Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no doubt that everything involved in the production of a music festival demands a certain type of respect—the artists, the organizers, the fans.
Take the musical entity that is Bonnaroo, for example. A mere week ago I returned back to reality in Arizona from the middle of Tennessee, as nearly 100,000 other people were doing the same around the world. The four-day music festival was a feat to survive on its own: the weather that ranged from 95 degrees with 100% humidity to apocalyptic thunderstorms, the smelly hippies tripping on God knows what, camping, no showers and hot box Port-A-Potties.
But it was also a utopia, especially in today’s society. Thousands of people from all over the world, an array of religions and races, arrived to a pretty obscure 700-acre farm to experience the potent cocktail of art, music and love that is called Bonnaroo.
It was my first Bonnaroo, but there were a ton of people I encountered that had been attending for the festival’s entire run so far—an impressive 12 years. This year accommodated more than 40 musical acts and comedians per day, spread among eight stages, starting at noon and reaching into dawn. It was literally impossible to experience everything the festival had to offer. Even if you didn’t go to any of the shows I don’t think you could have waded through the unique experiences offered such as drum constructing, daily art classes and documentaries, vendor shopping, food truck row, glass blowing demos, waterslides and fountains, hula-hooping lessons, Ferris wheel rides, light shows, and just plain people-watching.
Headliners included such legends as Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Jack Johnson (who saved the day after Mumford & Sons cancelled), ZZ Top, Animal Collective, Wu Tang Clan, Wilco and Passion Pit. But Bonnaroo also played host to a wealth of bands with female members—and that’s where a lot of the memorable music really shined.
It was hard to pick the favorite feminine acts of the weekend, but we managed to get the list down to 12.
Let us know your own favorite Bonnaroo sets in the comments section.
This may be an obvious choice, but there’s a reason for that—they are damn good. Founding members, guitarist/vocalist Wesley Schultz and drummer Jeremiah Fraites, brought on female cellist/vocalist Neyla Pekarek in 2010, and pianist Stelth Ulvang and bassist Ben Wahamaki joined the band in 2012. The rustic folk rock act brought out a crowd that quickly became enormous as the sun was setting. Shultz jumped into the crowd for a few passionate songs about community before leading an enormous sing-along of “Stubborn Love.” Pekarek, who used to be in an all-female barbershop quartet before The Lumineers, always puts out an enthusiastic energy, and all the members have this undeniable comfort with each other. They played hits like “Ho Hey” early on in the set, and saved some more obscure material for later—including a fun cover of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Singer-songwriter, Brooklyn-based Cat Power, also known as Chan Marshall, went on stage during the hottest part of one of the hottest days. Her soulful performance immediately grasped the attention of several people walking by, causing groups of people to cluster together in order to seek shade while slowly starting to move to her hits. She kicked it off with her slower, more haunting music, like “The Greatest,” before launching into her newer hits, including “Manhattan” and “Silent Machine.” She closed out around sunset with a bluesy version of “I Don’t Blame You” off her 2003 album You Are Free. I’ve always felt like Cat Power was such a badass, and her black ensemble and black aviators in the hot sun only solidified my opinion.
Halfway into this jagged indie pop act’s set, frontman David Longstreth gave the women in the crowd a little boost—“The next song is called ‘See What She’s Seeing’… and I feel bad for all the women in the tent today who can’t see,” he said. “So, men, this isn’t a command, but feel free to put the women up on your shoulders for this song.” By the end of the song almost a 100 women were in the air on guys’ shoulders. Combined with the highlight of the set (at least for me) of singer-guitarist Amber Coffman’s crooning vocals on “Stillness is the Move”, it was quite an incredible sight.
It seems as if it could be a blessing and a curse to be Beyonce’s younger sister, and I’ve often wondered how about her live show. Throughout the weekend, Solange had surprise appearances at a Superjam and with Grizzly Bear, but she held her own just fine on the large stage. Impossibly fresh-looking in the heat, she swayed and fluttered around the stage, her long braids streaming in the occasional breeze. She kicked off her set with the whimsical “Bad Girls,” giving fans and newcomers such as myself a solid taste of her soulful, dreamy pop style. Towards the end, she covered Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is the Move,” which also displayed her impressive vocal range. I only wish she had given us more of that.
I had never heard of this majestic Oregon folk band until stumbling upon them at Bonnaroo, but their style range made their set captivating from start to finish. From bluegrass to jazz to Romanian music, the five-piece self-proclaimed bluegrass band had a female accordion player, Jenny Conlee. She was a personal favorite of mine, but maybe it’s because my own grandmother is a devoted accordion player too? Black Prairie’s crowd was pretty tame, and several flower-child hippies took full advantage of the extra dance room. On top of that, Black Prairie introduced a new instrument to me called the Stroh violin, which is a cross between a trumpet and a violin.
Considering the Cults went on at 12:30 p.m., the indie-pop duo had a decent turn out. Frontwoman Madeline Follin has had an increasingly stronger presence since their debut album was released in 2011, and today she came off as power, passionate and combative towards the heat. They started with an energetic version of “Abducted” before charging into mainstream favorites such as “You Know What I Mean”. Follin’s reverb-laden vocals rang strongly through the dreamy “Go Outside” and the bluesy “The Curse.” It was an impressive set considering keyboardist Brian Oblivion told the crowd that they “just got out of a deep, dark hole recording our new album for the last seven months… We finished yesterday, and this has been the best welcome back.”
There’s no way Lucius didn’t win over a few new fans at Bonnaroo, and it’s a shame that they were on the small Sonic Stage. The powerful harmonies floated out of the garden, causing a crowd to gather around the entrance as the Brooklyn five-piece jammed out on the mellow “Don’t Just Sit There” as cooling rain drops fell from the sky. Founded by front women Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe, their music has been described as “luscious, luminous, lilting lullabies” by The New York Times. Towards the end of the set, they covered My Morning Jacket’s “Wonderful,” with a wonderful twist from the original.
Deap Vally comes through Arizona often, so it wasn’t my first time seeing them and it definitely won’t be the last. Drummer Julie Edwards told a bevy of stories to the audience, including one about a time they were hard up for cash and told fans if they bought merch and wore it, that fan would have a song dedicated to them. At that point, she added that if a guy wanted to get naked, they would dedicate a song to him. Before long, front woman Lindsey Troy squinted into the crowd. “Are you naked? Let’s give this man a round of applause. This is what a music festival is all about!” At that point, they found the perfect tune to bust out: “Walk of Shame.” Deap Vally played a wealth of their many boot-stomping, ferocious and sexy, White Stripes and Black Keys-style hard rock, including my personal favorite “Raw Material.”
Haim’s entire set was an energetic celebration of the three twenty-something sisters vocal abilities, peppered with impromptu drum solos. It was an ideal accent to Bonnaroo’s party vibe, particularly in the mind’s of all the women attendees, I’m sure. The band’s ’80s-influenced harmonic pop-rock has been displayed in Haim’s handful of singles and EP release, but the best part of the set was a non-musical ode to a particular fan. Halfway through the show, bassist Este Haim shouted “Stop the set. There’s a little boy with a sign that says, ‘Kiss me, Este!’” She catapulted across the stage, smooched the boy (a toddler named Asa) and escorted him onstage—in his giant yellow earmuffs and all—to be a part of “Send Me Down”. Shortly thereafter, Este informed the crowd, “I’m engaged now,” while smiling.
For me, Trixie Whitley was an odd choice for Bonnaroo—her music is a brand of mellow, hypnotic, soulful swamp rock—and she even admitted it. At the hottest part of one afternoon, she appeared on the stage in a long black gown. “I know it’s hot out there!” she shouted. “But we appreciate you staying and listening to our slower jams!” But even through the heat, I was mesmerized by Whitley’s sound. There were moments during her set when she sang with such power that I just lied back in the grass and closed my eyes. Which resulted in my most wicked sunburn of the festival, as well.
Kacey Musgraves’ set was packed on the second largest stage, probably because so many fans had heard her Top 10 single “Merry Go ’Round”. Her airy, cheerful voice paired perfectly with the light breeze and sunshine. She sang her free-spirited “Follow Your Arrow,” covered Weezer’s “Island in the Sun” with pedal steel, and developed her jam “Step Off” into a reggae number and a Bob Marley sing-along (“Three Little Birds”). She also talked a lot about drugs, adding, “I’m tripping out right now, I’ve always wanted to play Bonnaroo. Who’s actually tripping at Bonnaroo?”
If you haven’t heard Southern rock band Houndmouth, it’s time to give them a listen. Trust me; you’ll thank us. They were definitely one of the smaller acts on the Bonnaroo bill and on one of the smaller stages, but they encapsulate all that is 2013 Southern bluesy, classic, defiant folk rock, a brand that is all the rage right now. The gorgeous keyboardist/vocalist Katie Toupin completely wows and reminded this writer of an early Alabama Shakes. That makes sense, since the influences of the members (Zak Appleby, Shane Cody and Matt Myers alongside Toupin) include David Bowie, Randy Newman and the Faces. The band’s debut full-length album, From the Hills Below the City, came out recently and presents a sound as honest and biting as the band’s name: While recording a couple years ago at Shane’s house, they played their tracks back and could hear the neighbor’s dogs barking. Shane said it wasn’t going to work because the recordings contained too much “houndmouth.”