Bellwether Music Festival 2019 – A Renaissance of Ohio Music Festivals
Words: Paige Vandiver
Photos: Lindsay Jordan
With an enchanting venue located on some of the 30-acre grounds of the Ohio Renaissance Festival – a recreated sixteenth-century English village – Bellwether Music Festival really got it right in their second year, boasting a unique festival experience with a solid line-up, multiple stages, Rock-n-Roll jousting (yep, with actual horses), a late-night silent disco, and plenty of spiked seltzer drinks for everyone obsessed with that Zima + Jolly Rancher taste in a can. I’m guilty of being basic, so I drank them all weekend.
A castle with the big Bellwether Music banner draped in front of the gatehouse towers greeted us as my festie bestie, Lindsay, and I made our way to our designated campsite. It was clear that they expected a crowd since the camping sites were pre-marked for just enough space for our RAV4, a couple of 2-person tents and our trusty camp table. It was plenty of space, but we were definitely within arm’s reach of our neighbors. We set up camp, cursed ourselves for not buying an E-Z Up to give us a little shade, fixed a beverage, went over our game plan, and made our way to the clean, auto-flush privies (Renaissance speak for toilets) with wooden doors before heading into the winsome festival grounds. Huzzah! This was going to be a great weekend.
While the NYC rock band We Are Scientists was getting all the rascals riled up at the Shipwreck Stage, we took note of all the water stations, food and alcohol vendors, activities, and cute shops selling their wares. We headed toward the main stage to see Cold War Kids’ Nathan Willet playing the hell out of a tambourine underneath the sun-sparkle of the massive disco ball hanging from the beams of the Sunset Stage. The crowd seemed to feed off the energy of Matt Maust, their exceptionally animated bassist, and their beast of a keyboard player, Matthew Schwartz, who uses his Flash-like superpowers to rapidly switch to percussion or guitar on a dime. While Nathan was was gloating that “Everyone knows this song!”, the crowd began shouting as the guitar riff for “Hang Me Out to Dry” wafted across the festival village.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see some of your rock n’ roll heroes like Freddy Mercury, Billy Gibbons, Elton John or Gene Simmons ride into an arena on horseback with their theme songs blaring in the background to compete against each other in a full-contact WWE-style jousting match?! Me neither. And I’m not sure at what other music festival you might have the chance. It was just outlandish, quirky, and athletic enough to be fun, and since it was a tournament, it kept the crowd coming back to see which of their favorite rock stars won each match to continue on to the next one.
After checking out some Real Estate on the Shipwreck Stage, we headed over to the Acoustic Stage as the sun was setting to see one of my favorite finds of the festival, Katie Pruitt. Her voice and her songwriting are so gritty, beautiful and honest. As she sang her song “My Mind’s A Ship That’s Going Down”, I thought that her trio had such a way of engaging the crowd, filling up a space much larger than they took up, and making you feel like you just wanted to sit down and talk to Katie for hours about everything – because she just gets you.
While we wait in the photographer’s pit listening to Rocky-runs-up-the-steps-style music that made the security guy do warm-up stretches, the audience begins to chant, “Cake!, Cake!, Cake!, Cake!” and we knew Vince DiFiore’s trumpet wouldn’t be far behind. They played all their hits and John McCrea was just as quick to comment about our current political climate as he was to strike his vibraslap. You can’t be this band without a few cheesy lines (one of the reasons I adore them), like my favorite of the night: “We are Cake and we are here to serve YOU!” I must admit that I was guilty of waiting for the band to play that one song I wanted to hear, and I was stoked that they saved it for the last song of their encore. Cake always goes “The Distance.”
One of the coolest activities of the weekend was the late-night silent disco with Firecat 451. Situated right inside the gatehouse entrance at Campers’ Village, with the concrete dance floor in front of what I understood to be a light-up Burning Man installation that looked like a dragon made out of glowing triangles. Lindsay and I gave up our driver’s license to get a pair of headphones with 3 different channels, each with a different color that glows on the headset so everyone on the dance floor can tell if you are listening to the house music or drum and bass channel. There was a DJ wearing matching headphones situated on top of the dragon, and if you were boasting the same color as the DJ, then you could hear him pumping everyone up. If you took off your head phones, you just saw a crowd of people dancing at different tempos, heard feet crunching on the gravel and folks simultaneously putting their hands up and yelling, “WOOOOOOO!”
Pro Tip: If you want to hit up the silent disco, get there at least 5 minutes before it starts and get in line to get headphones because they run out fast!
We had a decent night’s sleep in our tents, woke up and drank a few cups of coffee that I made using my trusty Jet Boil and handheld coffee press, and made up our minds that we were most definitely going swimming – especially since the music didn’t start until 2pm. We had spotty internet, so we decided to just pull up a map and head to the large Caesar Creek Lake nearby on the map. Since we didn’t have an address, we drove to several deceptively labeled little swimming person icons on the nature center map before finding the main swimming beach (located at 8570 OH-73) and we had a nice picnic on the beach and floated around in the lake for a while before heading back to see Souther at the acoustic stage.
After having seen Souther on several occasions this summer, it was no surprise that they were going to set that acoustic stage on fire with Carlie’s sonorous, crystalline vocals and fierce guitar, Jack’s intelligent drumming and Alex’s propulsive bass. With Black Moth Super Rainbow as our background music, we had a chance to catch up with Souther after their set where Carlie explained that Bellwether Festival had been a nice change of pace from the late-night bar gigs they had been playing recently. They’re currently recording an album and are looking forward to playing Brewdog’s Annual General Mayhem Festival on August 24th in Canal Winchester, Ohio with a pretty sweet lineup including Caamp, Manchester Orchestra, and Diet Cig.
We caught most of Cincinnati’s indie dream pop band, Multimagic, playing a charming set on the Shipwreck Stage before heading over to the Sunset Stage to see an energetic and out-of-this-world set by one of Lindsay’s favorites – STRFKR. I’m not sure how the humans in the astronaut outfits were breathing in those suits in the heat, but they were dancing all over the stage and crowd-surfing to a mass of enraptured festival junkies. They were great.
My very favorite find of a festival was Sego. I was blown away by their stage presence and their no-frills attitude. With their sometimes atmosphere, but mostly indie-pop rock Beck-style vibe, they really have something special and I can’t wait to dive more into their catalog.
Robert Pollard came out swingin’ a tambo, yelling “Y’all wanna hear some awesome songs?!” Guided by Voices has been around for a long time and the crowd was loving all of Robert’s effervescence with his yoga tree poses and swinging microphone. The guy deserves to be charmingly full of himself, and it was a blast to watch fans, both old and young, banging their head in the front row.
My favorite vendor of the weekend was a cool unisex clothing tent called Color of Heat. They are based in Athens, Georgia and their clothes are handmade in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They partner with the non-profit, ThaiVillage, to create sustainable jobs for those in need. Lindsay and I each picked out a pair of super-comfy (but cute AF) shorts that I’ve been hesitant to take off ever since. After we bought them, we started noticing that everyone was wearing a pair, which I took to be a great sign that we’d made the right purchase.
Everything went black on the Sunset Stage, and the brilliant moon lit up the sky as Beach House took the stage for the last headlining show of the festival. Victoria Legrand was as dreamy as their songs with her shimmering silver suit and buoyant vocals. They were a serene way to end the main festival before grabbing whatever glo-toys were available (I was sad I got there too late to pick up some luminescent poi balls, but I borrowed some from a nice raver at the silent disco) and heading to STRFKR’s DJ set at the Shipwreck Stage. We danced with a spirited crowd before getting in line early for the silent disco. What a weekend.
Yea, Bellwether Music Festival was a fantastic time and I would definitely put this one on thou radar for next year.