The news reports all called for possible rain and low temps in the evening, but that Babylonian weather deity we blew last year apparently threw in a freebie as a tenth anniversary present because the nastiness stayed away for at least one more night. And what a night.
I started off at Grammer’s to catch the opening set from The Parson Red Heads from Portland, Ore. I had gotten their new album Yearling, produced by dB Chris Stamey, in the mail a few weeks back and was totally floored by it, and was stoked that they were coming to MidPoint. They didn’t disappoint; their sound is rooted in the folky/rocky sound of the ’70s, like the Byrds as channeled by Tom Petty, but with a textural undercurrent that swirls in the vicinity of Wilco and My Morning Jacket (members of Wilco are, in fact, fans of the band, if you’re looking for more than just my ringing endorsement). At first, MPMF volunteers outnumbered wristbands by a wide margin, but by the middle of the Parson Red Heads’ set, the crowd had swelled to a respectable level and they got a bloody good show in the bargain. The Parson Red Heads are out right now with Viva Voce, who were next on the evening’s bill, and then bound for Europe, but when they get back, someone here needs to book them for a gig where they can really stretch out their set list.
After the Red Heads, it was down to Artworks to witness the squalling splendor of The Spruce Campbells, hailing from our state’s capitol. In the studio, the Spruce Campbells’ exhibit a sprawling Psychedelia but the band’s live context is infinitely more muscular and Punk-tinged, sometimes veering into a vibe that sounded like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dandy Warhols if they’d been guided by Surf Rock influences. They were spectacular, all six of them crammed onto Artworks’ miniscule performing space, howling through their 40 minute set comprised of selections from their four EPs, plus a careening cover of the Troggs’ “Love is All Around,” which they turned into an acid-scorched anthem. I had a chance to chat briefly with vocalist Chelsea Moore, who said the band plays Columbus fairly regularly and doesn’t get out of town much, but they damn well should. Here would be a good place to start. Soon. And often.
After a fabulous hot dog from Mr. Hanton’s (I may drop back Saturday night for another), I trekked over to Below Zero to check out Shortwave Society from Knoxville, Tenn. I’d written up the blurb for our MidPoint preview issue and was intrigued by their sound, a cinematic melange of Beatlesque orchestration, the Pop twists of 10CC and Todd Rundgren and the expositional sonic evocation of Danny Elfman. Predictably, Shortwave Society ditches subtlety in their live presentation in favor of a more muscular approach that is rather Pixies-like while maintaining their signature complexity by way of chiming guitars, ’80s keyboards and melodically dissonant violin work. There was a pretty good crowd on hand to witness Shortwave Society’s engaging and sastisfying set, hopefully signifying an audience here that would return to see them in an expanded time slot.
I reluctantly left Shortwave Society to head over to The Drinkery to see the last half of The Capstan Shafts’ show. Dean Wells has done the Bob Pollard/home recordist thing since the late ’90s, and his voluminous work is compelling in its lo-fi depth and breathtaking in its brevity. Taking a page from early Kinks and Who records, which were rarely over the 30 minute mark, Wells has packed his Capstan Shafts albums with an abundance of brief but potent Punk/Pop nuggets, like the Ramones with a janglier edge. As Matthew Fenton noted, “They play 74 songs in a 35-minute set.” And they were all great.
I was going to stick around to experience a bit of Okay Lindon, whose sound check was louder than a back seat car fuck in a ’78 Oldsmobile, but they weren’t starting until 10:30, and I had noticed that The Pinstripes’ showtime had been amended to 11:00 from its original 11:30, so I hauled ass over to the Blue Wisp to catch the last few songs from Goose and be spot on time for the ’stripes. As usual, Goose was tearing it up when I walked in; I thought it sounded great but frontman Jason Arbenz self-effacingly copped to a couple of screw-ups, saying, “Well, I left myself a little head room for next time.” Note to Jason; whatever you thought you did was more than expunged by the passion with which you did everything else.
After the roar of the Goose it was time for the mighty mighty Pinstripes. These guys bring it every single time with a surplus of both joy and talent. Mixing up brand new tunes with old favorites, the ’stripes blew out the rust with their patented hybrid of Reggae, Ska and Soul, a potent mutation of Tuff Gong/Studio One strut and Memphis/Detroit Soul swagger and sincerity. The dance floor was jammed to capacity with molecularly-charged bodies that bounced with St. Vitus-like purpose and abandon. From beginning to end, the Pinstripes’ sweaty fervor was relentless and, as usual, they nailed everything with the elegance of a master carpenter in an Armani tux. The ’stripes have been working with an amended line-up, and last night was no exception. Trumpeter Ben Pitz has taken on an AmeriCorps project in the wilds of Colorado, and drummer Casey Weissbuch is likely only coming back from Nashville to do major shows; for the better part of two years, former Losanti drummer John Bertke has been laying down the rubber-wristed beat for the band. Frontman Mike Sarason says none of this has been contentious in any way, and that the band is auditioning a trumpeter until Pitz’s status becomes clearer. In the meantime, the Pinstripes continue to do what they do best, which is to do everything the best.
With the ’stripes working the crowd and the merch table simultaneously, it was time for New York’s Izzy and the Catastrophics to take the Blue Wisp stage. This was a show of interest for a lot of Pinstripes fans, as the band’s appearance was the live return of former ’stripes trombonist Chap Sowash, who moved to New York a couple of years ago and joined the Catastrophics. For the first couple of minutes of the first song, Sowash and the other members of the horn section moved off the stage and circulated through the crowd, the saxophonist venturing behind the bar while blowing an avant Jazz Blues honk and entertaining patrons as they bellied up to the rail. The Catastrophics are grounded in old time Rock and Roll, with an undercurrent of jumping jive, soulful Blues and propulsively swinging Jazz (they even do an Artie Shaw cover). The heart of the band’s music, though, is liquor-and-sweat-drenched Rock and Roll with a sweet funky ’50s edge, like the greaser homage that Roy Wood assembled back in the ’70s under the banner Eddy & the Falcons. The Catastrophics held onto some of the Pinstripes’ crowd, but a good number were less captivated by Izzy and his boys (“These guys suck balls,” commented one exiting patron, which was perhaps a bit strong; better to say, “My, I don’t care for this at all. We should attend another, more suitable musical program, don’t you think?”) but more stayed than left to cheer on Sowash in his triumphant return and at least seemed to have an affinity for the groove that Izzy and the Catastrophics were laying down for their first Ohio gig ever.
I bolted from the Catastrophics to catch a bit of Asobi Seksu, but there was a line when I arrived. I could have gotten in with my giant Media badge, but these people looked like they really wanted to get in, and I wasn’t knocked out by the distortion coming out of the door. I didn’t care for it at all and decided to attend another, more suitable musical program (See? Not so hard.), and I made my move to make the end of the Booker T. Jones show. By the time I got to the Cincinnati Club, people were shuffling out, the majority with dazed, ecstatic looks on their faces. I ran into Josh Eagle whose beatific expression spoke volumes about what had been transpiring in the basement space, but when he referred to the show in the past tense, I was afraid I’d missed my shot. He assured me it was still going on so I bolted down the stairs and got to the performance hall on the quick.
Booker T. and his crack band — guitarist Vernon “Ice” Black, bassist Jeremy Curtis, drummer Darian Gray — were just winding down a jaw-dropping jam that suggested Lenny Kravitz, Vernon Reid and Jimi Hendrix in its sinewy power and sonic density with Jones’ swirling Hammond anchoring the melody while Black made his guitar not-so-gently weep. Jones then announced the classic “Time is Tight” as their closing number and the song delivered on its promise as one of the most iconic pieces of music ever written and a show-stopping closer. Jones eased into that familiar melody with a slinky nonchalance and the band followed his lead, playing their parts in a slow, lounge-paced groove. But when Jones vaulted into the song’s familiar cadence, it was all hands on deck as the song exploded into another controlled free-for-all. I looked around at the crowd still remaining - if the Cincinnati Club had been packed for Jones, it was half that for the finale - and realized that while there were a few patrons of my vintage and older who were likely teenagers when “Time is Tight” was fresh on the charts, there were a great many more who were young enough that their parents could have been at least young adults at that time. And they were clearly loving every minute of the massive jam that “Time is Tight” had just become, which was heartening to witness.
The tumult from the crowd at the close of “Time is Tight” brought Jones and the band back, and the obviously delighted Booker T said, “We’ll do a little more for you,” launching into the title track from Booker T. and the MG’s 1967 album, Hip Hug-Her, yet another transcendent jam from my now distant childhood. They followed up with a cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” which appeared on Booker T.’s 2009 solo album Potato Hole, his first solo album in nearly 30 years. It was a cool nod to the common practice of the ’60s, which was to take vocal Pop hits of the day and turn them into funky instrumental jams, and in Booker T.’s capable hands, “Hey Ya” was fully absorbed into his canon.
Booker T. and the band saved the very best for last. As a coda to “Hey Ya,” Booker T. slid straight into the classic Soul/Blues of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” for a few bars, then rose up from the Hammond, strapped on a green Fender with an Apple logo affixed, stepped up to the mic and unleashed a version of the song that was part Saturday night bar Blues and part Sunday morning service Gospel. Whatever had gone on before (and according to Magnolia Mountain’s Mark Utley, “Green Onions” was beyond belief), it may have been merely prelude to way Booker T. and his musical miracle workers closed down the show. To see a living legend like Booker T. Jones, a man who essentially invented Stax Soul, was an honor and a privilege and a stone cold thrill.
MidPoint 2011 Friday notes
• You know it’s going to be a great night when you run into an old friend right off the bat. At the close of the Parson Red Heads’ fantastic set at Grammer’s, I was hanging around until someone from the band manned the merch table (I wanted to pick up their first album; their new one, Yearling, is incredible), when in walked former Doc and the Pods/Roundhead/countless others bassist Kip Roe. His opening: “You look great! Have you lost weight?” He clearly wants something from me and I can’t for the life of me figure out what it could be. At any rate, we don’t get to see each other near enough but to be in his company for 15 minutes is more than enough to set the world on a better path, even (and perhaps especially) when he can look me square in the eye and tell me my fat ass looks great. You are one charming son of a bitch, Kip Roe. Tell me more lies.
• I didn’t see any of my CityBeat homies at any point in the evening, but their presence was felt early on. I was talking to Parson Red Heads guitarist/vocalist Evan Way at the band’s merch table after their blazing set when the aforementioned Mr. Roe laughed loudly and said, “Look at the screen.” I wheeled around to the Twitter feed in time to see that, apparently, Friday night was officially “Buy Brian Baker a Beer Night.” Clearly the wrong night to forget to don my “I Am Brian Baker” T-shirt. But thanks to someone (Mr. Breen? Mr. Bockrath? A cabal led by Mr. Fox?) for making it official. My Saturday night is open as well.
• Just moments after leaving Grammer’s, the evening, nay the weekend, was made complete when who should appear out of impending dark but Mr. Matthew Fenton and his super lovely squeeze Kelly, and only moments after I had noticed a silk screened banner in a gallery bearing the message “Knit a sweater from your last tired thread of hope.” Kismet? Undoubtedly. He also mentioned that I looked good (I have nothing, people! Nothing! I’m a music journalist, and I will, and have, eaten off the ground to survive, or if it’s just something particularly tasty), and then resolutely refused to say anything even remotely quotable. When I told him about “Buy Brian Baker a Beer Night,” he said, “I thought they all were.” And that‘s how you get a quote from the unquotable. More Matthew and Kelly coming up.
• Man, that hot dog and Mr. Hanton’s was awesome. It bears repeating in case you glanced over it in the review copy. The stand is right around the corner from Artworks as part of the Midway. Go get yourself a dog from Mr. Hanton’s tonight. I will be there.
• Crossed paths with Matthew and Kelly at the Drinkery for the Capstan Shafts. It was a manufactured coincidence; Matthew had mentioned that was a possible stop and I took a chance. Kelly, that beautiful creature, reminded Matthew that it was “Buy Brian Baker a Beer Night,” and so he did. I was hoping for another Loose Cannon, but the bartender said they were out (“I didn’t ask what you are, I asked you what you wanted,” said Matthew of my order, inadvertently quotable for the second time in one night), so I went with a pale ale.
• Later, as Kelly checked the Twitter feed, she noted someone had tweeted that the Shafts’ songs were “short, fast and vaguely British.” I noted that also described my penis. Luckily, Matthew managed to swallow his drink without executing a perfect vaudeville spit take. Since I am technologically backward in the ways of Twitter (my cell phone is actually a small telegraph station), Kelly tweeted my response to an eagerly waiting world. “How is your penis vaguely British?” Matthew choked out. “Does it have rotten teeth?” My initial response was that it drinks like Michael Caine, which was funny in a surreal “that makes absolutely no sense” sense. In retrospect, I’m amending my answer to “It used to be a rampaging empire and now it’s mostly relegated to the insignificance of its birth.” There, that’s better.
• Also got a free Buskens pastry from the old timey ice cream parlor looking kid who came into the Drinkery. A pale ale in one hand, a glazed twist in the other; it was Homer Simpson’s wet dream and I was living it. I also bumped into Paul from Kroger again along with his crew, which happened to include Randy, who plays guitar in a local outfit well known to all that I have covered in the past and that I have dearly loved and (can you feel the tapdancing here?), due to time and tide (it ain’t the years, it’s the mileage), I cannot recall their name to save my soul. He even said it last night. “Buy Brian Baker a Beer Night” is something of a blur. I am mortified. I’ll get back to you on this.
• Ran into guitarist el supremo Ric Hickey and Brian Kitzmiller, the big man behind the kit for Sparrow Bellows and the Black Owls, at the Goose/Pinstripes soiree at the Blue Wisp. They were there to support bassist Sammy Wulfeck, who also pulls double duty with Jason Arbenz’s Goose; Brian introduced me to Sammy’s brother John, as well as Ed and David from the Black Owls, great guys all. Never did catch up with Sam; tonight, brother. And in case you missed the message last night, or weren’t able to make the Pinstripes show for whatever reason, the band has opened a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the release of their excellent new album, I. Check the band’s web site for details on how you can contribute to the Pinstripes to get I out into the world.
• Mark Utley, the big man up front for Magnolia Mountain, had a lovely sentiment summing up the Booker T. Jones show; “I forgot my problems for about an hour.” Amen to that, brother. We had a nice chat as we walked back to our cars at nearly 2 am. This is one of the nicest guys in the music scene right now and Magnolia Mountain is one of its best bands. Don’t miss them on Saturday at the Cincinnati Club.