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BONNAROO 2015: OLD GUARD, NEW DOGS & A WHOLE LOTTA LOVE


The dust has settled over the fields of Manchester after Ashley Capps' AC Entertainment and Superfly brought the motley tribes “back to the farm” for Bonnaroo 2015, a music tastemakers’ paradise.

D’Angelo & the Vanguard ruled the night Saturday, Twenty One Pilots showed why we should keep our eyes on them Sunday morning, Kacey Musgraves offered a laidback kind of high country on Friday and Billy Joel closed it down Sunday night on the What Stage with a set of well-loved hits and the snarky rejoinder, “Are those the rich-people seats? Don’t worry. I don’t need jewelry.”

Beyond the eclectiquity, the meshing of genres was genius: Ed HelmsBluegrass Situation’s Sunday takeover of That Tent brought Jerry Douglas & the Earls of Leicester to the stage for a master class on classic mountain and bluegrass music, ranging from “The Martha White Flour Theme” to a plucky “I’ll Go Steppin’ Too.”

Saturday on the What Stage, My Morning Jacket delivered a ruminative set that brought atmospherics to genuine rock & roll—and prompted Jake Galifianakis to feed Jon Hamm Gummy Bears backstage. MMJ was followed by Mumford & Sons’ increasingly electric presence, tempered with their folk urgency. An all-star encore of “I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends” featured MMJ, Dawes, Hozier, Ed Helms and more.

DeadMau5 and BassNectar were just the tip of the EDM iceberg, keeping the Farm rolling until almost sunup, while Childish Gambino delivered deep-cut rap grooves during daylight hours and Kendrick Lamar made dusk turning into night a rhythm fest to reckon with.

Mining a different kind of funk, Earth, Wind & Fire closing the Which Stage on Friday, proved age truly is nothing but a number—as Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar joined the seminal R&B group for “September” and “Let’s Groove Tonight.” With a set ending at close to 1am, the sun-scorched multitudes danced and sang with an abandon almost unequaled all weekend.

Elle King, brash and brazen in a red leotard with sheer red stockings, played the Who Stage to an overflow crowd. Unapologetic, she has an unerring libertine sense that is as salty as the full-throttle voice she attacks her songs with. “I Told You I Was Mean” was a siren’s call for every guy who deserves what he’s got coming.

Dawes—playing the ’Roo for the third time—made their debut on the massive What Stage on Friday, Taylor Goldsmith telling the crowd, “This sure is different.” Their Southern California canyon-evoking songs, especially those from the brand new All Your Favorite Bands, had a sheen marked by Goldsmith’s detail-driven lyrics grounded in emotional excavation.

Rhiannon Giddens played an early set under the scorching sun Saturday on the Which Stage, marrying Odetta’s “Water Boy” (“the song that changed my life, and inspired T Bone Burnett to make a solo record on me”), Patsy Cline’s seminal “Sher’s Got You” and Cousin Emme’s holler-stomping “Ruby.” Joined by the rest of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she energized old-time music with passion that was larger than mere historic reverence.

Critics’ fave Sturgill Simpson demonstrated he is not Waylon Jennings but an artist singing in his own way about real life (including a laundry list of drugs) with a lean band that means business. He is his own kind of country, one that is no-frills, stands on its own and could redefine the potential of what popular country is. They were spilling out on the sides of That Tent as the sun went down on Saturday, a psychedelic graphic backdrop behind him.

Tears for Fears turned in one of the tightest, most euphoric sets of the weekend Friday. Opening with a gauntlet-tossing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” their 75 minutes heated up the rhythm & blues that always underscored hits like “Mad World” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love.” Beyond the exultant singing emanating from the late-teen and 20-something-heavy audience, there was a vitality to Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith—both in ridiculously good voice—that suggests they’re hitting a new creative peak.

But no one was in better voice than Robert Plant with his Space Shifters. Over time, he has learned how to use his instrument not just for power but intent—straddling the blues with Bukka White’s “Fixing to Die,” channeling Appalachian torment in “Little Maggie,” filigreed folk with “California,” then attenuating that signature erotic moan into a full Bo Diddley beat on “I Just Want to Make Love to You” that begat “Whole Lotta Love.”

Plant is one of those rare icons who has no interest in regurgitating or competing with his past. Instead, he uses African instruments, multiculti rhythms, blazing guitars and mandolins to cast spells that allow his still-formidable voice to wring notes, cast emotion and always, always beckon to the willing maids within hearing. He showed deep charm and a disarming sense of humor while doing it.

He wryly intro’d his encore as “a strong blessing from the milkmaids of Devon to the people of Bonnaroo…with peace & love,” but the full-throttle guitar belied the intro and Plant cat’o’nine-tailed the words, “It’s been a long time since I rock & rolled…” It was the perfect catharsis under a thin moon on a clear night in a pasture somewhere in Tennessee.

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