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Festival Report: Bunbury is All Grown Up

In its fifth year on the Cincinnati waterfront, the Bunbury Music Festival finally feels right at home. Its first three years were plagued by a sprawling layout and an overabundance of acts and stages, leading to major sound bleed issues and sparse crowds during many sets. Last year, the first under new owners PromoWest Productions, rectified much of that, but increased crowds caused long lines at the gates and at water fill stations. But this year? Everything is in its right place. Never before has the festival been able to present front-to-back high-level talent, local and national, like this past weekend, and its lineup had the combination of big names (all three headliners have topped past Lollapalooza slates), legacy acts, buzz bands, and left-field picks (looking at you, Here Come The Mummies) that are the hallmarks of a nationally competitive festival. Bunbury has finally landed.

Check out photos of Friday's Bands

Bunbury Music Festival

From the start, the top of the bill delivered. Few alternative rock bands are better equipped to present a festival-ready greatest hits set than The Killers, and they did so with aplomb to close out Friday night, accompanied by a serendipitous fireworks display from Great American Ball Park. They incorporated an Interpol cover and covered all the bases, from Hot Fuss to Battle Born, closing with the still-perfect “Mr. Brightside.” deadmau5 was Bunbury’s second flirtation with an EDM headliner, after Empire of the Sun’s multimedia blowout in 2014, but the first with one of the genre’s megastar DJ’s. The Canadian producer performed 80 minutes of thundering, pulsing dance music, perched atop a massive array of lights. The bass could reportedly be heard miles away in Hyde Park, and the low end was certainly boneshaking in the park as he bobbed his glowing “mau5” head to the likes of “Ghosts n’ Stuff” and “The Veldt.” 

Check out photos of Saturday's Bands

Bunbury Music Festival

But no star shined brighter than Florence Welch. Her Sunday night festival-closing set with 11-piece band The Machine will undoubtedly go down as one of the iconic moments in the history of this festival, a powerful, passionate display from a superstar in the making. The crowd, maybe the largest of the weekend, stretched to the back of the Yeatman’s Cove lawn and spilled out into the walkways, and sang along, full-throated, with every word she sang. Welch is a tireless barefoot dynamo onstage, sprinting from one end to another in seconds before appearing almost magically atop the barricade at the soundboard 100 feet away. Her band creates a lush, nuanced backdrop on songs that take their time expanding and drifting in unexpected, dramatic directions.  I should point out that Florence + The Machine is the first female-fronted act to close out a day in Bunbury’s history, and over the last year has become the first regular female headliner the modern festival era.

Check out photos of Sunday's bands

Bunbury Music Festival

On that note, Florence was just part of a positive trend on a lineup with no dearth of women. HAIM’s shimmering throwback sound echoed through the festival grounds as the sun set on Friday, and the Icelandic group Of Monsters and Men drew a colossal crowd to the Yeatman’s Cove stage on Sunday. The latter made impressive display of their accomplished folk-pop (with almost as many nautical references as Florence), punctuated by their 2012 megahit “Little Talks,” but also featuring heavier material such as the pounding opener “Thousand Eyes.” Canadian singer and producer Grimes put on one of the highest-energy (and most joyful) performances of the weekend, highlighting work from last year’s masterwork Art Angels. Accompanied by multi-instrumentalist HANA and two kinetic backup dancers, she stormed through an hours’ worth of fanged, brilliant pop music, triggering most of the samples and beats herself on an array of equipment before leaping back to join the fray at the front of the stage. Los Angeles upstart Elle King, who grew up southeast of Columbus, brought her accomplished (if monochromatic) songs of drinkin’ and heartbreak to the Sawyer Point field, wrapping her Janis Joplin rasp around a couple of choice covers before launching last year’s top-ten hit “Ex’s and Oh’s.”

Photos of the fan experience Friday

Bunbury Music Festival

There were Rock and Roll Hall of Famers on hand, as well. Tom Petty’s side band Mudcrutch (whose original iteration actually predated The Heartbreakers) played at sundown on Friday, loping through genial country rock. This is exactly the kind of unique set that helped elevate this year’s Bunbury; Mudcrutch’s current tour is likely a one-off, at least for now, and they’re not appearing at many other festivals. But the real Hall of Fame setlist (and performance) came from NWA cofounder Ice Cube, who dedicated his set to the just-passed Muhammad Ali before storming the stage with “Natural Born Killaz.” Ice Cube’s set was everything last year’s Snoop Dogg appearance wasn’t: tight, focused, aggressive, and thrilling. He performed a mini-suite of N.W.A. classics, the crowd’s interest in the songs reinvigorated by last year’s blockbuster Straight Outta Compton, and brought his son (who starred in the film) out to perform with him. He shouted out the ongoing preservation project with the King Records studio building in Evanston, comparing it to Hitsville USA and (soon) Paisley Park in terms of historical landmark status. He also recounted the story of his last time in Cincinnati, when N.W.A.’s members were issued disorderly conduct citations following their performance. This, of course, was the lead up to the much-anticipated “Fuck tha Police.”

Photos of the fan experience Saturday

Bunbury Music Festival

Ice Cube was not the only hip-hop hero on hand. OutKast’s Big Boi was in the house as one third of Big Grams, his collaboration with dream poppers Phantogram. Their set was delayed half an hour (and shortened by twenty minutes) following an almost biblical lightning strike directly behind the stage, which accompanied an epic deluge. But as they started their abbreviated show, the sun came out and a rainbow spread above the Daniel Beard Bridge. They stuck close to their recent collaborative EP, but we did get to hear OutKast classic “Ms. Jackson,” much to the delight of all present. Aficionados of almost any other genre could’ve found something to keep them happy, too. Illinois jam band Umphrey’s McGee cooked up a groovy stew on Saturday evening, stretching “In The Kitchen” out well past the ten minute mark with tight group interplay and wailing guitar solos. Funk weirdos Here Come the Mummies (whose identities are hidden behind, duh, mummy wrappings) were a particularly inspired booking, casting a spooky atmosphere over the river stage at dusk and reminding us to let our freak flags fly. (One very intoxicated woman by me was CERTAIN the lead singer is “that guy from Fastball,” and exhorted me to dedicate myself to identifying the rest.) And then there was garage rock (The Shelters), mid-2000’s English guitar rock (The Wombats), driving pop punk (the cacophonous Bayside), bombastic agit-pop (PVRIS), and the Screaming Eagle of Soul himself, Charles Bradley, whose late-afternoon Friday set might have featured the best singing of the weekend outside of Florence.

Photos of the fan experience Sunday

Bunbury Music Festival

Then, as always, there was plenty of local talent. Leggy was the very first act of the weekend, their live show fine tuned and fierce from time on the road with the likes of Shonen Knife. Dawg Yawp continued their meteoric rise with an early-afternoon Saturday set down by the river, a slot occupied the very next day by Mad Anthony, and Arlo McKinley nabbed a prime late-afternoon booking on Sunday which yielded a huge crowd. Cincinnati talent has always been a core part of the Bunbury lineup, but it’s reassuring to finally see them getting the stage placement and drawing the crowds that they deserve.

As Bunbury 2016 drew to a close with Florence + The Machine’s jubilant “Dog Days Are Over,” I couldn’t help but be excited to see what PromoWest has up their sleeve for next year. Despite some concerns over service fees, the new cashless system was implemented almost flawlessly. People seemed happy with the new VIP setup, and the reduction to three stages made the layout feel natural and perfectly spaced. After years of growing pains, what we finally have on our hands is a top-notch regional music festival, capable of drawing some of the biggest and best talent in the world. And it’s right on our front porch.