As the weather reports began to shape up for the end of this week, I was almost convinced that we would be breaking the current drought by doing the reliable MidPoint rain dance, which apparently consists of scheduling the weekend and saying the word "MidPoint." But, miracle of miracles, it did not piss down rain on the first night of MidPoint (although it was hot enough to feel as though we’d been rained on). After doing the Australian crawl from the Lodge Bar to the Blue Wisp last year, however, I’m not complaining. At all. It was a glorious night, and Thursday’s bands provided the perfect soundtrack.
First up on my schedule was Wussy, kicking things off under the big top at Grammer's. Between the heat and humidity and the proximity of the Port-a-Lets at the back of the stage, the performance area must have been stenching pretty hard because Chuck Cleaver mentioned it numerous times, perhaps the best reference being, “We’re doing songs off our new album, It Smells Like a Fucking Rathole Up Here.” Despite the fumes at Aromadome and a somewhat shortened set, Wussy hit it out of the park, as they often do, on the power of the wailing guitars of Cleaver and Lisa Walker, the frenetic bass lines of Mark Messerly and the Rock-steady-meets-batshit-crazy drumming of Joe Klug. And it was a noisy set, not the cacophony of a Wussy show gone awry but a Yo La Tengo-like channeling of beautifully choreographed chaos, like when Cleaver snake-charmed synth-like squiggles out of his strings with a smashed beer can.
It was over way too soon but, just like a city bus a great Wussy show will be coming along again very soon. Get on it.
Next up on the agenda was Slothpop, an airy Folk/Pop quintet from Indianapolis, setting up shop at Below Zero. Their studio work is fairly ephemeral, but live Slothpop pushes out a much more aggressive and muscular sound. After checking out their online presence, the band struck me as being in the mold of the Innocence Mission or the Cowboy Junkies, and there were clearly elements of that in their live presentation. But during some passages, Slothpop seemed more about increased volume than elevated power. The harmonies between Kristin Newborn and Lauren Eison were sometimes a bit too forceful, Eison’s violin was a shade on the keening side and there were moments when the whole package bordered on shrill.
Generally Slothpop kept in check, and the 40 or so in attendance were definitely digging it. Although as I came up Below Zero’s stairs mid-set, a guy was running down and out, yelling either “Six, Six, Six” (an apocalyptic message from an end times fan?), “Sex, Sex, Sex” (the band made him incredibly horny?) or “Sucks, Sucks, Sucks” (most likely and self-explanatory), so it seems not everyone was enamored with Slothpop’s amps-up approach.
Then it was time to venture over to Jack Potts, a new tenant in the old Jefferson Hall location, a space I always really liked, to check out the maddest band in town, Mad Anthony. My love for these guys is no secret, and so we willingly abandon all hope of journalistic objectivity going forward. Mad Anthony in the studio is a pretty visceral entity, but Mad Anthony in front of an audience is like an indoor hurricane, like a scientific experiment where a volcano’s heat and energy is trapped in a containment unit and and then cracked open in a bar for entertainment purposes.
So what does Mad Anthony play exactly? From its volume and breakneck vigor, it’s Punk, pure and simple, but there is so much more at work here. Vocalist/guitarist Ringo Jones is like Iggy Pop channeling the spirit of Mississippi John Hurt in a Dead Boys tribute, screaming until the veins in his neck stand out like bridge cable under his skin. When Jones and guitarist/vocalist Adam Flaig start trading riffs, there’s a galloping rhythm that suggests Dave Alvin in his seminal Blasters days with a live power line down his trousers. And the rhythm section of power bassist Dave Markey and new drummer Marc Sherlock (taking over for the late, great Tony Bryant), who’s taking a busman’s holiday away from The Host (which is on hiatus while looking for a new guitarist), is thunder personified. The quartet ran through a goodly number of tracks from their new debut full-length, I Spent All My Money on Speed Metal, as well as a blistering, swinging cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which Jones dedicated to me (he’s forgiven me for my Michigan heritage).
Last year they were packed like sardines in the Courtyard Cafe’s window, but they could stretch out on Jack Potts more professionally proportioned stage and stretch out they did. A brilliant set by any standard. If you see the name Mad Anthony on a telephone pole, get the information and get there. It will change you.
Then it was time for Clare and the Reasons over at the Blue Wisp. Clare Manchon began life as Clare Muldaur, daughter of Folk icon Geoff Muldaur, who is a longtime friend and colleague of one Mr. Van Dyke Parks. Out of the wide blue, Clare asked Parks if he would be interested in accompanying her and her band the Reasons on a few West Coast dates, and a tour was born. They’ve done some festivals in Europe, but their stop at MidPoint is one among many on their full scale examination of America, where Clare and the Reasons open for Parks and then come back to play as his backing band.
The Reasons’ set was packed with absolutely gorgeous Chamber Pop, accented by cello, violin, euphonium and guitar and topped by Clare’s quirky and powerful voice, a cross between Jane Siberry and Regina Spektor. There is a reverence for The Beatles in the Reasons’ lovely little ditties, but it has that off-kilter flair and orchestral wonder that Harry Nilsson tapped into so successfully back in the ’70s. At one point, everyone in the band was playing a kazoo solo while Clare’s husband Olivier accompanied on recorder, and it was both whimsical and perfect. As if to point up the reference, the Reasons finished up with Nilsson’s “He Needs Me,” accompanied by Van Dyke Parks, a perfect segue into his closing set.
And what a magnificent set it was. Van Dyke Parks, as I reported in this week’s CityBeat, has never toured on his own music. He’s been a sideman many times and done sporadic live dates on his own, but he’s never presented his work on an organized road trip to far flung places like Cincinnati. The Blue Wisp was packed to the rafters to witness the event, and it was heartening to see so many people turn out to see Parks, who is, by his own admission, one of the most unclassifiable Pop artists of the modern age.
Perhaps it’s because the Pop age can't reconcile the fact that Parks is a student of the song, and his course of study isn't constrained by contemporary concerns or a need to move units. He'll use everything at his creative disposal to craft exquisite Pop songs, which means in the course of a Van Dyke Parks set you’ll hear Ragtime, Jazz, Baroque Pop, Brahms, Brian Wilson and anything else he thinks will serve the song in question.
In a set packed to bursting with highlights, Parks hit even higher notes with “Orange Crate Art,” the title track from his 1995 collaboration with Brian Wilson; his cover of John Hartford’s “The Delta Queen Waltz,” accompanied by a beautiful story of how Hartford spent a half hour on the phone with Parks’ son extolling the virtues of Bluegrass at a time when Hartford was in the end stages of cancer and needed his wife to hold the phone for him; and an absolutely stunning version of The Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains,” with a gorgeous arrangement by Olivier Manchon. It was over way too soon, and yet it was absolutely right. Parks mentioned to me in our conversation earlier this month that he was working on new material; here’s hoping that he’s been inspired enough on this circuit with Clare and the Reasons to repeat it when he has a new album to promote and that he’ll make Cincinnati a stop on that auspicious jaunt.
Monolithic Cloud Parade at the Courtyard Cafe was my last stop of evening (sort of … see the notes below), and it was a dandy. I had done a preview for MCP for CityBeat's MidPoint guide and was intrigued by their sound, and I had made references to The Polyphonic Spree, They Might Be Giants, Brian Eno and Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s not an exact science, but I generally stand behind the stupid poop that comes out of my somewhat damaged noggin. Live, with everything appropriately adrenalized and electrified, MCP hews a little closer to the TMBG side of the equation. Quirky Indie Rock with a cool edge, super tall guitarist Corey Fry, his super tall bassist Darrin Wesenberg (I think … they seem to shift personnel a lot) and a super cool keyboardist who doubles on trumpet (I won’t even venture a guess — no one is credited by instrument on their new album, The Sea and Setting Sun, which was called “an obnoxious Indie pie in the face” by Columbus’ Other Paper; I humbly disagree).
At any rate, MCP crushed out some pretty cool, edgy Indie sounds, even finishing with an energetic and buzzy cover of “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” which was a great capper to the set, inspiring one patron to christen them the best band he’d seen all night.
So, when I walked over to chat up the band at set’s end, the Courtyard’s sound guy says to young Mr. Fry, “So, do you sound like the Polyphonic Spree like the paper said?” Fry laughed and said no, and I felt the time was right to expose my secret identity. “I’m the guy that wrote that, so if you want to take a swing, now’s your chance.” Soundguy ducked and covered, but Fry took no umbrage, saying they’d been compared to worse. Wesenberg (I think) mentioned that they’d been compared to Smashing Pumpkins at one point, which doesn’t even seem near the ballpark. I directed them to the CityBeat microsite, where they can actually read what I wrote, and I think they’ll be more impressed with the Neutral Milk Hotel reference.
• I knew that this year’s MidPoint was blessed from on high when the very first people I encountered on my way to Grammer's for the Wussy set was none other than marketing deity Matthew Fenton and his beautiful girlfriend Kelly (I don’t know her last name but she doesn’t need one; she has a fantastic one-name vibe going for her). After shouting at him like an escaped mental patient for making me a liar in reporting last year that he was moving to Chicago, Matthew explained that he and Kelly had indeed moved to the City of Wind and that they were back in town just for the MidPoint festivities. Matthew also wanted me to use this forum to detail the fact that he’s taller, more handsome than ever and farting rose petals (he was considerably more delicate in his description, but he’s a marketing genius and I’m a production-artist-turned-word-mangler, so that’s what you get for trusting your quotes to me, Handsome Boy).
Even if Matthew hadn’t bought me a delicious PBR, I would still adorn his path with palm leaves and hail him as one of the truly great humans I have known. The beer just sealed the deal. Welcome back, Matthew and Kelly, if only for the weekend. The city already feels better somehow.
• I also ran into some of the guys from Aficionado, an absolutely brilliant baroque Pop brigade from Albany, N.Y., who I honestly couldn’t have picked out of a lineup even though we’ve been e-mailing back and forth sporadically for the past year. They called me out as I walked past them on my way out of the Grammer's tent/sauna; we had met briefly at last year’s festival and I’m usually good with recognizing faces, but they waxed me. I met the whole band at last year’s Demo Derby on Saturday afternoon (which we’re sadly not doing this year), and after hearing their EP I was sorry I hadn’t caught their Friday night show. That won’t happen again … they’re playing at 10 p.m. Saturday night at Washington Platform. Don’t miss it.
• Ex-Knife the Symphony bassist Robyn Roth was in attendance at the Mad Anthony show, along with her husband, Strongest Proof guitarist Tony Roth. Robyn reiterated that there were no hard feelings on either side after her departure from KTS. She emphasized that she’s amenable to one-off gigs and occasional reunions and that she just wanted to take some time to concentrate on her artwork, which is pretty spectacular by the way. Also at the Mad Anthony show was Mad Anthony (imagine that). Ringo Motherfucking Jones bought me a beer and a shot of tequila, although I confess he had me at "beer." None of this in any way influences my belief that the boys of Mad Anthony are all princes of men.
• The Clare and the Reasons/Van Dyke Parks show was awash with old friends. John Curley showed up, perhaps just minutes too late to see Gaby Moreno, who reportedly stunned the crowd with an excellent set. Renowned local artist Paula Wiggins, an old friend and classmate of my wife’s, was there to check out the Reasons and Van Dyke, as was good friend Dan Rupe and his son Elliott (who bailed midway in Parks’ set; not really Elliott’s cup of tea, but total kudos to him for even trying). Ben Pitz and Mike Sarason from The Pinstripes checked out a few songs and gave me the lowdown that they’ve got a new album coming soon and that they’re breaking in a new guitarist after Matt Kursmark’s recent move to San Francisco. Jacob Heintz from Buckra ducked in for a moment on his rounds, saying that they’d had a good set but not the one they wanted to present. They’d worked up a set with a DJ but, when he plugged in, he shorted the system somehow and Buckra had to settle for their usual brilliance. Also in attendance were psychodots/Bears Rob Fetters and Chris Arduser. Fetters proclaimed Parks’ set the most incredible thing he'd seen since Captain Beefheart (high praise indeed and not unwarranted), and Arduser hipped me to the fact that he’s got a new Graveblankets album ready to mix and he’s working on a new solo disc. Hurry up with that shit already, Chris.
• Van Dyke was signing autographs at a card table for a little meet and greet after the show. “I love this city!” he exclaimed. “I love the hotel where we’re staying. Teddy Roosevelt! Winston Churchill! I’m smoking cigars and wearing oxfords. … I feel like a lesbian already.” He gave me his business card. In a lovely open Art Deco font, it reads, “Mr. Van Dyke Parks apologizes for his behavior on the night of (line to fill in offending date) and sincerely regrets any damage or inconvenience he may have caused.” The only damage Van Dyke Parks did at the Blue Wisp was in our ability to listen to lesser Pop music from now on. Thanks for that, sir.
• I ran into the Sparrow Bellows boys on Main Street on my way to the Courtyard. As generally happens when we're in each other’s company, we immediately huddled into a serious discussion of the upcoming election, global warming and the state of the economy, problems which we pretty well solved within the course of about 10 minutes. But since the world seems to be populated with ungrateful bastards (a good many of them with John Boehner signs in their well-watered lawns), we’re just keeping it to ourselves for the time being. Don’t miss the Sparrow Bellows gig tonight at the Mixx Ultra Lounge Loft on Main Street at 9:30 p.m. I’ll be there (although I might duck out to see my boys in The Pinstripes; where there is life there is choice, and where there is choice there is misery).
• Nathan Holscher stopped by the Courtyard Cafe to check out the Monolithic Cloud Parade, having just witnessed the greatness that is Richard Buckner. I’ve talked to Richard a couple of times and saw him at the Southgate House a few years back. I completely understood Nathan’s awestruck look as he described just how massively great it was. He said that he’d had a great set himself, although he was disappointed at the lack of anything resembling Justin Townes Earle on the bill, and we all know that story so I won’t rehash it here, but I think we all felt Nathan’s pain. In any event, we need to get together for that beer, Nathan.
• Stopped in at Jack Potts to catch the tail end of The Pass. They sounded pretty cool, like an Indie Rock version of ’80s Synth Pop. I chanced into the one and only Brad Schnittger from The Sundresses, who assured me that he was drunker than he'd ever been on a Thursday in his life. Who doesn’t love achieving benchmarks? And it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more talented guy. Can’t wait for the Dresses’ always anticipated set.
• And once again I ran into my old boss/headcutter from the design firm days. Well, sort of ran into. I almost got his attention to shake his hand, but he looked right at me and then away so I decided to see if he would actually see me. I stood next to him for a good five minutes, and I’m fairly certain he both noticed and recognized me but did not acknowledge my existence. Kind of like when he fired me in a disconnected, reading-from-my-destroy-a-guy’s-career script.
He e-mailed me after my rant two years ago, apologizing for having to let me go (corporate decision, you see) and for any bitterness still lingering. I explained that it wasn’t the firing that got under my skin — I got over that the minute I started getting writing gigs — was the disingenuous manner in which he pretended to vaguely recall our original connection. Last night was more of the same, maybe even slightly more insulting. Thanks for the life lesson, but don’t bother to e-mail this time. I get it.