The 10 Best Acts We Saw at Bonnaroo 2019

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The 10 Best Acts We Saw at Bonnaroo 2019

Bonnaroo 2019 proved to be a return to form for the annual Manchester, Tenn. festival. A couple decades after Phish began booking a handful of their own rural, outdoor concerts, laying the groundwork for festivals like Bonnaroo, the beloved jam band made their third appearance at the farm for three sets spread across the weekend. So not only did ‘Roo get back to its jam roots, but it also welcomed huge pop names like Cardi B, Post Malone, Childish Gambino and Odesza. Sprinkled here and there were indie acts big—Courtney Barnett, Beach House, The National—and small—Faye Webster, SOAK and Rubblebucket. Country titans like Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris played the fest’s biggest stages. It was quite the combination for a festival whose puzzling 2018 headliners were Eminem and The Killers, but whatever formula they tested this year, it worked: The festival sold out for the first time since 2013, and in doing so maintained its free-spirited, communal vibes. The farm is still one of the best (or at least, most iconic) places to hear music in the country. Keep scrolling for our favorite moments of the weekend.

1. Courtney Barnett

Aussie rocker Courtney Barnett is a road warrior. She’s been touring off and on behind her 2018 album Tell Me How You Really Feel for the better part of a year now, and she’s currently supporting The National, who also played the fest Saturday. But the months spent on the move have done nothing to deter her energy. Her Friday evening set was just as loud and moving as you’d expect. She tore through several of Tell Me’s more political tracks, like “Nameless, Faceless,” and saved room for tender tunes from her back catalogue like “Depreston,” what she described as a story about death and “real estate.” —Ellen Johnson

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2. Deafheaven

Deafheaven don’t exactly have home-field advantage at Bonnaroo. While the number of rock acts on this lineup might be slim, the number of metal acts is even slimmer. Their midnight set essentially drew two groups of people: diehard metalheads and metal novices. Both camps witnessed a commanding, artistically-nuanced metal band on Friday night. Frontman George Clarke forcefully gyrated his head with his long hair twirling majestically in the spotlight, and the crowd control staff looked like concerned mothers when the circle pit opened up, but fans had each others’ backs. Their 12-minute monster “Honeycomb” from their latest album Ordinary Corrupt Human Love was the obvious highlight with its thrash metal and blackgaze crescendos. —Lizzie Manno

3. Faye Webster

Sunday was Father’s Day, and while most artists and ‘Roo attendees were forced to exchange texts or a fleeting call with their dads, Faye Webster’s was front row for her brief but charming set at This Tent. “Happy Father’s Day,” she said after opening with 2017’s “She Won’t Go Away.” After that it was a series of songs from her new 2019 album Atlanta Millionaires Club, like “Right Side of My Neck,” “Kingston” and “Come to Atlanta.” The indie singer/songwriter was decked out in a visor and a Braves jersey, fitting attire especially after the baseball team beat the Phillies 15-1 that same afternoon. Webster hit it out of the park, too: The small but attentive crowd sang along to woozy R&B jams like “Kingston” and “Room Temperature.” This was Webster’s first Bonnaroo, but with a hit indie record now under her belt and a blooming career, it likely won’t be her last. —Ellen Johnson

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4. John Prine

John Prine’s Saturday set felt like a church service attended by all of Nashville. The songwriting legend is revered across all kinds of music genres, but when it comes to country/folk, he’s nothing short of godlike. Here in Tennessee, performing on the same day as country successors like Kacey Musgraves, Ruston Kelly and Maren Morris, John Prine was welcomed warmly. He brought out Kelsey Waldon for a lovely take on “In Spite of Ourselves” and Brandi Carlile, a Sunday Bonnaroo performer, for “Summer’s End,” from last year’s The Tree of Forgiveness. He also played classics like the always moving “Hello in There.” It was pure, G-rated musical perfection. Prine’s innate goodness is a rare delight to behold. —Ellen Johnson

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5. Kacey Musgraves

Early Saturday morning, I was sitting in the press tent when I heard what sounded like the opening bars of Kacey Musgraves’ “Wonder Woman” bouncing off a distant stage. I leapt from my seat and charged across a field only to find Musgraves and her all-star band warming up for Saturday evening’s much anticipated set, flanked by eager fans and early risers who, like me, had correctly suspected the source of that sweet noise. “Wonder Woman” is a back-end treasure from Golden Hour, one that’s even more enjoyable to hear live. That 10-minute soundcheck was itself perfection, but the real deal was on a whole other plane of blissed-out elation. The immaculate set marked Musgraves’ sixth year in a row performing on the farm, and her third major festival performance this summer after both Coachella and Governor’s Ball, where she was met with a screaming mass of NYC music fans. But it’s different in Tennessee. I couldn’t help but believe her when Musgraves said, “I’m not lying at all when I say that Bonnaroo is my absolute [sic] favorite place to play.” It was the perfectly timed golden hour performance of Golden Hour hits, from the uplifting piano ballad “Rainbow” to a plucky rendition of the title track. She wound down the set with an unexpected but delightful cover of The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?” and closed out with her disco-infused bop, “High Horse.” A shower of globe-shaped balloons rained down on the crowd, rainbows peeked out from every corner and a troupe of drag queens (some of whom were on stilts) emerged for a finale we’ll not soon forget. —Ellen Johnson

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6. Phish

I’m certainly not the first authority on Phish—that title belongs to their hordes of fans spanning generations, sprawling corners of Reddit and some of the country’s biggest music venues—but as a somewhat official warrant on what was good at ‘Roo 2019, I’m both delighted and slightly surprised to report that Phish’s show is about as good as it gets in touring live music. While Sunday night’s twin sets were said to be especially fan-friendly, Friday night’s warm-up show was also rock solid. It was something of a perfect entry for novices like myself: The intricate lighting choreography was a show in and of itself, and glow sticks rained on the crowd at just the right times during classics like “Tweezer,” “Harry Hood” and “Possum.” The musical dynamics and energy were unparalleled—Phish phans are some of the most passionate in music, and it didn’t take long for me to give into their glee. —Ellen Johnson

7. Princess feat. Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum

Master character artist Maya Rudolph has played everyone from God to Lady Liberty, but her most underrated role may be as one half of the Prince cover band Princess. I didn’t know I could love the Saturday Night Live vet and Bridesmaids star any more, but after witnessing her chops as a dancer, singer and tambourine-wielder, my fandom has taken a turn for the obsessed. Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum sang and cut loose to coordinated dance moves while a band slapped down the delicious bass-lines, slippery synths and gnarly guitar grooves from songs like “Lady Cab Driver,” “Little Red Corvette” and “1999.” In Rudolph’s words, the atmosphere became increasingly “nasty” with every funky cover. One exceptionally entertaining sequence featured lots of Rudolph banter interrupted by an emphatic “Good God!,” a phrase initially coined by James Brown and later used by Prince. My sentiments exactly. —Ellen Johnson

8. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Apart from Phish, Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever were arguably the best rock band to grace the Bonnaroo stage and easily the best of the up-and-comers. The bouncy, beachy tunes from their Sub Pop debut Hope Downs grabbed the crowd instantly, and they never lost their grip. They expressed gratitude for simply getting booked, commenting that it was likely the biggest crowd they’d ever played for. Their set was a jolt of melodic rock filled with pure-hearted joy and carefree celebration. In the middle of their set, a festival staff member swapped out the sign with the name of the previous performer that hung above the stage and raised a Rolling Blackouts sign in its place, and the crowd unleashed a jolly roar, which could also work as a description of their performance. —Lizzie Manno

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9. SOAK

Bridie Monds-Watson (aka SOAK) might have had a brief lineup clash with Courtney Barnett, but the modest crowd who turned up to watch the Northern Irish singer/songwriter was treated to one of the most refreshing, breezy performances of the festival. There was also an annoyingly glitchy EDM act playing in the distance, which loudly blared in between songs (her guitar player joked with the crowd, “Why aren’t you guys at that?”), but SOAK cut through the noise with a buoyant performance of her musically cheerful, lyrically wistful selections from her new album Grim Town, released earlier this year on Rough Trade Records. SOAK is much more soulful than your average indie-pop act, and she bared that soul for the Who Stage audience, all while donned in impeccable, zany printed pants. —Lizzie Manno

10. Solange

Solange’s live show is a testament to her vision. The younger Knowles sister shares Beyoncé’s adoration for spectacle, but her execution in a live setting feels even more—dare I say—intentional (excluding Homecoming, of course). For her tour following 2016’s A Seat at the Table, she went for an all-red look. Everyone on stage, including her all-black brass band, wore the same color. She went for a similar idea on Friday, but this time everyone was decked out in all black, save for a troupe of dancing cowgirls in white. From the powerful testament to black faith that is “Almeda” to the groovy “Stay Flo, the set was cohesive, beautiful and impactful. It’s not dramatic to say Solange’s live show is one of the best around. —Ellen Johnson

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