After months of rising anticipation and weeks of weirdly intermittent and torrential rain, Bunbury's first day looked to be a winner. A great announced lineup, no precipitation in the forecast and nothing but sunshine expected for the day; against all odds, that's exactly what we got. But it wasn't the rain to come that presented a problem, it was the rain that had already fallen; the area on the Serpentine Wall that had perfectly pocketed the Rockstar Stage last year was completely swallowed by the rising Ohio River, and the stage had to be moved to the opposite end of the field housing the all important Main Stage. It turned out to be a pretty decent fix, all things considered.
After securing my Level Three media pass (which, in the hierarchy of accessibility, I think meant that if any band needed help moving equipment, I was obligated to roadie for them), I headed for the Bud Light stage for Public. I had done a story on them back in January; they were home for Christmas so given their proximity, they came to my house and we did the interview in my basement. My daughter had answered the door and let them in, and for weeks afterward she was telling her friends about the cute guys I had interviewed at the house. Public's teenage girl effect was fully evident at their Bunbury appearance, as squealy females shrieked their appreciation for every song, and randomly shouted "I love you!"s arced over the rather sizable crowd. The trio did songs from their self-titled EP, a new tune called "Honey Bee" and, taking a page from the infinitely talented and creatively twisted Richard Thompson, offered a thunderously blazing turn on Britney Spears' "Toxic." In the studio, Public has the sound of a ramped up Modest Mouse, but in the live arena, they definitely blister and kick a little closer to the Led Zeppelin vibe they claimed as inspiration during our conversation, adding a dollop of harmonic Pop to sweeten the deal. If teenage girls are any indicator — and they usually are — Public could be headed for Walk the Moon territory pretty quickly.
Next up, it was Alone at 3AM at the Lawn Stage. I love these guys; super solid, crunchy heartland Indie Pop/Rock that states its case without a lot of unnecessary flash or padding. The band had plodded along for close to seven years before solidifying a dedicated line-up behind vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Max Fender and bassist Joey Beck and moving forward; a good deal of growth occurred with the additions of Sarah Davis on keys and Chris Mueller on drums (and business savvy). That in turn lit a fire under Fender, leading to a pair of albums in the last three years — 2010's Cut Your Gills and last year's Midwest Mess.
For A@3's Bunbury slot, the quintet was showing off their new guitarist; Clay Cason's recent departure left a gap which has been admirably filled by Jake Tippey, taking a busman's holiday from his howling duties in the Frankl Project and proving every bit as valuable in a Pop/Rock context. The band roared through songs from their most recent albums, introduced a couple of new songs (Chris mentioned after the show that A@3 would be working on an EP, and then tracking a new full length for imminent release) and even dipped back into their debut album, City Out of Luck, for a spin through "Mexico." Max's gruff voice sits comfortably in the Paul Westerberg/Bruce Springsteen range and it's the perfect vehicle for expressing his blue collar love-and-life songs. Can't wait to hear the new stuff in the studio, kids.
Before setting out for the Rockstar Stage, I caught the opening of Ohio Knife, one of Cincinnati's brightest new entities. Initially a side project for the Chocolate Horse, vocalist/guitarist Jason Snell, guitarist Andrew Higley and drummer Joe Suer — who all played together in Readymaid as well — ultimately put the Horse in the stable to concentrate on the Punk-scrubbed Blues of Ohio Knife, and with good reason. The trio is a sweat-soaked hurricane in the studio (their 2012 EP was a marvel), but the live translation hits with the force and heat of a flamethrower in an ammunition dump, and it won't be long before the CEA nominees for Best New Artist wind up taking home some bling. Where are we with the full length, guys?
After a quick shot of Ohio Knife, it was time to motor to the other end of the festival to check out the Dunwells. The UK outfit fronted by, logically enough, the Dunwell brothers, has found a good deal of success with their debut album, Blind Sighted Faith, and its ubiquitous single "I Could Be a King." When they played the single, frontman Joseph Dunwell thanked Q102 for their support, but it bears pointing out that, WNKU has been beating the drum for the Dunwells for quite some time now (just as they had for the similarly Folk/Pop toned Mumford & Sons). That being said, the age of the crowd seemed to indicate that Q102's demographic was probably best represented here today, so perhaps the win should be scored in their column after all. However the commissioner decides to rule, the Dunwells put together a crisp and wonderfully vibrant set that pays homage to the West Coast sounds of the Eagles and CSNY. The one exception to that sonic blueprint is the aforementioned "I Could Be a King," which offers an irresistable Pop edge that shimmers like the best of Crowded House. When brother David Dunwell strapped on the old five string to play the hit, he noted wryly, "I think every Englishman should at some point come to America and stand in front of an American audience holding a banjo with no idea how to play it." I think he was being graciously self-deprecating. The Dunwells seemed to go down a storm and I think they would find a large and enthusiastic audience if they returned outside of the auspices of the Bunbury Festival. Quick note: If you see a Dunwells album titled Follow the Road in stores (for you youngsters, a building where your parents buy music) or online, it is actually a re-sequenced and remixed version of Blind Sighted Faith, with a few alternate versions tossed in for flavor.
I briefly considered heading over to the Bud Light Stage to see some of Everest (a pick from Bunbury worker bee extraordinaire Jacob Heintz), but opted to check out a bit of Tegan and Sara at the Main Stage before making a definite decision.
I've interviewed both Quin twins over the years — most recently, I talked to Sara the year after the release of 2009's Sainthood — and while I lean toward their early work as far as my personal taste is concerned, their last trio of albums have been fairly well stacked with radio-friendly Pop songs with the potential to reach a massive audience. The enormous turnout for their Bunbury set would seem to support their decision to go the pure Pop route, but the fact is that Tegan and Sara have been cultivating a large and diverse audience for the past decade and a half, and their synth-driven Pop direction was not enough of a departure to alienate any portion of their slavishly loyal fan base. Predictably, the bulk of their set was devoted to Heartthrob, along with faves from The Con and Sainthood; they also reached all the way back to 2002's If It Was You for "Living Room" and they threw in a cover of Tiesto's "Feel It in My Bones," on which they originally guested. As expected, the adrenaline and volume of the live experience ferments Tegan and Sara's sugary Pop confections into something with a little more bite. Even for those who weren't completely sold on their recent work (my hand is up), Tegan and Sara's live presentation could make you see the light.
After T&S, it was time to hit the Amphitheater Stage to see Buffalo Killers. If you missed seeing the James Gang in 1971, here's your chance. Because I'm old enough to have actually missed the James Gang (with Joe Walsh, that is; I was lucky enough to see the even rarer sight of the James Gang with Tommy Bolin. Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls …) that joke is only marginally funny. Luckily, Buffalo Killers have approximated the trio's fuzzy guitar assault and maniacally furious rhythm section here in the 21st century to give an indication of what Joe and the boys might have sounded like if they had stayed together a little longer and gelled a little better. And even though Buffalo Killers have managed to inject a bit of poppy sunshine into their bunker-busting sound, in the live arena the band still rumbles and shoots like a rhythmic Sherman tank. The Killers hit all of my teenage buttons (which were installed long ago and have never been fully deactivated, same as every man on the planet, I suppose) and any opportunity to witness their feedback-through-an-elephant-gun glory is a chance to time machine back to the days when electric dinosaurs roamed the earth and their squalling racket could be heard from sweaty and sparsely attended auditoriums to densely populated arenas. I love Buffalo Killers. They remind me that there is wisdom in remembering the past, joy in celebrating the present and excitement in anticipating the future.
After a brief stroll around the grounds to grab something to eat, it was back to the Amphitheater Stage for a healthy dose of Rock hard Americana with Those Darlins. The Nashville outfit has been down a Darlin since early last year when Kelley Anderson opted out of the band to pursue other musical projects (her new group, Grand Strand, got a good buzz after touring with Richard Lloyd last year), and her amicable departure has obviously changed the group's dynamic, particularly the absence of their signature three-part harmonies. The remaining Darlins — Jessi (Wariner), Nikki (Kvarnes) and drummer Linwood Regensberg — are carrying on with the-show-must-go-on determination; new bassist Adrian Barrera seems to be slotting in quite well and Those Darlins' core sound, along the lines of the Pandoras if they'd been influenced by Wanda Jackson and the Ramones, remains largely intact. Their Bunbury set did display a good deal more Rock and a good deal less twang than you'll find on their first two albums — 2009's Those Darlins and 2011's Screws Get Loose — and it's a safe bet that the new album they're currently working on will follow that blueprint as well. No one at the Amphitheater seemed too dismayed at the shift, particularly the hyperactive dance contingent in front of the stage. Two Darlins is clearly enough Darlins to make Those Darlins.
I bailed out of Those Darlins a bit early to make the long walk back to the Rockstar Stage to take in the Gypsy Jazz goodness of DeVotchKa. I've long been a fan of the Denver-based outfit (I came to them through 2004's How It Ends, fell in love with their version of the Velvets' "Venus in Furs" from the Curse Your Little Heart EP and adored their work in Little Miss Sunshine) but have never had the opportunity to see them in the flesh, and when I saw them on the Bunbury schedule, I knew there was little that could draw me away from their show. Luckily, their 9 p.m. slot meant they weren't programmed against anyone else, so the way was cleared for my first live DeVotchKa experience.
DeVotchKa lived up to and surpassed all advance billing with a set that walked the wire between frenetic and atmospheric but maintained high energy from start to finish. Even when they slowed the pace, there was an electric tension in their presentation that made clear something explosive could happen at any moment. And it usually did. All four members of the band — Nick Urata, Jeanie Schroder, Tom Hagerman, Shawn King — play multiple instruments so almost any sound is available to DeVotchKa, including theremin, boukouki, accordion, trumpet and Melodica. And Schroder does the heaviest lifting, either plucking with power and subtlety on her enormous upright bass or blowing away like Dizzy Gillespie on steroids into a gigantic sousaphone that looks as though it would be the punishment instrument for getting bad grades in high school band ("Okay, Baker, D in Orchestra, 10 solos with the death tuba..."). It wasn't a performance to analyze or interpret, it was a Gypsy Jazz soundtrack for a magic show, a feeling to wash over you like cool waves on warm sand, a Slavic Rock and Roll dance party. More than a few people on DeVotchKa's Facebook page declared it the best show of Bunbury's three-day weekend. It was most assuredly one of them.
Finally, it was time for fun. Not the fun that we'd been having all day at Bunbury, but the fun. that's topping the charts and recently played Saturday Night Live and won a couple of Grammys this year. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of the band. I like their sound to a certain extent, it's energetic and entertaining and I really like Nate Reuss' voice. I actually interviewed him a decade ago when he was fronting the Format; ironically and perhaps presciently, he used the word "fun" a half dozen times to describe his band at the time.
At any rate, I hung around to see the show to be able to report how it was to my daughter, and because the band clearly doesn't take itself too seriously. When they accepted their Record of the Year Grammy for "We Are Young," Reuss said, "I don't know what I was thinking, writing the chorus for this song. If this is in HD, everybody can see our faces, and we are not very young." All in all, I was expecting a pleasant if unassuming concert experience.
And that's pretty much how it started, with the "Some Nights" intro, the title track to their sophomore album (it would show up in its entirety during the band's two-song encore, leading into "One Foot" from Some Nights). In fact, fun. performed almost all of Some Nights (save for "All Alright"), and over half of their debut album, 2009's Aim and Ignite, perhaps best represented by "At Least I'm Not as Sad (as I Used to Be)" and the nearly eight-minute closer, "Take Your Time (Coming Home)." Of course, they saved their anthemic signature singles for the second half of the set, first "Carry On" and then, two songs later, the epic Grammy-winning Pop of "We Are Young." Sandwiched in between though was a very charming version of The Rolling Stones’ "You Can't Always Get What You Want," an interesting lead-in to "We Are Young," a song that would seem to sport a diametrically opposed message. By the time fun. concluded with "Stars" as the second song of their encore, they had fired a confetti cannon (there was still yards of fun. confetti on the field when The National played Sunday night), performed the majority of their two studio albums and put on a show that proved they were worthy of their first-night-closing status. While I think they should remove the rather severe punctuation from their name, I have to say I was at least slightly converted toward a fun. lifestyle.
DAY 1 NOTES
After the Public set, I wandered back to the food court to explore some options for a quick lunch, and found to my indescribable delight that there was absolutely no line at Island Noodles. I realized that scenario was not likely to be played out again this weekend so I grabbed myself a carton of the most amazing noodles I've encountered ever and dug in.
That's when I was accosted by CityBeat big man Dan Bockrath, a prince among men with a prominent bust in the foyer of Baker's Beer Buy Hall of Foam. He has made it abundantly clear that he's limited his beer-buying activities to MidPoint, but he's still a champ in my book. He well remembered my noodle ordeal from Bunbury last and congratulated me on my triumph on this first day of festival. It was a portentous beginning, to say the least.
In relatively short order, I ran into Brian Kitzmiller and Brandon Losacker from The Black Owls, and eventually their lovely wives, Sara and Carrie, respectively. And not long after that, it was a run-in with Brent and Kat, longtime friends of the inimitable Ric Hickey and, I'd like to think, now friends of mine. Our tastes running at least somewhat parallel, it would be the first of a dozen or so crossings over the next three days. And somewhere in that same vicinity, I happened into the always entertaining Wes Pence, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter for the Ready Stance, who was squiring his son and daughter around the Bunbury grounds. Wes was also a constant presence at this year's big event, and I couldn't have been happier to share a shit-ton of great music with the likes of him. Within minutes of that meeting, I ran into Ready Stance drummer Eric Moreton and his wife and had a lovely chat, I think. The flashbacks start early for me at these things.
On the fringe of the massive crowd attending Tegan and Sara, I finally spotted perennial festival pal Matthew Fenton and latched onto him like a barnacle. I love him, he hates me. It's a thing we do. And running into Matthew always leads to the ever-charming and fun Eric Appleby and Tricia Suit; time spent with them is quality time indeed. At the Buffalo Killers show, Matthew offered to buy me a beer (Matthew has a candlelit, jewel-encrusted shrine in the Hall of Foam) and I told him that I'd quit drinking. He went, "Oh, well, good for you..." followed immediately by narrowed eyes and an extremely suspicious, "Wait a minute..." To continue with the ruse would have required me to draw on acting chops I haven't accessed since fifth grade when I was forced, by virtue of showing up 10 minutes late for a Cub Scout meeting, to play Jane in a Tarzan sketch, in front of our parents and grandparents and four other Scout troops and their families. My maternal grandmother made me a lovely leopard print dress and got me a beautiful mahogany wig to complete the ensemble; I ad-libbed a couple of lines and got laughs, but my paternal grandmother started crying as soon as I walked on stage, because apparently she thought I looked exactly like my late mother. I received several offers for dates after the show, but not from any of the cute boys. And besides, I didn't swing that way, and in fact I didn't even know what "swing that way" meant, but I was fairly certain I wanted to get out of that dress as soon as possible and not in the way that was being suggested to me by the not cute boys. My grandmother made pillows for the porch glider out of the leopard print material, to remind me constantly of my triumphant humiliation. But I digress …
Matthew introduced me to his friends Brian and Robin and Kyle and Nikki, fantastic people all. I would share a lifeboat with any or all of them. There were a number of others, too, but by that point in the proceedings, I was beered up and the notes I was taking were beginning to take on the distinct appearance of Vulcan shorthand. In any event, you all made a lasting and profound impact on me, whoever you were.
I also chanced into CityBeat dynamo Latha Mannava and former CB whirlwind Sara Beiting, both of whom I thoroughly love spending time with. The first of not nearly enough connections at Bunbury.
Before, during and after the fun. show, Matthew's bud Brian and I had a long conversation about music in general and radio in particular and agreed on what was wrong with commercial radio (pretty much everything) and satellite radio (narrowcasting, as in channels devoted solely to East Coast Emo bands with left handed guitarists who own German Shepherds) and I think we largely fixed all of the medium's inherent problems. I'm just not sure how to execute all of our proposed blueprints. At any rate, knowing that people like all of the above are populating the planet, there may yet be hope for humanity.
BUNBURY MUSIC FEST: DAY 2
Bunbury and the MidPoint Music Festival are my two periods of intense exercise during the course of a year. Beyond that, I'm researching and writing in front of the computer, playing video pinball or Wii Sports and pretending to watch TV while taking a much needed nap. I did buy an incredibly heavy lawnmower to make that chore an added workout, but I fear that I'll just mow the lawn less (if that's even possible).
At any rate, Bunbury is my July fitness regimen, and I was feeling it on Saturday when I woke up. It felt as if I'd broken every bone in my body and someone had set every one of them an eighth of an inch off the break. Luckily, I made a relatively fast recovery; my wife and daughter and I did the grocery shopping at 8 a.m. and, after a quick jaunt to the bank, we got back home and I packed up and headed out for Bunbury's second day.
First order of business on Saturday was to park closer. The walk to Fountain Square Garage nearly killed me Friday night. I parked across from One Lytle Place and hit the media entrance in five minutes. This is the way to go. Once inside, I headed straight for the Bud Light Stage to bask in the Art Pop/Rock glory that is Culture Queer. As the sun blazed down in front of the treeless field around Sawyer Point, one thing became perfectly clear; even in the absence of their elaborate video productions (it was way too bright for the monitors to be even somewhat effective), Culture Queer is still a magnificent band that rocks harder than a coke boner. The quartet blew through selections from their latest album, the categorically excellent Nightmare Band, a hybrid of '70s artful Pop/Rock and Glam injected with a double dose of Vitamin Right Now, and easily lived up to the genre they've invented for themselves: Fruitpie Pop for God.
After CQ, it was time to wheel down to the Lawn Stage to witness the crunchy Pop/Rock goodness of the Ready Stance. It wouldn't have been too terribly hard to predict that the Ready Stance would quickly become one of the city's most formidable Rock outfits based solely on its stellar line-up, featuring former Middlemarch members Wes Pence and Eric Moreton and ubiquitous go-to genius Randy Cheek. But the wild card is relative newcomer Chase Johnston, whose brash young Rock sensibilities both balances and energizes his more mature compatriots, resulting in a sound that is both fresh and familiar. The Ready Stance's new stuff, destined for imminent release in the hopefully very near future, has the shimmer of Mitch Easter and Velvet Crush channeling early Kinks, and the songs from their stellar debut, last year's Damndest, are ripening to a similar vintage as they are beginning to be blended side by side.
After the Ready Stance wrapped it up, I hotfooted it down to the Rockstar Stage for Civil Twilight. I'd written them up for a preview a while back, but I didn't have time to give them a quick check and my ancient cell phone doesn't do that smart computer stuff (it barely makes calls), so once confronted with the epic Pop/Rock splendor of Civil Twilight, I was left with the nagging question — is this the band featuring Sting's son? The frontman played bass and sang lead, and bore at least a passing resemblance in face and voice to the old Policeman, but there was enough doubt to keep me from swearing to it. (I checked once I got home and found it was not so … Joe Sumner's band is Fiction Plane, while Civil Twilight is fronted by South African brothers Steven and Andrew McKellar). What they did sound like was a brilliantly bombastic pastiche of Radiohead (not the electronic experimental rain dance version, but the actual Rock band) and U2, with bits of The Police, Oasis and Jeff Buckley thrown in for color. It seemed like a lot of people showed up out of curiosity and walked away fans — which could serve as the mission statement for Bunbury — and Civil Twilight seemed as genuinely pleased with our presence at their show as we were with theirs at our festival. Come back anytime, gentlemen, anytime at all.
My buddy Paul and I turned around to check out a little of electronic adventurist Robert deLong, who was performing his ritual tape-delayed 21st century technological voodoo on the Main Stage to the delight of a fairly sizable crowd. Paul's pal Big Jim bailed on this almost immediately, and I was intrigued enough to stay for more, but I wanted to get to the Lawn Stage to avoid missing even a single second of the Black Owls' performance. The Owls lost their Bunbury gig last July when it started pissing down rain at the beginning of their time slot and didn't stop until there was no possible way to shoehorn it into the remaining schedule. This year's show was complete vindication for last year's washout.
If I loved the Black Owls any more than I do, I would have to start some weird new branch of Scientology to contain that love. The Owls could not have been much better than they were on Saturday; they were being looked at by management companies, and a documentary film crew was rolling through much of the band's set, which drew an absolutely fevered performance out of the quintet. The Owls' set was a core sample of the best bits from their three amazing albums as well as a handful of stunning new songs that will show up on what we can only hope is their imminent new disc. Adrenaline-powered frontman David Butler began and ended the set with "We're the Black Owls from Cincinnati, Ohio," which is nearly true, since three-fifths of the band is now homeboys (Brian Kitzmiller, Brandon Losacker and Sammy Wulfeck), and we are more than proud to consider them our very own. The ever astute King Slice noted that the Owls were the only real Rock band at Bunbury, and he was not far off the beam. It may well be because they're old enough and sharp enough to remember what real Rock sounds like.
After misting off my ritual baptismal Owl sweat, I returned to the Amphitheater Stage for another dunking in the holy waters of the Pinstripes, who I haven't seen in much too long a time. A Pinstripes show is a given, a guarantee, a lock, as sure a thing as a bet on a single horse race. And that's not because the band phones in a boilerplate set, it's because they've gone from a young and improbably sophisticated group of Reggae/Dub aficionados to a seasoned band of intuitive and impossibly talented entertainers who also happen to be one of the top Reggae bands in the country.
Frontman/trombonist Mike Sarason is a consummate ringleader with impeccable instincts about drawing the crowd into the band's inner sanctum and making them feel as though they are an intimate part of the proceedings. And while he's getting them wound up, the rest of the 'stripes are working a quiet groove that will suddenly explode with the force of a rocket propelled grenade. Their Bunbury set was a perfect showcase of the songs that have cemented their reputation and a few of the new songs that will feature prominently on their imminent new album, The Pinstripes Meet King Tony, that will surely extend their local, regional and national profile. Long live dem mighty Pinstripes, mon.
After a quick toweling off, I took note of Oberhofer while strolling past the Bud Light Stage (pretty decent Psych Pop in the vein of a less esoteric Shins), then headed down to the Rockstar Stage to catch a handful of songs by We Are Scientists, a groovy Indie Pop duo that offers a much fuller and even more compelling sonic identity in a live setting. It was right about then that a very hollow feeling enveloped me in the howzaboutsomedinner region. I spotted Matthew at Eli's concession in the Cincinnatus courtyard and decided to follow his incredibly intelligent lead and partake of the best new BBQ in the area.
Matthew, Eric, Tricia and I chose a little Cake for dessert, and headed over to the Main Stage to stake out a spot. There was very little in the way of spots to be had; the concourse was packed and the field in front of the stage looked like a soccer riot in Europe. I knew my niece and nephew were somewhere in that throng, but I was fairly certain I wouldn't be able to find them with a bullhorn and a police escort, so the four of us opted to sit high on the Serpentine Wall and listen to the show.
Cake seemed as vastly entertaining as they have always been, and I didn't necessarily miss the visual component, although there were a few times that frontman John McCrea seemed to be chastising the crowd, particularly when they did an extended version of "Sick of You" from 2011's Showroom of Compassion. In any event, Cake provided an excellent soundtrack for watching the flow of detritus speeding its way down the Ohio River, including a number of actual trees and, at one point, a floating island that appeared to be a part of the continent that had broken off.
Eric and Tricia decided to call it an early night, and Matthew headed off in search of the facilities, so I continued my river vigil. There were more than a few people, who appeared to be more than a little drunk, walking on the last step of the Wall, inches away from the Ohio River which was racing by at a rather frightening speed. Shifting my gaze to the left, I spied a young woman on the last step, bent over, staring intently at the river, with another woman holding her shoulders. Suddenly, the woman closest to the river emptied the contents of her stomach into the water several times, and I realized that her friend was performing a courtesy similar to holding her hair while she puked, except this courtesy involved saving her life while she ralphed up drinks and dinner into the murkily rushing Ohio. At one point, the puker slipped and her friend was forced to grab her by the boobs to keep her from doing a rather poor Esther Williams impression into the rather ugly current. It's a good thing I'm not into girl-on-girl vomit porn or that could have been awkward. And Cake sounded great through all of it.
When the smoke and bodies cleared, I headed down to the Rockstar Stage to take in Divine Fits, based on little more than Brian Kitzmiller's endorsement of wearing their T-shirt the day before. I vaguely recalled having downloaded the band's CD from a publicity link, but I don't think I listened to more than two or three songs, which I remembered liking. I knew there was something about them that had hooked me, and when they took the stage, I suddenly realized what it was when I saw Spoon's Britt Daniel. Divine Fits also includes Dan Boeckner (Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade), Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks) and Alex Fischel (PAPA), and despite the individual band members' diverse backgrounds, they seem to rally around swaggering '70s bonehead Rock and jittery '80s New Wave, filtered through the modern Indie music they've all successfully navigated on their own.
About halfway through Divine Fits' pummeling set, I realized two things; first, their name is absolutely perfect (Divine = touched by God or some higher power; Fits = uncontrollable spasms), and King Slice needed to make room on his Bunbury scorecard for one more real Rock band. Divine Fits are the absolute real deal, a righteous and fantastic tumult that is heart-stopping and skull-shattering. At one point, Daniel noted, as he strapped on the guitar Boeckner had just set down, "Dan stripped the volume knob on the Telecaster again." After some minor adjustments, he smiled and said, "Oh well, I guess infinite volume equals infinite Rock," and then proceeded to prove his point. Their take on Tom Petty's "You Got Lucky" was spot on melodically but perhaps slightly pissier and a bit more arrogant than the original. Divine Fits pushes all the right buttons and pegs all the right needles and they absolutely must return to the area as soon as possible. I'm already jonesing for more Fits.
After being drained by Divine Fits, I had no standing left in my legs so I grabbed a beer and sat on a bench to listen to MGMT on the Main Stage and to go over my notes.
DAY 2 NOTES
Saturday is the best day for spotting friends at Bunbury. Saturday seems like it's probably the most populated day of the festival — most people are working on Friday, and don't want to pay the price at work on Monday for a complete day of musical (and other kinds of) abandon on Sunday — so it's almost a mathematical certainty that you'll see more friends then, simply because you've got more bodies to choose from.
At The Ready Stance, I ran into my nephew Jim, who I was hoping to catch up with at the Cake show, as his wife, my niece Robin, was coming down for that as well. Alas, too many of those bodies to wade through, so I never did find them there. Jim was hanging with his friend Olaf (whose brother Andre had been a fixture at last year's Bunbury) and we had a nice chat about a little bit of everything. My pal Eddy Mullet — whose Friday shift on Class X Radio I invade with my weekend band report — was there with his daughter Jess (sadly, they had to cut out early when Eddy was attacked by a kidney stone … been there too many times, my brother); he tried to get my attention by leaning against my back, but sadly, this is not the oddest thing a stranger has done to get my attention, so he didn't get the reaction he was expecting. Sorry, dude, you're going to have to ramp up the weird factor. My buddy Paul Roberts was doing the Saturday hang as well; we have age and music in common so we always have plenty to talk about.
Black Owls guitarist Brandon Losacker and his wife Carrie were also in attendance at the Stance; he's a balls out riot (but in a quietly reserved way), and she has fascinating thoughts on just about everything. I was very glad to have spent a good deal of Bunbury in their splendid company. And it ain't a party until the ever present and always brilliant King Slice shows up; long live the King.
Most of these same folks were in attendance at the Black Owls as well (of course, Brandon was slightly preoccupied at the time). Also wandering the grounds was Owls frontman David Butler's lovely wife Amy, who may be the blueprint for the perfect band wife. Accompanying her around and about was a guy I have written about on a number of occasions and never actually met; bassist Mike Brewer, whose path has intersected with two of my favorite bands, The National and the Black Owls. Mike was a member of Nancy here in Cincinnati with Matt Berninger for five years, until the band dissolved when Matt moved to Brooklyn. And Mike was also a solid member of the Black Owls on their first album, 2008's Lightning Made Us Who We Are, and was a featured player on their sophomore album, 2010's June '71. David says he'd love to do some writing and recording with Mike, and is actively working on him to move back to the area from his current digs in Portland, Ore. There's talk that Mike and Matt are working on a project together (their friendship goes back to their meeting while both were in UC's DAAP program in the early '90s), great news if its true. Mike was great to talk with, and I hope to have another, perhaps more official conversation with him in the very near future.
My favorite random moment from this year's Bunbury occurred while I was sitting on a bench on the main concourse, making a few notes on the Divine Fits show while working on my last beer of the night and listening to MGMT. A woman walked up to me, excused herself and asked if I was taking notes as a reporter. I said that I was and she then asked how I thought the day had gone. I said that, in my estimation, the day had been a total success, from bands to crowd to food, to which she enthusiastically agreed. She introduced herself as Stacy, and so, in the interest of journalistic curiosity, I asked her what her highlight of the day had been; her response was quick and unexpected and quite remarkable.
She said, "The highlight for me was to see my kids, who are 12 and 15, get to experience a lot of great music at a really well run festival, in a safe atmosphere, in their hometown." What an astonishingly brilliant answer. As it turned out, she had also seen me at the Ready Stance set; she was a high school pal of the Stance's Eric Moreton. She's also a big fan of Roger Klug, so Stacy's rocking some pretty excellent musical taste. Her kids are lucky to have a wicked cool mom and the scene is lucky to have one big fan who's cultivating two smaller ones. Maybe there's hope for humanity after all.
BUNBURY MUSIC FEST: DAY 3
The last day of Bunury is a lot like the last day of MidPoint, or the last day of vacation, for that matter. I typically wake up, stretch, and think, "I can't believe that it's over today," followed relatively quickly by, "I'm glad it's over today." Bunbury is a physically punishing three days, especially for a geezer of my advanced years and so I greeted Sunday morning with the standard mix of excitement, anticipation and relief.
Upon arrival, I headed for the Main Stage area, got a hot soft pretzel and a fresh squeezed lemonade for a light lunch and sat down to listen to the Folk brilliance of Joe Purdy. It's hard not to think of Bob Dylan when you're presented with a singer/songwriter sporting an acoustic guitar, a harmonica rack and a vaguely Midwestern drawl. The distinction comes in the songs, and Purdy has the songs, heartsleeved odes to love and loss that are magnetically attractive. He'll also take a seat at the piano for a song or two, which further sets him apart from the obvious Dylan comparisons.
Purdy noted that the organizers had likely put him on first for the day due to his gentle presentation, adding, "So if you're hungover, you're welcome." When he hauled out "Been Up So Long" from his 2009 album Last Clock on the Wall, he introduced it by saying, "If you're ever in New York on Halloween, don't take a drink from a stranger. That's the message of this song." A fan in front yelled out a request for "Worn Out Shoes" from 2006's You Can Tell Georgia, which Purdy obliged after thinking for a moment on how to start. When he launched into the intro, the clearly fan-packed crowd cheered, to which Purdy responded, "Don't get excited yet." The good news is a song that gorgeous just gets stuck in your head, whether you're a fan or the guy who wrote it, and Purdy pulled it off without a hitch. "There's a hole in the roof for the stars to fall in," sang Purdy with a weary hopefulness. "I gather them up for you." It was a lovely and emotional way to begin the end.
I checked out the final song in Ben Knight's set at the Cincinnatus Stage, which was fantastic — Knight lives here in town now and plays out quite a bit, so if you see his name in the calendar, get to that show — before heading over to the Bud Light Stage to witness the Americana Indie Rock splendor of Gringo Star. Like Marah, Gringo Star blends the swagger of latter era Replacements with the raw, twangy goodness of Uncle Tupelo at its most visceral. The Gringos differentiate themselves with a gritty melodicism that gives them just the right Beatlesque sugar blast. Vocalist/guitarist Nick Furgiuele had broken his arm just days before so he was forced to switch into Davy Jones mode, namely banging away on a tambourine until his lead vocals skills were required. The Atlanta quartet ripped through songs from 2008's All Y'all and 2011's Count Yer Lucky Stars as well as a couple of new songs that will likely show up on the band's soon-to-be-announced new album, and even though they were down a guitar, they still rocked with unhinged authority.
I caught a couple of songs in passing from Akron's Bethesda on the Lawn Stage, good Indie Folk Pop in the vein of Neko Case fronting Arcade Fire; they made a great impression at last year's MidPoint and an even bigger splash at this year's Bonnaroo. From there, it was down to the Amphitheatre Stage for a few tunes from Green Light Morning, who work a heartland Indie Rock vibe with a flair for the dramatic. Fans of O.A.R. and Red Wanting Blue are likely all over these guys, but given their long histories — frontman Aaron Patrick was with Oval Opus and co-founder Aaron Bright did time with the Big Creak — they began the project with a pretty healthy fan base. I wasn't particularly blown away by GLM's set; their lyrics tend to rely on rather familiar songwriting tropes that detract from their excellent musical presentation, particularly the interplay between Patrick's muscular acoustic guitar work, Bright's Prog-to-Pop keyboard runs and the incendiary contributions of Ted Burger and his well-utilized Telecaster. On the one hand, GLM's lyrical familiarity can impart a sense of connection and recognition to the listener that allows them to more easily inhabit the song. For a snoid like myself, it's a distraction that takes me out of the listening moment as I attempt to chase down the lyrical references to their various sources. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of that; GLM clearly had drawn a big and appreciative crowd to their Bunbury set and I'm guessing they came away completely satisfied with what they heard, as well they should have. For myself, I'd love to hear Green Light Morning apply the same ethic they utilize in crafting their compelling musical accompaniment to their lyrical message.
After GLM, it was right back to the Lawn Stage for a taste of the Harlequins, who are in the process of finishing up a new album, some of which they offered for their Bunbury appearance. They had just done a string of shows opening for Gringo Star — the band, fresh from their Bud Light Stage appearance, was in the audience to support their recent tourmates — and it was clear the Harlequins have upped their game in recent months. The trio — guitarist/vocalist Michael Oliva, bassist Alex Stenard, drummer Rob Stamler — have always been a great raw Psych Pop outfit with an uncanny ability to weld shambling '60s Garage Rock and sunshine Pop to the contemporary off-kilter goodness of Guided By Voices and Pavement. On the basis of their frenzied Bunbury set, the Harlequins' latest album could well be the breakthrough they've been working toward.
Reluctantly ducking out of the Harlequins set, I headed over to the Cincinnatus Stage to check out newly shorn singer/songwriter Mark Utley and three of his Magnolia Mountain compatriots, longtime vocalist Melissa English, new vocalist Renee Frye and recently installed guitarist Jeff Vanover. Although this was billed as a Mark Utley show, most of the set seemed geared toward Magnolia Mountain, with some tracks from the band's about-to-be-released album Beloved, a few from their excellent back catalog and a smoldering cover of Buddy and Julie Miller's "Gasoline and Matches." Beloved will be joined on its release date by Utley's debut as a solo artist, Four Chords and a Lie, a more stripped down Country affair, but in either context, Utley's songwriting prowess is obvious. For Bunbury, Utley presented this quartet version of Magnolia, with the exquisite harmony-to-lead vocals of English and Frye, Vanover's powerfully sinewy guitar and Utley himself as the soft-spoken eye at the center of Magnolia Mountain's hurricane of talent. With the release of two distinct albums in the offing, you're likely to see any number of structural combinations supporting them; solo, duo, trio, quartet or full band (with occasional guests from past line-ups, no less). The certainty is that you'll be witnessing something truly extraordinary when you stand in front of Mark Utley and any conceivable version of Magnolia Mountain.
After Utley wrapped up his set, I motored down to the Rockstar Stage to catch a few minutes of the Night Terrors of 1927. I had overheard several people discussing the band and making plans to see them so I decided to give them a shot. They were definitely worth the walk. There was a gentle ferocity to their sound which reminded me of the Cocteau Twins but with considerable more balls and bite. I stayed for a handful of songs before allowing the Night Terrors of 1927 to serve as my walking music as I headed back to the other side of Bunbury.
At that point, I was ready for something a little less sanguine so it was fortuitous scheduling that guided me back to the Lawn Stage for DAAP Girls, Stuart MacKenzie's busman's holiday away from the Lions Rampant. Time for a quick quiz: DAAP Girls is; A) 8.6 on the Richter Scale, B) rough sex in the housing of a jet engine, C) a disturbance in the Force, D) the rock and the hard place, E) way the hell more than all of the above. That's the easiest quiz you'll ever take. DAAP Girls is a howling, grinding rhythm machine that channels Garage Rock and Soul with same furious intensity as the Stooges and the Stones, an allusion that is made all the more appropriate with their newly installed horn section. And while DAAP Girls (also featuring the immeasurable talents of Jay and Alex Duckworth and drummer Daniel Peterson from Newport Secret Six) access sounds and sensations from four decades ago, the band's roiling energy and full metal jugular assault is completely of the moment. The band was looking smart in their vintage Soul revue suits ("Why aren't you guys dressed?" MacKenzie chided the crowd at one point in the set. "Didn't you get the memo?") and sweating balls in the 90-degree heat, ripping through songs from their recently released debut, Tape Songs, and proving the wisdom of having voted them Best New Artist at this year's Cincinnati Entertainment Awards ceremony.
I'd run into Brian Kitzmiller, Brandon Losacker and Brandon's wife Carrie, and we were of one mind that the next stop should be Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears at the Bud Light Stage. Just as we moved into the growing throng, the sky began to darken, but given that no heavy weather was predicted, it seemed like a gray cloud bank not worth too much consideration. Lewis and the Honeybears took the stage and kicked into a thunderous groove that electrified every ass in attendance; we were all dancing puppets and Lewis was pulling the strings with gleeful abandon. As the band launched into their second song, the wind began approaching gale force, leaves and blossoms were blowing off the trees and banners were whipping furiously. The band finished up and retreated to the back of the stage and a stagehand announced they would be taking a quick break until the rain passed. "What rain?" was a logical question until moments later when drops that seemed to be the size of ping pong balls began pelting everything. Brian must have broken back toward the Amphitheater Stage; Brandon, Carrie and I headed for the tunnels which, by the time we got there were jammed with people getting out of the rain and looking like refugees (albeit refugees with piercings and Punk T-shirts).
When the sky cleared 15 minutes later, I was torn between heading back to Black Joe Lewis or moving over to the Rockstar Stage to see Yo La Tengo. My friend Kirk loves YLT and saw them numerous times when he lived in Chicago, so I chose that direction and Brandon and Carrie agreed. When we arrived, the trio had just retaken the stage, and quickly ramped up into a stellar jam that ultimately found Ira Kaplan in pure shred mode. I've got a number of YLT discs and a few live recordings that I've found online, but none of it can compare to the power of that presentation in the flesh. It was breathtaking, but short-lived; at the song's conclusion, Kaplan announced they'd be dialing it down and taking a leisurely stroll down the Folk path at least partially dictated by their last album Fade, released just after the first of the year. It was certainly lovely and a nice way to drift into the coming sunset, but it wasn't exactly what I had hoped for my first Yo La Tengo live experience.
At about 9 p.m., I headed for the Main Stage to find my spot for The National, settling on a space to the right of the soundboard. I noticed on the Twitter feed displayed on the Main Stage screens that Black Joe Lewis would be performing an impromptu acoustic set at the Bud Light Stage, and it was clear from Yo La Tengo playing beyond their top-of-the-hour cut-off time that the rain had caused some shifts for Bunbury's closing performances. I decided that, A) I liked the location I'd staked out for the National, B) I could hear Yo La Tengo just fine (and they had ramped back up into a slightly more frenetic mode, which was cool), and C) after being teased by Lewis and the Honeybears' electrically charged introduction, an acoustic set would be the equivalent of fucking with two rubbers. I chose to stand my ground.
The tumult that greeted The National when they took the stage at 9:30 p.m. was rapturous but not the least bit unexpected. The quintet might not have formed in Cincinnati but their roots are obviously here and they will forever be considered a local band and one of the best of that particular breed. And I have no doubt that they would have been embraced with this exact level of adoration at home even if they hadn't become a global phenomenon over the past decade. It's not hard to see why they have, though; Matt Berninger's impenetrably understandable lyrics give the National's songs an artful accessibility. He paints with words and it's the paintings that listeners appreciate and love, not the literal message in the words and his simultaneously soothing and menacing baritone is the perfect delivery system for his cryptic word pretzels. Then there's the matter of the epic and almost cinematic swell that the National builds into the soundtrack that accompanies Berninger's lyrical constructs, which injects the perfect degree of dramatic bombast into the proceedings. In any event, the National has inserted themselves into the big picture conversation with a succession of highly regarded albums, starting with their eponymous debut a dozen years ago.
When they took the Main Stage in front of the massive video screen, lit up with a succession of computer generated/still photo/music video images, and launched into “Fake Empire” from Boxer, it was clear that the National owned the Bunbury audience and they spent the next 90 minutes proving that they deserved that ownership. The overwhelming majority of the band's 20-song set list was derived from their last three albums, the bulk of it logically devoted to the just-released and mesmerizing Trouble Will Find Me. In a set that was filled with emotional highlights — most of them relating to the band musing on how great it was to be home and playing in its familiar shadows — one of the greatest was when the quintet cranked up "Mr. November" from 2005's Alligator, and Berninger leapt off the stage and into the crowd, walking across the Main Stage lawn and over to the pedestrian concourse. When he returned to remount the stage, the crowd lifted him up, and whether planned or spontaneous, he rose up like Iggy Pop at Crosley Field in 1970 and stood on the hands of the fevered fans at the front of the stage, singing the appropriate words in the recurring bridge; "I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders." It was spine-tingling, to say the least; I thought to myself, in 10 years, there will be a quarter million people who will swear they were here to see this. Finishing up with High Violet's "Terrible Love," the National beat the noise ordinance with a minute or so to spare and reflected the love that had been projected at them by an ecstatic hometown audience for an hour and a half.
And with that, Bunbury II was in the books. Once again, an astonishingly well run festival and an amazingly well behaved multitude. There were a few arrests this year; a couple of boneheads were taken in for climbing the trees in Yeatman's Cove. Brilliant, really.
The real headline here is that this marks the second consecutive year that Bill Donabedian and his army of workers and volunteers have created an astonishing music festival out of thin air. Once again, any number of out-of-town bands cited Bunbury as one of the most efficiently run and best organized festivals they have ever played, and that is perhaps the highest praise Bill and his staff could hope to hear. They all deserve a mountain of accolades, rose petals at their feet wherever they walk and at least two solid days in bed. Thanks again for your hard work, attention to detail, diligence and patience in making Bunbury into another of the things I love best about Cincinnati. Next year? Why, no, I'm not doing anything, as it happens. See you then.
DAY 3 NOTES
By Bunbury's Sunday, a good deal of this stuff becomes a blur. I sat with Brent and Kat for a bit early on, under the Big Mac bridge and out of the broiling sun. I was jotting some notes and Kat asked what I was doing and I said I was drawing caricatures of passersby, and then proceeded to draw a spectacularly bad one of her. As we went our separate ways, I said over my shoulder, "That will be worth nothing someday." She agreed, maybe a little too quickly. Or she knows crappy art when she sees it. Either way, good eye.
I'm sure I ran into Wes Pence another half dozen times or so. Maybe he's been hired to keep tabs on me. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. But if someone is going to keep tabs on you, it should be Wes. I feel better about being followed already.
Only a couple of Matthew Fenton sightings on Sunday. I chastised him, park ranger style for kicking an inflatable ball down the walkway behind the Bud Light Stage, but apparently my stern voice had no effect on his almost innate need to break the rules, surpassed only by own. As I'm finishing up this long overdue overview, I realize that I'd forgotten one of my absolute favorite MF moments, namely his manic Cossack dance during DeVotchKa on Friday night. It was inspired and pretty authentic and so incredibly athletic that I displaced my hip just watching him. I hope there's some Gypsy Jazz at MidPoint this year … I'd love to see a repeat of that performance from Mr. Fenton.
To everyone who crossed my path during the three days of Bunbury and doesn't find their appearance duly noted here, chalk it up to beer and exhaustion. maybe I'll remember this year next year and post it then. Better late than later, I always say. You are all my people and I love you all.
Just before The National got underway, an older guy, probably about my age, noted my Raisins T-shirt and asked how many people in this crowd even knew who they were. My guess was not many, if any. He mentioned that he was from Sayler Park and lived in some proximity to Rob Fetters, and we talked a bit about the Raisins and the old days of Cincinnati music. We wound up having a nice little conversation about music in general; his name was Bob and he was accompanied by his son Tom ("I love your radio show, you are two funny bastards," I said. I am not above the cheap laugh).
Bob mentioned that they were really looking forward to the National show and they had seen them when they played the Dessner brothers' Music Now series. From the sound of it, the pair had seen a lot of really interesting shows together, and when the show began, they reacted to the National's Bunbury set list with the excitement and appreciation of knowledgeable fans. It was truly inspiring to see this kind of camaraderie between father and son, bonding over music that they both clearly loved. I wanted to tell them before they left, but they beat a hasty avoid-the-traffic retreat at the closing chords of the Nationals' last song, so I'll tell them in this forum. I think it's amazing that you've found this common ground and that it's something you share so easily and so passionately. It's proof positive that a generation gap can only be created when one or both generations pushes away. Chasms can be bridged with no more effort than embracing something new with someone that you ostensibly already love. It was a wonderful thing to behold, and I hope you're enjoying concerts together for many years down the road; you are living proof that music crosses all barriers and conquers all divides. There may yet be hope for humanity.
And finally, here are the results from this year's edition of last year's wildly popular (well, my wife and daughter liked it) Favorite T-Shirts at Bunbury feature. Again, no particular order until the big reveal for No. 1:
(with a photo of Mr. Rogers) It's All Good in the Hood