A perfect day, hot enough but not so hot as to suggest the idea that the ghosts of dead ants broiled by sadistic children with magnifying glasses were somehow exacting their revenge from beyond the veil of ant Valhalla. Why, yes, the '70s were good to me. Why do you ask?
At any rate, the potential for another spectacular launch to Bunbury's first day was palpable as ID was proffered, the laminate was provided and the wristband was snapped into position. The game is afoot (or as my wife's podiatrist might counter, the foot is a game … but I digress. Why, yes the ’70s were good to me. Why do you ask?) and another spectacular Bunbury awaits.
The beginning of the day was essentially a sampler platter of roaming about and checking out a few songs from a variety of sources. I started off down at the Amphitheater Stage to check out The Upset Victory, who had drawn a pretty sizable crowd for their muscular U2-tinged brand of melodically gritty Roots/Punk. Then it was down to the Warsteiner Stage for a more lengthy taste of Snowmine, who return to the '80s/'90s with a 21st century vengeance, mining a thick vein of Depeche Mode, along with a '90s aggressive Ambient quality and a quietly powerful modern edge. Then it was down to the Main Stage for a quick shot of X Ambassadors, who blend big tribal drumming with a Punk-fueled Pop core, a little like Imagine Dragons with a few hundred thousand volts pumped directly into their hearts. Finally it was back to the Amphitheater for a few songs from the soon-to-be-large Let It Happen, who were delivering their Green Day-esque anthemics in the blistering mid-afternoon glare of the unfiltered sun.
Then it was time to hit the Lawn Stage for the triumphant return of 500 Miles to Memphis. Frontman Ryan Malott has streamlined the band down to a potent quintet (guitarist Aaron Whalen, bassist Noah Sugarman, drummer-of-the-gods Kevin Hogle and the lap-steel-and-all-round-magnificence of David Rhodes Brown) and turned up the juice to emphasize the Roots/Rock thunder and downplay the Country lightning. There's still plenty of twang in their thang, but the sizzle and the sound is turned up to 11 in the slimmer, trimmer 500MTM. The band was clearly itching to tear shit up; they've been hard at work for the last couple of years or more assembling their new album, the imminent Stand There and Bleed (the title is a Tombstone reference; if you know the movie, you know the exact scene, and if you don't, shame on you for missing the greatest Western depiction of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday ever, so go fix that before another hour goes by).
Malott and the 500 blew through a set that was stacked with great new material (particularly "Bethel," a tribute to Malott's hometown), but they didn't forget to give the master his due, pulling DRB up from his lap steel duties to haul out yet another chilling spin on Trent Reznor's "Hurt"; if the hair doesn't stand up on your neck when the Colonel's baritone rumbles out, "You can have it all, my empire of dirt," you've got one of those weird, hairless necks. 500 Miles to Memphis has been well out of the public eye for the last year as they concentrated on life pursuits and sporadic turns in the studio to finesse Stand There and Bleed, so there was an urgency to get their fresh live set across as a clarion call to let everyone know they're back. Are they ever.
After a quick stop to water my horse (namely, me), it was a fast walk over to the Acoustic Stage for an hour of blissful Roots/Folk brilliance from Aaron Lee Tasjan, whose sideman work with Todd Snider, the New York Dolls, Drivin' N' Cryin' and Tim Easton has earned him a reputation as one of Americana's most reliably astonishing guitarists. But it's his solo persona that is becoming even more fully realized, as his sterling EP releases — 2011's August Moon, 2012's The Thinking Man's Filth and the just released Crooked River Burning — have shown Tasjan to be a songwriter of depth and beauty will beyond his calendar age. Listen to any given ALT song and you'll hear hints of Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Will Kimbrough, Rodney Crowell and Ryan Adams in his delivery.
In Tasjan's Folk world, there is no bellybutton introspection set to a strummed acoustic guitar; he'll peel off a solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix after telling a story about seeing Ted Nugent shoot flaming arrows into cardboard effigies of his enemies list worthy of Arlo Guthrie. There aren't many singer/songwriters (read that: any) who are writing tributes to the late, great Judee Sill, and fewer still who make incisive observations like "You can't play Beatles music with bullshit hair." Deals don't get any realer than Aaron Lee Tasjan, and you all need to make him a star at your earliest convenience. Go. I'll wait.
After ALT's hour of power, it was back to the Amphitheater for the transcendent magnificence of Lydia Loveless. She may have grown up in the hillbilly hinterlands of Coshocton, Ohio, but she is a city girl with enough Rock sass to satisfy any Indie hipster and enough twang to hold the interest of any Americana aficionado. In a set laced with electric greatness, primarily drawn from her latest album, Somewhere Else, Loveless and her brilliant band finished with an absolutely scorching take on "Boy Crazy," the title track from her 2013 EP. The song reached a fever pitch when guitarist Todd May, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth with noir-detective-meets-Bun-E.-Carlos nonchalance, sat on his feet in front of his amp at the back of the stage, coaxing an exquisite din of feedback from his guitar, while bassist/husband Ben Lamb concocted similarly haunted sounds by running his bass down Nick German's drum kit and Loveless herself fell onto her back on the stage and cranked out sheets of heart-stopping guitar madness. It was an extraordinary end to a truly amazing and all too brief set.
Exactly what is it about the Black Owls that resonates so completely with me? First, they effortlessly tap into that primal part of my brain that was developing during my teenage years when I was soaking up insane amounts of T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and the Stooges. Next, they punch forcefully into the neighboring brain cells, the ones that house the memories of discovering Television, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Talking Heads, New York Dolls and Be Bop Deluxe. And it's not that they sound like any of those bands (although occasionally they do), it's that they remind me of that beautiful, mysterious time in my life when there was still music to be revealed, and the visceral thrill that accompanied every new discovery. That is what it is about the Black Owls. They once again made that abundantly clear at the Lawn Stage when they tore through old favorites ("Wild Children," "Julias Morningstar," "Sometimes I Wish You Were a Ghost"), brand new classics in waiting ("Gasoline" and "Rook") and an absolutely hair-raising spin through Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire."
It was the standard Black Owls greatness, which is to say the quintet, as usual, presented their most familiar elements in new and unexpected ways so that even a grizzled old veteran Owls watcher such as myself was knocked back a pace and surprised by it all. Black Owls make me long for the days when bands put out two albums a year for not other reason than they could. Bassist Kip Roe continues to weave himself into the fabric of the Owls' sound and, as frontman David Butler pointed out, guitarist Brandon Losacker is proving to be a perfect songwriting foil for Butler and co-founding guitarist Ed Shuttleworth. The Black Owls seem to be entering a period of gritty reassessment, where dirty Glam riffs and anthemic chord structures are dominating the proceedings. Yes, please, and quite a bit more, if it's quite all right. And even if it's not.
Before I review the psychodots' Bunbury debut, perhaps a history lesson is in order. A good many years ago, music mogul and purported industry genius Clive Davis sauntered into Cincinnati with the stated goal of checking out The Raisins and perhaps offering them a lucrative and much-deserved contract. When Davis departed from our fair city without signing The Raisins, he explained the lack of a deal thusly: "They're an embarrassment of riches."
Please allow me to read between the lines and translate that five word headscratcher into layman's terms. What Mr. Davis was so obtusely attempting to convey was this: "The Raisins are a stellar band and I don't have the slightest idea how to market them without making them as smooth and textureless as Gerber's babyshit and as lame as a beggar in the Bible, essentially stripping them of the elements that make them unique, and if you think I'm going to dismantle and destroy this band or permanently stain my sparklingly legendary resume with the ugly reality that I was unable to sell the music of a gifted band to a quality-starved public simply because I didn't understand the complexities of either one, you've got several unpleasantly aromatic things coming in a flaming bag on your front porch."
Of course, The Raisins famously broke up, reassembling as the Bears with guitarist Adrian Belew and refashioning as psychodots without Belew. So in a very tangible sense, we owe the existence of psychodots to Clive Davis' short-sighted inability to recognize their root band's brilliance. I was devastated that The Raisins didn't make it and, after the 'dots' loosely tight/tightly loose set at Bunbury, I am relieved beyond measure The Raisins didn't make it. Success would have come at a great and terrible cost, and we would not have enjoyed 20+ sporadically splendid years of psychodots Power Pop bliss.
There may have only been 100 or so bodies at the Amphitheater Stage to witness psychodots' fabulousness (Fitz and the Tantrums were sucking up bodies like a UFO set to "harvest," and rightly so) but the 'dots never give less than 89%, and they were in full charge mode on Friday afternoon. There was Rob Fetters' squiggly guitar magnificence (I'd put him up against any guitarist in the history of Rock, and he'd be only mildly uncomfortable at being up against any of them), Bob Nyswonger's bass conjuring, using his instrument to evoke lead guitar and keyboard mayhem (and by instrument, I'm still talking about his bass) and Chris Arduser's master class in How to Drum with Power and Grace and Still Maintain a Smartass Attitude.
It was a delightfully eclectic set, with a number of old favorites ("Master of Disaster," "Living in a Lincoln," complete with Fetters' mom-inspired balloon-on-the-strings gimmick), a few quasi-oddities ("Candy," the rarely performed "The Problem Song") and a handful of non-'dots nuggets ("She Might Try" from Arduser's exquisite The Celebrity Motorcade, The Bears' "Veneer" from their last album Eureka, "Play Your Guitar" from Fetters' patently perfect new solo album, Saint Ain't, The Raisins' fist-pumping "Fear is Never Boring") and the band's always entertaining banter (Fetters apropos of everything: "Is anyone tripping?"; Bob Nyswonger after Arduser's observation that the evening was balmy: "Balmy," stretched langorously into two words). It was, in a number of words, a standard psychodots show, which means one of the best shows you'll ever see, local or otherwise. Long may they reign.
After the breathless 'dots set, I was torn between the Heartless Bastards' triumphant return to the area or the unlikely but much welcomed reunion of Veruca Salt's original lineup. With more than a couple of Bastards sets under my belt and the prospect of many more to come, I opted for Veruca Salt because, even if the reunion sticks, the possibility of the band's return to Cincinnati seems remote. The foursome did not disappoint, hauling out blistering favorites from their slim catalog in this iteration and reinforcing why we've loved their Glam/Pop brilliance for so very long. Whatever caused the rift between co-fronts Louise Post (who has kept Veruca Salt going in some form or other for the past 21 years) and Nina Gordon (who departed for a solo career in 1998), there was no evidence of any residual friction as the quartet blew like a hurricane through "Volcano Girls," "Straight" and their signature brain-boiler "Seether." The band even teased a couple of songs – including "It's Holy" from this year's Record Store Day single — from what was described as "their upcoming thing;" that thing cannot come soon enough. As final proof of Veruca Salt's newly minted reunion, Post and Gordon kissed at center stage amid a beautiful howl of squalling feedback. As the lights came up, the '90s called, they want their awesome back; they can blow it out their ass, because Veruca Salt is hanging onto it with all eight arms.
For the evening's closer, Empire of the Sun, the Main Stage was nearly as packed with bodies and gear as the field in front of it. The band's epic stage show, which has been described as Cirque Du Soleiel without the airshow, requires a lot of moving parts, and the Bunbury crowd arrived in significant numbers to witness the Rock/Synth Pop/Electronic spectacle. Empire of the Sun's primary sparkplugs, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore, and a veritable army of players and dancers offered up a wall of Prince-like Glam/Pop guitar and a danceable solution of Depeche Mode Synth Pop menace, all updated to a millennial frenzy of Muse/Daft Punk proportions. But rather than non-descript and identity shielding space/BMX helmets, EOTS prefers elaborate tribal headdresses that look like giant pre-immolation phoenixes atop the principals' heads. At one point, the dancers were all playing fake neon guitars in a 21st century version of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video. All of this plays out in front of a constantly shifting projection of disparate and arty images and screen saver light squiggles combined with a choreographed and dazzling light show that is both compelling and distracting. That dichotomy within the Empire of the Sun presentation matches the broad spectrum of reactions to the band's Cincinnati debut (and one of only a handful of American dates); the majority of the crowd was fully engaged in the band's expansive Vistavision sprawl, while a few canvased friends offered up opinions that ranged from "That was as exciting as watching glitter paint dry," to "Meh, it's okay," to "I totally love this." Editorial critique aside, Empire of the Sun was every bit as epic as advertised, and everyone who looks for spectacle in their Dancetronic music mix got more than their money's worth with Friday night's Bunbury closer.
• I started the day with a deliciously smokey pulled pork sandwich from the geniuses at Eli's, a bun so overstuffed with barbeque goodness that it's actually a pulled pork sandwich with a side of pulled pork. It's as close to a religious experience as I've ever had outside of a church (where I have oddly never had a religious experience … go figure) or a music venue (where I've had plenty; I'm looking at you, Iggy Pop). Washed down with a Fathead beer, it was the perfect start to the third charmed Bunbury.
• At the Snowmine show, I ran into "Hey-look-everybody-it's" Stu, from Paul Roberts' Three-Amigos crew. Stu reported that Paul and maybe Big Jim would be along shortly. And, in fact, they were.
• On the way from X Ambassadors to the Amphitheater/Lawn Stage area, I ran into Eddy Mullet and his daughter Jess. Eddy is the volunteer host of the Friday night 6:00-8:00 pm shift at Class X Radio, where I have surreptitiously installed myself as his quasi-co-host; I do the weekly CityBeat Report, a rundown of weekend music events, and a segment I concocted called the Gang of Four Set, four songs that are connected by a theme of my own twisted design. Eddy is also the longstanding host of Kindred Sanction, the area’s longest-running local music program that was founded by Cynthia Dye Wimmer a fair number of years ago at WAIF. Cynthia brought the show to Class X six years ago, Eddy sat in occasionally as co-host and Cynthia backed out of the show to attend to her life. Eddy's passion for and knowledge of the local music scene is legendary, and anyone who has ever dealt with him knows him as a straight up guy and maybe one of the best boosters that local music has ever seen. Class X management has seen fit to cut the show's hours and alter the format, all of which is wrong-headed and counterproductive, but all that really matters to Eddy is spreading the gospel of greater Cincinnati's music scene. And Jess is turning into a Rock chick of the first order (not like that, you gutter-minded dimbulbs). Under Eddy's tutelage, she's becoming a pretty fair aficionado of local music herself; smart, funny and fearless, she will be a force to be reckoned with in some near future. At any rate, if you see Eddy wandering around, shake his hand and thank him for his long-suffering and often unappreciated work on behalf of local music.
• Eddy and Jess and I hit a run of shows together, including the ever amazing 500 Miles to Memphis, the astonishing Aaron Lee Tasjan (who Eddy hipped me to through his love of Drivin' n' Cryin'), the gear-stripping Lydia Loveless and the transcendent Black Owls. Eddy and I could talk music for days on end, which we do at every given opportunity. Eddy also introduced me to Aaron, who he'd met after a Drivin' n' Cryin' show; that kid is going places, if Eddy and I have anything to say about it.
• Finally ran into Paul and Big Jim at the Aaron Lee Tasjan set, with "Hey-everybody-it's" Stu in tow. These three are also a great bunch of music lovers and supporters, local and otherwise, with weird, esoteric tastes. In other words, my people. I love running into them, and swapping stories and having Paul buy me beers, which he most generously did during the psychodots' set.
• Also briefly caught up with the ever-stellar Kip Roe, freshly installed bassist for the Black Owls and a prince among men. His boys, Kip Jr. and Ben, were there to witness the Owls' casual brilliance (anchored by their dad's bedrock solid basslines), but post-show were anxious to head down to the Main Stage to witness the Soul/Pop frenzy of Fitz and the Tantrums. Kip and the boys won't be spending Saturday doing any Bunbury adventuring, as they're headed to a Modest Mouse show in Columbus (a bucket list event, as Kip described it), but they will be back for the Flaming Lips on Sunday. Kip's boys are huge Flaming Lips fans. God, I love Rock & Roll families.
• And speaking of such, my other favorite component of Black Owls shows is the chance to catch up with the Owl wives, Amy Butler, Carrie Losacker and Sarah Kitzmiller (and let's not forget Ed's girlfriend, whose name, like so many other things, slips my addled brain. Why, yes, I did enjoy the '70s. Why do you ask?). We were trying to come up with a name for their defacto support group; I propose the Owlettes, and given Friday's heat and humidity, the Moist Owlettes probably was more apt. At any rate, they are wonderful people to interact with, and I look forward to their company every bit as much as the Owls' soul-stirring, flashback-triggering presentations.
• And on that subject, Ed, his girlfriend and her daughter (again, names … I remember knowing them in some distant past; maybe if they had hats with their names on them. That's how Stu solved his dilemma …) caught up with me while I scarfing down a couple of cheese coneys before leaving Friday night and offered a heartfelt Rock & Roll tale. Ed's girlfriend's daughter (note to self: this would be better with names) is a huge fan of Walk the Moon and as fate would have it, frontman Nick Petricca happened to be in town and was catching the Empire of the Sun show. Ed's girlfriend's daughter spotted Nick, professed her undying love for Walk the Moon, they chatted for a bit and she got her picture taken with him. Nick is clearly one of the good guys and his very open and engaging response to a fan's sincere outpouring of love and support is one of the reasons for the band's incredible success. And, as I noted to Ed's girlfriend's daughter, "It's always nice when you meet your heroes and they're not dicks." Thus should it ever be.
• The only thing that could have made the night complete after that uplifting moment would be a quick run-in with Jacob Heintz, former Buckra guitarist and Rock volunteer of the gods, as his constant presence at MidPoint and now Bunbury will attest. Another one of the truly great people that define the Cincinnati music scene as one of best in the known universe. I am physically fading and spiritually soaring. It's a good feeling for the end of the first day of another fantastic Bunbury.