Friday, Apr 27 - MerleFest Festival Grounds
Every morning I wake and thank baby Jesus I am a biped, agile and have been blessed with a no mess ability to pee standing up. And in a steady torrent. Just about anywhere without attracting attention (well, there was that county deputy in Abington, Va., a while back who got a bit riled). Middle age is good.
Here's a tip for you campers. Your welcome to stay up as late as you want, but if it's 3 a.m. and your talking like your in your living room, don't complain at 6 a.m. if I'm banging pots like I'm in my kitchen.
Oh, and you've pitched your tent in poison ivy.
Thursday after an early evening catnap (middle age) to the sounds of Daily and Vincent (meh — great Stanley Brothers style harmonies, lay off the Cracker Barrel shtick), I made my way over to to the Dance Tent to catch some Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks. This Asheville, NC, street ensemble features five guys doing hokum string/jug band/blues music from the late 1920's and early ’30s. Guys in newsie caps, mutton chops, bowler hats with tattooed ears (ouch, that had to hurt), nose rings — yep, total 20-sumpthin freaks.
Calling out tunes by long (and soon to be) forgotten Blues and string players from the early part of the last century, Blind Chocolate plays hard-driving, bawdy, syncopated, all-acoustic string music. Lyrically rich in double entendres, liquor and murder. This ain't the square dance stuff my Uncle Blake played and my dad danced to in parlors across the Cumberland Plateau during the Great Depression; this is the music found in jukes and bars and back room drinkeries and the kids love it. Every 10 years or so, string music comes back into fashion, and that, my friends, is a good thing. John Hartford is clapping from his grave. It's comforting to witness people giving over to the coherent dissonance of barely tunable instruments, played together and with vehemence. Banjolin, steel guitar, washtub bass, washboard and tenor banjo, three guys trading vocals, four guys shouting in unison and giving call-backs. Dwight Hawkins (Blind Boy Chocolate?) plays saw, bones and the short scale tenor banjo in a style I've never seen before. And does it really well. The banjolin player, Nicholas Marshall (one of the Milk Sheiks?), occasionally picks up a thoroughly modern looking mandolin, temporarily breaking the temporal enchantment. After a lull at the top of their long set as people wondered in and grew accustom to being ass-to-elbow, the crowd was jumping and yelling, kids from 8 to 80 whirled and shimmied.
After a few cups of coffee this morning (Friday), I headed over to the Americana stage to check out another Asheville based band, The Honeycutters. North Carolina has a rich history of Alternativecountryrootsrockamericana bands. From The Backsliders to the Avett Brothers, this state churns ’em out and the natives support band after great band. The Honeycutters fit the Avett Brothers mold of instantly likable songs and gifted melodies. It's got to be hard, after playing clubs and bars, to get up early enough to hit the stage by 9:30 a.m. The Honeycutters brought their 'A' game and delivered an instantly familiar and pleasant set. Just what my psyche needed after listening all night to my campground neighbors. The mandolin player plays in well-worn territory while acoustic guitar player Peter James fills the space with sweet crosspicking and occasionally lays into his guitar in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of early Paul K. Lead singer Amanda Anne Platt's beautiful alto fills the air — add in some tasteful three part harmonies and you have a AAA Radio winner.
From the Americana tent, my soul freshly refilled, I headed back over to the Cabin Stage for a set by Blues historian, storyteller and performer Frutland Jackson (Fruit Land). Hailing from Chicago, Frutland covers seamlessly and flawlessly all styles of blues from delta to north Mississippi to Chicago to Piedmont, all the while telling in a remarkably engaging and non-professorial way what distinguishes one style from another. I've seen plenty of Blues player who like to lecture during performances, and mostly I feel like shouting, "Shut the fuck up and play!" but Frutland had me wanting to bum rush the stage in awe and anticipation that he may answer some questions I have about Depression-era singers and groups. First set I've seen in a lonnnnng while that ended to soon. Most of his songs were originals done in a specific style with a voice that ranged from guttural to heartfelt tremble (think Ledbetter doing "Goodnight Irene"). Outstanding!
Some of the many things to do at MerleFest besides running from one stage to another trying to catch acts is sitting around and playing music with other attendees. Along with an open mic area, there are three tents set up where you sit down and play — Old Timey, Bluegrass and Anything Goes. The Anything Goes tent is like a hippy camp-out with one bazillion guitars around a raging fire in the middle of the night, playing Casey Jones minus the alcohol and LSD. The stuff nightmares are made of, but if you've never done this kind of thing, there's no reason to be a jaded asshole like me — grab your guitar and jump in. Everyone is clean and welcoming.
I sat around the Old Timey Tent as it had the least guitar-to-other-instrument ratios. (By the way, aspiring musicians — learn guitar to impress the girls or boys; learn something else for a working job.) A couple of old timers were letting fly on some fiddle tunes. Quite nice. The guitar player was strumming a pre-1935 Martin D18. I know about these things, and they tickle me pink.
Time for lunch!
After two days of driving in the Vanarama — a 1996 GMC Rally 3500 in school-bus yellow — we're only about 3.5 hours outside of Austin.
This is the second time I've made the trek to SXSW, but every time I make the four-state drive, a few things remain constant: Arkansas highways suck and everything truly is bigger in Texas.
On the last stretch of 11 South, as you approach Crockett, Texas, road signs alternate between "Cemetery" and "Forest." This wouldn't have been so intimidating if we hadn't exchanged ghost stories about dead relatives and scary camping trips (Google "Appalachian Trail" and "scary photos"). We then stayed in a hotel that we seriously scoured for bed bugs before bringing in our gear. But cheap is worth it, right?
We are by no means alone in this endeavor. Thousands of bands travel across the country and the world, whether or not they're "officially" a part of the festival. This is the biggest weekend of the year for bands — whether they're on the rise or struggling to get a fresh start — and they'll do whatever it takes to be heard.
Tuesday (today) marks the beginning of the SXSW (as far as the music portion). The All Night Party's Midwest by Southwest showcase kicks off tonight and will feature some of our hometown favorites, including The Sundresses, The Lions Rampant, Wussy and The Seedy Seeds.
This official showcase is an anticipated event, not only for us Cincinnatians, but also the locals. The Austin Chronicle has named Wussy as one of the top 10 shows to see Tuesday. (Scroll to the bottom of the link for the Wussy write-up,.)
We're not even in Austin yet and Cincinnati's already making headlines at SXSW.
The Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati falls on the same weekend as two other big regional music fests, one 100 miles to our south and the other about 300 miles northwest of the Queen City. Like Bunbury, the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and the 10th annual Forecastle fest are happening July 13-15.
In theory, the proximity (geographically and time-wise) should lead to some crossover, as artists from one event might run their tour route to the other cities to score some of those big festival performance fees. (MidPoint's 2011 fest in Cincy, for example, shared some acts with the somewhat nearby Pygmalion Music Festival in Urbana-Champaign, Ill.) But so far that hasn't happened with Bunbury, which seems to be focusing on more mainstream "Alternative" artists, as opposed to Pitchfork's more esoteric lineup and Forecastle's endearing mishmash of styles.
Louisville's Forecastle previously announced that hometown heroes My Morning Jacket would be curating the event and performing. This morning organizers announced that joining them will be Dubstep superstar Bassnectar and Dad Rock champs Wilco, plus Andrew Bird, Girl Talk, Atmosphere, Neko Case, Sleigh Bells, A-Trak, Dean Wareham (playing Galaxie 500 songs), Galactic, Clutch, Flying Lotus, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Mike Doughty, Real Estate, Deer Tick, Charles Bradley, JEFF the Brotherhood and Cincinnati's Walk the Moon, among others. Click here for ticket info and the the full lineup so far.
Meanwhile, here is who Pitchfork announced yesterday for this year's event in Chicago's Union Park: Vampire Weekend, Feist, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Hot Chip, AraabMUZIK, A$AP Rocky, The Field, Liturgy, Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Cloud Nothings, Tim Hecker and Willis Earl Beal. Thirty more artists will be announced later.
Pitchfork tickets go on sale next Friday, March 9, at noon via the Pitchfork fest's site here.
So if you could go to any of the three festivals, based on the info available so far (and not counting travel costs and lodging arrangements) which one would you attend — Cincinnati's, Louisville's or Chicago's?
The Big Pig Music & Arts Festival kicks off today in Ripley, Ohio (about an hour southeast of Cincinnati) at the Pisgah Hill Farm. The event runs from this afternoon until about sunrise Sunday morning (great local Electronica group Skeetones play a fest-closing set from 2-4 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morn). Billed as "3 days and 2 nights of music, camping, fire pits and barbecue spits," Big Pig features a mix of national, regional and top-notch local acts, as well as a late-night DJ tent, food from Habanero, Buzz Thru Coffee and other area establishments and "fire performances" by the folks from Nocturnal Arts. Pre-sale ticketing is over; admission is $40 at the gate. The fest website emphasizes that there is a $10 fee per car for camping (car pool if you can) and there is no on-site ATM machines, so be sure to bring cash. Click below for the full lineup and videos from several of the acts. And click here for complete details.
The members of Kentucky's Black Stone Cherry take pride in their closeness. They are still just four guys rocking out and living their dream. BSC's just-released third studio album, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, reached the Top 30 in the Billboard 200 and the group is currently on the Carnival of Madness tour with Alter Bridge, Theory of a Deadman, and Emphatic. The tour hits Dayton's X-Fest, at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, this Sunday (click here for concert details). CityBeat recently spoke with Black Stone Cherry lead singer Chris Robertson in depth about the band and the personal issues he has dealt with over the past few years.
MidPoint Music Festival headliners Cut Copy yesterday dropped a new video, "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution," from the band's recently released full-length Zonoscope. The clip uses Planet of the Apes-esque dudes in a way that's both amusing and crafty — way better than most of the videos MTV used to play back when it was a music channel. And it's a nice primer for the Aussies stop here next week.
Oh, and here's what I wrote when Zonoscope was released back in March — notice the bit about them not touring here:
"Not as dancey as the the first two CC records, Zonoscope is a spacier, more laid-back grower that reveals frontguy Dan Whitford's lyrical acumen (the big beats and thick synths used to push his words to the background). I'm curious to hear how this sounds live. Unfortunately, CC's current tour does not feature a Cincy stop — though the band is slated to play the Pitchfork Music Festival July 17 in Chicago. Road trip!"
Everybody has their own parameters for summer these days. Schools are gradually starting earlier every year, so many students’ “last day of summer” was in early August, while the calendar says it’s not until Sept. 22. But if you declare summer as “everything before Labor Day,” this is the last weekend of the season. And it seems like many “summer” music festivals are coming in just under the wire — this weekend sees the return of several fests (Ohmstead, Whispering Beard Folk Festival, Swinefest, Taste of Blue Ash), as well as the debut of a brand new one — the Feywill Music Festival, which shines a spotlight on some of Greater Cincinnati’s finest original artists Friday-Saturday at various venues in Covington’s MainStrasse Village.