Recap by Justin Wesley
Within mere hours of entering the grounds of Bunbury Music Festival for the first time, it became quite evident Cincinnati is home to one of the stealthier gems in the saturated summer music festival season. Cincy and Bunbury’s organizers have crafted something quite special with all the manmade (the Queen City skyline, steamboats, rows of stone seating on the riverbank for serene views while soaking up the music) and natural beauty (foliage (shade!), the Ohio River) on the banks of the Ohio. Should Bunbury continue to increase its profile from year to year and land marquee lineups, this little fest has the potential to make a major splash.
The daily lineups this year tout a fairly versatile mix that benefits from sensible scheduling – something that tends to get lost on organizers at a few other fests – on each stage. The clear-cut winners on Friday were the Main Stage acts: Fun, Walk The Moon, Tegan and Sara, and Delta Rae. While obviously varying in genre classifications, each of these acts is currently embracing the most infectiously poppy strains of their respective sounds, and the result amounts to high-energy elation primed for maximum appeal in a festival setting. (Although I didn’t set foot on the grounds until after Delta Rae’s set, the sheer amount of praise tagged to their name around the Main Stage crowd in the hours that followed made their mark known.)
The first full set I made a point to catch was that of endlessly harmonic cult heroes Tegan and Sara Quin. Although I’ve been a fan of Tegan and Sara for a decade now, Friday provided my first opportunity to experience their notoriously underrated heartache pop in person. The sisters’ recently released Heartthrob has been a rather big hit with both devout fans (no surprise there) and indie-leaning critics (a bit of a surprise given the unapologetic Top 40 gusto of Heartthrob’s tunes). Although I can’t deny an ounce of its monolithic poppiness and overt romanticism, I still haven’t entirely given myself over to its saccharine charms just yet.
Tegan and Sara have always been masters of unshakeable hooks and potent verses – how they have never fully infiltrated the mainstream is a query that has driven fans wild for years – and Heartthrob sends them shooting for the heavens with dance beats and pristine production. Even acclimated to the huge sound of Heartthrob’s songs, I wasn’t expecting to see Tegan & Sara blast through their Bunbury set as a six-piece. Guitars, bass, keys, synths and drums provided maximum bombast for the festival setting (the low end was huge in the mix, “Back In Your Head” ran with three-guitar crunch, and even the occasional, wall-shaking bass rumble made appearances).
The truth is, no matter how they are amplified, electrified or sped up, the pure intimacy and endearment of Tegan and Sara’s songs never suffer. Their sound now has a body-moving iridescence in its favor – more Phoenix or The Temper Trap than, say, Katy Perry – and live, six-piece translations of songs like the keys- and dub-driven “Now I’m All Messed Up” and the kaleidoscopic breakup gem “Goodbye, Goodbye” show the sisters can mesh mainstream-baiting and maturity with the best of them.
I had only heard a few Buffalo Killers tunes in advance of the weekend, but the Cincy trio gritty and rootsy rock and roll hit a sweet spot with me on first listen. They bring the goods live (hitting Bunbury as a classic four-piece with two guitars, bass and drums), packing an electric Southern-psych-garage punch that would’ve turned heads in The Haight of the ‘60s or Iggy-era Motor City. These guys have the tunes and the combustible live delivery to appeal to ardent fans of Drive-By Truckers, Ty Segall, and anything put out on Third Man Records. Unfortunately, they played Bunbury’s heavily shaded Amphitheater Stage (a secluded Sawyer Point amphitheater on the riverbank with rows of concrete seating several dozen feet from the stage) in a late afternoon time slot with the sun beating down. Although they drew a crowd of 300 or so, all but four or five left the 50 feet in front of the stage deserted while Buffalo Killers tore through a strong set of rock and roll worthy of your attention.
Another big surprise as far as crowd scarcity goes came during Sky Ferreira’s set on the centralized Bud Light Stage. With the wealth of heavyweight blog hype and Pitchfork space given to Ferreira, I expected a scene closer to the insanity of Sleigh Bells’ 2011 Bonnaroo set than the paltry spattering of roughly 200 people watching Ferreira’s early evening Bunbury performance. Even with a highly publicized (at least in the Stereogum and Pitchfork community) struggle to have a full-length debut see the light of day, Ferreira has enjoyed plenty of press for her tunes “Lost In My Bedroom” and “Everything Is Embarassing”; her designer ties, massive Facebook and Tumblr followings, and noteworthy collaborators (Garbage’s Shirley Manson, Blood Orange) haven’t hurt either.
I’ve been skeptical of the buzz, which is why I made it a point to catch Ferreira’s set. Fronting a four-piece band, Ferreira turned in a solid introductory set that offered genuine promise, if failing to amount to a fraction of the glitzy hype. Perhaps that’s exactly why I found the performance to be far more endearing than I had expected. With thousands of her presumable target demographic camped on the distant Main Stage (Tegan and Sara finished minutes before Ferreira started, and white-hot Cincy outfit Walk The Moon were slated to start as she finished) and a dive bar-sized crowd before her, Ferreira transformed from an overhyped Pitchfork darling to an unproven underdog before my eyes. She opened with “Lost In My Bedroom” with a fog machine at her back and a blinding sun in her eyes, competently tore through a string of tunes on par with Garbage at their finest, and even channeled hints of vintage Cat Power on the acoustic beauty “Werewolf (From Waist Down)” (not Cat Power’s “Werewolf”). Ferreira has the grungy-chic, disaffected aura down to a science, but moments like failing to stifle a string of coughs into the mic and following with a sincere apology of “I’m sorry…like, I’m losing my voice – again” after the quiet loveliness of “Werewolf” (From Waist Down) were more revealing than any of the tastemaker pieces I’ve seen so far.
If there is any certainty from Day 1 of Bunbury 2013, it’s that Friday was Walk The Moon’s time to shine. The streaked lines of face paint or Walk The Moon merch on hundreds (if not thousands) of Bunbury goers put a palpable sense in the air that something special was happening. It was a far cry from my introduction to Walk The Moon on the terribly tiny Sonic Stage at Bonnaroo in 2011. That introduction occurred at the same moment Mumford & Sons was coming out on a gargantuan scale to an army of tens of thousands on the Which Stage (not the main What Stage). I opted to take a chance on somebody unknown, and I discovered a Cincinnati band playing high-energy Hot Fuss-like pop goodness to a crowd of maybe 30.
Walk The Moon’s self-titled 2012 full-length debut is full of such melodic richness and bouncy zest that it hits many of the same indie-pop heights Phoenix and The Killers reached at varying career points. Walk The Moon may not be on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s level, but it’s just as strong as Phoenix’s 2006’s tipping point-hinting It’s Never Been Like That. The Walk The Moon faithful pretty much took the Queen City fest by storm on Friday, and the sanctity of the moment wasn’t lost on the band. Cushioned between the jubilant Heartthrob-heavy set by Tegan and Sara and Fun’s arena-rock pop grandeur in the headlining slot, Walk The Moon was the hometown hero glue that held the overwhelming majority of the Bunbury crowd at the Main Stage for the day. Ripping through Walk The Moon standouts like “Tightrope”, “Anna Sun”, “Lisa Baby”, “Quesadilla”, the band incited a giddy party high on Cincinnati love that was strikingly reminiscent to my memories of the frenzy MGMT brought to Lollapalooza in 2008 as Oracular Spectacular had them primed to explode. During the chugging bass bridge of “Jenny”, frontman Nicholas Petricca challenged the crowd to get wild, saying, “When the band comes back in, we encourage you to lose at least a significant amount of your shit. Maybe not all of your shit, but at least a little.” For a crowd that has championed the Cincy up-and-comers’ steady rise for the past two and a half years, it was a welcome invitation they had zero intention of squandering.
Fun hit the Main Stage at 10:00 for a 90-minute headlining set full of all the heart-on-sleeve elation and arena-ready grandeur all over the band’s Platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated smash hit, Some Nights. Personally, frontman Nate Ruess’s frequently rapped-sung, emo-pop verses are a huge barrier to entry for me, but it’s tough to deny the Pavlovian response of wonder that resonates in Fun’s choruses. With that said, there are millions of adoring fans who embrace both aspects of Fun’s sound readily, and such is the reason for their ubiquitous presence on radios, TV, and in clubs for the past 18 months.
Everything you’ve witnessed from Fun in their Saturday Night Live and Grammy performances or seen in smaller shows is made grander in a festival setting. Hitting the stage as a breathless, animated six-piece, Ruess belted out hit after hit from Some Nights, as the band rollicked in vice-grip tight, if shamelessly processed, fashion with all the high-wire cheesiness we’ve all come to know and millions have come to love. With a massive video screen at their back cutting between rainbow-colored squares against the night sky and close-ups of Fun’s myriad solos and showmanship, the performance was everything a young festival and a massive crowd want out of a headlining band: all the hits, major pop hero charisma, and every opportunity to raise their beers and sing along.