If you’re a proper music festival goer and you haven’t attended Bunbury yet, you need to mark your 2019 calendar now. Arguably the most underrated festival in America, it has become the unofficial summer kick-off for Midwestern music fans.
For the past few years, Bunbury has been held the first weekend in June. Setting up shop on Cincinnati’s riverfront in the adjacent parks of Sawyer Point and Yeatman’s Cove it certainly has the most picturesque surroundings of any festival going. The only disadvantage comes from the old rail and auto bridge, now a pedestrian bridge, that separates the park. Each park has a main stage, though the main, main stage is in Yeatman’s Cove. If you’re trying to get from one to the other, you’re likely to hit a bottleneck. Many fans had to leave some sets early in order to make it to the other stage.
Things were a bit rockier this year, style-wise, not logistically. To set the tone, The Wrecks kicked off the fest and smashed it. These young lads from L.A. have been hitting alternative radio hard, while also managing to get the attention of pop radio with their very fine track “James Dean.” Reminiscent of the currently-on-hiatus Hot Chelle Rae, they’re just nice boys. After fulfilling media commitments, they hung out and chatted with fans for over two hours in the blistering afternoon sun and were more than happy to do it.
Local favorites Lift the Medium lit up the River Stage, a unique set up that uses the steps along the Serpentine Wall at Yeatman’s Cove to form an amphitheater of sorts. The band beat out a half dozen other regional acts to gain the Bunbury slot and they made the most of it, bringing their heavy rock sound to the riverfront.
Welshly Arms from Cleveland opened the main stage. Their bluesy rock was well received by the crowd and wasn’t too taxing in the early summer heat. Speaking of Cleveland, it seemed that almost every act had ties to either Ohio, New York City, or L.A.
As it was difficult to cover all of the bands, it was necessary to divide up the workload. That means our Hannah had to check out a few acts, the first of which were The Front Bottoms. She reports:
The Front Bottoms were the number one band I was looking forward to for the weekend, and they did not disappoint. I was thoroughly impressed with the large crowd they brought, definitely bigger than the first time they played Bunbury. I would have tweaked the setlist a bit, but that’s just me being petty. Their new album is amazing, but I have a soft spot for the earlier singles. But regardless of the song, I could listen to Brian Sella scream/sing about his relationships every day forever. (HW)
Lany, another L.A. band, though they started in Nashville, really got the crowd going but had their set cut short by an impending downpour. During “Hurts,” singer Paul Jason Klein did a little crowd work, climbing in to serenade the masses. After “Where the Hell Are My Friends?” the band had to high tail it off the stage before the rain hit. A big change in policy from a few years back, when Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch pulled fans on stage for “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” as crews lowered the video screens in the face of increasing winds. In any case, Lany felt bad but headed for safety just before the cloudburst. Post-storm, Royal Blood continued the rockin’ direction over on the Sawyer Point stage.
Fitz and the Tantrums were the next to take the stage and delivered a set that was nearly identical to the one they delivered at their previous Bunbury appearance. The crowd loved it though, as they ticked off the hits “Out of My League,” “Fools Gold,” their cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” and their big show closer “Hand Clap.”
If you’re going to have a proper festival, it’s good to involve Young the Giant, who took the Sawyer Point Stage as the sun went down. They built a great set leading to “Cough Syrup” and ultimately the always-welcome “My Body.”
Of course, some had to leave Young’s set early to catch The Chainsmokers, Friday’s headliner. Hannah rushed over with her sister to get there in time as not to miss a single track. She reports:
For some reason, this was not what I expected at all. Last year, Bunbury was Cincinnati’s own Electric Daisy Carnival, and I thought we were past that phase of our lives — but The Chainsmokers brought an EDM experience to the Ohio River. I was pleasantly surprised to hear their own vocals and see some theatrics instead of just following the stereotype that they’re just going to plug in a flash drive. I can’t lie and say I was not beyond excited to see them. And I am pleased to report they were even better than I anticipated. (HW)
Misterwives brought their brand of dance pop to the Sawyer Point stage Saturday afternoon, to a warm but enthusiastic crowd. Visually, one might have expected a cross between the B-52s, Scissor Sisters, and maybe Deee-Lite, but sonically it was more like Paramore meets No Doubt while still maintaining a unique sound.
Popping out of the way-back machine was Third Eye Blind, covered by Hannah:
Not to throw shade, but Blink-182 canceling on Bunbury to play in Las Vegas was… not great. How does this relate to Third Eye Blind? Stephen Jenkins still played Bunbury, 1. While incredibly ill and 2, when TEB wasn’t even touring otherwise. A sick Jenkins made the trip to Cincinnati for one random tour date. How awesome is that? That’s enough for me to give them high praise. I didn’t know many of the tunes and the ones I did know were ones I just listen to in passing, but the energy of the crowd was enough to make it a good set.
Probably one of the toughest conflicts occurred on Saturday when Andrew McMahon & The Wilderness took the Sawyer Point stage 15 minutes after Arizona started their set on the river stage. I covered Arizona, Hannah covered Andrew McMahon:
I only caught a bit of Andrew McMahon & The Wilderness, but it was very much a perfect festival set. There was everything — good vocals, a talented band, the kind of blow up men you see at car dealerships and even a trip by McMahon into the crowd via those parachutes you used in gym class. Altogether enjoyable for someone who hasn’t dived into his discography before.
Arizona really packed them in, keeping the crowd engaged for their entire set. Dropping in a Drake cover, “Passion Fruit,” didn’t hurt. Nonetheless, the fan base showed up strong, singing along and grooving for the entire set.
Last year, there were a lot of EDM and EDM-adjacent acts, but the only act fitting that description, apart from maybe Chainsmokers, this year was GRIZ. Even though he had a late afternoon slot, and was thus still playing in daylight, he still got the crowd moving.
A pleasant surprise over on the Sawyer Point Stage was Foster the People. Sure, a lot of people don’t stan the second album, but that didn’t stop them from packing the Sawyer Point side, even as Incubus was preparing to take the main stage on the other side of the festival.
Sunday probably had the best variety of acts with Manchester Orchestra, Lecrae, and Dropkick Murphys to name just s few. The final two acts were two of the most popular of the entire festival, Post Malone, on the Sawyer Point stage and Jack White, who closed Bunbury on the main stage. Many in the Post crowd reckoned he should have been the closer.
He was fine and seemed like a nice bloke, but he didn’t really do much that was terribly inspiring from song to song. Jack White meanwhile stormed the stage as only Jack White can. A longtime fan who saw White Stripes open for Sleater-Kinney back in the day told me Jack White has always played like he was in front of a stadium. He doesn’t seem to have lost his edge. His set mixed solo work, some Raconteurs tracks, and a few White Stripes tunes including the almost obligatory “Seven Nation Army” to finish the evening and Bunbury 2018.
PF Wilson has been writing about music, TV, radio, and movies for over 20 years. He has also written about sports, business, and politics with his work appearing in Cincinnati CityBeat, The Houston Press, Cleveland Scene, Cincinnati Magazine, Cincy Magazine, Atomic Ranch, and many more. Check out his podcast PF’s Tape Recorder available from Podbean or in iTunes.