Over the four days of Bonnaroo 2014, festival goers down on the biggest gathering in Manchester, Tenn. were treated to stellar performances on the five main stages. Thousands gathered for the headlining acts, but there were highlights in the early afternoon and in the wee hours of the morning, as crowds danced toward the sunrise. With so much going on during the four-day extravaganza, it was impossible to catch every single act — but we saw a whole lot of them, and these 10 artists were the most memorable contributors to the music marathon. When all was said and done, these were the 10 sets that highlighted Bonnaroo 2014:
10. Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean can hypnotize a festival crowd with just his presence. On Saturday night at Bonnaro, his onstage demeanor matched how soft-spoken he is during interviews, and at times, it was hard to even hear him sing, because the crowd knew every word to every single one of his songs. In fact, during portions of “Forrest Gump” and “Sweet Life,” he wasn’t even singing, and was instead standing onstage while the music played and the crowd filled in the rest.
“The night goes on — who is staying out til’ the sun goes up?” Ocean asked the late-night audience after playing crowd favorite “Pyramids.” He topped the set with a rare gem, a soft piano line playing as he sang “Wiseman,” a song he originally released just by posting its lyrics to his Tumblr page.
9. A Tribe Called Red
There were flashier dance acts than A Tribe Called Red performing at this year’s Bonnaroo, but none of them flaunted the sonic innovation of the Canadian electronic group, which mixed dubstep with hip-hop beats and tribal chants in a manner that made passerby stop and gyrate on Friday night. If the nasty drops weren’t enough to entertain, the trio also had a Native American dancer doing somersaults onstage, and the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne smiling and clapping from the crowd.
8. Cloud Nothings
Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings laid waste to This Tent on Thursday night with one of Bonnaroo’s most soul-shaking performances. The Dylan Baldi-led band is far more accustomed to rocking club shows, but the ear-splitting intensity of a nine-minute behemoth like “Wasted Days” left a lasting mark alongside more traditional punk ragers like “I’m Not Part of Me.” The hour-long set gave the group enough time to play most of the songs their last two albums, including this year’s standout “Here and Nowhere Else.”
7. Sam Smith
By now, even casual music fans have gotten acquainted with the gut-wrenching earnestness of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” which follows the Disclosure team-up “Latch” as Smith’s second U.S. hit and his biggest smash to date. “Stay With Me” provided a rapturous finale to Smith’s set — his first major U.S. festival performance — but the 22-year old British singer-songwriter played the majority of his upcoming album “In the Lonely Hour” to a highly curious, ultimately appreciative crowd that backed him every step of the way. Aside from possessing a dazzling, heart-melting vocal range, Smith pulls his appeal from a humble persona that makes him easy to root for. Smith may have been a Bonnaroo newcomer, but the Friday afternoon crowd treated him like family during the powerful performance.
6. Jack White
Bonnaroo has seen flashier and more famous headliners, but Jack White put on a clinic on how to close out the main stage on Saturday night (June 14). The headlining set was bookended by a pair of White Stripes standards — opener “Icky Thump” and closer “Seven Nation Army” — though White saved plenty of prominent space for his solo work, especially new LP “Lazaretto.” Throughout the set, White gabbed to the crowd with equal doses of humility and eccentricity, shouting out 1930s jazz musicians, Detroit auto workers, Nashville session musicians and homeless traveling musicians. It was a chatty performance, but whenever White and a band hunkered down on a song, there wasn’t anything else at Bonnaroo to match that intensity.
5. Wiz Khalifa
“Y’all ready to smoke with Wiz Khalifa tonight?” the Pittsburgh rapper asked his fans on Sunday night at Bonnaroo. More than a few obliged, but unlike the festival goers content with lighting up and lying down as the festival drew to a close, Khalifa’s performance was a high-energy platform for his growing repertoire of sounds. Khalifa was backed by a full band onstage, and one of those members sang backup vocals over the hooks which Wiz sang himself. Several of the songs he played that evening, like “Rolling Papers” highlight “On My Level,” featured extensive rock breaks that came across surprisingly well in the festival setting.
4. Lionel Richie
Early on in his Saturday set, Lionel Richie joked that his main stage crowd was composed of two distinct groups: people who have supported him since the Commodores, and people who had discovered him long after the Commodores dissolved thanks to their parents. But Richie’s 90-minute Bonnaroo debut was no laughing matter. He took the crowd through song deconstructions before bringing the funk towards the end of his set, dropping “Brick House” and transitioning into the Ohio Player’s “Fire” for a bit before returning to triumphantly end the track. “Brick House” also served as a suitable prelude to a song that Richie said “takes no language, no politics, no country” to appreciate: “Hello.” And of course, “All Night Long” was the necessary exclamation point on a wonderful career retrospective.
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3. Janelle Monae
From the call-and-response performance of “Primetime” to the on-stage interplay between costume-coordinated band members to the dance freakout of “Tightrope,” Janelle Monae had one of the most engaging sets at Bonnaroo after putting on a very strong show at Governors Ball fest a weekend early. The best part was that none of Monae’s onstage antics came at the sacrifice of the music — she danced furiously and hyped up the crowd, but her voice soared with profound soul. The crowd was so into Monae’s show that the response was deafening when she jumped off the stage and ran up and down the main stage’s center aisle, giving high fives along the way.
2. Elton John
Closing out Bonnaroo with style on Sunday night — seriously, his glittery jacket with ‘Rocketman’ written across the shoulders was a transfixing outfit — Elton John proudly unfurled his most well-known hits and featured the cleanest sound of any main stage act over the course of the four-day festival. There was a Ben Folds duet, a Casey Kasem tribute and fireworks over the audience at the conclusions, but really, an Elton John set with “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Your Song” and “I’m Still Standing” is going to be tough to beat as a main-stage draw. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. The more I seem to get older, the more I love doing it,” John remarked as his headlining Bonnaroo raced to a finish. And in response, the thousands of Bonnaroo attendees adored John’s trip through his enviable catalog.
1. Skrillex Superjam
One night after performing a standard set in his onstage spaceship at Bonnaroo, Skrillex concocted a lineup of musicians for his one-of-a-kind Superjam that included Big Gigantic, Thundercat and Zedd occasionally playing drums, with guest after guest — some announced, some unannounced — touching down for three-to-four songs. The result was a mind-blowing array of music that played out like the world’s coolest karaoke session. Want to see Janell Monae play “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” Mystikal make a surprise appearance for a three-song run of singles, or the Doors’ Robby Krieger tear through “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” with Skrillex on guitar and Cage The Elephant’s Matt Shultz on vocals? You’d have to see it live at Bonnaroo, or not see it at all. The grand finale found Lauryn Hill stumbling across the jamboree for four songs, and when “Ready Or Not” concluded at 3:30 AM, the crowd erupted, still going strong. Bonnaroo is one of America’s best festivals because of performances like the Skrillex Superjam — eclectic, unique, and a hell of a lot of fun.