Music festivals are a strange beast. Especially when they’re such a personal endeavor like the Is For Lovers series. For the band Hawthorne Heights, being Ohio natives as well as a band that has been around for a long time, they’ve made a lot of friends, experienced so much in various iterations, and since taking their career into their own hands some time ago, have not only built on their initial popularity but gone on to foster an actual ecosystem dedicated to preserving what the last couple decades have created for them and so many others.
Dayton’s Hawthorne Heights have been at it for a while now, over 20 years, making them one of the longer running outfits to break out during the early aughts onslaught of emo meets screamo meets pop culture. That was a very particular time in independent music, and I’m still not sure we’ve fully reckoned what kind of sea change this actually brought to the music industry and to music fandom. Saturday’s Ohio Is For Lovers Fest was an interesting reminder - and an odd juxtaposition of time capsule-esque nostalgia and future forward musicality - that felt, at least to this fan, like this weird, big little scene has come a long way but isn’t quite sure where it actually wants to go.
The challenge with any festival for those attending is planning your day (or days) around the bands that you really want to see, or would *like* to see, or wouldn’t mind seeing if the schedule makes sense. On the whole, this year’s lineup for Ohio Is For Lovers was markedly different from last year’s - somehow both expanded and contracted - with a vibe that was also, at least to me, somewhat difficult to pin down. With artists ranging from hard to categorize acts like kennyHoopla to well known entities like Underoath, Alkaline Trio, and Jimmy Eat World, the lineup managed to bridge some interesting gaps without really shining a light on any one facet of the scene. Your mileage may vary in situations like that.
That being said, this was a well curated event as far as the bands on offer - it’s hard to knock a lineup that brings together so many bands I’ve not seen in maybe a decade or more (Saosin, Alkaline Trio, and The Starting Line) with bands I’ve not seen ever (Jimmy Eat World, Spitalfield, and Relient K), bands I don’t think I would have ever checked out otherwise (Nox Novacula), and bands I’ve seen too many times to count (Underoath).
Alkaline Trio sounded great and looked like they were having a pretty good time. I wasn’t anticipating hearing “Cringe,” “Clavicle,” or “Radio” live, like ever again, so that was super rad.
Anthony Green performing with Saosin was another surprise - I had planned on watching Saosin regardless since it’s been literally 20 years since I caught them on one of their early tours with Story of the Year - but when Anthony Green walked out, that was truly wild. It was a well kept secret (as far as I’m aware) which I enjoyed, as well.
Underoath ripped as usual. They’re still one of the most consistently great live bands playing right now, and it’s legitimately always a treat to watch them do what they do.
Life In Idle, Lost Henry, Nox Novacula, Slutbomb, Knavery, Proper., and kennyHoopla all had great sets, though because of set times and stage setup, it was hard to catch all of them all the way through. What can one do?
Reliant K was super fun live - and the one band my wife was wanting to see, so that was cool to experience with her.
It had been a long time since I’d seen The Starting Line, so it was great to see/hear them sounding so great. Kudos for digging deep and bringing out the early hits with so much energy.
One of my favorite aspects of this particular festival is that while it’s curated by and considered to be “their” festival, Hawthorne Heights knows what they’re about, what their reach is, and respect all the other bands enough to play pretty much dead center in the lineup versus taking a headlining spot. So, for what it’s worth, much respect and admiration for doing so much work to put this thing together then knowing when to step back and let it be its own thing. Also, great set (and I got to hug Poppy, who I hadn’t seen in years, and that was lovely).
Jimmy Eat World was really damn good live. That was my first time catching them, and it was a particularly high note to end the day on.
It was fun to walk around the venue and run into various people I know from my years in Cincy. Good vibes, good times.
So, a quick digression: This being the second emo/screamo/rock festival I’ve attended in 2023, my thought that it’s actually quite bad to backload the lineup with bigger bands while front loading with smaller locals was even more firmly cemented. I get that it’s a lot to ask a more well-established, popular, or otherwise headlining-sized band to take one for the team and start things off, but I’m more and more convinced that if we want to see this kind of show survive, we have to actively foster it by not just placing smaller and/or local bands on tours to open, or at festivals to kick things off. Bands like Dayton’s Life In Idle and Knavery, Cincy’s Lost Henry, and Cincy/NKY’s Slutbomb deserved a little better than where they ended up, because they deserve more eyes and ears on what they’re doing. This isn’t meant as a slight to the fest itself, or the organizers specifically. I get that this is just how things have always been done. But, for this next generation of bands to be responsible stewards, and for these bigger, more established bands to be responsible shepherds, it’s time to rethink how we’re setting these things up.
I hope to see this festival return next year - with a few tweaks, maybe one less stage or 3-4 fewer bands to offer some breathing room, I think this could better establish itself as a worthwhile and valuable annual gathering. For it only being its second year, growing pains are inevitable, but hot damn, there were some genuinely great bands that made Ohio Is For Lovers 2023 a hell of a fun day and something I’m looking forward to seeing grow and evolve should it continue.
Also, kudos to the staff and everyone on the ground as part of the festival itself and at Riverbend for what looked like pretty flawless execution.