Tuesday, I started off my coverage of this year's Bonnaroo by trying to capture the crazy highs and lows of the festival. Bonnaroo is both an amazing and especially painful experience, and for those who've never been, it's difficult to translate that contradiction. Today, I wanted to put down a list of the top 10 acts I caught this year. I was too exhausted by the end of the headliners to catch any of the late night acts so GZA, the Superjam, and Black Star sadly won't be appearing here (even though I heard their sets were awesome). So, if your favorite Bonnaroo act isn't on this list, there's just a chance I never saw their show.
10. Colin Hay: Friday at the Sonic Stage
If you've been performing for 30 years, experienced a career resurgence thanks to a well-placed spot in the TV show Scrubs, and are only playing a 30 minute set at one of the most intimate stages at the festival, you have to be trying hard to put on a bad set. Veteran Australian performer Colin Hay (of 80s band Men at Work, whose library of music is much deeper than just "Down Under") put on a surprisingly excellent set for just being one man on stage with an acoustic guitar. Playing arguably his three most well-known songs ("Overkill," "Down Under," and "Beautiful World") alongside a smattering of some of his lesser known solo works, Colin Hay played to an overwhelmingly young crowd who weren't even alive when "Who Can It Be Now?" was on the charts. Yet, his passionate delivery and wonderful lyricism still won the crowd over.
9. Gary Clark Jr.: Sunday at the What Stage
What's there to say about Gary Clark Jr. that hasn't been said? He's the savior of blues. Check. He's one of the most bluesy and technically proficient men to pick up an ax since Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Check. If anyone doubted those statements before his main stage performance (that set the tone for how stellar the What Stage was going to be on Sunday), they were gone by the time his set finished. Even with some acoustic kinks in the stage being worked out (depending on your angle, the set could be far too bassy), he wowed everyone in the audience with his technical prowess. He sings too, but if there was ever a man I could just listen to playing guitar, it's Gary Clark Jr. Give it a year or two and he'll be one of the biggest names in guitar rock.
8. Feist: Friday at the Which Stage
Leslie Feist. Baroque pop siren. Most prominent female member of Broken Social Scene. Easily the best female fronted act I saw this year the festival (I missed St. Vincent in an ill-guided attempt to get close for Radiohead but more on that later). While I've always enjoyed Feist's music (she has a surprisingly deep selection of good singles), it took me seeing her live to finally appreciate what a talented musician she really is. She could play the electric guitar as well as (if not better than many) of the men I saw at the festival, and with her full backing band (playing music she wrote), you really got a feel for how intricate the compositions on albums like The Reminder or Metals really are. She also did a great job of making some of her more "baroque"-leaning tunes sound more up-tempo and heavier to match the energy of Bonnaroo.
7. Radiohead: Friday at the What Stage
It is entirely within the realm of possibility that Radiohead's placement on this list has nothing to do with the actual strength of their performance and the sheer misery I was feeling when I was trying to watch them. I waited in line two and half hours for the pit and was the person at the front of the line when they stopped letting people into the pit. I had to watch the show from the worst angle imaginable with a massive column in my way. Still, I wasn't crazy about their song selection which leaned heavily on The King of Limbs and other percussive, dub-steppy songs from other albums. There was a decided lack of Kid A (though they did play "Idioteque" and "Everything in Its Right Place"). Still, the performances of "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android" were among my favorite moments of the entire festival.
6. Battles: Saturday at the This Tent
Battles is a weird band. Post-Gloss Drop, they're just three dudes playing around 9 or so instruments themselves on stage without a live vocalist (they used pre-recorded vocal loops for any of their songs that had vocals). They play a bizarre blend of noise rock meets electro-rock. They were 100% bad-ass. Whether it was the astounding drumming skills of John Stanier or the ability of Ian Williams to simultaneously play the keyboards and lead guitar or the entrancing visual display (considering they were playing a tent), I was mesmerized for their entire set. I'm wanting to go off on another rant about the flatness of "bro-step", but Battles was another electronic act showing that you can do more with electronic music than just drop the bass. They showcased complex melodies and rhythms all alongside an incredibly energetic live show that left John Stanier completely sweated through his shirt. Hearing "Ice Cream" from Gloss Drop live is something that simply has to be experienced.
5. Red Hot Chili Peppers: Saturday at the What Stage
Bet you weren't expecting that. Lord knows I wasn't. Radiohead might be my favorite band of the last 20 years but even with my terrible position, I honestly felt like Red Hot Chili Peppers simply put on a much better show. While I worship at the feet of Californication, I could do without much of the rest of their discography and their set consisted heavily of Stadium Arcadium and I'm With You. Still, for dudes who are now in their 50s and should barely be alive because of their former massive drug use, they rocked like it was the early 90s all over again. Flea is just a god on the bass guitar. There's no other way to see it, and you can't even appreciate his bass skills til you see him battle the lead guitarist live and win... every damn time. Speaking of Josh Klinghofer, I may not love the Chili Peppers, but I've always thought their former guitarist John Frusciante was a genius. Josh Klinghofer may not be as good as Frusciante but he more than acquitted himself and played many of the old tunes like a champ. Hearing tens of thousands of people sing along with Anthony Kiedis about heroin addiction on "Under the Bridge" was one of the most surreal but amazing moments of Bonnaroo.
4. Childish Gambino: Saturday at the Which Stage
If Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, is ever going to have a retort all of his haters out there (besides the excellent Camp itself), it's going to be his performance at this year's Bonnaroo. I've always enjoyed Gambino's music (even if his semi-offensive jokes still bother me occasionally), but I've never been a hardcore Gambino fan. He finally won me over once and for all at Bonnaroo. He played for an hour and a half. He fought through a sea of technical problems (so well that I never even realized they were happening until he told us). He had a full backing band with a superb violinist. He went on a surprisingly strong five minute free style during one of the technical meltdowns. There were thousands and thousands of people lined up to see a dude who was playing one of the smaller tents last year. If this show wasn't a victory for Donald Glover, I don't know what is. His haters keep trying to put him in a box and trivialize his music. Yet, his fandom keeps growing and growing. I think that says it all.
3. Kendrick Lamar: Thursday at the This Tent
Less than a year ago, I wasn't even aware of Kendrick Lamar's existence. Someone recommended Section.80 to me, and it's been an endless love affair since. I kept telling everyone around me that given a few years, Lamar was likely to build up the same kind of critical legacy that's only reserved for rappers like Kanye West. He's that good and ambitious. While this whole festival was proving to me that more people knew about good, underground acts than I thought, I wasn't prepared for the sea of people who knew everyword to tracks like "The Recipe," "A.D.H.D.," or "HiiiPower." Black Hippy is one of the up and coming names in hip-hop right now (every member keeps making powerful opening statements), and as their ambassador, Kendrick Lamar let the world know at Bonnaroo that the hip-hop world is theirs for the taking.
2. Michael Kiwanuka: Friday at the That Tent
Here was the sleeper set of the festival. Michael Kiwanuka is Otis Redding reborn. From his silky smooth voice to his often heart wrenching tunes, he is the most soulful performer to come around in decades. His debut album, Home Again (which is not out in the States yet), has likely become my favorite album of the year. He played virtually the entirety of his debut album (plus a Jimi Hendrix cover) during his hour-long set to start things off Friday, and no other set came close to capturing the intimate magic of his show until Sunday. With the exception of only one other man, he had the most emotive and powerful voice of the whole festival. His backing band played perfect representation of 70s and 60s soul music which seemed so authentic and genuine that I didn't care how obviously retro it was (despite the same thing bothering me about the Alabama Shakes). His songwriting and lyricism are both deeply personal yet laden with hooks that are dragging along other hooks which are connected to a giant hook sculpture. At this point, almost all of his songs are total winners. And if it weren't for the absolutely flawless set coming up next, he could have given the single best show I saw at Bonnaroo 2012.
1. Bon Iver: Sunday at the What Stage
To put it lightly, Bon Iver put on the best concert I've ever seen in my entire life. It was kind of like when you read a review for a movie, and the writer says there wasn't a dry eye in the house. That was what happened with Bon Iver. As I turned around (from the front row after waiting five and a half hours to get into the pit) to survey the audience, by about the third song, virtually every person had tears in their eyes. If you thought For Emma or the self-titled were the definition of beauty, you have to see Bon Iver as the full-band perform these songs live. Justin Vernon has a massive backing band and they all switch up their instruments pretty regularly. Whether it was "Towers," "Holocene," "Skinny Love," or "For Emma," (or any song they played period), they managed to make these already stunning musical creations seem even more powerful and emotional. Justin's voice is the most important instrument in the band though, and he sounded phenomenal. There's hasn't been a male voice like this in decades. Even songs from Bon Iver that I didn't enjoy before (like "Beth/Rest") suddenly clicked when played with a full band. I'm not a religious man, but that Bon Iver show was the closest thing I've had to a spiritual experience in years.