Getting Bunburied in Cincinnati, Ohio

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Skyline view of Cincinnati from the 600 block of Main Street.

Looking back on our recent trip to Cincinnati for the Bunbury music festival, there were as many low-lights as there were highlights. This is a festival in its third year, and the event’s new organizers, PromoWest, still have much to learn. Rookie mistakes include a security team that asks about weapons on your person instead of checking for them; too few water stations in an unforgivably hot and humid climate; poor sound quality at the smaller stages; and a “craft beer village” that served us Stella Artois–a brand owned by Anhueser-Busch, the world’s largest beer manufacturer and distributor.

My favorite oversight was the poor signage and lack of visible staff at the start of the festival. On Friday, my little group entered the only marked entrance a few hours after opening, and walked into a Kafkaesque scene in the parking lot. Without any direction, attendees had formed a web of lines TO NOWHERE, some of which snaked into the ends of other lines and moved nonsensically in circles. People were hot, people were missing beloved bands, people were hangry. Some people were stuck outside for an hour or more, while craftier festival goers walked straight through the gates with ease as the only two visible staff members stood near the entrance and did nothing to control the situation. This was an amazing social experiment. Thank you, Bunbury, for proving that society descends into chaos within minutes in a vacuum.

In truth, these are all fixable deficiencies and some were on the road to remedy by the third day while others will probably (most likely…hopefully) be worked out by next year. For a note of positivity, the beer lines were short, and we weren’t packed into the festival grounds like sardines. Re-entry was allowed so we could come and go as we pleased (a fact that probably improved the bathroom situation immensely), and Bunbury was very kid friendly. In fact, there wasn’t one tripping teen, scared and lost in a sea of acid, to be seen all three days–a marked difference from Outside Lands. Most notably, the crowd wasn’t clogged with fashion bloggers and wannabe chanteuses looking to commemorate their coolness with Internet. This is because Bunbury hasn’t jumped the shark like Coachella, Outside Lands, or SXSW: all of which are now places to see and be seen rather than places to see and hear music. People actually came to the banks of the Ohio River to be with friends in the presence of live music; what a concept.

The highest of highs, however, came from two bands I’ve seen on the west coast many-a-time. Father John Misty has been profiled on this blog before, and I don’t feel there’s much more to add. His pitch was perfect, his outfit on point, his set amazing and peppered with insights that skewered the absurdity of every band asking the audience “how y’all doing today?” as well as the weak explanation Bunbury gave for its choice of name. For the record, he renamed the festival Blimberskrimp. After all was said and done, he made two grown females swoon just by walking by them. I was one of those two females, the other was my lady compadre for the weekend. He passed us and we attempted to say words with our mouths but words that never came; then he was gone in the blink of a swoon. As soon as he was out of earshot, we released breathy, disbelieving screams and lost our minds just as it began to pour down rain with a southern fury. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that means Father John Misty conjured the rain. It was a monswoon.

As the skies opened up we stood in the rain like teenagers and watched Tame Impala play an epic set through the downpour. For a band that up until recently hadn’t seen any of its U.S. royalties, Tame Impala always plays an amazing show like none of that BS is happening to them. Listening to psychedelic Aussies while running losey-goosey in the rain with an equally stimulated crowd conjured thoughts of Woodstock in the best of ways. Especially for a Californian that had almost forgotten what it was like to see water come from the sky, this moment was seared deeper into my memory as each huge sweat-salty drop of water stung my eyes. I was blown away when they played the Fox Theater in Oakland a few years back, and blown away a second time here in Ohio not only for the quality of their performance but for their professionalism in finishing their set as thunder wailed, lightning flashed, and the rain incapacitated their keyboard. This is a great band; this was a great night.

Other than Friday, we didn’t spend much time at the festival because we’re jaded city folk who weren’t that impressed with the line-up, and the trip was more of an excuse to see old friends than an effort to see new music. I am 30 now and I wasn’t paid to cover Bunbury, both facts which de-incentivized fighting crowds to catch a glimpse of Snoop Dog or enduring the heat to hear a local band I can hear better on Bandcamp. Instead of trapping us by the river, however, Bunbury’s re-entry policy allowed me and my band of merry travelers to explore Cincinnati.

Did you hear that, American cities currently negotiating with festival promoters, and the festival promoters that try to rob us blind with over-priced food and drinks? By enabling ticket holders to come and go at their leisure they will spend more money within city limits, and be much happier, much less destructive people at the festival because the herd mentality has been usurped by the freedom of movement. We still bought plenty of food and beer at the festival, but we also frequented Cheapside Cafe, MOTR Pub, Park + Vine, Coffee Emporium, the Taft Museum of Art and Eden Park, among others. In addition, we Ubered everywhere–further injecting Cincinnati’s local economy with our out-of-state moneys. Freedom = Choice, Choice = Patronage, Patronage = Successful Small Businesses.

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Our band of merry travelers in Eden Park.

Bunbury is a quaint local festival that sent us home feeling unsullied and sun-kissed with a side of musical memories. Cincinnati is a cool town grappling with the same issues of suburban flight, urban blight, gentrification, and the on-coming flood of hipness as are so many other American cities in the 21st-century. But there is an element of midwest charm in Ohio that compels even the hippest bartenders and baristas to be awesomely polite and authentically engaged with me, the customer. I had almost forgotten this was possible, living as I do in San Francisco where rudeness is now worn as a badge of honor–a way to stratify class in Northern California into hierarchies of unhip, hip, hipper, and hippest. I’m sure Cincinnati’s growing pains are not over and that the city’s gentrification is not appreciated by all its residents, but, from an outsider’s perspective, it was encouraging to see murals restored and small businesses popping up amidst empty storefronts, while other businesses remained in place and looked untouched by time.

If you’re looking for a relaxing pace of life and an excuse to catch up with old music-loving friends, Cincinnati is the place and Bunbury is the festival for you. Will I personally return to Bunbury next year? Probably not, but Goonies never say die and this lady is most certainly for hire as a freelance music journalist. We’ll see where the year takes us, but until then…you take care, Ohio–perhaps I’ll see you again some day.

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Cover Lover: “Rolling in the Deep”

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Photo credit: Ryan Lerman (http://ryanlerman.com/album/pinstripes-the-sky)

Covers serve an important purpose for emerging and established artists. If done well, a good cover can help emerging artists hone their craft and enable them to reach listeners that would otherwise not have peeked from underneath the cover of the mainstream fold. Bob Dylan’s first ablum included only two original songs while the rest were his interpretation of traditional folk standards, and First Aid Kit, now a viable indie presence, parlayed their cover of Fleet Foxes’s “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” into a recording deal. For estalbished artists, covers allow them to cross genres and perhaps take a break from the tempestuous process of writing music without foregoing their lifeblood, both philosophically and in actuality ($$). The artist that immediately springs to mind here is Cat Power, whose release of her celebrated The Covers Record seems to have come at a time when she was going through some “Ish.”

The best part about a cover is the opportunity it presents for artists to transcribe their unique sound onto a track that was not originally their own, allowing them to find commonalities while highlighting their own viewpoint. In deciding what to synthesize out of and into a cover, artists tip their hats as to what they believe are their strengths. Similar to the way a person highlights their best physical feature with an outfit, an artist can show you where they want to go, what they want to be, and what their current best is–all in a cover song. This is why I am a Cover Lover.

On offer for you today is Ryan Lerman’s cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. Ryan Lerman is a Los Angeles singer-songwriter who has the look and the sound to be making waves on the “young Hollywood” scene. As a graduate of USC’s Thornton School of Music, a former session musician for the likes of Joshua Radin and A Fine Frenzy, and a recent tour companion of the inimitable John Legend, he also has the pedigree to prove his worth. I love that he chose to cover one of Adele’s most popular tracks on his 2012 album Pinstripes, The Sky for many reasonsTo delve into them all here would be to make this post an unreadable bore, but chief among my reasoning is the disparity between the vocal abilities of Lerman and Adele. One is not better than the other, they’re just different.

In another life, Adele may have been an opera diva shattering glassware and endearing herself to the upper crust with the power of her immeasurable gift. By contrast, the timbre of Lerman’s voice is soothing, it is ripe with the well-learned cadences of jazz, it whiffs of the refined yet blue collar. Due to these differences, Lerman was forced to reframe the song in his own likeness–seen in the guitar riffs that accompany the track’s opening seconds, and also when he vocally doubles back at 0:39 in the cover. However, he chose to leave the song’s distinct identity intact and in doing so builds a bridge between both artists as the ghost of Adele is unhidden and ever present. Since he doesn’t hide Adele in his version of her song (or rather, the song that was written for her by Paul Epworth), the listener is able to better appreciate Lerman’s presence within it. This is an artistically bold choice that paid off for him, and speaks well of his musical intuition. This is Ryan Lerman learning at his best.

At the beginning of this post you’ll find Lerman’s version of “Rolling in the Deep”, and I encourage you to compare it with Adele’s video of the same (found below). As an added bonus, I’ve thrown in a few more Lerman tracks from the same 2012 album: his cover of Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars”–perhaps one of my favorite artists/songs of all time–and another of his own composition, “Your Own Advice”. Enjoy!