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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 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

Amy Harris/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

Amy Harris/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Most Soothing: Moses Sumney

Early-afternoon slots at Bonnaroo are notoriously tough. A lot of fest-goers haven’t moseyed over to Centeroo yet, and those who have must contend with the merciless Tennessee sun. That wasn’t an issue for Los Angeles singer-songwriter Moses Sumney, though, who drew a considerable crowd for Saturday’s first What Stage. Drawing partially from his 2017 debut Aromanticism, the black-clad Sumney mesmerized a typically rowdy bunch with songs like “Make Out in My Car,” which got an especially hypnotic treatment from his band. He also debuted some new songs, including “Rain Cloud” – which, as its name suggests, was just dreamy enough to make one forget the temperature was pushing 100 degrees. B.M.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Grimiest Hip-Hop Set: Westside Gunn and Conway

Westside Gunn and Conway, a pair of MCs (and real-life brothers) from Buffalo, New York, opened Friday’s slate of This Tent performances with an impressively single-minded set. The beats were slow and spooky, full of shivering string samples, haunted-house keyboards, degraded vocal samples from old soul records and insistent drums; the rapping, as Conway put it, focused on “real-life street tales of drug-dealing and gun-toting.” But if the songs were filled with grim lessons and dire warnings, the performers were buoyant, cheerfully insulting former Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, complimenting each other – “Goddamn, you killed that shit,” Westside Gunn told Conway – and asking hopefully for some free weed: “If y’all got some extra bud, I put my phone number up there,” Westside Gunn said, gesturing towards the screen. “I smoke all motherfucking day.” One out of every three sentences from these two rappers is a statement about their commitment to “real hip-hop;” Conway enjoys referring to himself as the “grimiest [rapper] of all time.” This rhetoric could become tiresome, but Westside Gunn and Conway have enough onstage charm to make it endearing. E.L.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

Amy Harris/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Best Reason to Brave the Heat: Tyler Childers

The shade under That Tent provided little respite from the oppressive heat by midafternoon Saturday, when on-the-rise country songwriter Tyler Childers took the stage. But that didn’t stop the 25-year-old Kentucky longhair from pouring himself into clock-stopping weepers like “Universal Sound,” from his 2017 Sturgill Simpson-produced LP Purgatory. It didn’t keep the crowd from clapping and hollering along to a spirited, beyond-Bonnaroo-appropriate romp through Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s 1972 classic “I Got Stoned and I Missed It,” either. A.G.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Most Enthusiastic Rockers: *repeat repeat

Led by husband-and-wife duo Jared and Kristyn Corder, Nashville rockers *repeat repeat managed to win over the blister-footed crowd at the club-sized Who Stage, even after four dusty, muddy, sleep-deprived days. Whether drinking beer handed up to the stage by audience members or leading call-and-response routines with the fury of a revival preacher, Jared worked the stage with a zeal seldom seen since the heyday of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. Kristyn played foil, contributing quirky harmonies to the band’s punchy brand of surf-punk. Nodding to at least one inspiration for the verve and gusto of their live show, the band called up Nashville up-and-comer R.LUM.R to bust out a guitar solo on the band’s psych-rock rave-up “Everybody’s Falling in Love” and a spirited, set-closing cover of The Hives’ “Tick Tick Boom.” A.G.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Fiercest Brass Section: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue

The contemporary landscape for R&B means that live-band soul and funk groups are unlikely to get played on radio or appear on a major streaming service playlist. But festivals like Bonnaroo serve as a nurturing environment for these acts, where fans greet each horn section and James Brown-like scream with glee. Within 24 hours, Bonnaroo played host to Victory’s singer-songwriter funk, Durand Jones and the Indications’ lowrider soul, and the raucous New Orleans brass outfit fronted by Trombone Shorty. Shorty is an indefatigable frontman, alternating between vocals, tambourine, trombone and trumpet, and the sound of his band, Orleans Avenue, comes from the muscular wing of funk-rock, full of florid guitar solos and tightly choreographed dancing by the two saxophonists and bass player. Sometimes the horns served as a combustion agent – at one point, Trombone Shorty held a trumpet trill for well over a minute, fingers flying furiously as the crowd egged him on. But at other moments – especially during a screeching cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away” – the brass served as a calming force, an anchor that kept the band grounded. The Friday-afternoon This Tent crowd was especially receptive to Trombone Shorty’s opening act, Workaholics’ Adam DeVine, who provided a quick, puerile introduction. “Look at all you sweaty fucks!” DeVine said. “Normally they put me in an air-conditioned comedy tent. But they said, ‘You’re gonna be in a hot tent with a sweaty crotch.’ I said, ‘Where do I sign up?” E.L.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

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Best Tribute: Tom Petty SuperJam

As the leader of this year’s SuperJam, My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Callahan called up a rotating cast of singers from pop, indie rock, country and soul to pay tribute to Tom Petty. There was plenty of star power – Paramore’s Hayley Williams tackled “Into the Great Wide Open,” while Sheryl Crow blazed through a casually masterful “American Girl” – and several surprise duets: Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (pictured here) reprised Stevie Nicks’ and Petty’s roles on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and Rayland Baxter and his father, pedal steel player Bucky Baxter, performed together on “Here Comes My Girl.” An event like this could make an argument about overlooked songs in Petty’s catalog, or reimagine some of Petty’s classic tracks as a way of illustrating connections between his work and later bands that used his music as inspiration. But this SuperJam had a more straightforward goal: Eliciting sing-alongs. The song choice was a greatest-hits distillation of Petty’s catalog, and the renditions were unfailingly faithful. One of the night’s most exciting moments came when a singer made room for his own interpretation of Petty’s work. Jalen N’Gonda’s “You Got Lucky” was full of virtuosic falsetto runs, pushing Petty’s mean-spirited original – “you got lucky when I found you” – toward something tender and more reverent. E.L.

Best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2018

Jeff Kravitz/Getty

Best Teachable Moments: Clean Vibes’ “Trash Talk”

Music festivals can suck up a lot of energy – the planetary kind, that is. But Bonnaroo prides itself on being sustainable, offering plenty of water sources to encourage easy refilling of Camelbaks brought in and stainless-steel cups bought on site, seminars on “clean camping” and growing one’s own food, 100-percent compostable food-service items, and a trading post where people could swap bottles, cans and butts for merch and sundries. Often times, though, a trash area with more than one option for disposal can cause confusion, and Bonnaroo had three destinations for its festivalgoers’ detritus: recycling, compost and landfill. Thanks to the “Trash Talk” program operated by the festival’s pickup crew Clean Vibes, those who hesitated before the bins were smoothly guided to their trash’s correct destination – and, perhaps, given a gentle reminder about how they could sort their waste when they arrived home. M.J.

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