By Grant Golden
June 29, 2023
Photo: Nathan Zucker
Over 80,000 music lovers flocked to the dust-filled, humidity-soaked 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee that’s home to Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. On a weekend bookended by thunderstorms, fans gallivanted from stage to stage for a marathon of music from a wide array of genres. The site was packed with music in nearly every corner, at nearly all hours of the day. Despite the blisters and sun burns, attendees woke bright and early each day with cheerful smiles, high fives, and echoes of “Happy Roo” to anyone within earshot.
It’s impossible to catch everything you want to see at Bonnaroo; you learn to live with missing a desired act to catch some shade, grab a slice of Spicy Pie pizza, or simply to soak in a few more songs from a surprising set you stumbled upon. Between the enchanting electronic dance parties at the aptly named Outeroo stage, Where In The Woods, the breathtaking productions of the What Stage, and the countless stellar performances at This Tent and That Tent, this year’s Bonnaroo was a brilliant example of how craft a remarkable festival experience. Even with a gnarly thunderstorm ripping up canopies on Sunday night and a massive wait to leave the festival on Monday morning, it’s hard not to bask in the afterglow of such an impressive collection of music. While many acts stole our hearts throughout the weekend, here are a few that stood out.
My Morning Jacket
Returning for their eighth set on the farm, My Morning Jacket brought a barnburner 23-song set featuring some of their most iconic songs. Kicking off at 12:30 a.m. after Odesza’s pomp-filled What Stage performance, My Morning Jacket blew past their scheduled two-hour set time for a career-spanning set. Opening with fan favorite “Mahgeetah,” Jim James and company snuck in covers from Kate Bush (“Running Up That Hill”) and Traffic (“Feelin’ Alright?”) throughout their entrancing performance. James’ spellbinding falsetto vocals rang out through the fields of rural Tennessee, blending in with lockstep performances of the group’s instrumentation. By the time they closed with their three-song encore, including “One Big Holiday,” the crowd was both physically and mentally wiped
This beloved electronic duo brought a monumental stage production for their Saturday night headlining set, part of the band’s final tour. Jaws were dropping as the duo took the stage alongside an immense array of lasers, a full drumline, horn section and intermittent fireworks throughout some of their most popular tracks. Their performance included a vast collection of their evocative originals, and a slew of their top remixes as well. They even brought out Sudan Archives for their remix of her track “Selfish Soul.” The group’s blend of house, pop and future bass sounds made for an easily accessible performance, even dazzling folks that usually steer away from live EDM performances. If this is truly the band’s “Last Goodbye” then they’re closing things out with a literal bang.
The darling son of Kentucky took Bonnaroo attendees to church Saturday night with his Which Stage performance. Childers’ set was packed with tunes from his gospel-inspired 2022 record Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven?, but also boasted a select few of his raucous old country tracks and a selection of bluegrass and country standards. Childers’ band blended organs, strings, horns and guitars for a triumphant sound that reveled in dynamism. Tracks like “Way of the Triune God” and “Purgatory” incorporated rousing arrangements, but the most compelling parts of his set were those that brought fans to a hush. All of Roo’s regular side conversations and distant cheers came to a halt as he performed “Lady May” with a lone acoustic guitar, making for one of the most memorable moments of the weekend. As Childers wrapped up he thanked fans for choosing to share this moment with his band, and closed with “Follow You to Virgie.” Although Childers left his rowdy ways behind, he’s still more than capable of bringing exhilarating performances to tens of thousands of fans at a party-heavy festival.
Making the short trek from Nashville, Paramore returned for their second Bonnaroo performance as one of the last acts of the weekend on the What Stage. Hayley Williams’ infectious energy brought life to the sea of attendees that feared a late-evening thunderstorm may close the festivities early. The band played an even blend of new and old tunes, even infusing some tracks with teases of covers from Whitney Houston and Blondie. The group did a brilliant job of incorporating their pop-punk past with their arena-ready sound, bringing several generations together in enthusiastic song and dance. Mid-set the group rearranged for a song from HalfNoise (drummer Zac Farro’s side-project) and a track from Williams’ 2020 solo debut. Then, fans were treated to a rare performance of “All I Wanted,” a track displaying Williams’ awe-inspiring vocal range. As the crew closed out with a run of their most popular tracks, it was clear that Paramore is one of the country’s finest live acts.
Hip-hop’s sole Pulitzer Prize winner made his long-awaited Bonnaroo return on Friday night and brought a tour de force performance to the What Stage. Supporting his 2022 album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Lamar performed old and new tracks alongside his most popular features throughout his career. While the crowd’s energy tapered for some of his more cerebral outings from Mr. Morale, Lamar still displayed a visceral understanding of live arrangements and engagement. “King Kunta” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” showed off his impeccable live band (which was cleverly hidden off stage), and tracks like “LOVE.” And “LOYALTY.” allowed Lamar’s melodic excellence to shine. Shortly after midnight fans led a “Happy Birthday” sing-along to the 36-year old rapper, showing a deep sense of respect for one of our generation’s finest artists.
“Joyful” is the easiest way to describe the late night Friday set from one of the finest modern day funk bands. While the rest of the evening was filled with electronically driven acts, Vulfpeck brought 75 minutes of dazzling instrumentation, an outlandish on-stage wedding and matching white bath robes and red hats. Opening their set with fan favorite “1612” and closing with the mind-bending grooves of “Dean Town,” the band’s performance gave equal spotlight to all of their masterful members. Joe Dart’s sprawling bass solo on “Beastly” elicited an uproar of hoots and hollers, while the aptly titled “Cory Wong” showcased the prolific guitarist’s remarkable chops. Various members switched instruments throughout the evening, making for what felt like a truly spontaneous affair from this immensely talented crew of musicians. When it comes to musical mastery, it’s hard to think of anyone who could hold a candle to the Vulfpeck crew.
Cory Wong’s Syncopated Superjam
Cory Wong was easily the MVP of Bonnaroo, showing up for at least four sets throughout the weekend, each with an incomparable display of his guitar virtuosity. Wong’s Syncopated Superjam on Saturday evening brought together the most jam-packed collection throughout the weekend, as acts like Hanson, Remi Wolf, Victor Wooten, and more shared the stage for a collection of timeless tracks. Opening with Antwan Stanley covering “In The Stone” by Earth, Wind and Fire, Wong and his band of over 12 members breezed through their 20-song set. Devon Gilfillian joined for an invigorating cover of Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much,” Hanson sat in for Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” and Remi Wolf helped close out the set with Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus & Chaka Khan. The collaborative nature of the Superjam is an embodiment of the community-oriented vibe Bonnaroo is built on, and the Superjam is consistently a must-see event at the annual festival.