On the final day of Bonnaroo 2014, the weather fates decided to give fans their first of the weekend without the threat of rain. Fans who stuck around for Sunday were rewarded with a lineup that included Elton John, Wiz Khalifa, Arctic Monkeys, and Broken Bells.
Our day began at What Stage, where the Carolina Chocolate Drops kicked off Bonnaroo Sunday with a rollicking performance of original material and classic covers. The band looked very different than their last Bonnaroo appearance in 2010, with founding member Don Flemons having left the group last year, but they were still in fine form with the new additions to the lineup. Having previously played a tent stage at Bonnaroo, vocalist Rhiannon Giddens seemed slightly taken aback by the enormity of the What Stage. But that didn't stop her from engaging the fans who came out for their show, joking that “It's only Noon. In Bonnaroo time, that's early morning, right?”
Between hits like their cover of Blu Cantrell's “Hit 'Em Up Style” and “Country Girl”, Giddens and crew gave attendees a bit of a history lesson in the African American string band music Carolina Chocolate Drops was originally formed to honor. Giddens acknowledged the “awkward silence” that comes from most audiences when she discusses the genre's history in blackface minstrel shows, but implored fans to join her in “not throwing away the wonderful musical history along with all of the horrible things that happened.” In recreating African American string band standards like “Snowden's Jig”, the band employed traditional instruments like a minstrel banjo and the bones.
From there, it was off to That Tent where comedian and roots music enthusiast Ed Helms had been given the stage to brand under his Bluegrass Situation label for the second year in a row. Helms acted as emcee, introducing the five acts selected to play the Bluegrass Situation stage and also leading the Bluegrass Superjam to cap off the day.
First up in That Tent was Lake Street Dive. While they may have gotten the “Bonnaroo early morning” slot, that didn't stop fans from flocking to see them, overflowing That Tent in a way that is rare for a first show of Sunday. The band rewarded those who came early with a strong set of their unique mix of roots music, jazz, and soul. Vocalist Rachael Price was in fine form, bantering with the crowd and nailing originals like “You Go Down Smooth” as well as covers like Jackson 5's “I Want You Back.”
Following Lake Street Dive was one of the most seasoned veterans on the Bluegrass Situation stage, Sarah Jarosz. That sounds like an odd thing to say about a 23 year old, but Jarosz was making her third Bonnaroo appearance in 5 years to promote her third studio album. On a day that Helms and company were using to showcase roots music's youth movement, that made her the vet. On this day, she showed why she has been so successful in such a short time, opening the show with a searing arrangement of the classic Poe poem “Annabel Lee” and running through an hour-long set. Flanked by long-time bandmates Alex Hargreaves and Nat Smith, Jarosz showed off some serious musical chops, especially on instrumental cuts like “Old Smitty.”
Next up for the day was The Lone Bellow. Another band coming into Bonnaroo with significant buzz, the Brooklyn based group drew a sizable crowd for their performance. Pulling heavily from their 2013 Charlie Peacock produced self-titled debut album, The Lone Bellow's hour show also included a cover of the John Prine classic “Angel from Montgomery.”
South Carolina husband and wife duo Shovels & Rope were up next and were the only band to draw a crowd that was bigger than the one for Lake Street Dive. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent seemed a bit overwhelmed with the huge and enthusiastic crowd at their first Bonnaroo appearance but quickly came to feed off its energy. When they played their hit single “Birmingham” midway through the set, the atmosphere was electric. The duo has a new album coming in August called “Swimmin' Time” and gave Bonnaroo attendees a taste of a couple of songs from the record. The band's final number was a hurried rendition of “Hail Hail”, necessitated by a looming curfew, but it worked extremely well for the band and the audience ate up the almost punk rock vibe the double speed rendition took on.
The last band to perform before the Superjam was The Black Lillies. While not as well known to fans as some of the other artists on the Bluegrass Situation lineup, The Black Lillies were successful in finding plenty of new fans among those who stuck around for the day or were wandering in for the Superjam. Their fat guitar licks evoked the best Southern rock traditions of bands like The Outlaws and Marshall Tucker Band. They were the perfect high energy lead-in for the Superjam.
Helms had a tall order to fill with his Bluegrass Superjam. By that time, Bonnaroo 2014 had already seen a rocking Superjam from Derek Trucks and friends on Friday and a genre-defying Superjam from Skrillex and company on Saturday. But Helms was up to the task, bringing many of the artists who had performed throughout the day back as well as pulling guests like Robert Ellis, Dierks Bentley, and Yonder Mountain String Band's Dave Johnston.
The Bluegrass Superjam ranged wide in its musical choices, kicking off with the classic “White Freightliner”. From there, highlights included a Lone Bellow-led rendition of the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton classic “Islands in the Stream” and a female vocalist dream duet as Lake Street Dive's Rachael Price and The Lone Bellow's Kanene Pipkin held court with the day's second appearance of “Angel From Montgomery.”
But it was Sarah Jarosz who delivered the day's most memorable performance. After a fairly traditional country classic for her first number, Jarosz sent the crowd into a frenzy with an out of left field acoustic rendition of Gnarls Barkley's “Crazy.” It was one of those things that should never have worked but just did. Jarosz has often spoken about her admiration of Punch Brothers' Chris Thile and that cover showed that she's learned well from her mentor as Thile is probably the only other person in the Americana stable who would even think of covering Gnarls Barkley.