It was an eerie evening leading into the MidPoint Music Festival 2010’s kick-off night Thursday. A gigantic, gorgeous sunset was soon followed by a huge, neon-lit moonrise, which guided my path down the highway to the festival. Once downtown, the streets resembled their usual non-weekend selves — nearly empty, save a couple of neighborhood locals scrambling about. And, while the threat of rain is usually the weather event MidPointers fear most, tonight’s air was dry, humid and record-breaking hot. Who would have thought a music festival on the first weekend of the fall would be met with 95-degree temps (in the daytime, at least)?
Was the spookiness an ominous omen? Or maybe it was nature’s way of saying this would be the biggest, hottest MidPoint ever? As it was MidPoint’s traditional “slow night,” it’s hard to tell yet if it’ll be the biggest, but the music on opening night was top-notch, interesting and diverse. And as the night progressed, crowds steadily picked up. That’s pretty damn hot for a Thursday night in downtown Cincinnati.
I decided to hit Below Zero, just off the Main Street path, for the Standard Recording Company’s showcase. The Indianapolis-based label has a great eccentric/eclectic roster of acts (from Freak Folk to Pop Rock) and opening up at 8 p.m. was Slothpop, one of the many bands that stopped me dead in my blurb-writing tracks when I was putting together the MidPoint festival guide. Trying to find words to describe this mesmerizingly unique group was pretty impossible — they float somewhere in the realm of a Animal Collective/Bjork/Joanna Newsom three-way.
I was excited to see how the band’s airy, atmospheric sound would translate live — it almost sounded like music made by ghosts with its ethereal creepiness — but as I sat and waited for the 8 p.m. start all I heard was the Classic Rock house music and all I saw was a bunch of dudes still bringing guitar amps into the venue. I understand “Rock Time,” the musician-friendly flexibility of “start times” at music shows (“Let’s see if more people show up before we start,” is usually the reasoning), but for a multi-venue, multi-act festival like MidPoint, getting things started (and kept) on time is vital. At the very least, for attendees, it’s polite.
MidPoint is becoming more and more like the “biggie” fests (Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, etc.) where fans need to plot their courses carefully and make tough decisions on who to see and when. When the timing is off, it can ruin a dedicated itinerary maker’s night and throw everything out of whack.
I gave it 20 minutes and decided to walk up to the Blue Wisp to see Guatemalan-born singer/songwriter Gaby Moreno’s opening set for Van Dyke Parks at the Blue Wisp. My disgruntled mood was chased away by Moreno’s exotic, spine-tickling Pop, which featured silky elements of Latin music and Jazz. The Blue Wisp was the perfect spot for Moreno and her backing band — they played with a light touch, jazzy chords and a style that demanded careful listening (certainly not something for a noisy Rock or Dance club). The age-diverse crowd seemed thoroughly transfixed by Moreno’s sleepy, soulful voice as she delivered her slinky tunes singing in both Spanish and English.
Fans of Kim Taylor, Norah Jones and Over the Rhine should check out Gaby’s music. She has a real shot at being the next artist you hear in every Starbucks in the country (and that’s not a knock, just the vibe you get when listening to her music).
I didn’t get to see Parks’ set, but it was cool to see the man who wrote the words to “Heroes and Villains” and collaborated with so many superstars mingling with the crowd in a jovial mood, wearing a casual jeans/sports coat get-up and joking around with audience members.
I shouldn’t be too hard on the late start at Below Zero, since I wasted a good 10 minutes walking around the Aronoff Center looking for the MPMF stage. Duh, I had a brainfart and mixed it up with the Contemporary Arts Center. Hey, easy mistake — they’re both big arts-affiliated places on the same street. Yeah, I’m that dumb sometimes.
I made it to CAC’s downstairs black-box theater in time to catch State Song, a Cincinnati-based band whose debut album is one of the best things I’ve heard all year, local or otherwise. Live, the band pulls it off expertly — their epic, rise-and-fall waves of sound lifted the theater off the ground and occasionally spun it around with gritty passion. There are a ton of bands that try to pull off the emotive, earlier Radiohead thing and end up sounding like more-watered-down Coldplay (lots are playing MPMF this year, in fact), but State Song captures that essence without sounding like a knock-off. Those other bands make Epic Passion Rock™. State Song makes epic, passionate Rock that will stick with you for a long time (I had their songs in my head all night and through the next morning).
Next I headed to The Cincinnati Club, which enhanced the eerie spirit of the night. The venue is in the basement of an old hotel that resembles the inn in The Shining. I kept looking for ghosts around the twisting corners. Alas, I did find a ghost of sorts — the ghost of mid-to-late ’80s Industrial/Dark Wave music in the form of Houston foursome Indian Jewelry. The band played in entire darkness except for a non-stop strobe light. With noisy guitars and electronics, monotonous beats and primal tom-tom drums, the band made a big, hypnotic drone iced with spectral vocals drenched in distortion, reverb, echo and whatever other effect they could fit in there. The subterranean setting and brutal Electronica was interesting for a while, but my headache was begging me to get out of there.
So I went over to the Main Street area of Over-the-Rhine, the once-cornerstone of MidPoint that seems to be on the verge of another resurgence with new clubs and retail popping up all over, and saw a completely different brand of Art Rock, this one more poppy and friendly. Walk the Moon — playing Jack Potts (the old Jefferson Hall space) — are a Cincinnati foursome with a charming Dance Rock sound (with an Electro undercurrent) that owes a lot to later-year Talking Heads and would appeal to fans of Vampire Weekend or Franz Ferdinand. The young band was a bundle of energy and the crowd responded in kind. And you have to respect a group unafraid to wear its influences like a badge of honor — they rocked out a pretty impressive version of “Burning Down the House” midway through their set, as if to say, “Yes, we do love Talking Heads, what are you going to do about it?”
Walk the Moon’s mix of Electronica and Rock seems to be the hybrid sound of Indie Rock in 2010, as there are dozens of bands at MidPoint this year using similar tools (synths meet guitars) and influences. But they all do it in a different way. At Main Event (in the old Lava Lounge spot on Main Street), local foursome Kry Kids also melded Electro with kickin’ Rock, though their brand was more of the quirky, spastic variety. Switching instruments and sharing vocals, the foursome was a Dance machine that drew on its members’ extensive experience in the local music scene for a spirited, punkish sound that pulsated and exploded throughout the set.
After seeing three acts use and abuse electronics, I decided to go for something completely different and headed down Main Street to Mr. Pitiful’s for a set by Cincy’s Americana powerhouse Magnolia Mountain. The eight members crammed onto the Pitiful stage (which has some of the best sound of all the MPMF venues) but there was nothing cluttered about their elegant, accomplished Roots sound. It had a jamboree-like feel, with different members taking the lead throughout, kind of like The Last Waltz come back to life as one unified band. It’s hard not to fall for Magnolia Mountain’s sweet, eclectic Americana sound — they play with a joyfulness that is infectious. Smiles abounded on the stage and throughout the crowd.
I wanted to get a glimpse of the newest Main Street club, MOTR Pub, toward the end of Main in the spot once occupied by Coopers (and a few other bars). The club has a ton of potential and, given that it’s being run by some veteran Cincinnati booking people, that potential should be met soon. Main Street now has a quality original music club that’ll compete with Indie venues like Northside Tavern and Southgate House for bookings. It’s about time. The restaurant area was lined with artwork by local artists, and there’s a chill smoking patio and a great bar. The only thing that could be an issue: That tiny corner stage still just seems too cramped for bands to perform on comfortably.
I finished off my night at Jack Potts with The Pass, who played earlier on Fountain Square. The Louisville band also combined Dance music and Rock and their late start made for an after-hours-like dance party vibe. The foursome (with loads of synths, guitar and live drums) were tight and focused, and the crowd was really sucked in by the big beats and soaring melodies.
Exhausted, I headed back to my car and followed the moon home for some much needed rest. MPMF Night 2, here I come.