The Wonderbus Festival in Columbus, Ohio began as not only a grand celebration of the reemergence of live music, but as a shining example of how the future of music will look post-pandemic. My worries of long lines to check vaccine cards and negative test results proved unfounded as I approached the gate. Rapid testing and free vaccination booths lined the left side, and the seamless entry procedure quickly assuaged my anxiety. As I walked through the gate, picking up my free hand sanitizer along the way, that familiar bubbling joy brought a smile to my face. I’m finally back at a music festival! If you’re an audiofile like me, you’ll remember that joy, that warm buzz that overtakes you at the freedom of listening to your favorite artists with people that are just as passionate. Nothing compares to this feeling and this gratitude materialized as the overwhelming theme of Wonderbus.
The day started with Bird + Byron, a local band from Columbus, Ohio. Fronted by long-time friends Nick and Blake, the group radiated from the stage in what turned out to be their first real show since gaining traction on Tik-Tok. Tik-Tok fame ended up being a theme among many of the Wonderbus performers, proving that social media is truly what saved music-addicts during the lockdown. After their performance they greeted fans, doling out genuine hugs and smiles that reflected how happy they were to be a part of the festival scene. I spotted Bird + Byron walking around the grounds throughout the weekend relishing the good music and vibes.
Up next was a spunky young band from Akron, and boy did they love their hometown, that rocked the stage bringing grungy tunes sprinkled with teen angst. Detention, made of four high-schoolers, commanded attention with unique songs that gave me evocations of Hole and punk rock in the early 2000’s, even covering a song by the Black Keys better than many veteran bands. Elliot Carter, the lead vocalist, engaged with her band members and the audience much like a seasoned performer with years of experience. She then graded participation with a “B+”, a quirky reminder of the band’s stage in life. This is definitely a band to watch as they grow up and evolve.
Phangs, otherwise known as Jake Germany from Nashville, hit the Radd Stage bringing indie-pop melodies with an electronic trap undertone. Happy energy radiated off this solo musician as he bounced around in his pink shorts and reflective sunglasses. Later in his set, Corey Mouch from 90’s Kids joined Phangs and the two performed together speaking of their long-time friendship. Phangs also made a special appearance at the River Stage during the 90’s Kids performance of their new single “Mandy Moore,” a tribute to their mutual first crush. During the 90’s Kids set lead vocalist Corey, sporting a shirt that appropriately could have come straight from the 1990s, spoke of his absolute joy in getting back on the stage in over a year and a half. The band played a mix of new and old songs, including one of their biggest hits “Adelaide” which sent the audience up in cheers singing along with songs that tasted like a fresh take on 90’s pop.
Back at the Radd Stage, .wavrunner burst on the scene accompanied by the Austin Powers theme song. This trio of young pop-rap musicians danced around hyping up their audience with a “frat boy” energy that felt like the beaches of Miami. As JJ mixed beats from behind a keyboard, his brother Jack and friend Griff sang vocals, charming the crowd with cheeky grins and dance moves during their recent release “Joy Ride.” As .wavrunner jammed to exhilarating dance tracks, the smooth sounds of John K. echoed from the opposite side of the festival grounds creating a stark contrast. I walked over to Music Elevates stage and was immediately captivated by an infectious smile that didn’t leave his face even as he sang. John K., from Orlando, Florida, brought a passionate vocal presence that reminded me of Ed Sheeran. He talked about buckling down last year and producing not one, but two, albums the most recent of which being released this June. In between debuting songs from both Love and Everything Else and In Case You Missed Me John spoke of how “it feels so good just to sing”. I’m sure this sentiment could be felt by all the musicians of Wonderbus, but audience reflected his joy right back lifting the ambiance as he performed.
After a short technical delay, Dreamers took control of River Stage, drawing a large crowd to the sunny lawn. Nick Wold stood out on lead vocals with bright blue hair as he danced around, singing many fan favorites including “Heatseeker” and “Sweet Disaster” and looking comfortable behind his guitar. As the set concluded he jumped off stage, greeting his fans and tossing beach balls back into the audience.
Londin Thompson and Leah Kate, performing consecutively on the Radd stage, both gained popularity during the 2020 pandemic lockdown period through viral Tik-Tok songs. Londin, with her hit “Wish it Would Rain”, also brought brighter pop tunes and backup dancers for a club vibe. Leah Kate kept the dance party going with her breathy tones and trendy rhythms. She moved to her popular track “Fuck up the Friendship” in metallic pink pants and a pink sequin Dolce and Gabbana top, really embodying the image of a young pop star.
Ritt Momney, fronted by Jack Rutter of Salt Lake City, graced the Music Elevates stage with lo-fi indie tunes and an easy comfort behind the keyboard. The sun began setting behind the stage as Jack spoke of the single song that changed his life, again thanks to a viral Tik Tok summer. “Put Your Records On” was originally written and released by Corinne Bailey Rae in 2006 and when Jack covered the song in 2020, its nearly instant Tik Tok popularity drove Ritt Momney’s recognition through the roof. Despite mentioning that he doesn’t “normally dance on stage” the audience clearly fell in love with his authentic demeanor and genuine enthusiasm, carrying his energy across the festival lawn.
I then rushed over to the River Stage to watch a personal favorite of mine, Grandson. He kicked off the show by throwing water bottles to the crowd, instructing them to open and “let loose” when the music started. Canadian-American artist, Jordon Edward Benjamin, is a master of hyping his fans with heavy hitting alternative rock songs that tackle hard topics like social injustice and mental health. As the guitarist strummed the first notes of “Despicable”, a wave of static anticipation resonated through the lawn. When the heavy bass dropped, Grandson instructed his fans to “open it up” and make a pit, shouting “I wanna see people crowd surfing!” Before finishing out a high intensity show with emotionally charged hit single “Blood/Water”, he talked of “never taking [live music] for granted again” and capped his performance by crowd surfing out into his loyal fanbase.
Mobley, an electronic solo artist from Austin, took to the Radd stage armed with a keyboard, guitar, loop station and drum kit. He quickly got to work mixing trap rhythms with smooth vocals and 90s style pop synth. Mobley had the crowd bouncing within minutes, the strobe lights and viscous dance beat blending seamlessly with EDM and pop culture. His recent guitar-studded album, Young & Dying in the Occident Supreme, was released in February of this year.
Back over at the Music Elevates stage the crowd packed in for The Band Camino. The Indie rock band consisting of Jeffrey Jordan and Spencer Stewart on both vocals and guitar, supported by Garrison Burgess on drums and bass, is based out of Nashville, Tennessee. They opened up by playing the popular song “Hush Hush” and priming the audience for a mesmerizing show. As the sun set behind the stage, halos of golden light framed the musicians as they played and lit up the swaying fans. The joy was tangible when a sea of orange wrist bands lifted in dance, signifying a vaccination or negative test result, giving hope for the future of live music amid Covid restrictions.
Back at the River stage headliner AJR bounced out to the hit song “Bummerland” and punctuated the music with “if you’re racist don’t come to my show!” Deafening cheers and screams from the crowd followed as the energy skyrocketed. The pop brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan gained quick fame last year from their popular song “Bang!” and has since had radio hit after hit. The brothers connected with their audience immediately, joking and even borrowing a hat from one fan. Stage chemistry among the musicians was golden and they made sure to spotlight Arnetta Johnson (also known as “That Trumpet Chick”) during her impressive brass solos to wild whoops and applause. The sky lit up with lavender and sherbet clouds, making for a perfect finale as AJR closed off their set.
The long-anticipated Kesha performance wrapped up Saturday’s festivities at the Music Elevates Stage. Decked with a two-story inflatable psychedelic mushroom and a giant rainbow, the stage was set for a spectacular show. Always one for a dramatic entrance, Kesha revealed herself in a stunning black bodysuit dripping with sparkling, rhinestone chains and star-patched chaps. The fans screamed as she began singing “Cannibal” and sauntering around stage with a leash attached to her backup dancer, even throwing a literal glitter bomb at him in standard Kesha fashion. She spoke briefly about how grateful she was to be back performing and then dropped quickly into fan favorite “We Are Who We Are” as streamers exploded into the ecstatic crowd. Kesha’s radical support for equality and self-love and her natural friendship with her audience makes her a true artist with a seriously loyal fan base. Following along her setlist, she sang a recently released song live called “Raise Hell” followed by an older song, “It’s Going Down” among many others. It’s safe to say day one of Wonderbus was wild success and left concertgoers with the sweet afterglow that only live music, so missed this past year, can bring.
Day two of the Wonderbus Festival started with Pray For Sleep, a three-piece alt rock band who reminded me of my punk days in the early 2000s. These “local boys from Columbus” who played at Rock On the Range in 2018 were full of smiles as they jammed out on stage to their original song “Stars and Flowers” and Beartooth cover “Rock is Dead”. As the music slowed down on the Radd Stage, Noah Chenfeld started solo over across the lawn. His uplifting indie-rock was juxtaposed to the more metal sounds of Pray For Sleep, but drew a devoted crowd quickly. Noah’s melodic voice was joined by his brother Dylan on bass and friend Kobe on drums later in the set. The perfect soundtrack for early afternoon, the music felt to me like the Beach Boys met contemporary New York City, and this vibe fit perfectly as he wrapped up covering “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles. Later in the day, a rearrangement of these same players would take the stage as Rebounder with a more classic alternative sound. Later in his set, Dylan Chenfeld expertly covered “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John while the audience cheerfully sang along.
Peach Tree Rascals, the six-piece indie pop band from San Jose, filled the River Stage with three vocalists, a drummer, guitarist, and a keyboardist. Known for their dreamy California vibes, this band drew an exultant crowd and cultivated the perfect summer energy to really kick off the afternoon. Peach Tree Rascals also made it big recently with their song “Mariposa” which drew popularity on Tik Tok, giving the band opportunities to showcase their smooth vocals delightfully punctuated with catchy rap solos.
Directly following Peach Tree, but back on the Radd stage was young solo artist Jack Harris, a local Columbus collegiate. His romantic vocals paired with gentle guitar melodies gave me comfortable coffee bar vibes, which was reinforced as he bantered with the audience and spoke warmly of his fraternity brothers. Jack Harris slowed down at the end of his set by charming the crowd playing his acoustic original “Hurt Like Hell” with lyrics that felt like poetry.
As the heat and humidity reached its peak Sunday, Smallpools took to the stage opening with “Stumblin’ Home”. This indie pop band from Los Angeles, California specializes in music that (in my opinion) should be blared on road trips with the windows down. As the catchy “Passenger Side” began, I watched the crowd beam with joy and a unified cheer kickstarted an immediate dance party. The friendship between members Sean Scanlon, Mike Kamerman, and Beau Kuther is evident as they fed off each other’s energies, pumping the crowd up for a cover of “Creep” by Radiohead and more.
Doc Robinson hit the Radd Stage next with soul and bluegrass vibes. Harmonica and strolling guitar solos punctuated songs like “Cut Me Loose”, drawing large crowds to the stage. The rock and roll band fronted by Nick and Jon are from Columbus, Ohio and have proclaimed themselves “backyard BBQ breakup music” with an impressive collection of talented musicians. Following Doc Robinson was Absofacto, a solo project by Jonathon Visger out of Michigan. He started with a heavy electronic beat and added a mixture of rap and pop style vocals with help from his friend Mike on the loop station. Absofacto is best known for the song “Dissolve” made famous on Tik Tok, leaving the crowd with a visible music high at the end of his setlist.
The highly anticipated St. Paul and the Broken Bones took the Music Elevates Stage with a flourish. The American eight piece soul band hailing from Birmingham, Alabama had a full brass section consisting of a trumpet, saxophone and trombone as well as a keyboardist, guitarist, and curly-maned drummer. Lead vocalist Paul Janeway crooned out some of their most popular hits while donning a sequined cape and sparkly Nikes as he danced across the stage. His impressive vocal range made the audience swoon over and over. He was so immersed in the energy radiating from the crowd that he paused between lyrics to confirm “are you feeling this shit right now?” St. Paul and the Broken bones quite obviously has a large loyal following that swayed with the music, and I’m sure this set captivated many new fans.
Hembree, an indie rock band from Kansas City followed on the Radd stage with high vocals and a cool swagger. With one bassist, two guitarists, vocals, a keyboardist and the drummer, the band filled the stage, jamming like old friends. The crowd bopped to easy rhythms and catchy guitar riffs with the easy afternoon atmosphere. In direct opposition to the jam-band style, Bob Moses took to the River Stage. This electronic duo from New York mixed electronic trap beats laced with soft vocals making for “a little party in the park” that had the audience jumping in time with the futuristic Tom Howie and Jimmy Vallance.
The headliners truly started Sunday afternoon with the psychedelic soul group Black Pumas. Traveling all the way from Austin, Texas, the band led by Eric and Adrian immediately grasped their fans attention with songs that everyone seemed to know the lyrics to. The sun backlit the seven-piece band that fed off each other’s energy, showcasing their natural chemistry. Vocalist Eric jumped down into the crowd twice during the show, encouraging fans to sing with him and really creating a sense of community. At one point he said “let me show ‘em how it’s done”, ending all instrumentals and encouraging the audience to belt out the lyrics, filling every corner of the lawn with voices. Throughout the show, Eric acknowledged devoted fans with gratitude and spoke of “unity and peace.” Waves of happy energy swept the over us as each new song started, culminating in a harmonious version of “Favorite Colors” which nearly left the audience in tears. At the end of the setlist, Eric once again joined the lawn showing his fans just how much he truly loves them.
The very last band to grace the Radd Stage at Wonderbus this year was Valley, a Canadian indie pop group. The young band recently toured with yesterday’s The Band Camino and is fronted by pink-haired Rob Laska. They performed popular songs including “Like 1999” and “Sucks to See You Doing Better” and commented on how this was their first show in over a year and a half. Friendships on stage and in the crowd were evident as they swayed and sang along to attractive dance tunes.
Rounding up the music on the River Stage was Grouplove from Los Angeles, California. After a short delay due to rain and encouraging chants from the crowd, the indie rock band commanded attention as they paraded out. Hannah Hooper and Christian Zucconi took center stage with a striking but complimentary vocal blend. Hannah effortlessly pranced around the stage as she sang all while rocking a sparkly bodysuit studded with pink flowers. I was pleasantly surprised at just how animated every member of the band was, from the drummer who bounced in his seat to the guitarist that danced across the stage. Between swinging hips and dynamic arms, Hannah and Christian belted songs and spoke incredulously at the “565 days” they’d endured since their last performance. Seductive vocals paired with grungy guitar as crowdsurfers headed towards the stage and the audience clapped. At one point, during the song “Carolina” Christian threw his guitar nearly ten feet in the air and caught it before resuming the song. Hits like “Tongue-Tied”, also made popular from Tik Tok, swept fans up in uncontrollable elation while the new ballad of “This is This” brought sobering reverie to fans. Grouplove certainly knows how to put on a show and definitely left us wanting more.
Wilco took the final stage at last. The alternative rock band from Chicago has been together for nearly three decades, obviously drawing the largest crowd of the day. As Grouplove emptied, people filled in the few remaining spots left to catch cool rock tunes with just a touch of country. Jeff Tweedy, lead vocalist, opened the set with “A Shot in the Arm” while the band ramped up. Keyboardist Pat Sansone dynamically dragged his hand across the instrument as the light show dazzled the audience in full force. Pausing to take in the scene, Jeff greeted his fans with “Hey Columbus, good to see you” which brought cheers and celebration. The joy emanating from witnessing live music again was physical as the band played favorites like “Random Name Generator” and “In Your Dreams”. As Wilco seamlessly interwove guitar solos with smooth vocals and melodies that loop in your head for days, I reflected on just how pure the love of music is. Seeing the ease at which concerts and festivals can continue amid the pandemic relieved the anxiety and fear I’ve had that we may not get to experience music the same way again in our new world. As echoed many times throughout the weekend, we must not take this for granted any longer. We’re lucky to get the opportunity to enjoy artists doing what they love, and this appreciation creates a unique bond between us. The Wonderbus Festival in Columbus, Ohio certainly brought this to light, reminding me, and I’m sure many others, just how much music can truly unite us.