expert outfit an opportunity to soak in the cheers.

Tears for Fears

Roland Orzabal & Curt Smith

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Eighties Dance Party: Tears for Fears

Forget the Throwback SuperJam: Tears for Fears were the real party for festivalgoers who actually experienced the Reagan era. The long-running act opened with "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and just piled on the hits after that: "Sowing the Seeds of Love," "Pale Shelter," "Break It Down Again" and more. Tears for Fears' set also leaned heavily on their 1983 debut LP The Hurting, an album that never really connected with American audiences. ("Especially in Tennessee," Curt Smith joked.)  The band strung three singles together from that album: "Mad World," "Change" and "Memories Fade." ("Kanye!" audience members screamed on the latter, a nod to the rapper sampling that track for "Coldest Winter.") Following Roland Orzabal's magical, muted performance of Radiohead's "Creep," the New Wave favorites closed out things out with the powerhouse tandem of "Head Over Heels" and "Shout."

Chance the Rapper


Best Guest: Chance the Rapper

Chance the Rapper would be named Mayor of Bonnaroo if he was checking in on Foursquare. On Friday night, Chance spit some freestyles with Earth, Wind and Fire. On Saturday night, he giddily nailed all the words to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Summertime" and Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" in the SuperJam, letting his voice crack and strain. On Sunday, he showed up in Freddie Gibbs and Madlib's set to add an impromptu melody and shoot a water gun. "You can't put that shit on Spotify," said Gibbs.

The Grove

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Chillout (Location Edition): The Grove

Subtly ensconced in the Bonnaroo campgrounds, nestled between Camp Chewbacca and Camp the Geek, lies a shaded little oasis known as the Grove. Far from the never-ending EDM that thumps late into the night, the Grove looks and feels like a yoga retreat, right down to the calm, ambient soundscapes that are piped into this wooded area. A ring of faux-Porta-Potties in the middle of the space actually encircles a small venue used for small, unannounced concerts. This relaxing haven filled with art installations (new to the fest in 2015!) was among the year's best-kept secrets.

The War on Drugs

Adam Granduciel

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Classic Rock (Young Edition): The War on Drugs

During the War on Drugs' nine-song, career-spanning Saturday afternoon set at the Which Stage, frontman Adam Granduciel proved to be a one-man classic-rock radio station, rolling his words like Bob Dylan ("Arms Like Boulders," "An Ocean in Between the Waves"), baiting hooks like Tom Petty ("Red Eyes"), pinpointing idiosyncratic lyrics like Bruce Springsteen ("Burning") and unleashing note-perfect solos like Mark Knopfler. Stripped of their glossy studio embellishes found on Slave Ambient and Lost in a Dream (but assisted by a trumpeter), the War on Drugs pumped out clean, unfettered rock & roll.

Flying Lotus

Steven Ellison

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Reality-Altering Visuals: Flying Lotus

Flying Lotus has already been touted for his jaw-dropping, near-Daft Punkian stage design, and after blowing minds at Coachella, the Los Angeles beatmaker brought his epic live show to the Other Tent late Saturday night. "It's a beautiful night. It's fucking lovely. It's a shame 'cause you're dead," FlyLo told the crowd before loading into his booth, which was sandwiched between two semi-transparent screens. Each canvas displayed different images that worked in unison, creating a three-dimensional effect. Shape-shifting polygons, skulls and angels ascending to the heavens populated the screen as white lasers shot out into the audience. In addition to his You're Dead work, Flying Lotus also dropped remixes of Drake's "Know Yourself" and Schoolboy Q's "Collard Greens." 


Bleachers @ This Tent


Best Third Act: Bleachers

As he recalled onstage, Jack Antonoff played the exact same tent a decade ago as frontman of indie rock band Steel Train, and returned to the festival with with fun. in 2012. But he may have topped himself with Bleachers, whose mid-afternoon Saturday set was full of explosive energy — he had broken a sweat by the propulsive second number "Shadow." Wearing a Mets jersey, he delivered infectious, tightly-wrapped pop hooks of last year's Strange Desire as he pogoed across the stage, dropping to his knees during one climactic sax solo by Evan Smith. Antonoff reveled in delivering hooks like "Reckless Love," "Roller Coaster" and "Wild Heart," which sounded huge. Many in the crowd knew every word, and anyone who didn't howled along to their blazing cover of "Go Your Own Way." "You're the fucking best, every last one of you," Antonoff told them. "There is nowhere else in the universe I'd rather be." 

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib

Madlib & Freddie Gibbs + Chance the Rapper (Surprise Guest)


Best X-Rated Entertainment: Freddie Gibbs and Madlib

When Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs wasn't spitting rapid-fire bars, he was providing the afternoon crowd with raunchy, late-night material. "They're gonna show titties, I'm gonna rap all motherfuckin' day," he said. "I'll wrap my dick around those titties." Gibbs had more than sex on his mind — he led a "fuck police" chant more than a dozen times. Meanwhile, Madlib played a fantastic foil, adding sharp, percussive cutting to "Shitsville" and tapping in bass drum beats in his imitable, off-center rhythms.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra @ The Other Tent


Best Chillout (Music Edition): Unknown Mortal Orchestra

With midday temperatures approaching 90 degrees, the psychedelic pop troupe Unknown Mortal Orchestra provided some much-needed shade and cool vibes during their Other Tent session. "If you need to, you can get away from the sun," frontman Ruban Nielson fittingly sang on "If." Unknown Mortal Orchestra's hour-long set was filled with breezy, feel-good jams and highlight by their Motown-inspired "How Can U Luv Me," topped off by a killer three-minute drum solo.

Jamie XX

Jamie XX @ The Other Tent


Best Set in the Worst Slot: Jamie xx

It was too hot and too bright when Jamie xx took the stage at 6 p.m. Saturday, but that didn't stop festivalgoers from packing the Other Tent to watch the xx mastermind spin for 90 minutes. Jamie xx's dubbed-out, sophisticated beats and hypnotic stage show — complete with fog machines, pulsing lights and a disco ball — would have looked and sounded infinitely better after midnight (on numerous occasions, security had to douse the dancers with water bottles) but it was still a triumphant first Bonnaroo for Jamie xx as a solo artist.


Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Band If You Missed Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds This Summer: DMA’s

This Sydney, Australia sextet brought Manchester, U.K., to Manchester, Tennessee, during their Thursday afternoon slot, delivering Glastonbury-worthy hooks powered by a three-guitar assault. The DMA's have been accused of sounding perhaps too much like Morning Glory-era Oasis — even Noel Gallagher has criticized the Brit-pop revivalists — but the DMA's flexed some of Oasis' cheeky bravado at Bonnaroo as frontman Johnny Took copied Liam Gallagher's trademark circular sunglasses and Adidas track-jacket look.


Game of Thrones Screening @ Other Tent


Best Viewing Party: ‘Game of Thrones’ Season Finale

Given its placement during both the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup, Bonnaroo has long packed its air-conditioned Cinema Tent for sports-related viewings. Since Sunday also coincided with the cultural phenomenon known as Game of Thrones — and because the number of GoT fans far outnumbered the Cinema Tent's strict 500-person capacity — the festival set up a series of outdoor watch parties on its giant Other Tent screen so Throners could catch the season finale before or after Billy Joel. Together, thousands gasped and awed at the plot twists exposed in the episode, putting how you experienced the end of Season 5 to shame. HBO also had the Iron Throne on site all weekend, allowing fans to photograph themselves as the ruler of Westeros.

Sturgill Simpson


Best Outlaw: Sturgill Simpson

The country music establishment still doesn't know exactly what to do with Sturgill Simpson. Really, his fantastic, dynamic afternoon set would only complicate the matter. He and his band came out to "Run the Jewels" by Run the Jewels before launching into the hard honky-tonk of "Life of Sin" (bass player Kevin Black wore a shirt that said "BOOM BAP"). The band let rave-y triangles pulse on the screen behind them for "Sitting Here Without You" and iTunes visualizer-style EQ lines pulsed for "Long White Lines." An outlaw to the outlaws, Sturgill's the only cowboy in New Balance sneakers.

Tanya Tagaq

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Scream (Avant Garde Division): Tanya Tagaq

"I'm from about 300 miles from magnetic North," explained Inuit throatpunk Tanya Tagaq. "So this Eskimo is really hot." She promised her band would take it slow so she didn't lose consciousness in the heat and then dove into an hour of the weekend's most mesmerizing improv. Since Tagaq usually plays "new music" festivals and smaller clubs, it was unknown how she would play in a festival tent that would soon be crowd surfing to Against Me! The audience responded swiftly and loudly, cheering during the kinetic peaks of performance — her wolf howl or her Diamanda Galás-esque high-pitched yowls — with a wash of cheers. Tagaq didn't pander to the crowd nor provoke them, instead seeming like she was in her own world, writhing around with her eyes rolled back or looking like she might wander off of the edge of the stage.



Best Place for a Mini Burning Man: The Kalliope Stage

With Mumford & Sons playing mostly unopposed on Saturday night, where do the kids who can't sit still get their kicks? While tens of thousands were ho-heying, a devoted group was letting their freak flags fly at the Kalliope Stage. As a DJ spun the most cartoonish trap possible, this is where you could find painted breasts, a tuxedo, smoke machines and a light-up Afro wig. Part Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, part Nineties rave, all glowing everything.


MØ @ Other Tent


Best Newcomer: MØ

The Danish singer born Karen Marie Ørsted lit up the Other Tent Sunday with her unique brand of icy, textured synth-pop and engaging, energetic stage presence. In addition to cuts off her Diplo-produced No Mythologies to Follow (including the set highlight "Don't Wanna Dance"), MØ also whipped up a minimalist cover of the Spice Girls ballad "Say You'll Be There" plus her Major Lazer feature "Lean On."


Woods @ This Tent


Best Jam Band: Woods

The indie folk crew Woods may seem like an unlikely choice for this title at the jam-founded Roo — three of their last four studio albums barely crossed the 30-minute mark — but the band lured in the Phish-loving faithful with numerous cuts that stretched well past 10 minutes. (Singer Jeremy Earl can even pass for an Anastasio.) Woods' spirited improvs ranged from ambient to folk freak-outs ("Is It Honest") to guitar ragers ("With Light and With Love"). The group also sprinkled in a handful of shorter, softer acoustic numbers — as all jam bands are wont to do — but it was their climatic, swirling rockers that were as fiery as the Saturday temperature.

Robert Kelly/Cameron Esposito

Kyle Dean Reinford; Theonepointeight

Best Biology Lesson: Cameron Esposito and Robert Kelly

These two comedians couldn't have had more disparate slots — viral sensation Esposito leading a set of alterna-geeks like Kurt Braunholer, Kelly closing a set of shocky podcast bros like Ari Shaffir. However both delved hilariously deep into our disgusting bodies. Esposito had some frank and hilarious talk about menstruation that she posited as a way to gross out dudes — though when she suggested a Bonnaroo port-a-potty just for diva cup disposal you could hear some women audibly gasping. Kelly focused on material that seemed a little, well, adult for an audience of audience ready to freak out to Deadmau5 — childbirth, going to the urologist — but he talked directly to an older gentleman near the front row and the audience grabbed some vicarious giggles.

The Very Best

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Pronunciation of the Word “Bonnaroo”: The Very Best

As if under hypnosis from their own floaty Malawian pop melodies, the Very Best couldn't help but sing it. Bonna-roo-oo-oo.

Mastro Spray-Tattoo

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Way to Turn Yourself Into Living Art: Mastro

Festivalgoers lined up to become a human canvas for New York-based artist Mastro, who turned the appendages of countless attendees into eye-catching human graffiti. Providing an arm or leg for Mastro's colorful temporary tattoo sleeves was definitely one of the hottest trends of Bonnaroo 2015.

Moon Taxi

MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 12: Trevor Terndrup of Moon Taxi performs onstage during the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 12, 2015 in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Josh Brasted/WireImage)

Josh Brasted/Getty

Best Fake-Out: Moon Taxi

Between Against Me!, Rustie, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a notification from the app that a high-fiving world record attempt was going down, the lure of the food court and some general exhaustion and a little bit of laziness. . .you can forgive us for not checking out scruffy indie proggers Moon Taxi. However, yards away, they pulled us in regardless with the sounds of a hard-hitting, no-punches-pulled cover of Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up." Wait, is that Zack de la Rocha screaming? Does that mean he's in town to team with Run the Jewels? Once we got closer it was apparent that it was just keyboardist Wes Bailey doing very convincing vein-popping yells. Did we mention they added keyboard to "Wake Up"?

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