Looking back at Bunbury Music Festival

I spent last weekend at the Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati, taking in three days of rock, hip hop, Americana, country-Western and a few other genres.

It was an unbeatable experience. Let me tell you about it.

In its first year of ownership by Promowest, Bunbury was expertly curated, featuring many bands who are right on the cusp, such as Brand New, Shakey Graves, Atmosphere and Manchester Orchestra.

The riverfront park was packed Friday night with about 20,000 people, many of whom were probably there for the Black Keys, that night’s headliner. The temperature soared to 90, the humidity was brutal and lines for everything from water to food to porta potties were long. Past Bunburys averaged about half of that attendance per day.

Saturday’s headliner was the Avett Brothers, who must be seen live to be fully appreciated. Their set was a textured blend of resounding acoustic riffs and impassioned Americana-rock.

Snoop Dogg headlined Sunday night, capping off a day that included three other hip hop acts – a first for Bunbury.

While headliners are the big draw, the mid-undercard bands are where it’s at for me.

Friday night got started in earnest with a back-and-forth series of shows that kept the crowd migrating from one end of the downtown park to the other. Bleachers, the polished indie-pop side project started by fun.’s Jack Antonoff, gave way to festival favorites Matt and Kim.

That duo’s infectious stomp-pop songs, including “Hey Now” and “Get It,” were ramped up by their party-starting antics, with Kim Schifino dancing on her bass drum and getting the ladies to crowd surf.

Hometown heroes Walk the Moon one-upped them by turning their set into a victorious homecoming celebration. The bouncy pop-rock band from Cincy played a 75-minute set – their first in their hometown since they became a national name. Frenetic frontman Nicholas Petricca even got emotional at times, and later ventured down the narrow aisle that splits the crowd like the Red Sea.

Their final song, of course, was “Shut Up and Dance,” the breakaway radio hit. The irresistible Motown guitar riffs over a twanging bass were carefully preserved.

Another memorable moment in WTM’s set was a version of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” (with the recurring line “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”

Cool, merciful raindrops began to fall as their set waned, but they turned into 45-minute deluge that ruined my hopes of seeing Tame Impala, the psychedelic rockers from Australia.

I crossed one off my bucket list after the rain let up when the Black Keys went on. The Akron natives played like they invented stadium rock. But what was with the long silences between songs? A rare glitch came during their set when the video screens malfunctioned, probably because of the rain.

The hot and crowded conditions were no better Saturday (the fact that the festival grounds were reduced in size this year didn’t help).

But right at home in the heat were The Devil Makes Three, a blazingly fast, bluegrass-meets-punk trio (acoustic guitar, banjo, upright bass and occasional violin) with rapid, biting wordplay. Despite their down-home looks and sound, the band is from California, and not Carolina.

The fiddling was taken to a new level by Lindsey Stirling. She was refreshing, a spritely virtuoso who flitted about the stage like a space-age ballerina striking Tinkerbell poses, while dressed in a sexy silver suit. Stirling plays a dazzling violin over an electro-beat. While her songs had no lyrics, they did occasionally have choreographed dancers.

It was all very dramatic and visual, modern with a classical flair. But a little went a long way. Stirling was a quarter-finalist on “America’s Got Talent” in 2010, but now she seems like a PBS special waiting to happen.

The Decemberists were magnificently lush and literate. The unmistakable voice of Colin Meloy – firm and lonely like an old sailor telling of faraway lands – was embellished by an eight-member band that included backup singers and an occasional accordion.

While the Decemberists lived up to their hype, Kacey Musgraves was an unexpected delight. The country-Western singer from Texas might have seemed a tad out of place at first, but she turned out to be the calm in the eye of the hurricane.

Musgraves was dressed in full Western mode, with a blooming short skirt laced with rhinestones and dangling tassels, and sparkly cowgirl boots.

Her band wore the traditional Sunday suits of a Western swing band. Except they were purple. And oh yeah, there were neon cactuses on stage.

The line between irony and sincerity fluctuated by song, but the “Follow Your Arrow” singer is clearly having fun with it. She made a lot of new fans with her version of TLC’s “No Scrubs.”

Musgraves’ unflappable demeanor makes her so riveting. Her wry lyrics offer a bemused – if not world-weary – take on small-town life, double standards and human foibles.

Nashville greats Old Crow Medicine Show followed Musgraves with their lively blend of alt-country, folk-punk and bluegrass.

Sunday’s acts included the Front Bottoms, who are reviving the emo pop-punk formula, right down to the dual screaming vocalists. Typical of the genre, their cathartic roar is soured by whiny and overly-descriptive love-lorn lyrics, wimpy anger from the jilted.

My day was restored by the Motor City’s Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas.

The petite singer has a voice that is stunningly huge – full of Detroit swagger that often takes a slinky and sultry turn. Her band’s hip-shaking, big and brassy beat is the perfect vehicle for that voice.

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