This year’s Bunbury Music Festival lineup is a virtual stacked deck of amazing artists, from the top of the marquee all the way down to the fine-print talent at the bottom of the poster. This year’s topliners — Empire of the Sun, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Young the Giant, Flaming Lips — are guaranteed to draw huge crowds to the Main Stage, and the local-and-beyond lineup, including Foxy Shazam, Black Owls, Jane Decker, psychodots, Kim Taylor, Heartless Bastards, Austin Livingood and many more, are sure bets to attract hardcore fans and curious newbies, but there are plenty of undercard acts and little known nearly top-of-the-bill names that could prove to be serious highlights in Bunbury’s burgeoning scrapbook.
The best part of any festival is the chance to experience new and unfamiliar artists so here are a few suggestions of acts that could easily become your new favorites after one potent Bunbury dose.
Aaron Lee Tasjan (Acoustic Stage; Friday @ 5:45 p.m.) If you’ve seen Drivin’ N Cryin’ recently and wondered about the incendiary guitarist standing beside frontman Kevn Kinney, that would be New Albany, Ohio-spawned producer, songwriter and guitarist Aaron Lee Tasjan (or ALT, for short). Long before his move to Nashville, ALT was scoring plum touring gigs with some pretty stellar names (Tim Easton, Todd Snider, New York Dolls), not to mention working with his own bands (Semi Precious Weapons, Madison Square Gardeners, Enemies) and amassing an encyclopedic press kit crammed to bursting with glowing praise. Antiquiet.com likened his work to Bob Dylan’s best songs performed by Jack White, while New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain lined him up against Jeff Beck. When he’s not doing the hired gun thing, ALT is writing and recording his own songs, a few of which surface on his new EP, Crooked River Burning, produced by Golden Palominos mastermind Anton Fier. Aaron Lee Tasjan might just be the new face (and hands and heart and soul and central nervous system) of Americana.
Cage the Elephant (Main Stage; Friday @ 5:45 p.m.) In the category of bands that are close enough to be considered homeboys, put a checkmark next to Cage the Elephant, the pride and joy of Bowling Green, Ky. The eclectic Garage/Glam/Psych/Rock quintet formed in 2006, showcased at SXSW in 2007 and was signed by Relentless Records in the wake of that performance. After relocating to London, Cage the Elephant dropped its eponymous debut in the summer of 2008; its single, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” nearly cracked the Top 30 of the UK Singles Chart. The following year was a big one for the band, with opening slots for Silversun Pickups and Manchester Orchestra, a celebrated Lollapalooza appearance and its national TV debut on The Late Show with David Letterman. The band’s sophomore album, Thank You, Happy Birthday, notched first week sales that placed it at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 200 and, like its predecessor, garnered almost universal praise. When drummer Jared Champion was sidelined with a burst appendix, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl filled in. Two months after the release of 2013’s glowingly reviewed Melophobia, guitarist Lincoln Parish left to concentrate on his production career and was replaced by Nick Bockrath; as impressive as its albums have been, Cage the Elephant absolutely explodes in front of an audience. Enjoy the shrapnel. (Read our interview with Cage the Elephant, page 33.)
Fitz and the Tantrums (Main Stage; Friday @ 7:45 p.m.) What hath Daptone wrought? A pants-load of great horn-wrenched, sweat-drenched Rock and Soul, that’s what. One of the top-billed poster children of the retro Soul revival movement is L.A. sextet Fitz and the Tantrums. Frontman Michael Fitzpatrick assembled the guitar-less band six years ago; within a week, they played their first show and mere months later recorded their debut EP, Songs for a Breakup, Vol. 1. After a fall 2009 Hepcat/Flogging Molly tour, the Tantrums opened a handful of dates for Maroon 5 when the Pop stars’ warm-up act cancelled. How did that happen? Adam Levine’s favorite New York tattoo artist had downloaded the Tantrums’ EP after hearing it on the radio and played it for Levine. The breaks just kept breaking: a killer 2010 set at South By Southwest, signing with Dangerbird, the release of their debut full-length, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, an appearance on Daryl Hall’s Live from Daryl’s House, performances for Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon, and placement of their songs all over television and film (particularly the super-infectious “MoneyGrabber”). Last year, the band signed with Elektra and dropped its incredible sophomore album, More Than Just a Dream, which cracked the Top 30 of Billboard’s Hot 200 album chart.
Wear your snazziest and most flame-retardant outfit, because Fitz and the Tantrums can start a fire with just about anything.
Empire of the Sun (Main Stage; Friday @ 10 p.m.) Empire of the Sun’s worldwide success hasn’t been mirrored in the U.S. — although that may change with the group’s musical contributions to the Farrelly Brothers’ Dumb and Dumber To — but it’s worth noting that the duo’s 2008 debut album, Walking on a Dream, was certified gold in England, Germany and Ireland and double platinum in their native Australia. Empire of the Sun’s two principals, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore, met 14 years ago when both were busy with other projects (Steele with The Sleepy Jackson and Littlemore with a variety of bands). The pair collaborated on each other’s work; Steele’s work on a track for Littlemore’s Pnau project in 2007 was so significant that it changed the direction of the band’s self-titled album. After completing Pnau, Steele and Littlemore officially teamed up as Empire of the Sun and dropped their debut album. With a cover that resembles a Siegfried and Roy poster and a sound that blends Electronic Dance pulse with gleaming New Wave and Glam-fueled Pop, Empire of the Sun grabbed the world’s attention and climbed its charts. Steele created something of a stir last year when he compared Empire of the Sun’s sophomore album, Ice on the Dunes, with Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, saying “They had a great marketing campaign, but we had better songs.” As Muhammad Ali once noted, it ain’t bragging if it’s true. And there’s no denying that Empire of the Sun has most contemporary bands beat, hands down, when it comes to live spectacle. This may be the most talked about slot at this year’s Bunbury.
Modoc (Lawn Stage; Saturday @ 5:45 p.m.) An online search for “Modoc” reveals a number of diverse and interesting possibilities, including a Native American tribe from Oklahoma, a member of a 19th century Welsh coalmining gang in Pennsylvania, or the Missouri Department of Corrections. Refine that search to “Modoc music” and you’ll be led to one of the Midwest’s most shudderingly powerful three-piece Rock bands, an explosive mix of Zeppelinesque Blues riffage, Foo Fighters’ melodic amplification and Marah’s boozy Americana swagger. The needle-pegging trio relocated from its native Indiana to Nashville to explore the city’s Rock scene and quickly made a name for itself in a city that routinely grinds dreams to dust. Modoc actually has something of a local tie; the band’s self-titled 2013 debut album was released on vinyl by Cincinnati’s Soul Step Records thanks to label owner Melvin Dillon’s fervent fandom. Make sure you and everything you brought to Bunbury is strapped down tight; Modoc will blow it all away.
HAERTS (River Stage; Saturday @ 6:45 p.m.) Electro Pop can be cold, brittle and calculated but Brooklyn, N.Y.-based HAERTS is clearly more interested in finding the soul in the machinery, as evidenced by the warm, engaging and emotionally charged songs it’s crafted since its 2010 formation. The quartet’s first official EP, 2013’s Hemiplegia, is a triumph of Electronic romanticism set to a beat that is both propulsive and soothing, with the voice of Nini Fabi matching the mood of the soundtrack, note for powerful note. HAERTS’ fascinating international origins help to explain the breadth of its sound: Fabi is an Ohio native who grew up in Germany in a musical but largely untrained family; Ben Gebert is a native German who learned piano at age 3 and was formally trained in high school and college (Fabi and Gebert have been friends since high school, when they were on swim team together); UK native bassist Derek McWilliams played music in spite of his unsupportive upbringing; and guitarist Garrett Ienner was a composer at New York’s renowned Lodge production collective (and the son of former Sony Music head Don Ienner and nephew of legendary producer Jimmy Ienner). Fabi and Gebert met and collaborated with McWilliams in Boston; the trio moved to Brooklyn and met Ienner through producer Jean-Philip Grobler. HAERTS released its first song, “Wings,” in 2012, with the EP following the next year. The band has come a long way in a short span to make a big sound.
Little Daylight (Warsteiner Stage; Saturday @ 6:30 p.m.) Brooklyn trio Little Daylight is one of the latest Synth Pop acts to take flight, mixing a melodic ’80s Electro Pop spirit (think Berlin, Missing Persons, etc.) with dashes of modern EDM (a la CHVRCHES, Charli XCX, etc.). The threesome (Nikki Taylor, Matt Lewkowicz and Eric Zeller) got together just two years ago, introducing themselves more as a production team via a series of unique remixes for artists like The Neighbourhood and Passion Pit. Little Daylight’s 2013 single “Overdose” got major music blog love and, after debuting its live show at last year’s South By Southwest, the band signed with Capitol Records. The trio’s debut album, Hello Memory, is set for release this Tuesday and judging by the mesmerizing Pop sheen of the album’s most recent single, “My Life,” we should be hearing a lot more about Little Daylight as the rest of 2014 plays out. Bunbury’s a great opportunity to see ’em on their way up.
The Lighthouse and the Whaler (River Stage; Sunday @ 2:45 p.m.) The Hall of Fame envy directed at Cleveland is understandable at a certain level. But they had Alan Freed and Jane Scott, so they stake a decent claim. Cleveland also continues to birth some pretty amazing bands, The Lighthouse and the Whaler being the latest case in point. The quintet’s burbling Indie/Baroque/Synth Folk/Pop bears more than a passing resemblance to Cincy’s Walk the Moon, with a slightly more intensive focus on Folk roots — think Poi Dog Pondering if they’d been born 30 years later — but a similar guileless and genuine love of Indie Rock, informed and amplified by Midwestern experiences and sensibilities. The Lighthouse and the Whaler’s 2009 self-titled debut perfectly framed their ambitions, but their 2012 sophomore album, This is an Adventure (produced by Ryan Hadlock, noted for his work with The Lumineers and Ra Ra Riot), found the band honing in on its Indie Rock passion while retaining the Baroque touches that made it memorable in the first place.
Saintseneca (Amphitheater Stage; Sunday @ 7:15 p.m.) Although Saintseneca calls Columbus, Ohio, home, frontman Zac Little actually began the band as a teenager in Noble County, Ohio, crafting the band’s textural sound with an ear toward his Appalachian surroundings. The Columbus move came when Little began classes at Ohio State, which also marked the start of his collection and mastering of a variety of new and interesting instruments. Little assembled a touring version of Saintseneca and played regionally as well as up and down the East Coast; the band released a pair of EPs in late 2009 and early 2010. After another year of Midwest/East Coast touring, Saintseneca signed with Mama Bird Recording Co., and released its debut 2011 full-length Last; the original version of the band dissolved after the album’s release show. In 2012, Little assembled a new lineup, signed with Anti- Records in 2013 and, after nearly a year of home recording, Saintseneca headed to Omaha, Neb., to work with producer Mike Mogis on what would become the band’s second full-length album, Dark Arc. Pinning a single sound on Saintseneca is no easy feat; at its heart, the band checks all the boxes for Alternative Folk Rock, but exhibits the quirky diversity of Destroyer and the melodic beauty of The Shins while banging around on instruments both exotic and completely typical. The sound that Saintseneca creates within the range of that conventional/non-traditional instrumentation defines their unique magic and passion.
The Orwells (Warsteiner Stage; Sunday @ 8 p.m.) The Orwells are a perfect storm of odd attributes that have defined Rock’s greatest bands. First, the quintet hails from Illinois, a supernatural hotbed of Pop/Rock brilliance. Second, the band coalesced five years ago when they were all still in high school; the members graduated early in 2013 to concentrate on their music. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, The Orwells benefit from potent DNA connections; vocalist Mario Cuomo and guitarist Dominic Corso are cousins, while bassist Grant Brinner and drummer Henry Brinner are twin brothers. Guitarist Matt O’Keefe is unrelated, but all five have been family friends since childhood (which wasn’t all that long ago). Aquarium Drunkard blogger Justin Gage discovered The Orwells in 2011 via a pair of their self-released albums and signed them to his Autumn Tone label, releasing their ecstatic third LP, Remember When, in 2012. The Orwells’ past year has been dizzying; the bracing Other Voices and Who Needs You EPs were released, the band opened for part of the Arctic Monkeys’ U.S. tour and their unhinged appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman inspired the host to request an encore, which they were unable to perform because O’Keefe had snapped every string on his guitar. Now signed to Atlantic imprint Canvasback, The Orwells continue their Dictators/Standells/Stooges sonic expedition of the Bermuda Triangle on the just-released Disgraceland. Witness The Orwells and be altered (and altared). ©