Cincinnati’s Bunbury music festival is my festival of choice, if only because it’s the only big one that happens right in my backyard in the summer. So here’s how Day 1 went.
Full disclosure: I know Leggy’s bassist through a few mutual friends, but these Cincinnati natives are so in my lane that I’d root for them regardless. Leggy’s self-described lush punk, to me, sounds like Lana Del Rey starting a garage punk band after shotgunning listens to Wavves’ King of the Beach. I saw them twice last year in February and September or so, but never on as big a stage as opening Bunbury.
Leggy have spent most of September to now touring, and it (and playing the big stage) has paid off immensely. Their songs sound best as high-power kiss offs, and they blasted through about half a dozen of their most potent, road-tested ones as loud and as confident as I’ve heard them. Every time I’ve seen Leggy, it’s always been a progression for them in terms of audience size; I’d love to see them keep playing bigger places. If you want somewhere to start, this year’s DANG EP should be on yr summer list. Playing first at a festival is preferable to being one of the first, and Leggy started the day on a high note.
I came up with a theory yesterday. The theory goes that the more band members you have on stage wearing unadorned, trendy slim-fit all-black clothing, the less interesting the band is gonna sound. That’s not to say you should run from every band whose singer has a black t-shirt and blue jeans or members in mismatching black tanks and cut-offs, but if you’re seeing four white guys in plain black t-shirts and black jeans, at best this set won’t contain any surprises, and at worst, you might be seeing Imagine Dragons. I’m calling this the All-Black Theory.
Anywho, I was refining this theory while watching The Shelters. The Shelters only had two principle members in all black–their bassist went off-brand in a navy button down and their drummer had a green Hawaiian shirt–but their version of slick blues rock with a hint of glam seemed like a good representation of a 50% All-Black band. It was fun, but you knew what you were getting two songs in. And for an early festival slot, something you can nod your head to while spinning theories about rock band wardrobes is where you want to be.
Red Wanting Blue
The most memorable part of Red Wanting Blue’s agreeable set was the slight disagreement it caused among my friends who were present. Was Red Wanting Blue’s chill vibe more Hootie and the Blowfish, or was his vibesy chill more Dave Matthews Band? What about 3 Doors Down for his harder rocking stuff? How do Barenaked Ladies factor in? For my money, RWB could most represent DMB if they notched a few alt. radio hits; Matthews’ “It’s alright cuz it’s all right” feels like a clear aspiration that hasn’t been realized yet. Maybe RWB will make it, maybe not. In the meantime, my friends concurred that Stunt is excellent.
The Mowgli’s played a 4:00 PM set to a mostly captive and pretty receptive audience. A lot of this came down to how Bunbury’s structured this year: there are only 3 stages (to last year’s 4), two of which (Yeatmen’s Cove mainstage and the Serpentine Wall River Stage) are fairly close while the Sawyer Point Stage is pitched at the opposite end of the festival, and the schedule’s arranged that there are rarely wholly competing sets. On one hand, the idea is that you can kinda see everyone the PromoWest overlords booked, but it also leads to wonky scheduling moments, like the 15 minute dead-time before The Mowgli’s where no one was playing, and the 30 minutes where they were only act. And they were good alt. radio act, but once another options was available, I took it.
Going back to the All-Black Theory, PVRIS (actually pronounced “Paris,” which is nowhere near how I was saying it) was made of four people wearing all-black, but they were tanktops, crop-tops, and cut-off shirts with designs, which gets them out of the All-Black Danger Zone. The all-black look fit their aesthetic and sound, which was that post-hardcore meets drop-friendly electronic meets pop sound that played well on the Warped circuit a few years back. But PVRIS were great because they have the songs, the variety, and just the sheer intensity of will to make it work, and instead of getting the Cults Memorial Indie Pop Award, I straight up enjoyed myself.
I mostly mention The Wombats to share this picture of how cool but hella overcrowded the River Stage gets when this is the only band playing. Also, I’m not sure how well it translates here, but The Wombats definitely look like dudes who’d be in a band called The Wombats.
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires
As you may have noticed so far, Friday was almost exclusively, exhaustingly rock bands. And I like rock bands! But sometimes you need a little variety, and soul belter Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires were more than happy to oblige. Bradley was first inspired by James Brown and later cut his teeth as a James Brown impersonator, and he brings the stage presence he must have honed there to his own material (his 3rd album was released earlier this year). He brought that old show business charm to Bunbury: his backing band introduced him and played him on, he had a costume change from one gloriously open necked suit to another with a sequined jacket (why did I not stand closer for this set?!), had a dance break, and at 67 years old brought more joy and presence than damn near anyone else. Bradley’s guitarist introduced him by asking if we were ready to fall in love, and three songs in, the answer was undeniably yes.
Man, this was a weird one.
Music critic and fellow Ohioan Chris DeVille once described Bunbury as bringing in occasional corny fake indie bands, and based on my very limited exposure to X Ambassadors, I feel like they fit that description. Take “Unsteady” or the Jeep-hawking “Renegades” for example: they’re not bad songs, but kind of flavorless in that way “rock” songs have to be to cross over nowadays. And this is a band who rang the All-Black Danger Zone warning bell when they walked out in pre-shrunk black tees and black pants. They boasted about doing a song with the king of Corny Fake Indie Bands, Imagine Dragons. They had the world’s most overeager keyboardist. Their lead singer played sax solos.
And yet, they showed they could do so much more. Lead singer Sam Harris has a killer falsetto that goes relatively underutilized, and the band had a few honest to God rock-out moments, especially on “Jungle” that got its own shred-heavy guitar solo. There’s not much stopping them from going for It Won’t Be Soon For Long-era Maroon 5 with the falsetto or veering into a pop version of Queens of the Stone Age if they really wanted to. But they reverted to corny fake indie with closer “Renegades.” Which was fine, but I’ve never seen a band so willing to play smoke and mirrors with their own abilities.
Let me touch one last time on the All-Black Theory and why I think it matters to a live band. Wearing your Target 4-pack black shirts and off the rack black pants is such a lousy choice because it’s literally going out of your way to look nondescript. No normal person picks this outfit. It’s the industry standard for pit orchestra members and stage hands whose job is not to be seen, and as a member of a rock band, being seen is like 53% of your job. If you’re gonna be the dude in X Ambassadors playing the shit out of a guitar solo, you need to look the damn part.
I mention all of this because HAIM is really, really good at the rock band look. I mean, yes the outfits were on point (so much so that my friend remarked their outfits were giving her life this late in the day), but it goes beyond just what you’re wearing. Este Haim’s bassface is already a quick topic for discussion, but sisters Danielle and Alana get in on it as well, making faces, headbanging, swaying, and strutting across stage just feeling their own music. Everyone even coordinated movements during a cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U.” And you start having more fun because they’re having more fun.
HAIM doesn’t just have the look and the charisma, they have the songs, too. I respected Days Are Gone more than I liked it–“The Wire” connected, little else truly did–but now I’m convinced my problem with it was that it was a HAIM album and not a HAIM live album. The intricacies are still there live, but the moments where everything comes together are so much more thrilling; “My Song 5” was this full-bodied stomper live when it just kind of shuffles on record. They have a new album on the way soonish, so maybe that’ll fire off more.
But as soon as The Killers opened with one of my favorite jams ever “Spaceman” I knew it was worth it. The Killers, at least to me, occupy this space where I’ll probably never list them as a favorite band, but I know most of the words to and will wild the fuck out to at least half a dozen of their biggest hits. And holy shit do those hits still hit: those first few seconds of “Somebody Told Me” sound like the bombs falling around you 12 years later, and the guitar in “Smile Like You Mean It” still as urgent. Frontman Brandon Flowers knows how to pump out the Las Vegas charm, talking amicably about the Reds winning a game, how much he loved home and traveling, how good it was to play, and he graciously introduced the band’s cover of Interpol’s “Obstacle 1” which worked great.
He had a great crowd to play off of, too. The Killer’s best stuff aims big and feels bigger, perfect for singalongs on “When You Were Young” and “All These Things I’ve Done,” and ballads like “The Way It Was” and “A Dustland Fairytale” were almost euphoric. The night was picturesque at times; because it was Fireworks Friday at Great American Ballpark behind the stage, we were treated to fireworks during barn-burner “Runaways” and the band’s cover of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” I’ll be honest, I wasn’t super thrilled about seeing The Killers until it happened, but once it did, it was somehow everything I’d wanted all day.
Welp, I’m running late for today’s set!