Back in the Before Times, back when I was Katie Darby Recommends, blogger and MFA student, not Professor Katie Mullins, executive writer for Underwater Sunshine Fest, I kept a meticulous record of every concert I saw. I would sometimes write 9,000 words on a concert (looking at you, Sufjan Stevens during the Carrie & Lowell tour, and if you caught him on that run, you know why it took so much space). I begged to get to recap our first Underwater Sunshine Fest experience, and I’m thrilled to be able to do so— but then I realized there’s a slight impossibility. In fact: I think that specific word pops to mind not because of the enormity of the festival itself, of the fast-fast-slow-FAST motion of pulling something like that off, but because I’ve been revisiting a record— again, from the Before Times, before I had my stroke, before I had this incredible opportunity— and every night, when I put on Remy Zero’s The Golden Hum, I hear Cinjun Tate, who visited the Garden to play an incredible, intense, very personal set, sing the words, “How could we know/ Fine living makes you slow/ And how could I know you were the one?/ I said, how could you see/ Impossibility,” and though it’s completely out of context, it just feels like the weekend all over again. This fine living— this friendship, kindness, camaraderie, and free sharing of art and music with friends and new friends— it feels impossible. And in the moment, it is so slow, like a quarterback with an endless offensive line. Looking back? It all feels like a few seconds.
Let’s start over. I’m going to recap the Underwater Sunshine Fest. But I understand, now, especially as I go through my pictures and my video, that it won’t be the same Fest you were at. Nor was it the same one Adam saw, or Barb, or even my husband Andy or our intern Charlie. It wouldn’t have mattered if we’d been tethered to each other. This show meant something different to everyone, and the moments that stood out to me might not have to you— might not have even existed in your world. In fact, I took a risk by starting this article off by talking about Cinjun Tate because— if we’re being really honest— I was supposed to be down at the club helping set up (thanks to everyone who told me to go ahead and stay to watch). There were, maybe for the first time that weekend, fewer than ten people in the Garden So one of the most important things that happened to me… happened to me.
Here are my puzzle pieces. I’ll call mine the edge pieces, and you can fill in anything I missed. On October 12th and 13th, I had the privilege of being a part of the best team in the world for the Underwater Sunshine Fest at the Bowery Electric. We had seventeen different bands play across the two nights, and we brought in 37 bands through The Garden for individual tapings (though you’ll hear more about that on the Underwater Sunshine Podcast). For the purposes of this review, I’m going to (outside of the writing I’ve already done) stick to talking about what happened once we got to the Bowery Electric.
Underwater Sunshine Fest was created for music lovers, and to that end, we were so grateful to be able to do a band merchandise giveaway, starting with custom-made shirts designed by our very own Frank Germano, and including merchandise from any band who wanted to participate— including CDs, vinyl, pins, and shirts. Friday, we were so excited to have our VIP event— which featured the Grammy-nominated Latin jazz act, Yellow House Orchestra— and see so many people standing outside the door, ready to come in and immediately begin soaking in the different styles of music. We had the showcases set up to where you could catch a little bit of everyone— as Yellow House Orchestra made people dance downstairs, some music lovers filtered upstairs to sit and listen to the beautiful melodic sounds of RYVOLI.
Honestly, the closest thing we had to a problem was an embarrassment of riches. That Friday night, we had the privilege of hearing the piano rock of Elizabeth & the Catapult, the almost-academically well-written acoustic stylings of Dave Godowsky, and the hard rocking Hawks and Doves (Kasey Anderson) upstairs in the Map Room. I even got over my own stage fright to introduce Kasey, because he’s been a friend for so long— and because I was so, so proud to be able to stand in front of his new band before they broke into their new protest song, “The Dangerous Ones.”
Downstairs, we had another crazy mix of musicians: first, there was Sean Barna, who will absolutely be a name to watch out for: I can pick the ponies, and everything about Sean says “superstar.” Half Stevie-Nicks, half David-Bowie, Barna has developed a stage persona that is as dynamic as any up-and-comer I have ever seen— which would be impressive enough, but he’s also got an incredibly well-written, witty, and empathetic EP, Cissy, that just came out. Following him was Mikaela Davis, who makes the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll harp” make sense. I’ve never seen anything like her: she can cover Elliott Smith and make you cry, or she can play you something she wrote and it might never leave your head again. I’ve been singing “Other Lover” since Friday night, and it’s a pretty good indicator of how brilliantly catchy her entire new record Delivery is.
Then we had the professionally kind Stephen Kellogg, who seems to be able to walk into any room and immediately illuminate it. His smile is a beacon, and I don’t think he stops smiling the whole time he performs. I overheard several conversations where people thought they were going to see a folk show, but they came out convinced he couldn’t be constrained by genre. (I also heard a lot of comparisons to Josh Ritter. Hell of a compliment, and not inaccurate!) Of course, if you were there Friday, you know it ended with a crazy punk rock party downstairs as the Monks of Doom took the stage for a show that I don’t think anyone will forget. The energy and excitement they bring to the room is palpable, and when they were done, the audience seemed to collectively exhale. It was beautiful— that kind of breathless excitement, all built by a band leading a group from being strangers into being new friends.
That was night one.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little overwhelming to think about what this means: as the writer for a festival in its first year, I knew that we were going to have things to work on, things to improve. But the musicians— they were all dead on. In fact, they all seemed to be even better than seemed possible. Each and every musician was kind, interested in each other, and excited to play the Fest. It was a true honor to get to watch so many people share interests, exchange phone numbers, and share space with each other.
There wasn’t a single act on the list I didn’t want to see. You’ve all been reading my write-ups, so you know I’ve been studying these musicians for at least months, some of them for years. But I was positively itchy to get to Saturday night. In the Map Room, we had the hard alt-country stylings of Erica Blinn and her brilliant band, followed immediately by one of the few things southern Indiana IS proud to claim as our own, our best punk musician, Brick Briscoe. Matt Sucich, who is always a delight— some kind of cross between the blue-collar sensibility of a Springsteen and the sound of a Paul Simon— entranced the crowd, and I heard people yelling all night, “What was the name of that song…?” Finally, Boy Bjorn closed that room up with a little help from Boom Forest— because again, when it comes to Underwater Sunshine Fest, none of us are anywhere without a little help from our friends.
Downstairs, we had an incredible line up that, honestly, still looks a little fictional to me. We had the Texas-based rock band Those Nights, which kicked the night off right: they were exactly the kind of energy that needed to get that big stage rocking, because God knows, it was going to be a party for the rest of the night. They had a huge time slot to fill, and they didn’t disappoint: I actually had one person ask if I had a Sharpie, and when I said I did, he wrote “THOSE NIGHTS” on the back of his hand so he didn’t forget the band name. After that, we all indulged in a little sex and candy with Marcy Playground, who played a straight-up punk set to a packed room. The chemistry between band members who have been working together as long as they have is incredible, and the way John Wozniak and Dylan Keefe would play their respective guitar and bass facing each other before breaking away to lean into amps and create feedback was really impressive. I spent a good part of that set up on the stairs, and it was a blast looking out at everyone in the crowd dancing along. Very few songs went un-sung-along with: even people who didn’t seem to know the song at the first chorus were screaming along by the end. And then Boom Forest invited us all into his private fever dream— literally— and played an acoustic set that was alternately so beautiful and so heartbreaking that it felt like being on another planet. (OK, maybe we were in a fever dream.) After inviting Brian Holl (Boy Bjorn) to sing with him— an a capella rendition of the haunting song “No Lion”— he went upstairs to play for a while, and that’s when Stew and the Negro Problem began setting up.
I already wrote an article about Stew and the Negro Problem, so I’m not going to take the 9,000 words I stated I’d be happy to use in the beginning of this article just to talk about his 45 minute set. I will say this: I don’t know that I’ve ever had more fun looking at my friends’ faces during a rock show. There was a three-piece brass section that was face-meltingly good, and the rest of the band was an incredibly well-oiled machine to sound so loose and free. Stew himself was one of the funniest musicians I’ve ever had the privilege of being around: he joked through the whole set, and even his songs were funny. The whole downstairs of the Bowery Electric was smiling, laughing, singing— and, despite my lack of ability, even I was dancing. I did take a moment though to look around at my team, see the big smiles on their faces, and watch Stew and the Negro Problem as reflected in their eyes. I had a beautiful time watching Stew and singing, but I don’t know that there is anything on earth better than sharing something so powerful with people you love who also understand music on that deep, connected level. Our team is housed in different bodies and we all have different jobs, and God knows not everyone downstairs was technically on the team, but for 45 minutes, Stew led us into a state of oneness: nothing but how good the music felt seemed to exist. And that’s what we were hoping to achieve.
Also, if you met anyone on our team this weekend, you’ll know why this is so necessary: First, I want to thank Barbara, who I call the Keeper of the Trains on Time— nothing would get done without her, nor would I want it to; Felipe, for his endless, beautiful artwork and kind heart; Frank for creating such inventive and imaginative art to pilot our first Sunmarine; Holly for her tireless work with our social media and her constantly uplifting attitude; Linds for working behind the scenes using words that don’t make a lot of sense to me (and for being on my wavelength in a very weird way this trip); Adam, for always finding the best, most rewarding ways for us to experience and talk about music; my husband Andy, for being my partner in writing and in everything else; my intern Charlie who jumped in only sort of knowing what a production it was going to be; our other intern Elizabeth, who both played with RYVOLI and helped out with the event; and James Campion, the other half of the Underwater Sunshine Podcast, who almost certainly helped draw you in.
You can understand how it would be hard to have a team this good and not succeed, at least on some level. But guys— our first question was, “How can we make this even better?” We’re working behind the scenes to do just that, and we can’t wait for you to see some of our footage from this trip and some of what we have in store for the future. And yeah— maybe some of our planning is just because we like each other and already miss each other— but most of it is because all of the geekiest parts of us are not just accepted, but validated and encouraged in each others’ presence, and we all become better versions of ourselves. We got to watch that happen to you, the fans, as well. We hope you’ll keep coming, and that we’ll all get to know each other a lot better soon.
P.S. The most beautiful thing about the Underwater Sunshine Fest is that it means something different to everyone, and everyone had a different “most important” moment. I really hope that those of you who were there will be willing to comment, email, or talk about your most important moment on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram— just hashtag it #underwatersunshinefest and we’ll find you— so that we can build a comprehensive picture of the weekend together.