Forget about Kermit the Frog's emerald-tinted angst, it's not easy being Joey Cook. The erstwhile multi-instrumentalist and songwriter known for his work with Cincinnati Indie Pop crew Pomegranates has long been stockpiling songs and ideas for solo projects, but with the completion of his very first full-length album, There Comes the Lord, he found himself in the midst of a slight identity crisis.
Cook couldn't release the album under his given name since that had already been claimed on Bandcamp by last year's seventh place finisher on American Idol. He considered using his proper first name but there was the risk of confusion with local R&B/Hip Hop sensation and 2016 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards New Artist of the Year nominee Joseph Nevels, aka JSPH. In the end, Cook chose to adopt the creatively misspelled moniker Joesph as his solo banner.
Although There Comes the Lord is largely Cook's true solo construction — his Pomegranates bandmate Isaac Karns appears on the quivery reverb '60s AM Pop of "Jesus" and the epic and sprawling closer "Spirit of the Lord," and his sister Alisa provides vocals on three tracks, but otherwise it's all Cook — he has fashioned a band, including Pomegranates bassist Pierce Geary and ex-Kickaways guitarist Devyn Glista on drums, which he's dubbed Joesph in order to play the new album as well as other material he's written.
According to Cook, last Saturday's intimate release show at White Whale Tattoo in Walnut Hills was a rousing success, and the album is already generating online sales.
As for the album itself, There Comes the Lord is a marvel of influence, invention and translation. Cook blends a brilliant evocation of ’60s and ’70s Pop and Rock with a thoroughly modern Indie Rock ethic in a raw and immediate home recorded atmosphere that serves as the soundtrack for an intriguing concept.
Cook, who self-identifies as Christian, has created a song cycle that imagines what it might have been like to stand in the presence of the physical manifestation of Jesus in the Godspell/Jesus Christ Superstar era that spawned a generation of long-haired believers who came to be known as Jesus freaks.
The difference is that Cook doesn't attempt to contemporize his message in an effort to appeal to millennials, nor does he use There Comes the Lord as a pulpit to proselytize and ultimately convert. He merely tells this interesting story in a wonderfully musical, lyrical and compellingly listenable manner.
The album begins with the title track, which comes into
focus through a gauzy haze of moody Synth Pop melodicism as Cook intones
quietly, "Oh, the Lord, He's right here, He's right here," until the
song's midway point when it explodes into a propulsive mash-up of the
Polyphonic Spree and The Flaming Lips. At the song's conclusion, "There
Comes the Lord" returns to the relative calm of its introduction, but
Cook maintains his blissful church choir perspective from beginning to
On "Jesus," Cook offers up a twisted Curt Boetcher/Association/’60s sunshine Pop flashback with a reverbed Byrds undertone - they are the band that originally noted Jesus was just alright, after all - as well as a uniquely modern revelatory lyric ("He showed me some shit I never knew before He came..."). And "Jesus" morphs buzzingly into the compelling Psych Folk Pop of "Wind Hovering Over Water," which quivers with the lysergic introspection and melancholic portent of the last iteration of The Monkees, when the quartet wanted to be Rock mystics and Mickey Dolenz had dibs on the shamanic frontman role.
Cook's ’70s evocation comes to a crescendo on the album's final four tracks; the gentle Harry Nilsson-meets-Velvet Underground warble-and-strum of "At a Well," the Kinks go-go cage dance of "My Master's House," and the Bowie demo snippet of "The Rolling Stone." It's all reminiscent of that magic time four decades ago when bands' theologies could easily co-exist with their musicologies, and the results could be spectacular.
Cook saves spectacular for the big 12-minute finish of There Comes the Lord. "Spirit of the Lord" opens with a Floydian synth drone/march and the imploring lyric, "Master, why did you let them take you?" which quickly erupts into the kind of organized chaos that Alice Cooper orchestrated to perfection, which leads to a Beatlesque "Blackbird" homage which in turn devolves into a Brian Eno soundscape, trembling on the surreal edge of perception.
And with that, There Comes the Lord is over all too soon. Cook has said that he's got at least a couple of albums' worth of albums stockpiled in his archive; if that material is anywhere near as engaging and mesmerizing as There Comes the Lord, Joesph could be gearing up for one of the most thrilling and provocative solo careers to emerge from a Cincinnati band in quite some time. Good news indeed.
Stream/purchase There Comes the Lord here.
An EP can be a risky endeavor for any musician. The shorter run time leaves little room for a filler track; the artist has to make their impression and showcase their style in the span of time it takes for some full-lengths to start stretching their legs. Of course, crafting a journey for the listener is a bit easier when their leader is a scene veteran with a wide array of releases to his name. And that’s exactly what makes Northern Kentucky resident Jimmy Snowden’s new EP, Mandarin, so enjoyable. (In his solo guise, Snowden is billed as simply “Jims.”)
Snowden is a member of Cincinnati-area acts like Smoke Signals… and Sweet Ray Laurel, and each of his projects places a spotlight on his myriad influences, from unpredictable Post Punk to acoustic-guitar-driven Indie Pop. Mandarin’s five tracks are undeniably Snowden’s design, each showing a fragment of his musical sensibilities. As a whole, they coalesce to provide a complete picture of the artist and his broad skill set. Snowden wrote, performed, and recorded the EP entirely on his own, and Mandarin bleeds Snowden’s individual playstyles as a result.
The first track, “Systems,” has an initially startling introduction. The track features vocal loops layered over downplayed percussion and acoustic guitar, which lead to a track that mixes unease and catchy melody in equal measure. It highlights Snowden’s more experimental qualities before allowing the rest of the EP to showcase his more traditional, Indie roots. It may not initially line up with the rest of the EP’s auditory aesthetic, but it’s an important track due to its insight into Snowden’s more forceful proclivities.
What follows are four tracks that thematically fall in line more evenly than what “Systems” initially hints at. “She’s Down” and “Hey Nola” feature driving guitar riffs and unconventional percussion set just under Snowden’s emotive singing voice. Snowden’s layering techniques are in full effect on each track. At times, it sounds like Snowden was running between instruments during recording to give each their own standout moment in the mix. The guitar is the star of the show, with Snowden crafting licks that enter your eardrum, weave into the folds of your brain and take up residence long after the disc has stopped spinning.
On the final tracks, “LOVE” and “ALONE,” Snowden takes his formula and makes subtle shifts to alter the mood and take the listener to a more introspective and thoughtful place. “LOVE” introduces keys at critical points of the song to create an almost mournful tone to the balance of guitar and upbeat percussion. Snowden carries the same feeling into “ALONE” by stripping away almost every layer that he had so carefully constructed on the previous tracks and focusing mainly on his vocals and guitar. What comes out on the other side is an artist laid bare. It’s a song that easily climbs beyond its self-imposed limitations and works as a suitably antithetical bookend with EP opener, “Systems.”
While Mandarin’s run time is a scant 14 minutes, Snowden is able to expose his listeners to the many elements of his musical style that enables him to be a part of so many disparate bands and be successful with all of them. Mandarin is a release that gives new listeners a fantastic introduction to Snowden’s skills. But for those of us who are already aware, it’s a solid reminder of his eclectic talents.
Since its formation in Feb. 2013, Siegelord has been biding its time and waiting for the right moment to strike. After several sound, image and name shifts, the Cincinnati-based Metal band finally found its footing and began building a legion of fans. The quartet (vocalist Ulfr, guitarist Therod, drummer Sieven and bassist Warg) may have taken its sweet time releasing its first full-length, Ascent of the Fallen, but spinning the 12-track debut is enough to get any listener prepped to strap on some armor and go to war, even if it is just in the mosh pit.
Fans of Ulfr, Sieven and Warg’s previous band, local Folk Metal crew Winterhymn, can definitely hear some stylistic similarities. But where Winterhymn focuses its efforts on the Folk aspects of its formula, Siegelord leans more heavily upon Black and Death Metal to craft its battle anthems. Both bands weave orchestration into their songs, but Siegelord trade in the violins and keys for powerful blasts of horn and sprawling synths to give their tracks a more tribal and feral edge. These are not odes to honorable warriors but to conquerors and bloodthirsty warlords. and the musicianship reinforces that distinction.
Each members’ individual inspirations permeate every track. Ulfr’s love of Behemoth and Gwar fills every growled and shrieked line, Sieven’s Hardcore background can be heard in his bombastic cymbal crashes and heavy-handed pounding. Therod’s thrashy riffs, reminiscent of Amon Amarth and similar acts, along with Warg’s classically constructed bass rumbles fill the rest of the bloody picture. Throughout, the synth and horns add a flourish to each song and enhance each track’s intended mood. The driving, violent call to arms of “Gatebreaker” just wouldn’t be the same without a bellow from the horn, calling the fighters to one singular purpose — in this case, a massive, track-ending breakdown.
While the music itself is suitably brutal, Ulfr’s lyrics are what sets Ascent apart. The album is autobiographical in many ways, as Ulfr weaves a tale of the four characters banished from their realm and exiled to an inhospitable desert, ultimately finding a way to make their new homeland truly theirs. Sprinkled throughout are several interludes where Ulfr expands on the story he weaves. These tracks avoid feeling like filler due to Ulfr’s savage, spoken delivery, which elicits a shiver or two from the listener. Furthermore, “Siegelord” and “Warchief of Fallen Spirits” take time to develop Ulfr, Sieven, Warg and Therod’s individual backstories.
Buried within the fantastical saga that Ulfr shares are some true-to-life revelations regarding deception, lies, love lost and overcoming exceptional odds at all costs. In many ways, Ascent of the Fallen is a literal title and the band’s material benefits from not relying simply on classical fantasy tropes or focusing too heavily on creating a concept album to construct its tale.
Siegelord’s inception was a tumultuous one, coming out of very real, personal schisms. While most of these divisions have healed with time, their memory helped fuel the creation of an album that ties together many familiar influences and mechanics, but ultimately is able to rise above them. The intelligent use of Ulfr’s commanding vocals, riffs that cut like a broadsword, drumming and bass that crashes across your chest and driving orchestration has led to an album that may have taken several years to finally complete, but was worth the wait. Local Metal fans need only to listen to the album before exclaiming, “Praise the fuckin’ Lord.”
Siegelord's new album can be purchased (digitally or on CD) here.
CityBeat was on-board for all the fun of the seventh annual ShipRocked cruise, sailing from Miami to Costa Maya, Mexico last week. The cruise provides a unique experience for diehard rock fans to get up close and personal with their favorite bands on the high seas.
ShipRocked is made up of a tight-knit group of fans called “ShipRockers” They are divided into two categories: Survivors who have endured previous ShipRocked cruises, and first time cruisers called Newbs.The ShipRocked group of friends stays in touch with each other year-round through a Facebook forum where cruisers can support each other and reminisce about their amazing cruise experiences.
Diehard Shiprockers start a day early on Sunday night at the official pre-party at the Clevelander Hotel in South Beach, where fans saw performances by The Dead Deads and a surprise acoustic performance with Joe Hottinger and Lzzy Hale from Halestorm.
Halestorm kicked off the party playing “Apolcolyptica” off their new album, Into the Wild Life, and continued to play their hits for an hour as the Norwegian Pearl sailed away from Miami.
While on board, fans saw live music everyday from 1 p.m. until 2 a.m. These fans go from show to show with no nap in sight to see all of the bands perform live. Every band performed two to three shows while on-board to give each person a chance to see every show. Bands included Halestorm, Five Finger Death Punch, Seether, Nonpoint, HellYeah, Stitched Up Heart, Red Sun Rising, Helmet, 10 Years, Avatar, We Are Harlot, Doll Skin, The Dead Deads, and many more.
Besides the non-stop Rock, other activities also take place, like Deck Wars, where fans competed against each other with members on Nonpoint band teams. Some activities were canceled due to the high winds at sea, but there was always something to do between your favorite band performances. Whether you started your day with Rock & Roll yoga, participated in scavenger hunts or tried your hand at late night karaoke.
Cruise ships in general are pretty fancy, so you really never get over the sight of dudes with mohawks and huge tattoos sipping beverages and eating their four-course meals on fine china.
On Tuesday, Avatar performed as the sunset over day two. Avatar was the most fan-requested band to be added to the ShipRocked lineup and the Swedes did not disappoint. Their high energy show kicked off a night of music that included We Are Harlot, Seether and an on-fire set by HellYeah on the deck that may have been the loudest of the week.
Band members can be seen all throughout the boat taking photos and talking to fans. All bands also participate in meet and greets, where fans can meet and take a photo with their favorites on Tuesday and Thursday.
The cruise pulled into Mexico on Wednesday and cruisers could disembark for a beach-party option in Costa Maya, where Like a Storm led beach wars and fans could relax with an open bar on the beautiful Mexican sandy beaches.
One of the highlights of Wednesday night was seeing The Stowaways perform. The Stowaways were assembled by Danny Hill with guitar axe throwers like Dave Ellefson of Megadeth/Metal Allegiance, Oli Herbert from All That Remains and Bumblefoot. The band pulled in as many artists onboard as possible and practiced for many hours on Monday and Tuesday to pull off a show that highlighted everyone on stage. Special tribute was made to Scott Weiland and there was also an all-hands-on-deck finale tribute to Lemmy Kilmister and Motorhead.
There were weather issues that forced the cruise to move live performances scheduled for Thursday indoors. Five Finger Death Punch was one of the cruise headliners that was supposed to close out the whole event on the pool deck stage. In true ShipRocked family fashion, when the storm rolled in the band stepped up immediately and said they would play two back to back shows inside the Stardust Theater so that all fans could see the final show. The band played until 2 a.m. to make sure everyone could close out the party in true Metal fashion.
For Amy Harris' photos from 2016's ShipRocked, click here.
Madonna performed in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday for the first time ever. "The Material Girl" took the stage at the KFC Yum! Center around 10:30 p.m., but fans didn’t seem surprised, since the tour has had late starts each night. The tour stop is one of 64 cities on her Rebel Heart Tour.
Madonna has been the “Queen of Pop” for three decades. Most everyone would agree that she paved the way for all of the current reigning Pop stars, including Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Rihanna and she proved that she still reigns supreme on Saturday night in Louisville. She appeared on the heart-shaped arrow stage in a grand Samurai-themed setup and immediately let everyone know “I’m Madonna Bitch!” as only Madonna can.
"The Rebel Heart Tour" is filled with spectacle: a host of top dancers and elaborate stage design and set pieces, with Madonna at the center of it all. Even with the grand stage setup that takes 23 semi trucks to pull off, she remains the focus, with her over-the-top personality highlighting her art and athleticism.
The show features four themed sets clocking in at around 30 minutes each, with seamless transitions. The show opened with "Japanese inspired Samurai performance" theme, followed by "Rockabilly Meets Tokyo," "Latin Matador Gypsy" and "1920s Flapper," and each was defined equally by the music, costuming and choreography.
The music reached all the way back to 1980s “Holiday” era, but seemed to disappoint some fans because she doesn’t play the original arrangements of her classics. Most of the show highlighted her most recent album, Rebel Heart. Older songs, like "Material Girl" and "Dress You Up," were reinvented for the stage performance so that they could be inserted into the different themed sections of the show.
“Like a Virgin” was performed by a solo Madonna on stage, but took an EDM/Hip Hop turn for the worse. "Like A Prayer" and "True Blue" were both stripped down to their basic elements. “True Blue” was played as an almost acoustic song on a ukulele sitting on her Rockabilly Car Shop stage setup,
Madonna still rides the line between overtly sexual themes on stage and providing a show to which one could bring the whole family. During a few interludes she spoke directly to the Kentucky audience and at one point saying “In the words of Colonel Sanders, my six-pack is finger licking good” as her dancers all showed off their six-pack abs for the crowd. Sex was also a main theme for one set change, as the amazingly talented dancers performed acrobatics on beds in front of the big screen images that looked straight out of the Truth or Dare movie.
The show was a time capsule that took fans through albums that fill 30 years of Pop Music. Madonna showed everyone that she is still on top and, in her words, “Nobody fucks with the Queen.”
That old trope about doers doing and non-doers teaching holds no currency with saxophonist Dave McDonnell. The Chicago native relocated to Cincinnati six years ago to complete his doctorate Jazz studies at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, which ultimately led to positions at UC and the University of Dayton, teaching both music and music technology.
At the same time, McDonnell never abandoned his love for performance, composition and recording. Early in his Jazz career, McDonnell divided his time between waiting tables, teaching private music lessons and playing in an impossible number of bands; he even worked with Elephant 6 icons Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control (studio sessions with the former, touring with the latter).
Family life and academic rigors forced McDonnell to dial down his band participation — he currently works with Michael Columbia, Diving Bell and Herculaneum — but his reduced roles also provided him the impetus to resume exploring his own work, leading him to assemble a coterie of friends and bandmates from his Chicago experience (guitarist Chris Welcome, bassist Joshua Abrams, drummer Frank Rosaly, vibraphonist Jason Adaiewicz and cellist Tomeka Reid) and form the Dave McDonnell Group.
Utilizing a blend of crafted and precise composition and free-form improvisation, McDonnell created a masterful and acclaimed debut album, last year's the dragon and the griffin. The album was by turns contemplative and explosive, but always guided by the spirit of Ornette Coleman's similarly constructed pieces, where the tunes' purposefully written passages set the tone and established a foundation and framework for the band's circuitously invigorating spontaneity.
Just a little over a year and a half later, McDonnell and his Group (a version of which features Cincinnati players for area live shows) have returned, once again eschewing upper-case titling and stodgy tradition on the appropriately christened the time inside a year, his debut for esteemed Chicago Jazz label Delmark. While McDonnell adheres to his winning compositional-vs.-improvisational strategy on the time inside a year, he also adds a new wrinkle with a slightly older piece from his canon, namely his three-movement suite "AEpse," which grew out of his doctorate studies at CCM and which he debuted in Chicago two years ago.
"AEpse" stands in contrast to the grooves, shifting rhythms and dazzlingly intricate harmonics of the rest of the time inside a year. "AEpse," as a three-part, 11-minute piece of music, explores a chilly soundscape of electronic expanse, appointed by Reid's mesmerizing cello incantations, which drift through McDonnell's constructed atmosphere like smoke in a virtual opium den. But rather than present this sonorously beautiful piece as a whole, McDonnell chose to intersperse the three "AEpse" movements within his gyrational Bop tracklist, allowing them to serve as way stations along the album's journey.
And what an impressive journey it proves to be. Opening with the quietly propulsive "Bullitt," moving into the slinkily engaging and sensual "Vox Orion" and on to the jaunty "The Contract with Bees," McDonnell displays his considerable skills as both a powerful frontman and a generous bandleader, jumping to the fore with appropriately frenetic flurries of notes or delicately woven passages, or yielding the floor to Adasiewicz's fluid and enchanting vibraphone runs or Welcome's always brilliant guitar contributions, all of it made possible by the gymnastics of Abrams and Rosaly's limber and diverse rhythm section.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the swinging, shattering "Baker's Man," which begins and ends with the band in unison on the song's loping theme and fills its center with a dissonant Sun Ra/Zappa/Beefheart explosion of sounds and ideas. As atypical as it is sonically to the rest of the time inside a year, it perfectly points up McDonnell's incredible compositional skills and DMG's extraordinary ability to go completely off the map and then return to the radar in a fraction of a heartbeat.
Cincinnati has enjoyed a long and storied Jazz tradition, spawning some of the most profoundly talented and inventive players in the country, but even its most revered alumni must be sitting up and taking notice of the jaw-dropping accomplishments of Dave McDonnell and his innovative and musically curious Jazz collective. Clearly McDonnell's depth and breadth of experience informs every second of the Dave McDonnell Group's incredible output, but it is the application of that experience to his own work that is so consistently impressive. Two years and two albums in, and the anticipation of where DMG might head next is palpable and exciting.
THE DAVE MCDONNELL GROUP, with guitarist Brad Myers, bassist Peter Gemus and drummer Dan Dorff, plays Urban Artifact on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
The wholly unexpected announcement of a pair of reunion shows by one of Cincinnati’s greatest bands, Ass Ponys, inspired a sense of excitement within me that was matched only by the birth of my two children, the legal end of my first marriage and meeting the woman who convinced me to sign up for a 33-year-and-counting second hitch.
You might think that's overstating a case, and I might think so as well, but the fact remains that I was beside myself at the thought of seeing Ass Ponys in action after a decade-long hiatus. And the reason was quite simple — I had never seen the Ass Ponys during their 17-year run.
As Ass Ponys frontman Chuck Cleaver has said many times since the reunion was trumpeted, the band was never nearly as popular here in Cincinnati as they were out in the wider, smarter world. That fact had nothing to do with the reality that I had never seen them play. I loved them before they'd recorded a single note of music.
My first exposure to Ass Ponys was their one-song appearance on WVXU's tribute to The Who in the summer of 1989, simulcast live from the station’s studios and appropriately dubbed “Who Cares.” Ass Ponys were among a stellar local lineup that included The Afghan Whigs, The Speed Hickeys, The Thangs, Human Zoo, Bucking Strap, SS0-20, Warsaw Falcons and many others. Each contributed a single song to the proceedings. Ass Ponys, accompanied by local guitar legend Bill Weber, roared through a Who rarity, "Glow Girl," an outtake that appeared on the 1974 collection, Odds & Sods. Having heard about them but never actually having heard them, the band’s R.E.M.-esque take on "Glow Girl" sold me in half a heartbeat. I taped all of the musical performances from “Who Cares” on that July evening (oddly enough the 20th anniversary of the moon landing — insert inadvertent Keith Moon reference here) and I cherish that cassette. Ass Ponys' rendition of the Who's archive gem remains a personal highlight.
Four months later, I took a job with a design/marketing firm and almost immediately began clocking serious overtime. Just over a year after that, I revived my freelance writing career as an adjunct to my full-time position, and hours that might have been used to see local shows dissipated like cigarette smoke in a cyclone. As much as I wanted to see Ass Ponys, the planet alignment of my ability to slink out into a night coinciding with one of their local appearances never occurred.
But I avidly followed the band’s recording endeavors. I bought Mr. Superlove and Grim upon release in the early ’90s, and my freelance writing activity earned me a contact at A&M Records, which resulted in Electric Rock Music and The Known Universe showing up in my post office box. I raged at the cosmos when Ass Ponys was dropped from the label's roster and exulted when they chimed with typical Cleaver "fuck it" bravado and re-blazed their independent trail with Lohio and Some Stupid with a Flare Gun.
Ass Ponys' catalog took on the gravitas of scripture for me, stone musical tablets engraved by the flaming finger of God and sent forth into the world to instruct the unwashed and convert the unconverted. They sang about loss and death and dysfunction and insanity with a cheerily twisted conviction that was infectious and transcendent, and I drank their bitter Kool-Aid with a smile on my face and their songs in my heart.
Obviously, just as the Ass Ponys blipped off area radar screens in 2005, Cleaver’s musical collaboration with Lisa Walker was blossoming, laying the foundation for a decade of Wussy brilliance (which continues next March with the release of Forever Sounds). Yet even as Wussy's star ascended, and the band's permanence was asserted, questions lingered about Ass Ponys' status. They had never regretted to inform their fans of their demise, never bid the faithful a teary farewell at the finale of a blaze-of-glory last show. Ass Ponys simply ceased to be, its members scattering to new situations and directions.
Maybe that's why the announcement of Ass Ponys' reunion shows at Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater Nov. 6 and 7 was met with such an exuberant reception. As inauspiciously as the band retreated into the shadows, Ass Ponys planned their return with an equal lack of fanfare. But the loyal had little interest in allowing the band to shuffle quietly back into the spotlight. It was quickly apparent by way of social media posts that fans from around the country were already planning their Cincinnati pilgrimages to crowd the front of an Ass Ponys stage one more time.
With the Friday night show, after weeks of fairly intense rehearsals, the waiting came to an end and Ass Ponys steeled themselves to the task of presenting material that was, in some cases, close to a quarter-century old. Cleaver reported just prior to the show that he was likely the least nervous member of the band, revealing that bassist Randy Cheek had been up all the previous night thinking about their first show in over 10 years; presumably, guitarist John Erhardt (who plays with Cleaver in Wussy) and drummer Dave Morrison expressed similar signs of anxiety. But Cleaver also noted that the Woodward shows would be populated by the friendliest audiences Ass Ponys had ever attracted.
Friday's show began with a terrific set from Swim Team, which rocked a vibe that was part '60s-Pop melodicism, part Blondie-tinted New Wave edge and part Slits avant Art Rock eclecticism. Frontwoman Lillian Currens veered from a sweet Pop croon to a visceral Rock wail while the rest of the band provided an appropriately dynamic soundscape for her gymnastic vocals to pinwheel around in, creating a Riot Grrrl/Lana Del Ray mixtape. The quartet's brash and jittery opening set was the perfect introduction to what would prove to be an incredible moment in Cincinnati's musical history.
Given that I was an Ass Ponys stage virgin until Friday's glorious deflowering, I can offer no comparisons, no yardstick of performances past by which to measure the band's transfiguration into a contemporary unit. What I do know is that the four members of Ass Ponys have spent the last 10 years playing in some of the best and brawniest and most creative bands in recent memory, and that expansive breadth of experience couldn't help but elevate Ass Ponys' performance to an incredible new level in the modern context. Cleaver had noted during an interview on Class X Radio with Eddy Mullet and I the Monday before the shows that the band had discussed how to approach their material, with everyone agreeing it was best to relearn and rearrange the songs with their current expertise, rather than to recreate them note for note for the sake of some manufactured nostalgia.
The wisdom of that decision was proven with indelible and muscular versions of some of the best selections from Ass Ponys' powerful songbook. They went effortlessly from strength to strength, spitting and kicking and tearing through early classics ("I Love Bob," "Azalea"), A&M-era standouts ("Earth to Grandma," "Shoe Money," "Under Cedars and Stars") and late period wonders ("Butterfly," "Pretty as You Please," "Astronaut"), all with a renewed vigor and the hyper-electric jolt of pissing on an electric fence.
As usual, Cleaver was an engaging ringmaster. Three songs in, he noted in classic style, "Some things never change. I still sweat like a whore in church." He then recounted an observation made by a woman he overheard at an Ass Ponys show years ago: "I've never seen a man sweat that much without passing out." Throughout the night, people would call out unrehearsed requests which Cleaver fielded with a definitive "Nope." Cleaver explained the origins of songs ("This one's about a monkey …”) and kept up his standard patter-on-wry, but mostly he thanked the multitude for its dedication and passion, noting how humbling it was to see how many people drove and flew in from all over the country (rumor had it someone was coming from England) with the sole objective of witnessing the Ass Ponys' fresh splendor.
At the end, Cleaver announced — sarcastically and yet somehow lovingly — "This is the one that bought us our luxurious lifestyle," and the group launched into its MTV/college radio hit, "Little Bastard," the last in a long string of sing-along moments. If the show had gone on for another two hours, it would have seemed too short, but with the fading strains of "Little Bastard" ringing in my ears, I felt that my first and likely last live exposure to Ass Ponys was an overwhelming success and quite possibly an ecstatic religious experience.
As Wussy bassist Mark Messerly noted before the show started, the atmosphere at the Woodward was like a high school reunion "where you like everyone and you want to be there." 500 Miles to Memphis frontman Ryan Malott recounted how he had grown up down the street from Cleaver and had graduated with his daughter, ultimately crediting the Ass Ponys with sparking his interest in picking up a guitar and making his own music.
A lot of Friday's attendees had a direct connection to Ass Ponys' past and present. Vacation/Tweens drummer Jerri Queen (who would be opening Saturday's show with Vacation) helped produce and engineer the new Wussy album (as did Swim Team guitarist John Hoffman). The Ready Stance guitarist/vocalist Wes Pence, now bandmates with Cheek, was a contemporary of Ass Ponys with his ’90s outfit Middlemarch. Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley produced or engineered the first four Ass Ponys releases. Tigerlilies guitarist/vocalist Pat Hennessey was fronting The Thangs back in ’80s and ’90s, and was in a Fairmount Girls lineup with Cheek. Jim and Darren Blase helped maintain the Ass Ponys' flame by releasing the 2005 two-disc retrospective, The Okra Years, on their Shake It Records imprint.
Blase, freshly relocated back to Cincinnati after several years in Cambridge, Mass. (stop into Shake It’s shop and welcome him home), rightly noted that while Ass Ponys' influence is far-reaching and pervasive, no one, from the time of their first rehearsal in 1989 to the Woodward show we were anxiously awaiting, sounds quite like they do, a sound Blase likened to "an Americana Pere Ubu." No truer words.
The two Woodward appearances could well be the last we ever see these members on stage together. There are still plans afoot to reissue the band's long out-of-print catalog, and several people noted that both shows were being recorded, suggesting a live record could be in the works. And since Cleaver never says never, he answered the point blank question from a fan after the show — “Will you guys ever record again?” — with a nebulous yet hopeful, "Who knows?"
Whatever happens, however it shakes out, my first Ass Ponys show was a blast. If more crop up going forward, I'll be there, as well. But you never forget your first.
There were diamonds everywhere at Bogart’s this past Friday (May 29), about 1,500 of them. Marina and the Diamonds is not a band, but the artistic umbrella for Welsh singer/songwriter Marina Diamandis. She says she created the solo-guise “band” moniker because she didn’t want to be seen as a solo Pop star, and wanted to “involve people” with a name that didn't make anyone feel excluded. So, you see, we are all diamonds. Most of the diamonds at her Cincinnati show were teenage to college-age girls with a smattering of parents in tow. Many had travelled a few hours to see their hero. It was a sadly homogenous audience, given the scope and talent of Diamandis and her three-album catalog, but an enthusiastic lot nonetheless.
Her set started with “Bubblegum Bitch,” the power cut from her second album Electra Heart, and from there the party never stopped. The latest single, “Forget,” followed before she and her touring backing band launched into “Mowgli’s Road.” After that trio of songs, Diamandis chatted with the crowd telling them how happy she was to finally make it to Cincinnati. Though she was preaching to the converted, Diamandis proved to be no-less charming and engaging.
“I am Not a Robot,” a U.K. Top 40 hit from 2010, followed and, as with the entire set, Diamandis’ voice soared effortlessly as she glided across the stage. About half way through, an additional keyboard was brought on stage. Diamandis proceeded to take a seat at it and play “Happy,” whilst her backing Diamonds looked on. It was a nice respite before the title track from her current album, Froot.
While every song received a loud cheer, it was the two biggest hits that really got the diamonds in attendance particularly fired up. “Hollywood” (a No. 12 hit in the U.K.) was her breakthrough single in the in 2010 and is based on her observations of the U.S. “I’m obsessed with the mess that’s America,” she sings, though it’s not meant to be a criticism. (“It was written way before I got signed," she told me in an interview a few years ago. "It's funny because I wouldn't describe my relationship with America as love or hate. Anything that has an element of illusion naturally fascinates people. I absolutely love America.”) Live, the song was keyboarded-up nicely, though the album version echoes the synth sound of the ’80s effectively. Her guitar player strummed an acoustic guitar, providing a nice counterbalance.
“Primadonna,” her other big single came next, and it too had a brighter and livelier sound on stage, sounding a little like an EDM track in spots, but not too heavily. Sadly, “Teen Idle,” a stand-out track from Electra Heart was left off the set list. “How to be a Heartbreaker,” finished the encore-less set, but the crowd seemed quite satisfied with the performance as Marina bade farewell to her diamonds to thunderous applause.
Oddly, professional photographers were not allowed to take pictures of Diamandis (as is customary for just about any concert review), something that wasn’t revealed until just before the doors opened. It is unclear who made that decision. (Primadonna indeed?)
I spent months conjuring a path towards a holiday in the sun. The clutching grasp of the highly irregular Midwest winter had me experiencing the full manifestation of the seasonal doldrums. A cross-country road trip turned out to be my conduit towards metaphorical enlightenment. I found solace in a distant two-day music festival nested in Santa Ana, Calif. But in fear of sounding like a silver-tongued bastard, lets talk turkey.
This past weekend’s Burgerama was a compact, genre-bending two-day music festival with three separate stages (indoor and outdoor). Burger Records presented a lineup of 80-plus bands that included SoCal favorites Bleached, Ty Segall and FIDLAR but also offered Psych Rock pioneer Roky Erikson, Alternative legends Weezer and the Hip Hop collective Bone Thugs N Harmony.
While in its fourth year of existence, Burgerama has a well-defined identity. Festival-goers all looked extremely similar as a parallel style and angst ran rampant at The Observatory venue in Santa Ana. Trendy weekend bohemians with eccentric personalities donning ripped denim were not in short supply. The only true individual was the lonesome dad with a disapproving glare and earplugs.
Burgerama definitely has a common, overwhelming and obvious demographic. A sea of teenagers flooded the venue at the all-ages, weekend festival. My only safe haven from the painful, reminiscent sights of my adolescence was the beer garden, or beer prison (as I affectionately coined it), since you couldn’t freely roam the venue with your $6 beer. But it was the least populated area offering plenty of shade and a great view of the stage. Who would’ve thunk?
Festivals have a stigma of being over-priced and overrated but Burgerama did music fans a solid because for $90 you got two days of music and a better way to spend the weekend than binge watching Netflix and adding on to your to-do list.
Most of the bands I was looking forward to seeing were scheduled later in the evening, so I had time to check out the handful of bands I was unfamiliar with before Burgerama. I was definitely impressed with my results of aimlessly wandering from stage to stage finding new artists to add to my music collection. It was hard to pick a favorite performance, but here are a few that stood out that I highly recommend checking out if you haven’t already:
This all-female quartet is based out of Seattle. La Luz has an intrinsically noticeable spacey 1950s Surf Rock, Doo Wop influence packed with a healthy amount of reverb, slight pressure on the tremolo bar and a well-mannered slice of four-part vocal harmony. The addition of extremely cohesive instrumentation makes this group captivating. Four extremely talented, women playing beautiful music.
When you put a jangly guitar above a fat drum beat with a driving fuzz bass tone, you get the perfect recipe for a wholehearted dance party. Broncho is quirky, fun and its songs are extremely catchy. The Oklahoma based trio was definitely my favorite band of day one. With underlying traces of Punk and timely use of non-lexical melodies, the pop-minded Broncho put on a great set at Burgerama. Definitely looking forward to catching them at Louisvill’es Forecastle Festival in July. (Check out a Q&A with the band’s Ryan Lindsey below.)
FIDLAR, which stands for “Fuck it Dog, Life’s a Risk,” is an L.A. Punk band that was passionately received by a slightly aggressive crowd eager to heed the advice of the above acronym. Before the show started, I saw additional security march towards the front of the stage in preparation for the fallout. Even the side stage, which tends to be a refuge from the pit area, was filled with mini-mosh pits. Seeing the band at Burgerama made me excited to see them perform at a smaller venue. FIDLAR will be at Thompson House in Newport on May 16. I love Rhinegeist as much as the next guy, but I’ll be sticking to cheap beer that night.
Jacco Gardner, a Dutch multi-instrumentalist, was a breath of fresh air from the thematic distortion that could be quickly located throughout the venue. His band was extremely cohesive, offering evident attention to 1960s psychedelia. The intricate and diverse melodies offered comfort to weary eardrums. Gardner is genuinely a great songwriter.
Mr. Elevator & The Brain Hotel
Mr. Elevator & The Brain Hotel was one of the only groups I looked up prior to Burgerama. The band name alone had me interested. This L.A. rooted psychedelic, keyboard-based four piece put on a phenomenal show despite having to play a shorter set due to a bass amp that blew out. Strictly because of instrumentation, this band will be likened to The Doors but this band has a definite sound of their own. The group members mentioned they are working on a new album currently, and I am definitely looking forward to hearing more from them.
Twin Peaks is a Chicago based band that I was really looking forward to seeing after hearing their new album, Wild Onion. The energy these guys exerted left me both inspired and exhausted. Their energy transferred to the fans and the photographers in the pit were asked to leave before the agreed time because the crowd was getting too rowdy. Twin Peaks performed a wildly entertaining set; definitely glad I got to watch them.
It was an eventful night at the Madison Theater in Covington when CHVRCHES came to town Sept. 29. A pretty good sized crowd turned up at Covington’s Madison Theater, which was a little surprising, since they shamefully receive almost no local radio airplay. Oddly, our local “alternative” station The Project sponsored a meet and greet contest with the band, even though the station has never played a CHVRCHES song. Across the river, WKNU has played them. Once. Five months ago, according to a search of the station’s online playlist.
The make-up of the crowd was another surprise. It was an almost teen-free show, with most folks falling between late college and near retirement. That could be due to the fact that CHVRCHES make modern Electronic music but with a very retro feel. And they’ve got tunes.
The Range (who opened for Chromeo at the MidPoint Music Festival) came on stage promptly at 8 p.m., and began his first song. After 45 minutes, that song finally ended. CHVRCHES were set to take the stage at 9:15 p.m., but just after 9 p.m., the fire alarms in the theater went off. Here’s a handy tip: when you’re in large venue, look not only for the nearest exit, but all exits. Security decided it would be cool to deny access to the fire exits at the back of the theater. What the fuck!? Do you not know what happened not three miles from here in 1979? Or in Rhode Island a few years back? Fortunately, everyone was able to file out safely, and pass the time in a well-behaved manner out on the blocked-off street while fire officials investigated.
According to theater management, who were very upset with the way the evacuation was handled, security was provided by the promoter. After the show, the two sides discussed in detail the proper procedures in order to avoid any such occurrences in the future.
Once the all-clear was given, security did do a nice job of getting everyone back in quickly and efficiently. CHVRCHES thanked the crowd for their patience and apologized, saying the fog machine they were using is what likely tripped the alarm.
Coming out of the gate strong, the band launched its set with two singles, the very fine “We Sink,” followed by the popular “Lies.” Like many Electronic bands, they don’t move around a lot, with Iain Cook and Martin Doherty stationed at their synth racks, flanking singer Lauren Mayberry. This isn’t as visually limiting as it sounds. Ms. Mayberry is an outspoken critic of sexism and misogyny in music, so it feels a little awkward to point out that she’s quite lovely and very engaging in her stage presence. Flying around the stage a la Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, or Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails simply isn’t her style, yet she still holds the crowd.
Her mates weren’t chained to the instruments all night, at least not Doherty, who traded places with Mayberry while he sang “Under the Tide.” Mayberry returned to center stage for what is arguably the band’s most popular track, “The Mother We Share,” which is also one of the best songs of the past few years.
The enthusiastic crowd of course wanted more, bringing the band back out for the obligatory, but much-desired, encore, wrapping up with “You Caught the Light” and “By the Throat.”