With any Sunday at Bonnaroo comes the realization that the thing is almost over. Monday and the real world loom over the farm like a thunderhead as attendees scramble to get their last Amish doughnut or to catch that last great set that will send them happily onto the highway. As always on Sunday, the schedule proved to be a lot to handle. This day was a blur of missed and caught opportunities. Anyone who camped out in the main stage field had a hell of a day, but they also missed Ween.
In the midst of the hottest day of the weekend, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit happily sweated their way through a routinely fantastic set. Bassist Jimbo Hart wore a jacket, for Pete’s sake. Somehow, Isbell and his band – which features Amanda Shires on fiddle and vocals – sound better every time they play. Poignant, relatable songs like “Alabama Pines”, “The Life You Chose”, “Something More Than Free” and the raging “Never Gonna Change” rang out like southern national anthems over the dusty, sweltering Tennessee fields.
Back at the Which Stage, which features an unobstructed view of the late-day sun, Father John Misty soldiered his way through an unsettlingly intimate performance. The set list read like a personal list of failures and realizations, and he quite easily mesmerized the audience for an hour, though it seemed like minutes. It couldn’t have been more different than his last Bonnaroo performance, which featured elaborate decorations and plenty of stage banter. This was a lean, song-focused set that oozed emotion and gravitas, save a few moments of poking fun at the “college kids on mushrooms” and “everyone who is peaking right now”, along with aiming the lyrics of “Now I’m Learning To Love The War” squarely at the Bonnaroo corporate infrastructure: “Let’s just call this what it is/The jealous side of mankind’s death wish.”
The last part of the festival was a whirlwind – Death Cab For Cutie offered a truncated version of their normal show on the main stage, but ended with their quintessential show-stopper “Transatlanticism”. On the still sweltering Which Stage, Ween made their triumphant return to Bonnaroo with a righteously nasty set full of indignance and effortless musicianship. There’s no denying that the two principles of Ween – Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo – have a connection that can’t be recreated in any other format, and it showed on transcendent version of “Transdermal Celebration”, “Roses Are Free”, “Take Me Away”, and “The Mollusk”. Their maniacal fans turned out in impressive numbers, and the set followed a theme of the weekend: the Bonnaroo veterans always deliver.
The largest crowd of the weekend gathered at the main stage for the last show of Bonnaroo 2016, an unprecedented sendoff, Grateful Dead style. Dead and Company features three original Dead members in Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, but one man steers this 51-year-old ship, and that’s John Mayer. Mayer has gained control of the Grateful Dead canon, and we’re all the better for it. He and Weir interact in a way seldom seen in any genre. Hart stretches the outer limits of the rhythm, while Kreutzmann seves as the absolute rock of the band, as he always has. Bassist Oteil Burbridge and Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti hang on opposite ends of the stage, somehow corralling the glorious mess between them into something substantial and magical. The band is by no means precise, but the more adorably wrong they are, the better they sound. It all ultimately resolves in repeated moments of primal, human jubilance, like the gigantic singalong during “Tennessee Jed”, the jubilant, festival-ready “Scarlet Begonias”, and the climactic and ever-meaningful “Touch Of Grey”.
On this night, the big surprise was the inclusion of Donna Jean Godchaux, who helped define (or ruin, depending on who you ask) the Dead’s 1970’s era. Overbearing Donna is gone, however, replaced by a much subtler version of herself, and she most certainly helped, rather than hindered, on legendary tunes like “Bertha”, “Playing in the Band”, “Bird Song”, and “Passenger”. After a weekend full of wild stylistic divergences, it was positively invigorating to witness a huge jam spectacle harkening back to the values Bonnaroo was founded upon.