When I was 12 or 13, my dad told me a joke that has, over the years, become one of my all time favorites. A drunk is standing in a doorway to get out of the rain, and a guy and a woman are standing on the corner in front of him, waiting for the light to change. The guy leans over to the woman and says, “Tickle your ass with a feather?” And the woman says, “What did you say?” The guy replies, “Typically nasty weather.” The woman laughs, they strike up a conversation and walk off together. The drunk thinks, “That was amazing! I’m gonna try that!” Pretty soon, a woman stops on the corner, the drunk lurches out of the doorway, sidles up to the woman and says, “Hey! Shove a feather up your ass?” The woman says, “I beg your pardon?” And the drunk says, “Fucking rain.”
When I looked out of my window at around 4:30 this afternoon, I thought about that joke, particularly the punch line. Luckily, the rain passed through relatively quickly and cleared to a large extent, giving us a nearly perfect night two of MidPoint 2010.
First up on my MidPoint rounds on a gorgeous Friday evening (did you see that sunset?) was a swing by Artworks for a little Poke ... and there was a band there! I love that joke. Almost as much as I love Poke. This could turn into an endless loop, so I’ll jump out by saying that Poke serves up garage boogie Americana with a whole lot of hill and just a little billy, sort of a Southern Culture on the Skids workout without the stereotypical southern culture. As always, Poke was full throttle, hauling out a tune from their Filthy McNasty days and another so fresh from the process that bassist Julie Judge had to take a few seconds to recall the opening riff, but once she worked it out, they were off and blazing. Tom Judge was super styling in his black top hat with faux leopard hatband and the Judges and the rest of their band (guitarist Justin Lynch, drummer Aimee Huber, guitarist/lapsteeler Steve Mast) threw down a tangy, twangy groove that slammed like Punk and slithered like Rockabilly. Hey, guys, isn’t it just about time for that sophomore album?
There is a certain aspect of randomness involved when working out a MidPoint evening, and Friday was a prime example. I headed over to the Segway Room to check out Come On Caboose, but they were having sound issues that looked like they weren’t going to be resolved for a while. At that moment, CityBeat honcho/beer-buying Hall of Famer Dan Bockrath showed up with his friend Miguel and we decided to set off for another show, eventually deciding to make the trek to Grammer's for The Seedy Seeds. But halfway up Main Street, we decided to duck into the Original Tax Place to grab a beer (a lovely Stella, which Dan, in true HOF fashion, purchased on my behalf).
There in OTP’s cleared out office space was Amanda Lucas and Audrey Cecil, turning out their brand of Indigo Girls/Tegan and Sara Folk/Pop goodness with gorgeous harmonies and great acoustic guitar chops that ranged from pleasant strum to flat out jackhammer chording. That AL/AC write lovely songs seems to be the sweet cream icing on a simple but delicious cake. With a rhythm section in tow, the women tended toward a tougher edge and, as Miguel noted, they would have been astounding with an electric guitarist inserting some sinewy leads throughout the proceedings. But by the end of the set, I was more than pleased that we’d stumbled into their circle. Let’s bring them back well before next September rolls around.
Dan and Miguel headed uptown to check out Caribou (who were crazy late with sound issues; what was up with that last night?), and I motored down to the Mixx Ultra Lounge to catch Sparrow Bellows. Ric Hickey and I go way back, farther back than either of us is willing to acknowledge, back to the days of The Speed Hickeys and Ric’s frequent solo acoustic gigs. As a human being, they don’t come much better than Hickey, and he’s almost unmatched as a guitarist. Ric’s had a ton of bands in the past few years, but he’s finally found the perfect combination in Sparrow Bellows. Bassist Sammy Wulfeck has the rare ability to play Entwistle-like rhythms that sound suspiciously like leads (and he doubles as co-frontman on lead vocals and he’s still alive, putting him up by two against the late Ox), and drummer Brian Kitzmiller pounds out a bedrock foundation that provides stability and a subtle undertone of chaos about to be unleashed. Throw in Hickey’s razor sharp leads and rhythms and you have one of the city’s best and most accomplished Pop/Rock outfits. They were having some monitor issues during their set last night, but it was of no consequence to the assembled multitude, who were all definitely there for the full Sparrow Bellows treatment; you had to take the elevator to Mixx’s third floor to catch the MidPoint acts, so there was no wandering in off the street to catch a song or two here. The crowd belonged to Sparrow Bellows, and they did not disappoint.
Because of the inevitable dilemma of simultaneous booking times, I reluctantly bailed on Sparrow Bellows to take in the last half of The Pinstripes’ set at the Know Theatre. I absolutely love these guys. If there’s a harder working Ska/Reggae/Soul band in a 100-mile radius of here, let me know because I’d pay good money to see it; any group that can even keep pace with The Pinstripes, let alone surpass them, has got a hollowed out space in their asses for a truck battery. When The Pinstripes get it going, they are an absolutely unstoppable force. They took it a little easy last night, given that they’re working in their new guitarist with Matt Kursmark’s recent relocation to San Francisco after snagging a plum job with Adobe, but his replacement (who I believe bassist Chris Grannenk ID’d as Jeremy, but I’m old and had been drinking) seems to be finding his way, and new trombonist Leo Murcia (replacing the departed and much respected Chap Sowash) is blowing hard, in the best possible sense.
Clearly the highlight of the set was “One Drop,” which The Pinstripes stretched into a massive live dub remix, with swirling horns and a pace that seamlessly shifted from head-nodding groove to ass-shaking abandon in no time. Even better, if that’s possible, was the band’s closer, “I’ll Be Waiting,” a tour de force of Reggae and Soul, an almost inconceivable blend of Gregory Isaacs and Otis Redding, a holy alliance of Studio One and Stax. It’s a stunning example of everything The Pinstripes do so well and a spotlight moment for vocalist/saxophonist Mike Sarason, whose talent and passion cannot be overstated. Throw in the boundless energy of trumpeter-without-equal Ben Pitz and the slippery plate tectonic drumming of Casey Weissbuch and, ladies and gentlemens, you have the best, most authentic and most dedicated Ska band in this corner of the galaxy.
Having written their preview, I was intrigued by MonkeyTonk and decided yesterday afternoon to add them to my list, so with the glow of The Pinstripes not about to wear off anytime soon, I meandered back to The Original Tax Place, which I should note is not a bar with a cute income tax theme — and what would that even look like? Run a bar tab and get a W2 at the end of the night? Drinks served on briefcases? H&R Blocktails? It's an actual and really good place to get your taxes done. MonkeyTonk is a group of obvious Rock & Roll journeymen of a certain age, they’ve clearly paid their dues and now they’re making some fairly glorious Americana that gene splices the swampy electric slink of Sonny Landreth and the balls-out Midwestern chug of John Hiatt, with flecks of Warren Zevon and Little Feat tossed in for good measure. They were handing out copies of their brand new EP Lookout, and I’m fairly certain they did all five songs, but they played them at a volume and with a visceral intensity that transcended the studio versions. MonkeyTonk is the name to watch in the coming year.
No walking to be done at this juncture, as The Tillers set up their minimal set-up with MonkeyTonk’s departure, making a little extra room for the dozens of people who were shoehorning their way into OTP’s limited space to witness the trio’s blazing Bluegrass brilliance. Of course, they do so much more than their banjo/acoustic guitar/upright bass configuration would suggest. They didn’t take home the 2009 Folk/Americana CEA for nothing; the trio brings a Punk ethic, forged in their early band affiliations, to a deep and abiding love for traditional, down-home music, creating a third genre in the process. Porch Punk? Ameriwanna? Bashgrass? Why call it anything? With Mike Oberst, Sean Geil and new bassist Aaron Geil at the helm, it’s all just great music, Tillers-style.
Again, I had to bail a little early to hedge my bet that the Blue Wisp was going to be a sardine can for the triumphant return of Babe the Blue Ox. I had talked to guitarist/vocalist Tim Thomas a little over 12 years ago for a CityBeat piece to preview what I believe may have been Babe’s last show in Cincinnati before they gave in to the music industry’s apathy and went on hiatus, working occasionally in other bands. Three years ago, they reassembled on a lark and have remained together ever since.
I think a lot of people came to the Blue Wisp with the intention of leaving early when the reality of Babe a decade deep in the new millennium couldn’t live up to the magic of Babe circa 1994. There was a time when Thomas, bassist Rose Thomson and drummer Hanna Fox were a sonic tornado, a stormy confluence of psychedelic Blues, visceral Pop and skittering Punk, like a summit meeting of the Pixies, Captain Beefheart and James Blood Ulmer. A few songs into their set last night and I would have been inclined to agree; it was fun and fabulous to hear Babe skronking through their brilliant and undervalued catalog (certainly none of it suffered from overplay on radio), but there was a somewhat subdued quality to the proceedings. And then, about midway through the band’s set, it was like they flipped a switch, and after that, Babe barely kept two wheels on the track at any one time as they careened from one great song to the next. Highlights certainly included one of the band’s new songs, “The National Organization of Wow,” percussionist Eddie Gormley balancing a drumstick on his nose for an interminably long time, and an absolutely manic cover of Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge,” Babe’s homage to Ohio after a dozen-year absence. It was a brilliant finish to an ultimately well-paced set, and clearly signaled the return of Babe the Blue Ox, one of the great and unheralded bands of the ’90s.
• Ran into the Aficionado guys (and gal ... I think it was the full band this time) on my way to Poke, my first band of the evening. We compared schedules, and they said they might try to make it out to see Babe the Blue Ox. They really are quite an amazing band … don’t forget: Aficionado at Washington Platform tonight at 10 p.m.
• In my haste to get my posting done and e-mailed, I neglected to mention that I ran into Dan Bockrath and his lovely girlfriend Martha at the Van Dyke Parks show on Thursday. And while no beer exchanged hands (they had a babysitter to relieve and had to bolt before the end of the set), I assure Dan that his Hall of Fame status is not threatened, mainly because he threw a Stella into my hand at The Original Tax Place just as I was about to use a plastic spoon I found on the sidewalk to chip my tongue off the roof of my mouth. We can now add lifesaver to Dan’s resume.
• I ran into Gregory Gaston at Sparrow Bellows, another sterling guy that I just don’t get to see enough of, except of course at MidPoint time. He regaled me with his tale of seeing Richard Buckner, who apparently finished his set by packing up his guitar, singing a capella while walking through the crowd and out the door at Artworks. Brilliant. You should write that down as a story, Greg. It would be fantastic. Tebbe Farrell was also in the house, as was Chuck Davis … I wish I could have stuck around to talk more, but them Pinstripes was a callin’.
• Ran into Mad Anthony’s Dave Markey and Adam Flaig and talked them into coming down to see MonkeyTonk at The Original Tax Place. Without looking even the least bit forlorn or thirsty, Dave bought me a cold and delicious Stella Artois, my second of the evening at the OTP. They don’t need to buy me beer, but I think I love Mad Anthony a little more this morning.
• I ran into Magnolia Mountain frontman Mark Utley at The Tillers show, as well as Rubber Knife Gangers Hank Becker and Todd Wilson, good men and true, each and every one. Mark hipped me to the fact that MonkeyTonk guitarist/vocalist Mark Cretcher had been a member of Magnolia Mountain for, as Utley put it, “about a minute.” It was just a matter of difference in direction and an amicable parting. Again, it was a shame I had to duck out of The Tillers’ set early to make the trek down to the Blue Wisp; Mark Utley is a fun guy to have a chat with, in any circumstance.
• The Blue Wisp was packed to the rafters for Babe the Blue Ox. I’m relatively certain that 70 percent of the old faces I saw tonight were customers when I worked behind the counter at Wizard Records when it was on Charlton, underneath InCahoots, and the younger faces were their kids (shit, I think, clutching my heart, maybe grandkids). The Aficionado guys showed up and stayed for a few songs, but it might not have been quite what they were looking for. Former Roundhead bassist Kip Roe was in attendance (Kip is looking for a bass gig, in the event that anyone is looking for a genius in that capacity). As we are wont to do when we find ourselves next to each other at a MidPoint soiree, we talked about them old days but didn’t ignore our presents either. Kip Roe is a prince among men; if you don‘t know him, you should know him. You’d be a better person for it.
Fairmount Girls/Tigerlillies guitarist Pat Hennessy dropped by — I totally didn’t recognize him under his hat — and Mark Utley made an appearance as well. Mike Breen, my boss, standard bearer and personal jesus (hold your e-mails; notice the lower case "j") was there with a shredded voice, the result of a long simmering infection, but clearly ready for some Babe magic. Buckra’s Jacob Heintz and Dylan Speeg joined the throng; Heintz, a longtime MidPoint volunteer, was stoked at the prospect of the return of BOX and was praying that he wouldn’t get a trouble call from Dan McCabe, which came but I think he managed to weasel out of leaving. My good pal Ringo Motherfucking Jones and his lovely girlfriend Amy came, saw and were conquered; he filled me in on the Fang Island show, which he felt was underwhelming at best and, like so many, was bummed about not getting into the Surfer Blood show, which was a capacity crowd. And beer-buying Hall of Famer Dan Bockrath and pal Miguel made it for the last half of Babe’s awesome set and were amply rewarded. My reward is simply knowing Dan.