When the 15th Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival lineup was released in January, opinions were as mixed as they’ve ever been. The festival’s devotees have been magnificently spoiled over the years, but there was validity to their complaints. The schedule was released a few weeks ago, it became clear that no more acts were going to be added, and people expressed displeasure with the reduced amount of music and the underwhelming undercard. The thing is, it’s easy to complain about Bonnaroo from afar. When you’re actually there, it’s easy to forget those complaints.
There’s plenty of flowery marketing about “Bonnaroo magic” and “radiating positivity”, as if Bonnaroo is one big utopian blob – and it sort of is, in a way. But as Live Nation’s involvement increases, the big money aspects of the event become harder to ignore. Still, there’s some truth to the saying that Bonnaroo is unlike any other music festival of its size. Something about it keeps people coming back. It still manages to capture the imaginations of first-time attendees and jaded veterans who’ve been coming to Manchester for double-digit years. Attendance is down this year, but that’s more likely related to the oversaturation of similar festival lineups across the nation than anything else. Sure, the Bonnaroo lineup lacks a little punch across the board, but there is still plenty of great stuff to see.
Thursday night at Bonnaroo has always been a mix of semi-established acts and brazen newcomers, and never more so than this year. The entire evening was filled with bands some might consider “not ready for prime time”. But the new world of music is a crowded place full of often indistinguishable artists, and a good set at ‘roo can make a huge difference in a band’s notoriety. No amount of blog buzz or Spotify streams can mask a lack of quality material or a shaky stage presence, and on this perfect weather night, we got a glimpse of who might grow, and who may wither.
The London Souls, having jettisoned their bassist and hit the road as a drums-and-guitar duo, offered little in the way of uniqueness. Their crunchy cover of Clapton’s “Got to Get Better in A Little While” sums up all you need to know about these guys. It’s hard-driving blues rock with energetic original songwriting. In other words, you’ve been down the road they’re traveling many, many times before. The same could be said of Papadosio, the band that followed The London Souls at That Tent. A jamband through and through, they offered truckloads of genre-mashing and epic instrumental flourishes during their truncated set, which began nearly 15 minutes late. It’s fun stuff in the festival setting, and a throwback to Bonnaroo’s jam-centric roots is never a bad thing, especially with this year’s pop and EDM-heavy lineup.
Vulfpeck bring a pronounced element of humor to their otherwise intensely musical songs, and the quartet didn’t waste a moment diving into both elements. The smooth, funky style that the band favors was exemplified in opener “Christmas in L.A.”, and they delved into tricky instrumental interplay on “Fugue State”. Fellow Michigander Garrett Borns joined the plucky group for “Back Pocket”, which found the band challenging the audience to recreate the song’s densely harmonized, off-kilter hook. They closed the set with jubilant takes on Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and their own “It Gets Funkier”, which morphed satisfyingly into Steve Wonder’s “I Wish”. The audience raved, and this set proved to be the highlight of the day.
The most pleasant surprise of the day was St. Petersburg, FL outfit Polyenso, who brought an uplifting yet brooding sound to the no-frills atmosphere of the “New Music On Tap Lounge”. Combining moody electronics, insistent percussion, mindful samples, and emotive vocals, the band had their audience in an invigorating, stoney, head-nodding stupor for the duration of their brief performance. One could compare them to Radiohead, M83, Alt-J, Foals, Bon Iver, and a whole laundry list of artists, yet they’ve managed to transcend those boundaries and come up with a sound that draws on familiarity while reaching deeply into originality.
By far the most popular act on the Thursday bill, BØRNS drew a huge, mostly younger crowd to This Tent and did an admirable job of sashaying and singing at once. Sometimes, Garrett Borns’ blissful onstage manner gave the impression that he might miss a lyric here or there because he got lost in the moment. Instead, he easily enthralled the biggest audience of the evening with modern pop signposts like “Electric Love”, “10,000 Emerald Pools”, and the Tennessee-referencing “American Money”, plus rabble-rousing covers of Arcade Fire (“Rebellion (Lies)”) and Bowie (“Heroes”).
If there was any doubt that new money dominated this Thursday at Bonnaroo, it was erased by the brash braggadocio of Minneapolis’ Lizzo, who brought her pummeling hip hop style to That Tent. Some may balk at the term “rap”, but Lizzo is one of the best “rappers” we’ve had come up in a good while. Alternating between aggressive and soulful, her set helped lend hope to the future of the form. Hip hop sees more idiotic success stories than any other musical style, so it’s nice to see an artist with actual potential garnering the sort of attention that a prime spot at Bonnaroo brings. This day at Bonnaroo proved to even the most jaded among us that there’s still fun to be had and great music to be experienced, even if the names on stage aren’t all that familiar.