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Bonnaroo 2018: 31 Best Things We Saw

The coolest, wildest, hottest experiences at the weekend-long Tennessee bash, from the Killers’ headlining set to the candied bacon bites

Bonnaroo 2018: Best Things We Saw

Rob Loud

Since its first edition in 2002, the Bonnaroo Music Festival, which took place this past weekend in Manchester, Tennessee, has become one of America’s premier fests. Its musical purview has shifted quite a bit since its earliest days as a haven for jam bands; this year, the wide-open spaces at the Farm made room for the glittery beats of Kaskade, the acerbic pop of Khalid, the high-octane boasts of Future and the hybridized rock of Alt-J, as well as twin sets by folk-ambient guru Bon Iver that called back to the fest’s earliest days as a space for bands to stretch all the way out. The site’s camping-friendly space gave even more opportunity for a plurality of aesthetics, with glittered-up revelers, shorts-and-tees music heads and a robe-clad man who proclaimed himself to be “Bass Jesus” coming together under the Bonnaroovian Code – think Bill & Ted’s edict to “be excellent to one another,” spread out over four days of heat, mud, music and other types of funk.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Glo-Up: Dua Lipa

Dua Lipa’s self-titled debut had only been out for a few days when she threw her Bonnaroo coming-out party in 2017. Once again, the British sensation again played a late Sunday slot, just like last year. But this time, it wasn’t for a respectable-sized crowd of early adopters in a tent; instead, the singer – effusing an innate charisma and ruling the crowd with supreme confidence – took the main stage as a bona fide pop star, with tens of thousands singing along to star-crossed-love bangers like “IDGAF,” “Hotter Than Hell” and the Martin Garrix collab “Scared to Be Lonely.” She made the What Stage sound like Wembley Stadium; if she returns next year for a Bonnaroo three-peat, it’ll probably be to headline. A.G.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best House Party: Cage the Elephant and Dan Luke and the Raid

“We’re
having a house party at Bonnaroo,” Cage the Elephant singer Matt Shultz told the 700 fans lucky
enough to catch word of his band’s surprise set Thursday night at Happy
Roo Day, the weekend-long
art installation and party  that he curated in the festival’s campgrounds. There were more fans outside the
barricades of the barn-turned-glammed-out-rock club, chanting to be let
in so they could get a glimpse of the reliably
fearless frontman as he stalked the stage, losing
himself in the moment and inspiring sing-alongs from even the
thousand-or-so people shut out of the show as his band tore through a
short set of garage-psych burners and rock radio hits like
“Come a Little Closer” and “Shake Me Down.” An even more pleasant
surprise came in the form of still-fairly-under-the-radar Bowling
Green, Kentucky quartet Dan Luke and the Raid. Fronted by Daniel Shultz
(younger brother to Matt and Cage guitarist Brad
Shultz), the fully-formed-on-arrival band has a magnetic singer and
enough raucous energy to show rock & roll runs in the family, but has a
brand of garage-surf-meets-Floyd psychedelia that’s all its
own. A.G.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best New-School Legacy Headliners: Muse, The Killers and Eminem

Let’s consider one thing before holding Muse, The Killers and Eminem
to the standard of more hallowed What Stage alums like Paul McCartney,
Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Jay-Z: Millennials aren’t kids
anymore. The collective nostalgia is palpable when
watching members of that generation – now largely made up of people in their
late twenties and early thirties – assembling en masse to shout along to
stadium-sized hits like Muse’s “Starlight,” The Killers’ “Mr.
Brightside” (perhaps the most thrilling set opener in the
history of Bonnaroo) or Eminem’s “Kill You.” This, folks, is your new
class of heritage acts. A.G.

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Best Birthday Celebration: Sturgill Simpson

“My midlife crisis is fucking dope,” Sturgill Simpson bellowed from the massive What Stage on Friday evening – which just happened to be the guitarist and songwriter’s 40th birthday. He celebrated in inimitable fashion, sporting a Rolling Stones–inspired “Who the fuck is asking?” shirt while tearing through a just-after-sundown set that eschewed bells and whistles and instead put its full attention on the undeniable chemistry between the Americana outlaw and his three bandmates. Songs expanded and contracted to fit Simpson’s whims, with his soul-food flip of When in Rome’s late-Eighties New Romantic smash “The Promise” providing heat and a blown-out version of the chugging “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” giving him the opportunity to show off his still-formidable ability to shred – demographics be damned. M.J.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Most Lit Main-Stage Set: Anderson Paak

For the second year in a row, a rising hip-hop star stole the show
from the headliners. In 2017, “Mayor of Bonnaroo” Chance the Rapper drew
a bigger, way-more-turnt-up crowd than stadium-rock kings U2.
This year, the festival’s fever pitch came during
rapper-drummer-multi-instrumentalist Anderson Paak’s What Stage set. Backed by
his hot-shit Free Nationals ensemble, he skipped and
stumble-danced from wing to wing
in exaggerated motions, and even worked in a drum solo or two. His carefree air rubbed off on the crowd, who’d left behind its collective inhibitions by the time Paak’s hour-long set
was over. A.G.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Proof That Pop Can Part Clouds and Unite Crowds: Bazzi

Sunday’s festivities got off to a somewhat slow start thanks to Saturday’s all-night partying and a morning downpour that left muddy patches all over The Farm. Michigan-born pop upstart Bazzi got things moving along with his This Tent-opening set, which he capped with a run through “Mine,” a blissed-out confession of love ­– “You so fuckin’ precious when you smile” – that doubles as one of current pop radio’s few opportunities for unabashed, synth-borne joy. The crowd ate it up, singing along with every delighted lyric as the plush keyboards rose up around their collective voices. By the time Bazzi enticed them into singing the chorus along with him one last time, you could have sworn the sun was shining a bit more brightly. M.J.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Crowd-Surfing Revivalist: St. Paul and the Broken Bones

St. Paul and the Broken Bones singer Paul Janeway continues to make a compelling case that he’s the best showman currently working in pop music. For their Sunday evening performance in That Tent, the Alabama-based retro-soul outfit tore through a set that placed smoldering ballads alongside taut, horn-drenched funk jams like “Call Me.” During the group’s show-stopping “Broken Bones & Pocket Change,” Janeway unrolled a long strip of carpet that he used to let the audience carry him (and the world’s longest microphone cord) across the tent, so he could perform on the precarious railing at the front-of-house booth. As the song reached its crescendo, the crowd carried him all the way back to the stage and he kept right on belting the gospel-influenced melody, never missing a single note. J.F.

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Most Serene Set: Daniel Caesar

“It’s not raging music,” one Bonnaroovian explained to another as the pair walked into This Tent, which hosted Daniel Caesar’s set on Sunday. Caesar specializes in acoustic soul ballads, and it was easy to wonder how these fragile tracks would translate in an open-air environment punctuated periodically by the distant thump of pummeling dance music. But Caesar was ready for the challenge, bringing along a four-piece band – the rhythm section was forceful but adaptable – and a trio of superb backing vocalists. Those additional singers helped put these songs across, adding ice-cool “oohs” to “Hold Me Down” and layering a pretty introduction in three-part harmony before “Neu Roses.” But when it came time for Caesar to perform “Get You” – the Kali Uchis-assisted track that went top ten at mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio – he suddenly ditched his serene soul sound, opting instead for something more dynamic: Several minutes of thwacking, bass-popping funk that closed the set. E.L.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Country Music History Lesson: Grand Ole Opry

A bit of country-music history was made Sunday evening, as the Grand Ole Opry hosted its first Bonnaroo performance with a two-hour show held in That Tent and broadcast live on the internet and 650 WSM-AM, the Opry home on the radio. Future’s set on the What Stage drew most of the crowd away, but those who stayed at That Tent were a rowdy bunch, and they had the chance to witness a show that was both a history lesson and an overview of many differnt country music styles. Opry members Old Crow Medicine Show, whose quick-talking frontman Ketch Secor co-hosted the evening with announcer Bill Cody, were first in the lineup, which also included bluegrass great (and Bonnaroo veteran) Del McCoury, pop-country dynamo Maggie Rose, and country-rock band Lanco (pictured here). Other highlights included Country Music Hall of Fame Member Bobby Bare, whose classic “Marie Laveaux” got the crowd energized with its signature screams, and throwback crooner Joshua Hedley, paying tribute to Glen Campbell with “Wichita Lineman.” In true Opry fashion, the show closed with a cast sing-along of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – giving newcomers and veterans alike a little comfort and closure to carry them into the next week. J.F.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best/Worst Scheduling Conflict: Japanese Breakfast vs. Alex Lahey

This year’s Bonnaroo lineup was light on jangly, hooky indie-pop, so scheduling C86 disciple Michelle Zauner and her dreamy outfit Japanese Breakfast and pop-punk-indebted Aussie export Alex Lahey in the same early-afternoon time slot on opposite ends of the park made about as much sense as thinking Eminem would “radiate positivity” as a headliner. Listeners at both ends of the festival each got winning takes on modern romance. “This song is about falling in love with a robot,” Zauner bantered before wowing the This Tent crowd with her sky-reaching vocal prowess on the Auto-Tuned “Machinist.” Lahey opened festivities on the main stage, where the jaunty hooks of kiss-offs like “You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me” and “I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself” sounded even more irresistible blasting out of a sound system fit for a Muse concert. A.G.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Tent Revivalists: Old Crow Medicine Show

“Did you bring your dancing shoes to Bonnaroo?” Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor asked the crowd gathered for the Nashville string band’s Saturday-sunset performance slot on the Which Stage. Yes, the audience did – and they also had weed, which fans enthusiastically sparked up as the group sang the “everybody must get stoned” chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” their opening song. Aside from the Grand Ole Opry ­­ – Old Crow are members, and they closed out the Nashville institution’s Sunday-night broadcast from That Tent – there’s no better forum for the band’s rollicking jams than Bonnaroo. The wild-eyed Secor shuffled back and forth for a vigorous harmonica breakdown; mandolinist Cory Younts showed off his possessed-by-the-spirit dancing; and the rock-steady Chance McCoy helped hold it all together on acoustic guitar and backing vocals. The group may still be adapting to life on a major label (they released Volunteer via Columbia Records this year), but they’ve never been more in the zone onstage. J.H.

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Most Versatile Star: Kali Uchis

Kali Uchis flitted from genre to genre during her soothing late-afternoon performance on Saturday. “Know What I Want,” which dissects an imploding relationship, pointed to sing-song lover’s rock; “Feel Like a Fool,” which skewers an unfaithful partner, evoked sugary neo-Motown. “Flight 22” was a tranquil soul ballad in 6/8 time, and “Just a Stranger” was jolting, brawny funk. Uchis’ versatility is the kind that festival bookers dream of when putting together their lineups: It’s a way to appeal to as many potential ticket-buyers as possible, and, more charitably, it suggests a welcoming, open-eared approach to pop. Yet Uchis’ performance also served as a reminder that big festivals still have a long way to go when it comes to genuine inclusiveness. The Colombian-American singer performed “Nuestro Planeta,” a serene reggaeton collaboration with Reykon (absent at Bonnaroo) that is one of several sharp Spanish songs in her catalog – but despite Spanish-language pop’s prominent place in the American mainstream, Uchis was the only lead performer at Bonnaroo with a Latin radio hit. E.L.

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Best House Set: Mija

Mija is known for her unpredictability – she’ll concoct arena-ready EDM at one moment and insular, off-kilter electronic music the next. On Sunday at The Other, the L.A. DJ-producer went in another direction entirely, seamlessly mixing together a lavish selection of modern house cuts. Her choices included Camelphat’s “Cola,” one of last year’s biggest crossover club records thanks to its chantable chorus and nonchalant glide, and Midland’s “Final Credits,” a disco-house insta-classic that sampled Gladys Knight’s “Neither One of Us” almost two years before the release of DJ Koze’s current dancefloor-wrecker “Pick Up.” (Word to the wise: Don’t confuse the U.K. producer who recorded “Final Credits” with the identically named country group Midland, who performed at Bonnaroo the previous afternoon.) Elsewhere, Mija relied on long, satisfying synth arpeggios, brute-force vocal loops and distorted, insistent basslines. Usually an electronic artist working within the confines of an hour-long set moves abruptly from peak to peak, packing in as many climaxes as possible, but Mija maintained the pacing of a club setting, knitting her selections together with winning patience. E.L.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Bite on a Stick: Baconland’s Candied Bacon

Bonnaroo attendees looking to stand out in the crowd – or just have an easy beacon for their friends to find them – brandished sticks topped by eye-catching items like flags, heads and scrawled-on signs. At Baconland, one of the food stands in the pork-and-metal-minded Hamageddon pavilion, the sticks were smaller, but the effect was no less mighty: A few bucks bought two wooden skewers topped with crisp yet syrupy bacon, the sort of snack made for spiking the brain’s sweet-salty-fatty receptors and giving even the most heat-sapped attendee motivation to keep on going. M.J.

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Best Punk Rock Party: The Regrettes

There’s
no shortage of bad decisions to be made at Bonnaroo. Wearing flip-flops
in porta-potties; mixing wine, liquor (and other things); choosing to
watch Bassnectar… the list goes on. But everyone except for the
500-or-so lucky festivalgoers who caught
Saturday afternoon’s Who Stage set from L.A.
punk-pop quartet The Regrettes are the ones who really fucked up this
year. Leaving it all on the stage, careening through almost their entire
repertoire of ’60s girl-group-informed, ’70s-harkening
tunes in a breakneck 22 minutes, the band – fronted by boundlessly
energetic 17-year-old frontwoman Lydia Night, who’s got charisma and
devil-may-care moxie to spare – was all smiles, taking cues from The
Clash and making the idea of resistance and revolution
fun. “I don’t see any moshing; that’s a concern,” Night said, inspiring
a uber-posi slam pit. A.G.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Rowdiest Mosh Pit: Playboi Carti

Playboi Carti runs his shows like a cop directing traffic during rush hour, feeding the crowd a steady stream of instructions: “I need a motherfucking mosh pit to open up in the middle,” the Atlanta MC yelled between almost every song of his Friday set in This Tent. “Open that motherfucker up!” Once fans were aligned properly, the DJ would cue up one of Carti’s bludgeoning tracks – often produced with flair by Pi’erre Bourne – and the holes in the crowd would immediately disappear, filling with writhing bodies. The between-song breaks made for a choppy show, but they proved that Carti has perfected the art of inciting crowd mayhem: He barely rapped at all during his performance, and it barely mattered. It probably helped that Carti was the only young rapper on the Bonnaroo bill with a recent Top 40 hit. It immediately became clear, even before he hit the stage, that festival-goers were itching for more hip-hop from performers their own age: All Carti’s DJ had to do to get the crowd moving was play a brief snippet of a track by Tay-K, and within seconds, the audience transformed into a seething mass of arms and legs. E.L.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Place to Chill: Tonalism

Contrary to popular belief, there is at least one spot within miles of Centeroo where chill Bonnaroovians can escape the deafening, mellow-harshing, abrasive sensory assault of Bassnectar and Glitch Mob’s kiddie EDM, or the heart-stopping blast of Eminem’s pyrotechnics: Tonalism, the best-kept secret among Bonnaroo’s new campground activations. Located in the far reaches of the lot, this all-night, ambient anti-rave is where tired heads can melt into rectangular bean-bag chairs, stare at trippy patterns projected on the ceiling and meditate to body-buzzing deep-dub audio hallucinations courtesy of outsider DJs like Nanny Cantaloupe and Jimmy Tamborello. Go there late enough and you’ll literally hear them over the sound of snoring festival-goers. A.G.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Most Grown-and-Sexy Opening-Night Act: R.LUM.R

Two years ago, Reggie Williams was in the Bonnaroo crowd, watching Miguel and getting inspired to go full-throttle on his own musical dreams. Thursday night, he commanded That Tent as R.LUM.R, a shape-shifting artist whose R&B roots and classical-guitar training give extra verve to his pillowy pop-EDM breaks, boisterous bubble-funk breakdowns and psychedelic-shack guitar solos. His set not only helped triangulate Bonnaroo’s musical sprawl, incorporating neo-soul and big-tent dance music alongside technically adept playing that could stretch into all-night jam sessions; it showed how its inclusive nature extends to turning audience members into performers. Don’t be surprised if, a couple of years from now, an up-and-comer raves about how R.LUM.R’s set – accompanied by an ebullient sign-language interpreter and punctuated by an emphatic “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do what the fuck you want” – inspired their journey to Bonnaroo’s lineup. M.J.

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Best Living History: Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples stopped her Saturday set on the Which Stage to offer a Civil Rights history lesson, preaching about the Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama in 1965. “Sometimes you gotta get ugly,” she said, before launching into a moving performance of the title track of her 2010 album, You Are Not Alone. This wasn’t the 78-year-old gospel icon’s first Bonnaroo, but she approached it with all the verve of a new artist. A show-closing version of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” was dutifully euphoric, with Staples providing a musical balm in troubled times. J.H.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Jukebox Heroes: Midland

It’s fashionable to hate on Midland: They’re inauthentic, the Monkees of country music, yadda yadda. But their Saturday late-afternoon set at This Tent called bullshit on such claims, with the trio proving to be both versatile musicians and confident entertainers. Along with “Drinkin’ Problem” and new single “Burn Out” from their debut On the Rocks, the band delivered a jukebox’s worth of cover songs. Frontman Mark Wystrach led a spontaneous crowd singalong on Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight”; ZZ Top’s “La Grange” nodded to the group’s Texas homebase; and Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest,” strengthened by guitarist Jess Carson’s nuanced licks, was a pleasant surprise. The capper, though, was when bassist Cameron Duddy climbed behind the drum kit to flail away and sing Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” with an assist from photographer Danny Clinch on harmonica. Afterward, the band hightailed it back to Nashville to do it all over again at CMA Fest. J.H.

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Best Fake-Nashville Experience: Hot Chicken and Karaoke With T-Pain

Karaoke with T-Pain: It’s as good an idea in practice as it is on paper. “We’re gonna get this shit fuckin’ crackin’, because it took me 30 minutes to get to this bitch from my trailer,” hip-hop’s greatest ambassador of Auto-Tune told the 75-to-100 solid-decision-makers getting lit at 2 a.m. in the Ville, a Nashville-themed installation situated deep in the festival’s gentrified sprawl of campgrounds. “It took a long fuckin’ time to get here, it was weird. It was a lot of butts at one time.” This bizarro Nashville experience also included eating mouth-igniting, eye-watering tenders from Music City’s legendary Prince’s Hot Chicken while watching T-Pain’s experiment devolve into an affable insult-comedy act for the exceedingly lovable singer-MC, as would-be karaoke singers had mid-trip meltdowns when they got onstage and realized what they’d signed up for. “Y’all, I’m fuckin’ lit!” one woman shouted after totally blowing it on the first verse of Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman” – not unlike a scene you’d see at a bachelorette party at Ms. Kelli’s Karaoke Bar in Printer’s Alley. And like downtown Nashville’s tourist trap of trap of honky-tonks, Friday night meant an onslaught of sing-alongs to bar standards like “Wagon Wheel,” “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” A.G.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Pop Masterclass: Nile Rodgers and Chic

The kids filing the field in front of What Stage for Nile Rodgers and Chic’s Saturday evening mass dance party might not have known what they were in for: hits, hits and more hits. And if these whippersnappers didn’t know Rodgers was the writer and/or producer behind pure pop gold such as “Like a Virgin,” “Let’s Dance,” and “Le Freak” before the gig, they sure as hell do now. Leading a current lineup of Chic with studio-tight funk pockets and pitch-perfect harmonies that had to be heard to be believed, the 65-year-old legend led Bonnaroo through a storyteller-style history lesson on his Midas touch, from wedding-party staples like “We Are Family” and “Good Times” to Daft Punk and Pharrell’s 2013 instaclassic “Get Lucky.” Some heritage acts rest on nostalgia, while others breathe life into their back catalogs and bring their music into the moment. Rodgers and Chic are most certainly among the latter. A.G.

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Best Motivational Dance Party: Paramore

Last year, Paramore put out After Laughter, a candy-dipped chronicle of depression and anxiety that used highlife guitars and high-gloss synths as a glare-inducing contrast to downcast lyrics. While other acts might let these sorts of sentiments drag down their mood, Paramore have used the ideas discussed on After Laughter as a catalyst for openness about life’s darker moments. After performing the dreamy “Pool” at Bonnaroo, vocalist Hayley Williams took a seat on the stage and opened up to the audience, talking about the circumstances that led to After Laughter and the chaos lurking in the rest of the world. “We’re in a really strange time, and it’s very dark,” she said. “And every day you wake up and you don’t know what the news is going to be, and most of the time it’s not great.” She touched on that morning’s news of Anthony Bourdain’s death, not mentioning the late food ambassador by name but noting that the loss was sad on a human level because “we are all people, coexisting.” Using that as an impetus to bring the crowd together, she asked the assembled to take a moment and breathe in the collective energy. “No matter what you’re going through, I know this doesn’t make it go away,” she said. “But for one second, just be present, enjoy music … and let’s just fuckin’ dance.” The skittery, withering “Told You So,” fueled by Williams’ pugilistic energy, made it easy to follow suit. M.J.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Family Band: Brothers Osborne

Sunday’s What Stage set by T.J. and John Osborne was brisk and refreshing, the pair’s slick take on country-blues complementing the breezes that blew in after the morning’s rainstorms. “Ever since I started coming to Bonnaroo, I’ve dreamed of being on this fuckin’ stage,” lead vocalist T.J. Osborne said before kicking into the small-town salute “Down Home.” Their set radiated gratitude, with the wobbly synths that led into “One Last Kiss” elegantly contrasting with T.J.’s ribbony vibrato and the one-two punch of the Temptations classic “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and their own devil’s-night-out chronicle “It Ain’t My Fault” offering dueling perspectives on the idea of the outlaw. M.J.