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Cover Story: Back to the 'Point

Repeat performers sound off about the MidPoint Music Festival

By Ezra Waller · September 20th, 2006 · Cover Story
  Five Alive: It's all about the music at MidPoint.
Jim Fugett

Five Alive: It's all about the music at MidPoint.

When you come down to the fifth annual MidPoint Music Festival this weekend, of course you'll see a lot of familiar faces from the local music scene. But as the festival matures, there's a growing group of out-of-town artists who are just as excited about performing again and again.

What makes MPMF a must for these non-locals? If you ask the ones who have made the trek a few times now, they'll tell you it's not the hope of landing label support and it's not the attraction of tapping into our mid-sized market.

It's the irresistible lure of playing for an eager crowd and seeing other great bands in an environment that still feels cozy year after year despite MPMF's steady growth. To hear these musicians describe it, it's like taking a break from the grueling realities of being a touring band and hanging out with a cadre of peers.

Favored fest
One thing the veteran artists agree on is that MidPoint compares very favorably to other festivals. All have played other showcases, including NEMO (Boston), North By Northeast (Toronto), Atlantis (Atlanta), Midwest Music Summit (Indianapolis), Motor City Music Festival (Detroit), the Thirsty Melon Music Festival (Louisville) and the Dewey Beach Popfest (Delaware). Some have played the biggies -- CMJ and South By Southwest -- and, in the case of Knoxville's '70s-slanted Power Pop quartet The Rockwells, even Bonnaroo.

Still, Rockwells singer/guitarist Jonathan Kelly is downright exhaustive in his praise of MPMF.

"It was the first (fest) we played, and the best as far as we're concerned," he says. "Bonnaroo isn't a really good choice for comparison, not only because of its scale but because it's not a showcase. There were very few up-and-comers in the artist tent. We were one of the exceptions, of course.

"As far as showcases go, (MPMF) is great because it's so well organized. As a band you're never going, 'Where am I supposed to be?' or 'What the fuck is going on?' or 'Where are the other bands?' You pick up your badges, get a schedule and go see some cool shows.

Kelly also says he loves how all of the MidPoint venues are within walking distance in Over-the-Rhine and downtown.

"It's good for a band who's playing to know that you're not stuck out in some island that no one is going to be able to get to," he says. "I've gotten the feeling at some other festivals that we're only there to fill out the roster, like, 'We got 800 bands this year!' and we're band number 800. I think the success of a good festival is the quality of shows, not the quantity. And getting quality shows together takes a lot of work. MidPoint does their homework, that's for sure."

Another plus for MPMF is the attendance, which continues to trend upward. Allison Tartalia, an acoustic Jazz-Pop chanteuse from New York, is returning for her third helping.

"The great thing about MidPoint is that it always feels like the entire Cincinnati area comes out for the festival," she says. "It's affordable and accessible, and I love that not just music industry (people) but music aficionados who live in the area make a point of coming out and catching as many acts as they can. It really feels exciting, and I feel like I always discover several exciting new bands at MidPoint I didn't know about before."

At last year's festival, Tartalia caught a set from Rhonda Everitt's local band pale beneath the blue.

They became fast friends and even set out on tour together earlier this year. Delving deeper into the Cincinnati music scene, she's been impressed by more than the talent.

"I'm always struck by what a supportive music community there seems to be here," she says. "Everyone seems to know one another, which is rather nice. New York is just so huge by comparison. You have various music scenes, but it's different from the cohesive sense of community in Cincinnati."

The local bands' music is also widely praised by visiting acts. The Rockwells even claim to hear a common undercurrent.

"I like what I've heard," Kelly says. "It's cool to hear a bunch of different musicians share a similar thread, even if they don't realize it."

Musicians serving musicians
Another repeated sentiment was that MPMF is focused more on the artists rather than the industry, perhaps implying that the festival doesn't cater to labels enough or focus enough on raising its profile in conference circles. Bill Donabedian and Sean Rhiney, MidPoint founders and organizers, see this as a positive, an indicator that the festival is carving the exact niche they intended.

"It's great that bands know what we know," Donabedian says. "This fest is all about being unsigned and how you make it unsigned or do the right things to get signed. Our brand is about the unsigned artist. We want bands that are starting to take their music seriously to think that playing at MPMF is a must. I think that in a couple more years a lot of people are going to know about us and what we stand for and be blown away."

Rhiney agrees with the focus on the artist but is also quick to refute the idea that MPMF isn't a place to get noticed.

"I was just on the phone last night with a panelist with major indie label connections who asked me about three Cincinnati bands," he says. "He was scouting and using MPMF as the tool to accomplish this. There are a number of bands who've found record deals, hooked up with managers, promotion, publicity and producers just by attending."

Jamie Toal, vocalist and guitarist for Chicago's eclectic Indie Rock band Tenki, has come across several helpful people at MPMF.

"The legendary Puck (Dunaway, Cincinnati show promoter) has helped us out far more than we could have ever asked," he says. "He's a great guy. We also have had a lot of help from some of the bands we have been able to team up with at various shows, like (locals) The Sundresses and Culture Queer."

Other out-of-towners are eager to make the trip to keep in touch with collaborators in the area, such as The Wrenfields, a guy/gal-fronted AltCountry outfit from Michigan who are coming back for their fourth MPMF showcase.

"Our first two albums were produced by Tyler Brown (Blue Jordan Records co-founder)," says guitarist Matt O'Bryan, "and (local singer/songwriter) David Wolfenberger played multiple instruments on the second."

While this kind of synergy continues to increase, it's still the positive impressions of MPMF that draw artists back, like Baltimore Folk Pop songstress Kristin Putchinski (aka ellen cherry).

"I keep returning to MPMF because my first experience was so good," she says. "They had a great keynote speaker, and the panels were actually useful. At that time, it was a small enough conference and festival that I felt like I met everyone who was there, although I know that I didn't. Plus it's run by musicians, so there was this independent spirit about the whole thing.

"I feel like I'm among peers and colleagues there, people who are in much of the same position as I. At the same time, the times I've attended I've learned something, gained some contacts on the business side and the performing side and generally enjoyed the music that was represented."

Moving up, moving out
Not all bands return, of course. Of the out-of-town veterans who have played three or more years, several had disbanded (Imaginary Bill, Gold Coast Refuse and Black Cat Revival) and one moved to Great Britain (Adam Evil).

A few also chose not to submit this year. Apparently for some, the thrill is gone -- or at least the opportunities are.

Columbus Rock outfit Semisextile had a perfect attendance record until bowing out this year. Their absence is ostensibly due to a scheduling conflict, but in a sense Semisextile has moved up from the indie festival circuit, garnering headlining slots on sponsored tours (such as JagerMusic) and even opening for Bloodhound Gang at Bogart's recently.

"I guess I felt that we just weren't getting much out of it anymore," says guitarist Nathan Eckhart.

For Loretta, a fantastic AltRock band from Indianapolis, the harsh economics of Rock & Roll got in the way. They're struggling to pay for an album in the works and have also established themselves in Cincinnati to the point where they can play for a guarantee. And having been scouted and signed by Benchmark Records -- which subsequently folded -- they aren't particularly excited about industry workshops.

We'll forgive them because they kick ass, but guitarist Stan Muller delivers an even more bitter pill, claiming, "It seems like every time we come to town, Main Street is a little more rundown and seedy. It makes me sad."

Obviously this year has witnessed an exodus of clubs from Over-the-Rhine's entertainment district. Speculation was that MPMF organizers would have a difficult time putting together enough clubs to host the festival, but let's not forget that every year has seen the organizers using creativity with respect to performance spaces. This year was just another in a series of challenges.

"Main Street is in a state of flux," Donabedian says optimistically. "North of 13th Street, Main Street is really blossoming. What will happen south of 13th? Good question. This year we've made sure Main Street will be cleaner, safer and better lit. This is a little beyond our scope, but we're doing everything we can."

"Most of South Main perhaps catered to a fickle crowd, and when that crowd moved on it made things very tough for some businesses," Rhiney suggests. "That being said, there are a number of businesses doing well. Would Main benefit from more private and civic investment? Yes, sir. And I think it's happening."

We are family
Cincinnati's reputation as a "good place to raise a family" is dismissed as suburban bleating by those who see the city as an oppressive quagmire of conservativism. Yet it's in the heart of the city, not the suburbs, where every September artists from around the region and across the country come to partake in a uniquely "Cincinnati" event.

When they bask in the camaraderie of their musical family, they're unwittingly enjoying the city's easily formed, close-knit community.

For those who have diminishing use for MidPoint, obviously things are going well. If MPMF is consistently fulfilling its mission, more and more bands will move on and not reapply.

But for others, attending is clearly more than a stepping stone. A large part of the attraction is that it's a feel-good festival. That vibe is not only a reflection of the organizers' commitment but also a function of Cincinnati's music scene, which, for better and for worse, is primarily musician-supported, an aspect that makes performers feel instantly at home.

"I hope my own spirit doesn't ever outgrow an independent festival such as MPMF," says ellen cherry. "And I really hope I always feel as I do now: honored and gracious to have been included in the showcases."

The Rockwells' Kelly is just as adamant in his unconditional support: "A large group of people out and excited about listening to music is something you never outgrow."

MIDPOINT MUSIC FESTIVAL runs Wednesday through Saturday in and around the Main Street Entertainment District. See them here.


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