We had joy, we had fun. We had some frustration and anger, too. Such has been the way of the MidPoint Music Festival since its origins in 2002. But, in the end, MPMF’s 2010 edition proved to be the most successful yet, drawing thousands of music lovers to downtown, Over-the-Rhine and Newport over the course of three days (Sept. 23-25).
This year’s MidPoint featured the fest’s biggest “name” acts yet. (Shonen Knife, Tom Tom Club, Van Dyke Parks and Ted Leo), and each of those shows were filled to the brim, as were the performances by the bigger on-the-rise acts like Caribou, Phantogram and Surfer Blood. Bands from the Greater Cincinnati area also did a great job of getting the word out about their MidPoint appearances, packing their showcases with friends, fans and other music lovers.
The festival’s opening Thursday night, traditionally the “slow night” of the event, picked up as the evening went on; though perhaps not as packed as the weekend shows, several of the Thursday showcases were impressively full for a weeknight.
The weather worries of MidPoint usually center on the prospect of rain, but going into Thursday, Cincinnati experienced record high temperatures in the mid-90s. As if that wasn’t odd enough for the first weekend in fall, an ominous full moon lit the streets. But Thursday night wasn’t plagued by any major issues (unlike Friday night, which, despite the Farmer’s Almanac’s insistence, seemed to be the night the moon was actually full).
My Thursday night explorations largely involved bands that utilized electronics and dance sounds, something that — along with “Indie Folk” — seemed to be the prevailing musical style of the festival (although everything from Jazz and Funk to R&B and Americana were also on display). But other highlights from Thursday included strong sets by local acts like Magnolia Mountain, whose mastery of Americana stylings, joyous stage presence and lead-singer trade-offs at Mr. Pitiful’s made them come off like a not-one-night-only version of The Last Waltz. Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s State Song provided a riveting set at the Contemporary Arts Center, their epic, passionate, dynamically arranged Rock lifting the small “black box” theater off the ground a few times. Fellow Cincinnati crew Walk the Moon mixed in a little synthtronics into their Dance Rock for a sound that resembled Franz Ferdinand crossed with later Talking Heads, something they drove home with a wall-shaking version of “Burning Down the House” at Jack Potts on Main Street (in the old Jefferson Hall space).
Audio Slideshow: Thursday
MidPoint was not only a chance to showcase music from across the globe but it also was an opportunity to get a glimpse of what might be a resurgence of the Main Street/Over-the-Rhine area, in terms of being an entertainment destination. A few retail spaces stayed open (why more didn’t seemed unusual to me) and food trucks/stands fed revelers. The new MOTR Pub (near the end of Main in the space formerly occupied by Coopers) showed a ton of promise and Jack Potts, Neon’s and Main Event (in the old Lava Lounge spot) also seemed prepared to bring back the music-lovin’ masses to OTR.
My Friday night got off to an auspicious start, as I hit two huge traffic tie-ups just trying to get downtown (one on I-75 with over a dozen police cars and several officers with guns aimed at a man on his knees in the middle of the highway).
“Now that’s full-moon fever,” I thought, carrying on with a little trepidation.
Audio Slideshow: Friday
By the time I got downtown, I caught a few songs by the impossibly generic Canadian Rock band blueVenus on Fountain Square (which, with it’s all-ages, no-cover policy, did seem to draw a lot of younger music fans to the fest, particularly during sets by heavier acts like Atlanta’s O’Brother). I decided to check out the stage at the Cincinnati Club, located in the basement of an old hotel that had a bit of The Shining creepiness, to see the “secret show,” which, by this point, most had figured out was ’90s Glam Rock band Spacehog. While the group (known for its hit “In the Meantime”) sounded great, the excitement level was fairly minimal.
Given my struggles just getting into downtown and a few less-than-exciting showcases to start off my night, I hit the tiny FB’s around the corner after a few Spacehog songs and got a dose of Silverghost, a guy/girl, New Wave/Garage duo that lifted my spirits with their innocent, buoyant Pop. FB’s was a little intimidating with its multiple “velvet ropes,” but it had a lush, comfy atmosphere and was one of my favorite newer MPMF venues. Though there were only a handful of people there to see Sliverghost, the duo seemed pleased with the enthusiastic response.
As MidPoint continues to get bigger, there are going to be growing pains and Friday night, they were on full display at the show by Florida Indie Rock band Surfer Blood at the Cincinnati Club. With a limited capacity and a line around the corner, it became clear that not everyone was going to be able to get in, resulting in some tense moments at the door and a lot of pissed off Surfer Blood fans. I decided to avoid all of the drama and headed to the Blue Wisp to see Brooklyn’s Babe the Blue Ox, once a huge draw in Cincinnati, though a lengthy hiatus made this their first show in town in a dozen years. The show was packed and the band received one of the best audience responses of the entire weekend. The sweaty, lurching crowd was straight out of Sudsy Malone’s circa 1995 — literally (many of the same veteran Short Vine Streeters were in attendance).
There were also reports of disappointed MPMFers trying to get into shows at Newport’s Southgate House, only to be denied due to a limit on how many MPMF pass-holders could get in. And the much-anticipated set by Canadian Electronica outfit Caribou was delayed almost an hour (reportedly due to sound issues), leading to some grumbling that was largely alleviated once the band finally performed a great set in the big tent at Grammer's.
MidPoint is becoming big enough that technical/organizational issues are going to happen (ask CMJ or SXSW if they’ve never had any problems), and it’s also becoming a festival where hard choices have to be made when mapping out one’s itinerary. Those two issues can make for a frustrating situation when combined — a few times I found myself waiting for one band to go on late while I could have been seeing another act. Still, it’s not a horrible problem to have. There was always something to see/hear.
My Saturday night began on Fountain Square again, this time with local Hip Hop crew da muttss, who performed a solidly entertaining set that had everyone from kids to elderly folks dancing along. I then headed to one of the more anticipated sets of the weekend, by Tom Tom Club — led by Talking Heads' rhythm section Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth — at Grammer's. The crowd was massive and attentive, even before the band unexpectedly launched into a couple of Talking Heads' classics (“Take Me to the River” and “Psycho Killer”).
While the bigger shows were fun, I also saw several “smaller” shows by some of the lesser-known out-of-town acts. One of the problems with booking larger bands into the festival is the fear that everyone will only go to those shows, while the locals and up-and-comers are left with tiny audiences. But, largely, that wasn’t the case. By no means were all the shows in some of the smaller venues (the Segway shop and ArtWorks, for example) packed, but there were always a handful of people who genuinely seemed to enjoy the music and who got into the exploratory spirit that I hope will always be a part of MidPoint.
Audio Slideshow: Saturday
At ArtWorks Friday, Australia’s Country singer/songwriter Henry Wagons had the 20 or so people watching his show in stitches as he told hilarious stories about Cleveland and Willie Nelson between songs. And Saturday night, Minneapolis’ Folk Pop duo Bella Ruse (rounded about by a full band) pleased a mesmerized handful of listeners at The Original Tax Place.
Unfortunately, not every performer had a warm and fuzzy experience. At the Media Bridges stage one night, a singer/songwriter and keyboardist played a set to only the MPMF volunteers stationed there. The duo couldn’t have been thrilled — Media Bridges was one of the more off-the-beaten-path venues — but I hope that, like the people who didn’t get into Surfer Blood, they made the most of the MidPoint experience and didn’t let one moment ruin what was overall a fantastic three days of music.
In 1999, I lived in Over-the-Rhine and used to walk to Reds baseball games two or three times a week. We’d get a $5 ticket and sit anywhere we wanted. But then the team started to do well and things got a bit more crowded. I remember being pissed at first — this was my team and my thing to do, you bandwagon jumpers! — but then realized the illogic of it all. Do I want a mediocre team all to myself, or a championship team to share with my city?
I feel the same way about MidPoint — while it’s easy to feel frustration at not being able to see every show you want or get a good viewing spot at the ones you do get into, I’m much more thrilled to see MidPoint become a champion in the music festival world and something that is becoming more and more appreciated by the entire city. I can only imagine next year will be even bigger, and I’m fully prepared to give up my spot at the headlining show by, say, MGMT or The National, and go check out the next, next big thing.
Let’s just get everything started on time next year, shall we?
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