Ten Amazing Performances From Bonnaroo 2014

David Hall, our man in the field at Bonnaroo and Jack White musicologist, counts down his top 10 favorite performances at Bonnaroo.

kanye west bonnaroo
10. Kanye West – Friday at 10 p.m., What Stage

Yes, Yeezus was ultimately a total douche-nugget during his return to Bonnaroo six years after his 2008 glow-in-dark, over-two-hours-late fiasco. Early in the set, he blamed everyone, particularly the media (“Where the press at? Fuck the press,” he raged), save for himself, claiming that “Fuck Kanye” was scrawled on porta-potties before he’d even arrived that year. I was there, and I know that’s bullshit, because I have a distinct memory of waking up the next morning in the campsite and seeing that freshly sprayed graffiti for the first time.

Still, regardless of his childish rant (one of his shorter ones, actually), he brought a feral sort of ferocity to his performance, and so still deserves a spot on this list. He repeatedly jumped high into the air during a tack-sharp opener of “Black Skinhead,” continued by amping up the voracious audience with a cover of fellow Chi-Town rapper Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” then slayed with a parade of pre-Yeezus hits that included standout deliveries on “Clique,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger.” It was after that last track that he defended himself against his critics, making the egregious claim that he’s “the number one rock star on the planet.” That statement is laughable in the first place, but made even less sense when he transitioned from that into the annoyingly auto-tuned 808s & Heartbreak song “Say You Will.” It was a mojo-killer (to say the least) and my cue to exit.

Photo Gallery: Bonnaroo 2014

9. Goat – Sunday at 2:45 p.m., the Other Tent

You don’t necessarily even need to dig Goat’s music to get something out of their live show – the Swedish experimental outfit conquered its early afternoon Roo performance with the most dazzling visual display aside from the Flaming Lips. Amidst Middle Eastern and Afrobeat-inspired grooves, the group’s two female lead singers prowled, jumped and twirled across the stage wearing elaborate, fringe-and-streamer-accented costumes complete with intensely beaded and feathered masks. The band has stated publicly that its sonic and visual styles draw from a Voodoo tradition in their home city of Korpilombolo, which made perfect sense at this showing. Their chant and groove-heavy tunes were spellbinding, even trance-inducing – a fitting dose of strange magic on the final day of Bonnaroo.

8. Seasick Steve – Saturday at 1:30 p.m., What Stage

Blues player Seasick Steve (born Steven Gene Wold) has been a UK star for the better part of the last decade, so his Bonnaroo debut was perhaps a bit late to the punch. But at least he got the main stage slot (albeit an early one) he deserved – the 70-something-year-old musician delivered the most authentic blues tunes of the weekend for a solid hour. Major bonus: his three-piece band featured Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones (!!!) on bass, with a switch-up to mandolin for “Walkin’ Man” and “It’s a Long Long Way.” My only gripe was that the set should’ve been more widely publicized and scheduled later in the day – twice as many people would’ve turned out under those altered conditions.

7. Arctic Monkeys – Sunday at 4:45 p.m., What Stage

If you’d asked me offhand, I would’ve sworn up and down that Arctic Monkeys had played Bonnaroo before. Yet after reviewing past lineups, I realized that this their debut performance at the massive Tennessse fest. Makes sense, too, given that last year’s AM is their highest-charting album in the U.S. to date (No. 6 on the Billboard 200). Still, for all of the outright rock on that record, the show started mightily subdued – frontman Alex Turner began in full-on crooner mode with the sultry “Do I Wanna Know?” and the peppy “Snap Out of It.”

But the vibe quickly reverted to the Brits’ renowned rowdiness with raucous runs of “Brianstorm,” “Don’t’ Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair,” “Dancing Shoes” and “Library Pictures.” You know the fans are feeling the same level of youthful recklessness as the band when there are people crowd-surfing on air mattresses (yes, this happened … multiple times).

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6. Damon Albarn – Saturday at 5:45 p.m., What Stage

Same as with Arctic Monkeys, it’s hard to believe that this year marked Damon Albarn’s debut at Bonnaroo – the fest somehow never managed to snag him on circulations with Blur, Gorillaz or the Good the Bad and the Queen. But no matter – this was the ideal time to have him, just under two months after the release of his first solo record Everyday Robots.

The British singer-songwriter was all smiles when he began his set on the main stage – perhaps his biggest solo showing to date – and that spirit of celebration continued throughout a career-spanning set. The performance was made exponentially more special by guest appearances from De La Soul on “Feel Good Inc.,” the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble on “Broken” and original Gorillaz MC Del the Funky Homosapien for a dance-party-inciting “Clint Eastwood.”

5. Ty Segall – Thursday at 1 a.m., This Tent

Before this, I’d never witnessed Ty Segall live (save for a weirdly down-tempo acoustic set at last year’s FYF Fest), and I was just about ready to write his music off as another West Coast hipster fad. About thirty seconds into his late-night set on the opening day of Roo, I realized how inaccurate that assessment really was.

Segall’s decidedly rageful punk rock set was doubtless the weekend’s loudest, attacking with eardrum-bursting levels of distortion and sweeping fans in to an endless frenzy of moshing during key cuts like “Wave Goodbye,” “I Bought My Eyes” and “Slaughterhouse.” As awesome as the band was, major kudos go out the guy (evidently one of Segall’s guests) who repeatedly stage-dived and crowd-surfed throughout the entire show – it was his tireless effort that whipped the front ranks into such a ferocious frenzy.

4. Superjam w/ Derek Trucks & friends – Friday at 12 a.m., That Tent

As far as Bonnaroo’s storied Superjams go, nothing will ever come close to 2007’s ensemble of the Roots’ Questlove on drums, John Paul Jones on bass (and nearly every other instrument imaginable) and Ben Harper on guitar and lead vocals – a performance that essentially turned into the ultimate Led Zeppelin tribute. But this year’s lineup of not one but three Superjams sought to trump it (and came damn close in some cases).

Actor/comedian Ed Helms’ Bluegrass Situation session – which featured country stars Dierks Bentley and Bryan Sutton, among many others – managed to draw a sizable audience despite Elton John’s impending set just around the corner on the What Stage. Skrillex hosted his own event Saturday night with an all-star array of guests that included Lauryn Hill, Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger, Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley, Janelle Monáe, Chance the Rapper, Warpaint and, to top it all off, Robby Krieger of the Doors, who veritably killed it on “Break on Through (to the Other Side).”

But the strongest collaborations came Friday with the Superjam packed full of some of contemporary roots music’s most underrated all-stars. Hosted by the Tedeschi Trucks Band (Derek Trucks and wife Susan Tedeschi), the roster included Andrew Bird, Karl Denson, Ben Folds, Chaka Khan and many others, and spanned countless revered covers including the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Traffic’s “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring,” Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star.” All those paled in comparison, however, to the still mighty vocal thrust of bluesman Taj Mahal on his jaw-dropping run of “Everybody’s Got to Change Sometime,” Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and “These Arms of Mine,” plus a triumphant take on the Allman Brothers Band’s “Statesboro Blues.” In a word: legendary.

The-Flaming-Lips Bonnaroo 2014

3. The Flaming Lips – Saturday at 12:30 a.m., Which Stage

It’s no secret that the Flaming Lips love Bonnaroo. In 2010 they performed their entire full-album cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon plus another set of original material. Their performance before that (in 2007) was memorable for its disregard of the Police still playing nearby to do a full-on, raucous “soundcheck” of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.”

The Lips continued that tradition of badass-ery this year by taking the stage with a giant silver balloon that read “Fuck Yeah Roo” and immediately launching into a song they haven’t played since 1996, “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” off 1995 disc Clouds Taste Metallic. From then, the set comprised a lot of the tunes that hardcore fans love to hear from these tripped-out rockers at a fest: “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1,” “Race for the Prize,” “The W.A.N.D.” and “Do You Realize?”

Keeping with their streak of never letting a Roo crowd leave with anything but a total sense of awe, they came armed with a new stage setup complete with a plethora of silver streamers, giant caterpillar/butterfly/sun/other animal inflatables and frontman Wayne Coyne in an unsettling yet cool suit displaying the entire human anatomy just below the skin level. The cherry on top: a galvanizing closing cover of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” With or without a heavy dose of psychedelics, there was no denying that this was show would be remembered for years to come.

2. Elton John – Sunday at 9:30 p.m., What Stage

Elton John closing out the final day of Bonnaroo … no, wait … Sir Elton John closing out the final day of Bonnaroo … no, wait (again) … Sir Elton John closing out the final day of Bonnaroo, which marked the 67-year-old piano-rock legend’s first ever U.S. festival appearance! Could it get any more epic?

As proven by the still unimaginably sonically sharp British knight and his incredible backing band – which included original 1969 Elton John Band members Nigel Olsson (drums), Davey Johnstone (lead guitar) and Ray Cooper (percussion) – it could indeed get at least slightly more epic. That was due in large part to the fact that this show was part of John’s jaunt celebrating the 40th anniversary of 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which prompted him to play the record’s entire first side as an appetite-whetting intro (for those unaware, that included monster hits like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Candle In The Wind”).

Somewhere in the midst of other highlights like “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time),” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and a particularly wily “The Bitch is Back” – which saw John grinning devilishly and even once lithely climbing atop his bright red grand piano – he invited Ben Folds on stage for a beautiful duet on “Grey Seal.” Safe to say that Folds’ beaming smile when the two hugged afterward was the fest’s most heartwarming moment – the epitome of Bonnaroo’s creed “radiate positivity” as it sparked spinoff grins 80,000 people deep.

Jack White

1. Jack White – Saturday at 10:45 p.m., What Stage

Nearly every media outlet has heralded Jack White’s Saturday night headlining set as one that will go down in history, and there’s no way I can disagree. But perhaps I can shed a little light on a few more reasons why this performance trumped anything I’ve seen him do as a solo artist, plus his previous showings at Bonnaroo (all of which I witnessed) with the White Stripes (2007), the Raconteurs (2008) and the Dead Weather (2010).

The deeper meaning here was derived as much from what he said (and boy, was he chatty this night) as what he played. He called Rolling Stone a “tabloid” and asked, “Does [it] make music?” then answered, “No! You and me make music, you and me right here!”; he dedicated the last verse of “Missing Pieces” to Elvis Presley and Loretta Lynn; he recounted the genesis tale of the Raconteurs’ first single “Steady As She Goes” with the lesson that you should always create something if you have “nothing better to do,” which is why he stopped by songwriting partner Brendan Benson’s house to craft it in the first place; he mused on the nature of coincidence and fate, stating, “I don’t believe in any of it, but I believe in all of it”; he inserted an improvised, slam-poet interlude into “Top Yourself”; he stopped to praise the audience for upholding a 1930s blues tradition after they sang the repeating lyrics unprompted on “We’re Going to be Friends”; and he personally recommended checking out Nick Cave and Arctic Monkeys.

Aside from breathtaking, unhinged solo-laden runs of new tracks off his new number one solo record Lazaretto, White injected even more significance into this momentous outing by covering Led Zepplin’s “Lemon Song” to close the main set, blazing through Dick Dale and His Del Tones’ surf classic “Misirlou” near the start of his 10-song encore, and even paid tribute to Dead Weather band mate Alison Mosshart by injecting a snippet interlude of the Kills’ “Fried My Little Brains” into the White Stripes classic “Cannon.” Then there was the first performance of “Astro” – a throwback to the Stripes’ 1999 full-length debut – since the now-defunct duo’s final show on July 31, 2007 in Southaven, Mississippi.

As more than 70,000 voices took up the militaristic “oh, oh oh oh, oh-oh, ooooh” chant of the show-closing “Seven Nation Army,” it was clear that this show would go down in history not just because it featured some of the most amazing interpretations one of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll’s most prolific artists, but also because it looked backward, forward, sideways – hell, it looked every which way – in time to represent rock ‘n’ roll music itself as one of the most galvanizing traditions on planet Earth.

Check out our all our Bonnaroo coverage from this year.