Every year, tens of thousands of music fanatics the world over gather on “the farm” in Manchester, Tennessee for Bonnaroo. Also, it has become tradition to see which sets have left the greatest mark on the festival-goers. Showmanship, the timing of the show, and the size of the artist’s existing fanbase serve as key factors in determining which artists leave Tennessee with the most positive response. In 2014, most of the news and opinions arose from Elton John’s closing set, Kanye’s polarizing rants, and Ukranian group DakhaBrakha’s outlandish stylings. Let’s take a look at which artists are poised to leave their mark on this year’s fest.
1. Kendrick Lamar
Lamar is riding high on the commercial and critical success of his third full-length album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” This album’s daring messages and instrumentals are finding listeners across all genre lines. Although Kendrick’s primary audience is hip-hop purists, his headlining slot demonstrates his exponentially increasing widespread appeal. His last time out on the road, he opened for Kanye West’s Yeezus tour, giving an understated performance without many bells and whistles. Especially if he is joined on stage by the innovative geniuses behind much of TPAB’s sound, Thundercat and Flying Lotus, I’d expect this Saturday night set to leave a lasting impression on all who listen.
2. Billy Joel
Much like his piano-ballad-pop spiritual brother Elton John last year, it seems as though Billy Joel will be closing the ceremonies on a Sunday night. I’d expect a similar “best-of” compilation for a setlist. Joel’s timeless sing-along classics like “Piano Man” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” will create some of the most crowd-friendly moments of the weekend that will appeal to Bonnaroovians of all ages.
Deadmau5 may be the headliner, but his era at the top of electronic music may have passed. Plus, Tennessee has a much closer relationship with Bassnectar, because he performs in Bridgestone Arena every New Year’s Eve. On Saturday, as one of the last rave-inducing electronic artists left to play on the bill, the producer will undoubtedly get the crowd moving. For those more interested in raving through that grey area between night and morning, Bassnectar ought to provide the best opportunity.
4. Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels is playing what seems like every major North American festival this summer. After seeing them perform at Exit/In in the fall, I can understand why: El-P and Killer Mike simply love performing live. Their banter and rapid-fire wordplay create an aggressively celebratory atmosphere that will play well on Friday night, square in the middle of the weekend’s proceedings. Their beats have aspects that can appeal to those whose tastes lie far away from rap, and I’d expect these boundary-pushing beats to combine with their typically furious lyricism to attract plenty of new fans.
5. Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso recently demonstrated how quickly their star is rising, earning rave reviews for their show at Cannery Ballroom here in Nashville. The hypnotic electronic backdrop enhances the sweet vocal melodies. This band format is becoming increasingly popular, but the particularly serene sounds of Sylvan Esso will go over perfectly with the laidback crowd. There’s a magnetism in their music that will bring in plenty of attendees drifting between stages.
6. Mac Demarco
Mac Demarco is the de facto “headliner” of Thursday, and that day of Bonnaroo fits the emotions of his album “Salad Days.” Relax and ease yourself into the festival with his simple, spacey rock. His live shows could be called “irreverent,” and those who do wouldn’t be incorrect. However, with Demarco’s history of antics, it’s clear to see that his irreverence for rules and musical tradition crosses back over into irreverence for that reverence. Demarco’s music is going to be a perfect reminder at the outset that Bonnaroo’s a place to relax and forget whatever’s ailing you. Respect that relaxation and enjoy.