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Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Summer 2014 Power Rankings

Festival Outlook

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Welcome to Festival Outlook, a new supplemental column that will provide more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, Michael Roffman, Alex YoungFrank Mojica, Carson O’Shoney, and Josh Terry revisit this past Spring’s power rankings for the top 10 festival headliners and re-assess accordingly for summer.

Frank Mojica (FM): So, recently at the Council of Festival Illuminati, we revisited the crop of North American music fests and, after careful analysis and deliberation, adjusted our power rankings for the summer. And now it’s time to do the same for the headliners.

One question that continues to surface is how important is the headliner in 2014? We saw at Coachella that they really don’t matter so much anymore, but that seems to be less true for other festivals. Will they eventually follow suit, or is Coachella an anomaly? Will the reception of Kanye West be better at Outside Lands? In any case, we are midway through festival season, Bonnaroo has come and gone, and so has Lollapalooza.

What stands out to everyone? Which top-tier artists have been both a triumph creatively or commercially for these fests? Or better yet, both? What hasn’t worked?

spring power rankings

Photo by Heather Kaplan

Michael Roffman (MR): I’d say at face value, headliners are still very important in moving tickets. You can’t sell out a festival with a poor assembly of top talent, but here’s the switch: You can get away with mundanity if you layer the festival. Coachella was a great example of this, same with Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza followed suit this past weekend. In fact, the weekend was a major success thanks to all the staggered acts. Never once did I feel pressured to only see two headliners. Eminem and OutKast both proved extraordinary, but if they didn’t, there was always Phantogram or Jenny Lewis, respectively. Sunday was even better with almost every top genre covered to cap off the weekend: Kings of Leon (rock), Chance the Rapper (hip-hop), Darkside (alternative), and Skrillex (EDM). As I said … layered.

But not every festival has that luxury, so headliners take precedence. With that in mind, I don’t think there’s any better headliner to reign over a festival than Jack White. Hey, I don’t even like the guy’s music anymore — well, outside of The Dead Weather — but I’ll be the first to admit that he’s owning every festival slot he’s been booked for, thanks to his impromptu covers and choice back catalog selections. He’s a born performer, and if you do love Jack White, especially his latest offering, Lazaretto, then you’re in for even more of a treat, expecting to hear both new material and surprises. Again, I’m not a fan. I probably won’t listen to Lazaretto again this year, and I haven’t even seen him on this run in person, but I can’t think of a better headliner out there.

What about Arcade Fire, Mike? They’re a close second. The problem is they’re not really a festival headliner this year, save for their appearance at Coachella and Glastonbury. Had they appeared at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, or even Austin City Limits, I think they’d be a shoe-in for No. 1, but I just don’t think it’s fair to those acts that actually have signed the dotted line with Superfly or C3 or AC Entertainment. Having said that, they’re without a doubt the live act to see, and if you haven’t seen them on this “Reflektor Tour,” you’re missing out.

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Alex Young (AY): I think a headliner’s importance certainly varies depending on the festival. I also think it varies based on the headliner itself. In my mind, the reason Jack White and Arcade Fire are the consensus top two headliners in 2014 is because their performances aren’t just of the utmost quality, but also offer variety. I had the opportunity to see Jack headline Bonnaroo and Forecastle this summer and both performances were widely different due in part because Jack doesn’t use a setlist and rather bases his song choices on the audience’s reaction. Not one of his shows are the same, yet each performance maintains the same level of excellence, which is why, even after two fixes in less than a month, I’m still chomping at the bit to see him again. The same can be said about Arcade Fire, as well as Beck and Ryan Adams, all of whom have incorporated the same level of uniqueness into their own recent sets.

With such headliners, each performance proves all the more special and memorable. At both Bonnaroo and Forecastle, I heard general attendees and festival organizers alike raving about Jack’s performance, deeming it one of the best in the festival’s history. In a conversation I had with one of Forecastle’s chief organizers, he explained that he was a little worried about how Jack’s performance would top what he did at Bonnaroo, yet somehow the Third Man rocker managed to blow any and all expectations out of the water. I think that’s the benchmark of a great headliner, to exceed the gold echelon already expected of you and to leave attendees with a lifetime memory.

Photo by David Hall

OutKast // Photo by David HallCarson O’Shoney (CO): To think, this was supposed to be the summer of OutKast. When they announced in January that they would play 40 festivals in their first tour since 2001, I would have predicted they’d be the clear-cut champion of a power ranking like this one. 40 festivals? That’s an impressive number, and even in a time where headliners are looking too similar across the board, it was seen as a welcome return for one of the most beloved hip-hop groups of all time. However, they got off on the wrong foot in their first performance back at Coachella and have since been so ubiquitous that it’s not as special or exciting as it could have been. Don’t get me wrong, since that ill-fated first show, they tweaked their game plan and have been consistently killing it at festivals across the world. Their headlining set at Counterpoint was everything I hoped for and more.

But unlike Jack White and Arcade Fire sitting at the top of this list, OutKast have pretty much stuck to the same setlist at every date of their festival tour. That’s a fine strategy for some, but when you’re headlining just about every festival out there, changing things up every once in a while can go a long way. There’s a reason you’re gunning to see Jack again, Alex. You just never know what he’s going to do. He might bust out a Lorde cover or pull out a White Stripes deep cut. With OutKast, you’re gonna get the hits. It’s going to be fun as hell, but you’ll still get the same set no matter how many shows you go to. That’s why they’re only at No. 6 on this list. That’s still a solid position in the grand scheme of things, so all that said – if you somehow miss them this summer, you’re gonna regret it. I guarantee it. You just won’t need to see them a second time.

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Photo by Lilian Cai

On the other hand, when Morning Phase first came out, I thought Beck would embark on an all-acoustic tour. Then he started showing up at the top of lineups, and I wondered how well something like that would go over for a festival crowd. I adore that record, and most of his other acoustic works, but that type of music just does not lend itself to festival headliner status. In hindsight, I should have known better, as he proved me very wrong. Sure, there are still sections of his show that feature his softer side, but it’s just a small portion of the show — the majority of it covers the big, raucous rock songs and the ass-shaking funk of the rest of his catalog.

He’s playing all the crowd-pleasing hits, but he’s changing it up enough to keep things interesting – from Midnite Vultures deep cuts (“Get Real Paid”) to splicing in covers in the middle of his own songs (“Think I’m In Love/I Feel Love”). He’s been on fire this whole tour, his festival appearances notwithstanding. While an all-acoustic Beck would be a thing of beauty on its own, it would never go over as well as his current show at big festivals like Forecastle and Pitchfork. I’ve never been more happy to be proven wrong – and after seeing the show for myself, I might even bump him up to No. 3 on this list.

Photo by Philip Cosores

Jack White // Photo by Philip CosoresFM: When it comes to headlining sets, changing it up really does make a difference. Arcade Fire and Jack White have a knack for making each set feel special and once in a lifetime. Just compare the two Arcade Fire performances at Coachella or any two unpredictable sets from Jack White this year, really. The same goes for Beck because he’s really gone 110% in delivering crowd-pleasing sets this year.

It’s those differences that keep people coming back for more. I know I’m about to see Arcade Fire for the eleventh time, for example. With OutKast and also Neutral Milk Hotel, it was exciting to finally see them, but the sets they do are the kind where once is really enough.

Apparently headliners can still draw considerable controversy, such as Metallica and Glastonbury and Kanye West at Bonnaroo. Do you think they did a good job of proving themselves and silencing the naysayers?

Josh Terry (JT): It’s funny that both Kanye West and Metallica, arguably two of music’s best live acts, were met with such fierce opposition. Sure, both artists have had their moments of getting on the wrong side of press and the public. Sometimes the criticism is deserved, like the backlash following Metallica and the Napster debate, their unflattering self-portrayal on Some Kind of Monster along with West’s infamous 2008 Bonnaroo appearance.

On the other hand, oftentimes the backlash is overblown and feverish, like when people bafflingly complain about West’s self-confidence (seriously, why shouldn’t he have an ego?) or those who dismissed Metallica’s actually pretty good last album, Death Magnetic. While talented, both rarely stray away from controversy. Fortunately, for forgiving Bonnaroo-goers and curious Glastonbury attendees, they found that the reason why West and Metallica have such staying power is mostly due to their memorable live shows.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

For West, despite scores of idiots still making South Park “gay fish” jokes at ‘Roo in 2014, by most accounts, his 21-song, career-spanning set was a memorable and triumphant return. Of course, not everyone enjoys West’s proclivity to stop the music and muse on topics like his place as a creative entity and celebrity, his relationship to the media, and his wife, Kim Kardashian. But for many, the appeal isn’t just Kanye West the musician; it also comes from Kanye West the person. Since Bonnaroovians needed a palate-cleansing, emphatic performance to get rid of 2008’s sour taste, there’s little West could’ve done better.

Metallica’s story is fairly similar. Even though they’ve never had a disastrous set at Glastonbury (they’ve never been booked), they were a relatively puzzling addition for a festival whose previous headliners included Mumford and Sons, Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay, U2, and Muse. In 2008, Jay-Z received some backlash as the first rap headliner, but he victoriously responded to Oasis’s Noel Gallagher’s criticisms by covering “Wonderwall”. Even then, he didn’t receive as much backlash as Metallica, who had 15,000 angry fans petitioning organizers to book someone else and had everyone from Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and the dude from Kasabian riffing negatively on the booking. That said, their set, which was heavy on older live staples, quelled the doubts and muted the critics. According to our reviewers, “Metallica earned their spot on the Pyramid stage by laying down a fiercely intense set of well-known classics interspersed with more recent work.”

What about some of the more unique bookings this festival season? With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Massive Attack returning to the summer circuit, how have they held up to the rest?

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Photo by Philip Cosores

MR: We’ll know this weekend how well Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will sound on this tour. I don’t like to jump to conclusions too often, but I’m willing to bet ol’ Tommy’s got a number of oldies in his set. His latest album, Hypnotic Eye, is an attempt to grasp the more simplistic rock ‘n’ roll of his past, and while it only somewhat manages to do that, the mindset is clear: He’s ready to punch away at the six-string, not linger there. So, all of those jam-heavy setlists of years past will probably fall wayside to more favorable material. Last year’s intimate theater gigs, his Beacon show especially, was a strong indication of that, and also of his endurance onstage. So, with that in mind, I think his forthcoming appearance at Outside Lands will be a breath of fresh yet familiar air, at least with regards to veteran headliners.

The problem with Massive Attack it would seem is that they don’t really have anything new to add. I can’t imagine what I saw in 2010 will be much different than what they’re doing now; I could be wrong. They still haven’t followed up Heligoland, but perhaps their re-emergence indicates we’ll actually see something down the line. Last I recall, they were supposed to reunite with Tricky, and well, we haven’t heard much since. Their live show is something to contend with, however, and lately they’ve been railing against the brutalities across the Gaza strip, so hey, at least that political spirit of theirs remains fiery and relevant. That’s something.

Look, I’ll always see Massive Attack. Always. I just don’t know if they’re enough to sell me on an entire festival. Having said that, they’re an incredible addition on any bill looking to expand their palette. I guess I’m just a grump who wants more music from them. #bias

Massive Attack

Photo by Dan Pfleegor

Are we missing anyone else? How about some disappointments this year? Maybe it’s just me but having seen St. Vincent three times now this year, I’m a little fatigued by her live show. It’s one hell of a production, don’t get me wrong, but it goes back to what we discussed earlier about predictability. With St. Vincent, it’s almost two-fold: Not only is the setlist a carbon copy, but so are her mannerisms — from the robotic skittering down to the way she twists her head. When I last saw her at Pitchfork, I was definitely surprised to see her plunge dome-first into the drum head, but altogether, the set (at least to me) seemed a little too premeditated. I hate saying that, though, especially since she’s one of my favorite living artists. Am I crazy?

FM: Yep, crazy. I saw her close out Saturday night at Sled Island, and it was the best headlining set I’ve seen all year and makes my all-time short list. It was quite different from the two times I saw her earlier this year, actually. While it had the same production, choreography, and shortened setlist, there were some next-level surprises.

Photo by Heather Kaplan

Wednesday - Kaplan - St Vincent - 11For example, when Annie Clark shuffled over to my side during “Rattlesnake”, I instinctively put away my camera as she gave me the piercing death stare, which kept going and going as she steadily leaned forward and back while shredding until she tipped herself over and on top of us. She seems to really let loose during “Your Lips Are Red”, which is always a jaw-dropping sort of epic, whether she’s head-butting kick drums or throwing garbage on people. And I mean that literally, because my mouth was actually sore for half the night afterwards. If another west coast tour isn’t announced soon (everywhere but here this summer and fall, apparently), I’ll have to fly somewhere for one more round before the year ends.

But even off-script moments are likely premeditated across the board. I mean, bands rehearse for months and months before going on tour and then soundcheck before going onstage. How often does a band have a real unplanned encore? It’s written or typed out well in advance (except for Jack White lately). Arcade Fire didn’t just spontaneously appear with Deborah Harry or Paft Dunk because arrangements had to be made for those to happen.

MR: Eh, I don’t really count those as “differences,” Frank. But I’ll contend that we’re of the camp that gets to see acts again and again all year. Most people only attend one festival, or see someone tour once per year, so with that in mind, she has one of the best shows of the year. I just think back to when I saw her supporting Strange Mercy or Actor or even Marry Me, and it was Annie Clark on the stage, not her vision of St. Vincent. By comparison, she felt more organic and alive, which I guess is the point she’s trying to juxtapose this year with her latest tour, but on the whole, I miss hearing her witty rapport with the audience or the off-the-cuff stories behind some of her songs. I got a little bit of that when she covered Nirvana’s “Lithium” back in Chicago this past Spring, and it was a spark of life that just had me reeling. Anyways, I felt I needed to offer a little clarification.

st vincent terminal5 24 Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Summer 2014 Power Rankings

Photo by Wei Shi

Regardless of my hesitations, I’d still slot her high on this list as she’s the sort of artist whose presence will be felt by everyone: passersby, fans, and critics. That’s a power few artists ever achieve, even those on this list.

FM: And the power of St. Vincent with a guitar is akin to Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet. So, it seems that headliners do, in fact, still matter at most festivals for the time being. Ideally, they bring everyone together at the end of a long day for a massive shared experience. And whether it’s Rihanna guesting with Eminem, Deborah Harry singing with Arcade Fire, or Jack White dropping random covers, people like to be surprised by the biggest stars.

And now, for the best of the best…

10. Massive Attack

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Photo by Matthew Solarski

FM: They so rarely tour here and they always bring a powerful live show. New songs or not, Massive Attack is something to get excited about.

AY: Dan Pfleegor got to see Massive Attack play in Iceland at Secret Solstice Festival. He hasn’t shut up about it since then.

CO: I have not had a chance to see them this year, but their set at Moogfest 2010 remains one of my favorite festival headlining sets of all time, so I know that they do deserve a place on this list.

JT: Everyone I’ve talked to who’s seen Massive Attack this year has called it one of the best shows of their lives. The only negative is that they’re not touring more.

MR: This year’s only going to get more heated politically. They need to be around — especially if they’re hitting up electronic festivals.

9. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

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Photo by Philip Cosores

FM: He has the back catalog to deliver a great festival set, as well as noteworthy new material. I predict he’ll be a big hit at Outside Lands.

AY: Springsteen may not be touring America this summer, but fortunately, we have Petty.

CO: He’s not quite on the level as some of the old-timers on the circuit like Springsteen, Paul McCartney, or Neil Young, but he’s still got plenty of hits, puts on a great show, and is the most active of the bunch this year.

JT: With a catalog as vast as Petty’s, we’d be remiss not to place him on this list. Especially when his brand of rockin’ Americana is especially suited for the summertime.

MR: We’ll see how his performance this weekend at Outside Lands fares, but I’m going to make an educated guess: It’ll be the talk of the weekend come Monday.

8. Arctic Monkeys

Arctic Monkeys Alex Turner 1 Lollapalooza 2014 by Joshua Mellin

Photo by Joshua Mellin

FM: Curious thing that Arctic Monkeys are finally approaching similar levels of popularity in the States as at home. It’s a phenomenon that evaded better British bands, but here we are.

AY: The most exciting rock band to emerge in the 2000s, and the scary part? They’re just finding their groove.

CO: Alex Turner was born to headline festivals. He just oozes that particular frontman quality you need to captivate tens of thousands of people at a time, and now he’s finally getting to put that to use on this side of the pond.

JT: While I haven’t been too into the Arctic Monkeys’ recent greaser look and rock star posturing, the theatrics certainly haven’t hurt their live show. At Lollapalooza this year, they acted like God’s gift to music, and it was wholly entertaining.

MR: I wanted Vampire Weekend to take this spot this year, but Mr. Turner is a fine substitution. I haven’t met anyone who walked away disappointed. What makes them vital is how they’re clear evidence you don’t need to think too big for a headliner.

7. Metallica

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Photo by Nathan Dainty

FM: Despite, or because of, all the hate, Metallica went above and beyond in delivering the goods at Glastonbury. Does this open the doors for more metal at the world’s biggest and best? Will they ever play Coachella? Like Jay-Z, their set raises as many questions as it answered.

AY: There are a lot of reasons to ride this band, but at the end of the day, they still deliver the goods. At Glastonbury, they defied critics and delivered a set for the history books.

CO: Everywhere they go, they get criticized. But after successful appearances at Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and now Glastonbury in the face of detractors, why doubt them anymore? They should get even more headlining spots after putting this behind them.

JT: With Death Magnetic being a return to form and their successful festival stints, maybe we’re on the cusp of a new era of positive critical reception for Metallica?

MR: Give me fuel, give me fire, give me a fucking chance to finally see these guys.

6. OutKast

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

FM: I’m bitter that they are bringing their A-game after a mixed bag of a return at Coachella. Sometimes the early bird doesn’t get the worm.

AY: I thought I’d be over this reunion, but then I saw Andre 3000 take the stage at Forecastle Festival.

CO: You would think the act would grow old in the midst of a 40-festival summer, but their set and back catalog is so good that they could headline 40 more festivals and you wouldn’t hear too many complaints. It’s just so great to have them back together.

JT: The sheer euphoria that washed over Grant Park at Lollapalooza when we heard the “one, two, three, four” of “Hey Ya!” is something I’ll never forget.

MR: One word: “GhettoMusick”.

5. Kanye West

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Photo by Ben Kaye

FM: If he’s angering people that think the whole “gay fish” bit and vandalism are funny, then he’s definitely doing something right. Yeezus was tremendous and hearing all those songs along with the hits is worth enduring the rants.

AY: Everyone here knows I’m a Kanye apologist, but even I was a little let down by his Bonnaroo set. Still, he’s one of the most influential artists of our generation, and with his new album on a horizon, it’s no wonder I’ve already booked my flight to Vegas to see him at Life Is Beautiful.

CO: Like Metallica, Kanye’s inclusion at any major festival will come with its fair share of detractors. But after conquering his most vocal haters at Bonnaroo, what can’t he do?

JT: With a new stage setup, Kanye West is still one of the best live performers. Donning elaborate outfits and bejeweled masks, West’s vigorous romp through his discography is not only one of the best musically, it’s one of the most entertaining.

MR: I’ll always champion the guy, and even an offshoot of last year’s tour is impressive, but I think he’s even bored with the material. Still, there isn’t a better hip-hop headliner out there. Sorry ATL.

4. Beck

Beck in Concert NYC

Photo by Robert Altman

FM: “It’s in the contract” is what Beck jokingly said in regards to playing “Loser” at Coachella during an intimate appearance at Apogee Studios. But there’s no joke about how crowd-pleasing this year’s festival sets have been, especially when compared to his handful of appearances a couple years ago. Hits, energy, and covers? Now that’s a formula for success.

AY: Second to Jack White, there isn’t a guy out there whose setlist contains more surprise. Between covers, rarities, electric, or acoustic, this guy is the epitome of a live performer.

CO: If you didn’t know anything about his recent material and were only judging by his recent, raucous headlining sets, you would think his latest album was a spiritual successor to Midnite Vultures instead of Sea Change. You won’t see a more fun headlining set this year.

JT: Beck is a complete professional, and no matter what he’s going to deliver. You could press shuffle on his catalog and still come out with a compelling setlist, with or without “Loser”.

MR: Admittedly, I opted for Billy Joel over Beck when Mr. Hansen hit up Union Park last month. But Justin Gerber, who wears sneakers and hates festivals, said it was divine. Who uses that word? (Note: He probably didn’t say that word, but his eyes did.)

3. St. Vincent

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

CO: It’s so great to see her headlining smaller festivals this year. Hopefully she continues to blow up and can handle headlining bigger ones soon. She’s an explosive live performer who can slay an audience no matter how big or small.

FM: Intense, powerful performer and one of the most creative artists in the scene today. I’ve spent the past decade going to some of the biggest and best festivals in the world, and one of the greatest headlining sets I’ve experienced was St. Vincent at Sled Island. The night before she also headlined NXNE, but as far as festivals in the states, she was only a de facto headliner at Pitchfork and is a top-tier act at the upcoming Hopscotch fest in North Carolina. We need more. An ATP-style event headlined and curated by Annie Clark would be the ultimate, so can someone out there please make this a reality? Moving on…

AY: Following Frank’s comments, what more is there to say?

JT:

MR: You know where I stand.

2. Arcade Fire

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Photo by Philip Cosores

FM: I haven’t listened to Reflektor in at least six months, but this tour is a thing of beauty where every song is overwhelmingly anthemic. Arcade Fire are constantly topping themselves as a live act, and I don’t see that decade-long winning streak reversing the next time around. Although they didn’t play too many festivals this year, their Coachella set had the location-specific level of magic akin to seeing someone like Blur or Radiohead at Glastonbury. No matter how great a set will be at another festival, it won’t be the same because they have a history.

AY: They are the greatest rock band going, and their live shows continue to make headlines for their left-field covers and Win Butler’s on-stage antics. I won’t get to see them on this run until they arrive to Chicago later this month, but based solely on number of news stories I’ve written about this tour, I think it’s safe to say this is one we’ll remember for years to come.

CO: I already liked them as a live band after seeing them headline both Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo in support of The Suburbs, but the Reflektor tour blew those shows out of the water. They just keep improving, even when I think they have no room to do so. If they hadn’t headlined so many festivals so recently on their last tour, 2014 would unequivocally be the Year of Arcade Fire. As it stands, we only got a select few headlining sets from them, but they were all hugely successful.

JT: An Arcade Fire headlining show is something you’ll always remember, but on the Reflektor tour the band has drastically amped up the showmanship and onstage theatrics. There’s a reason we ranked them so high despite playing so few festival shows, everything so far on this tour has been magical.

MR: I think it’s safe to say they should have played more festivals — at least Lollapalooza. After all, their Chicago shows are being sold through Groupon right now, which is so depressing I almost want to throw my mug at the wall. Still, based on Philip Cosores’s review, this is a set that’s not to be missed, and further proof they’ll be stomping through halls bigger and better. Fingers crossed they don’t go though Living Social next time.

1. Jack White

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

FM: Not to brag (okay, to totally brag), but I saw The White Stripes on the Elephant tour, and I still have an urgent need to see him this year after that Bonnaroo webcast because this tour is on another level. Guitar music may be dead among the masses, but they’ll make an exception for Jack White, and rightfully so.

AY: Just go find a live bootleg of his Bonnaroo set. After that, no explanation is need.

CO: After his enormous headlining set this year, I’ve seen all four of Jack’s projects at Bonnaroo. And while the 2007 White Stripes show holds a special place in my heart, this year’s solo show was more far-reaching and “historic” than any of the others. He covered material from all the previous projects and then some and made a permanent mark in the landscape of Bonnaroo headliners in his debut in that prime What Stage spot.

JT: His historic Bonnaroo set is something festivalgoers are going to talk about for years.

MR: I’m with the readers. I’m tired of seeing this guy’s name everywhere. I don’t even like him! But goddammit, those setlists, everyone’s reviews, and the multiple stunts he’s committed to all prove he’s something out of this world, a descriptor that’s as dusty as the equipment he uses. Bottom line: It’s a Jack and Win battle ’til the year’s end.

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