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Bonnaroo 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Whitney

Whitney // Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Taking the stage at perhaps the hottest point of the day, Chicago septet Whitney only exacerbated things by being incredibly on fire themselves. In a gentle, almost meek tone, frontman/drummer Julian Ehrlich announced to the crowd that it was their first festival, but these guys played like veterans with decades of experience behind them. There’s a visible sense of fun watching Whitney play; they smiled at each other when someone would solo for a bit, they interacted with the crowd between just about every song, and the whole set was just a delight. Fresh off their incredible debut record, Light Upon the Lake, this is a band that could headline this whole festival in the next five to 10 years. Mark my words. –Pat Levy

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Ween

Ween // Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

LCD Soundsystem may have been the more publicized reunion after a short-term hiatus, but Ween getting back together after a four-year break was the more feel-good story of the weekend. After nearly 30 years as a band, Aaron Freeman, aka Gene Ween, left the band in 2012 to focus on getting sober after a highly publicized on-stage “meltdown” in Vancouver the previous year. The time off seems to have worked, as he was all-smiles and looking much healthier when he took the stage as the sun set Sunday evening over a sea of Boognish t-shirts and totems. Opening with “Transdermal Celebration”, Dean, Gene, and co. tore through some crowd pleasers like “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)”, “Ocean Man”, “Roses are Free”, and “The Mollusk” during their all-too-brief hour and 15 minute, 12 song set.

Ween embodies the Bonnaroo spirit like few others. They’ve been playing the festival since the very beginning in 2002 (this being their fifth appearance on the Farm), and they play so many styles of music at once, that almost any Bonnaroovian can find something to groove to at their sets. Plus, the Creator himself, Ashley Capps, was in the pit, with a Ween hat on, jamming out the entire set — so you know they’re in good standing with the higher-ups. The only downside to this show was the length; all four of Ween’s previous appearances on the Farm featured at least 20 songs (in fact, their classic 2004 set stretched to 33). It’s a disservice to not even give them an hour and a half when their normal sets usually surpass two hours, but that’s no fault of their own. They worked with what they had and shut down the Which Stage for the weekend in style. –Carson O’Shoney

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Blood Orange

Blood Orange // Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

On Saturday morning, I got extremely strong Prince and Steph Curry vibes from Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange. (Blame it on Purple Rain and game four of the NBA Finals the night before, perhaps.) But really, Hynes is a consummate performer with a total mastery of the stage, moving through any space like a sensual jellyfish. His artistry is a sight to behold, a man totally in control of his craft and his persona. The way he inhabits the soul of New York City, floating from the tropical influences of his heritage to the grittier influences of the concrete jungle he calls home, is a treat to witness.

At Bonnaroo, he and his backing group were firing on all available cylinders. I mean, damn, they can play. Like Curry, Hynes runs the whole system like the world’s best point guard, always a part of the action but wisely dishing off to his backup singers or horns at just the right moment. Personally speaking, this was the best set of the weekend, and while the big crowds were over at Tame Impala and Zed’s Dead, everyone else I’ve run into who caught Blood Orange heaped on similar praises of their own. –Pat Levy

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Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam // Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

In 2006, the Chicago Bears staged a comeback win against the Arizona Cardinals, overcoming a 20-point deficit in the final moments of the game. Cardinal’s head coach Dennis Green, rightfully incensed at his post-game press conference, let out one of the all-time greatest quotes: “They are who we thought they were!” Pearl Jam’s headlining performance Saturday night reminded me of that quote. The culture of Bonnaroo, the track record of Eddie Vedder’s outfit, the headlining slot — we knew this would be a show to remember before it even hit us. And boy did it hit us.

Pushed back after a brief weather scare, Pearl Jam rocked Bonnaroo with the type of set you expect to see in a highlight reel in the years to come. The Seattle outfit thrashed through their catalog with Springsteen-esque showmanship, and while some might argue and whine that their best music is behind them, most will contend that they’re forever in the sweet spot for live performances. The firework display, though a Bonnaroo tradition at this point, was magnificent as ever in tandem with the glow of Pearl Jam’s brilliance — a finely tuned machine if there ever was one. –Pat Levy

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LCD Soundsystem

Ben-Kaye-Bonnaroo-LCD-Soundsystem-3

Photo by Ben Kaye

“The time has come, the time has come, the time has come today”

That time finally came after five long years of waiting on Friday night — LCD Soundsystem was back. Returning to the Farm as a headliner after their late night tent set back in 2010, James Murphy and his band of multi-talented misfits were prepared with a perfectly constructed setlist for an enormous headlining show. Opener “Us v Them” set the tempo for the rest of the show as a giant disco ball slowly ascended from the stage, and once they got to the main meat of the show, they rarely took a moment to breathe before blasting straight into the next song. “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” got people moving, then the triple-punch of “Tribulations” / “Movement” / “Yeah” all in a row made the crowd go berserk. The locked-in, non-stop grooves put everyone in a trance, then the pure excitement and elation during the peaks of those songs was almost too much to handle.

Throughout the set, the live mix was stellar, especially for a stage not exactly known for the best sound quality. Everyone in the band was on-point and looked happy to be all crammed together into a small section of the massive stage, even Murphy, whose stellar vocal performance outmatched his wicked hung over. “We had too much fun last night,” Murphy admitted, no doubt leveling with everyone else in the crowd. “So I feel a little stupid. But I have a feeling I’m not alone.”

Ben-Kaye-Bonnaroo-LCD-Soundsystem-4

Photo by Ben Kaye

Their light show was top notch too, especially when the huge disco ball was front and center, but the best display came unexpectedly from within the crowd. Near the end of the show, after an emotionally charged portion featuring “Someone Great”, “Home”, and “New York I Love You”, LCD kicked things to another level with “Dance Yrself Clean”. In the build-up to the song’s climax, fireworks came out of nowhere from the audience stage right, exploding just above the heads of the thousands of people in the field. “That’s not our gear,” Murphy quipped as the whole band and audience turned their attention to the explosions in the sky. Just as Murphy hit his big, booming long note, the fiery spectacle kicked into another gear and made for an instant-classic Bonnaroo moment. Then, to follow it up, the band shut things down with a stellar and rousing performance of “All My Friends”.

Sure, there has been much discussion of whether or not LCD Soundsystem was truly worthy of their headliner-status after coming out of a five-year hibernation. They’re an intensely beloved band by many, but also relatively unknown to the general public. The size of the crowd was, indeed, sparse for a Bonnaroo headliner, but you wouldn’t know it just going by the performance. Murphy and the gang gave it their all and nailed it on every level. It was an all-timer, proving that you don’t need 80,000 people in the crowd to throw down one of the best headlining performances in Bonnaroo history. –Carson O’Shoney

Click ahead to see our complete exhaustive photo gallery.

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