Photo by Jeff Kravitz

Back in 2004, a young band from Tennessee made its debut appearance at Bonnaroo. The group returned the next year to perform on the Which Stage, delivered an afternoon set at the What Stage in 2007 and finally in 2010 the Kings of Leon graduated to main stage headliner.

The Kings acknowledged this transition from the stage on Friday. They brought out their producer and songwriting partner Angelo Petraglia for a few songs, debuted some material from their forthcoming record and mentioned how after their initial Bonnaroo performance they retired the song “Holy Roller Novocaine” for some time because they had absolutely nailed it at the fest. Besides the hits – “Sex On Fire” and “Be Somebody” – off of their multi-platinum Only By Night, the set also featuring the hook-laden “Molly’s Chambers” plus a cover of the Pixies “Where Is My Mind?” (for those who want to relive the experience, Fuse TV will broadcast the set at 7 p.m. EST on June 17).

Looking around the site today, the Kings of Leon were just one of many familiar faces. The Flaming Lips first appeared at Bonnaroo in 2003 and returned in 2007. The group’s 2010 late night set from the Which Stage augmented by Stardeath and White Dwarfs, featured a stylized version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon. Before this, The Lips delivered a 75-minute set of originals that included such favorites as “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “Yoshimi Battles the Robots Part 2,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and “The W.A.N.D.” plus selections from the band’s psychedelic-centric 2009 release, Embryonic.

Photo by Jeff Kravitz

It’s appropriate that the Lips performed Dark Side at Bonnaroo since it was nearly seven years to the day that the group performed Floyd’s “Breathe” and “Us and Them” during their debut performance at the fest. Led by mastermind genius Wayne Coyne, the show began as an empowering moment of controlled chaos as confetti shot out of canons and giant balloons made their way to the audience. Two unlikely bands also nodded to the festival’s roots in jam and improvisational music. National bassist Scott Devendorf wore a bootleg t-shirt that meshed the Grateful Dead’s Steal Your Face insignia with the New York Giants’ logo. Meanwhile, roots rockers Dawes declared, “We heard this festival used to be all about jamming. We want to bring a little of that back.”

Another recognizable visage (although not from Bonnaroos past, so far as he’ll admit) was Coco himself, as Conan O’Brien brought his His Legally Prohibited From Being Funny Tour to the fest. In addition to that performance in the Comedy Tent, O’Brien also introduced acts from the What Stage, including a moment when he fell to his knees to genuflect before Tenacious D. O’Brien and Team Coco will return today.

Meanwhile, this being Bonnaroo and all, there were plenty of near-impossible choices to be made. For instance The Lips were performing at the same time as both the Black Keys and Daryl Hall & Chromeo. A similar challenge occurred earlier when a set from Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers took place at the same time that Les Claypool constructed another work of twisted brilliance and Michael Franti & Spearhead uplifted spirits with their rock/reggae/hip-hop sounds.

Martin’s set was one of five at That Tent, which became the home of the “Tennessee Shine” radio program hosted by singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale. The Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile, took past traditions and merged them with modern approaches. Their set included a cover of the White Stripes “Dead Leaves” plus material from their new album Antifogmatic, which comes out on Tuesday. Carolina Chocolate Drops did the opposite. More than revivalists, the members bring humor, high energy and stellar musicianship to the trio’s exploration of a near-forgotten brand of banjo-driven string-band music that originated over a century ago in the rural hills of North Carolina. Martin and his group later closed That Tent with a set that mixed the actor/comedian’s dry humor with some strong picking. Martin led the group on banjo but consistently allowed the other musicians shine. They ended with a bluegrass version of his 1978 hit “King Tut.”

Elsewhere around the festival, like the Polyphonic Spree in 2003, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros connected to the large crowd in and surrounding the Other Tent in a manner that was more than just musical. The set was reminiscent of a blessed out ceremony as the band members and the songs seemingly lifted many of those present to the heavens.

However, it wasn’t just the major stages and tents that could tug at one’s thirst for musical adventures. Yesterday, a 45-minute set by Big Sam’s Funky Nation at the Fiesta Garage, turned the temperature up on what was already a scorching day of heat meeting humidity. Big Sam will return to play a full set at 1:15 p.m. today at the What Stage.

The Saturday evening program will feature Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z on the What Stage. And while neither of those artists made the gradual transition through the Bonnaroo ranks like the Friday headliner, it’s fair to assume that the Kings of Bonnaroo future will be out there performing somewhere at the fest today. Go find them…