It’s awfully easy to stay local for your live music fix. Homegrown talent and national tours are so prolific between spring and fall, it’s damned near in the air. Depending on your neighborhood, you may not even need to leave the house—just open the nearest window.
Summer is the season of festivals in Columbus, but don’t let that limit your listening. Not every act makes a stop in Central Ohio, nor is a dank bar always the best venue for bands on the verge of breaking out of grueling club tours and into the mainstream. Luckily Ohio isn’t that big, and we’re right in the middle of it, the perfect home base for a series of summer road trips to surrounding cities and towns that put on some pretty good shows of their own. Here are six months of weekend adventures to keep you humming all year.
Number Fest – Athens
4.20-21 • thenumberfest.com
Now better known as #FEST, the tiny college town with a reputation for hard partying was the obvious host for a spring break inspired soiree. After an oversized annual fraternity gathering eventually perturbed the neighbors one too many times (including the university president, whose house was right next door), Westerville native Dominic Petrozzi of Prime Social Group saw an opportunity for something more. Officially banned from campus, the event has since emerged as the launch pad for acts from Machine Gun Kelly and Mike Posner to DJ E-V, 12th Planet, and Chip Tha Ripper. Equal parts rap, beer, and mud, the name is still a bit of an inside joke. What started as a singular concert dubbed the One Fest in 2004, fans were calling for a “Two Fest” before the final keg was tapped and last bus pulled away. Number Fest was also social before the advent of social media, with concertgoers eager to sell blocks of tickets on their behalf. Rather than discourage underground ticket sales, Prime Social Group embraced them, creating an ambassador program where fans can upgrade their one-day pass to a weekend or VIP just by selling a few extra tickets to friends. This year’s lineup includes acts from Marshmello and Lil Uzi Vert to RL Grime and REZZ.
Nelsonville Music Festival
5.31 – 6.3 • nelsonvillefest.org
What started with six bands in the town square that anchors the arts district back in 2005 has evolved into a four-day festival mixing generations and genres of music that rarely share the same stage. Legends like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris blend seamlessly with relative newcomers like the Avett Brothers and Jason Isbell. But you’ll also find They Might Be Giants, The Flaming Lips, and Ween in the lineups, along with Columbus locals like Counterfeit Madison and The Shazzbots. Presented by Stuart’s Opera House, Nelsonville’s nonprofit theater and performing arts center, the event has moved to Robbins Crossing at nearby Hocking College and now hosts more that 60 acts annually on a variety of stages, from a converted box car to the “no-fi” cabin, a historic one-room schoolhouse featuring acoustic sets for intimate audiences of barely more than a dozen. Camping is encouraged, as is recycling, actually billed as a zero waste event. Unlike most music festivals, families are a fixture here with free kids activities all weekend long. Headliners this year include The Decemberists, Ani DiFranco, and George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic, but don’t let the heavyweights keep you from betting on the undercard. Little known acts from Nelsonville have a habit of becoming household names.
Bunbury Music Festival – Cincinnati
6.1-6.3 • bunburyfestival.com
Notable newcomer to the state’s music festival fray is Bunbury, named without irony after an imaginary Oscar Wilde character created as an excuse to get out of family gatherings. From Sawyer Point Park & Yeatman’s Cove on the banks of the Ohio River, their website now offers an online guide to help organize your itinerary among the hundreds of acts across several stages. It wasn’t always this big. Started in 2012 with headliners Jane’s Addiction, Weezer, and Death Cab for Cutie, Bunbury established itself as a festival for breakthrough indie bands and those that still carry a crowd. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for Ohio locals like Twenty One Pilots and The Black Keys—or unexpected acts like G. Love & Special Sauce, Belle and Sebastian, and Snoop Dogg. Columbus’s own PromoWest Productions took the lead in 2014 and the three-day festival remains a showcase for concert technology as much as talent. There are no on-site accommodations, so be sure to plan ahead for an overnight stay if the haul back home isn’t an option. Jack White is surely this year’s big draw, though Young the Giant, Foster the People, and Blink-182 have their own faithful followings.
Springsfest – Yellow Springs
6.7 • springsfestival.com
Between Red White & Boom and Jamboree in the Hills, it might be easy to overlook a one-day gig in this sleepy little satellite of Dayton. But Springsfest isn’t trying to compete with all that noise. If laid back bands and local craft beer are more your scene, head west for some of the best of both Ohio has to offer. Entering its third year, this progressive-yet-folksy music festival is decidedly a community affair with area artisans and eateries eager to introduce their definition of summer to visiting audiences. Guided by Voices tops the bill, but Columbus favorites like The Cordial Sins, Counterfeit Madison, and CAAMP are among those performing before an improvised and informal arena of lawn chairs. Despite its reputation as a haunt for aging hippies, the clever collection of restaurants and shops is a less bustling ’burb or conservative enclave than you’d expect so close to a former factory city in the Midwest. In fact, Springsfest might just be the perfect, low-key, summer escape you didn’t know you needed in a village you are remiss to miss. You might even run into Dave Chappelle, who also calls Yellow Springs home. (No joke.)
The Werk Out Music & Arts Festival – Thornville
8.2-8.4 • thewerkoutfestival.com
Imagine if Burning Man and Woodstock had a love child—and that child lived in a small town in Southwest Ohio. It would probably look a lot like The Werk Out Music & Arts Festival. Unlike the trend toward monotony among music-only festivals, this weird mix of bands, painters, sculptors, and performance artists come together to create an entirely unexpected experience. It’s not good enough to show up and nod your head and tap your feet to the beat here. The weekend tent city feels more like a Grateful Dead caravan than a concert campground, and that same vibe permeates the air from sunrise long past sunset. The namesake group The Werks grew to national prominence as a “jam band” but didn’t forget their roots, rolling those early influences and industry connections into an annual ensemble of fellow outsider artists and attendees who struggle to color inside the lines. Maybe that’s why the event serves as a fundraiser for the local school district, gathering art supply donations from festival-goers. There’s also a series of “werkshops” for those so artistically inclined. Nine years strong, the lineup in August also features Umphrey’s McGee, Lettuce, Papadosio, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, among additional artists yet to be announced.
Ohiolina Music Festival – Mount Vernon
9.15–9.16 • ohiolina.com
Just because school buses are back on the road and Labor Day is in the rearview mirror doesn’t mean there aren’t any lingering summer songs left on the schedule. Ohiolina may be the best undiscovered music festival in the state, merging the Southern soul and Midwest sensibility of folk, country, bluegrass, and every married and muddled genre in-between that defies the traditional labels under the larger mantle of Americana. Festival fare features distinctive Ohio and North Carolina dishes, but less expected are the morning yoga, chalk art exhibition, and a traveling clothing boutique squeezed into a stepvan. Nikki Lane’s convergence of country and pop, the horn-heavy Holy Ghost Tent Revival, and bluesy troubadour Woody Pines are among the more familiar voices, but Ohio groups like Buffalo Wabs and Price Hill Hustle, Honey and Houston, Fox Valley Harvest, and Wayfarers add locally-grown credibility. Organizers also encourage musicians to bring an instrument and find your jam under a tree or around the campfire. There’s even a “string off” competition for fiddle and guitar players. •