Most people might not realize it (I certainly forget it from time to time), but the greater American Midwest fosters some of the nation’s most expansive and star-studded festivals brimming with musical talent and massive sets. Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Euax Claires, Hinterland, and Pitchfork are just a few of the major summer music festivals, and there are many more medium-sized upcoming festivals to add to that list. After spending the first of June in attendance (June 2-4), I feel it necessary to exclaim that the promising Cincinnati-based, bee-themed festival, Bunbury Festival, deserves inclusion in the lexicon of Midwest music festivals.
A Short History of Bunbury
This year was the 5th annual occurrence of Bunbury Festival, nestled along the Ohio River inside of Sawyer Point Park & Yeatman’s Cove. The inaugural 2012 opening of the festival featured recognized headliners like Jane’s Addiction, Weezer, and Death Cab for Cutie. The festival normally occurs in early June and lasts 3 days (one weekend), and has garnered hundreds of thousands of attendees to date. While the orientation and design of the festival changes year to year, this year the festival positioned two giant stages on each end of the park, while smaller stages littered the in-between areas.
More importantly, though, are the bands who have graced these stages. This year saw the return of Death Cab for Cutie as headliner for the first night (Friday night), but past line-ups have bolstered a variety and magnitude of musicality capable of leaving one utterly duped by how exactly a festival still in its early development years can land such recognizable names. With full transparency, I had little understanding of Bunbury going into the festival. Surely, with the sheer quality of artist, not even considering the amount business and media presence, this festival had to have been a well established event that I’d naively never heard of before. The fact that this was only its fifth year ever enlightened me to exactly how up-and-coming this festival is. It won’t be “just another music festival” for long.
The Festival – Friday
Full Disclosure, because of some changes in my travel plans, I wasn’t able to make it to the festival until Saturday evening. It kills me to think about the music that I missed throughout the festival opening day. The headliners for Friday were G-Eazy, Wiz Khalifa, and (as mentioned before) Death Cab for Cutie, but 15 other performers preceded them at the 4 separate stages earlier in the day. The Shins, Civil Twilight (probably my biggest regret for missing), Mutemath, Mike Stud, The Cordial Sins, Clubhouse, and Jared Mahone were just a few of Friday’s variety of musical acts.
The Festival – Saturday
Saturday was yet another day overflowing with music. Forecasts originally thought the weekend would be rained out, but Mother Nature decided that, instead of soaking the attendees in rain, sending an intense heat wave to drench everyone in sweat would suffice – but I’m not complaining. The weather was tremendous, and I arrived in the mid-evening. Regrettably, I had missed a full morning of music, including acts by San Fermin (equal with Civil Twilight on the regretfully-missed-it scale), Frenship, the VHS Collection, Kevin Garrett, Liberty Deep Down, Lemon Sky, and several more terrific talents. I did make it in time to witness the end of performances by CVBZ, SAROB., and D.R.A.M, which would’ve been fun for any fan of music and having a good time. Once SAROB. concluded, Tech N9ne followed shortly after at the festival’s main stage, the Nissan stage. The experience was a phenomenally frantic combination of fist-bumping, crowd chanting, free-styling, and running throughout the venue to capture as many quality pictures as possible. After closing out with a few fan favorites, Tech N9ne wished the crowd a great rest of the weekend. About that time, I hustled over to the park’s opposite side to witness Pretty Lights’ performance, before joining up with the rest of the merry photographers to funnel into the photo pit awaiting Bassnectar.
I realized in that photo pit my mistake in not bringing earplugs; I was a mere foot from the speakers that would eventually turn my bones to dust once Bassnectar took the reins. I was so preoccupied photographing the set, the crowd, and Tech n9ne appearing next to me that I didn’t initially realize that Bassnectar had come onstage. Thankfully enough, his sudden onslaught of bass-pounding woke me from my daze like a super-powered alarm clock. I was so unprepared for the incoming sound waves that they literally knocked me back, but after I regained myself, 15 minutes of pure musical heroin accompanied my time in the photo pit (Bunbury would only allow photographers the first 15 minutes of a set to photograph the artists). The rest of the night consisted of the tens of thousands of people overflowing from the venue all dancing along, with some straddling nearby light posts, climbing the shoulders of their friends, or reclining along the nearby waterfront as streamers and lights intertwined themselves with the head-rattling sound waves orchestrated by Bassnectar.
The Festival – Sunday
Sunday: the conclusion. Bunbury’s final day included nearly 12-hours of continuous music by the night’s end. My time at the festival officially began around 1 PM. As I was schedule to interview Tyler Ritter of the acclaimed band Moon Taxi at 1:45 PM, I arrived at the media trailer with ample time to familiarize myself with the interview setting. After the interview concluded, I let loose to capture the remainder of Bunbury’s musical awesomeness. I started with a trip to White reaper’s set, before discovering the band, Circle It, performing a two-person acoustic session at the smaller Southwest music stage. This stage was obviously designed as an outdoor take on a lounge and rest area, as many people were strewn about in the grass, resting against trees, or lying on inflated cushions.
Once Circle It’s performance concluded, and I had finished enjoying my lounging, I returned to the usual meet-up point for all the photographers before heading into the photo pit. This hang-out area was situated directly between the media trailer and the stage where the Arkells were performing, so I made sure to capture as much of their set as I could, including the moments when the band brought a random listener up on stage to perform with them. It was an incredibly lively performance. I was somewhat bummed to leave, but I had to make it to the photo pit for my next task: to capture the irish-ridiculousness of Flogging Molly.
Guinness (literally) in-hand, Flogging Molly’s multi-piece band gave a rousing performance, with shades of protest rock that would preemptive of what Muse later that night. With Flogging Molly’s set complete, I traversed to the park’s opposite side for Moon Taxi, which would retrospectively become the halfway point of the day for me. In all honesty, while the music thus far for the day was astounding, Moon Taxi’s performance would become the act that would truly elevate that Sunday musical experience for me. They easily could have been a headliner. From then on, every performance was astonishing. The sun was merciless, the breeze nowhere to be found, but Moon Taxi made sure we were too caught up in the music to even notice. It did help that festival workers were occasionally walking around with water guns to bring some sweet liquid relief.
The end of Moon Taxi’s set meant another trip back to the Southwest acoustic stage to relax and listen to Hello Luna perform. They finished around 6 PM, which left me a little more time to photograph the festival before catching the end of AFI’s set just in time to hear a stellar rendition of “Miss Murder”. At this point I meandered my way deep into the front of the crowd to wait patiently for Jared Leto and the rest of 30 Seconds to Mars to perform. Also around this time, my camera, shortly followed by my phone, died. This meant that I wasn’t able to photograph or record anything for the remainder of the festival, as I had forgotten to bring with me any portable chargers. But, I was about to see 30 Seconds to Mars, followed by the 1975 and Muse, so I wasn’t too upset. I was about five rows back from the crowd’s front, and with an hour to spare, I naturally made friends with the people around me. We all shared our musical stories from the weekend, and I was able to learn second-hand about some of the performers I missed that day, such as Reverend Horton Heat, Watsky, and Jon Bellion.
Finally, 30 Seconds to Mars came out, and, regardless of your musical tastes, anyone would’ve enjoyed the next several hours of music. For your sake and mine, I won’t overload this story with details. What I will say is that I, along with tens of thousands of other people, were engulfed by the magnitude of 30 Seconds to Mars’ outlandish sound, and when it was over an exodus of biblical proportions occurred as everyone switched to the park’s other end to witness the genius of The 1975. If there was one band I was not going to miss at this festival, it was The 1975. To me they could easily become a band to define this decade, as they occupy the unique space between pop, rock, and ethereal noise. Having missed their concert in Indianapolis earlier in the school year, I was desperate to see them – and still they blew me away. At one point I caught myself wishing they would play forever, but, once their set ended, I found myself running back to the Nissan stage for the majestic rockfest Muse had waiting for us.
Those last several hours of Bunbury I now regard as one of the greatest musical experiences thus far in my life. While I am a fan of Muse, I had never realized before their headlining act quite how unique and extraordinary they were. I will never forget the image of intergalactic, techno-visuals screaming from giant screens, as confetti burst above me, thousands of people danced along with me, and “Knights of Cydonia” galloped into my ears. And, in the end, such a performance was a fitting capstone to a festival that, before this year, I had never realized was quite such a spectacular experience either.