Commentary: SunFest’s 2020 Lineup Offers Little Excitement

Headliner Darius Rucker (photo by McClister)

SunFest announced the lineup yesterday for its annual music festival, returning April 30-May 3, and as usual its sonic palette is all over the map—from rap to country, Latin pop to brassy funk, alternative rock to EDM. It’s hard to envision another festival that would book both Darius Rucker and A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, or Illenium and Melissa Etheridge. Catering to eclectic tastes, a mission the festival has long embraced, has never been one of SunFest’s drawbacks; most music fans like variety in their listening diets.

Where the festival has suffered in recent years is in its quality, not its diversity. As different as they may be in the genre charts, most of the artists in the 2020 lineup share an adjective in common. And that adjective is bland.

I say this out of love for a festival I’ve enjoyed a great deal in the past. I remember my first SunFest experience, on a Wednesday afternoon in 2009, seeing a little-known fuzz-rock band called Wavves for the first time, delighted to be in an audience of a few dozen enlightened peers. Then becoming enraptured the year the Joy Formidable brought the passion and the thunder to lead into the effervescent joy of Bastille. In 2015, when I saw Wilco, Hozier and Pixies within the same 96 hours, I thought, this is it. SunFest has arrived, and can claim the mantle as one of the premier music festivals in the Southeast, the sort that can attract people from other states, not just other counties.

Perhaps it still does. I don’t have these numbers. I only have my ears and my perceptions, and those of the fellow disappointed, who clogged the festival’s Facebook page within minutes of its lineup announcement Wednesday to bemoan the paucity of exciting acts—of artists who exhibit a modicum of relevance or urgency. The dearth starts at the top: While neighboring festivals in the Southeast are welcoming bona fide headliners like the Strokes, Smashing Pumpkins, Wu-Tang Clan, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey and Vampire Weekend, we’re saddled with milquetoast Darius Rucker, the shallow party band Slightly Stoopid, and the alt-rock staples Cage the Elephant, who, while a quality rock band, play so often in South Florida that they ought to own property here.

Cage the Elephant

A sense of the lackluster pervades the second-tier acts, too: Adam Lambert, not terribly interesting unless he’s fronting Queen; the Revivalists, who have been boring the eardrums of The Shark listeners for years; and Etheridge and Live, the only dry bones tossed to the Gen-Xers, the demo with the most money to spend on festivals like this. Juanes and Sean Paul are at least established figures in their genres, with perhaps enough of a following to draw single-ticket buyers to an extraordinarily weak Saturday lineup. In four full days of music, the boomers, who used to constitute a sizable audience of SunFest attendees, only have Tower of Power to pique their interest; most have doubtlessly written this festival off.

Recognizable names drop off rapidly once we get to the third tier of each day, with their minor celebrities who appeared on competition shows, aspiring rappers, sensitive singer-songwriters, one ill-fated stab at late-‘90s-style nu-metal, and artists whose videos struggle to accumulate 1,000 views on YouTube. I may barely qualify as a millennial, but I feel I still have my fingers in the proximity of the “pulse,” and these acts are nowhere near it. This is music that sounds so anonymous it is destined to provide the background noise for the first or second or third beer run.

If there’s a redeemable day in this year’s lineup, it’s Sunday: Tower of Power and Southern Avenue are excellent acts that should keep audiences moving and engaged; Kevin Gates, Nelly and Ne-Yo are certainly important enough to be lead-ups to the headliner; and Cage the Elephant will do its thing, and do it well. But that’s one out of four.

Where did things go wrong? Was there a decision made around five years ago that bringing in important but minimally profitable bands like Pixies and Wilco and Jimmy Cliff and Toots & the Maytals—acts that appeal to audiophile sophisticates like moi, in other words—was a waste of funds in an already-limited budget? Has the desire to be the “different” festival, and to not book the same acts breezing through Gulf Shores and Atlanta, led to organizers to dive into a diminishing talent pool?

Whatever the reasons, lineups as dull as 2020’s cannot continue indefinitely. I have wonderful memories of SunFest over the years. I don’t want to see it on life support.