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New Bellwether Music Festival combines camping, bands to create Ohio's own mini-Bonnaroo

Posted: 3:44 PM, Mar 23, 2018
Updated: 2018-04-05 15:23:37Z

HARVEYSBURG, Ohio -- Picture it: You're walking through the woods to the campsite to unwind with friends, effervescent after a full day of live music from bands like MGMT, The Flaming Lips and Local Natives.

It's not Bonnaroo, but Bellwether -- a new camping music festival dreamed up in part by Bill Donabedian, whose resume includes co-founding Cincinnati's MidPoint, Bunbury and BuckleUp music festivals.

"Something that we I think have been lacking in the area is an alternative festival with camping," Donabedian said. "Getting away from the city and getting out there in the country with some open skies and some fresh air and just really kind of kicking back and enjoying it."

Bellwether Music Festival will run Aug. 10 and 11 at the Ohio Renaissance Festival Grounds. They may be experts at organizing jousting matches and Shakespearean period pieces, but music festivals aren't their forte. That's why the Renaissance Festival organizers reached out to Donabedian.

After the 45-minute trip up Interstate 71 to check out the festival grounds, Donabedian had the perfect name for their new event. 

Literally, a bellwether is a castrated male sheep that leads his flock, but it's come to figuratively mean an indicator or predictor of change. Donabedian registered the domain name in 2014 when he hoped to organize a music festival in Pennsylvania to celebrate Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol, a bellwether ahead of his time in the art world.

"I love that word and what it stood for -- that idea of being just a little bit ahead of everything," Donabedian said, noting he had tucked away the idea when his Pittsburgh event never panned out. "It had just been sitting there just waiting to be born." 

Now in its infancy, Bellwether is keeping it simple for its inaugural festival. From 2 to 11 p.m., music lovers can bounce back and forth between two stages on opposite ends of a football field-like space for the day's eight bands. With the amenities on the sidelines, Donabedian said "you won't miss a thing."

Along with headliners MGMT, The Flaming Lips, Local Natives, Dr. Dog and Whitney, organizers announced on March 29 that The Psychedelic Furs, Japanese Breakfast and Bob Schneider (with his band) will perform. They added Echo and the Bunnymen, Allah-Las and Alex Lahey to that list on April 5. 

Donabedian said it was important to reserve some slots for local and regional bands, which include Cincinnati's Erika Wennerstrom, Dawg Yawp and Carriers, Yellow Springs' Speaking Suns and The Cordial Sins from Columbus. Daily lineups will be announced in the coming weeks. He added that Bellwether plans to open up for submissions from local musicians for next year's festival.

Bill Donabedian

"That's important to provide some kind of platform for artists who are trying to break through," Donabedian said. "You hope that they get great experience and exposure from it."

He's most curious about what kind of culture this new festival will develop when the music isn't playing. 

"Is it busy? Does everyone sleep?" he wonders. "What I like to do when I create an event is come up with a good vision and keep it really simple in that first year and a little stripped down. ... You take it 80 percent of the way there, and then you let your fans tell you, 'Gosh, I wish I could see this. I would like to do this."

They're aiming for 10,000 to 15,000 people to crowd into tiny Harveysburg each day that weekend. With easy access from Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus, Donabedian thinks they're on target as $85 two-day early bird tickets went on sale this week. 

"The response has been just fantastic right out of the gate. Other than just great activity on social media, the tickets are selling," Donabedian said, declining to divulge how many they'll sell before bumping it up to the $105 general admission two-day pass. 

There's not much time, regardless, as they'll cut off early-bird sales on March 30. Individual day passes go on sale on May 1 at $55 each.

Also on sale are a $50 "Freshen Up Pass" offering access to showers, restrooms and complimentary towels and a $600 "Glamping" package that bundles a tent, cots, parking and Freshen Up Passes for up to four people.

"When you create the right experience for people, they're just happy. They're just enjoying themselves, and they've left all their cares at the door," Donabedian said. "Or it's just something that excites them and they're just blown away by it. Those responses are the best responses."

Visit Bellwether Music Festival's website here for ticket information, musician info and more.