I love the last night of MidPoint. And I hate the last night of MidPoint. I love it because it’s typically the most attended of the festival’s three nights, the energy is beyond amped, the venues are packed, the very air seems charged, like Duke abandoned electric cables and is beaming power through the aether straight into your skull.
I hate it because this is the end, my only friend the end, and even as the evening begins with a promise of greatness, it comes with a melancholic touch and before the light has started to diffuse, I’m already missing this year’s festivities and anticipating next year’s first night.
Saturday night began with a dance beat and a whimper. I headed up to Grammer’s (after taking pictures of my daughter and seeing her off for her evening adventure, her high school homecoming dance) to check out Washed Out, the brainchild of Ernest Greene, whose Sub Pop debut Within and Without is a fascinating blend of laptop Pop and Indie Rock. Unlike Friday, Grammer’s was jammed with humanity and more were streaming in by the moment, the house obviously filling up in advance of the much-anticipated late show from Cut Copy. Sadly, by 8:15, there was still no sign of Greene so I bolted. For future reference, Ernest, this is a festival, and prompt start times are nice for those of us who have an interest in other acts. Admittedly, the majority of this crowd was likely here for the duration, but for those of us who were not going to be sucking pacifiers and waving glow sticks in one spot for the next four hours, the late start was as good as a no-show. Too bad.
I quickly made my way over to Artworks (after a quick stop at Mr. Hanton’s for a delicious and massive hot dog) for the big finish of the Culture Queer set, complete with dancing girls and a sweet transvestite clad in virginally slutty white dresses which picked up the visual projections aimed at the stage perfectly. Meanwhile, Culture Queer rocked an absolutely thunderous beat, like an even more sexually and electrically charged version of the B-52s, swinging and swaggering with Indie Rock bravado and their-tongue-in-your-cheek humor. Culture Queer is a local treasure and you should be putting their X on your map.
Then it was over to The Drinkery for a rare two-set visit. First up was Milktooth from Nashville, who offer an interesting blend of Indie Rock, rootsy Americana and a weird Prog/Pop undercurrent. As a live trio, Milktooth strips things down to a more elemental level, at times spinning into a hypnotic blend of Morphine and Jeff Buckley. Occasionally, guitarist/vocalist David Condos sat down at a keyboard and played with his right hand while augmenting the beat on a floor tom with his left hand. Condos sings and plays with a dark emotional edge and a compelling energy and Milktooth captivated a decent sized crowd in their Cincinnati debut. With any luck, this is the first of many subsequent visits from Condos and Milktooth.
Next it was time for the Pop/Rock splendor of Sparrow Bellows, quite clearly one of my favorite bands in the city right now. Ric Hickey is a master of every conceivable guitar style; few players could even imagine finishing a mid-tempo Pop/Rock ballad like “Tell Me Why” with a perfectly squiggly Adrian Belew-like solo, and then follow it up with the pedal-through-the-floorboard, Hank-Williams-meets-the-Old-97s hillbilly breakdown rave-up of “Rough and Tumble.” Meanwhile, bassist Sammy Wulfeck is a dual blessing, a smoky vocalist with an incredibly passionate and soulful delivery and a four-stringer with the sinewy fluidity and megaton power of John Entwistle. And drummer Brian Kitzmiller is quite simply the Ringo Starr of Cincinnati, a beatkeeper who plays with endless invention and subtlety while maintaining a kill grip on the pulse of the song, seemingly playing with almost no effort while creating an absolutely unshakeable groove. With Wulfeck and Kitzmiller laying down a bottom you could build a house on, Hickey’s world class guitar acrobatics put him in some rarified company, from Belew to Billy Gibbons to flashes of Frank Zappa and Jeff Beck, particularly on the two new songs that comprise their fresh MPM-distributed single, “Tell Your Papa” and “Thousand Recurring Signs.” It ain’t hype if it’s true, and Sparrow Bellows is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the mother-rocking truth, so help me God.
I eased out of the Sparrow Bellows show to hit the Hanke in order to see Detroit’s Conspiracy of Owls, who I previewed back in January when they came through town. I loved what I sampled back then and I was really excited to see what they did with their Move-meets-the-Beach-Boys soundtrack in the live setting; the Harlequins were just finishing up what I can imagine was a stunning set when I made my way to the dance floor. I had moved back a bit and was talking with old pal Kip Roe when the band took the stage, and thus began the brilliant Psychedelic Soul of … not Conspiracy of Owls, unless COO’s frontman Bobby Harlow has had reconstructive surgery to look exactly like Brian Olive.
It was in fact our own Olive — a last minute replacement for the Owls, who were unable to attend for “reasons beyond our control,” according to their Facebook page; rumor has it they’ve broken up — who was cranking out tunes from his brilliant new album Two of Everything at an intensity level that could blister skin and alter heartbeats with prolonged exposure. He and the band were absolutely killing it, and the gorgeous Molly Sullivan, supplying tambourine and beautiful harmonies, iced the deal. If The Monkees taught us anything, it’s this; if you’re going to put a tambourine in somebody’s hand, it shouldn’t be Davy Jones. Brian Olive is yet another example of the world class talent the Cincinnati scene spawns on a blessedly regular basis.
Then it was over to the Know Theatre to catch at least a little of the Bachelorette set. This was another act that I had written up for the preview issue earlier in the month, and I was impressed by Annabel Alpers’ one-woman laptop Synth Pop Dancedelica. Although she insists she doesn’t derive any influence from Bjork, her swirling Indie Pop dance grooves and swooping vocals would certainly appeal to any fan of the Icelandic Pop queen. Alpers membered up in a variety of cultish New Zealand bands before deciding on going it alone as Bachelorette, and it was clearly the right decision. The computer-generated light show behind Alpers was an interesting complement to her compellingly quirky Synth Pop presentation; this genre is not something I take a great deal of interest in generally, but Alpers/Bachelorette has crafted a fascinating vision of danceable laptop Pop that is irresistible, perhaps made all the more charming by Alpers shlyly demure live presence.
I kicked out of Bachelorette a shade early to grab a pizza slice and a free donut (thank you a thousand times, Busken … you are the best) before heading down to Arnold’s for the last show of the night, the blazing favorite sons of Granville, Ohio, the Black Owls. As it happens, I now have a vested stake in the Owls’ future; last year, Sparrow Bellows drummer Brian Kitzmiller asked if I was going to the Owls show at Jack Potts (now The Drinkery) and, as I had them on my list of possibles and Brian was excited about them, I tagged along. Of course, they didn’t disappoint in the least, with a Hard Garage Rock vibe that was exactly as awesome as Brian had advertised, a massive blend of early Stones, Mott the Hoople and glammy Punk. As a result of my subsequent write-up, the band contacted Brian through Facebook and asked if he’d be interested in playing with them some time; he has since become the Black Owls’ drummer of record. Clearly his Rock solid beat was exactly the tonic that the Owls had been seeking, because their show on Arnold’s courtyard porch was nothing short of astonishing.
Guitarist Ed Shuttleworth played with the hair-raising Punk fervor of Richards Hell and Lloyd, bassist Alan Beavers locked onto Kitzmiller’s brilliant simplicity and the two formed an unassailable symbiotic rhythm section, part machine tooled precision, part shambling perfection. And above it all rose David Butler’s impassioned vocals, a cross between David Byrne’s lunatic croon, Iggy Pop’s tribal wail and Ian Hunter’s histrionic warble. For over an hour, the Black Owls howled like a summit meeting between Mott the Hoople and the Voidoids, blistering Punk anthems butting up against Hard Rock nuggets to create a third sound that references much but sounds like nothing else. And the near capacity crowd at Arnold’s loved every original note of it, begging for more and getting it at the end of a fantastic set. The Owls are currently at work on material that they’re threatening to make into a double album; hell, guys, release it as a box set. We want it all and we want it now. And we want the Black Owls back as soon as possible, and that doesn’t mean next year’s MidPoint (although that should be a given). The Black Owls are a sound salvation, the Black Owls are cleaning up the nation. Don’t miss them, the next or any time.
MidPoint 2011 Friday notes
• No rain for a third straight night when it was forecast for all three nights! Take that, Doppler monkeys.
• As I headed back to the grid after the way-too-late Washed Out set, I ran into the Sundresses on Main Street as they were deciding which directions they would be following for the evening. (Side note to Mike Breen; “Fuck Veal” is all yours.)
• I actually crossed paths with John Fox on two occasions last night, the first at Culture Queer and then again at Bachelorette. And still the beer for the boss was not bought; I came in at the end of Culture Queer and John and wife Kathy had skated by the time I finished talking with Cincinnati master of sound Dave Davis, and John was on his way out of Bachelorette as I was on my way in. Dare I say it? Next year for sure …
• I decided to make an executive decision and extend “Buy Brian Baker a Beer Night” for one additional night, just as a courtesy to everyone who may have missed the breaking news tweet from Friday night. (Hey, where were the Twitter feeds last night?) Thanks to everyone who celebrated my love of the brewed hop by putting one in my hand; Brian Kitzmiller, Kip Roe, Tim Morris, Sammy Wulfeck, Matthew Fenton and Mark Houk. You are all princes among men, and I merely a beggar in your courts. Your children and your children’s children will rise up and call you blessed. And maybe a drunk if you keep up the pace. Thanks for bringing me along in your revelry.
• Again, ran into Paul from Kroger at The Drinkery. One of us is stalking the other, it would seem. He was there with his crew, including Screaming Mimes guitarist Randy Campbell (I told you I’d get back to you), and clearly a good time was had by all. Brian Kitzmiller’s lovely wife Sarah was also in the house; she was Post-It free (inside joke from two years ago). Kip Roe and his friend Tim Morris arrived for the Sparrow Bellows set and we slipped out together to catch what we thought would be the Conspiracy of Owls. I was obviously glad to see Brian Olive’s set , but I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see two Owls bands in one evening. I have so little in life that even the smallest things take on a larger significance.
• Also ran into the Lions Rampant chief architect Stuart MacKenzie, who is extremely excited about the prospects for his latest project, which is a studio space he’s creating with Johnny Walker in Dayton, Kentucky. Stuart laid out his plans for the facility and it promises to be an amazing endeavor, and when things get a bit more organized (and clean), he’ll have a more complete story to tell.
• On our way down to the Hanke, we ran into Wussy’s Mark Messerley, who was bearing news of a new Messerley and Ewing album. Absolutely cannot wait to hear that; he promises an interesting back story to boot.
• As I left the Bachelorette show, the Midway was coming down. There’s nothing sadder than the circus leaving town, but nothing happier than the prospect of it coming back. It was a great addition to MidPoint; let’s do it again next year, for sure.
• The Black Owls’ set at Arnold’s turned out to be the perfect end to an absolutely brilliant tenth anniversary MidPoint blow-out. First thing in the door and I encountered the always fabulous Sammy Wulfeck and his beautiful girlfriend Jenna. Sammy bought me a beer (he knew what night it was) and we shared a heartfelt, Iron John, drum circle moment. I love you, man.
• Immediately after, a gorgeous woman and complete stranger expressed her deep admiration for my hair, and politely asked if she could touch it. I responded in the affirmative, adding “In five years, it won’t be on my head anymore, so now’s your chance.” And like my wonderfully twisted lap dance partner from the Lodge Bar a couple of years ago, I thanked her for making an old man very happy.
• A few songs into the Owls’ set, I suddenly realized that Matthew and Kelly were sitting against the far wall so I made my way through the crowd to ruin their evening once again. They were seated with the aforementioned Mark Messerley along with drummer extraordinaire/Forklift publisher Eric Appleby and his lovely wife/singer Tricia Suit, who I also seemed to bump into on an amazingly frequent basis this year. No need for a restraining order, kids; just ask Matthew and Kelly — it won’t work. And with the eventual arrival of Ric Hickey, who’d been down to the Cincinnati Club to see the amazing Felice Brothers, it was clearly the place to be for MidPoint’s last show standing.
• But perhaps my favorite exchange of the evening came when Sohio guitarist Mark Houk stepped up for his contribution to “Buy Brian Baker a Beer Night,” which went like this:
Mark: (looking at my near empty) You want another?
Me: No, I’m good.
Mark: Too bad.
Within minutes, there was a Blue Moon in front of me. Too bad, indeed. Or maybe, just maybe, like the Black Owls’ set, like the last night of MidPoint — like every night of MidPoint — it was too good.
• Finally, thanks as always to the hardest working man in any business, Dan McCabe, for his tireless efforts to put this thing together, year after beautiful year. You are the absolute best, my friend. Sleep well and long.
• And thanks also to my boss homies — Mike Breen, John Fox and Dan Bockrath — who find some excuse to keep me on the payroll and buy me beers or encourage thousands of others to do the same. That's the kind of boss I’ve been looking for my whole life, and I’ve got three. Wise men, indeed.
• And obviously, thanks to the countless volunteers who sign up to make this thing work so very well (especially Buckra’s Jacob Heintz, who seems to be ubiquitous, to the extent that I ran into him coming out of Booker T. Jones’ show with a pile of towels that may or may not have been used by Booker T. and which may or may not make Jacob independently wealthy after a few key postings on eBay). You kids are the engine that runs this thing. Bless you all. And flowery thanks to all of our amazing sponsors who are the foundation of this thing. And while it goes without saying, I can’t go without saying it; thanks to the nearly 200 bands that graced our stages at the tenth MidPoint celebration. We really couldn’t do this without you.
• Twenty-six years ago on my honeymoon, my wife and I saw a Dutch garage band in Amsterdam singing a song in fairly good English, with an irresistible chorus that went, “Money makes the world worth living.” You kids all prove that is not even close to being the case. It’s music that makes the world worth living. Your music. Thank you endlessly for sharing it with us. And just 361 days until we can all do it again. See you then.
Check out oodles of photos from MPMF.11's Saturday fun here.