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  • Evan Laslo

Wonderbus: The Four Ohio-Born Performances That Stole the Show, by Sarah Snyder

COLUMBUS—August 28, 2021—At noon, most Wonderbus ticket-holders woke up to apply body glitter in preparation for Kesha’s concert (at 9pm). My siblings and I, on the other hand, were already eating Island Noodles.

The Island Noodles food truck was how we learned of Wonderbus in the first place. My family is of the belief that it’s the best food truck we’ll ever have the pleasure of overpaying for. About a month before Wonderbus, we saw their post about setting up shop at the festival. By the time we read through the lineup, the tickets were as good as booked.

The wide fairground held a long line of food trucks, three large stages, and a slew of tents holding merchandise, drinks, and mini-fundraising events. So there we sat, chopsticks in hand, the stages set, and the atmosphere alive with anticipation for the first performance of the festival.

Last year, Wonderbus—a relatively new summer music festival with a lineup of over 50 artists and bands—was cancelled due to the pandemic. This year, it returned to Columbus with 28 performances. Headliners included Kesha, AJR, Grouplove, and Wilco. All had great shows, but the sets that captured my heart—and rightfully so—were the hour-long sets earlier in the afternoons of the two-day festival.

Bird and Byron, an indie rock duo, opened the festival on Saturday for a surprisingly large crowd given the early afternoon time slot. Still, I felt like I was cheering among friends and all of us were there to personally support the band. The comfortable atmosphere was almost a personalized experience.

Blake Bird, lead vocalist, has a sound that’s strong in technicality but plays with tone and rasp. His voice creates something completely unique, something that perfectly embodies the lyrics he sings with sentimentality and longing. He engaged the crowd with professional prowess and composure on stage.

Lead guitarist Nick Byron, supported by a back-up band, played captivating melodies with a stage presence rivaling performers twice his age. Byron’s solos in particular had magnificent tonality and an engagement that drew me in until the very last note.

Bird and Byron’s music, as a whole, reminds me of the songs that magically show up on your road trip playlist; no one quite knows how they got there, but everyone will yell at you if you try to skip it. Their style is playful, strong, and embodies a spirit of adventure that’s simply unskippable. I don’t think I can sing their praises enough.

Half an hour later, on the opposite end of the fairgrounds, Detention took the stage. Detention is a rock band from Akron, Ohio. While their stage presence and talent is no joke, what makes their recent success so astonishing are their ages: Detention is made up of four teenagers, ages 14 to 17.

These talented teens have made waves in Akron and surrounding cities with their personal take on the overwhelming dread of growing up. They played on the largest stage at the festival to a packed crowd, and their sound became the combative accompaniment to the audience’s reminiscence upon their personal teenage angst.

Detention combines their aggressive sound with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that reference both universal teenage issues and the often-ignored negative side to living in a post-industrial Midwest city. “56 Minutes” is a fast-paced lament of living far from someone when you’re not old enough to drive a car, while “Dead Malls” references the “post-industrial retail hellscape” of abandoned social centers.

Less than an hour later, in a stunning display of genre whiplash, .wavrunner (pronounced: wave runner) began their set. How can I even begin to describe .wavrunner, the group that ran on stage and promptly told the crowd that they had absolutely no idea what they were doing up there? Ages 18 to 20, these men were entertainers first and foremost, proven by the way their boundless energy carried them back and forth on stage while they cracked jokes at the crowd, most of which were about your mom.

With only four songs available for streaming, one might assume the Cleveland-based group’s set would be pretty dry, but .wavrunner propelled the show forward with just somewhat unfounded confidence and a genuine joy for performing their own music, along with a few covers.

They’ve been called a glorious cringe fest with unmatched chaotic energy. They’re not here to appeal to any respectful social norms. Instead, the trio sings and raps about partying, throwing out the rules, and enjoying the fame and fun that comes with making and performing music. The group has signed to Elevation Recording Group, and some of their tracks have been produced by Manny Park (producer of Ariana Grande and Travis Scott) and Paul Meany (producer of Twenty One Pilots and Half Alive), with two tracks mixed by Grammy award–winner Joe Grasso (Old Town Road Remix – Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus).

Their set was the equivalent of a trainwreck you can’t look away from, but in a good way. Given that the crowd gathered by the end of their time slot was immense, it seems that most people felt the same. The trio was fully aware of the complete chaos and hilarity they brought to the stage, but I’m fairly certain the set brought them more than a few new loyal fans.

Arguably the most well-known Ohio band of the festival, 90’s Kids, harnessed the vibe of 90s pop rock for their set in the late afternoon on Saturday. Their style combines a nostalgia for the past with an intent to innovate and refine their music.

Like other bands at Wonderbus, this was their first live performance since quarantine began, and the outcome was an outstanding performance full of energetic pop-rock. Through sweltering heat and chronic computer difficulties the band never once faltered, and brought their nostalgic yet spirited music to an audience who gratefully took it all in.

No song was left without some form of audience interaction that left me feeling as though I was part of something bigger than myself. I could just see the joy 90’s Kids had for playing on stage to a live audience. Their energy was infectious as people sang, clapped, and danced along with the band to create an atmosphere that won’t be forgotten.

90’s Kids sounds just as good live as they do through headphones, if not better. The same is true for most of the Ohio bands at Wonderbus, but maybe I’m a little biased. Until the next festival comes around, I’ll stick with my Wonderbus playlist, and my Island Noodles.

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