Since the late 90s, festivals like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Coachella have grown from jammy aftertastes of the hippie dream into rites of passage for any college kid with a decent pair of Beats. And so the 11th annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival neither lacked big names (Radiohead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phish) nor big surprises (D’Angelo, Lionel Richie). Everyone from The Beach Boys to Skrillex worked their stuff in the Tennessee mud.
The best part of Bonnaroo, though, is bopping at the feet of the many talented, emerging artists. With 150 acts across 11 stages over four days, the choices are as dizzying as the Southern sun. Here are a few up-and-comers worthy of your summer playlist.
1) The Main Squeeze
The Squeeze are a five-piece funk experience you can't help but elbow to center stage for. Hailing from Indiana, they hook soulful vocals and tight bass lines with head-swinging guitar and keyboard. Think Galactic meets Robert Randolph. For their first Bonnaroo, The Main Squeeze powered through their recently released debut album “First Drops.” Tracks like “Dr. Funk,” “Mixed Up” and “Mama Told Me” overwhelmed a small Miller Lite Lounge. The finale, “Gimme One More,” had the ever-growing crowd jumping in unison to call-and-response riffs. Expect The Main Squeeze to become a staple on the festival circuit.
2) Gary Clark Jr.
Since his breakout performance at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, all blues ears have perked toward Gary Clark Jr. Last year at Bonnaroo, the young Texan’s downhome grind commanded the Miller Lite Lounge. This year, he joined The Beach Boys, Bon Iver and Phish on Sunday’s Main Stage. An ability to channel John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters into the twenty-first century hums through Clark’s success. “Bright Lights” could’ve come from Eric Clapton — “Things Are Changing” from John Legend. It’s an eargasm fit for nearly anyone’s iPod.
3) Big Gigantic
Bonnaroo couldn’t get enough of Big Gigantic. And the Colorado duo, whose livetronica blends hip-hop and jazz, seemed to know it. They not only killed their Thursday night set, but also drew screams by joining Umphrey’s McGee unannounced as the sun rose Saturday morning. Some critics have dismissed Big G as Pretty Lights with a sax. The two frontmen, however, boast a greater versatility and musical awareness. Both have classical training (saxophonist/producer Dominic Lalli graduated from the Manhattan School of Music) and have amassed an impressive festival resume (Bonnaroo, Ultra, All Good). Their 2012 album Nocturnal grooved to number two on the iTunes electronic chart. Don’t be surprised if their next drop does even better.
4) Kendrick Lamar
Heavy beats, explicit lyrics and mind-numbing verses about the temptations of Compton’s streets. This isn’t N.W.A, but 24-year-old lyricist Kendrick Lamar. Although he’s yet to lay down a chart-topper, Lamar’s Cali brand of raw storytelling has a cult following. Maybe that’s why Dr. Dre recently signed Lamar and joined him on “The Recipe.” Bonnaroovians bounced to Lamar’s tracks on inner-city childhood, ethnic tolerance and chasing girls. His only misstep was cutting out too many lines, waiting for the audience to fill in lyrics many didn’t know. Nonetheless, it was the sort of conscious hip-hop that reassures fans good ol’ rap is alive and well. Lamar’s debut album A Good Kid In A Mad City is set for release later this year.
5) Alabama Shakes
The Alabama Shakes might already be too big for this list. In less than one year, they’ve howled from virtual anonymity to Ryman Auditorium and the Troubadour. The draw is lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard. Her Joplin-esque roots rock earned spots on several “Don’t Miss” lists before Bonnaroo and even more “Top Performance” recaps afterward. While the rest of the Shakes seemed timid, Howard spun around delighted in her own wails. In a music world of good talent and better looks, the slightly overweight, frizzy-haired, glasses-wearing Howard proves that authentic, heart-wrenching melody trumps all. It’s the Adele effect, but with more crunch.