TVD’s Top 20 Acts of Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival 2014

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CHARLES GREY AND MORGAN SWANK FOR TVD | Yes, it’s very hot. But there’s a lot of great music, and you might bump into a friendly face.

People travel from all over to hear the sounds and see the sights, and you’re just as likely to meet an ignorant horde of party people as an individual who is hoping his favorite artist plays that one B-side at the smallest stage at the festival.

Bonnaroo in its strengths and weaknesses really is about surviving the conditions of weather, overcrowding, and the occasional bad company to enjoy a great show with total strangers in the context of the exciting and abundant energy that surrounds the event. We broke down the top 20 acts we saw at this year’s festival.

20. Zedd

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Well, we made it to another year of Bonnaroo, which meant another year of hazy memories lying around in hammocks backstage and getting as many free drinks as we possibly could. When attending Bonnaroo we try to avoid the EDM acts each year. Something about sweaty bodies thrashing around in Native American gear at three in the morning just never sounds like a good time.

This year, that all changed when we “accidentally” got stuck in the middle of a crowd for Zedd. Granted, the whole thing was somewhat predictable, but when the megahit singles “Clarity” and “Fall Into the Sky (ft. Ellie Goulding)” came on, we found ourselves in the barrage of people dancing and somehow covered in gold glitter from head to toe. The light show is pretty much what is to be expected for an EDM event, but reflecting off the trees at Bonnaroo in a huge open crowd is kind of a magical thing to witness anyway. Hats off to you, Zedd. We’ll be back again.

19. Darkside

Electronic music at American festivals over the past few years has acted as an efficient paintbrush smudging a flashy, drug-centric, and shallow stereotype for itself at large. To critics’ credit, most festivals love booking the hyped out “banger”-dropping DJs that are kind enough to give their molly-popping, neon-color-fannypack-wearing zombies ample clues for music changes and arrangement dynamics. (See: “the drop.”) Though bigger festivals always book these big name party promoters, its size also gives it the ability to breathe  life into the underbelly of electronica.

The shoegaze-esque side of the electronic music family tree is full of introverts, unique sounds, and people who don’t mind the absence of yelling “WOO” as a greeting to passers-by. Darkside is a great example of this color of electronica, being the collaboration between subtle Nicolas Jaar and the guitar work of Dave Harrington. Their set was a welcome change from the heavy hand of bass beaters, giving plenty to cool the mood on a hot day. Last year’s Psychic was a debut of dense material that worked well in a live setting, culminating by closing with “Golden Arrow” that seemed to almost get out of hand toward its unsettling end but retained a strong presence and showcased their mix of mellow and moody.

18. Kanye West

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It’s probably no surprise that the most-talked about act coming into Bonnaroo this year was Kanye West. After the 2008 debacle, we were all pretty curious to see if Kanye would actually show up to this year’s show or not. While backstage on Friday afternoon before his set, we managed to catch a glimpse of Kim and North walking around, so we had a good feeling that whatever Yeezy would do, it would be pretty big. Boy, were we wrong. Despite the people walking all around in “2008 Fuck Kanye” t-shirts, the night started decently. He opened his set with “Black Skinhead,” donning a designer mask that covered his whole face with a backdrop of red flashing screens. It was all very “Kanye.”

Just when things were looking like they might be stable Yeezy, went off on one of his favorite rants, making statements like “Last time before I got here, they had ‘Fuck Kanye’ on the port-a-potties. This time, we’re going to piss on them.” We even got a shout out somewhere in his semi-show/tangent after screaming, “Where the press at? Where the press at? Fuck the press!” over and over before going into some weird slow-jam rant about taking on Shakespeare and Walt Disney. At this point, thousands of fans had fled the field and starting booing, which only resulted in more song stoppage and more rants. It was an awful experience to say the least. A girl fell asleep on the ground next to us in full REM cycle around the time he started megahit “Power,” if that says anything at all to his performance. It was the weirdest show we’ve ever had the misfortune to witness, and it’s safe to say we probably won’t be seeing him on the farm any time soon…

17. Die Antwoord

Die Antwoord’s sound is an in-your-face attitude-heavy sort of banger-tinted “dance music” that is proud of its obsession with cliche synths and juvenile themes. It makes sense that sitting at a computer with headphones trying to decipher the intent of “Fatty Boom Boom” will only lead to failure and misinterpretation.

Seeing Die Antwoord live, however, provides a fresh perspective that fills out the aesthetic of the agro act. The energy is high and endless, with ninja flipping choppy bars as Yolandi Visser coos portmanteau’d accents throughout the phrases. The light show is ridiculous, and their handy set of backup dancers push the tone of the show to an overindulgence of high energy. I’ll still probably never make a concerted enjoyed effort to sit down and listen to Die Antwoord, but seeing them live seems like an adrenaline alternative to rushing your wife to the ER to have a baby, or cocaine.

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16. Farrelly brothers

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Of course Bonaroo isn’t all about the music each year. From the morning yoga lessons, Comedy Tent, and Cinema Tent, there are enough things to do on the farm each year to have fun without even seeing one band. Seriously. We always try to find a way into the Cinema Tent each year to catch a good movie celebrating its anniversary with a special intro or Q&A with the writers, actors, etc. This year was really special because in the time there was a break from the sweltering sun and all-day music, we were able to catch the Farrelly Brothers doing a hilarious Q&A and intro before showing Dumb and Dumber. Not only that, but the lucky Bonnaroo attendees for the movie managed to catch a six-minute clip of Dumb and Dumber To as well.

The comedic geniuses known as Peter and Bobby Farrelly addressed all things in their Q&A from writing Kingpin to their thoughts on the unauthorized travesty that was Dumb and Dumberer. “I didn’t fucking see it. We told them not to do it and they did,” said Bobby. “Did any of you actually see it? Maybe you shouldn’t be here right now. It happened. Let’s leave it at that.” Later in the afternoon the two brothers did a panel in the Bonnaroo Press Tent with artists Vance Joy, Dierks Bentley, and Amos Lee where they also brought the laughs. When asked why nobody has made a funny film about a music festival Peter Farrelly said, “You know what? We should all go on a road trip and write that movie. All of us up here. Let’s go let’s do it!” We look forward to that movie and expect a cameo appearance.

15. Mannie Fresh

Redbull has been present at festivals for years. I think it makes sense that an energy drink would want to corner a market of early 20-somethings with money to burn and an immediate need for energy in a can. This year, they stepped up the involvement and added the Red Bull Music Academy, a program that brings 20 producers to a compound in walking distance with fully furnished studios, guest lectures from well known producers, and an optimistic encouragement to create and collaborate on Redbull grounds.

One of the lecturers that Redbull brought out was Mannie Fresh. Redbull generously opened Mannie’s lecture up to the public at the Solar Stage on Saturday. Throughout the talk, Mannie discussed his prolific career, detailing the fame of “back dat ass up,” his involvement with Cash Money Records, and associations with Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and the New Orleans music scene at large. In the evening, Mannie came out and DJed a set that included choice selections of his tracks as well as music by Daft Punk and Kendrick Lamar, the latter of which stood out for how he captured the loop of “Girl, I know you want this dick” and looped it on top of the proceeding two cuts.

14. The Avett Brothers

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Whenever we go to any sort of music festival, it’s safe to assume that The Avett Brothers will be there. Not that we’re complaining, because no matter at which festival we happen to see them performing, they always put on a damn good show. This year at Bonnaroo was no different. They covered all of their classic hits, spanning over 12 years of music.

We had a very brief conversation with the brothers backstage right before their performance, during which Scott proclaimed, “Wow, 13 years of Bonnaroo. We’ve been able to play this festival for 5 years now, and it just keeps getting better. We’ll keep coming back as long as they’ll have us.” It’s always a solid memory post-Bonnaroo seeing the Avett Brothers on the What Stage each year, and it’s one we look forward to at many more Bonnaroos to come.

13. Disclosure

Disclosure is kind of like a really easy version of old-school UK dance music. The music is a collection of ’90s-esque four-on-the-floor with accents of jazzy chords and syncopated beats. Their sound is poppy, accessible, and clean. Seeing them live puts a bit of “oomph” in their aesthetic with the presence of live drumming and cueing, taking away from the negative stereotypes of electronic acts “just pressing the spacebar.”

One of the best things about the duo live it’s its visual accompaniment. Their art has carried the theme of outlined faces for a while now, and seeing these drawings rock to the beat and sing along to the songs subtly rounds the package, creating a full view of an educated though safe take on English dance. Their set was capped with the closing track ”Latch” by having vocalist Sam Smith join on stage for the closer. Speaking of Sam Smith…

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12. Sam Smith

Each year that we attend Bonnaroo, there’s always one act that gets us all emotional and makes our insides feel like we’re dropping from 10 stories up. Last year was Paul McCartney. This year that honor went to Sam Smith. After being given an awful set time (2:15 PM on Saturday) in a tent too small for his audience, we were a little worried that his set may not live up to the full potential. Wrong again!

Sam came on stage and delivered emotional hit after hit. Before each song Sam would say, “You probably don’t know this one, but I’m going to sing it anyway” before the whole crowd sang along. He seemed very surprised by the fact he even had a crowd, claiming that he made a bet with his manager that there would be no audience, and he lost big time. Sam closed out his set with chart-topping single “Stay With Me,” followed by many swaying bodies and a few tears. Had it not been for the oncoming storm in the distance, we might have stayed longer to see if there was an encore. It was definitely a performance to be remembered.

11. Chance the Rapper

Chance burst onto the scene over the past year, representing Chicago with a less aggressive, more trippy-friendly hip hop that seems less about being at the club with bottles and bitches and more about self-expression. Yea, he’ll brag about himself as well, but perhaps they don’t let you keep your rapper’s license if you don’t tell your audience how great you are every 16th bar.

Chance’s sound is a mix of personality, clever lyricism, optimistic realism, and a weird untangible tinge of hope, for both the good things and the possibility of modern rap. He plays backed by a well trained band, giving his live performance a hand of realness hip hop acts don’t always have. Though this decision works as both a blessing and a curse, in that it takes away from some of the more mastered bass of backing tracks, it’s a nice change of pace for any festy rapper. A standout was the recent recurring rendition of the old cartoon “Arthur” theme song, but “Brain Cells” and the closer “Chain Smoker” were also favorites.

10. Diarrhea Planet

We talk about Diarrhea Planet a lot on this site, and now it seems like we’re not the only ones with DP fever. The boys from Nashville had a set time of 12:45 AM on Sunday morning. The band was set to perform on the tiniest enclosed space on the whole farm, and it was so packed we had to crawl to the backstage area to even kind of see what was going on.

Their performance included the usual: loud hits, crowd surfers, people getting kicked in the face, sweaty head banging, and more. It was really cool seeing the band perform for a Bonnaroo audience. Throughout the set, a music industry pro stood next to us taking sips from a Miller Lite, saying, “This band. Yeah, they’ve got it.” It was a proud moment watching them own the stage. They closed out the set with a song for the longtime fans, “Ghost with a Boner,” as only Diarrhea Planet would.

9. James Blake

James Blake seems muted but really puts on one hell of a show. The english neo-soul artist was perfectly able to recreate his hyper-minimal take on R&Bwith style and focused aim.

Though bass bleeds from adjacent stages sadly poked through the carefully arranged EQ of Blake’s tracks, his heavy moments hit hard and left sizeable marks with tracks like “CMYK” and “Retrograde.” Blake has a silky voice and an ear for melody that wrapped his chord progressions tightly around his kick and bass subfrequencies, creating a rich package of sound and performance.

8. Jeremy Konner

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Once again, the coolest part about Bonnaroo is that it isn’t just about the music. On Saturday, we were able to hang around the Cinema Tent for an extended amount of time and talk with the director of Comedy Central’s Drunk History, Jeremy Konner, for a good while before the special sneak previews and interviews were held in the tent itself.

As HUGE fans of Drunk History, speaking to Jeremy was one of the top highlights of the festival. After discussing all things from Emmy nominations to what’s in store for us this season, he had a few things to say. “This season is going to be hilarious. We go to a bunch of different cities, and this time we have four themed episodes!” After some prying, we got an exclusive tidbit as well. “We have one themed episode about the First Ladies of history. Courtney Cox is in one story, and it’s going to be awesome.” After attempting to woo him for a role on the show with our best drunk history knowledge, he held Morgan’s phone for a selfie (see above) and went in for the Drunk History special, which included several funny clips for the upcoming season and special appearances from SNL character Jebediah Atkinson, Kyle Mooney, Peter Farrelly, and a very drunk Derek Waters bringing the laughs.

7. Frank Ocean

Of the many artists performing over the weekend, Frank Ocean is arguably one of the most cool and collected. The R&B crooner’s low-key style is greatly juxtaposed to that of his Odd Future crew. His music carries sentiments of sex, regret, love, lust, melancholy, doubt, realism, and hope. This cocktail is wrapped up in easily digestible three-minute packets of slightly off-kilter R&B. His lyrical content goes a bit deeper than your average love-sick soul singer.

Frank Ocean on stage carries a sense of modesty through grace. He’s got an electric smile that lights up the crowd and gets everyone ready to sing his songs and think that it’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” and “Pyramids” were obvious favorites.

6. Elton John

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Bonnaroo is infamous for having an amazing closing night headliner. This year was no exception, with Sir Elton John taking everybody back. At first, we were a little hesitant. For some reason, a giant music festival just didn’t seem like the kind of gig you’d see a musician like Sir Elton attending, let alone playing. The outcome was pleasantly surprising, however.

Even though many festiva-goers had left early to beat traffic and get back to their regular lives on Monday morning, thousands crowded the field to watch him perform  his greatest hits. It’s always been a dream of ours to see a big crowd sing “Benny and the Jets” together, and with our luck it happened to be the second song on his setlist. Elton kept it simple by staying at his piano for the performance, but nobody really cared. They just wanted to sing as loudly as possible the rest of the night. One of the coolest parts of Elton’s set came from Mother Nature. Illuminating the sky was a very large orange moon, only adding to the magic that is Bonnaroo on the last night night of the festival. We couldn’t stay for the entire performance, but what we did stay for was something really special, and we sang along to every single tune. It was definitely one for the record books.

5. Phoenix

It’s easy to get called a “pleb” around any snobby musician for admissions of guilt involving love of Animal Collective, Radiohead, or, even dare say Phoenix, but the funked-out pseudo-guitar band had a slow rise to fame in which they took their time and created a solid sound built on fun chord progressions, quirky vocal lilts, and ear worm choruses. Their music is an undeniable ray of sunshine that parts the clouds and kind of works like saying “Don’t smile” through a shit-eating grin to a 5-year-old, who will inevitably and without control, pop the biggest smile.

It’s a hyper-cop-out to say the highlight of a Phoenix show is “1901,” but when the first synth bass note hit and the crowd collectively freaked the hell out, screaming bloody murder, it worked as the best lubricant to let loose and belt “Fall in” while jumping up and down to one of the best pop songs of the past 10 years.

4. Boombaptist

Hey, did you know people played the side stages? Yeah? Did you know people played the side stages of the side stages? I feel really bad for you if you didn’t as some of the best moments from smaller acts who play these stages with ardent fervor and passion. Opening up for Mannie Fresh was Boombaptist, a beatmaker and producer well versed in the boom bap that carries his namesake. He grew up studying in the temples of ’90s hip hop and New York soul and currently gives offerings through snare/kick-driven sample-chopped beats, one of which was dedicated to legendary J Dilla.

Boombaptist was an enormously fun act to see, playing keys on a pad controller, dropping heated bangers, and even throwing back to early 2000s middle school dances everywhere with INOJ’s “I Want to Be Your Baby.” Boombaptist rapped with style over various tracks he dropped and played with a sense of earnestness that only belongs to musicians who love their craft and exposing it to others.

3. Poliça

Poliça is one of those groups people have been saying we’d love for a while now. Related pro-tip: “Yea, I’ll get to it” is an answer that robs you of loving something good earlier in your life. Poliça’s sound lives up to their hype, but almost worth the price of admission for the weekend was their performance. The band plays with a weird juxtaposition of reserved musicianship and raw action.

Singer Channy Leaneagh wisps across the stage in angry yet controlled fits, pumping her fists and rolling her body to the beat. Her face is calm and contemplative while her voice nailed hard-to-hit notes and lines with such clarity and strength that brought the music to life. “Raw/Exit” was a standout, though their consistency was so on point, the notch only goes to the track for its catchy melody and unforgettable call of “Who’s ready to die alone?”

2. Lionel Richie

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Our favorite performance for the whole festival goes hands down to Lionel Richie. It was nonstop dancing from start to finish, and the entire crowd both young and old was into it. Knowing exactly what the crowd wanted, Richie played all his hits from the Commodores to his solo career, stopping frequently to talk to the audience. The best part was when Richie noticed a 20-something in the front row dressed with his mustache and Jheri curl. He stopped the show to get a camera on the guy and commend him for his efforts.

At one point Richie teased the audience that he had a special guest for his performance of “Endless Love.” That’s right, he tried to make us believe he had Queen Diana Ross sitting around backstage only to say, “No I’m sorry. She’s not here, but there’s 30,000 Diana Rosses out there right now, and I want you all to help me out on this one.” on his last two songs of the night, he pulled out “All Night Long” and “We Are The World,” to which we danced violently. A single tear might have been shed for “Easy” as well. Lionel’s voice has remained untouched for decades and delivered a solid memorable performance, closing up the night with, “You know, I wasn’t sure to expect when I said yes to Bonnaroo. This is amazingly so much more than I expected. You can be sure that I will be back again!” We look forward to it, Lionel. Bring Diana Ross next time.

1. Jack White

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Living in Nashville for four years put us in touch with a lot of Jack White run-ins, and we’ve never seen him as personable as he was at this year’s Bonnaroo performance. Jack owned the stage as Saturday night’s headliner. We managed to somehow sneak all the way backstage and saw the whole thing up close, which was really awesome to behold. The former White Stripe delivered an energetic set, stopping every once in a while to talk to the audience about all things from Elvis to Bonnaroo to Nashville and Detroit rock ‘n’ roll.

He performed many hits from his most recent album Lazaretto to Blunderbuss and all of our old favorites including songs from his White Stripes and Raconteurs days. It was a lot of throwback for one performance, and he delivered magnificently. After Friday night’s Kanye headlining fiasco we weren’t sure how packed the field could get surrounding the What Stage, but the sea of people went so far back we couldn’t capture them all in one camera shot. Jack closed his set with everyone’s favorite “Seven Nation Army” and a firework show. The screams could be heard from the farthest edges of the campsite. It was pretty obvious that Jack White had won Bonnaroo.

Photo cred to our Bonnaroo friends and Jeff Kravitz.

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