MANCHESTER, TENNESSEE—It was an eclectic mix of rockers, alt-country crooners, saxophonists and the grandpa of jambands at this year’s Bonnaroo, a little over an hour from Nashville. At this year’s mix electronica and rap took a back seat as the fest got back to the groove and rocked out with its guitar-centric sounds. They also added permanent showers and toilets to the fest, happily flushing those Porta-Potty memories to the past.
Saturday’s lineup was a mixed bash up while Sunday’s offered up some singer-songwriter fare from the outlaw sounds of Chris Stapleton to the hipster undertones of Kurt Vile and Father John Misty. They bended nicely into the Dead & Company’s homegrown psychedelia that ended the fest as John Mayer joined the band, offering his own take on Jerry Garcia’s beloved licks. He updated Garcia’s bouncy and cosmic swirl into hors d’oeuvres of tasty licks. Playing off Bob Weir’s steady rhythm guitars he countered, dove, bent and yanked at the band’s catalogue to the dynamic beats of drummers Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzmann’s jungle-fied bounce into a delicious stew.
On “Franklins Tower” the band gelled into a jukebox of funky sounds and a glorious celebration to the power of music and community. They played the “hits” like “Casey Jones” and “Touch Of Grey” and pulled off an incredible version of “Terrapin Station” that had Mayer poking at Garcia’s signature riffs, then smoothing them out with his own bluesy tones.
Chris Stapleton declared, “Something smells good out there,” as he took on “Might As Well Get Stoned.” Bearded country rock at its finest, the Kentucky-born guitarist added some gritty homegrown to the afternoon sunshine as wife Morgane softened his whiskey-stained vocals with some beautiful harmonies.
“Fuck the peace and love shit,” howled Lamb Of God singer Randy Blythe as he beckoned the crowd to form a circle and mosh like motha fuckers. Their set of loud groove metal was a welcome respite to the hippy-dippy grandeur of the day. Claypool Lennon Delirium was a psychedelic slugfest of acoustic bass and multi-effected guitar tricks that unfortunately was ruined by a bad mix.
Pearl Jam laid down the word with a barrage of monotonous beats and riffs, ending their set with a ferocious cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World.” Beach Fossils played some jangly pop. Jason Isbell’s mature country was the most traditionalist of the lot while Grace Potter was “Hot To The Touch” as she bounced and careened across the stage, grinding out chords from her Flying V guitar.
Saxophonist Kamasi Washington paid homage to the state of Tennessee at the midnight jam with a set taking on the tunes of local legends B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Aretha Franklin. The five-piece horn section with Washington at the helm went down like a grooving blowout of Memphis soul.
John Moreland’s sparse tunes of heartache, rejection and redemption took us back to a simpler time. He finger-picked and strummed his set away solo onstage as he put his heart on the line on “You Don’t Care Enough For Me To Cry.” Kurt Vile’s banjo-picking on “I’m An Outlaw” brought on images of Clint Eastwood squinting in the saddle.
On Father John Misty’s performance it was hard to tell when the joke began or ended. On “Only Son Of The Ladies’ Man” and “Holy Shit” Misty’s cynical, thinking man’s folk rock with a stoner’s sensibility added some twisted darkness as the sunset at the farm.
Happy 15th anniversary, Bonnaroo! Long may you run!
Show date: June 11-12, 2016