Bonnaroo 2014

Our friend, Blake Els, rocked another festival for us! Bonnaroo! –SS

It seemed like Bonnaroo skewed younger this year, as EDM and indie dance rock acts gained prominent placement on a bill that was deepest at its center. While Elton John headlined Sunday night, performing his first American festival set, and while the festival saw the return of Kanye West, who in 2008 arrived to the Bonnaroo stage four hours late, the most difficult decisions about the weekend came on Friday when there was overlap between Vampire Weekend, Neutral Milk Hotel, Phoenix and CHVRCHES and on Saturday when there was overlap between Chromeo, Lionel Richie, James Blake and Lauryn Hill. But in the middle of those were distractions for the younger crowd – Zedd during the latter group, for example.

I was unable to stay Sunday. Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell and Mike Cooley were reuniting in Florence, Alabama, for a one-night only benefit, and I wasn’t going to miss it. But as I say each time I compile a list like this, they’re all subjective. There’s no way anyone can see everything, and each experience is unique. I’ve never tried to definitively tell people what the top five or top ten things were of the weekend, just my own top five or top ten experiences. This year, we’ll do five, as I feel like it makes the task more difficult and interesting. I will limit my list to musical acts, as the show I took in at the Comedy Theatre was phenomenal. It featured Taran Killam, Brooks Wheelan, Kyle Mooney and several other writers and cast members of Saturday Night Live. I even found myself next to a plant for a sketch, as Mooney came into the audience. A great time, to be sure, but not necessarily what the festival is about.

5, Sam Smith (The Other Tent, 2:15 p.m., Friday) – It was pretty remarkable to hear thousands sing along with the British crooner from an album that would not be officially released for days. I was unsure how that sound would translate; backed by a lot of manufactured sound, I didn’t know if it, or his voice could replicate to stage.

It did.

Smith included his latest hit, “Stay With Me,” amongst a collection of songs that had seen some previous light, including the acoustic version of “Latch” which he recorded with Disclosure and “Money on My Mind,” which was also on his Nirvana EP. “Leave Your Lover” and “Lay Me Down” were also included in the 60 minute set, which saw Smith become the second artist of a young weekend to cover “Do I Want to Know?” by the Arctic Monkeys (MS MR was the first on Thursday).

I very nearly missed this set, as my party dealt with security issues at the front gate. I made it to a packed stage just in time, and it was a set difficult to beat for the remainder of the weekend. The air became cool and the skies became overcast and there was something special in the air. While Smith claimed that Bonnaroo was his own first American festival, that actually came at Coachella. Still, it feels unlikely that his return will be at 2:15 p.m on Friday. Smith can go places.

4. Chromeo (Which Stage, 7:30 p.m., Saturday) – On the heels of White Women, Chromeo may have the “Song of the Summer,” the incredibly catchy dance/disco tune “Jealous (I Ain’t With It).” The duo was last at Bonnaroo for a much talked about set with Darryl Hall in 2010, late night, and has since grown into an act that played a sunset set on the festival’s second largest stage. As the packed pit danced the night away, the duo plowed through its most familiar tunes, including “Tenderoni” and “Bonafied Lovin'” before closing with “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” and “Sexy Socialite.”

3. Ms. Lauryn Hill (The Other Tent, 8:45 p.m., Saturday) – Lauryn Hill was scheduled to play That Tent at 8:45 p.m., but when I arrived for her performance, James Blake was taking the stage 15 minutes later. Bonnaroo had switched its Saturday night lineup that morning on the app, and it proved confusing for festival goers.

But Hill, maybe expectedly, arrived nearly 45 minutes late. Her set didn’t begin until 9:30 p.m., just 60 minutes before Jack White was due to begin on the What Stage on the other side of the festival grounds. Hill opened her set with a cover of Michael Franti and Spearhead’s “Yell Fire!” which she combined with the Fugees classic, “Killing Me Softly.” She would perform “Killing Me Softly” a second time as the set approached its close, that time, a more traditional, album version. (NOTE: This is the song made famous by Roberta Flack at #1 in 1973, composed by Charles Fox with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. –SS)

Hill performed an ambitious cover of Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (the Way That I Loved You),” which was record at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. While Franklin’s version will likely never be matched, Hill handled it admirably. Among several other covers in her set, she took a version of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” into the set closer, “Doo Wop (That Thing).” The Fugees hit “Ready or Not” was also part of the 93 minute set.

2. Damon Albarn (What Stage, 5:45 p.m., Saturday) – The frontman for Blur and Gorillaz had reached a thin line in which he almost lost me; about a half hour into his set, Albarn began a long chat with the crowd, insisting that while Bonnaroo wasn’t Glastonbury, it was okay. While Bonnaroo didn’t have Stonehenge, it was just fine. It was strange to say the least, and he admitted that he went a little long with it when he realized that De La Soul was waiting to be introduced. The legendary hip-hop act came onstage to perform their Gorillaz hit, “Feel Good Inc.,” and a small crowd rushed the stage. It was among six Gorillaz tunes that Albarn played, including “Clint Eastwood,” for which he welcomed underground hip-hop icon Del the Funky Homosapien to the stage. Albarn included the title track from his solo debut, Everyday Robots, and he closed with “Heavy Seas of Love.” It was a set that saw him backed by a choir, a full sting section and a full brass section. It was eclectic, spanning the hip-hop sounds of the Gorillaz and the gentler side that he has displayed on the new record.

SETLIST: Lonely Press Play – Everyday Robots – Tomorrow Comes Today – Hostiles – Slow Country – Kids With Guns – Three Changes – Feel Good Inc. – Photographs (You Are Taking Now) – Kingdom of Doom – Broken – Out of Time – All Your Life – Clint Eastwood – Mr. Tembo – Heavy Seas of Love

1. Jack White (What Stage, 10:30 p.m., Saturday) – Jack White never wanted to stop. And he was chatty. He opened by taking a shot at Rolling Stone, which recently had a cover interview with the Nashville resident, and he went on to dedicate a song to “all of the people in Nashville that came before me,” which drew some ire from fans around me because he’s from Detroit, but really, isn’t that Nashville now?

Following his sophomore solo release last week, Lazaretto, White arrived to the What Stage 15 minutes late, but two and a half hours later, he had spanned over a decade of music with The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs and his solo work, some 26 songs which closed after 1 a.m. with the crowd chanting along to “Seven Nation Army.”

White’s set at Bonnaroo was one for the ages. While he experimented with band lineups following his debut album, taking one all male backing band and one all female backing back on the road, he now seems to have settled into his position as the Eric Clapton for the new millennium, opening with “Icky Thump” by the White Stripes before hitting two tracks from the new record, “High Ball Stepper” and the title track. He hit The Raconteurs’ highlights like “Steady as She Goes” and “Top Yourself” and he covered Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song.”

He was virtually flawless when he was singing, even if his rants were a little bizarre. And he easily crossed a very low headlining bar set by Kanye West on Friday. The lengthy set forced me to miss a lot of late night options on Saturday, but it was one of the most memorable performances in the four years that I have attended the festival.

SETLIST: Icky Thump – High Ball Stepper – Lazaretto – Hotel Yorba – Temporary Ground – Missing Pieces – Steady, as She Goes – Top Yourself – I’m Slowly Turning Into You – Freedom at 21 – Three Women – You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told) – We’re Going to Be Friends – Alone in My Home – Ball and Biscuit – The Lemon Song (Led Zeppelin cover) – ENCORE – The Hardest Button to Button – Hello Operator – Misirlou (Dick Dale and His Del-Tones cover) – Sixteen Saltines – Cannon – Blue Blood Blues – Astro – Love Interruption – Little Bird – Seven Nation Army