Bonnaroo 2019: 20 Best Things We Saw – Rolling Stone
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Bonnaroo 2019: 20 Best Things We Saw

From Kacey Musgraves and Cardi B to Childish Gambino and John Prine

Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, TN
Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, TN
Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, TN
Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, TN
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Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, TN

After a few years of diminishing attendance and head-scratching headliners (Billy Joel?), the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival roared back this year, selling out for the first time since 2013. It also returned to its more indie, jammy and electronic roots, with Phish, Odesza and Courtney Barnett all on the bill. Which isn’t to say there weren’t any mainstream, contemporary names that tapped into the zeitgeist: Childish Gambino, Post Malone and Cardi B all performed, along with the festival’s most vocal fan Kacey Musgraves. “I’ve been looking forward to this for so long,” she said at the start of her sundown Saturday performance, “knowing that you guys are going to fucking bring it.” Here’s the 20 best things we saw at Bonnaroo 2019.

Childish Gambino

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Best Finger on the Pulse: Childish Gambino

“Put your phones down and enjoy the motherfuckin’ moment,” implored Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover) to the standing-room crowd at the outset of his much-anticipated Friday What Stage appearance. “This is church.” The polymath rapper, crooner and star of FX’s Atlanta is tapped into the current moment like few entertainers going, and his show hit all the right notes, amounting to the most thrilling main-stage hip-hop set since Kendrick Lamar leveled Bonnaroo in 2015. It spared no expense in its epic aims, with a full band behind Glover plus a choir, dancers and a camera crew that followed his every move over the 75-minute performance, suggesting the possibility of a concert movie being made before our eyes. All roads naturally led to Gambino’s visceral, zeitgeist-capturing viral hit “This Is America”, but the still-unreleased “Human Sacrifice” and its searching gospel refrain — which Glover delivered to his congregation from an elevated platform way out in the crowd — might’ve been the prettiest thing heard all weekend. So soulful it hurt. C.Z.

Courtney Barnett

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Best Set Opener: Courtney Barnett

The way Bonnaroo’s schedule is staggered, crowd sizes often double midway through sets when an influx of people arrives from a neighboring stage where something just ended. Courtney Barnett rewarded on-time arrivals for her That Tent set Friday at sundown by launching right into “Avant Gardner,” the breezy, country-tinged single that put the Fender Jazzmaster-wielding Australian wordsmith on the map back in 2013. Returning to the farm with the same core trio she had with her for her revelatory 2015 Bonnaroo performance, Barnett rocked out the career-launching story-song with searing fuzz tones, loads of melodic feedback and unforced rock star cool. And though last year’s Tell Me How You Really Feel (Barnett’s follow-up to 2015 breakthrough Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit) wasn’t as tuneful as the debut, material played off it Friday — particularly the Nirvana-meets-Slayer three-chord bruiser “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” — made up in fierceness what it lacked in hooks. C.Z.

The Avett Brothers

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Best Reason to Stomp and Clap: The Avett Brothers

With the new album Closer Than Together due this fall, the Avetts are revving up the engines on the festival circuit, putting forth their timeless yet contemporary mixture of folk, bluegrass and indie rock. At Bonnaroo, they focused on a more high-energy set, playing raucous favorites like “Kick Drum Heart” and the equally ecstatic new single “High Steppin’.” As the sun started to fade behind the tree line, the band broke into “Laundry Room,” which became a poignant singalong echoing across the festival grounds: “I am a breathing time machine, I’ll take you all for a ride.” For “Ain’t No Man,” Scott Avett jumped into the photo pit and ran to and fro, high-fiving and serenading the front rows of the audience — a simple gesture, but one that summed up the bond between this band and their loyal fan base. G.W.

Maren Morris

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Best Unapologetic Pop Star: Maren Morris

Standing atop the drum riser with a white electric guitar slung low over her sequined shorts, Maren Morris looked every bit the country star. Well, in some universe maybe. On Bonnaroo’s What Stage, the Nashville singer-songwriter embodied the archetype of pop princess. Her set did likewise, leaning heavily on her polished and empowering album Girl with entries like the title track, “The Feels,” “The Bones” and “Flavor.” When she did nod to her country roots, she did so with a defiant tale of how a country radio program director discouraged her from releasing the sad and lonesome “I Could Use a Love Song” as a single. “I was like, ‘Fuck you. I like being sad,'” she said (the song went to Number One). The tale elicited a whoop from the crowd, but it was the one-two punch of “My Church” — a massive sing-along — and the rapturous set-closing “The Middle” that sent them into a frenzy. Morris may not play by country’s rules, but if the Bonnaroo reception was a bellwether, she needn’t have to. J.H.

Steve Earle

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Best Hootenanny: The Grand Ole Opry With Steve Earle

The Grand Ole Opry made the hourlong trip from Nashville to Manchester for a second year, trading the Opry House for the That Tent at Bonnaroo. Like last year, it brought along some stellar talent: Steve Earle and the Dukes, Ricky Skaggs, Riders in the Sky and guitar phenom Molly Tuttle, among them. As such, collaborations were inevitable, with Earle and Skaggs joining together for a rendition of Earle’s “Hillbilly Highway.” But it was Opry members Old Crow Medicine Show who threw the biggest curveball — unleashing a wonky cover of Lil Nas X’s inescapable “Old Town Road” with Old Crow’s Ketch Secor playing Roy Acuff’s fiddle. G.W.

All Them Witches

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Best Classic Rock of the Future: All Them Witches

This Tent performances from a pair of Bonnaroo first-timers (Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, England’s The Comet Is Coming) — and news of Canada’s sole NBA team the Toronto Raptors closing out their first-ever NBA title — lent an international flavor to Thursday night’s proceedings. But a band from just up the road — doomy, bluesy Nashville combo All Them Witches, making their second appearance and first since 2015 — set the tone, working ready-to-party festivalgoers into a trance with their world-class heavy psych. Feel and repetition are Witches’ pillars; sprawling, semi-improvised jam-outs like the King Crimson-esque showstopper “Fishbelly 86 Onions” (off last year’s Dave Cobb-produced ATW) showcased drummer Robby Staebler’s intuitive, versatile playing, giving six-stringer Ben McLeod and bassist-vocalist Charles Michael Parks Jr. ample space to get deep in a zone and explore the sonic extremities. But they didn’t forget to entertain either, with Parks managing the physics-defying feat of balancing his bass on his fingers during the set’s finale. C.Z.

John Prine, Kelsey Waldon

Emma Delevante

Best Calming Presence: John Prine

The songwriting legend took the stage Saturday evening at That Tent, delivering a retrospective of his beloved hits (“Angel From Montgomery,” “Spanish Pipedream,” “Hello in There,” the new instant classic “When I Get to Heaven”) that are at the heart of country and folk music. Prine’s raspy voice and trademark grin radiated a sense that everything is going to be OK, even in dark and confusing times — a hallmark of a troubadour at the top of his game. Americana superstar Brandi Carlile made a surprise appearance for a duet of “Summer’s End,” and earlier in the set, rising country singer Kelsey Waldon (who recently signed to Prine’s Oh Boy Records) joined him for a spirited take on “In Spite of Ourselves.” G.W.

Post Malone

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Best Motivational Speaker: Post Malone

Emo rap, SoundCloud rap — by any name, it was everywhere at Bonnaroo ’19, with youthful crowds turning up en masse at Which Stage for Chicago’s ultra-melodic Juice Wrld on Saturday and Sacramento’s eccentric Hobo Johnson and the Lovemakers Sunday. But it was Post Malone’s Saturday night What Stage headlining show — which outdrew Phish’s the night before by a wide margin — that shows this music has more reach than it might get credit for, even if the face-tattooed singer-songwriter-rapper born Austin Richard Post gets next to no love from critics. No matter. Dressed in a head-to-toe print of Dolly Parton’s face and performing completely by himself, the 23-year-old commanded the crowd from the jump, only breaking from a rapid-fire succession of hits including 2015 breakout “White Iverson,” the more recent earworm “Better Now” and the acoustic “Stay” to earnestly address the crowd with messages of positive affirmation. “Live your life, live your dream,” he urged at one point. “Live your fuckin’ truth.” Maybe not highbrow stuff, but love it or hate it, it’s connecting. C.Z.

Phish

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Best Festival Godfathers: Phish

With pop and hip-hop stars like Post Malone and Cardi B on the bill, it’s easy to forget that Phish all but created the modern-day festival template and scene in the Nineties. Now entertaining its third generation of fans, the jam band drew a varied crowd to their Friday and Sunday sets. Friday’s was a little more low-key — Trey Anastasio and co. were clearly saving the fire for Day 4 — but did feature a searing “Carini,” chugging “Character Zero” and rousing “Tweezer Reprise.” In the Bonnaroo-closing Sunday slot, Phish offered towering improvisational jams during “Reba,” “Blaze On,” “Fluffhead,” “Bathtub Gin” and “Wilson,” each showcasing how and why the group remains one of the top musical acts on the planet in its 36th year of operation. G.W.

Kacey Musgraves

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Best Bonnaroo Stan: Kacey Musgraves

“Welcome to Golden Hour at golden hour,” Kacey Musgraves told a massive crowd gathered at sundown for the Grammy winner’s 7:30 p.m. set on Saturday. Opening with “Slow Burn” as the sky turned varying shades of orange and purple, Musgraves had these fans, many of whom carried inflatable hobby horses and sported cowboy hats, in the palm of her hand. Ask them to high-five their neighbor to make a friend? Done. Follow that up with a request to raise middle fingers? Also done. This was Musgraves as charismatic sect leader, a vocal champion of Bonnaroo and its all-are-welcome vibe since her 2013 debut. By set’s end, she was covering the Flaming Lips “Do You Realize??” and dancing with members of the festival’s Pride parade, before capping it off with an explosion of confetti during “High Horse.” “I’m not lying at all when I say that Bonnaroo is my absolute fucking favorite place to play,” she announced early on. There was never any doubt. J.H.

Brandi Carlile

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Best Inclusivity: Brandi Carlile

“I think that’s the most emotional I’ve ever felt singing that song,” Brandi Carlile bantered after a heartstrings-shredding version of “The Joke.” “And that’s saying something.” That is saying something. It was one of many hair-raising highlights of the Grammy winner’s mainstage set Sunday afternoon. Equally moving was Carlile’s rousing rendition of her ode to her just-turned 5-year-old daughter “The Mother,” which, in the spirit of Father’s Day, she dedicated to the dads in the crowd. “All you straight papas, and you gay papas and you trans papas, this one’s for you.” All of this in addition to bringing Tanya Tucker out to sing “The Wheels of Laredo,” returning the favor of Carlile’s guest spot during the country icon’s set at last week’s CMA Festival. And if that wasn’t enough, as Carlile took her final bow, Manchester, Tennessee, mayor Lonnie J. Norman presented her with the key to the city, “in recognition of her passion, dedication and outstanding contribution to music fans around the world.” “I’m proud to be a beacon of hope,” Carlile told Rolling Stone backstage afterward, “and also maybe a hopeful and determined reminder that progress doesn’t only move in one direction.” A.G. & G.W.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

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Best Three-Guitar Action: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Sandwiched between All Them Witches’ elastic guitar grooves and The Comet Is Coming’s heady prog-jazz, Aussie jangle-popsters Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever offered songs decidedly more grounded in reality — odes to lost loves, dead-end jobs and the like — but delivered them with bold style, the five-piece drawing out their caffeinated, toe-tapping tunes in a manner that met the Bonnaroo jam-band faithful halfway. Playing for “probably the biggest crowd we’ve ever played to” on Thursday at This Tent, according to acoustic guitarist and singer Fran Keaney, the tour-tested, Sub Pop-approved crew channeled the spirit of jangle-pop greats the Feelies and Teenage Fanclub with their multi-voiced approach. Keaney laid the foundation with his acoustic rhythm parts, while Joe White and Tom Russo colored it in with economical solos and sharp-edged electric leads, all three trading off vocals, and the energy never flagging. C.Z.

Solange

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Best Battle of the Chill Vibes: Solange vs. Beach House

Bonnaroo is a bit like a Whodini song: the freaks come out at night. But this year, as the midnight hour approached on Friday, the denizens of Centeroo — noodle dancers, rave masters, roof raisers and body-painted totem-wavers, among them — had a more musically turnt-down choice for getting their grooves on. Solange delivered a Carnegie Hall-worthy revue of class, elegance, subtle-but-striking vocal gymnastics and smooth neo-R&B on the Which Stage. Meanwhile, over at This Tent, Dream Pop luminaries Beach House presented an equally chill option. Backlit by blinding white lights, the duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally were barely visible as they treated bobbing, Dopamine-sapped festivalgoers to a sonic Sharper Image massage chair of warm, fuzzy synth drones and distant, shadowy vocals. A.G.

Cardi B

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Best Triumph Over Wardrobe Malfunction: Cardi B

Even as crews were setting up Cardi B’s production for her Sunday evening Which Stage set, rumors were still swirling on the farm that the “Money Bag” rapper would cancel her performance (as she had other recent dates). “I don’t know what part of Tennessee I’m in, but bitch, we’re gonna have a good fuckin’ time,” she told the lit AF crowd. Cardi hadn’t even gotten to “Twerk” by the time she twerked so hard she ripped her sparkling disco jumpsuit, forcing her to finish the set in a bathrobe, like a fuckin’ boss. A.G.

The Nude Party

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Best Undressed: The Nude Party

Garage-rock revivalists the Nude Party helped anchor Thursday’s Bonnaroo kickoff, setting the table with their stripped-down, bongo-based sound. With elements of frat rock that recall the Swingin’ Medallions and yacht rock that nods to the intricacies of Steely Dan, the Nude guys are a must-see live band, which they reinforced on the farm with songs like “Chevrolet Van” and “Records.” They also tossed in a well-placed cover, doing justice to the swaggering grittiness of the Rolling Stones with “Sweet Virginia.” G.W.

The Comet Is Coming

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Best Sax Freakout: The Comet Is Coming

If you indulged in recreational products that are only legal in places like Colorado, your third eye is bigger than your stomach, and you were suddenly overtaken by an irrational fear that you’d stop breathing, swallow your own tongue and die, Thursday’s late-night set from the Comet Is Coming was probably a heady, harrowing hour of funky terror. And you loved every minute that you can’t remember. The British avant-jazz-electro-psych instrumental trio uses thumbing, club-ready beats and EDM-bordering textures — courtesy of keyboardist Danalogue and dexterous drummer Betamax — as a foundation for the ear-splitting freakouts of saxophonist King Shabaka. In mellower moments, Shabaka hypnotized with his dizzying repeated phrases, before climaxing with abrasive blasts of jagged skronks that made it feel like the group was stabbing the audience with music, which is pretty punk rock for Bonnaroo. A.G.

Shovels & Rope

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Best Multitaskers: Shovels & Rope

Shovels & Rope haven’t toured as rigorously as they have in the past, since the birth of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent’s second child together earlier this year. But the duo’s Bonnaroo set at That Tent on Saturday showed no rust. Running through favorites like the Americana Award Song of the Year “Birmingham” and “The Wire,” off their electrifying new album By Blood, the band made a big noise with their minimalist set-up: mainly drums, guitar and keys. But it was the graceful “Carry Me Home” that best captured both the twosome’s innate chemistry and their dazzling musicianship, with Hearst keeping time on drums while simultaneously playing synth and harmonizing with her husband. J.H.

Donna Missal

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Best Self-Acceptance: Donna Missal

Quickly becoming a fixture on the underground indie scene, Missal and her power rock trio of drums and guitar took over This Tent Thursday afternoon with her stunning operatic vocal talents, a seemingly endless octave range. The soul singer blurs the lines between pop, R&B and rock stylings and preaches a passionate message of self-love and tangible progressive change in society. “Accept the things about you,” Missal told the sea of faces, “because that’s what makes you real and genuine.” G.W.

King Nun

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Best Rock Newcomers: King Nun

“Holy shit, there’s like six people here,” remarked King Nun frontman Theo Polyzoides, surveying the sparse turnout for the London foursome’s Friday-night set on the emerging-artist Who Stage. Faced with an unenviable timeslot opposite R&B heroine Solange and dream-pop luminaries Beach House, the noise-rock upstarts — playing only their third show in the States — didn’t make excuses, conjuring up an energetic racket that sounded like nothing else on the bill, with huge hooks grafted onto filthy guitar work and acerbic vocals. The band’s sense of fun and youthful transgression was contagious, with the charismatic Polyzoides frequently going airborne and guitarist James Upton, bassist Nathan Gane and drummer Caius Stockley-Young smiling their way through the madcap 30-minute set. They still have the feel of a work-in-progress, but for those seeking a second wind as the festival approached its halfway point, King Nun definitely scratched an itch. C.Z.

The Lonely Island

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Best Shtick in a Box: The Lonely Island

Former Saturday Night Live star Andy Samberg and his comedic cronies (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) brought their 21st-century dick jokes to the Which Stage on Saturday . The late-late-night set was jam-packed with viral hit after viral hit (“Jizz in My Pants,” “Finest Girl [Bin Laden Song],” “I Just Had Sex”). During “Dick in a Box,” Samberg did a duet with a life-size Justin Timberlake puppet (the original collaborator on the tune, with Taccone working the doll). Never once coming across as a parody act of what was initially created as a digital parody, the trio was impressive in its artistic delivery, which seamlessly blends hip-hop, Eighties synth and sugary-sweet pop into memorable gut-busting material. G.W.