Echo & the Bunnymen and The Flaming Lips, who played our region separately 30 years ago, go back-to-back this weekend at Bellwether fest

The Bunnymen played Miami U's campus at the peak of their popularity in '88; less than a year later, The Lips drowned the Southgate House's ballroom in fog, noise and lights on one of their first tours.

click to enlarge The Flaming Lips (top) and Echo and the Bunnymen today
The Flaming Lips (top) and Echo and the Bunnymen today
This weekend’s debut Bellwether Music Festival brings some of today’s hottest Alternative and Indie artists to Waynesville, Ohio, about 45 miles northeast of Cincinnati. Friday’s lineup is topped by contemporary favorites like Local Natives and MGMT, while Japanese Breakfast and Erika Wennerstrom are on the bill Saturday.

But also on Saturday, the event features a pair of bands whose influence on Modern Rock is large but sometimes overlooked.

I know this because of the impact Saturday’s headliners had on the development of my musical tastes. In the span of just over a year in the late ’80s, I saw for the first time the final two artists to take the Bellwether stage: Echo & the Bunnymen and The Flaming Lips.

Echo & the Bunnymen were already legends in the U.K. and in certain circles in the States — including among my weirdo teenage pals — when, in January 1988, they came to Millett Hall in Oxford, Ohio, where I’d just seen fellow “College Rock” group R.E.M. four months earlier. I’d recently fallen under the spell of the epic romantic swoon of albums like Ocean Rain and had worked my way back to earlier Post Punk classics like “The Cutter” thanks to the band’s 1985 Songs to Learn & Sing greatest hits LP. That album and the inclusion of its only new song, “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” in the 1986 film Pretty in Pink soundtrack (alongside The Psychedelic Furs, who perform just prior to E&TBM at Bellwether) set the stage for the Bunnymen’s biggest U.S. commercial success. The success of the group’s eponymous 1987 album and its single “Lips Like Sugar” enabled them to draw a fairly large crowd to the Miami University campus in 1988, where the band played a short but engaging show during which riveting frontman Ian McCulloch mused about the absence of sorority girls. The group fell apart shortly after, but I was already a fan for life.

"The Killing Moon" is one of the best songs of the entire 20th century.

The Bunnymen — anchored by McCulloch and guitar hero Will Sergeant — have been back together for nearly 20 years and still draw big crowds and critical acclaim for their subsequent new-era records.

Saturday’s Bellwether headliners The Flaming Lips played the first show I ever saw at the original Southgate House in Newport, Ky. According to sources online, it was Jan. 1, 1989, as the nascent Oklahoma group was fostering its reputation in underground music. The band was psychedelic and weird, but in a much different way than they are now. Though the Lips’ trippy orchestral arrangements wouldn’t arrive for another decade, the slanted Pop idiosyncrasies were evident, swirled among disorienting and engulfingly loud guitar noise. Even then, the Lips knew how to make an impression in concert, though back in 1989, they did it by filling the Southgate’s ballroom with thick, soupy fog that was punctuated by beams and flickers of impossibly bright white lights. Those blinding elements mixed with the internal-organs-shifting volume created an audio-sensory-overload experience quite different than the colorful, surrealistic one presented today — though still in the same P.T. Barnum-meets-Timothy Leary spirit.

One of the ’90s "Alternative music revolution"'s finest moments.

Thirty years later, Echo & the Bunnymen and The Flaming Lips aren’t big on the touring circuit solely due to nostalgia — they’re both

click to enlarge Echo and the Bunnymen and The Flaming Lips in the ’80s
Echo and the Bunnymen and The Flaming Lips in the ’80s
still incredible live performers who’ve remained relevant by continuing to make new music that isn’t simply retreading their past reputations.

Collectively, their discographies remain cornerstones of my listening habits due to both the emotional resonance of each act's best music, as well as the boundaries each one tested, exploded and expanded within their music. Both the Bunnymen and Lips began life as artists creatively toying with the concepts presented in Post Punk, but taking an orchestral-minded approach to Pop songwriting (see: Ocean Rain and The Soft Bulletin) is what makes each group's music immortal.

For complete Bellwether Music Festival info — including tickets, schedules, camping and parking details and much more — click here.

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