Star Power: Sunflower Bean at Sonic Lunch


Sunflower Bean at Sonic Lunch

Photo by Christopher Porter.

Some people seem destined to be stars.

Sunflower Bean is fronted by a supernova.

The New York-based Julia Cumming (bass, vocals), Nick Kivlen (guitar, vocals), and Jacob Faber (drums) flew to Ann Arbor specifically to play Sonic Lunch on July 12, and their 13-song spirited performance under sunny skies turned Liberty Plaza into a rock 'n' roll club.

"Are you guys here for a good time?" Cumming said. "Just because it's noon it doesn't mean we can't rock." She then taught the crowd to sing along with the "no, no, no" part of the chorus for "Crisis Fest."

In 2014, Cumming provided a good description of the band's sound to i-D: "We used to call it 'neo-psychedelia for the digital age', and now we've just been calling it 'night music.'"

Calling it night music makes sense if you imagine yourself driving down a deserted desert highway and blasting the hypnotically rocking "Right Now" and "2013." But I'd recommend the live versions of these songs. Sunflower Bean's two very good albums,  2016's Human Ceremony and 2018's Twentytwo in Blue, are almost gentile indie rock compared to the amped-up way the songs are presented in concert.

The production on Sunflower Bean's albums dampens the sheer force of Cumming's voice, which was on full display at Sonic Lunch. She growled and howled, showing a good range and great power in her delivery. On the records she sounds wispier, which she also demonstrated during the concert's performance of "Twentytwo" and a cover of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon."

Cumming only graduated high school in 2014, but she had the stage presence of someone who studied and internalized how to be a rock star for many years. She pouted, shimmied, sang through clenched teeth, and engaged the crowd with surefire patter and clapalongs.

Sunflower Bean's mix of power pop, new wave, glam rock, Blondie, and Velvet Underground is indebted to its sources but they don't overwhelm their music. Kivlen is a talented guitar player, easily switching between rhythm and lead without thinning out the band's sound, and Faber keeps things motoring on the drums. 

But it's Cumming combo of nimble bass playing, huge vocal prowess, and captivating stage presence that will power Sunflower Bean to the stars.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.