It’s just after 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and Mike Belazis, Griffin McCulloch, and Devin East are laughing at an Instagram video of themselves while sitting in a booth at Cocina De Carlos in Waterville.
Belazis turns his phone so the group can see the video from across the table. It’s a 45-second string of clips of the three friends mentally preparing minutes before they would perform a 45-minute set in front of about 1,000 people June 7 on the Who Stage at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee.
Part of the clip shows McCulloch with a smile on his face as he nonchalantly says, “Yeah it’s getting pretty close, isn’t it?” Half a second later, he moves his eyes away from the camera and his grin disappears as he continues: “It’s getting really close.”
More laughter erupts at the table.
“I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” Belazis, 28, says.
The three friends, who together make up the indie/folk band Oliver Hazard, announced in January they were put on the bill to play this summer’s annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, a three-day event that had more than 90 acts including Eminem, The Killers, Paramore, Bon Iver, and Khalid at a 700-acre Tennessee farm.
The gig was the biggest show Oliver Hazard has ever played. Yet, when the band walked on stage at 9:30 p.m., the trio had played no more than 20 shows as a band.
In fact, at its set time, the band hadn’t even released an album, having only been formed a year and a half. Instead, it had posted three songs to Spotify over the previous six months, including “Caesar Knows,” “Illinois,” and “Hey Louise.” All three have generated hundreds of thousands of listens, with “Caesar Knows” approaching 1 million streams since its release in November.
“We played songs no one’s ever heard before, and then we punched in with ‘Caesar Knows’ and hundreds of people started singing the lyrics,” Belazis says. “That’s when we became comfortable. It was so nerve wracking up until that point. It made things so much easier.”
McCulloch, 28, says after the previous band had finished, people were already heading to the front row.
“We were like, ‘OK, they’re just getting front row for who is playing after us and suffer through our set,’ ” McCulloch says. “It ended up those people standing front row, you could see them singing the lyrics to the songs we had released at that time. It just blew my mind.”
Another song received well by the audience was “Illinois.” It has nearly 375,000 streams on Spotify and, oddly enough, was the track the band played through the speakers of its Toyota Highlander for a police officer after getting pulled over for driving too slow on the way to the festival.
“They gave us a ticket for our window tint and for following too close,” Belazis says. “We got to Bonnaroo, and we were so pissed off we decided to tell the story to all of those 1,000 people that were at our show. We played him the song, and he was really into it but then ended up writing us a ticket anyway. But everyone loved it.”
Guitarist/vocalist East, 27, suddenly speaks up: “[The police officer] was like, ‘I don't feel so great about this one.’ I was like, ‘What? Then don't do it!’”
WATCH: Oliver Hazard, “Illinois”
Belazis says despite being a part of a festival with such mainstream artists, the band valued getting to know the upcoming acts such as the Michigan Rattlers, Jade Bird, Arlie, and others who, like Oliver Hazard, are trying to make a name for themselves.
“Those are the artists that are excited,” he says. “You look back at the ’70s [acts] like Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and then you have the Stones or The Beatles and all these English artists coming up and were all just hanging out with each other even though they were nobodies at the time. They ended up becoming somebodies. The cool thing for us was hanging out with all these other young artists and all of these random up-and-coming people. No one is huge, but it's cool being a part of it and knowing each other and seeing where everyone goes.
“You can see the spark in each one of these artists, and they see it in us, too,” he continues. “It was cool meeting other artists that were a similar caliber as us with the same dreams.”
A few more shows in New York after the festival were followed by the release of the band’s debut full-length album, 34 N. River, 10 songs filled with vocals similar at times to Bob Dylan with an overall folk aesthetic. All three members harmonize throughout the album while incorporating banjos, tambourines, a suitcase used for a kick drum, and other various instruments.
The group recorded the album live at Bigfoot Studios in Maumee after winning a Facebook raffle more than a year ago.
“It's nice to have it released,” East says. “It was cool that we were in New York when we were able to do it, and it was perfect timing even though it took a really long time [to be released]. We've enjoyed seeing the numbers move up on Spotify.”
Oliver Hazard — from left, Griffin McCulloch, Mike Belazis, and Devin East — in front of the Bonnaroo sign at the festival.
A waitress walks to the table to drop off the bills as the group talks about the rest of the year. Belazis says Oliver Hazard is currently playing shows as part of its Ohio tour that will end Sept. 1 and has plans for more shows this fall. At some point late this year or early next, the band plans to release a second full-length album.
In the meantime, he says it’s about playing more shows, working on the band’s live presence, and making more of a name in its Toledo hometown. Oliver Hazard will also open for KC and the Sunshine Band on Aug. 10 at Promenade Park in downtown Toledo.
“We want Toledo to know about us,” Belazis says. “I think it would suck if that didn’t happen and we were more popular in New York or Boston than Toledo. We want to be able to come back here and sell out the biggest show. We want to play the Valentine Theatre one day even though they usually don’t do bands or the Stranahan or something. We would love to do something like that eventually, and I think the only way to do that is to have our own hometown really enjoy our music.”
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