Phoebe Bridgers, Brittany Howard, and Sylvan Esso Took Bonnaroo to Nashville for Cathartic Make-Up Show

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“Bonnaroo would’ve been sweet, but this is pretty tight!” Phoebe Bridgers said, looking out at the 7,000 people filling Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater this past Saturday.

Bridgers was headlining a last-minute show put together by the organizers of Bonnaroo in lieu of the festival—which was unfortunately canceled last week due to Hurricane Ida flooding. Setting up shop in Nashville’s gorgeous downtown amphitheater, Bridgers, Brittany Howard, and Sylvan Esso all delivered their brilliant, festival-ready sets for an overjoyed crowd.

The North Carolina-born electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso kicked things off right at 7 p.m., taking the stage with a special band named WITH, who they intended to host the annual Bonnaroo Superjam alongside. With an uber-musical performance—featuring saxophones, trumpets, synths, vibrant three-part harmonies, and palpably uplifting energy—the band went through a romping set of originals and covers. While the unnamed special guests they were going to feature at Bonnaroo didn’t make any appearances, the covers (“Peg” by Steely Dan, “Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac, and “Shout” by the Isley Brothers) exuded a feeling nothing short of unabridged joy. 

Following that, Brittany Howard took the stage and, arguably, stole the show. Draped in a long gold jacket and backed by an eight-person band—with backing harmonies, a dynamic rhythm section, blistering guitar parts, and a mind-meltingly good B3 player to boot—Howard essentially took the amphitheater to musical church. That is to say, between the beaming sense of authenticity and the nearly unfathomable skill demonstrated by the 32-year-old artist and her band, something sublime was released into the air. Whether it was catharsis from the cancelation of the festival or from the past year and a half of pandemic woes or just from the grind of life itself, it was powerful, colorful, holistic, and healing. Performing soulful tracks like “He Loves Me,” “Stay High” and more, Howard herself seemed moved.

“Every day it’s more bad news,” she said. “I’m trying to give y’all some good news!”

Closing the night, Bridgers and her band took the stage all donned in the 27-year-old singer-songwriter’s signature skeleton suit (don’t tell John Entwistle about the “signature” part). Starting her set with her anthemic hit “Motion Sickness,” Bridgers brought her A-game, impressively making the 7,000-seat, open-air venue feel like an intimate bedroom. Playing fan-favorites “Chinese Satellite” and “Moon Song” solo acoustic sealed the deal on making the evening a sentimental delight. 

Near the end of her set, Bridgers pulled out a pretty neat cover too: “That Funny Feeling,” from Bo Burnham’s recent special Inside. Getting cheers, laughs, and boos as she sang his lines about Etsy agitprop, civil wars, and Logan Paul, it felt like the zeitgeist personified. Then, with perhaps the most energy of any song out of the whole show, she closed the night with a blistering performance of “I Know The End,” complete with smoke, screaming, and a kick-ass guitar solo.

Ultimately, nothing could possibly hope to fill the shoes of an entire Bonnaroo festival, but so far as three single performances in an evening can go, this was probably about as close as you could possibly get. The performances were stellar, the weather was fantastic and, above all else, there was that magical feeling of community and togetherness, that distant echo of the Woodstock dream that still finds its way into live events one way or another. After setback after setback, it was a thrill to see that spirit alive and kicking again. 

Watch Phoebe Bridgers perform “I Know The End” at this past Saturday’s Bonnaroo Presents show below:

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