The inaugural Bunbury Music Festival stretched across three days, six stages, and about 100 performances along the riverfront this past weekend. In all honesty, I was one of the skeptics that initially raised an eyebrow when the festival was first announced. It didn’t help that Bunbury shared the same dates as Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and Forecastle Festival in Louisville, nor the fact that Forecastle celebrated its 10th anniversary with big-name headliners Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and the Black Keys. And the memory of Desdemona still lingered, an indie music festival held at Sawyer Point in 2006 that toted an amazing lineup but was never to return again.
Still, I knew Bunbury was a major step in the right direction for Cincinnati’s music scene. Before Bunbury came along, we lacked a large-scale summer music festival to call our own. I wanted it to do well, but I was nervous – would Cincinnati support a fresh new music festival, especially on the same weekend as a Reds game, the World Choir Games, and two established music festivals in the region?
Fortunately, the answer was YES. According to festival founder Bill Donabedian, the festival anticipated 50,000-60,000 people, and actual attendance fell right at 55,000 – not bad for the festival’s first run. Though there was no official count of how many attendees were from out-of-town, I met more than a few people who were from outside the Tri-State area.
The festival brought about 100 acts to Sawyer Point, including headliners Jane’s Addiction, Weezer, and Death Cab For Cutie. Frankly, I wasn’t especially excited for any of the headliners; a few bands in the third and fourth tiers stood out as major highlights, including electropop weirdo Dan Deacon, who led the crowd in a series of dance contests and a dance tunnel. Austin-based Ume stole the evening with a wailing, shred-heavy rock set that reaffirmed my hope for rock and roll.
Guided by Voices played to a small but fiercely loyal crowd, going so far as to stab all 100 giant beach balls that Landor released during their set. Weezer and Death Cab for Cutie both attracted huge crowds. Weezer played just about everything I could have asked for, including hits from The Blue Album. Death Cab for Cutie played a somewhat lackluster show that was saved by its nostalgia factor.
Cincinnati’s own music community was well-represented by Pomegranates, Bad Veins, The Seedy Seeds, Lions Rampant, The Tillers, and The Sundresses, among others.
Of course, there are always kinks to work out in any festival. I would have liked to see the headliner share the last slot of the night. While I was glad I didn’t have to choose between Weezer and another band, I also couldn’t find a decent spot within 500 yards of the stage because nearly every single person at the festival was at the main stage for Weezer.
I heard several complaints that there should have been more bike racks (an obvious slip up if the festival claims itself as “eco-friendly”). The festival also boasted its tech-savvy, though the website seemed clunky and the festival’s mobile app didn’t appear to update the new set times after the rain delay. Additionally, the Techbury tent didn’t seem like it had much to offer other than a few start up booths and some interactive videos. Still, I appreciated the multiple charging stations and the tent made for a welcome retreat from the pouring rain on Saturday.
Regardless of Bunbury’s minor hiccups, I was blown away by the size, organization, and turnout of the festival. The festival pulled in 55,000 people in its first year, which is mighty impressive considering it shared dates with two other musical festivals that have been around since 2002 and 2005 respectively.
Bunbury haters will continue to balk over the lineup (there’s always Midpoint!), but I was impressed that the festival was able to draw a wide range of folks, from older fans of GBV and Jane’s Addiction to the younger fans who came out for Neon Trees. What truly put it into perspective for me was an interaction I had with a couple from Cincinnati. They were on their way to check out a band called The Seedy Seeds and asked if I had heard of them. I was shocked, because from inside my tiny social bubble, it hadn’t occurred to me that people at a music festival in Cincinnati could not know The Seedy Seeds. I realized the value of a festival like Bunbury, which was if anything, a platform for talented local musicians.
The festival also showcases two great assets of our city, Sawyer Point and the riverfront, while supporting several independent bands and local businesses. Bunbury was, by all accounts, a huge success and I look forward to seeing it grow next year.
-Live review by Caitlin Behle @cutelin