Sunflower Bean first appeared on my radar sometime in 2014, when the band showed up in my Tumblr notifications. I can’t remember if they followed me or just liked one of my posts, but something intrigued me about their unique name and style. Early singles such as “Bread” and “2013” immediately sold me on their modern take on psychedelic rock and New York pre-punk. Something told me to keep an eye on this band, and I’m glad I did.
I finally saw Sunflower Bean live at Beach Goth in 2015 and was completely captivated by their live energy. From that point, they became one of my favorite newer bands. I’ve probably attended all their Los Angeles gigs since then, and even saw them in their hometown when I visited Brooklyn back in November. When they announced a show at the new, intimate Moroccan Lounge in advance of their upcoming record Twentytwo in Blue, I knew it was not to be missed.
Sunflower Bean has a knack for choosing really great, up-and-coming opening bands, so I knew I had to arrive early to catch Gateway Drugs, and I’m glad I did. I was skeptical when I saw they had three guitar players, which is a bit overkill with most bands, but Gateway Drugs made it work. Each guitarist played their own role in each song, and I never witnessed two of them playing the same parts at the same time. The quintet impressively swapped instruments frequently, and three members of the band shared lead vocal duties, as well.
At some point during their set, the man next to me revealed that three-fifths of the band are siblings, but the band was so in tune with each other that they might as well have all been family. They rocked hard, the set ending with the band’s sole female member slamming her Danelectro guitar facedown on the stage floor (I had been wondering why the body of the guitar was cracked), turning knobs on her pedals and aiming it at the amp in just the right way to get as much feedback as possible. Rarely does an opening band get such enthusiastic applause from an audience.
Before Sunflower Bean went on, I spoke to the audience members around me and found that none of them had seen the band live before. The band has been gaining new fans rapidly since the release of their debut album, Human Ceremony, and the three singles off the new record, “I Was A Fool,” “Crisis Fest,” and “Twentytwo.” Vocalist and bassist Julia Cumming, guitarist and vocalist Nick Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber are all in their 22nd year of life, and their youth makes their musical skill, songwriting abilities and their worldwide renown all the more extraordinary.
On glam-rock-reminiscent set opener “Burn It,” Cumming’s driving bass line waved in between the notes of Kivlen’s energized guitar riff in the intro and bits in between verses, giving me life and making every bone in my body want to dance. After “Burn It,” Cumming said a few words about how this is their first time really playing songs off the new record on tour and how excited she was to share them with us, and how excited she was to share them with us. She also mentioned that LA is one of the band’s favorite cities to play.
Although the energy in the room built as they played older hits such as “Come On” and “2013,” the crowd proved far tamer than what I’ve come to expect at Sunflower Bean shows. Chalk it up to the show being 21+, but usually there are mosh pits and stage divers. Instead, this crowd was calmly taking in the music, applauding and cheering after each song with authentic delight, but not really feeling the music with that raw intensity that younger audiences do.
The band wasn’t fazed, playing the show expertly, but they were lacking the characteristically high energy that comes along with feeding off their rabid, hardcore fans. I couldn’t help but feel that if the people in the room had been more familiar with the band’s material and past performances, they wouldn’t have let the girl trying to start a mosh pit fall on her ass.
I’ve been to seven other Sunflower Bean shows before this one, and each time there was a mosh pit, or at the very least, something that resembled dancing. At the aforementioned Brooklyn show I attended last fall, I even took a turn stage diving (which, by the way, is the greatest feeling in the world). I pray that as their success burgeons, Sunflower Bean holds onto their delicious edge, because it cuts me to the bone. This audience seemed too jaded to surrender their brains and bodies to the music, standing there like the little plastic people on top of a wedding cake.
One thing that really stood out to me in this performance, however, was how much Cumming has come into her own as a vocal performer. She was always a great singer, but now really hits those high notes with her chest voice (I can’t remember hearing her go into a falsetto once during the entire performance). She has grown into a singer who can really belt, and it feels as if her entire body is singing, not just her vocal cords. Her vocals have always been a focal point of the band, but now they seem to have taken on a life of their own, cutting across the mix stronger than ever. She comes across more confident and powerful when she sings.
Sunflower Bean played six new songs at the Moroccan Lounge, making up half of their set. “Crisis Fest” reads as a political anthem, a message to the current administration that “We brought you into this place, you know we can take you out!” The message of this song really hit me when I noticed that Kivlen had anti-Trump/Pence stickers all over the back of his pedalboard. “Twentytwo” followed, a song that caught me and a lot of other fans off guard in a very emotional way. The first time I heard this song the day it was released, it brought tears to my eyes. For some, it was about the “Me Too” movement. For me, it was a battle cry reminding me to fight back against my own self destructive thoughts and urges. “I will not go quietly into the night that calls me, even when I’m alone” is one of the most powerful lines I’ve heard in a rock ‘n’ roll song in a very long time, and hearing this song performed live proved compelling.
Before playing one of the band’s biggest hits, “Easier Said,” Cumming reminisced about their show at the Echo back in 2016. “Last time we played this song in LA, you guys sang all the words!” I remembered that moment too, and that it brought tears of joy to her eyes. Some of the crowd at the Moroccan Lounge took the hint, and people sang along with Cumming as she belted the lyrics. This song is one of their most successful for a reason. While they played, I recalled listening to their debut album in the car on my way to work after it first came out, and how “Easier Said” would almost always cause me to cry actual tears of joy, not because of anything to do with its lyrical content but rather its stunningly beautiful melodies.
The band played three more new songs, ending this portion of the set with “I Was A Fool,” during which Kivlen sang the chorus into a telephone mic made out of an actual telephone (Cumming politely reminded him to switch over to his special mic before they played the song). After Sunflower Bean left the stage, the audience kept applauding and cheering for more.
During the encore, the band asked if we wanted to hear something experimental, then proceeded to cover Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” (you may have heard them cover this during their Studio 1 performance at BBC recently). This was an extremely impressive rendition. Cumming’s vocals were on point as always, but it was especially impressive to hear her sing in a completely different genre. Faber switched over to the jazzy, funky percussion seamlessly, and Kivlen ended the song with a highly skilled guitar solo. The night ended with an old fan favorite, “I Was Home,” and I got so into the music that I completely lost control of my body and danced like nobody was watching.
Sunflower Bean never disappoints. You can catch them when they come back to town (sort of) at the Constellation Room in Orange County on June 14. An all ages crowd in the OC is sure to be an experience!
Catch Sunflower Bean on tour at the following dates.
3/12-18/18 – Austin, TX @ SXSW
3/24 – Nottingham, UK @ Rescue Rooms %
3/26 – Norwich, UK @ Open Norwich %
3/27 – Birmingham, UK @ Hare and Hounds %
3/28 – Newcastle upon Tyne, UK @ Riverside %
3/29 – Leeds, UK @ Wardrobe %
3/30 – Manchester, UK @ Gorilla %
3/31 – Liverpool, UK @ Substation at Invisible Wind Factory %
4/01 – Glasgow, UK @ Stereo %
4/03 – Bristol, UK @ Thekla %
4/05 – Brighton, UK @ Concorde 2 %
4/06 – London, UK @ Koko %
4/09 – Paris, FR @ Point Ephemere
4/10 – Antwerp, Belgium @ TRIX VZW
4/11 – Amsterdam, Netherlands @ Paradiso
4/12 – Hamburg, Germany @ Molotow
4/13 – Copenhagen, Denmark @ Loppen
4/14 – Berlin, Germany @ Rosis
4/15 – Vienna, Austria @ Chelsea Club
4/17 – Lausanne, Switzerland @ Le Romandie
4/18 – Zurich, Switzerland @ Bogen F
4/19 – Cologne, Germany @ Blue Shell
4/26 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
5/2 – Hamden, CT @ The Ballroom at The Outer Space ^
5/3 – Cambridge, MA @ Sonia ^
5/4 – Montreal, QC @ Petit Campus ^
5/5 – Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern ^
5/6 – Buffalo, NY @ Mohawk Place ^
5/8 – Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Tavern ^
5/9 – Pontiac, MI @ The Pike Room at the Crofoot ^
5/11 – Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall ^
5/12 – Grand Rapids, MI @ Founders Brewing Co ^
5/13 – Millvale, PA @ The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls ^
5/20 – Gulf Shores, AL @ The Hangout Music Festival
5/31 – Nelsonville, OH @ Nelsonville Music Festival
6/1 – Baltimore, MD @ Metro Gallery *
6/2 – Washington, D.C. @ Rock & Roll Hotel *
6/3 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle – Back Room *
6/5 – Charlotte, NC @ Snug Harbor *
6/6 – Atlanta, GA @ Aisle 5 *
6/8 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall: Upstairs #
6/10 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada #
6/12 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar #
6/13 – La Jolla, CA @ Che Cafe #
6/14 – Santa Ana, CA @ Constellation Room #
6/19 – Vancouver, BC @ The Fox Cabaret &
6/20 – Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile &
6/25 – Omaha, NE @ Reverb +
6/26 – Kansas City, MO @ recordBar +
6/27 – Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry +
6/30 – Indianapolis, IN @ Hoosier Dome +
7/1 – Nashville, TN @ 3rd and Lindsley
% – with Sorry
^ – with Dream Wife
* – with The Nude Party
# – with Jesse Jo Stark
& – with The Paranoyds
+ – with Public Access TV
Words and photos by Avital van Leeuwen