While the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival routinely boasts an incredible undercard, the event is largely remembered year to year by one aspect: the headliners. The festival’s largest stage has been home to some of the biggest and most memorable shows our country has ever seen. Here are our favorite ten headlining sets from Bonnaroos past, in chronological order.
Widespread Panic – June 22, 2002
Nothing against the similarly spectacular show from the previous night, but the Saturday night Panic show at the first Bonnaroo is now one of the event’s defining moments. One of Michael Houser’s last performances, it featured the now iconic “Tall Boy > Testify > Tall Boy” combo with Dottie Peoples and the People’s Choice Choir, a Steve Winwood sit in on two Traffic tunes, foreshadowing in the form of George McConnell on guitar, and a beefy encore. The song selection was flawless and playing was top notch throughout.
Trey Anastasio Band – June 23, 2002
Rumors of Phish’s return were swirling as a good portion of the band’s fan base descended on Manchester for the first Bonnaroo. The much hoped-for reunion never happened, but TAB wowed the hordes with an explosively improvisational show that included one jaw-dropping moment after another. Under a full moon, Anastasio’s ensemble closed out the inaugural event with unmatched gusto, performing a first set that lasted nearly two hours and following that feat with a wide-open three song second set and Phish tunes in the encore.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse- June 13, 2003
With his trusted band Crazy Horse and just months before he would take his extended rock opera Greendale on the road, Neil let it all loose at this definitive evening set. For three hours he played expanded versions of some of his classics, with some running over 20 minutes long, including "Love to Burn," “Powderfinger” "Cortez the Killer," and "Cinnamon Girl.” This was Crazy Horse at its finest – loud, brutal and soaring, the best of grunge, alt-country, jam, folk and rock in one epic outing.
Widespread Panic – June, 12, 2005
Holding the night slot more than any other band, this festival closing set was a locomotive fueled marathon that kept going and going. Featuring guest slots from Bob Weir, Herbie Hancock, Robert Randolph, Luther and Cody Dickinson and Col. Bruce Hampton, the show was perhaps the strongest in the George McConnell era before Jimmy Herring came aboard. While most of the crowd started filtering out after a long-weekend, the ones who stayed truly got the best for last.
Radiohead – June 17, 2006
This gargantuan gig changed the face of the festival forever. In its first four years, Bonnaroo grew to embrace bigger and bigger acts, but the shift from names like Neil Young and The Dead to Radiohead and Beck signaled the start of a new era. Confusing some and delighting others, Radiohead’s sprawling performance polarized the crowd. The show, later named a band favorite by Thom Yorke, mildly alienated the festival’s jam-happy customer base and helped create the all-inclusive musical smorgasbord that Bonnaroo has become.
The Police – June 16, 2007
Stuart Copeland is one of a handful of artists to play Bonnaroo’s main stage with multiple bands. Both instances were historic reunions, but the gravity of The Police set far outweighed the 2006 Oysterhead set. It wasn’t the performance, but rather the simple fact that Sting, Stu, and Summers were on stage that made this show memorable. Few attendees skipped the set, and the crowd that gathered in the main field that night is still one of the largest in the event’s history.
Phish – June 12, 2009
Sure, Springsteen sat in on Sunday, but the best Phish was found on Friday. The band matched the palpable energy of the setting, which their fan base largely inspired, with one long, no-frills, high octane set full of their concert staples. A “Highway to Hell” bustout and the unique union of “You Enjoy Myself” and “Wilson” gave the hardcore fans some food for thought, and the accessible song selection made for an upbeat experience for all.
Phish – June 14, 2009
This fairly straightforward Phish show was ushered into the record books due to one thing: The Boss. For a fan base that lives, breathes, and dies with their band, seeing Jersey-bred frontman Trey Anastasio in full-on cheese mode while jamming with Springsteen was exhilarating. Tom Marshall dressed as Bruce is one thing; having the man himself on stage is quite another, and the ripping trio of songs they performed stands as a recent high point for the band and Bonnaroo.
Stevie Wonder – June 12, 2010
Only in the hyper-critical, ultra-dismissive modern world could Stevie Wonder’s ability be called into question. Many Bonnaroo followers wondered if Wonder could hold the attention of a primarily young crowd, and those doubters met the swift justice of Stevie’s keytar. They underestimated the power of that patch of land in Tennessee to bring out the best in even the most grizzled artists. Abandoning his pop hits in favor of funk and soul, Wonder veered wildly from the setlist (which was revealed by a cameraman minutes before the performance), spontaneously leading his bemused band members through a gauntlet of musically intense classics.
Jay-Z – June 12, 2010
The biggest hip-hop artist to ever grace the farm, Jay-Z followed Stevie Wonder’s set and helped create one of the truly legendary days of the event’s considerable history. With an eye-popping stage show, flawless performances from his musicians, and a crowd responding gleefully to every passing hit, Jigga presided over one of the most bumping, bouncing parties the festival has ever seen.
Sting photo by Concert Photography by David Oppenheimer