25 Favorite Non-Headlining Music Festival Sets of 2015
In 2015, I was extremely fortunate to have attended 13 music festivals (mostly multi-day events, sometimes one-day), seeing a total of 349 sets across them. It was a much easier process to narrow it down to my ten favorite sets in 2014. This year, it was a much more arduent process, but I came up with a top 10 (and then listing 15 more honorable mentions) of my favorite non-headlining sets I saw.
- Stromae at Coachella Weekend 2 — Apr. 19
I knew very little about Stromae. For Weekend 1, I chose to see St. Vincent instead (an awesome set in its own right), but one of my condo-mates for Coachella that weekend said I HAD to see Stromae the following week no matter what. I was extremely happy I made that choice. The Belgium singer/songwriter/rapper may sing in a language I don’t know (French), but it didn’t affect my enjoyment in the slightest. The best way to describe the atmosphere was it was like being in a French nightclub, while Stromae also combines elements of musical theatre in his performance. The end of the set had Stromae faux-collapse on stage, only to be carried off by a group of people as though he had died. It was an exhilarating finish to an already amazing performance and I intend on never missing him perform when he’s around again.
2. Jenny Lewis at Coachella Weekend 1 — Apr. 12
You know Stromae was THAT good when it knocked a mini-Rilo Kiley reunion down to #2. I saw Jenny Lewis perform at a number of festivals in 2015, but my favorite set of hers was during the first weekend of Coachella. I got to get all the way up to the rail and see Jenny perform many old favorites, play a new song with the HAIM girls, and bring out former Rilo Kiley guitarist Blake Sennett for a reunion on “Portions for Foxes.” The crowd wasn’t massive, but at the front you could feel the emotions of all the die-hards, particularly during the set-closing heart-stopper “A Better Son/Daughter.” My eyes may or may not have been a little teary-eyed. My review HERE.
3. Florence + The Machine at Coachella Weekend 1 — April 12
Could you tell I really enjoyed my two weekends in the desert this year? Though Florence also killed it when I saw her at Bonnaroo a few months later, she rocked so hard at the first weekend of Coachella that she broke her foot jumping off the stage. Her latest album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was still more than a month from dropping, but she gifted the crowd with both the title track, and “Ship to Wreck” — my personal favorite from the record. She’s got a bevy of hits and played all the crowd favorites, closing with bangers “Shake It Out” and “Dog Days Are Over.” It speaks to her awesomeness that she still performed the following week with a broken foot — albeit in an abbreviated, acoustic set (that featured an awesome cover with Father John Misty on “Love Hurts”). My review HERE.
4. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds at Shaky Knees — May 9
My actual birthday fell on the second day of Shaky Knees, the first festival of a five-festival over six-week binge I’d pull off between May and June. The must-see on my birthday was Noel Gallagher’s solo project, which previously was one of the best shows I ever saw at The Orpheum in SF a few years prior. As I worked my way through the crowd beforehand, I kept saying it was my birthday and people let me through all the way to the front rail. Photographer Tom Dellinger, whose photos accompanied my reviews at GrimyGoods.com, took my portrait before the show started. The set was everything I hoped it would be. Noel was his usually hilarious self as he cracked jokes between songs. Though I wasn’t as familiar with Noel’s second solo album as I was the first, the new stuff sounded killer. The crowd singalongs for Oasis favorites “Champagne Supernova” and the set-closing “Don’t Look Back in Anger” were some of the best moments of any festival I went to this year. My recap HERE.
5. Lykke Li at Coachella Weekend 2 — April 17
The previous weekend at Coachella, it was so packed inside the Mojave Tent for Lykke Li’s set that the closest I could get was a really bad side-view spot. I vowed the next week to get there plenty early, and wound up on the rail before it started. I turned around and saw that I was pretty much the only dude that close, asking everybody behind me loudly, “Y’all ready to feel some feels!?” — to which they all shouted “YEAHH” in excitement. Her work is so strong that the weakest song of the set was her cover of Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” The feels were certainly felt during heartbreaking renditions of “I Never Learn,” “No Rest for the Wicked,” “Gunshot,” and “Never Gonna Love Again.” She closed with the super danceable “Get Some,” which elevated the energy prior to the final stretch on the first day of Coachella weekend 2. My Weekend 1 review HERE.
6. Kate Tempest at Sasquatch! — May 24
Speaking of feeling the feels, I knew absolutely nothing about British rapper/poet/writer Kate Tempest but in my research found that it was a can’t-miss set. Her set was so good that it was basically unanimously considered the breakout set of the weekend by the writers in the press tent. Though the crowd started significantly small, it grew exponentially as she touched everyone’s hearts with earnest rhymes about overcoming the pressures that society puts on people, self-esteem issues and other deep struggles that we all face. That she doesn’t at all look the part of a rap star only makes her that much more impressive. Do not miss her if she comes to your town, I still get goosebumps thinking about her set. Unfortunately there was no quality video of her Sasquatch performance, so I pulled a video from her Glastonbury set of her most affecting words. My full Sasquatch! recap HERE.
7. St. Lucia at CRSSD Fest#2 — Oct. 10
Over the course of the year, St. Lucia quickly became one of my favorite live acts to see. October’s CRSSD Fest would become the fifth time I’d see them in 2015, and it was easily the most memorable. Singer Jean-Philip Grobler has a Beyonce thing going, where there’s a powerful fun behind him that gives his hair a perfect blowing-in-the-wind look. It was also the first festival I ever had all-access, and being able to get in front of the barricade and as close to the stage as possible made it that much more thrilling. As great as their hits “Elevate” and “All Eyes on You” are, I fell in love with the new material they played that night, particularly “Physical.” By the end of the set I felt like I had no energy left in my being. It didn’t hurt I was there with some new friends that provided incredibly positive energy to feed off of.
8. Phantogram at Hangout — May 17
Sarah Barthel is a goddess. Phantogram was one of the first bands I latched onto in the synth-pop renaissance that’s occurred as of late, and they’re one of the few acts that has legitimate sound that can stretch to a wide open festival field. It was the sunset set on Hangout Fest’s final day that was most magical that weekend. This band just belonged on the beaches of Gulf Shores. One of the best parts of Hangout was that even the undercard acts were getting an hour to perform, meaning Barthel and Josh Carter got through 15 songs. The way Barthel holds the note on the second chorus of “Black Out Days” (see to the left) gives me goosebumps ’til this day. Barthel was rocking some awesome jewelry as though she was Cleopatra. The combination of “When I’m Small” and “Mouthful of Diamonds” after the sun had finally set was bone-chilling. My recap HERE.
9. Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals at Bonnaroo — June 12
2015 marked the first year I finally got to see long-standing favorite of mine Ben Harper perform in any capacity. At Bonnaroo, I made sure to get in line so I could get right on the rail for his night-time set on the second day. The Innocent Criminals era of Harper’s prolific catalog is easily my favorite and he didn’t disappoint with his song selection. “Amen Omen” has one of the most kickass breakdowns of any rock song, and Harper’s final vocals in that song sent shivers up my spine. You also could have gotten a serious contact high when he pulled out the marijuana anthem “Burn One Down” in the final few songs of the set. My recap HERE.
Prior to “Ground on Down,” Harper looked at me and remarked on my Pied-Piper shirt from the TV show Silicon Valley. “Love your shirt, decent human,” Harper said to me. “Pied Piper, I gotta get that shirt.” I was pretty drunk at this point so I was actually confused if he was talking to me. A few months later I got a text from a friend who was at Outside Lands. “Dude! Ben Harper is wearing a Pied Piper shirt on stage!” That was pretty damn cool.
10. MØ at Sasquatch! — May 25
I fell in love with Danish singer MØ after seeing her high-energy performance at Coachella. I quite easily got to the front of the crowd for her Sasquatch set, positioning myself on the rail. Early in her set, she came and basically stood right on top of me as she rocked out. It was far from the only time she got up-close and personal with the audience, crowd-surfing for a stretch and really getting their participation on her numerous catchy pop-anthems. “Walk This Way” and “Don’t Want to Dance” were standouts. Though it was still months away from becoming the most-streamed song of 2015, her singing Major Lazer’s “Lean On” was one of the peaks of the entire weekend. Her cover of Spice Girls’ “Say You Will Be There” had everyone singing along. My recap HERE.
The best of the rest (in chronological order):
Jungle at Coachella Weekend 1
Kasabian at Coachella Weekend 1
ODESZA at Hangout
Father John Misty at Hangout
Sylvan Esso at Hangout
Gogol Bordello at Sasquatch
Sharon Van Etten at Sasquatch
Cage the Elephant at BottleRock
Childish Gambino at Bonnaroo
Spiritualized at FYF Fest
Alvvays at FYF Fest
Jesus & Mary Chain at FYF Fest
Kate Nash at Burger A-Go-Go
Hozier at Life is Beautiful
Clean Bandit at Life is Beautiful
Duran Duran at Life is Beautiful
Acts I saw multiple time at festival stops along the way this year:
5 — Sylvan Esso, Run the Jewels
4 — Jenny Lewis, Ryn Weaver, Alvvays, St. Lucia, Royal Blood, ODESZA, Jungle
3 — Florence + The Machine, Courtney Barnett, Tame Impala, Kiesza, Mac DeMarco, MØ, Tycho
2 —Kendrick Lamar, AC/DC, Robert Plant, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, Lykke Li, Jack White, Drake, The Killers, St. Vincent, Chet Faker, G-Eazy, Phantogram, Jamie XX, The Flaming Lips, Ryan Adams, Halsey, Hozier, Imagine Dragons, twenty-one pilots, Chance the Rapper, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Steely Dan, Scott Weiland & The Wildabouts, Foster the People, Best Coast, Spritualized, Portugal. The Man, Kasabian, Tove Lo, Marina & the Diamonds, Clean Bandit, Zella Day, Night Terrors of 1927, Dawes, Flume, Tennis, HAERTS, Porter Robinson, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Ghostface Killah + Raekwon, Meg Mac, Young the Giant, PHOX, Natalie Prass, Viet Cong, Zac Brown Band, The Avett Brothers, Joey Bada$$
Follow me on Twitter at @MarkEOrtega.