Last Sunday was the final day of Bunbury ’17. Day 3 promised a robust line-up, more people, and, for the third day in a row, lots of sun. All in all, it was a good day, and below are 7 things that I took away from it.
1. Sunday Recalled Bunburys Past
There’s an argument you could make about Bunbury losing something in the last year or two compared to its earliest, more rock-centric incarnations. I don’t think the move away from rock is an inherent bad thing or wrong move, but the festival’s non-rock lineups have always felt uneven (Pretty Lights: good! G-Eazy: why?). Sunday still had the occasional outlier with slam poetry rapper Watsky and Guy Who Plays Music Jon Bellion, but yielded most of its stage space to dudes with guitars (emphasis on dudes; Bunbury recently came up dead last in a breakdown of festival lineups by gender representation in an analysis done by Pitchfork–a serious downer from 2 years ago where I went a whole day without seeing an all-male act). Be it the jams of Moon Taxi or foot-on-the-gas rush of Flogging Molly and Reverend Horton Heat, Sunday incorporated bands of varying sizes and sounds for a thematically consistent and satisfying day.
2. White Reaper Might Be Serious About That “World’s Best American Band” Moniker
“Hello, we are White Reaper, our band’s called White Reaper, we go by the name White Reaper” announced singer/guitarist Tony Esposito before the Louisville, KY band kicked into the most enjoyably dirtbag-y set of the weekend. Their second album, The World’s Best American Band, came out in April, and I’ve been spinning it constantly; imagine riff-laden power-pop/garage rock with air-guitar inspiring solos and vocals made entirely of voice cracks that sounds tailor-made to smoking cheap cigarettes in the parking lot after school, and you’re most of the way there. The band’s attitude matched the music’s with snarky banter, dual guitar solos, members jumping around, and the occasional scissor kick. I get the smirking dare of calling an album The World’s Best American Band (their first record was White Reaper Does It Again), but all I’m saying is that the only bands that were better than White Reaper were functionally Irish (Flogging Molly) or super British (The 1975). The stars and stripes are up for grabs.
3. It’s Hard to Watch Flogging Molly and Not Keeping Thinking “How?”
Veteran Celtic punks Flogging Molly were an early day highlight, charging out of the gate with “The Hand of John L. Sullivan” and never letting up, even during kinda-ballad “Float” or the heart on the sleeve anthem “If I Ever Leave This World Alive.” As I bounced between two different groups of friends, I kept finding new ways to be astounded by this band: “How have they played nothing but 16th notes like it’s nothing for the last hour?” “How is Dave King pounding Guinness in what has to be 90 degree heat?” “How am I not supposed to lose my entire shit to ‘Devils Dance Floor’?” “How is Float such an underrated album?” “How am I supposed to be excited for 30 Seconds to Mars or some shit after this?” With indefatigable energy and a massive back catalog, Flogging Molly raised pints and spirits on a hot afternoon.
(This is kind of a side note, but FM also had this weird way of making Reverend Horton Heat later in the day seem completely inert. RHH still sounded good, but their seasoned version of fast-paced, head-down rockabilly stood in the shadow of Flogging Molly’s rollicking Celtic punk rock a few hours earlier. They had a killer “Ace of Spades” cover, though.)
4. Jared Leto Really Likes Talking
Even on a day where there was distinctly more stage banter across the board than there had been most of the weekend, Jared Leto of 30 Seconds to Mars (or, marginally less charitably, Suicide Squad) was an egregious talker. He chatted in-between songs about how “his kind of people” (idk) could be counted on to be there, about how 30S2M had played Bogarts at some point in the past, and called someone in the audience “so cute.” My friends and I ended up leaving early to camp for The 1975 after a song, and it wasn’t until we were clear on the other side of the festival that we heard Leto start the next one (an acoustic version of “The Kill”), which was apparently their 4th song of about 7 or 8. At least he talked instead of surprising everyone with dead pigs or something.
5. Musings With Muse
Muse are a very well liked band, and for very understandable reasons. They put on a high-explosive live show, complete with cool visuals, several screens, cameras on mic stands, and frontman Matt Bellamy wearing light-up shutter shades and shoes (maybe he’s really excited about Graduation‘s 10 year anniversary this year). They’re the rare 21st century band with multiple songs casual listeners will easily recognize, most of which sound quite good in a stadium (“Uprising,” “Stockholm Syndrome,” “Supermassive Black Hole,” “Knights of Cydonia,” etc.) while still being technically challenging to play or sing. If you put all of these factors together, they make for quite an enjoyable live music experience, one which I’m sure many of their fans at Bunbury quite liked.
Here’s the thing, though: I can say all of that and mean it, and there’s still this voice in my head that ends each sentence with, “But Muse kind of suck.” Sorry everyone I know, but they kind of do. I’ve tried unabashedly liking them, but I still feel like the average Muse song is a bunch of Guitar Center-friendly riffs strung together, and their best work can be described as an attempt to recreate the loud parts of OK Computer. Matt Bellamy may be a more virtuosic guitarist and singer than, say Jack White, Josh Homme, or Annie Clark, but he can’t write songs like they can. And it’s not like Muse are completely lacking in good or even great songs–“Starlight” was a treat, and “Supermassive Black Hole” is solid enough that it escaped Twilight with more dignity than Robert Patterson did–just that their hit-to-miss ratio isn’t great for a festival headliner, and they’re prone to between song guitar wankery. Even with pretty lights, “Knights of Cydonia,” and “Madness” with a surprise ending, I still missed Florence Welch.
6. The 1975 are That Band.
It feels wrong to entertain the constant bemoaning of the dearth of young, capable mainstream rock bands when The 1975 are right there. They have the songs (more on that in a moment), the all-consuming fandom, and the look of what you’d expect from a young person’s band; if these guys could notch a top 10 hit Stateside, that’d be it. Their live show checked every box: big structures, vibrant lights, and singular members lead by a cool-as-shit frontman. Matty Healy not only exudes charisma, he commits to making the disaffected British rock star bit work for him. There was a point during “Change of Heart,” I think, where he was ambling around stage singing, but he’d gotten a cigarette from somewhere and held it in the same hand as his mic, and another at the end of maybe “Loving Someone” where he started tossing roses into the crowd. It was the kind of shit that sounds (hell, is) ridiculous, but through sheer dedication, Healy made it work.
That same descriptor holds true to their music. I tried getting into I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it last year, but it didn’t really stick (I gravitated more toward Teen Suicide’s It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot instead; even though they aren’t strictly speaking alike, both records are sprawling genre-crossers whose wordy exteriors betray vulnerability and probably multiple illegal substances); it turns out these songs need to be heard live. To paraphrase what music writer Steve Hyden said about Pearl Jam, I realize fans of every band say “they sound better live,” but in The 1975’s case, it happens to be true. All the moving pieces in their songs fall into place with tighter, louder, and more commanding rhythms and more powerful hooks, and older songs like “Girls” and “Heart Out” fit right in the set. And seeing The 1975 live meant hearing “Sex,” quite possibly one of the best arena rock songs of the decade, live. It also meant seeing one of my friends see one of their favorite bands live, and let me tell you, seeing someone else freak out over a fave is almost better than seeing your favorite.
7. Final Verdict
How I feel about this year’s Bunbury is kind of a head vs. heart situation. On one hand, the lineup never really gelled in a meaningful way, including a rare 0 for 3 on headliners, the undercard only worked in fits and starts, and the daily schedule always felt thin. Price is a factor, too, as both Riot Fest and Pitchfork Festival are comparable in ticket quality, but end up stomping the ‘bury in quality and quantity of bands, and the festival trades way more in veteran or up-and-coming acts than it does in the moment excitement. On the other, I had fun with the people I went with, and saw some bands I really wanted to check out. So ultimately, if you’re looking for a festival for the sake of going to a festival, I’d recommend somewhere else that’s a little more exciting and worthwhile, but if you like a few of the names on the poster, or know people who are going, it’s worth checking out. We’ll see how next year goes.