The Comet was packed Tuesday night in anticipation of seeing Nashville band The Black Belles and the Belles didn’t disappoint.
These women sure have created an identity for themselves. At any point, you could spot them somewhere in The Comet; they were hard to miss with their long black hair, black clothes, black hats, pale skin and dark makeup. And the shtick of it all doesn’t seem forced for The Black Belles. Members of Jack White’s label, Third Man Records, the Black Belles opened their set with “Leave You With A Letter,” the opener from their debut self-titled album.
Although the band is normally a four-piece, they are touring as a three-piece, leaving the organist back home in Nashville. Between bassist Ruby Rogers' deadpan dead-on bass riffs and Shelby Lynne’s solid drumming, there’s room for lead singer/lead guitarist Olivia Jean to do as she pleases. Her voice comes off as somewhat of a growl, so perfect for their dark and witchy lyrics. And there was something about the drummer similar to Meg White, with her black hair flowing as she beat the crap out of her set.
The Black Belles seem to be somewhat of a cross between The Cramps and Wanda Jackson, with the occasional Jack White riff thrown in the mix. Olivia Jean announced that they would play “their only Country song” as they launched into “Honky Tonk Horror,” which was not really anything close to a Country song and probably the heaviest Rock song they played. Other numbers included “In a Cage,” “Howl At The Moon,” “What Can I Do?,” “Lies,” “Wishing Well,” and “The Wrong Door.”
The only problem with their set was that The Comet didn’t move the tables out of the way so it was an extremely awkward crowd to stand in and actually be able to see the band. This resulted in people standing on chairs to get a better glimpse of the dark beauties.
When I asked the band what they’d be doing after the show, they smiled and said they would be using a Ouija Board at the Masonic Temple at which they were staying. If you missed out on seeing the Black Belles, they’ll be back in Cincinnati as one of the headliners for Midpoint Music Festival this September!
It’s been eight and a half years, four albums and an almost entirely new set of members since Heartless Bastards began performing as a new band in Cincinnati's small clubs. This time around, the Bastards came back to their breeding ground as an Austin, Tex., band and played to a packed house at Madison Theater in Covington.
For all intents and purposes, Saturday’s Heartless gig was very much a “homecoming” gig. As such, there are certain things one expects (and usually gets when the Bastards come home) — lots of heart, extra banter with the audience and, most importantly, one hell of a show. Going in with those expectations was probably a terrible idea. The concert was, at its worst, disappointing and, at its best, just OK.
Anyone who noticed the night’s schedule started off disappointed when they realized Heartless Bastards wouldn’t be on until two hours after the listed showtime. Openers Hacienda were actually amazing, just as they were when they opened for City and Colour at Bogart's a few months back. But after Hacienda rocked out, the road crew took 20 minutes to set up the stage, followed by more than 10 minutes of absolutely nothing.
Once the crowd was finally graced with the presence of the band, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom spent another five minutes testing her vocal mic. Shouldn’t that have been done in sound check? Or, at the very least, during the 10 minutes of nothingness? Even drummer Dave Colvin sat leaning forward on his drum kit, staring at Wennerstrom with what appeared to be very little amusement.
When they finally kicked into gear, the show wasn’t bad. The Bastards sounded close enough to their albums to show they are a decent band. A good portion of the crowd was made up of dancing fans who seemed unfazed by the initial delay.
The night was heavy on songs off of Arrow, the Bastards' lean, stirring new album just released Valentine's Day. Wennerstrom recently told Billboard, “I feel like this is the strongest record I’ve ever done.” And she’s right.
The live experience, however, was lacking on Friday night. Seemingly devoid of love and respect for the audience, the show was hopefully just a rare off-night from a band that usually kills it in front of their old hometown's still-very-much-dedicated fans.
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.
Some musicians get jaded and cynical when they become mostly known for only a handful of songs that aren’t even necessarily the best examples of their work. When this happens, bands sometimes fall entirely on their most popular songs and use them as a crutch. Or they shy away from playing them at all.
Alison Krauss and Union Station may have earned their biggest media coverage and added the most fans when they were featured on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, but they’ve released far more music than just that handful of songs.
After being in the music business for over 20 years, the gang know how best to handle appealing to their most faithful fans as well as their soundtrack buddies. At the Taft Theatre March 31, the ensemble played the best songs from its newest album, Paper Airplane, and quite a few older favorites. Because so many members of Union Station have careers outside the band, the night also featured a few solo performances. Alison sang “Let Me Touch You for Awhile” and Dan Tyminski played the “singing voice of George Clooney” when he revived “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Dobro legend Jerry Douglas even played a little bit of Paul Simon – a sneak peek at his forthcoming album, perhaps?
The group also had to appease concert goers who may only know Alison and the boys from the O Brother songs or her duet with Brad Paisley. They did this with an encore full of those well-known hits. Included in that mix were two verses of “Down to the River to Pray” and the last verse of “Whiskey Lullaby” (with just Krauss backed up by her bassist). All of those songs, by the way, were played with instruments unplugged as the members leaned in around one vintage microphone.
The night was enjoyable for fans on any part of the dedication spectrum. The band members teased each other and had fun together on the stage and their smiles were, as cliché as it sounds, contagious. The music Saturday night couldn’t have sounded any better if you were listening to the group's albums through a sweet-assed Bose system. They performed flawlessly.
Over the past dozen years, Beth Ditto and Gossip have finetuned their lo-fi Indie Rock presentation into a wild pastiche of fist-pumping Punk, funky Soul/Pop and Indie Dance Rock, with a stage component that blends campy theater of the absurd with thrift store chic. Ditto and guitarist Nathan Howdeshell have never forgotten their Arkansas roots but have masterfully absorbed the musical zeitgeist of their Northwest environment and assimilated it into their broad range of oddly complementary influences, particularly on their 2006 breakthrough Standing in the Way of Control and their 2009 hit Music for Men.
On A Joyful Noise, Gossip’s fifth and finest album, the band and producers Mark Ronson and Brian Higgins have crafted a set that blends a soaring Gospel vibe with a slamming Indie Rock foundation and accessorizes it with bristling Dance Punk and washes of Electronic atmosphere.
The opening salvo of “Melody Emergency” finds Ditto warbling with Kate Bush’s intensity and Lene Lovich’s chirp while Howdeshell cranks out glammy chords worthy of Marc Bolan and drummer Hannah Blilie nails down the perfect groove. The trio immediately veers into should-be-a-mega-club-hit Dance Pop territory with the dramatic and anthemic “Perfect World,” a track that Madonna would embrace but could never pull off, and the funky Electropop novelty of “Get a Job.”
With typical bravado and style and an impressively evolving maturity, Gossip push the aptly titled A Joyful Noise in a dozen different directions while maintaining a firm grip on their own malleable sonic identity.
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.
An EP can serve several purposes — a stopgap release between full-length releases; fresh merch to offer at shows; a teaser for more material down the road; or an exploratory release to test the waters for a response to a new band or an existing band's new direction (among others).
In any event, whatever a band's reason might be for offering up a small dose of their material for reduced consumption, the inviolable rule of the EP is simple — always leave the listener wanting more. If you elicit even a modicum of boredom or disinterest in a spare handful of tracks, you're not likely to entice listeners to take a chance on a full-length or get them out to a show, which is, as stated, sort of the point.
Luckily, no such lapse is even remotely evident on Real Far East, Saturn Batteries' second EP in just over a year. Since the Cincinnati bands formation in 2010, guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Brad Gibson — who's put in bass time with the likes of Charlie Hustle, Young Heirlooms and Walk the Moon — has presented his brainchild as a trio, quartet and quintet along the way, all in the service of Beatlesque Pop filtered through the New Wave aesthetic of the Police and XTC and adrenalized with a heart needle full of the Pixies' jittery satellite Rock.
On last year's Ever Been in Love? Gibson and the Batteries du jour hewed a little closer to the John Lennon/Frank Black strands of their DNA, but Real Far East finds the freshly minted foursome (Gibson, guitarist Brad Rutledge, drummer Justin Sheldon, bassist Archie Niebuhr) drifting more toward the Paul McCartney/Andy Partridge end of their gene pool. And while the Batteries soften the edges ever so subtly and polish their surface to a slightly more reflective shine on Real Far East, these refinements don't diminish the band's energetic charm in the least.
One of the reasons for that is the Batteries have never forsaken one direction for another, preferring to incorporate differing elements into their foundational sound in an effective display of their diversity. The soulful "It's Not About the Money" and propulsive "Overtime" are both Pop gems that swing and swagger in a groove that isn't far removed from the benchmarks established by Walk the Moon in their march toward global domination. "You Really Live Twice" features previous members Rob Barnes and Rich Shivener, naturally hearkening back to the moody energy of Ever Been in Love? "Every Last Time" updates '60s/'70s AM Pop to the 21st century, while "Cherry Times" is a solid hybrid of the sweet and dissonant Pop that has characterized everything that Saturn Batteries has done well to this point in their history.
Real Far East shows that Saturn Batteries can have fun within their core Pop/Rock sound and clearly points the way toward a bright future for the quartet going forward.
Saturn Batteries celebrates the release of Real Far East tonight (Friday) at The Drinkery in Over-the-Rhine (click here for details). Below is the EP track “Every Last Time”; click the player or here to sample/download the entire release.
Justin Hayward-Young stole my soul.
When The Vaccines stormed onstage at the LC Pavilion on Oct. 3 to open for Phoenix, they rained a holy hell of guitar and vocals down upon their fans. And the people drowned in their own admiration for the band. Why? I firmly believe that The Vaccines are what Rock should be but hasn’t been for a long time. They don’t look like professors, duck their heads nervously at cheers or aim to take over a singing contest. They’re grungy — even sloppy at times — and they know how to be (or at least try to be) Rock Stars.
Hayward-Young has an overwhelming stage presence. Every move he makes seems to beg for attention and yet it all seems so visceral and unplanned. There’s nothing staged about his guttural cries or his playful cuddling of a frantic sound-tech. As hot as any guy is with a guitar hanging around his body, he is best when he’s instrument-free and unrestrained. Untethered from an amp, he’s loose and limber with flailing legs and arms and a floppy, flying head of hair. His actions are reminiscent of Rock Gods, his looks are the epitome of Grunge, his music oozes Punk spirit. And his voice? Dear God.
The Vaccines touched me. I felt it. Not in the blurred lines of Robin Thicke kind of way or in the Holy Ghost-spiritually-moved me way. I felt Hayward-Young’s baritone in my ears, my chest, my gut. I felt the band’s silly "Oo"-ing in my lips when I puckered up and cooed along. I felt the thrust of guitar in my hips and my feet when I realized I was dancing against (and perhaps inadvertently humping) the barricade.
I am still breathless. I am still sweaty. I may have bounced in my seat all the way home from Columbus.
That said, please do not write-off this enthusiasm as fan-girling and something to ignore. The Vaccines have been on my radar for a few years now and I’ve liked them well enough. Without a doubt, though, they are the kind of band that warrants seeing live. They bring an atmosphere with them that one must take part in to truly appreciate The Vaccines’ style. No one can say Nirvana or The Clash were better on an album than at a gig. Rock music isn’t meant for stereos or car rides. Sure, CDs (shut up, audiophiles) can help or create a mood. However, the live atmosphere greatly improves Rock … especially the grungy, Punk-infused Rock made by The Vaccines.
It’s all so good, so enchanting, so consuming and overpowering when you hear it live. When it came crashing to an end, I swear I could feel the vacant spot where my heart had once been. They’ve carried it off to wherever they’re going next.
Luckily, I didn’t need my heart to have a good time with Phoenix.
You know how there are “break-up songs” but then there are also completely normal songs that you can no longer emotionally stand to listen to anymore? I think the same happens with bands. Sometimes a break-up or bad era in your life can ruin a band in the future.
The guy who introduced me to Phoenix blackened my heart. By that I mean he ended things in such an awful way I ended up too mad to be broken-hearted. He ruined a couple bands for me.
But Phoenix is much too good for that. They’re better than any relationship, almost as good as sex. I already knew this. Their concert, though, solidified everything. Phoenix kicks exes in the groin, fills voids with bright, colorful lights and pounding beats and sends jilted lovers dancing in circles with middle fingers in the air. Lead singer Thomas Mars says you must “dansez” and dance you will.
LC Pavilion is far from a big venue and Phoenix could have easily gotten away with the bare minimum of flash. Apparently, the Parisians believe in the “go big or go home motto,” though, because they went all out. From the stories-high video screen behind them to the perfect (PERFECT) lighting sequences and color tones, they turned their music into an entire show, set a different atmosphere for every song and seemed just as into the mood they’d created as the thousands of fans screaming their heads off and dancing away their worries.
They put out energy and received it right back from their fans. It was utterly refreshing to watch as the six guys of Phoenix eat up the attention and love with shit-eating grins on their faces, dance around like twitching maniacs and seem genuinely happy that America has finally caught onto them. They might have the set design of a band like Muse or Coldplay, but they lack the ego. They know just how cool and remarkable it is for such average guys to make a whole room of people go wild with their far-from-average music.
They get even better, too. Despite all the bright lights and flash, they still found ways to connect with the crowd. Namely by throwing Mars into the thick of it. First, he stood at the barricade, singing his soul out while fans petted his every inch and tousled his hair. Later, during what had to have been the longest and best encore ever, he sat down on the barricade and sang a slower song. The next thing the audience knew, he was pushing his way to the back of the room, up onto the LC Pavilion’s slightly elevated mezzanine area and then working his way across to the other side. For a while, all I could see was the reddish-orange mic cord rolling ever closer to me. Then I touched Thomas Mars when he passed beside me. (However, I said, “Thanks” instead of “Merci.” Je le regrette.)
The night ended with Mars and Co. pulling a few dozen fans onto stage to dance and shake through the last few lines of the song. And then they were gone.
And I was gone. The Vaccines stole my heart and Phoenix turned my body into a damp nothingness. I was ready to drive to Nashville and do it all over again the next day. Sadly, it was sold out. Good, though. They deserve it.
The official MidPoint Music Festival guide, featuring preview blurbs on all 186 artists performing at this year's fest, is on the streets now to help make your MPMF.12 itinerary-planning a little easier. Yesterday, when the issue had just come out, I already had a handful of people asking me who my top picks were for the fest. Writing and/or reading and editing 186 paragraphs about 186 bands does things to your mind that I can't even explain, so I had to beg off. But I'm ready now.
Starting today, exactly two weeks before MPMF.12 kicks off in the venues of Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, we're beginning the "Daily MPMFer," a daily dose of recommendations for who to see at the festival, should you have a hole in your personal schedule. We'll post three blurbs a day — one about a bigger, more known act, one about a slightly more under-the-radar "sleeper" and one about a local band. I'll also add a song sample or music video to each to give MPMF-goers an even better sense of the artists' talents. (The blurbs were written by myself, the legendary Brian Baker and scrappy up-and-comer Deirdre Kaye, both of whom were hugely helpful compiling our beast of a guide this year.)
There are so many great performers at this year's fest, we probably won't get to all the worthy contenders, but we'll get you started (you have to do some exploring on your own). And, when in doubt, always go with the artist with "(Cincinnati, OH)" next to their name; all of our hometown MPMFers are worthy of your attention. Be sure to grab a guide (there should be plenty floating around come fest time) and start mapping out your long weekend of music.
We'll also add any MPMF updates — crucial or otherwise — in these "Daily MPMFers," to keep you abreast of the latest developments. You can also click here for our MPMF hub on citybeat.com, with feature stories, MPMF-related tweets and more.
Today's big news — three-day wristbands are selling quick and may well sell out. Be sure to grab yours immediately for the best pricing deal (limited one-day tickets will be $50 or you can pay individual cover charges which will add up quickly). Click here for more ticket info.
Hospitality (Brooklyn, NY)
Driven by the singular Pop song stylings of Amber Papini, Hospitality first caught attention with a lo-fi, untitled EP, which garnered a rare glowing review from Pitchfork. The band signed with legendary Indie Rock label Merge and released its self-titled full-length debut for the label earlier this year. At its core, Hospitality’s music has some of the primal vibe of early ’90s K Records releases, but the sophisticated arrangements wrapped around Papini’s compellingly unique voice give the album a depth those artists were rarely capable of.
You'll Dig It If You Dig: Ivy, Tennis, Barbara Manning, Tiger Trap. (Mike Breen)
Hospitality performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, on the Grammer's/Dewey's Pizza stage. Check out the band's emotionally-heavy new video for the track "Eighth Avenue."