April 29 - Super 8 Motel, Wytheville, Va.
Wytheville — pronounced "whiteville," I believe — sits at the cross of I-77 and I-81. Looking down I-81, I used to see Bristol, Tenn., and think of that time in 1927 when The Cater Family and Jimmie Rodgers separately met a rep from the Victor Talking Machine Company and recorded a couple of songs. They got paid about $100. Lot's changed since then, though the pay's about the same. These days when I look down towards Bristol I see a redneck deputy hauling a longed haired songwriter off to jail for the crime of relieving himself behind a bush. In 1981, that cost $25. There use to be a great BBQ joint in Wytheville. It's gone. too. They had the best fried chicken and blackberry cobbler.
I guess everyone wore themselves out Saturday as no one stayed up past midnight to talk or jam or whatever. On Sunday morning, with a solid six hours of sleep, I was up and drenched in coffee by 8 a.m. I packed up camp and planned what was left of my MerleFest weekend. I like to get going, so it was an easy morning and I headed out to the Traditional Tent for some Shape Note Singing with Laura Boosinger.
I misidentified this a few days ago as Sacred Heart singing. The idea is the same — using shapes for notes instead of notes on a musical staff. Sacred Heart uses four notes. Shape Note uses seven. The workshop I attended was about those seven notes and how to sing them. It's pretty straight forward — anyone who's ever seen The Sound of Music and sang "Do Re Mi" will get the idea. "Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti" — each note has a particular shape attached to it and you sing that note when you see that shape. Laura talks about the history of Congregational singing, why they use shapes (people actually patented musical notation at one time) and how Sacred Heart differs from Shaped Note contextually, historically and regionally. Pretty cool stuff, even if the Traditional Tent smells like a barn and is now filled with flies. Laura is also really funny, cracking denominational jokes that the churchgoers find hilarious. I don't get them.
My interest in Sacred Heart/Shaped Note singing came when I wandered into a church one Sunday morning 30 or so years ago. I was wandering around northern Alabama on a motorcycle making my way to the Natchez Trace and then south to New Orleans when I stopped for a breather and cool air beneath a tree. I heard the singing as soon as my head stopped rattling. I slipped inside the outer part of a church and heard the most glorious harmonies — not sweet or beautiful, but primitive and inspiring.
In Shape Note, everyone is singing to the pitch the lead singer has identified. There is no piano, no organ, no hip dude playing guitar, only imperfect humans looking for the most comfortable place for their voice to sing. Your split into four groups depending on your vocal range — altos (includes sopranos), tenors, bass (includes baritones) and leads (anyone who can't but follow the melody regardless of range). I go to the bass group. Each group has a different part to sing — the altos, basses and tenors all singing a harmony part and the leads singing the melody. When it all comes together it unifies the same way most old time music does. It's wondrous and miraculous; if there is a place where God exists, it is inside the dissonance that has congealed into a thing so coherent and beautiful that any existence of God outside of it becomes marginal and meaningless.
I leave the Traditional Tent invigorated and inspired and head back to camp to pack the van. Everything packed and lunch consumed, I head back to the Traditional Tent for one last show before heading home — "Women Singing Traditional Music." On stage are women ages 20 -70, including hosts Carol Rifkin and Gaye Johnson, Brooke Buckner, Laura Boosinger, Joan Wernick, Tara Nevins (Donna the Buffalo), Kim McWhirter and Gailanne Amundsen (Jubal's Kin). All give outstanding performances, but Kim McWhirter brings the house down with a moving version of the Dolly Parton song "Crippled Bird" (which in turn is based on an English Broadside) sung in a sweet mountain lilt and strummed sparingly on guitar.
A wonderful to finish to a great MerleFest.
MerleFest is so much more then one guy can write about, no matter how much he tries. I like what I like — new bands and rediscovering old favorites. In addition to what I see and hear, there are workshops on everything from clawhammer banjo to dulcimer playing, a kids stage and activities, open mics, sitting and picking, indoor concerts, food, vendors galore. It is amazing how much music and activity the organizers pack into one day (and then clean it all up and do it again).
A lot of people stream in mid-afternoon for the nighttime concert. As mentioned, these always feature name acts. I am most fortunate to be able to tag along with my sister, help her in her booth and receive onsite camping privileges in exchange. By 8 p.m., I'm pretty exhausted and looking forward to reading under the remaining light and then laying back and hearing what's on the main stage.
This year they had some good acts. Thursday night the very humble and talented (and maybe the last real Country act standing in Nashville) Vince Gill had a fine set. Saturday I was fortunate to hear Derek Trucks take Sam Bush and his band to school on how to play melodious improvisation on the Clapton tune "Bell Bottom Blues." Derek Trucks is the living heir on slide guitar to the dead-to-early Duane Allman and he has unquestionably extended that legacy way past a wink and a nod and into something quite imaginative and bold. His wife Susan Tedeschi joined them on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and hit all the backing vocal parts with soul.
Later that night, Trucks and Tedeschi helped Los Lobos to new heights on a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Bertha." They sounded like they were having a blast, and my noisy camp neighbors confirmed as much the next morning as they were on stage watching the whole thing go down. Unfortunately, I slept through most of Los Lobos set and the Tedeschi/Trucks set Saturday night, though I caught the first few songs, and they sounded quite excellent. Good sleeping music — that's a compliment!
Great news, y’all! I made it through another MidPoint without getting raped or mugged. (Getting mugged might not be so bad, though. “No, officer, it was definitely not me who bought Duck Dynasty underwear at Walmart.”) I know you were concerned for my safety.
I did MPMF quite a bit differently than I have in years past and I have to say, I think it contributed to it being the best one yet for me.
First, I forwent going with friends. I like my friends in small doses and on a couch talking about TV and girlfriends/boyfriends. Trying to coordinate concert plans with them, though, has always been an ordeal. Some of us are more hipster than others. Going it alone sometimes feels slightly sketchy, but mostly I think it helped my experience. I wasn’t forced to stand in any hot, cram packed rooms to see bands I was less-than-thrilled to see.
Second, I decided to spend my entire Saturday night in just one venue. I did this for a few reasons: 1) Everyone I wanted to see was in that venue; 2) Cheap parking close-by. Therefore, I spent my Saturday night either pacing around outside the Taft Theatre or swaying back and forth inside the Taft’s Ballroom.
And, ya know what? I had a damn good time.
The Taft is my favorite venue in town. Whether it’s in the seated portion or down in the basement, it just has an amazing vibe. I love those bright white bulb-lights out front around the marquee. It makes the whole place sparkle. It just looks like you could pick it up and sit it in the middle of Gatsby’s New York City. Downtown Cincy has plenty of art deco touches that I dearly love. However, nothing makes me feel more fancy and more ready for a special night than standing outside the Taft. In addition, the basement Ballroom, where all three of Saturday’s bands performed, has this comfortable, almost sexy darkness to it. You could get into a little bit of trouble in some of those shadowed corners. I wouldn’t judge you if you have. I might be disappointed you never invited me, though.
Bear’s Den opened the night and, since I’d seen them recently, I didn’t feel too bad when I spent the better part of their set outside on the phone. It gave me the chance to people watch, which is always a ton of fun at MidPoint. MPMF pulls in a jumbled assortment of people to tramp around downtown with their wristbands. I saw people my parents’ age, dressed rather fancifully, chat with security and then slip down into the basement. I also saw an insane amount of frat guys, plus one very drunk Reds fan and his seriously concerned girlfriend. (I still don’t know why she unleashed her concern to me. But I really hope she finds a new date for next year. Like, maybe someone who won’t put her life in danger?) Oh! And I saw one seriously fabulous drag queen. (I appreciate your use of neon, girlfriend.)
Despite missing London’s Bear’s Den, I know they rocked. Not just because I’ve seen them and I love them, but because they still had a line of fans waiting to meet them when the final act went on at midnight. I think Cincinnati fell in love on Saturday. I’m giddy for Bear’s Den and for Cincinnati. Good choice, my friends.
I caught Cincinnati’s Bad Veins, though. Of course, I’ve seen them before, but I never mind the chance to see them again. Those two boys can make a ton of noise. Even with a few sound/mixing issues, they still managed to keep the room enthralled. That may have had something to do with Ben Davis’ bellowing into the microphone or climbing to the top of the monitors. I have no musical talent whatsoever and my balance is minimal at best, but I was envious as he stood towering above me with his hands on the ceiling and an entire room of people staring up at him in awe. The Veins are a genuinely good band. Not “good for a local band,” but good enough to root for them to keep gaining fans across the country.
Later, I watched Davis stand in the back of the room talking to a couple people for a surprisingly long time. They seemed to devour everything he said. He has dangerous levels of charisma. It was fun to watch.
As much as I love Bad Veins and Bear’s Den, I’d spent all weekend eagerly awaiting Daughter’s performance. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t expect many people to show. I guess because I remember when “Daughter” was just Elena Tonra. I slinked my way pretty close to the stage and gaped at Tonra as she charmed the pants off everyone in the room. When it got stuffy a few songs in, I turned around and was speechless by the sheer amount of people that had suddenly come in behind me.
It makes sense, though. Jesus. Her voice is beautiful. If you were anywhere else in the city on Saturday night, you messed up. She sent heads to the shoulders of girlfriends and, shockingly enough, most cell phones managed to stay in purses and pockets. It’s not that she wasn’t worth capturing. It’s that she was too captivating for anyone to have any other thoughts other than keeping their eyes glued to her face and their ears filled with her voice. Oh. The bow across the electric guitar was a great (albeit not very new) approach, too. It added a nice eerie feel to Tonra’s already haunting voice.
As I left, I had big plans to reflect on the concerts and do a little pre-writing for this review while walking to my car. One of my favorite former co-workers waylaid me, though. So much for avoiding my friends. Cincinnati is too small for that. I didn’t mind too much; I got all the dirt on who had left and who (sadly) was still around.
Eventually, I said goodbye to my ex co-worker, wandered away from Taft Theatre’s bright lights and into the ever darkening street. As I meandered, it occurred to me just how much of a feat MPMF is for us. Cincinnati may be a city, but we’re not a very big one. How do we manage to talk so many stellar bands into visiting us every year? How is it possible we have something as beautiful as the Taft? How do we produce such a bounty of awesome local bands?
My best friend likes to joke that Ohio has bred more astronauts than any other state. He says it’s because Ohio is awful and space was as far away as they could get. However, I think we’ve bred so many astronauts for the same reason we’ve spawned bands like Walk the Moon and Bad Veins and all of the other great acts playing MPMF and for the same reason we put on such an great festival. We’re small but mighty. We put our hearts into the things and the people we love. Even if they don’t deserve it. (I’m lookin’ at you, Bengals.)
A great concert can transform a venue and transport an audience to its own little world. Last night at Bogart's, Zach Condon and his very successful Indie-meets-World-music ensemble Beirut did both in front of a wildly appreciative, sold-out crowd.
A small, diverse crowd ranging from thirtysomething fans and overweight mosh-marchers to lanky, high school kids and excessively tattooed crust-punks packed into Covington’s humid, poorly ventilated (yet ever-endearing) Mad Hatter on Tuesday night for an evening of average-to-fantastic Speed Punk and Hardcore.
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.
Naming your band Friends is a good way to make it very difficult for people to find you on the Internet, but the relatively new Brooklyn band of that name is worth the few extra clicks — you can and should find them. Released earlier in June, Friends' debut album Manifest! is ready to become the soundtrack to every party you attend this summer.
A few years ago after a surge in popularity, Indie Pop seemed to fade a bit as artists like New Young Pony Club and Little Boots found success with infectious dance songs. With Manifest!, Friends brings back some Indie Pop creativity and jubilation, just in time for summer. And while it's not all club beats and Electro grooves, Friends' music does have a unique danceability factor.
Manifest! opens with one of the quintet's previously released singles, “Friend Crush,” which is pretty much your invitation to jump right in and befriend Friends. Centered around Samantha Urbani’s vocals and complimented by an ESG-esque drum and bass part, the song is minimal but extremely catchy, acting as a great hook to draw listeners into the album. Like with the musical versatility, Urbani uses her voice in the most interesting ways throughout Manifest!, helping to keep each song fresh and distinct.
The contrast in sound from song to song makes Manifest! feel like you’re listening to a mixtape, spotlighting Friends' willingness to experiment and explore varying genres and ideas instead of settling for something predictable yet perhaps more "focused."
Other highlights on Manifest! include another previously released single, “I’m His Girl," a sassy relationship song that includes an unexpected breakdown involving
handclaps and spoken lyrics, while “Sorry" has a slight
Vampire Weekend feel to it.
Perhaps the best track on Manifest! is saved for last. Exuding an ’80s retro Pop feel, on closer “Mind Control," Urbani (using her voice more like an instrument) chants at the end what could very well be Friends' own “manifesto": “I don’t want the right to be rude/I just want the right to be cool/However I choose to do it, I do/Whatever I choose to be or whom.”
Friends clearly has no interest in falling in line with what fans, the industry or anyone outside of the group might expect them to be. The result is one of the coolest albums of the summer thus far.
Ellie Goulding killed it Wednesday night at Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati’s outdoor venue The Shoe. By noon the next day, I was still recovering. I’d feel old, but it’s a sentiment I heard echoed from others who have seen Goulding live.
She sucks all the energy out of you in the absolute best way possible. If her driving, pounding music isn’t enough to propel you to dance, Goulding herself will. From rolls and swishes (oh, to have those abs) to doing the Running Man, for a girl who claimed she’s awkward about dancing, her moves were on full display. She was basically a blonde ball of energy and emotion, ping-ponging across the stage. The crowd fed off that energy and unleashed their own. My feet were trampled, my boobs were elbowed and some very skinny dude almost dropped his girlfriend on my head (twice). And it was awesome!
I’ve often sulked about the lack of enthusiasm at shows from Cincinnatians, but I cannot make that complaint about the Goulding concert. Whether it was the exact right mix of younger people or the fact that Goulding just happens to have cool fans, something made the gathering last night much livelier than your average show. People danced, flailed and jumped with abandon. Even during “Your Song,” kids who were surely not around when Elton John’s original version was released sang along with abandon while drunk guys tried light-heartedly to woo the closest girl.
I must give props where they are due, too, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sheer perfection of The Shoe. Upon hearing that such a madly loved and wildly popular performer was playing The Shoe (with a capacity slightly smaller than my former high school’s enrollment), it seemed not quite right. In retrospect, I couldn’t think of a more fitting venue. A larger venue would have sucked. For instance, the seating angle at Riverbend may be optimal for viewing the stage, but it quickly creates a lot of perceived distance for the performers. The Shoe, sunk down in an impeccably landscaped hole on the edge of downtown and sandwiched between two taller buildings, felt infinitely more intimate. Even when I couldn’t see the actual bouncing blonde head on stage and had to watch the Jumbotron instead, it just felt right.
Whatever your excuse for not being there, I’m judging you. I’m guessing it’s for the best, though. You probably would’ve stood around nodding and not dancing. But, you missed out. Goulding is a cold-blooded killer on-stage. She kicks asses into dancing mode, leans way, way, way back and pulls in all the energy from the audience to get her through the night. Nearly 4,000 people happily offered up their life source for her reaping. Hopefully most of them were lucky enough to sleep in the next day.
Tonight at Over-the-Rhine’s MOTR Pub, wildly impressive Cincy Soul/Pop/Rock quartet The Guitars celebrate the release of their new EP, High Action. Local Folk faves The Tillers open up the free show. Below is a review of the release, a slightly shorter version of which appeared in this week's CityBeat. You can also check out a track from the EP, so you can hear that I'm not lying when I say this is definitely one of the best releases by a local act this year.