Life On The Farm: Bonnaroo Lineup Analysis

Image courtesy of Stereogum

The Coachella lineup gave us a taste of festival season.  For Vandy students, a quality Rites lineup with heavy-hitting headliners kept the hype train rolling.  And last night’s Bonnaroo lineup announcement after a mid-February day that felt like mid-spring has me feeling like festivals should be starting tomorrow.  Bonnaroo, a four-day music festival that is among the nation’s best, is only a one hour drive from Vandy’s campus in Manchester, TN.  It is a must-go for anyone staying in the Nashville metro, and really the greater southeast United States, in the summertime (and a must-go for anyone with the necessary funds to travel from further away).  True to its reputation, this year’s lineup didn’t disappoint, although it does come with one head-scratching omission.

The Omission—Where’s OutKast?

Before I dive into all of the highlights that I see in the lineup, I’m going to get the disappointment out of the way.  OutKast is a hip-hop duo hailing from Atlanta, GA, consisting of Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, famous for hits such as “Bombs Over Baghdad,” “Roses,” “Ms. Jackson,” “The Way You Move,” and, of course, “Hey Ya!”  The group has been on hiatus since 2007, and recently announced a reunion to celebrate the 20th anniversary since releasing their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.  The reunion will kick-off with a headlining slot at Coachella in April, and the duo was announced to be performing at more than 40 festivals worldwide during the spring and summer of this year.

Which is why it was shocking to see them missing from the Roo lineup when it dropped.  Andre 3000 and Big Boi are very proud of their Atlanta roots, and it only made sense that one of those 40+ festivals would be the largest festival in the southeastern US so that they could perform for hometown fans that would likely make the just-under 3 hour drive to their region’s equivalent to Coachella.    They are our neighbor–why haven’t we lent them some sugar?  And outside of the regional significance of the group, they are just plain good performers and artists, and ones that any festival would love to get.  Thankfully, the rest of the lineup more than makes up for this surprising omission.

The Headliners

By this time, we all know about Kanye at festivals; his sets are amazing, being just as much a visual masterpiece above and beyond the music as a concert itself (The “Chariots of Fire” intro into “Runaway” from his 2011 Coachella set is a perfect example of what I’m talking about–strong language warning for the below video).  We can expect more of the same, along with artists that he’s collaborated with appearing live rather than their samples being used.

Jack White is another known quantity.  A great musician in his own right, and a respect for many subgenres throughout the history of rock will produce a great and varied set with high energy.  And Nashville hipsters love him, so he’ll be drawing a good number of a large, nearby, prominent demographic.

The big one here is Elton John.  Last year’s lineup was headlined by established rock artists such as Paul McCartney and Tom Petty, and although I could not attend because my internship was in New Mexico, all that I’ve heard about their sets is positive.  Bonnaroo is hoping that the legacy performer will work here again, and Elton John is the perfect artist to make it be a smash.  As much as Paul is beloved for his Beatles days and Tom Petty produced solid rock, Elton John absolutely transcends generational boundaries, with classic hits such as “Tiny Dancer” being played on live TV by David Grohl, performances with Eminem at the Grammy’s, work with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and, most notably, his role in The Lion King soundtrack that many of us young folks grew up knowing.  His hits are too many to list in this post; he will be phenomenal.

The Unique Grabs

Roo has a duo of acts that I have yet to see on any major US festival lineups this year that will be amazing shows: Frank Ocean and Ms. Lauryn Hill.

Frank Ocean might be the most gifted R&B artist out there right now; a natural baritone that can hit notes that are usually reserved for the soprano part.  He has an ear for arrangements, apparent on his breakthrough channel ORANGE album that sounded more like an album from R&B and soul’s past that just happened to discover sounds from today before they rose to popularity than a 2012 release.  His live performance is not to be missed, especially the tour de force ballad “Thinkin Bout You.”

Lauryn Hill has recently been making headlines for her guilty plea and subsequent prison stay in relation to tax evasion charges, but one should not forget that she is an amazing singer and rapper.  Her work in The Fugees and her The Miseducation of  Lauryn Hill album are phenomenal, and with so few tour dates out there for her, her set is one that you don’t want to miss.

The EDM Superjam

One of the great experiences of Bonnaroo is the Superjam, a musical event headlined by one artist who brings in many collaborators, both on and missing from the Bonnaroo lineup, and simply do what the name implies: jam.  This year’s lineup includes three Superjams: Ed Helms returns to host the Bluegrass Situation Superjam, a yet-to-be-announced Superjam, and the “Superjam with Skrillex and Friends.”

I know what you’re thinking.  Skrillex, and brostep are old news.  Baauer brought trap to the forefront, and that died quickly too.  There are newer and cooler things in EDM right now.  And perhaps, how can you have a jam with pre-recorded tracks?

The answer to those concerns is that Skrillex gets more flak than he deserves.  While he was one of the proprietors in the evolution and subsequent popularity of the brostep sound, he is much more than that; he is a well-rounded EDM artist (check out the track “Leaving” below from an EP of the same name), and almost more important is that he is big on spinning live rather than playing his pre-recorded tracks.

Expect to see Skrillex and fellow electronic collaborators (Danger Mouse from Broken Bells, Disclosure, Zedd, The Glitch Mob, James Blake, CHVRCHES, and A Tribe Called Red would be phenomenal) put together some on the spot jams.  Beyond the scope of electronic music, I wouldn’t be surprised to see live instrumentalists join the Superjam (an Arctic Monkeys guitar riff just screams potential in this regard), and probably some rappers spitting freestyle on top (Chance The Rapper and Danny brown are who I have in mind here).

And if electronic music simply isn’t your thing?  The bluegrass Superjam is there for an old-time music feel, and the yet-to-be announced Superjam has to be tantalizing with its potential.

The Power Bottom

Besides those unique artists and the Superjams mentioned, the interquartile range of the lineup looks pretty standard for festivals.  There’s something there for everyone regardless of your genre preferences, and it’s in both quantity and quality.  What’s great about this interquartile is that there really isn’t going to be any uproar about a particular artist being missing, because where you would expect to see them you’ll find someone else that you particularly love.  Some personal artists that excite me here are those that I mentioned in the Superjams section, Ben Howard, CAKE, Dr. Dog, The Naked and Famous, and MS MR.

What really makes this lineup stand out is that bottom quartile.  Where you would normally find bands that you gloss over, I’m seeing names that jump out.  HAERTS.  Banks.  Jon Batiste.  Lake Street Dive.  Vance Joy.

Why do these names jump out?  Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price sang the national anthem for a scene in season two of House Of Cards.  Jon Batiste is the youngest Associate Artistic Director at The National Jazz Museum.  Vance Joy’s “Riptide” was named 2013’s top song in Triple-J’s Hottest 100, which polls people from all over the world and asks what their favorite songs of the year are.

There are some thrilling names at the bottom; even Drake is getting excited (bad joke?  I don’t care).  With strong headliners, unique artist-viewing opportunities, an innovative Superjam, and a great low-bill surrounding a middle section without holes, the Bonnaroo lineup more than makes up for the OutKast omission, and looks to be the best festival announced thus far in 2013 in my book.  Hope I can make it out to The Farm this year to experience it.