Written by Daniel Kohn • Photography by Pooneh Ghana • June 7, 2017
Since 2002, hundreds of thousands of people have descended upon the tiny town of Manchester, TN for the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Initially a haven for jam bands, ‘Roo has grown to include artists from across all genres, even becoming one of the first festivals to book a variety of stand-up comedians. On top of that, superjams — which are curated by artists who plow through a number of covers slicing across genres with a little help from their friends — have become one of the more unique and beloved aspects of the fest.
Ahead of the 2017 event, which runs June 8-11 and includes U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper, Lorde and The xx (get ticket info here), we decided to take a look back at many of the festival’s highlights from over the years, and what they meant for the festival’s history and for fans who were down on The Farm.
?uestlove’s role of de facto Tonight Show bandleader has made him one of the more versatile and visible drummers in music. Back in 2012, he was only beginning to realize his powers. Leading the way at that year’s superjam, he managed to shock the audience by bringing D’Angelo out of seclusion. Prior to that appearance, the R&B singer hadn’t been heard from in over a decade and questions about his whereabouts were rampant. His appearance here, along with Parliament Funkadelic, The Time and, of course, The Roots made this one of the more surprising moments in Bonnaroo. His vocals were in prime form on the Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and proved that not only was D’Angelo back, he was ready to kick ass again.
The Boss usually doesn’t do festivals in the States. That’s just a fact, and, he sells out stadiums, so why would he? He made an exception for Bonnaroo. In addition to popping up with Phish (more on that later), Springsteen and the E Street Band played one of their trademark thrilling sets, sticking mostly to blending classics with rarities and new tunes from Working on a Dream, and taking sign requests from crowd. Even in the sweltering June heat, Springsteen found the humor in playing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It was classic Boss and clocking in at around three hours, it continued to define his not-to-be missed status as a live performer.
Pearl Jam’s 2008 tour was one of the band's most memorable. PJ dusted off a number of sparsely played songs on this short run, which culminated in debatably their best show of these dates. They zoomed over their allowed set time by an hour (which we’ll get to in a bit) and performed rarities like “All Night,” “W.M.A.,” “Who You Are,” and a cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” The end of the Bush presidency saw Eddie Vedder angry and defiant, and this show remains top notch in a history full of iconic moments.
Following the aforementioned PJ triumphant set, which ran over its set time, Kanye West was slated to perform at 2 a.m. That ended up being pushed two-and-a-half hours to compensate for his massive stage setup and apparently confusion among his road crew. Needless to say, festivalgoers were restless and irritated by the time his Glow in the Dark performance was ready to go. The up-and-down set later led to one of Kanye’s legendary rants on his blog nine days after the fact, where he blamed everyone he could.
One of the more best things that can happen at Bonnaroo is stumbling upon a sparsely attended, early day set. When Warren Haynes did this in 2003, few knew that the Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers Band guitarist would put in a career-shining solo performance. Covering Radiohead’s “Lucky,” U2’s “One,” Eagles’ “Wasted Time” and a slew of Grateful Dead tunes, Haynes’ acoustic-driven set wowed many and proved that the best moments at the fest can happen when few people are awake.
When the festival was still in its early stages, this Primus set was one of the key moments in building The Farm’s legacy. Much like Green Day at Woodstock in 1994, Les Claypool and company were met with poor weather when they hit the stage for a late night set. The rain didn’t deter the band nor fans, and this show in the mud quickly became known as one of the band’s best.
Surprisingly, Phish haven’t been down to Manchester as many times as you’d think. That’s partially due to the band’s split in the early Aughts, but when they played in 2009, they had a special guest that made this different than any other Phish show. As a singular moment, there’s none that really captures the essence of the festival as this done does. Playing with Bruce Springsteen is one thing, but having the Boss sit in for three songs — “Mustang Sally,” “Bobby Jean,” and “Glory Days” — is an entirely different beast. The loose, extended jams thrilled the audience during the band’s second set and Springsteen was completely at home rocking with Phish. All the parties involved appeared to have a blast in the process too.
My Morning Jacket were Bonnaroo favorites well before this career-defining performance. But nothing quite compared to this four-hour mega set that set the tone for the rest of the festival that year. Like Primus four years earlier, the band tore through a marathon set in less than ideal weather. Guest appearances by Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and soon-to-be Hangover comedian Zach Galifiankis, the band weaved in eclectic covers from Mötley Crüe and Parliament, which delighted the crowd well into the humid night.
Superjams have always been an integral part of making Bonnaroo different from other festivals. This one, in particular, was pretty epic. With the theme being Led Zeppelin (as is the norm for superjams to have a theme), Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones performed with ?uestlove, and Ben Harper for 90 minutes of glorious tunes that paid tribute to his former band.
It’s easy to forget now, but 2009 was supposed to mark the return of the Beastie Boys. Armed with a tour and a new album, Hot Sauce Committee Vol. 1, Adrock, MCA and Mike D. took over Bonnaroo which much fanfare. As is their wont, the Beasties tore through a career-spanning, high energy set that also featured a guest spot from Nas, who was on the lead single from that never-to-be released album. But it wasn’t meant to be. Shortly after this show, MCA was diagnosed with cancer, and the group would never perform again.
This was easily one of the more wide-ranging superjams in the festival’s history. The Jim James and John Oates curated event had an array of artists performing that reflected their respective diverse musical tastes. Featuring Larry Graham from Sly & the Family Stone, Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes, Zigaboo Modeliste from The Meters, Billy Idol, and R. Kelly, the action packed set featured a wide range of covers from John Lennon, T. Rex, Sam Cooke, Prince and Sly and the Family Stone.
Though he’d played Coachella in 2008, this McCartney performance set the tone for the current state of his career. Performing a slew of solo, Wings and of course, Beatles tunes, Macca firmly entrenched himself (once again) as the go-to, safe festival choice among classic rock fans. Rolling through a three-hour set and performing with the vigor of someone half his age, McCartney led fans through sing-alongs well into the night. Too bad he didn’t find a way to weave “Say Say Say” into this tour.
It’s easy to forget that the Police made a triumphant return to touring, after all, it’s already been a decade. But Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland thrilled The Farm with the hit-laden catalog. Not having anything new to promote wasn’t a big deal. Hearing nearly 80,000 strong singing along to the band’s biggest hits proved this was a booking that helped usher the festival in an era of bigger classic rock bands.
Radiohead being on the 2006 bill wasn’t a head scratcher. But certainly, no one knew what they had up their sleeve. At the time, the band was finishing up In Rainbows and a bunch of the yet-to-be released tunes made their debut on The Farm. The set is one of the band’s most bootlegged and one of their most epic. Embracing their catalog outside of Pablo Honey, the two-and-a-half hour set featured 28 songs and was the most talked about performance of that year.
Hip hop wasn’t always a staple at Bonnaroo. Following the 2008 Kanye performance, festival fans were hesitant for it to go beyond its jammy roots. Hova changed that. Thrilling with 28 of his most recognizable songs, including those from The Blueprint 3, the rapper ushered in a new era where not only was rap embraced, but became an important part of the Bonnaroo fabric forever after.
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