Bonnaroo has evolved from a showcase for jam bands to become America’s best and most diverse festival. Only at the ‘Roo can you find Southern metal act Baroness and U.K. group the xx playing alongside neo-soul crooner Mayer Hawthorne and Dave Matthews Band. Plus, how many other fests are gutsy enough to keep the party going until the wee hours of 4 a.m.? If you’re headed down to Manchester, Tennessee, this weekend for four days of sun, mud and music, here’s the essential, hour-by-hour breakdown of what sets to catch. Stick with Rolling Stone for full reports from this year’s fest, plus photos, interviews and more.
4:00 p.m.—5:00 p.m.: Frontier Ruckus
They may hail from up north — Michigan, to be specific — but Frontier Ruckus sing the sound of the South: delicate, finger-picked banjos, aching, oaky violin and the haunting voice of frontman Matthew Milia, who conjures what might happen had Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum been raised in a log cabin. Their songs are full of rich, rural details: frozen lakes, swaying trees, highway lights glowing in the deep night. Add to the mix baleful brass and trembling percussion, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for Gothic Americana.
5:45 p.m—6:45 p.m.: Baroness
Georgia metal band Baroness pull of a rare feat: displaying endless technical prowess without ever being boring. Their second outing, The Blue Record, was one of last year’s best, but as impressive as they are on record, live they are borderline miraculous — miles of interlocking, blitzkreig riffing, superhuman drumming, and songs that shift speeds more often than a dying Buick.
7 p.m.—8 p.m.: Local Natives
L.A. jangle-pop outfit Local Natives are already earning deserved accolades for their earnest, tautly constructed indie pop. Think Grizzly Bear, with a bit more panache — they’ve got the same stacked harmonies and airy production, but their songs also move, tugged along by silvery guitar lines and somersaulting percussion. They’ll go down smooth and cool, summer pop music made for evening listening.
8:30 p.m.—9:30 p.m.: Neon Indian
Blissed-out synth band Neon Indian are no one’s idea of an audience darling, so it was surprising when their name ended up on so many tongues after the release of last year’s Psychic Chasms. Their kaleidoscope-like sound features weird, whirling synth patterns that suddenly explode into throbbing, insistent dance rhythms and spaced-out, heavy-lidded vocals. It’s dance-psych, somehow taking the haze of mushroom-pop music and making it tremble.
10:30 p.m.—11:30 p.m.: Mayer Hawthorne
Mayer Hawthorne may be loosely categorized as neo-soul, but there’s nothing new about his fantastically dusty, throwback R&B. The onetime hip-hop DJ and producer turned soul crooner mixes heavy doses of the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Temptations into his dusky ballads and straight-ahead stompers, bringing all the exuberance of the Motown Revue to his brisk live show. Nevermind the heat: expect Hawthorne to be dressed to the nines, and for his silky voice to sound splendid soaring up into the steamy Tennessee air.
11:30 p.m.—12:45 a.m.: The xx
This hushed U.K. R&B trio pull songs out of thin air — just a couple of spindly guitar lines, heartbeat percussion and the twin whispered vocals of Romy Croft and Oliver Sim. The results are spectacular: lithe, sexy, mysterious songs that percolate gently. Everyone from Maxwell to Michael Stipe have fallen all over themselves praising the group — Maxwell even says his upcoming remix EP is directly inspired by them — and the group’s riveting live show ratchets up the suspense while keeping the mood minimal. Expect this to be the perfect way to drift off after a long opening day.
1:20 p.m.—2:20 p.m.: The Young Veins
Talk about a reinvention. Ryan Ross and Jon Walker, ex- of Panic! at the Disco, hinted at their love of ’60s psych on that group’s overlooked Pretty, Odd, but with their new outfit they indulge those impulses completely. Shelve everything you think you know about them: their debut draws heavily from the deep well of the Kinks and the Left Banke — and even adds a dollop of late ’90s indiepoppers like Apples in Stereo — to create an album’s worth of irresistible summer songs, the kind of music made for warm afternoons.
1:45 p.m.—2:45 p.m.: Gaslight Anthem
New Jersey’s second hardest-working band made a worthy splash with 2008’s gutsy The ’59 Sound. Packed with heart-on-sleeve lyrics and meat-n-potatoes blue-collar punk instrumentation, the group radiated ragged charm and steely determination. Their upcoming American Slang is even better, incorporating dashes of gospel and R&B into the band’s rugged formula. Live they’re dynamos, barely breathing between songs and tossing lyrics from classics by the Clash and Social Distortion into their own roaring compositions.
3:15 p.m.—4:30 p.m.: The Gossip
Possessor of one of the greatest voices in popular music, Beth Ditto is simply magnetic onstage. She’s a disco star shot 30 years into the future, a technicolor wonder belting out big, impossible notes over thumping backbeats. Gossip shows are clubland gone grand scale, and in early evening Tennessee, their brand of fiery electro-soul is sure to generate heat.
4:00 p.m.—5:00 p.m.: Nas & Damien “Jr Gong” Marley
Nas is the rare rapper able to skillfully bridge the divide between commercial success and social consciousness, lacing recent albums with searing indictments of Fox News and racism. Marley has done the same for reggae, netting a world-beating crossover hit in the process. The just-released Distant Relatives finds both artists firing on all cylinders, delivering searing, Afrocentric songs against a sonic backdrop culled from reggae, R&B and Ethiopian jazz. Their live shows have been part party, part protest rally, and all energy.
5:45 p.m.—7:15 p.m.: The National
Forget how reserved they sound on record — in person, the National want to be your next U2. Their tense, quivering songs expand stadium size to shocking effect, Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s pealing guitars darting firefly-like around Matt Berninger’s basement baritone. It doesn’t hurt that they’re backed by a small army of instruments — a brass section, additional percussion, violins — or that Berninger has a fondness for climbing stage scaffolding and leaping into the crowd during the incendiary “Mr. November.”
6:45 p.m.—8:15 p.m.: Tori Amos
Few pop artists are as idiosyncratic as Tori Amos. Say what you will about her recent efforts, there’s no denying that the vision behind them is specifically hers. Whether it’s an odd concept record about beekeeping or a meditation on multiple personality disorder, Amos aggressively seeks out the less-trodden path. Her musical tastes are equally restless. Though she started out favoring ethereal piano ballads, her palette has broadened over the years to include folk, glam rock and dance music. Her set ought to be a thorough examination of all of her impulses, making for a varied and gripping performance.
8:00 p.m.—9:00 p.m.: Samantha Crain
Samantha Crain writes folk music, but she belts out notes like she’s singing R&B. Her rich alto seems to have no bottom, and the sound of it against her bare guitar is enough to raise gooseflesh. Like Frontier Ruckus, with whom she occasionally tours, Crain inverts folk music and leavens it with other elements, placing square emphasis on her singular pipes.
9:30 p.m.—11:30 p.m.: Kings of Leon
Raise a glass to Southern boys done good. The Kings’ transformation from Skynyrd-inspired gutbucket rockers to bona fide arena act culminated in their leap to arenas and headlining dates last year. Live, Caleb Followill’s voice is often all the animus they need. It cuts upward at sharp angles, and grafts soul into their roaring, open-hearted anthems.
11:30 p.m.—12:30 a.m.: Warpaint
A late night set is an unlikely time slot for an up-and-coming L.A. band, but Warpaint’s brilliant, crystalline music more than justifies the high billing. The all-girl quartet recalls the best aspects of groups like Pylon and Throwing Muses: sharp, darting guitars puncturing aching vocals, nervous rhythms that add tension and edge, tuneful, gripping minor key melodies. Warpaint are one of the few bands on the Bonnaroo bill mining completely uncharted territory — a quartet of gauzy phantoms moaning in the graveyard late at night. You can say you saw them way back when.
12:00 a.m.—2:00 a.m: Flaming Lips + StarDeath & White Dwarfs
What do you do if you can’t get the band that recorded Dark Side of the Moon to perform it from start to finish? You get the Flaming Lips to do it instead. For sheer gonzo wow factor, this is the show to see. The Lips have built a career on their carnivalesque live shows, and sister Oklahoma band Stardeath and the White Dwarfs are turning out to be a kind of Lips-in-training (lead singer Dennis Coyne is Lips singer Wayne’s nephew). There are one of two ways this performance goes: so ridiculous that it actually works, or so ridiculous that it just ends up being ridiculous. Either way, there won’t be much else on the Bonnaroo bill like it.
2:30 a.m.—4:00 a.m.: LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy owns one of the world’s greatest record collections, and he takes pride in synthesizing and redelivering it in with LCD Soundsystem. The group’s catalog is practically a trip through the last three decades of pop music: a bit of New Order here, a bit of Bowie in Berlin there, a dash of Carl Craig to round the whole thing out. He injects his songs with dry wit and overplayed neurosis about aging, commercialism and human connection, making for the kind of rare dance music where the lyrics actually matter. Live, LCD go full-bore with a sweaty rave-up that demands full-body participation.
12:45 p.m.—1:45 p.m.: Baaba Maal
After Friday’s manic conclusion, you’ll no doubt want to ease into Saturday with the legendary Senegalese guitarist. Maal is a rare kind of player: the graceful dynamo, capable of turning loose long, liquid acoustic lines with all the ferocity of a gentle spring breeze. To watch his nimble fretwork is to be astonished; it’s no wonder that there’s a small cult of devoted fans who insist that, on a list of the world’s greatest guitar players, Maal’s name should be somewhere near the top.
2:30 p.m.—4:00 p.m.: Norah Jones
Jones may play well with the light jazz set, but make no mistake: she’s an indie rocker at heart. Her latest album, The Fall, found her moving from piano to guitar and collaborating with Okkervil River’s Will Sheff and alt-country enfant terrible Ryan Adams. The result is a record that, while just as subdued as previous outings, feels slinkier and slipperier. The trick will be to see whether or not Jones can translate her tiny songs to the grand festival stage.
3:30 p.m.—5:00 p.m: Jimmy Cliff
A must. Jimmy Cliff is a reggae giant, author of two of the genre’s finest entries — “The Harder They Come” and “Many Rivers to Cross” — and the star of its defining film. At 62, his voice has lost none of his high ache or rich resonance, and opportunities to see him live are few and far between.
4:45 p.m.—6:15 p.m.: Avett Brothers
Over the course of the last decade, the Avett Brothers have catapulted from subdued back-porch folk band to bona fide alt-country superstars — all without fundamentally changing their M.O. Last year’s I and Love and You was just as plaintive and lonesome as previous efforts, but songs like “Laundry Room” and the title track found them slipping in bigger hooks amongst the acoustic guitar and piano. While the Avetts’ records are lovely, their live show is where they truly shine, nailing the harmonies with incredible precision and unbridled joy.
6:00 p.m.—7:30 p.m.: The Dead Weather
Jack White may be the band’s marquee name, the group’s not-so-secret weapon is frontwoman Alison Mosshart. She commands the stage, flinging her tiny, wraithlike body from one end to the other, stalking the borders and pointing an accusatory finger at the crowd. Their music is all sharp edges and mean looks, and their live performance is chilling in its intensity.
7:00 p.m.—8:30 p.m.: Weezer or Jeff Beck
The weird kind of damned-if-you-do that only a music festival like Bonnaroo can present. You could go with the egghead nerd-rockers with an affinity for nestling goofy lyrics in bright, power-pop surroundings. Or a rock & roll legend with fierce guitar chops and an undeniable back catalog. If both acts bring their respective A Games, this could be the toughest musical decision you’ll face all weekend.
8:30 p.m.—10:30 p.m.: Stevie Wonder
Wonder boasts one of pop music’s finest repertoires, and recent performances prove he is still in astonishing voice. Just rattling off song titles should convince you: “Sir Duke.” “Superstition.” “Higher Ground.” Wonder is a showman of the old school, cajoling the crowd and turning every classic into a mass sing-along. And who doesn’t want to be part of an audience this big, singing along to “Uptight”?
11:30 p.m.—1:30 a.m.: Jay-Z
Jay-Z’s live shows are quickly becoming the stuff of legend. He’s easily on par with U2 for charisma, showmanship, flair and, yes, heart, commanding the stage with ease while his ace live band crackles and leaps behind him. His delivery has only sharpened with age, and he leavens his own hits with snatches of past hip-hop classics (his performance at All Points West last year found him turning out a riotous version of “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn”). In 2008, he took on Oasis and won — handily — and, even without the usual array of surprise guests, Jay’s shows are a master class in the art of the live performance.
12:00 p.m.—12:45 p.m.: Tinariwen
At a festival loaded with great guitar players, Saharan desert blues band Tinariwen sport several of the best. Robert Plant was floored by the group’s ability, and their stateside profile has grown steadily, particularly over the last five years. The group turn out hypnotic lines of silvery guitar and let songs swell, mantra-like, over and over, grounded by low, rich, murmuring vocals. Their recent U.S. tour earned them deserved accolades, and in the middle of the afternoon in Tennessee, their spellbinding songs are the perfect way to open Bonnaroo’s final day.
12:30 p.m.—1:30 p.m.: Japandroids
This Canadian two-piece punk band puts a premium on velocity. The songs on its breakthrough album, the thrilling Post-Nothing, whip by like cars speeding around a racetrack. Their songs exalt both the urgency and energy of youth and the terrible brevity of life. It’s no wonder: last year, frontman Brian King was sidelined with a near-fatal perforated ulcer.
2:00 pm—3:00 p.m.: Lucero
Long-running, infinitely touring cowpunk band Lucero draws most of their power from frontman Ben Nichols’ busted voice — it’s a ragged, bleeding husk, bashing its way up the center of the group’s galloping songs. The band strips down-home roots rock back to the basics — they’re a dusty pickup truck with a Black Flag sticker on the window, Clash songs delivered with a Southern drawl.
3:00 p.m.—4:15 p.m.: Regina Spektor
Tori 2.0? On her sparkling second effort, Begin to Hope, Spektor made romantic longing feel deceptively whimsical, guarding her sweetest sentiments with light, skipping piano. Her latest, Far, is more ambitious; collaborating with a variety of producers — among them, ELO’s Jeff Lynne — Spektor’s songs have become proud and expansive, and her tiny voice puffs up proudly to match those ambitious arrangements.
3:30 p.m.—4:30 p.m.: Against Me!
The second song on Against Me!’s White Crosses is called “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” and that past-tense verb is crucial. Frontman Tom Gabel has slowly moved past the blunt didacticism of the group’s early anti-folk to find a home in pissed-off, progressive punk — the kind of music that still has a message, but doesn’t make that message its raison d’etre. What Against Me! are about these days are power, and their live show is one roaring rock anthem after another, where songs about social change bump brusquely up against songs about hard-won personal freedom.
4:00 p.m.—5:30 p.m.: John Fogerty
Though his songs deliver all that’s right about heartland American rock, Fogerty’s spirit and sentiment was always decidedly countercultural. Unlike many of his contemporaries, whose spirit of protest now seems almost quaint, Fogerty’s songs (“Centerfield” excepted, obviously) still ring ragged and true. A 90-minute set affords him plenty of time for searing Creedence chestnuts as well as a smattering of his durable recent work. Here’s hoping he nastily dedicates “Fortunate Son” to the fatcat, corner-cutting execs at BP.
6:30 p.m.—8:00 p.m.: Miranda Lambert
Whip-crack country songs delivered with a smirk and a snarl, Miranda Lambert is a wily country music iconoclast. Her songs have a higher body count than N.W.A’s: 2007’s phenomenal Crazy Ex-Girlfriend opened with her pumping an abusive husband full of lead, and last year’s just-as-good Revolution found her covering a Fred Eaglesmith song that declared, “When the talking is over, it’s time to get a gun.” Make no mistake about it: Lambert is a badass, a hellraiser with a wry voice and jaded outlook; her white-hot upstart songs are sure to sound great at top volume.
7:15 p.m.—8:45 p.m.: Phoenix
If LCD Soundsystem provided Friday night’s dance party, Phoenix are sure to do the same on the fest’s closing day. Their songs are all clean lines, aerodynamic vocals, crackerjack beats and big choruses. These four Frenchmen are festival pros, still riding the strength of last year’s soaring Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. And where many dance acts clutter all available space with sound, Phoenix know the value of allowing songs to breathe. They’re a perfectly controlled body-moving machine.
9:00 p.m.—11:00 p.m.: Dave Matthews Band
At this point, DMB are practically Bonnaroo’s homecoming kings, both a remnant of the fest’s history as well as a testament to their own enduring legacy. Like Bonnaroo, DMB have long since moved past their jammy roots: their latest album, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, found them edging toward rockier territory, applying their elaborate instrumentation to strict pop structures. Their evolution has been an intriguing one, and what better way to close out the festival than with a band that embodies its past, present and future?