Confession: I’ve never been to a music festival.
Ok, that’s not quite true: I went to Warped Tour a few years ago (my friends and I sat through bad metalcore to see Katy Perry on a side stage as “I Kissed a Girl” was coming up–2008 was weird), but I’ve never been to a Coa-Bonna-palooza type multi-day festival with a vowel-heavy name or those obnoxious not-quite-paper-not-quite-plastic wristbands that never feel comfortable.
Enter Bunbury, a music festival that’s light on vowels, but makes up for that by being in Cincinnati. Bunbury’s in its third summer at Sawyer Point, the Cincinnati park on the banks of the Ohio River, and is able to pull some solid headliners for a small festival (past bill toppers have included Weezer, Death Cab For Cutie, MGMT, and The National). So, after being harangued by coworkers for a month about going, I finally shelled out for a Saturday a one-day pass. Originally, I wasn’t planning on writing a field report of the day, but the opportunity seemed too good to pass up. So, between texting different people for meet-ups, getting lost between stages, and sampling some fine local Cincinnati beers, here’s who I saw (all photos by me).
New Politics were a group I hadn’t heard, but damn near everyone I knew that was going to Bunbury was making a point to see them play relatively early in the day at the main stage. Once singer David Boyd kicked their set off with a backflip off the drum platform, I knew I was in for a good time, and the next 40 minutes did not disappoint. New Politics wheelhouse seems to be sneering, wildly enthusiastic power pop backed by off the charts stage presence. Boyd’s gymnastics came back in the form of flips, headstands, and dance moves, all while teasing singalongs, callouts, and motion from a crowd marinating in the heat and humidity of a Cincinnati afternoon in July, including the moment pictured here, when he stood on the crowd. Most of that rambunctiousness translates onto their album A Bad Girl in Harlem, which I’ve been Spotifying ever since. It was a great start to the day.
Maybe it’s because Bunbury’s a young festival, maybe Cincinnati isn’t quite the right scene, or maybe it’s any number of availability factors, but Bunbury doesn’t book a lot of Pitchfork-friendly artists. The biggest exception to that rule this year was indie pop group Cults, who I was familiar with at a glance, and played main stage at 5:45 (likely the hottest point in the day). Cults makes solid enough music, but a number of factors were working against them: their mix was more loud than coherent, their more laid back stage presence wilted on the heels of New Politics, and the crowd was almost inert. As someone who cops to being that guy who gets way too fucking into it at shows, it was hard to work through, so I ended up meeting with a friend of mine on the side halfway through Cults’ set. My friend pitched that Cults would have done better to swap times with New Politics, and I can’t say I disagree.
My girlfriend is a bigger fan of HAERTS than I am, although I still made it a point to see their set in full. Part of that was taste–I still like their music, after all–and as the day went on, it also felt like rooting for an underdog. HAERTS were slated to finish right before Paramore (the day’s headliner) started, and were listed as “TBA” on the schedules handed out at the gates of the festival.
If any of this affected the band, it didn’t show during their delightfully surprising set. HAERTS have a sound similar to Haim: ostensibly indie pop, but it’s expertly made, and there are decades of influences distilled into one graceful package (a coworker of mine texted me during their set, saying singer Nini Fabi reminded her of Stevie Nicks). Like Cults, their sound was bottom-heavy, but here, it served to show that Derek McWilliams’ bass playing might be the band’s secret weapon. I’m looking to hear more from HAERTS; their set might have been my favorite to just listen to all day.
Full disclosure: when I was choosing which day to go to Bunbury, Paramore on Saturday was the tipping point. Based on the sheer number of Paramore (and Fall Out Boy, but more on that later) shirts and merch I saw people wearing, I was far from the only one. Paramore/FOB included Bunbury in their Monumentour, so they brought the staging with them; in Paramore’s case, this meant a scoreboard style lighting display and a two level stage to differentiate Paramore the Band from Paramore the Hired Guns. As Hayley Williams was fond of saying during the show, Paramore’s been together for 10 years, and that road experience carries onto their live show. The band fired on all-cylinders during their set, from joyous opener “Still Into You” to the crowd singalong finish of “Ain’t It Fun”, and treated the show like one big party, complete with confetti, streamers, and balloons.
The band also worked plenty of older material in, too; multiple songs from Riot! came out, as did “Emergency” and “Pressure” from their debut album, plus a pair from brand new eyes. Weirdly enough, the deep cuts they pulled from the self-titled album were songs I’ve never been fond of (“Last Hope” and “Proof”), but they were still a blast to hear live. I would have liked to see “crushcrushcrush” or “Fast In My Car” make an appearance, but ah well, can’t have everything.
I know just enough about Foxy Shazam to assume they’re a fun time live (translation: I listened to The Church of Rock and Roll a few times when it came out), and they brought on some of the party I missed by skipping Andrew W.K. They pulled heavily from their new, free album GONZO, and even if GONZO‘s a bit of a dud, the groove of “Have the Fun” and “Brutal Truth” are serviceable live. The set benefited from being the first real “after dark” affair of the night; between the heavy smoke from the band (and audience), plus the seedy stage lighting and the glowing, red Newport sign from Newport on the Levee, the river stage had the look and sinister mysticism of a 70s dive bar. I’m kind of bummed that my phone was charging, and I don’t have any pictures Foxy, but they eventually broke out “Healing Touch”, so whatever. Even if the songs weren’t grade A, it was still fun, seedy rock and roll.
Fall Out Boy
I don’t like Fall Out Boy. I like Fall Out Boy songs, but it took seeing them live to make me finally realize that I kind of can’t stand them as an entity. To be fair, I entered their set cranky begin with: I was burnt out and vaguely hungover, and the stocky person in front of me was drunkenly staggering into everyone two songs in. But even without that, it would have been a bum set that didn’t have much going for it. “Save rock and roll” applied more to their all black, leather, and fire geyser stage than it did to, well, Save Rock and Roll, which made up a painfully high percentage of their setlist. “The Phoenix” actually benefited from turning into a near-metal number, but the rest of the material felt flat, especially next to punchier numbers like “Dance, Dance”, and “I Don’t Care”.
Patrick Stump is still as great a vocalist as ever, but any stage banter with him and Pete “Every band has commented on the heat and humidity today, but I’m going to wear this zipped up leather hoodie for the next fucking hour” Wentz came off as half-hearted and tedious. The hits were alright, but none of FOB’s bloated set felt inspired or essential, so I ended up leaving early with my way lit by the pyrotechnics of (of course) “My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light’em Up)”.
I don’t know how much of the hot, packed, frantic, but ultimately satisfying experience of Bunbury carries over to the bigger festivals, but rest assured, I had a great enough time to come back next year.