The middle of the MidPoint weekend is like the middle of a lot of things; the middle of a movie, the middle of a book, the middle of life with an equal measure of glorious accomplishments and missed opportunities behind and the potential for great things still ahead, the middle of an exquisite jelly donut where the filling drips down your chin as you lick the pastry where you just bit with a sensual need for completion.
What was I saying? Right, middle of MidPoint. So here we are in Day 2, quite possibly one of the most anticipated second days of the festival in its long and storied history.
I arrived at Washington Park just as Joseph Arthur was beginning his set. A lot of folks had been hoping that Van Hunt might be accompanying the evening's headliner, our own Afghan Whigs, since he had been touring with The Whigs recently, but Arthur is opening this next leg of the Whigs' triumphant return and so the honor fell to him. And yet the pleasure was all ours, as Arthur put on a brilliant one-man presentation with the help of loops and stomp pedals and a catalog filled with amazing songs, like the powerful "In the Sun" ("because all the best Rock & Roll happens in the middle of the day"). Clearly the most incredible moment of Arthur's set came at its conclusion, when he set up his loops and launched into "I Miss the Zoo," and began drawing an outline with a black paint marker, which almost immediately began to run, on a piece of what looked to be foamcore on an easel set up on stage. While Arthur sang verse after verse, he squirted different colors of paint on various spots around the board, and then picked up a brush and pushed the colors around and into the bleeding black. When he finished the song, he had finished the painting. It was quite astonishing, to say the least. I've been a fan of Arthur's for some time — I interviewed him many years ago — and although I knew he was renowned for his paintings, I had no idea he mixed his media in quite this fashion. It was thrilling to witness.
Next up on the bill was Wussy, quite honestly one of the most redemptive and satisfying second acts in Cincinnati music history. After the nonchalant major label dismissal of Chuck Cleaver's Ass Ponys in the '90s, he returned with a shambling vengeance with Wussy in the new millennium, partnering with Lisa Walker then adding Mark Messerly and Dawn Burman to the fold and making their studio debut with the patently amazing Funeral Dress in 2005. Wussy quickly became a critic's band, famously scoring a huge fan in renowned writer Robert Christgau, who cited both Funeral Dress and 2007's Left For Dead in his Top 10 best albums of the new millennial decade. The arrival of drummer Joe Klug in 2008 gave Wussy the powerful engine they required to hit the subsequent heights they have attained, first with 2011's magnificent Strawberry and now with this year's brilliant Attica!
This latest string of Wussy shows is proving just how powerful and confident the newly minted quintet (with the arrival of former Ass Pony/pedal steeler John Ehrhardt) has become. Klug's presence as a muscular and reliable hammer is certainly one element, Messerly's evolution as an absolutely vital, melodic bassist is another, but in many ways this also boils down to the strengthening chemistry between Cleaver and Walker. The duo's already incredible synergy has morphed into a ferocious and purposeful partnership that yields more dividends with each set and session, and Friday's performance at Washington Park was evidence of Wussy's upward/onward trajectory.
After blazing through a killer romp on "Pulverized," Walker poked the crowd with a gentle threat: "I hope you like 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,' because we're doing all 13 verses … Gord's Gold 2, that's what we've been listening to, exclusively."
Thankfully, no such root canal took place. Instead, Wussy ran through a selection of Attica! and catalog tracks that cemented the band's position as a formidable live entity. "Rainbows and Butterflies" was massive, dense and beautiful while "To the Lightning" howled with an anthemic power surge that accentuated its R.E.M. jangle and Yo La Tengo dissonance, and "Teenage Wasteland" was a showcase of Walker's incalculable gifts and her indispensible role in Wussy. And "Beautiful," like its studio predecessor, started out as a gentle meditation with a menacing undercurrent, but quickly built to a Crazy Horse squall that set off Cleaver and Walker's mantra-like intonation of "I'm not the monster that I once was." If all that wasn't enough, and it surely was, the fivesome finished their round with an unexpected and thoroughly engaging version of Joy Division/New Order's "Ceremony." This set was the best evidence yet that Cleaver may finally be ready to forget about the wounds inflicted by his first go-round with the industry and take his rightful place in the Rock pantheon along with his equally deserving Wussy mates.
At last it was time for the main event, the much-anticipated return of The Afghan Whigs. Each iteration of the Whigs' reclamation has been documented with a local show, but this tour in support of the Whigs' first studio album in a decade and a half, the jaw-dropping Do to the Beast, has been billed — even by some of the band's harshest critics — as the best live performances of their career. Local fans were justifiably amped up about the prospect of experiencing that rush for themselves. To say they weren't disappointed might well be an understatement on a par with "The Beatles kind of changed things."
Naturally, the majority of the set was devoted to Do to the Beast, as the band vaulted into the night air with "Parked Outside" and "Matamoros," guaranteeing that the album and live set opened with the same visceral one-two punch. But where frontman Greg Dulli sounded intense and focused in the studio, he was a coiled truck spring on stage, a spiral of wound up energy that unspooled with a nearly unhinged control.
Surprise was the watchword of the evening. Dulli had hinted to CityBeat that an unexpected guest would be making an appearance and that apparently turned out to be Greenhornes/Raconteurs drummer Patrick Keeler, who proved to be more than up to the task of beating the Whigs' tribal drums and being the percussive foil for John Curley's perpetual bass clinic. And while much of the set list was anchored by Do to the Beast and Gentlemen, about to be reissued in a 21st anniversary two-disc package, there were a number of interesting twists and fan-centric fist pumpers.
The Whigs have always loved mashing up two or more songs, and last night there were a few corkers; Gentlemen's "When We Two Parted" drifting into Drake's "Over My Dead Body,” Do to the Beast's "I Am Fire," paired with a tubthumping take on Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" and the new album's "Lost in the Woods" bleeding into a melancholic shuffle through The Beatles' "It's
Getting Better." Elsewhere, the band partly covered Jeff Buckley's "Morning Theft" to great effect, and opener Joseph Arthur provided backing vocals on the stage front mic for "Can Rova" from Beast while Dulli took his place at the piano.
The band has been running through stellar versions of "Debonair," Black Love's "My Enemy," and 1965's "John the Baptist" and did again, but the end of the Whigs' hometown set provided the greatest fireworks, starting with the almost never performed "Son of the South" from their Sub Pop debut and sophomore album Up In It, and eventually finished with an abbreviated encore, a blazing march through 1965's "Somethin' Hot" and Black Love's "Going to Town." With the 10 p.m. curfew bearing down, Dulli introduced the band and departed with a resounding, "We are the motherfucking Afghan Whigs! We'll see you next time."
The Afghan Whigs have clearly grown to accommodate some of the massive stages they've inhabited as of late. Longtime Whigs fans may lament the loss of the band's less seasoned version, where every club show seemed to be played with the ferocity of rats fighting their way out of a corner. The Afghan Whigs of now feature the cumulative growth that Dulli and Curley have experienced over the past 15 years since the band's demise and that experience is considerable and fairly amazing. Songs that were once acid-etched screeds are now heart-pounding anthems, and that evolution seems neither contrived nor insincere in any way. Dulli still sings them with visceral conviction, but now he possesses a new understanding of himself and his long established mythology and Curley still underpins every song with eye of the storm calm and outer band intensity but now he invests every note with the unrestrained glee of the best second chance ever. It all makes sense to me.
One last observation; the red gels on the stage lights gave the curtain behind the band the blood red appearance of the velvet backdrop on the cover of Congregation. If you carry that metaphor to its logical conclusion, the Whigs were a beautiful naked ebony mother and we were her beautiful naked pale baby and we were all together on a beautiful night under a beautiful sky having a beautiful time. The Whigs' official return to us could not have been more appropriate or better appointed. And then there was Dulli's hopeful parting, “We'll see you next time.” God, I do hope so.
With the adrenalized rush of the Whigs still ringing in my ears, I headed over to The Drinkery to catch the last two songs from Across Tundras. The Denver-to-Nashville trio works a Doom/Stoner/Psych/Metal angle with a Southern twist that has appeal and volume in equal measures. I realized that I had some wiggle room built into my schedule so I decided to stick around and check out some of All Them Witches, also from Nashville and also working a similar corner as Across Tundras. Although at face value, the two bands seem identical, I'd give the slight advantage to ATW, simply by virtue of their incredible sense of melodicism through the crystal clear volume. There were moments of black hole heaviness that referenced contemporary purveyors like Dead Meadow and Mastodon, but in a Stoner Metal heartbeat they'd crank out a run steeped in the pot/incense smokehouse of early Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep. Amazingly, as loud as it was in The Drinkery's long, narrow space — and I'm quite certain ATW was burying the needles on sound equipment down the street, registering the volume like a Richter monitor — it was never distorted or sludgy or painful, just sheets of pure, beautiful volume and emotion.
I ducked out of the end of All Them Witches to hit the Know Theatre for Rubblebucket. I had picked them to preview based on a couple of spins through their recently released fourth album Survival Sounds and its live presentation did not disappoint. This was clearly a much-anticipated show in the area; the Know staff was counting wristbands by the time I arrived to ensure they didn't go over room capacity on the second floor, and it filled up quickly. Rubblebucket's dancetronic Art Pop/Ska/Soul comes across well in recordings with plenty of nuance and subtlety, but on stage the band is unadulterated fun, downplaying some of the studio filigree while amplifying their core sound. Former boss/friend-for-life John Fox noted the band's resemblance to our own Walk the Moon, and they certainly offer that same brand of infectious Dance Pop, but there is a complexity in Rubblebucket's sonic recipe that pushes them into a singular and perfectly erratic orbit, a place where Bjork and The B-52s and Fishbone and Talking Heads form an orchestra and fashion Play Doh instruments, Bjork whips out some Icelandic volcano magic and transforms them into playable utensils and they translate signals from Voyager into universal Dance Pop.
Rubblebucket's complexity and oddballitry may never find favor in the mainstream, but it hardly matters. They have found the answer to any number of unasked questions and created a sound that everyone should hear at least once and that too many never will. The packed house at the Know on Friday night can revel in the secret knowledge that we have heard Rubblebucket, we get it and, like so many things in life, that will have to do.
I once again beat a reluctant retreat, leaving Rubblebucket before set's end to make my way down to Arnold's for the Jam/Roots splendor of Holy Ghost Tent Revival. When I turned the corner on 8th Street, I spied a small crowd bunched up at Arnold's front door and heard the most feared word in the MidPoint vocabulary: Capacity. In a rare moment of "fuck it," I strolled into Arnold's anyway (OK, it's not all that rare; I am my father's son, after all, and I suspect that I learned those two words first), and found that "capacity" was a malleable term. As I was chatting with the ubiquitous and ever welcome Wes Pence of The Ready Stance in Arnold's middle room, The Sundresses' Jeremy Springer, doing a typically bang up job in his role as server in the bar, inquired if my presence in the middle room and absence from the patio was a result of the capacity announcement. "Follow me," he said without hesitation, and planted me at the rear of the room as the band kicked off the last slot of the evening.
It was obvious that a good many people remembered the Revival's rambunctious appearance at MidPoint two years ago, or heard about it and wanted to experience it for themselves (I was in the latter camp). I get The Band/Flying Burrito Brothers references to HGTR's tangy, twangy sound, but there's so much more to it than simple Country revivalism. The horn driven sextet swings with the bristling energy of Squirrel Nut Zippers without the desire for that level of authenticity, while ratcheting up the Rock quotient to Phish-like levels of volume and instrumental proficiency. With those twin engines in place, Holy Ghost Tent Revival is aptly named; the band is passionately inspired and their songs are energetically executed with the soaring joy of the event in their name without any problematic or messy religious connotations. Allow the Revival into your consciousness for just a couple of songs and you'll be converted to their immaculate perception of Roots Rock, Stax Soul, horn-peppered Pop and adrenalized Indie Rock. The band, squeezed onto the narrow confines of Arnold's porch-like stage, blew through selections from their estimable catalog, concentrating on 2012's Sweat Like the Old Days and the just released and consistently excellent Right State of Mind, with both a sense of and a disregard for precision, making sure the feeling came across more than the chart. Come back to us soon, Holy Ghost Tent Revival, MidPoint or not; we are in need of slightly more regular baptisms.
• Washington Park was absolutely jammed with humanity for Wussy and the Afghan Whigs. Pike 27's Sean Rhiney and Dave Purcell, along with Dave's wife Amy, were there early for the Joseph Arthur experience, the Black Owls' Kip Roe was wandering the grounds with son Kip Jr. at about the same time and scene vet Jay Metz was working the Whigs' merch booth with typical entrepreneurial flair. Wes Pence was in attendance with his son Wyatt, who got an invitation from one of John Curley's daughters to sit on the stage and witness the Whigs' splendor up close. To be 11 and cute again. Well, to be 11 again … I just looked at my sixth grade picture.
• Local singer/songwriter Josh Eagle strolled in to witness the Wussy set; Josh is just one more reason why Cincinnati's music scene is unmatched for its talent and its sense of community. Also ran into my old CityBeat boss and mentor John Fox, to whom I literally owe, at least in part, my career and current life. It is an unpayable debt and I try to acknowledge it every time I see him so he understands his importance in my history. He was hanging for the night with his buddy Don; we had a nice chat on the lawn and he was kind enough to buy me the one early beer that I had allotted for myself each night of the festival. That story may unfold in this forum at some point; I've related it 50 times already this weekend to friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. Keep an ear out, you'll probably hear it secondhand before I tell it again.
• CityBeat’s Mike Breen beamed in from the upper atmosphere for the Whigs extravaganza, so I'm two for two in the Breen spotting sweepstakes. I'm going for the hat trick on Saturday. The Owls' Brian Kitzmiller and Sohio's Mark Houk were also among the Whigsian throng, as were Paul, Big Jim and Stu: I learned from the shirt he was wearing that his given name is Stufest. Must be a passed-down-in-the-family thing. Great to see CityBeat theater critic Rick Pender, as well as CityBeat alum and local actor Rodger Pille and especially former Enquirer contributor and current MTV News hound Gil Kaufman. And I was introduced to a veritable platoon of additional people by some of the above, all of whom seemed like people I would like to have a picnic with anytime at all. I'm free next weekend, Brad and Amy.
• On the verge of heading back to the Main Street core, I turned just in time to see the unmistakable frame of stage manager guru Jacob Heintz strolling across the Washington Park grounds in the post-Whigs glow. Of course, Jacob's working every second of the festival, but he mentioned that things had gone so smoothly for the first two days that he was afraid to say it out loud for fear of screwing up whatever good MidPoint mojo was lingering in the atmosphere. It just ain't MidPoint until I've gotten some face time with Jacob.
• Once installed at The Drinkery, I was joined by CityBeat master blaster Dan Bockrath, who had arrived in order to soak up the sonic boom-and-doom of All Them Witches. Like everyone in the audience as near as I could tell, Dan was captivated by the concussive volume yet melodic heart of ATW, and when he returned from a trip to the bar, he handed me an unbidden yet desperately desired tonic water and lime. Although the Hall of Foam is sadly off line this MidPoint, Dan continues to be a much appreciated buyer of liquid refreshment, and that, at the end of the day, is all that truly matters. Thanks again and always, Sir Dan of MidPointdom.
• At Rubblebucket, I crossed paths once again with John Fox, his pal Don and the ever inscrutable Mike Breen. I have searched my aging brain device and not come up with a single memory of seeing Mike twice in one night, so that could stand as the record. If I don't see him Saturday night, I may consider the hat trick achieved (with an asterisk). My buddy Brad Gibson, frontman for the Saturn Batteries, was on his way down as I was coming up, so not sure if he decided to stay. Not long after the band fired up, Sir Dan strode in with purpose and took his place alongside us. And there it was, the entire history of the CityBeat braintrust. And me, of course.
• Other than Wes Pence, the unofficial mayor of MidPoint, I didn't spot anyone in the Holy Ghost Tent Revival crowd that I knew until Sir Dan came in not long after the band got cooking. If it was anyone else, I'd consider a restraining order, but I know Dan is just looking out for me, and we share similar taste in music. And when HGTR frontman Stephen Murray asked the assembled multitude how they knew about the show, Dan responded with a lusty and pride-filled "CityBeat, motherfucker!" When I suggested that might make a nice tagline for the masthead, he seemed to consider the idea, leading me to believe that maybe Dan was done for the night. As I was headed out the door, Wes was talking to a friend at that very nexus, so I hung for a second until they'd said good night, then prepared to do the same. We started to chat when a face appeared at Arnold's front door and gestured toward Wes. Apparently it was his ride home, so he handed me his double bourbon and said, "Do what you want with it, I just want it to go to a good home." And so, valiant soldier that I am, I sipped for five minutes, then drained it. It mellowed my shit out like right now. Thanks, Dr. Pence.
The first night of MidPoint is like a lot of firsts; first date, first kiss, first sex, first beer, first rectal exam by a hot proctologist. Hey, you have your firsts, I have mine. Anyway, MidPoint Thursday is always a magical time of reconnecting with old friends, making a few new ones along the way and experiencing an almost breathtaking amount of incredible music of every conceivable variety. 2014's version of that particular passion play lived up to and exceeded every expectation.
First up was a trip to the MidPoint Midway to witness the return of the mighty Pike 27. The band's late '90s/early '00s run included at least one EP and a great full-length in Falling Down Hard, but frontman Dave Purcell's shift into academia on the teaching side signaled the band's demise. Although Purcell's professorship at Kent State precluded him from actual band activities, he never stopped writing songs, and when he fortuitously returned to Cincinnati last year, he had an ass-pocket full of new material that suggested new horizons and possibilities. Purcell and original bassist Sean Rhiney (veteran and current member of any number of high profile bands and the co-founder of our MidPoint feast) resurrected Pike 27 with guitarist/local hero Mike Fair and drummer-and-more Dave Killen.
This new iteration of Pike 27 is a powerhouse of scorching guitar, earthmoving bass and jackhammer drumming, and while there are vestiges of the band's Roots Rock history, everyone's balls are definitely within the vicinity of some wall or other and medal is being pedalled with controlled abandon. Start to stop, Pike 27 careened from song to song with the visceral intensity of The Old 97s and dashes of Alejandro Escovedo and Grant Lee Buffalo at their delicately nuanced and head-kicked obvious best. This seems to be a fertile period for long dormant bands to renew themselves and that can always be a problematic situation, but Pike 27 is clear evidence that having the right motivation to return can evolve into a stunning and most welcomed result.
On the heels of Pike 27's energetic and fabulous opening set at the Midway came the return of our beloved Black Owls, a well-documented force of nature in their own right. Pre-show, frontman David Butler promised that the Owls' set would be populated with nothing but new material with very few exceptions, and he was good to his word. Other than their recently installed cover of Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire" and set closer "Glorious in Black," from their 2010 sophomore album June '71, the oldest songs in the Owls' incendiary set were "Rook" and "Gasoline," the two songs from their most recent single. Everything else that followed an invocation from the inimitable King Slice was brand new and largely untested Owls material, perhaps all of which will be taken into Ultrasuede at the end of November in anticipation of a new album. It made for a set that crackled with energy and a certain ramshackle giddiness as the band roared through material that hasn't quite solidified. Butler is quick to credit the rise of guitarist Brandon Losacker's songwriting profile as the reason for the Black Owls' straightforward Rock shift and sudden prolific streak, but I'd be just as quick to point out the gelling of new (and perpetually fabulous) bassist Kip Roe, the malleable thunder of drummer Brian Kitzmiller and the continually developing chemical bond between Butler and longtime musical cohort Ed Shuttleworth as equal parts of the Owls' new equation. The band is clearly having an absolute blast with the new songs, and their joy is translating to performances that are pegging the needle past the insane levels the Owls had already established. Cincinnati's Black Owls, as Butler likes to refer to the band, is in the midst of a fertile and potentially explosive period of evolution.
After the Owls' incendiary set, it was a quick stroll over to the Know Theatre to catch the last half of the set from Cincinnati’s Darlene. The trio was firing on all badass cylinders to be sure, blasting out sheets of guitar squall with plenty of melodic counterpoint. A tweet from someone at the show asked the musical question, "Is Darlene the new Sonic Youth?" The answer provided by perpetual smartest-guy-I-know Matthew Fenton was a logical and correct "No." Darlene is a blistering Rock band, and guitarist Janey O'Laney is always teetering on the brink of a shred-fueled fit, with bassist Cuddly D (the infinitely busy Dana Hamblen) and drummer Robby D providing the slinky yet sturdy undercarriage. But the fact is that the trio, at its heart, is a melodic Pop unit. They probably hew closer to Yo La Tengo in their ability to go from pretty to visceral in a half a heartbeat, but Darlene isn't the new anything; they are Darlene, and that's an astonishing accomplishment. Besides, as Matthew rightly pointed out, Darlene may be the best-dressed band on any given night anywhere. Sonic Youth were never known for their sartorial splendor. So there.
After Darlene, it was time to cruise on down to Mr. Pitiful's to check out Steelism, an instrumental quartet from Nashville. If guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel and no vocals sounds like a crashing bore, you'd be half right. There was plenty of crashing; cymbals, sounds and gates, as a human stampede of MidPoint patrons made their way into Mr. Pitiful's to sample Steelism's wares. I know from experience that if a relative unknown doesn't grab a festival crowd in the first couple of songs, the crowd in question will leave fast enough to create a head-exploding vacuum in the area. If anyone left during Steelism's mind-melting set, they were more than offset by the several dozen who drifted in after the start.
Steelism is comprised of British pedal steeler Spencer Cullum Jr., Ohio guitarist Jeremy Fetzer, and a bassist and drummer whose introductions were lost in a crowd frenzy and a muffled mic (well, they weren't mixing for vocals, now were they?), who threw down a mighty and wordless racket, unless you count Cullum's talkbox vocals on the band's spin through The Beatles' "Something." You could call Steelism Surfabilly/Soulicana/Spaghetti Southern or you could just call it bloody good music; after running through a handful of originals from their new full length, 615 to Fame, and their cracking good 7-inch, The Intoxicating Sounds of Pedal Steel and Guitar, and covers of classics by The Ventures and Booker T. and the MGs, Steelism had the packed house at Mr. Pitiful's in the palm of their sweaty hands. At one point, Cullum indicated that the band was going to slow things down, and then offered the crowd a choice between a gentler vibe or "plowing on through." The overwhelming vote was for the latter, with Cullum noting, "No sensitive people here tonight." He certainly got a taste of what plowing through will get you in Cincinnati. Steelism finished up with a roaring take on the James Bond theme, which nearly pushed the frenzied multitude into religious conversion. I don't know what that church would be called, but they wouldn't have a choir; no words necessary when Steelism kicks open the doors of the sanctuary.
Then it was a quick jaunt down to The Drinkery to witness the Motor City madness of Flint Eastwood, a quartet of musical insaniacs from my home state to the north. In the studio, Flint Eastwood exhibits a certain heavy fisted subtlety that is charming and dancable in a visceral way. All of the relative nuance that is present on the band's EP, Late Nights in Bolo Ties, is tossed onto a bed of nails and jumped on until it experiences head-to-toe acupuncture in its live presentation. On stage, Flint Eastwood buries every needle in the red, thrashes about like lunatics after a napalm shower and entertains their audience at metaphorical knife point. Frontwoman Jax Anderson cajoled the crowd at The Drinkery to get involved in the show and when she got what she felt was a half-hearted response, she shrieked, "Nobody's too cool to have fun!" and put us through our paces like a Marine drill instructor on meth. She had us shouting then whispering "na na na"s, got us kneeling on The Drinkery's dance floor and then lifted us up like a demented preacher speaking in Rock & Roll tongues. All the while, the band was grinding out a gritty groove that sounded (and resembled) a full arena assault by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was draining and glorious and probably just another full-throttle 20-mile Rock & Roll hike for Flint Eastwood; it's pretty obvious these guys have one gear and it's "hellbent for bent hell." That's the Detroit method, bitches. Get used to it, get over it, get on it.
I reluctantly ducked out of Flint Eastwood's last two songs to hotfoot it down to MOTR for the remainder of Nikki Lane's set. Lane is a Country shitkicker with a decidedly different take on the genre, opting for a certain songwriting traditionalism while soundtracking it with a band that sparks and smokes with Roots Rock intensity and abandon and adopting a persona that suggests Wanda Jackson's pot-smoking, foul-mouthed twat of a granddaughter. Lane and the Thunder (she admitted the jury was still out on the name) roared through their MOTR set with equal parts ferocity and humor, as Lane used the space between songs to candidly muse about the intention of each one. "This is a love song," she noted appropriately prior to "Want My Heart Back," extending the title to, "I want my fucking heart back," and later opened "Sleep with a Stranger" with "This is a song about tonight, when you'll sleep with someone you don't know." Later, she dropped this indelicate observation: "This one's about my best friend. Sometimes she's a cunt, and I don't like that word, but she is. And when you're a cunt and your best friend is a songwriter, well, you get the short end of the stick."
Taylor Swift has written a lot of songs about the people in her life and I'm guessing she hasn't gotten around to any of her cunt friends yet.
Towards the end of her blistering and profanely hilarious set, Lane said, "We've got a couple more, then we'll pretend to go away, and come back for a couple more." She loves her covers as well; she hauled out a great take on The Byrds' "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a loping yet intense version of Waylon Jennings' "Waymore Blues," and finished her encore with a blazing spin through a Tom Petty cover, not an old catalog chestnut but "Saving Grace" from the new album, a song that blends Petty's classicism with his well-earned experience. Lane clearly identifies with that stance, as she channels all of her Country influences through a blazing Rock filter, creating a sound that identifies with the past but erupts with white hot emotion in the here and now.
• To begin, a clarification for anyone who may attempt to buy me a brewski during MidPoint: For largely legal reasons, the Beer Buying Hall of Foam has been forced into a strike shortened year in 2014. I salute all who have so generously provided the nectar of the gods to a poverty stricken scribe on an annual basis and I promise that the commissioner will reinstate all practices and records next year, but for now, the Hall is strangely dark and quiet.
• In stark contrast to the Midway, which was lit up like a Kansas City whorehouse. Not that there were whores, but lots of lights. Boy, writing was easier with the Hall of Foam open. At any rate, within moments of arrival, I crossed paths with singer/songwriter par excellence Mark Utley and pianist to the stars Ricky Nye, who is in the throes of planning the upcoming Blues & Boogie Piano Summit, coming to the Southgate House Revival on November 7 and 8. After a quick chat, I headed to Mr. Hanton's for a heartstopping dog (not for health reasons but because it's so good … man, 2015 can't get here fast enough), choosing the Smokin' Hot Chick; my bill was cheerfully picked up by the always incredible Wes Pence of The Ready Stance, who joined me with a Smokehouse of his own. Can a Hot Dog Buying Hall of Fame be far behind?
• From there, the Midway was a blur of humanity. CityBeat photographer and local music denizen Jesse Fox took a shot of me and Class X Radio host/local music aficionado/empresario Eddy Mullet, which apparently didn't damage her equipment in any significant way. In sort order, I was greeted by King Slice, his pal Justin, the always ebullient and sometimes menacing Venomous Valdez, the entire Broadway cast of the Black Owls, Paul Roberts, Big Jim and Stu (sans his I'm Stu hat, apparently confident in my recognition skills at this juncture), and Jet Lab guitarist Nick Barrows and his wife Robin. At some point in the Midway proceedings, I spotted the elusive and long-absent Matthew Fenton, along with Eric Appleby and Tricia Suit, motoring out of the Midway zone. They were gone before I could track them down (they must have see me coming, damn them), but when I mentioned the sighting to Nick, he said they were headed to the Chromeo set and would be back for the Black Owls.
• In the meantime, Owls guitarist Brandon Losacker took a mob of us (Owls frontman David Butler, Venomous, Slice, Justin and myself) to see his new conversion van, a behemoth from a bygone era. Cooler in the console, heated/cooled cupholders, TV, retractable bed, wood grain dash panel and a hundred other crazy features that makes it essentially a Swiss Army van. Incredible doesn't begin to describe it.
• Back at the Midway — a brilliant set up that, as the astute and ever fabulous Venomous Valdez noted, will have to undergo some changes next year with the advent of the rapidly progressing streetcar system — Sean Rhiney, Dave Purcell and Dave's wife Amy were hanging around to watch the Black Owls tear shit up. My Class X compatriot Eddy was back to witness the Owls' splendor, and at some point in the proceedings, my boss Mike Breen appeared like a magician's assistant. Breen sightings at MidPoint are like spotting nearly extinct species in the wild, so it's always great to know that he's an actual warm human being and not some weird holographic editorbot. (Editor’s note: I am both.)
• Over at the Darlene show, I caught up with the always effusive and entertaining Mr. Fenton, along with Eric and Tricia. They were planning a trip down to the Taft to catch the Ghost Wolves and Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, both of which I dearly wanted to see but my recently bum left leg, the long walk and the chance that the St. Paul and the Broken Bones show would sell out the venue kept me from tagging along. On the way to Steelism, three guys on the sidewalk ahead of me confirmed that the show had gone clean and there was little chance of entry. The gimp makes a good decision every now and again.
• Also at the Darlene show was Leyla Shokoohe, former CityBeat intern, current CityBeat freelancer and now Marketing Manager for the Cincinnati Symphony & Pops Orchestra. You couldn't script a lovelier or more personable human being than Leyla, and yet she is savvy beyond her lack of calendars. She's a marvel and the CSO should count themselves lucky to be the recipient of her passion and skill.
• Over at Steelism, I ran into fellow scribes Steve Rosen and Chris Varias. I've known Steve for quite awhile through CityBeat and we've talked music at many a holiday party/CityBeat event, and I've read Chris' excellent work in The Enquirer for many years but had never had the pleasure of meeting him until Steve's introduction at Mr. Pitiful's. I had interviewed Matthew and Eleanor Freidberger for a Fiery Furnaces story several years back and when they found out I was in Cincinnati, they asked if I knew Chris, which I did simply by reputation. It turned out that they had grown up together in a Chicago suburb. An unpaintable small world, indeed.
• Paul Roberts was digging the confrontational magnificence and sonic head blast of Flint Eastwood; he stuck around for the end, while I headed to the Nikki Lane gig, where Big Jim and Stu were ensconced at the bar. Paul was right behind as soon as Flint Eastwood dismissed him for the evening. Head CityBeat honcho and perpetual suds buyer Dan Bockrath had bought me an invisible beer at Steelism, which I downed with dry gusto, but he showed up at Nikki Lane and put a real tonic water and lime in my hand, which was much appreciated. I could pretend there was gin in there, and that somehow made everything okay.
• As we left MOTR, Sir Bockrath and squire Dan McCabe, the architect of our annual MidPoint joy, were out front and the boss upbraided me with a casual, "You'll have your blog copy in by 7 a.m., right?" Yeah, let's say that, I answered, muttering to Paul and Stu, it'll be 7 a.m. somewhere. The lateness of this posting will tell you that deadline came and went and came and went again. I have a theory that I'm better at writing when I'm slightly hungover because I just want to get it done so I can take an aspirin and lay down. Not happening this year. I guess I could still take the aspirin, for old times sake.
If Axl Rose announced he was planning the next Guns 'N Roses album as a tribute to Tony Orlando and Dawn, that would be only slightly more surprising than Matt Baumann's left turn from his Ambient Jazz saxophone tone poetry to the sparsely appointed Americana released under his reimagined guise as WolfCryer.
Oddly enough, when Baumann defected from saxophone to banjo, the quality that linked his two disparate musical directions was a spartan sense of atmospherics and an expansively moody palette; while the outcomes couldn't have been more different, there was a fascinatingly similar philosophical link between his two sonic identities.
As WolfCryer, Baumann has been slightly more in tune with the singer/songwriters to which he swore fandom back in his tone/drone Jazz days (Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and Jason Molina were particular favorites), and over the past three years of his newly established Folk/Roots persona, he has managed to amass a catalog of songs that more than amply proves the wisdom of his career shift. His 2012 self-titled WolfCryer debut turned a lot of heads in the local Folk community, and Baumann spent the subsequent year working on his chops and making a new name for himself in a crowded scene that always seems to make room for quality purveyors.
Earlier this year, Baumann released the fruits of his most recent labor, the four song EP Wild Spaces, which came on the heels of a pair of EPs in late 2013, The Long Ride Home and Hell's Coming Down. The three brief but potent releases showed Baumann expanding his sonic possibilities as he incorporated more acoustic guitar and harmonica into his songs and left the banjo as an infrequent but still welcome guest. Baumann's proposed full-length debut, originally slated for this past summer, hasn't yet materialized but in the meantime, he's whetted our appetites with a new eight-song WolfCryer EP, The Prospect of Wind.
Like many of his avowed heroes, Baumann turns his songwriting talents toward society's downtrodden on The Prospect of Wind, with a particular interest in the personally felt ravages of war. It is an age old topic of literature and song, because no matter how sophisticated mankind becomes at the destruction of life, the simple desolation of the survivors never seems to change to any great degree. To that end, Baumann channels his inner Dylan in the lyrics and the cadence of the EP's title track ("There's an ember in the kindling, from a cracked and careless hand/Just waiting for the moment to rise and scorch the land"), nimbly displays both his love for and his study of Warren Zevon on "The War" and "When I Go," and waves his Springsteen flag with pride and admiration on "Box of Bones" and "Both Hands on the Plow."
As has been the case from the start of his relatively short but extremely potent tenure as WolfCryer, Baumann has no trouble notching his songs with some of the characteristics of his favorite singer/songwriters, but he does it in the constant pursuit of his own musical identity. You may detect a glimmer of some of his monolithic predecessors in the songs that comprise The Prospect of Wind, but you'll come away knowing that you've experienced another great WolfCryer album.
WolfCryer's CD release show for The Prospect of Wind is Friday night at the Southgate House Revival in the Revival Room. Admission is $10 and the show starts at 9 p.m.
500 Miles to Memphis’ two most recent album releases are local classics that reside in two vastly different musical landscapes. Their 2007 album, Sunshine in a Shot Glass, offers 12 tracks of undiluted Country Punk. The album starts off with the band’s hit “All My Friends are Crazy” and doesn’t let up. The band’s followup, 2011’s We’ve Built Up to Nothing, took the Country Punk roots and drastically expanded on the concept. Influenced by The Beatles, the Cincinnati-based quintet added layer upon layer of instrumentation to craft an epic that radically expanded the groundwork laid in 2007.
Now, in 2014 the band is set to unleash Stand There and Bleed. With its latest release, 500 Miles to Memphis has pulled back and opted for a simpler, more straightforward group of songs. In doing so, the band has written its best album to date.
The band will host a listening party for the new album tonight (Thursday) at The Drinkery in Over-the-Rhine. The album will be played in its entirety at 9 p.m., then the group will play an acoustic set at 10 p.m. The event is free. (The official release date for Stand There and Bleed has yet to be announced.)
At its core, 500 Miles to Memphis has always been about vocalist/guitarist Ryan Malott telling the stories of his life. And with three years in between releases, Malott has plenty to talk about. Stand There and Bleed is Malott’s most personal output so far. We see a glimpse of tour life in “Medication,” the joys of marriage in “Takes Some Time” and the trials of addiction in “Easy Way Out.” Malott may have traded the bottle for coffee and a Playstation controller, but the struggle is ongoing. In fact, the best tracks on the album are the ones that document Malott’s missteps, but only because the album has so much hope, as well. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and Malott is steadily working his way towards it.
Joining Malott is bassist/vocalist Noah Sugarman, drummer Kevin Hogle, guitarist/vocalist Aaron Whalen and lap steel guitarist David Rhodes Brown. This all-star lineup compliments Malott’s lyrics expertly. Gone are We Built Up to Nothing’s more eccentric instrument choices; 500 stripped away the excess to more fully focus on what it had in house. The result is an album that’s more consistent and true to 500’s vision as a whole. Malott is influenced by Country and Punk Rock in equal measure and these influences come across stronger than ever on Bleed, with each member adding their own touch on the theme. Hogle’s drumming is still some of the best in town; his musical ear enables him to mold his style to each and heighten the mood of all. Brown’s steel playing on Stand There and Bleed keeps the more Punk-based tracks grounded in 500’s roots and elevates the Country tracks to another level with effortlessly delivered solos. Finally, Whalen and Sugarman’s guitar and bass inject energy throughout the record that reinforces Stand There and Bleed’s straightforward, powerful delivery.
Malott’s vocal delivery has been honed and refined on Stand There and Bleed, as well. Malott is an unabashed fan of Green Day and comparisons to Billie Joe Armstrong in songs like “Bethel, OH” and “Abilene” are undeniable. Malott has also continued to inject large amounts of emotion into his vocals. He’s always been an expressive singer but the earnestness and pain in “You’ll Get Around” and “Alone” show a departure from We’ve Built Up to Nothing’s more polished vocals. Part of the recording process was breaking Malott of those good habits and getting him used to putting the feeling back into each take. What results is an album that’s a little rougher around the edges and much more emotionally captivating for the listener.
500 Miles to Memphis has been pushing its music forward for years, constantly hitting the road to share its take on Country Punk. The band has been virtuous to the genre and also bent it to an almost unrecognizable state. With Stand There and Bleed, the quintet has met somewhere in the middle. The band has trimmed the fat, focused on what each (incredibly talented) member brings to the table and built a record that is its most focused and honest to date.
The band has traveled way more than 500 miles to reach where they are now, but with albums like Stand There and Bleed carrying them, they have plenty more ahead of them.
Three years ago on summer vacation, I heard about Pitchfork Music Festival from my older sister. She went to the festival with friends from her college radio station, and told me about spending the weekend in Chicago, crashing on a friend’s apartment floor and navigating the train system. It didn’t sound particularly comfortable, but I wanted to see for myself.
The next year, I bought my ticket and found my way to the festival grounds, an ordinary public park with baseball diamonds and a conveniently located CTA train stop. During last year’s festival, which was filled with uninvited weather, I stood in the rain to watch Bjork, who was dressed like an extraterrestrial porcupine, and witnessed Lil B, “The BasedGod,” inspire thousands of his devoted supporters. I left exhausted, but figured I would come back next year.
Heading into the festival this year, I was excited for the headliners and many smaller artists I’ve never seen. But as I walked into the park on Friday, there were two major surprises: a clear sky and free Twinkies.
I arrived at the festival in the early afternoon and headed over to the Blue Stage in the corner of the park. I listened to the Haxan Cloak for a short time, before leaving to see Sharon Van Etten on the Red stage. As I waited, my anticipation grew waiting to hear her perform songs from her outstanding new album, Are We There. Once Neneh Cherry ended on the adjacent stage, Van Etten began with “Afraid of Nothing,” the album’s first song.
She wasn’t afraid of anything, jumping right into the performance by displaying her honest songwriting, singing “You told me the day/That you show me your face/We’d be in trouble for a long time.” Near the end of her set, she humbly thanked her band and began the melancholy “Your Love is Killing Me."
After focusing on Van Etten’s lyrics that revolved around the difficulties of love, I was ready for Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks to take the stage. The newly formed trio is led by Animal Collective member Dave Porter, who joined forces with former Dirty Projector member Angel Deradoorian and ex-Ponytail drummer Jeremy Hyman to create their first record, Enter the Slasher House.
There’s more to Slasher Flicks besides Avey Tare as Deradoorian controlled the woozy synths and driving basslines behind a stack of keyboards and contributed another layer with echoing vocals.The second “Little Fang” began, the crowd bobbed their heads, moving to the beat of the punctuated bassline. The crowd later joined Avey Tare in singing the song’s chorus, “You’re something special/You’ve got to shout it out/If there are doubts then we will groove it out.” Nearly the entire crowd agreed with Avey’s lyrics and kept a high level of energy until the finale, “Strange Colores”.
After getting back late from seeing Deafheaven at the Bottom Lounge, I would have loved to sleep in before starting Day 2, but after seeing Twin Peaks at the Northside Rock n’ Roll Carnival, I couldn’t miss seeing the band play in their hometown. Frontman Cadien James certainly wasn’t going to let his broken leg stop him as he rolled out on stage in a wheelchair.
The young band played a mix of old songs, like “Baby Blue,” and tore through crowd favorites “Flavor” and “I Found a New Way” off their upcoming album Wild Onion. The entire band was elated to be kicking off the festival’s second day in front of many of their friends.
Cloud Nothings performed later in the day on the red stage, following a great performance by British quartet Wild Beasts. I watched from afar as I grabbed a spot up front for Cloud Nothings. After seeing them at Midpoint Music Festival in 2012, they’ve become one of my favorite bands, and one I most anticipated seeing at Pitchfork.
Lead singer Dylan Baldi walked on stage and counted off “Now Here In”, the first track on their sophomore album Here and Nowhere Else. The moshpit broke open during “Separation”, while the security guards constantly motioned towards each other every time they spotted a crowd surfer. Like most shows, Baldi ended with “Wasted Days,” but this time, he brought out two friends to add more power to the grueling, eight-minute track.
Leading up to the festival, Sunday sold out the fastest, partly due to the Kendrick Lamar’s headlining spot, but most likely because the entire day was filled with exciting acts. I also wanted to check out some of this year’s upcoming Midpoint Music Festival performers (Speedy Ortiz, Mutual Benefit and Real Estate).
After eating a much-needed breakfast in Logan Square Sunday morning, I was ready for the final day. But, without thinking, I boarded the wrong train on my way to the park, forcing me to backtrack to the loop. I got to the festival just in time to head over to the Blue Stage to see Speedy Ortiz, a band from Massachusetts who played a handful of songs from their awesome record Major Arcana. Then I went to the Green Stage to see Mutual Benefit, a Folk project created by Columbus native Jordan Lee. His stunning music was a great fit for the crowd that was spread out across the festival grounds.
Throughout the entire day, the Red Stage was filled with amazing shows by the likes of DIIV, Earl Sweatshirt and Grimes. DIIV played a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” along with a handful of new songs. Real Estate started its set in the early evening with a cover of the Nerves’ “Paper Dolls” and worked in a few songs from previous records. The crowed responded the most to “Horizon” and “Crime” from the new album Atlas. Once Real Estate ended, I took a break to sit down with friends and eat some pizza. After resting up, I was ready to see Kendrick perform for the first time after missing him multiple times in Cincinnati.
While Kendrick Lamar was still on his ascension to the top when he played Pitchfork two years ago, there’s no question he deserves the headlining spot. He’s considered the king of the West Coast after releasing his major label debut that detailed his life in Compton.
Finally, the lights were lowered and the screen lit up, showing the beginning of the short film that accompanied Kendrick throughout his set. The large video screen later projected scenes of empty liquor bottles rattling on the floor during “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and Kendrick driving his mom’s purple Dodge Caravan down Compton’s Rosecrans Avenue in the late hours of the night.
As his backing band began playing “Money Trees”, Kendrick came out to a roaring crowd. The energy continued as Kendrick began “Backseat Freestyle” and later performed “m.A.A.d city.” Every minute of the show Kendrick had the audience’s full attention, whether they were rapping along or listening to him speak. After performing every song fromgood kid, m.A.A.d. city, Kendrick left the stage, only to come back to perform “A.D.H.D” from Section .80. The 27-year-old rapper proved that with his skillful vocal delivery and interactive showmanship, he possesses the ability to connect with his fans and capture the attention of a crowd any size.
After finding my way out of the park, I realized that the Pitchfork Music Festival might be the only time where Shoegaze pioneers Slowdive, the widely recognizable Earl Sweatshirt and Disco legend Giorgio Moroder all played on the same stages in one weekend.
Pitchfork, the website, may be criticized for their decimal rating scale, or removing poor reviews of albums (i.e. deleting their 0.8 rating/review of Belle & Sebastian’s mid 2000’s comeback album The Boy with the Arab Strap), but each summer music-fans leave its festival satisfied. The bottom line is that Pitchfork creates a music festival featuring an eccentric lineup, consistent ticket prices and much smaller grounds than most major music festivals.
If you go to Pitchfork next year, expect a balanced dose of Indie Rock, Hip Hop, Folk and much more for $140 in Union Park with 18,000 people standing in the outfield of a baseball diamond.
The third and final day of Forecastle finally arrived. The fest’s weekend felt much longer than, well, a weekend, though each day seemingly flew by. By this point, the festival started to feel like home.
I entered the media tent expecting familiar faces, waited like a patient puppy in front of its food bowl for happy hour, snagged a band interview or two and wandered from stage to stage. Despite my tired eyes, I knew that I could get used to this. Like all good things, though, Forecastle had to come to an end. But not before one last day of fun.
I got to the fest just in time for The Weeks at the Boom Stage. After interviewing the band the previous day, I was looking forward to seeing what they would present live, and I wasn’t disappointed. A Southern-rooted band (Mississippi-rooted, to be exact), the Rock vibe was heavy with lead vocalist Cyle Barnes belting out his husky, Caleb Followill-esque lyrics. These young and rowdy dudes proved to be the perfect start to a sunny afternoon of music.
I scooted away from the stage to browse through the artist tents behind me. As I’ve said, I’m a total sucker for band posters, so off to shop I went. Thankfully my new friend Coltin found me before I could spend too much and we made our way to happy hour in the media tent.
It is quite possible that this is the most pizza I have ever consumed in a three-day period, but when free food calls, one must answer. After taking advantage of the day’s free amenities, Coltin and I attempted (and failed) to get into the Bourbon Lounge, so found our way to the Mast Stage for Brett Dennen. The songs that Dennen write are simple — They aren’t trying too hard, but they’re pleasant, and Dennen’s vocals tie everything together quite nicely. After several songs, though, it was time to wander again, so to the Boom Stage I returned.
Trampled By Turtles was next on my list, as I was scheduled to interview them that evening. Day 3 was much hotter than the others — the cool breeze that carried us through Days 1 and 2 had left us, and bodies glimmered in the summer sun. If you’re getting the idea that this stopped anyone from basking in the heat for their favorite bands, you’re wrong. I realized this as TBT began their set, the audience dancing without hesitation. Perhaps this proves to be true for most shows, particularly at a festival such as this — our bodies ache, our feet hurt, we are “hangry,” but once the music begins we forget it all. We are taken to a different place. TBT did this for their audience as the incredibly fast-fingered Erik Berry on the mandolin drove the crowd wild. It was a sight to see.
Day 3 required much more wandering on my part and floating between bands, so, knowing that I needed to at least catch a few songs from Jenny Lewis’ set, I made my way to the Mast Stage. Wishing my beagle Rilo (named after Rilo Kiley) was with me, I swayed to Lewis’ songs from her latest album, The Voyager, and was quickly reminded of why I fell in love with her old band some years back. Lewis is a little sassy and a lot of fun, rocking out on stage with her band dressed in white and rainbow suits. After a few songs it was time for my last interview of the fest.
I met with a few guys from Trampled By Turtles in the media tent for a quick chat, though I was admittedly distracted by the sounds of Nickel Creek in the distance. I wrapped up our interview and bolted to the stage like I’ve never brisk-walked before. With a smile on my face and happy tear in my eye, I was thrilled to watch a band that I’ve adored since middle school.
I cannot begin to describe how happy I was to see Nickel Creek, especially considering they played so much of their early material. Songs like “The Lighthouse’s Tale”, “Reasons Why” and “When You Come Back Down” from their 2000 self-titled album and “This Side,” along with the instrumental tunes from 2002’s This Side, were all featured, and each song sounded as perfect as the recordings. After so many years, Nickel Creek sounds as beautiful as ever and the band even has a new record out, A Dotted Line. I think I could have died a happy gal after seeing them.
After Nickel Creek, until Beck’s Forecastle-ending performance, I travelled from stage to stage (mostly in search of food) and ran into Adam, a fellow photojournalism pal from school. It was nice to see a friend after only briefly seeing familiar faces throughout the day, so together we went to dance to Flume. It was quite literally a party under the freeway as the Australian DJ blasted his beats from the stage, hands in the air and a sea of bodies moving in sync. Once that set ended it was time for Beck, and Adam and I ran to the stage.
Over the course of Beck’s first few songs we managed to weasel our way toward the front, getting closer to the main stage than I had been the entire weekend. There couldn’t have been a more perfect end to Forecastle.
Beck sang the beautifully airy and springtime-sounding songs from his latest release Morning Phase, but didn’t fail to bring the party with old favorites like “Loser”, “Girl” and more, eventually ending the night with “Sexx Laws” for the encore. One would never realize that Beck has been at this for as long as he has. His energy was amazing; bouncing across the stage between band members, the party atmosphere was what we needed to wrap up the night (and fest).
The audience was immense but was perhaps one of the friendliest crowd I encountered over the weekend — not sure if that’s due to the realization that our tired feet would soon get the rest they needed or perhaps it was just the booze. Either way, Forecastle ended with one of the best shows of the weekend, and we left on the perfect note to wrap up the fest.
Things to know for Forecastle if you plan to go next year: Wear comfortable shoes. Know that if you come in sandals, you will leave with very dirty feet.
Stay hydrated. Keep water with you, especially if the weather is as hot as Day 3 this year. Music festivals require long days, so don’t forget to take care of yourself.
Come with a schedule. You can create a custom schedule on the Forecastle website and print it out, something that helped me immensely this year in keeping track of things. Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone, though. Discovering new music is what festivals are all about!
What I love about Day 2 of a fest is that I usually have my bearings — I understand the layout of the festival and know how to find what I need. What I love more about Day 2 of a fest is that, while things seem the same, there is still much to be discovered, like new music, food and more. When Day 2 of Forecastle arrived, I went into the morning with expectations that would end up being far exceeded.
I got to the press tent early Saturday to meet with my first interview of the day, with Australian band Boy & Bear. I saw these guys perform at CMJ Music Marathon several years back and it was good to catch up with them again. I suggest listening to their latest record, Harlequin Dream, just released last year, if you‘ve never heard Boy & Bear before. The band will also be making their way across the United States in October, so look out for them! (LIYL The Avett Brothers, Trampled By Turtles).
After talking to Dave and Dave of Boy & Bear (listen below), it was still early in the day, and I forgot that music didn’t start for another couple of hours. Thank goodness it wasn’t too early for Heine Brothers’ Coffee, so to my iced coffee sanctuary I went. The morning felt nice and calm before the craziness that is Forecastle arrived, so I took a moment to walk the grounds and soak everything in. I could feel great things coming for that day, and great things indeed did come.
When the music finally began, I went to find my way to the Boom Stage (my unofficial favorite stage of the fest this year, I’ve decided), but not before meeting a fellow college radio DJ. We talked for a few about radio things and the bands we were excited to see that day, and when we finally split ways I found myself in front of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Funny enough, as my college radio station’s Music Director, I had passed on Alynda Lee Segarra‘s latest record, but as I stood watching her live set I couldn’t figure out why. She was amazing. With the full band, the sound was soulful and remnant of New Orleans Y’at, as if the group of musicians had just been resurrected from a Louisiana swamp (in the best way possible). I stuck around the stage for Boy & Bear and Lord Huron, who together gave me my Americana fix for the day, before traveling to the other side of the fest.
At the Ocean Stage, I waited for Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks to begin. As a longtime fan of both Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors, I’ve been enjoying the recent collaboration between Dave “Avey Tare” Portner and Angel Deradoorian known as Slasher Flicks, and it was nice to see that happen live. It was clear that the audience was full of Animal Collective fans — where I was standing, Portner nearly started a riot when he came on to the stage. Slasher Flicks began full of high energy and noise, which one might expect from the howling (sometimes screeching) vocalist, who was backed by Ponytail drummer Jeremy Hyman. The audience bobbed along to each of the playfully spooky yet jazzy songs and the band, who had just come from the Pitchfork festival in Chicago, danced along with us from the stage. As the set ended, I quickly made my way back to the media tent to begin my next scheduled interviews.
First I talked to a few dudes from The Weeks, a band that is from Mississippi but now based in Nashville, about touring and new tunes. These guys recently toured with Kentucky’s own Buffalo Rodeo and noted that they prefer to tour with friends when given the chance. This was perhaps the most fun interview that I’ve done so far — these guys were super laidback, giving me the perfect opportunity to get out any nervous giggles before speaking with Dave “Avey Tare” Portner.
A long time fan of Animal Collective, I was both excited and incredibly nervous to talk to the man who fronted the band, even if he was with a different project. We met in a trailer behind the Ocean Stage (which was, at the time, accompanied by a very loud DJ) and began to chat. Portner was incredibly kind and open to conversation, something I always appreciate about an artist. He opened up about the formation of Slasher Flicks, the new record and how it served as a means for “moving on.” He even dropped a hint about new Animal Collective material coming out within the next year. It is definitely worth noting that Portner complimented my bright green and electric blue nails, which I had been referring to earlier in the week as “boy repellent” on account of their somewhat crazy nature. Leave it up to a member of Animal Collective to like them, of course. (Listen to the interview below.)
After talking to Portner about my favorite Animal Collective songs and such off the record, I finally left him alone and floated across the fest to the Mast Stage. My head still buzzing and heart still racing from the conversation I just had, I stood swaying along to my favorites as Band of Horses belted from the stage. “No One’s Gonna Love You” and “Is There A Ghost” soared across the lawn for a moment that took me back to high school. I fell in love with the band all over again.
As the night progressed, so did my exhaustion, so I found myself at a bench near the WFPK Port Stage for Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors. A refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of the day, Drew Holcomb and his band played their tunes as the soundtrack to the river at dusk, the colorful festival lights slowly growing more prominent against the evening sky. I’ll admit it, I closed my eyes for a minute to soak in the beautifully bluesy tunes traveling from the Port Stage, especially when “What Would I Do Without You” began. Holcomb sings pretty songs of love and Jesus, and the Forecastle crowd was definitely into it. I watched across the river as Jack White’s audience began crawling closer and closer to the stage, my cue to make my way over.
I decided to watch White perform from a distance, finding a spot where I could see him and not simply watch the screens on the sides of the stage. He cranked out White Stripes classics like “My Doorbell,” as well as his solo tracks like “Love Interruption” for the huge crowd. His band, in the most classic Rock & Roll way, was quite entertaining to watch. They didn’t need much as far as props and graphics go, just their energy and passion.
It worked. White was the perfect end to Day 2, and, knowing Day 3 would be here soon, I looked forward to the few hours of sleep I would gather before heading out again.
To check out if you’re Forecastling today: Eno hammocks. Give your feet a break, they deserve it!
Sober Sailing. These guys want you to be safe and composed at the fest. They support each other in staying alcohol- and drug-free at Forecastle, so if you need some encouragement in doing the same, just give ‘em a visit.
Heine Brothers’ Coffee. The folks working here have been especially kind and the coffee is great. What could be better than nice folks and good brew?
A perfect day, hot enough but not so hot as to suggest the idea that the ghosts of dead ants broiled by sadistic children with magnifying glasses were somehow exacting their revenge from beyond the veil of ant Valhalla. Why, yes, the '70s were good to me. Why do you ask?
At any rate, the potential for another spectacular launch to Bunbury's first day was palpable as ID was proffered, the laminate was provided and the wristband was snapped into position. The game is afoot (or as my wife's podiatrist might counter, the foot is a game … but I digress. Why, yes the ’70s were good to me. Why do you ask?) and another spectacular Bunbury awaits.
The beginning of the day was essentially a sampler platter of roaming about and checking out a few songs from a variety of sources. I started off down at the Amphitheater Stage to check out The Upset Victory, who had drawn a pretty sizable crowd for their muscular U2-tinged brand of melodically gritty Roots/Punk. Then it was down to the Warsteiner Stage for a more lengthy taste of Snowmine, who return to the '80s/'90s with a 21st century vengeance, mining a thick vein of Depeche Mode, along with a '90s aggressive Ambient quality and a quietly powerful modern edge. Then it was down to the Main Stage for a quick shot of X Ambassadors, who blend big tribal drumming with a Punk-fueled Pop core, a little like Imagine Dragons with a few hundred thousand volts pumped directly into their hearts. Finally it was back to the Amphitheater for a few songs from the soon-to-be-large Let It Happen, who were delivering their Green Day-esque anthemics in the blistering mid-afternoon glare of the unfiltered sun.
Then it was time to hit the Lawn Stage for the triumphant return of 500 Miles to Memphis. Frontman Ryan Malott has streamlined the band down to a potent quintet (guitarist Aaron Whalen, bassist Noah Sugarman, drummer-of-the-gods Kevin Hogle and the lap-steel-and-all-round-magnificence of David Rhodes Brown) and turned up the juice to emphasize the Roots/Rock thunder and downplay the Country lightning. There's still plenty of twang in their thang, but the sizzle and the sound is turned up to 11 in the slimmer, trimmer 500MTM. The band was clearly itching to tear shit up; they've been hard at work for the last couple of years or more assembling their new album, the imminent Stand There and Bleed (the title is a Tombstone reference; if you know the movie, you know the exact scene, and if you don't, shame on you for missing the greatest Western depiction of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday ever, so go fix that before another hour goes by).
Malott and the 500 blew through a set that was stacked with great new material (particularly "Bethel," a tribute to Malott's hometown), but they didn't forget to give the master his due, pulling DRB up from his lap steel duties to haul out yet another chilling spin on Trent Reznor's "Hurt"; if the hair doesn't stand up on your neck when the Colonel's baritone rumbles out, "You can have it all, my empire of dirt," you've got one of those weird, hairless necks. 500 Miles to Memphis has been well out of the public eye for the last year as they concentrated on life pursuits and sporadic turns in the studio to finesse Stand There and Bleed, so there was an urgency to get their fresh live set across as a clarion call to let everyone know they're back. Are they ever.
After a quick stop to water my horse (namely, me), it was a fast walk over to the Acoustic Stage for an hour of blissful Roots/Folk brilliance from Aaron Lee Tasjan, whose sideman work with Todd Snider, the New York Dolls, Drivin' N' Cryin' and Tim Easton has earned him a reputation as one of Americana's most reliably astonishing guitarists. But it's his solo persona that is becoming even more fully realized, as his sterling EP releases — 2011's August Moon, 2012's The Thinking Man's Filth and the just released Crooked River Burning — have shown Tasjan to be a songwriter of depth and beauty will beyond his calendar age. Listen to any given ALT song and you'll hear hints of Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Will Kimbrough, Rodney Crowell and Ryan Adams in his delivery.
In Tasjan's Folk world, there is no bellybutton introspection set to a strummed acoustic guitar; he'll peel off a solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix after telling a story about seeing Ted Nugent shoot flaming arrows into cardboard effigies of his enemies list worthy of Arlo Guthrie. There aren't many singer/songwriters (read that: any) who are writing tributes to the late, great Judee Sill, and fewer still who make incisive observations like "You can't play Beatles music with bullshit hair." Deals don't get any realer than Aaron Lee Tasjan, and you all need to make him a star at your earliest convenience. Go. I'll wait.
After ALT's hour of power, it was back to the Amphitheater for the transcendent magnificence of Lydia Loveless. She may have grown up in the hillbilly hinterlands of Coshocton, Ohio, but she is a city girl with enough Rock sass to satisfy any Indie hipster and enough twang to hold the interest of any Americana aficionado. In a set laced with electric greatness, primarily drawn from her latest album, Somewhere Else, Loveless and her brilliant band finished with an absolutely scorching take on "Boy Crazy," the title track from her 2013 EP. The song reached a fever pitch when guitarist Todd May, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth with noir-detective-meets-Bun-E.-Carlos nonchalance, sat on his feet in front of his amp at the back of the stage, coaxing an exquisite din of feedback from his guitar, while bassist/husband Ben Lamb concocted similarly haunted sounds by running his bass down Nick German's drum kit and Loveless herself fell onto her back on the stage and cranked out sheets of heart-stopping guitar madness. It was an extraordinary end to a truly amazing and all too brief set.
Exactly what is it about the Black Owls that resonates so completely with me? First, they effortlessly tap into that primal part of my brain that was developing during my teenage years when I was soaking up insane amounts of T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and the Stooges. Next, they punch forcefully into the neighboring brain cells, the ones that house the memories of discovering Television, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Talking Heads, New York Dolls and Be Bop Deluxe. And it's not that they sound like any of those bands (although occasionally they do), it's that they remind me of that beautiful, mysterious time in my life when there was still music to be revealed, and the visceral thrill that accompanied every new discovery. That is what it is about the Black Owls. They once again made that abundantly clear at the Lawn Stage when they tore through old favorites ("Wild Children," "Julias Morningstar," "Sometimes I Wish You Were a Ghost"), brand new classics in waiting ("Gasoline" and "Rook") and an absolutely hair-raising spin through Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire."
It was the standard Black Owls greatness, which is to say the quintet, as usual, presented their most familiar elements in new and unexpected ways so that even a grizzled old veteran Owls watcher such as myself was knocked back a pace and surprised by it all. Black Owls make me long for the days when bands put out two albums a year for not other reason than they could. Bassist Kip Roe continues to weave himself into the fabric of the Owls' sound and, as frontman David Butler pointed out, guitarist Brandon Losacker is proving to be a perfect songwriting foil for Butler and co-founding guitarist Ed Shuttleworth. The Black Owls seem to be entering a period of gritty reassessment, where dirty Glam riffs and anthemic chord structures are dominating the proceedings. Yes, please, and quite a bit more, if it's quite all right. And even if it's not.
Before I review the psychodots' Bunbury debut, perhaps a history lesson is in order. A good many years ago, music mogul and purported industry genius Clive Davis sauntered into Cincinnati with the stated goal of checking out The Raisins and perhaps offering them a lucrative and much-deserved contract. When Davis departed from our fair city without signing The Raisins, he explained the lack of a deal thusly: "They're an embarrassment of riches."
Please allow me to read between the lines and translate that five word headscratcher into layman's terms. What Mr. Davis was so obtusely attempting to convey was this: "The Raisins are a stellar band and I don't have the slightest idea how to market them without making them as smooth and textureless as Gerber's babyshit and as lame as a beggar in the Bible, essentially stripping them of the elements that make them unique, and if you think I'm going to dismantle and destroy this band or permanently stain my sparklingly legendary resume with the ugly reality that I was unable to sell the music of a gifted band to a quality-starved public simply because I didn't understand the complexities of either one, you've got several unpleasantly aromatic things coming in a flaming bag on your front porch."
Of course, The Raisins famously broke up, reassembling as the Bears with guitarist Adrian Belew and refashioning as psychodots without Belew. So in a very tangible sense, we owe the existence of psychodots to Clive Davis' short-sighted inability to recognize their root band's brilliance. I was devastated that The Raisins didn't make it and, after the 'dots' loosely tight/tightly loose set at Bunbury, I am relieved beyond measure The Raisins didn't make it. Success would have come at a great and terrible cost, and we would not have enjoyed 20+ sporadically splendid years of psychodots Power Pop bliss.
There may have only been 100 or so bodies at the Amphitheater Stage to witness psychodots' fabulousness (Fitz and the Tantrums were sucking up bodies like a UFO set to "harvest," and rightly so) but the 'dots never give less than 89%, and they were in full charge mode on Friday afternoon. There was Rob Fetters' squiggly guitar magnificence (I'd put him up against any guitarist in the history of Rock, and he'd be only mildly uncomfortable at being up against any of them), Bob Nyswonger's bass conjuring, using his instrument to evoke lead guitar and keyboard mayhem (and by instrument, I'm still talking about his bass) and Chris Arduser's master class in How to Drum with Power and Grace and Still Maintain a Smartass Attitude.
It was a delightfully eclectic set, with a number of old favorites ("Master of Disaster," "Living in a Lincoln," complete with Fetters' mom-inspired balloon-on-the-strings gimmick), a few quasi-oddities ("Candy," the rarely performed "The Problem Song") and a handful of non-'dots nuggets ("She Might Try" from Arduser's exquisite The Celebrity Motorcade, The Bears' "Veneer" from their last album Eureka, "Play Your Guitar" from Fetters' patently perfect new solo album, Saint Ain't, The Raisins' fist-pumping "Fear is Never Boring") and the band's always entertaining banter (Fetters apropos of everything: "Is anyone tripping?"; Bob Nyswonger after Arduser's observation that the evening was balmy: "Balmy," stretched langorously into two words). It was, in a number of words, a standard psychodots show, which means one of the best shows you'll ever see, local or otherwise. Long may they reign.
After the breathless 'dots set, I was torn between the Heartless Bastards' triumphant return to the area or the unlikely but much welcomed reunion of Veruca Salt's original lineup. With more than a couple of Bastards sets under my belt and the prospect of many more to come, I opted for Veruca Salt because, even if the reunion sticks, the possibility of the band's return to Cincinnati seems remote. The foursome did not disappoint, hauling out blistering favorites from their slim catalog in this iteration and reinforcing why we've loved their Glam/Pop brilliance for so very long. Whatever caused the rift between co-fronts Louise Post (who has kept Veruca Salt going in some form or other for the past 21 years) and Nina Gordon (who departed for a solo career in 1998), there was no evidence of any residual friction as the quartet blew like a hurricane through "Volcano Girls," "Straight" and their signature brain-boiler "Seether." The band even teased a couple of songs – including "It's Holy" from this year's Record Store Day single — from what was described as "their upcoming thing;" that thing cannot come soon enough. As final proof of Veruca Salt's newly minted reunion, Post and Gordon kissed at center stage amid a beautiful howl of squalling feedback. As the lights came up, the '90s called, they want their awesome back; they can blow it out their ass, because Veruca Salt is hanging onto it with all eight arms.
For the evening's closer, Empire of the Sun, the Main Stage was nearly as packed with bodies and gear as the field in front of it. The band's epic stage show, which has been described as Cirque Du Soleiel without the airshow, requires a lot of moving parts, and the Bunbury crowd arrived in significant numbers to witness the Rock/Synth Pop/Electronic spectacle. Empire of the Sun's primary sparkplugs, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore, and a veritable army of players and dancers offered up a wall of Prince-like Glam/Pop guitar and a danceable solution of Depeche Mode Synth Pop menace, all updated to a millennial frenzy of Muse/Daft Punk proportions. But rather than non-descript and identity shielding space/BMX helmets, EOTS prefers elaborate tribal headdresses that look like giant pre-immolation phoenixes atop the principals' heads. At one point, the dancers were all playing fake neon guitars in a 21st century version of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video. All of this plays out in front of a constantly shifting projection of disparate and arty images and screen saver light squiggles combined with a choreographed and dazzling light show that is both compelling and distracting. That dichotomy within the Empire of the Sun presentation matches the broad spectrum of reactions to the band's Cincinnati debut (and one of only a handful of American dates); the majority of the crowd was fully engaged in the band's expansive Vistavision sprawl, while a few canvased friends offered up opinions that ranged from "That was as exciting as watching glitter paint dry," to "Meh, it's okay," to "I totally love this." Editorial critique aside, Empire of the Sun was every bit as epic as advertised, and everyone who looks for spectacle in their Dancetronic music mix got more than their money's worth with Friday night's Bunbury closer.
• I started the day with a deliciously smokey pulled pork sandwich from the geniuses at Eli's, a bun so overstuffed with barbeque goodness that it's actually a pulled pork sandwich with a side of pulled pork. It's as close to a religious experience as I've ever had outside of a church (where I have oddly never had a religious experience … go figure) or a music venue (where I've had plenty; I'm looking at you, Iggy Pop). Washed down with a Fathead beer, it was the perfect start to the third charmed Bunbury.
• At the Snowmine show, I ran into "Hey-look-everybody-it's" Stu, from Paul Roberts' Three-Amigos crew. Stu reported that Paul and maybe Big Jim would be along shortly. And, in fact, they were.
• On the way from X Ambassadors to the Amphitheater/Lawn Stage area, I ran into Eddy Mullet and his daughter Jess. Eddy is the volunteer host of the Friday night 6:00-8:00 pm shift at Class X Radio, where I have surreptitiously installed myself as his quasi-co-host; I do the weekly CityBeat Report, a rundown of weekend music events, and a segment I concocted called the Gang of Four Set, four songs that are connected by a theme of my own twisted design. Eddy is also the longstanding host of Kindred Sanction, the area’s longest-running local music program that was founded by Cynthia Dye Wimmer a fair number of years ago at WAIF. Cynthia brought the show to Class X six years ago, Eddy sat in occasionally as co-host and Cynthia backed out of the show to attend to her life. Eddy's passion for and knowledge of the local music scene is legendary, and anyone who has ever dealt with him knows him as a straight up guy and maybe one of the best boosters that local music has ever seen. Class X management has seen fit to cut the show's hours and alter the format, all of which is wrong-headed and counterproductive, but all that really matters to Eddy is spreading the gospel of greater Cincinnati's music scene. And Jess is turning into a Rock chick of the first order (not like that, you gutter-minded dimbulbs). Under Eddy's tutelage, she's becoming a pretty fair aficionado of local music herself; smart, funny and fearless, she will be a force to be reckoned with in some near future. At any rate, if you see Eddy wandering around, shake his hand and thank him for his long-suffering and often unappreciated work on behalf of local music.
• Eddy and Jess and I hit a run of shows together, including the ever amazing 500 Miles to Memphis, the astonishing Aaron Lee Tasjan (who Eddy hipped me to through his love of Drivin' n' Cryin'), the gear-stripping Lydia Loveless and the transcendent Black Owls. Eddy and I could talk music for days on end, which we do at every given opportunity. Eddy also introduced me to Aaron, who he'd met after a Drivin' n' Cryin' show; that kid is going places, if Eddy and I have anything to say about it.
• Finally ran into Paul and Big Jim at the Aaron Lee Tasjan set, with "Hey-everybody-it's" Stu in tow. These three are also a great bunch of music lovers and supporters, local and otherwise, with weird, esoteric tastes. In other words, my people. I love running into them, and swapping stories and having Paul buy me beers, which he most generously did during the psychodots' set.
• Also briefly caught up with the ever-stellar Kip Roe, freshly installed bassist for the Black Owls and a prince among men. His boys, Kip Jr. and Ben, were there to witness the Owls' casual brilliance (anchored by their dad's bedrock solid basslines), but post-show were anxious to head down to the Main Stage to witness the Soul/Pop frenzy of Fitz and the Tantrums. Kip and the boys won't be spending Saturday doing any Bunbury adventuring, as they're headed to a Modest Mouse show in Columbus (a bucket list event, as Kip described it), but they will be back for the Flaming Lips on Sunday. Kip's boys are huge Flaming Lips fans. God, I love Rock & Roll families.
• And speaking of such, my other favorite component of Black Owls shows is the chance to catch up with the Owl wives, Amy Butler, Carrie Losacker and Sarah Kitzmiller (and let's not forget Ed's girlfriend, whose name, like so many other things, slips my addled brain. Why, yes, I did enjoy the '70s. Why do you ask?). We were trying to come up with a name for their defacto support group; I propose the Owlettes, and given Friday's heat and humidity, the Moist Owlettes probably was more apt. At any rate, they are wonderful people to interact with, and I look forward to their company every bit as much as the Owls' soul-stirring, flashback-triggering presentations.
• And on that subject, Ed, his girlfriend and her daughter (again, names … I remember knowing them in some distant past; maybe if they had hats with their names on them. That's how Stu solved his dilemma …) caught up with me while I scarfing down a couple of cheese coneys before leaving Friday night and offered a heartfelt Rock & Roll tale. Ed's girlfriend's daughter (note to self: this would be better with names) is a huge fan of Walk the Moon and as fate would have it, frontman Nick Petricca happened to be in town and was catching the Empire of the Sun show. Ed's girlfriend's daughter spotted Nick, professed her undying love for Walk the Moon, they chatted for a bit and she got her picture taken with him. Nick is clearly one of the good guys and his very open and engaging response to a fan's sincere outpouring of love and support is one of the reasons for the band's incredible success. And, as I noted to Ed's girlfriend's daughter, "It's always nice when you meet your heroes and they're not dicks." Thus should it ever be.
• The only thing that could have made the night complete after that uplifting moment would be a quick run-in with Jacob Heintz, former Buckra guitarist and Rock volunteer of the gods, as his constant presence at MidPoint and now Bunbury will attest. Another one of the truly great people that define the Cincinnati music scene as one of best in the known universe. I am physically fading and spiritually soaring. It's a good feeling for the end of the first day of another fantastic Bunbury.
After 96 consecutive hours of baking in the Tennessee heat and humidity, walking from stage to stage to take in as much music as possible and drinking and dancing sometimes from noon until dawn, even your third and fourth shower after returning home from Bonnaroo can be like a religious experience. Though the festival itself gets under your skin in a way that one does not necessarily wish to ever wash away. Indeed, coming down after the festival, returning to the mundane realities of everyday life, can be a difficult proposition for hardcore Bonnaroovians struggling to simply settle back into their daily routine on planet earth.
The fourth and final day of Bonnaroo 2014 found (photographer) Chuck (Madden) and I sun-dazed but smiling, still eager to soak up and savor every bit of music we could. Among the few campers stirring that murky morning, I woke early and wandered the eerily empty festival grounds well before noon. I’ve attended the festival six times since 2006, but Sunday morning was the first time I rode the Bonnaroo ferris wheel. After an hour or so of tapping away on my trusty laptop in an empty press tent, the ferris wheel ride gave me an opportunity to chill and be still for a few minutes, surveying the scene from a bird’s eye view. A crowded cornucopia of bright lights and loud music after dark, it was both surreal and serene to view the Bonnaroo festival grounds silent in the morning.
The silence wouldn’t last. Even before I disembarked from the ferris wheel I could hear Lucero doing their soundcheck on a stage that I could barely see in the distance.
Chuck’s day began with a pair of bands he would be raving about for the rest of the afternoon: Kansas Bible Company on the tiny On Tap Lounge stage and much-talked-about new arrivals Lake Street Dive in That Tent, where a surprisingly large crowd had already gathered for the band’s 1 p.m. start.
Cloudy skies and occasional drizzle kept temperatures tolerable for the first three days of the festival. But Sunday was all clear skies and blazing sun, sending temperatures into the 90s for most of the day. Always an endurance test, Sunday at Bonnaroo 2014 was a brutal trial for the thousands on site who were forced to either hydrate, hunker in the shade, or both, until the sun relented in the early evening. But shade is not easy to come by at Bonnaroo, and sitting in a hot tent is no kind of relief whatsoever. Sunscreen, long sleeves and floppy hats ruled the day. Experienced Bonnaroovians are well-familiar with the physical demands of the festival. It just so happens that after three days of relative ease and comfort, Sunday’s weather conditions upped the ante on a panting throng already sunburned and exhausted.
Arguably some of the finest acts on the Bonnaroo lineup were featured on the festival’s final day, as Bonnaroo attendees were treated to phenomenal sets by Broken Bells, The Avett Brothers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Arctic Monkeys, Shovels & Rope, Washed Out, Wiz Khalifa, The Lone Bellow, Okkervil River and an afternoon performance by Yonder Mountain String Band on the main stage that featured Bluegrass legend Sam Bush on violin.
This writer tumbled into the Other Tent just in time to catch a rousing set by Those Darlins. Like Nashville’s Wild Feathers before them on the weekend itinerary, this was sort of a hometown gig for Those Darlins, a band whose founding members met at a Rock & Roll camp in Murfreesboro, Tenn. A sparse but dedicated crowd happily held lead singer Jesse Zazu aloft as she tumbled over the barricade and into the audience. Laying back on a sea of fans’ hands, her guitar squall raged unabated at full steam as her eyes rolled back in her head. (Those Darlins play a free show in Cincinnati this Friday, headlining Fountain Square’s MidPoint Indie Summer concert.)
After a ridiculous amount of pre-gig hype, the controversial Kanye West’s Friday night performance delivered nothing but disappointment to a Bonnaroo audience that should have known better to have expected anything more. Saturday headliner Jack White and Sunday’s top dog Elton John showed that good material and passionate, substantive performances will always trump shallow arrogance, hype and bullshit. To Mr. West, who once claimed himself to be “Shakespeare in the flesh,” I submit this famous quote from Macbeth:
“Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,
Of far greater significance than this writer expected was a stellar Sunday night performance by Elton John, who reeled off one classic after another to close out Bonnaroo 2014. I knew Elton’s set would be great, but I was not prepared for just how truly amazing it was. With a band featuring guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson, who have been with him for 45 years (you read that right), Bonnaroo 2014 was Sir Elton’s first-ever appearance at a U.S. festival. Opening the show with Side One of his classic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album from 1973, Elton proceeded with a version of “Levon” that concluded with a virtual clinic on Rock & Roll piano playing in the extended outro. Though I was dubious at first about Elton closing out the festival, this two-hour performance instead turned out to be such a stunner that I know I will forever count it among my all-time favorite Bonnaroo memories.
Thanks again to CityBeat for this amazing opportunity and to Chuck Madden whose concert photography is simply the best and whose friendship and company are a big part of what makes the Bonnaroo experience so meaningful to me.
Heavy Hinges is a new-ish band featuring some faces likely familiar to dedicated local music fans. Guitarist Jeremy Singer and drummer Brian Williamson have played in numerous groups over the past two decades, while singer/guitarist Dylan Speeg and bassist Andrew Laudeman were members of long-running, super-diverse Cincinnati crew Buckra. Maya Banatwala is the relative newcomer in the band, but her soul-drenched co-lead vocals in the Hinges serve as the group’s secret weapon.
Heavy Hinges debut album, Mean Old City, shows signs of some of Buckra’s trademark sonic diversity, but it’s channeled in a more focused manner. Ultimately, Heavy Hinges is a great Rock & Roll band, but its sound is touched by influences from Blues, Pop, Funk and Soul to various other forms of American Roots music. Like Alabama Shakes, Heavy Hinges manages to sound remarkably vital and “of the now” — despite the obvious vintage inspirations — thanks to the sincerity and vigor poured into each note. Mean Old City bristles with a timelessness that has less to do with the classic genres flirted with throughout and more to do with the from-the-heart songwriting and playing.
Here’s a music video for Mean Old City track “Booze May Be Your Lover, Not Your Friend”:
Speeg and Banatwala make for great co-frontpeople, crisscrossing their melodies and harmonies sometimes like X’s Exene Cervenka and John Doe and other times like June and Johnny Cash, with each singer possessing a voice quite distinct from each other, yet still sounding like they were made for each other when they come together. Meanwhile, the rest of the band are flawless and perform with a similar soulfulness; Williamson and Laudeman are a jaw-droppingly great rhythm section, while Singer’s guitar leads and solos are as attention-grabbing as the singers’ powerful vocal one-two punch.
Heavy Hinges host a free release party for the new album Saturday at 10 p.m. at Northside Tavern with DAAP Girls. Read CityBeat's profile of Heavy Hinges from early this year when the band was nominated in the "Best New Artist" category at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.