From Guns N' Roses' reunion to Anderson .Paak's breakout sets, EW's music staff sizes up the summer in festivals
From SXSW in Austin to Lollapalooza’s 25th-anniversary blowout in Chicago, EW was on the ground (and in the pit) for the biggest festival season in America yet. Here are the highlights, the lowlights, and who we think should be a headliner in 2017.
Biggest Proof Rock Isn’t Dead: Pearl Jam
The 25th anniversary of their landmark debut, Ten, is upon us, but at Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., Pearl Jam were as vital as ever. Eddie Vedder’s trademark yowl is still as strong as ever, and Mike McCready’s molten guitar solos electrified the 700-acre farm during songs like “Even Flow.” They also honored their rock & roll forebears with incredible covers of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”
Biggest Proof Rock Is Dead: Guns N’ Roses
Once known for his wild stage antics, frontman Axl Rose was chairbound for GN’R’s Coachella slot due to a broken foot. The group’s beloved classics also weren’t enough to draw younger attendees away from buzzy newcomers like Grimes and Shamir.
Best Adult Beverage: Electric Sky’s rosé tower at Governors Ball
Rosé all day.
Best Live Debut: The Muppets at Outside Lands
With a short set of covers, Dr. Teeth and Electric Mayhem showed that Muppets sure can shred.
Best Political Statement: Kendrick Lamar
In front of a gobsmacked crowd at New York City’s Panorama, the MC punctuated tracks from his 2015 opus To Pimp a Butterfly—perhaps this decade’s sharpest musical document about the African-American experience—with striking found footage depicting everything from the Reagans to Michael Jordan.
Worst Political Statement: Father John Misty
At XPoNential in Philadelphia, one day after Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention speech, the songwriter ranted about the state of the world and the “stupidity” of entertainment before playing two songs (a 10-minute improvisation and a Leonard Cohen cover) and cutting his set short.
Best Dance Party for Millennials: The Chainsmokers at Coachella
Best Dance Party for Draft-Card Burners: Dead & Company at Bonnaroo
Best Dance Party for Gen-Xers: Red Hot Chili Peppers at Lollapalooza
Best After-Party: LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy’s newly reunited dance-punk outfit warmed up for a headlining Lollapalooza slot with two totally-sold-out shows at Chicago’s 1,110-capacity Metro club. With a glittering disco ball, euphoric anthems like “All My Friends,” and drummer Pat Mahoney’s supernaturally precise drumming, LCD showed why they’re the best live band in America now.
Best Bowie Tribute: Arcade Fire
When Arcade Fire ended their Panorama performance, they didn’t exit stage left. Instead, the Canadian group—along with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band—marched straight into the crowd to lead joyful sing-alongs of Bowie classics “Rebel Rebel,” “Suffragette City,” and “Heroes.”
Best Cure for Your Comedown: Bob Moses’ 1:30 a.m. set at Bonnaroo
Best Prince Tribute: Beck
His music has long been inspired by His Purpleness’ righteous funk, so it makes sense that Beck punched up his set at Governors Ball in New York City with killer covers of “1999” and “Raspberry Beret.” He also shared a hilariously awkward story of bum-rushing Prince for a hug when accepting his Grammy for Album of the Year in 2015: “Afterward,” Beck said, “I looked up the photo and there was a big smile on his face.”
Best Reason to Toke Up: Kurt Vile
Is it a coincidence the mellow indie rocker’s dazed and loopy riffs could often be heard at various festivals right when 4:20 p.m. struck?
Cleanest Grounds: Coachella
Mud and trash can ruin a selfie, and Coachella organizers know it. Every inch of the polo fields in Indio, Calif., are manicured as delicately as the flower-crowned masses who walk them.
Biggest FOMO Inducer: #COACHELLA
Grossest Grounds: Governors Ball
And that was before torrential rains turned Randall’s Island into a mud pit.
Biggest Risk-Taker: Robyn
Her stature has only grown since 2010’s breakthrough Body Talk, but she disappointed fans anticipating “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Dancing on My Own” at Governors Ball. Instead, the quirky Swedish pop star followed her muse, playing only remixes and new songs. The experiment worked: She made the sprawling field feel as thrilling and intimate as a ’70s-era disco.
Worst-Kept Secret: Drake’s “surprise” set at SXSW
Drake’s “surprise” closing set at SXSW’s annual Fader Fort was no surprise to fans who kept their Twitter feeds open. Drizzy and his OVO crew were also spotted in Austin hours before they hit the stage. Still, the spoilers didn’t stop die-hards from freaking out when he teased his then-unreleased album Views with a room-rattling set.
Worst Luck: Governors Ball
This six-year-old festival has earned the nickname “Mud Ball” for all the times it’s been hit with heavy rain, but this year organizers actually had to cancel an entire day—including a highly anticipated set from Kanye West—due to a storm.
Best Festival Accessory: Sia’s Wig
The camera-shy artist prefers to go unseen, but the same isn’t true of her fans—a handful donned conspicuous replicas of Sia’s signature two-tone wigs during her twilight performance at Panorama.
Worst Festival Accessory: American Flag “Clothing” at Stagecoach
Bikinis that’d make Betsy Ross blush.
Best French Import: Christine and the Queens
The singer’s off-the-wall moves at Governors Ball—she danced around with a bouquet of flowers and compared the petals to Rihanna and Beyoncé—have little in common with the routines of other pop stars. Yet a thrilling cover of Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” proves she could go toe-to-toe with any of those stars.
Best Diva: Mariah Carey at Essence Fest
Biggest Bang for Your Buck: Milwaukee Summerfest
With bargain prices ($80 for an 11-day pass) and the season’s biggest lineup (more than 800 acts!), this Milwaukee fest feels like the Costco of music festivals: More music than you know what to do with, and the best deal around.
Best Surprise Guest Star: Carly Rae Jepsen
Whether joining retro-pop duo the Knocks at Governors Ball or popping out at Pitchfork for her pal Blood Orange’s set, Jepsen was the queen of cameos this season.
Best Food: San Francisco’s Outside Lands
Best Hometown Jam: Willie Nelson at SXSW
The country legend’s annual one-day festival at his Luck ranch 30 miles outside Austin may not be an official SXSW event, but those who made the trek caught impromptu down-and-dirty jams with Lucius, Jenny Lewis, and Margo Price in Nelson’s own intimate chapel.
Most Surprising Sing-Along: Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”
Who says millennials don’t know about the past? The ’90s alt-rockers turned fest grounds into massive sing-alongs across the country this season.
Best Workout: Morning yoga at Bonnaroo
Hardest Workout: The trek between Lollapalooza’s main stages
Hottest Breakout Star: Anderson .Paak
The soulful SoCal rapper caught his big break as a guest on Dr. Dre’s 2015 album Compton—but this summer he came into his own, toting his ebullient stage presence and stellar backing band, the Free Nationals, from Coachella to Panorama. Headlining material for summer 2017? Definitely.