The 15th anniversary of Bonnaroo takes place this weekend. In other words, Manchester, TN, will be crawling with friendly drug users, musicians, and highway traffic. This last one is a given even if the rumors about Uber offering helicopter rides directly to the festival grounds are true. That’s what a lineup filled with surprises and musical highlights will do. For the roughly 80,000 attendants arriving on wheels (or, god forbid, feet), take the traveling time as an opportunity to check out some of the emerging groups playing this year.
Whether known for breaking new musical ground or for putting on a really good live show, these offbeat artists will provide first-rate excuses for skipping the massive sets for smaller tents. Besides, there are fewer people, shade, phone-charging stations, free e-cigs, and a table fan weakly blowing in the corner. What more could you need?
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., That Tent
Natalie Prass delivers pristine, modern Motown and orchestral pop done through a voice with the pureness and precision of a hummingbird’s beak. The Richmond, VA, native deftly demonstrates this in every live performance of her lasting tune, “Bird of Prey”, from her 2015 self-titled debut. After years of songwriting and touring in Jenny Lewis’ backing band, Prass has honed her chops as a multi-instrumentalist, giving her the aptitude to do skillful live covers of everything from Slayer’s “Raining Blood” to Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place”.
Friday, 4:45 p.m., What Stage
Their debut LP, Our Own House, just came out in February, but New York City indie pop band MisterWives have managed to churn up some buzz with their unusual synth-folk sound. Think Edward Sharpe’s bucolic rock given the No Doubt treatment, and you’re getting warmer. The booming toms and Mandy Lee’s celestial voice on “Reflections” sound like they were specifically created for blasting through a loudspeaker across festival grounds, like a leader on a horse sounding a dinner invitation to thousands of people.
Friday, 1:30 a.m., That Tent
Sink into the late-night groove with Jimmy Vallance and Tom Howie, the frosty house duo known as Bob Moses, whose extremely mellow, electronic post-club grooves oscillate with soulful singer-songwriter melodies. The group’s Brooklyn-via-Vancouver influence can be heard on “Too Much Is Never Enough”, which should make for sinking into a cool pool of a deep house comedown, but the flourishing club feel of “Grace” or “I Ain’t Gonna Be the First to Cry” is quintessential come-up music for those on opposite timelines.
Sunday, 5:30 p.m., Who Stage
This Brooklyn trio make their astral guitar tunes sound like a cakewalk or a carousel or pink clouds parting to reveal a doobie beaming down from a rainbow. That is the gift of Sunflower Bean. Their youthfulness permeates Human Ceremony, their 2016 debut LP, marked by a transformation from three teenagers playing indie rock into a pseudo-psychedelic new wave jam band doing three-minute pop songs.
Thursday, 2:00 p.m., New Music On Tap Lounge
In less innovative hands, the jamming together of synth shadows, electronic beats, and bluegrass songwriting could come off sounding like a One Republic hoedown in the canned goods aisle at Kroger. But done to singer/songwriter/guitarist Dillon Hodges’ taste, the result is his weird indie-folk project, Firekid. Rather than writing cliche lyrics about high school prom and tailgating, he offers a story about a childhood trip to Magic Mountain. Instead of wresting stomps and boot scuffs, Hodges’ music gets you into the groove.
Friday, 5:30 p.m., Who Stage
Built around the songwriting duo of drummer/vocalist Julien Ehrlich (Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Smith Westerns) and guitarist Max Kakacek (Smith Westerns), Whitney has made waves with their moseying, Americana-tinged indie pop in merely a matter of five months. Their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, was released via Secretly Canadian this month, but the pre-heated duo have already been on the major festival circuit this year. With a shifting lineup of supporting players to recreate the album’s genial FM radio feel, Whitney’s sound is a radiant haze of Ariel Pink, or even Fleetwood Mac, on songs like “The Fall” or their first single, “No Woman” — all of it feel-good music perfect for a stoner moment in the sunshine.
Promised Land Sound
Saturday, 9:15 p.m., Who Stage
Descended from the height of Nashville’s 2013 garage scene reign, the founding members of Promised Land Sound — singer/bassist Joey Scala, his brother Evan on drums, and guitarist Sean Thompson — play a mix of composed country rock and nonchalant psych-pop with the dusty quality of a vintage suitcase. After touring in support of Alabama Shakes and Angel Olsen, they added two members to become their current quintet: guitarist/singer Peter Stringer-Hye and keyboardist Mitch Jones, culled from the Paperhead and Fly Golden Eagle, two more Nashville garage elites. What’s the big deal? There isn’t one, except that all of the lineup-change nonsense eventually translated into a Nashville rock scene supergroup of sorts, unified and refined into a very nonchalant crock (country rock) that locals and out-of-towners alike can enjoy.
Sunday, 7:00 p.m., Who Stage
Swinging by Swim Deep’s set could very well be like cruising through a Sonic drive-through for a quick U2 concert and a 44 oz. styrofoam cup of CHVRCHES Lite. The British four-piece play melodic, guitar-based noise-pop with a synth palette that connotes the influence of Claudio Simonetti, ‘80s dream pop, and ‘90s alt-rock a la The Verve. Their 2015 album, Mothers, revealed a more psychedelic and acid-influenced sound that, when allowed to freely resonate at a festival, could cause the sky to crack open.
Saturday, 4:00 p.m., This Tent
Anyone curious about how to combine jazz, R&B, rap, and electronic music tastefully would be wise to check out The Internet right away. The Odd Future affiliate and product of producer Matthew Martin and singer/songwriter/engineer Sydney Bennett (who mixed Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin album) is a furiously understated yet accessible example of alternative R&B in music right now. The slow-flowing subs of “Get Away” could submerge a body standing too close to the woofers, and the sweetness of Bennett’s vocals on “Girl” could give anyone separated from their group on a solo molly trip some reassuring company.
Saturday, 12:00 a.m., The Other Tent
The god-given purpose of Trap music at a festival like Bonnaroo is to make people dance. Cue RL Grime’s “Kingpin”, featuring Big Sean, for the grind or “Danger”, featuring Boys Noize, for the coked-out head bob. No matter which way you spin it, the New York-based DJ/producer Henry Steinway has built his following on his electro hip-hop composite, cooking up potent remixes of dance hits like Chief Keef’s “Sosa” and Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” guaranteed to keep everyone moving.