By: Zak Kolesar
Ground Control to Bellwether
David Bowie’s 1969 masterpiece “Space Oddity” was the prelude to the launch of the Apollo 11, the rocket that carried the mission that would go on to be perhaps the United States’ greatest space conquest: the first nation to step on that cheese-looking orb in the sky.
The scene was somewhat similarly set with another otherworldly premise on the night of Saturday, Aug. 11 on the grounds of the Ohio Renaissance Festival in Waynesville, Ohio, where the inaugural Bellwether Music Festival took place on Aug. 10 and 11. However, in lieu of a spaceship there was a plastic bubble, in which extravagant Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne became a part of and triumphantly crossed over the crowd during the Lips’ cover of the Bowie classic. Throughout the entirety of The Flaming Lips’ headlining act, other dimensions of music were explored, successfully marking the conclusion of the launch of Ohio’s most potential-packed music festival.
Despite MGMT Cancellation, Bellwether Still A Major Success
Building the infrastructure for any first-year event is a task that many want to take on but can’t. There’re lots of moving parts: what vendors will be there, how to afford enough big-name acts to attract a crowd and how the fans will act to the environment are just a few of the deciding factors that keep people pre ordering tickets. Even when adversity gets in the way—like in the form of a torrential downpour and thunder and lightning storm that derailed the first night’s opening act from taking the stage—the Bellwether community was there to prove that not even the worst of music-related news could penetrate the good festival vibes.
One of the most magical things about music festivals is that when a team effort is applied, the best can be made out of almost any situation. That’s what happened on the Renaissance Festival grounds, where, despite the rain forcing MGMT to the sideline, a circle of those sharing a love and passion for music, art, foundation, togetherness, etc. gathered together in a small southwestern Ohio town to help build up Bellwether.
And what better way to explore the ingredients to constructing a formative music festival than by observing one during its test run.
Starting with the essentials, the lineup is going to be the driving force behind what packs a first-year fest. An eclectic mix of 21st century alternative rockers welcomed festival dwellers on Friday, while those tried and true in the realm of psychedelic rock and grandiose performance closed out the celebration on Saturday night. Fifteen of the 16 acts performed around hour-long sets between two stages, never overlapping, always on time and seemingly to maximum fulfillment. And oh yeah, there were an additional two late-night sets that took place inside the Renaissance Festival.
Inclement weather—a mixture of high winds, punishing rain and a vortex of lightning—prevented MGMT, from stepping foot onto the lake that once was the Sunset stage. A relentless crowd waited out the unforgiving downpour for an hour before the storm forced an evacuation. Despite every other performance taking place as planned, those who only had a Friday ticket were granted free admission on Saturday while two-day-pass holders were treated to discounted tickets for next year’s Bellwether.
Disappointment is expected when you’re part of a population of festival goers who traveled cross country for the chance to see their favorite artist headline a show. However, at music festivals and in life, you need to roll with the punches, and the execution of every set on Friday leading up to MGMT’s weather-forced cancellation was superlative. Regardless of the washout the storm caused, the lead up to the headlining slot was nothing short of a fruitful.
Bellwether Grounds Loaded With Potential
Before the music, though, was beholding Bellwether’s majesty. Arriving at the Renaissance headquarters, lined by castle barricades, that sense of excitement when a festival’s grounds begins to peak over the horizon was awoken. While the fenced-in venue just beyond the camping and parking lots and Renaissance Festival entrance wasn’t massive, it didn’t need to be. With 15 minutes spacing out each set, you could casually walk back and forth between each stage while still catching each act in its entirety.
To not deal with the problem of set overlap FOMO was one of the greatest reliefs of the weekend and something I hope the festival continues next year.
Scoping out the inside of the venue, chatting with some of the friendliest festival vendors along the way, Bellwether had room for more. Even as the festival became more busy throughout the day, an absence of art installations and the space to place them leaves plenty of room for Bellwether to grow for years to come. There were some collaborative visual aesthetics, but more on that later. After starting off the day with a succulent pulled pork sandwich—just one of the many fine festival food delicacies at Bellwether—the Sunset stage was calling.
Local Natives Put On Headlining Performance During Day 1
Loading the front end of Friday, Carriers, Dawg Yawp, Alex Lahey and Bob Schneider’s band each presented a unique presence, none perhaps more polarizing than the second Cincinnati and overall act of the day, Dawg Yawp. A contrasting, yet well executed, fusion of stadium rock-n-roll meets psychedelic sitar playing was at first confusing but then well welcomed by Bellwether’s early attendees. You could really tell when these two musicians would hit a groove, producing hypnotic tunes that created an air bubble of sound in the Bellwether air.
Australian native Alex Lahey’s confessional rock tunes started to spread electricity through the crowd, enough to help out during Bob Schneider’s subsequent set. During his band’s performance of “Tarantula,” Schneider conducted the crowd into singing his latin jazz-esque song with much gusto. This led wonderfully into the weekend’s most blissful set, a slow swinging but bright performance by Chicago’s Whitney. With songs usually capped by epic swooning horns, songs like “Polly,” “Golden Days” and closer “No Woman” melted hearts and a sky soon to open with showers.
As the skies began to open up, there was a small window of hope and synchronicity when Dr. Dog stepped up to shred the Sunset stage apart. There was a moment during its performance of 2012’s “That Old Black Hole” where the sun bled profusely through the clouds, projecting beautifully onto bassist Toby Leaman as Dr. Dog’s upbeat psychedelic rock blended wonderfully into the surrounding environment. The Sunset stage truly earned its name during this specific set, leading perfectly into Dr. Dog’s closing performance of “Shadow People.” This would be the last that Bellwether attendees would see of the sun on Friday, however.
That wouldn’t kill off the good vibes, though. Even though Bellwether didn’t have any of the larger-than-life art projects mentioned earlier, a larger-than-life movement happened to make a stop in Waynesville for the weekend. That movement would be Roochute, a giant parachute and collective of the nicest, most inviting people you could find at a music festival, or anywhere. Promoting the importance of self care and its role in mental health, Roochute saved the day in more ways than one over the weekend.
As mentioned above, the giant parachute spread out its positivity just to the right of the Sunrise stage during Local Natives’ earth-shattering set. Preaching inclusion, the leaders of Roochute will recruit anybody with a child-like attitude and ambition to partake in running around in circles with one of those rainbow parachutes from elementary school gym class. This will usually build up to everybody making their way under the parachute for a pizza party, creating an exuberant colorful dome overhead for kids of all ages, colors, shapes and sizes to go wild in.
One of the most integral parts of Roochute pop-up parties are the talks about caring for ourselves and one another that happen underneath. Mindfulness, or the process of being in the moment, is one of the many positive thinking mechanisms that came to mind when participating in Roochute; I felt like the only things that mattered in the world were the fulfilling, momentous sounds of Local Natives’ “I Saw You Close Your Eyes” and the oneness I felt with a couple dozen people while running around careless with Roochute.
When Local Natives dipped into the second half of its set, that’s when Roochute also worked as the most epic umbrella you’ve ever witnessed. Rain pelted down fittingly during “Fountain of Youth” and ironically during “Sun Hands,” failing to penetrate the parachute. Festival goers feeding off the good vibes continued to dance against the rain, while Local Natives’ stage presence continually demanded your attention.
Although Bellwether-ees made their way to the Sunset stage for MGMT only to wait an hour in a freaky storm, the night didn’t end just yet. Those attending the festival were also able to enter the grounds of the Renaissance Festival until about 1 a.m., and despite the headlining act failing to take the stage, those itching for more made their way to the cabin bar inside the castle grounds to jam out to AJ & the Woods. Walking around the Renaissance Festival and seeing a giant ship—where This Pine Box would tear apart the following night to close out Bellwether—was a surreal music festival moment and had me hoping that Bellwether incorporates the confines of the castle more next year; there’s an enormous amount of potential here.
The Flaming Lips Help The Kids Forget Day 1 Disappointment
The weather held up quite nice for day two, as Columbus’ own The Cordial Sins opened up a sunny Saturday. While clean, precise sets continued to roll out on time and on point, the Allah-Lahs were one of the more captivating performances early on in the day. Attracting a crowd much like the groovers at Dr. Dog on Friday. The weather was being much more cooperative at this time with no sight of an impending storm. Spirits were high despite MGMT leaving town for the weekend without playing, and the Allah-Lahs were a big reason for that.
One of the most delightful sets of the weekend was that of Philadelphia’s Japanese Breakfast. The solo project of Michelle Zauner brought out the band to bring her experimental pop stylings to life. Zauner’s voice conveys so much raw emotion, as dictated by her performance of her popular hit “Road Head.” Guitars glistened throughout the grounds of Bellwether, the most ethereal of sounds heard during the weekend. If Bellwether can continue to recruit middle-of-the-lineup acts like Japanese Breakfast, it will have no problem with attracting a population of festival goers fiending for acts that can throw down harder in person than on wax.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Bellwether’s breakdown of music by day was the age demographic of the bands taking up the latter halves of Friday and Saturday. While some of the best alternative and psychedelic rockers of the 2000s rang in Bellwether during the first day, veterans were awaiting festival patrons the following day. Before The Flaming Lips would close out the festival with a jaw-dropping set, The Psychedelic Furs and Echo & the Bunnymen were rearing to give fans a dose of ‘80s psych rock.
What both of the sets mentioned above also brought to my attention was how diverse the ages of Bellwether attendees were. While Roochute, with a giant inflatable beach ball and bubbles to boot for day 2, kept the kids (and their parents) entertained for hours, fans reminiscent of my dad also packed the grounds, citing the second-day lineup as a deciding factor for their attendance. Echo & the Bunnymen created an aura similar to the vibe put out during Japanese Breakfast’s set, having the audience under a trance staring directly at the stage, as it was one of the only acts of the weekend not to have its performance broadcasted on the jumbotrons to the sides of the stages.
As Echo & the Bunnymen treated fans to the classic “The Killing Moon,” the sun began to set perfectly in time for The Flaming Lips hell of an encore. With no impending doom in the sky in sight, the grounds of Bellwether were amped to say the least to see Wayne Coyne and company close the curtain on the first-ever Bellwether. Around 9:30 at night on Aug. 11, the pounding introduction of Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra” resonated throughout the festival as The Flaming Lips took to a very decadent stage. Rainbow-colored LEDs came down like rain behind while the band launched into “Race for the Prize,” and Coyne was off to his old tricks again, spraying confetti and throwing giant balloons into an ever-embracing crowd.
Quite possibly the brightest display of color I’ve ever witnessed at a show—because, yes, the Lips also had plenty of lasers—the gang from Oklahoma City truly deserve the title of 50 bands to see before you die. Coyne rides unicorns during “There Should Be Unicorns,” blows up giant inflatable rainbows, holds a massive balloon saying “FUCK YEAH WAYNESVILLE” and even turns into a humongous (!!!) pink robot during “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 1.” As old as the Lips are, its shows sure make you feel young, as Wayne does his best at projecting his childlike whimsy onto the audience.
There were so many displays of this innocence throughout the Lips’ set but maybe none more special to Bellwether than a unique cover of MGMT’s “Kids.” Reading from a note that may or may not have been from MGMT, Wayne started off the song spoken word, then went full-fledged into the track. Even though the group has covered this song before, this performance was a genuine one from Coyne and co.
As “Space Oddity” starts to come to a close—after that final ripping guitar saga that touches souls multiple times throughout the track—Coyne, with fans gazing in awe at his bubble aura, makes his way back to the Sunrise stage. This is the begin of Bellwether’s descent. Beside from being a music festival, bellwether is also a word for a predictor of change. Being able to look up into the night sky and see almost every star clearly for the first time in months following The Flaming Lips’ encore was another surreal moment, an indicator that, as a camping festival that is located next to an elegant castle, Bellwether was loads of potential. Hats off to the Bellwether family for crafting a unique music festival experience in Ohio. Cheers to the launch of Ohio’s most potential-packed music festival.
Music by day, stars by night.
Click here to secure your tickets for the second year of Bellwether Music Festival, which will take place on Aug. 9 and 10, 2019.