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Bonnaroo 2019: Full Circle

As this annual celebration of music and community approaches two decades in the running, Phish reclaims the festival-circuit reins of the premier festival it helped inspire. Here are some highlights from the Bonnaroo farm.

Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett

During her Friday sundowner set at That Tent, indie-darling Courtney Barnett came alive with one of her closest comrades, her lefty Fender Kurt Cobain signature Jaguar with custom Candy Apple finish, which she plays sans pick.

For Bonnaroo’s 17th year, the godfather of modern music festivals went back to its roots with one of the bands that pretty much invented the jam circuit. Phish headlined two nights out of four on June 13-16, in Manchester, Tennessee, and their followers showed up, too, selling out the 80,000 capacity for the first time since 2013. For Bonnaroo’s inaugural year in 2002, Trey Anastasio headlined with Widespread Panic. Even back then, Anastasio and his band Phish had already been doing this for years: In 1996, they held the Clifford Ball festival in Vermont and drew 70,000 people to an event where Phish was the only act, and these massive concerts became a regular tradition.

And so it goes, decades later, Phish got the most stage time at ’Roo, about six hours in total over multiple sets, because hey, give the people what they want. Bonnaroo’s genre-leaping lineup might be spastic for listeners who keep their eggs pretty much in one basket, but with four days and more than 100 acts in the lineup, it’s a music fiend’s dream. Have a look at our handpicked highlights of players who performed this year, and go down the rabbit hole of discovery, because that’s what it’s all about on this farm. P.S. Did you know Post Malone plays guitar? We weren’t able to photograph it, but here’s a video of him playing solo acoustic on “Stay.”)

A pair of new, mighty Sunn 100S amps—the company’s original flagship amplifier—built by the new team led by James Lebihan, Mike Eldred, and Steve Skillings.

Since forming to help early garage rockers the Kingsmen bring their hit “Louie Louie” on the road, Sunn amps have roared behind everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Leslie West to Kurt Cobain to the doom-metal act that bears their name. After laying dormant for decades, the brand is back and the new team promises to live up to its legendary reputation.

“Have you ever considered covering ‘Louie Louie,’” I ask Stephen O’Malley over Zoom. The doom-metal guitarist and half of the band Sunn O))) is a native of Seattle but has lived the past 20 years in Paris, France. “I see where you’re going with this,” O'Malley chuckles, and says, “but we’re not a rock ’n’ roll band. Still, the Kingsmen and Conrad Sundholm building a bass amp for his brother—that’s a legendary Northwest story.”

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The Swedish melodic death metal pioneers continue solidifying their reign as technical titans. That’s due in part to signature guitars—Epiphone Les Paul Customs plus Jackson Diabolics and Soloists that rip and roar—as well as Zon Sonus basses. Altogether, these steely vets with thundering tenacity are feeling the surge of fresh sonic blood.

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