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 CincyPunk Fest got its start in 2003, organized as an offshoot of Adam Rosing’s CincyPunk website. Since then, Rosing and the festival have raised tens of thousands of dollars for area charities and presented an increasingly eclectic lineup for its increasingly large audience.
The festival returns tonight and tomorrow, utilizing the three stages at the Southgate House Revival in Newport, Ky., and featuring 35 performers, many from the Greater Cincinnati area, but also some top-notch national acts, like Diarrhea Planet and Pissed Jeans.
After a decade, it probably doesn’t need to be repeated, but just to reiterate – Cincy Punk Fest is not a Punk Rock festival. The lineup includes everything from Indie Rock to Americana/Folk to Soul to straight-up Rock & Roll, with a handful of acts you could legitimately label as Punk. It reminds me of the CBGB's "Punk" movement of the ’70s, when bands like Television, The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie were all lumped together under the genre tag, though they really couldn't have been more different, sonically. Like fest performers Frontier Folk Nebraska (who are neither Folk nor from Nebraska), CincyPunk Festival (which also isn’t in Cincy) has established itself and doesn't appear to be in any hurry to change its name to reflect the increasingly diverse lineups. Which is kinda Punk, so it all works out.
Tickets to CincyPunk Fest XII are $15 per night; advanced tickets are available here and here. The proceeds this year are being donated to the Save Our Shelter Dogs Rescue in Northern Kentucky. Music starts at 8 p.m. both nights. The event is open to fans 18 and up.
Below are Friday and Saturday's lineups:
And here are a few clips that give a good sense of the variety that can be found at the festival.
As is always the case, I am both mildly devastated and slightly relieved on the last night of MidPoint. I love the energy of this weekend every year, but my personal energy gets used up fairly quickly as the festival progresses. And the recharging stations that dot the landscape typically involve really delicious food that comes out of a truck window and is eaten while walking, and bars whose life-sustaining water is typically served with gin or hoppy and carbonated from the brewing process (which is, in fact, as it should be).
The beginning of the MidPoint's last night is always exciting; the end is always bittersweet.
First on the docket were the early shows at Washington Park, an almost too-good-to-be true Saturday lineup; new local (and soon global) sensation Tweens, venerable crowd teasers/pleasers Wussy (filling the slot for Foxygen, who cancelled due to either Sam France's broken leg after a stage fall in Minneapolis or a feud with bandmate Jonathan Rado or both) and The Breeders, touring on the 20th anniversary of the release of Last Splash and playing the album in its entirety and in sequence.
Tweens proved to be better than the hype surrounding them, blowing through a fast-paced set that perfectly presented their hyper-caffeinated hybrid of '60s girl-group Doo Wop Pop and blazing Punk. Vocalist/guitarist Bridget Battle attacked her instrument with an unbridled fury while finding the melodic core of every song, particularly in evidence on the band's cover of "I'm Gonna Steal Your Boyfriend" from Cincinnati girl group The Teardrops. Meanwhile, Peyton Copes was charging through his bass runs like John Entwistle on meth and Jerri Queen was doing his best Tommy Ramone impression, his drum kit seemingly jumping off the stage.
Since I interviewed the band in April, Tweens has signed with Frenchkiss Records and Bridget mentioned after their set that they're headed to New York to record their label debut with Girls Against Boys bassist and renowned producer Eli Janney. The album likely won't be out until early next year, and with more shows like their Saturday MidPoint slot, they'll have a legion of slobbering fans clamoring for it.
Next up was Wussy, coming in to save the day for (or perhaps from) the Foxygen situation. There were the requisite number of Wussy moments; after soundcheck, where Chuck Cleaver instructed veteran soundman Steve Girton to go heavy on the vocal reverb ("Make us sound like we're in a cave …"), the set's launch was delayed while Mark Messerly left for what seemed like an epic Tom Hanks League-of-Their-Own piss and Lisa Walker entertained the waiting crowd with an Afternoon Special story about Skinny and Fatty on rope day in gym class. With Messerly sufficiently drained, Wussy offered an amped-up set of favorites — Walker introduced a slinky version of "Airborne" as "an old Curtis Mayfield song," and a stretched out "Yellow Cotton Dress" as their "new Bossa Nova song … you can also do the Pony."
There were a couple of new songs sprinkled in the mix, presumably from the album the band is currently working on, and all of it was accompanied by former Ass Ponys guitarist John Erhardt on pedal steel. What wasn't typical was the absolute brilliant noise emanating from the stage; Wussy has played shows both monumental and desultory that have either been short-circuited or made worse by shitty sound. On Saturday, Wussy sounded like the world-class Rock band we all know them to be.
Finally, it was time for Washington Park's main event for the evening, The Breeders' 20th anniversary presentation of Last Splash. After a soundcheck that included a blistering version of Guided By Voices' "Scalding Creek," which Kelley Deal and the Buffalo Killers had done for the Sing For Your Meat tribute album, The Breeders took a breath before ripping into "New Year," the opening volley on the album that Pitchfork Media cited as the 64th best album of the '90s.
The assembled multitude, and there was a multitude of them, roared their ecstatic approval after each song, particularly the album's avowed hits, "Cannonball" and "Divine Hammer." After finishing up "Flipside," Kim Deal noted, "That was the last song on the first side," to which everyone under 30 in the audience must have noted, "The first side of what?," and after a blazing take on the album's longest song, "Mad Lucas," Kim shouted, "Take that, Symphony!," likely a reference to the fact that the band had to be done by exactly 8 p.m. for the start of the CSO at Music Hall to avoid incurring a hefty fine for MidPoint organizers.
The band was sharp and tight, Carrie Bradley was on hand to provide necessary violin and keyboard accompaniment, Josephine Wiggs laid down her massive bass groove and even switched places with master basher Jim MacPherson to reprise her turn as drummer on "Roi." Wiggs may have provided the sweetest moment of the night; after Kim noted that coming to Cincinnati was like coming home for the band — the Deals and MacPherson both had family contingents in the crowd —U.K. native Wiggs told the faithful that the amount of time she’s spent in Ohio was minimal, but the love she felt for and from it made it feel like home for her as well, which resulted in a rousing response from the audience. With the last strains of "Drivin' on 9/Roi (Reprise)" hanging in the air, the call for one more had to go unfulfilled because of the Music Hall start time. But given that this was the second Breeders show here this year, it won't be too long before they'll be back with a complete set and — dare we think it? — maybe some new songs.
After a bit of hanging around, I headed down to Grammer’s for the screaming punkmeisters from the Great White North, ETZ. Sweet holy mother — one minute it's three soft-spoken Canadian boys thanking the crowd for their support, the next they're suddenly thrashing out a triple-digit-decibel explosion that buries the needle so far into the red you'd think the meters were broken. If they weren't, they are now. Guitarist/vocalist Alex Edkins plays like he's wearing jeans made of fire ants and sings like Henry Rollins in a bathtub with a live toaster, bassist Chris Slorach does his best impression of a rhythmic jet approaching the sound barrier and drummer Hayden Menzies attacks his kit with samurai ferocity and precision. METZ is Punk reborn, and it's a kicking and screaming breech birth.
Next up was perhaps the weekend's highlight for me, the appearance of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Every moment of a BRMC show is an exultant tribute to the power of Rock, a pulsing prayer giving thanks to the heavens for electricity, wood, wires, skins and tubs and the ability to turn those raw elements into some of the most bone-rattling music on the planet. Deftly switching from electric to acoustic guitars without losing a decibel of impact, BRMC varied the pace of the show only slightly, replacing quick tempos with slow, surging power. As Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been orchestrated the guitar ballet up front, Leah Shapiro offered up a tribal drum clinic at the rear of the stage, pounding out a throbbing beat so primal and palpable that airport traffic should have been rerouted around it.
The band didn't concentrate too much on their excellent new album, Specter at the Feast; less than a third of their set was devoted to it. Certainly one of the high points of the set was the inclusion of The Call's "Let the Day Begin," done up in classic BRMC style as a tribute to Been's late father Michael, The Call's powerful frontman and a producer/live sound engineer/mentor for BRMC until his tragic fatal heart attack in Belgium at the band's 2010 Pukkelpop Festival appearance. Much of Specter at the Feast is melancholy, but the band's live shows now stand as a loud and triumphant affirmation that BRMC is committed to going forward with a vengeance. That stance was more than cemented when the band followed their soaring take on "Let the Day Begin" with a blistering spin on "Rival" from the new album and a razor sharp run through Howl's "Ain't No Easy Way." Black Rebel Motorcycle Club left it all on Grammer’s stage Saturday night, and we were only too glad to soak it all up.
In retrospect, it might have been a better course of action to stay with BRMC until the end, but I'd really wanted to hit the end of Cincinnati band The Ready Stance’s set and wish Wes Pence a happy birthday, but Randy Cheek's blown bass amp fuse cut their set short by one song. After wishing Wes many happy returns, I drifted up to the MOTR to catch Wild Cub, but the club was absolutely packed and seemed populated with a higher than normally allowable per capita percentage of asshats. I'm clearly getting too old for push-your-way-in-regardless-of-who's-already-there crowds, and I got the fast fuck out of there.
After that, I wandered. I checked out a couple songs by Cincy’s Sun Country, who seemed like they were on the way to an exceptional set, but I suddenly found myself a bit on the light-headed side, so I figured a run over to Mr. Hanton's would do me some good. Proof that I was nearing the tipping point came when Mr. Hanton's dog didn't make me week with joy. It wasn't any different than the Smokehouse I'd had the night before, it was just my body starting to rebel.
I ran over to The Drinkery to catch a bit of Nashville’s Sol Cat, which was joyfully boistrous and plenty loud to chase away any end-of-MidPoint blues. Their sound mixes groovy Psych Rock with amped up Nashville Soul and it's a powerful and smooth cocktail on a hot Saturday night, and the packed audience they drew howled their appreciation.
I bailed as Sol Cat's last song was ringing in The Drinkery's rafters and headed down to the Know Theater to catch Johnathan Rice's set. I thought it would be a chill way to finish up the evening, thinking that he would be doing a solo acoustic thing. But Rice came loaded with a full band and they proceeded to crank out a sound that seemed reminiscent of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and The Jayhawks in spots, very much in keeping with the vibe of his quite excellent new album, Good Graces. He also cranked out a track from his 2012 Jenny and Johnny release, I'm Having Fun Now (a collaboration with his girlfriend, ex-Rilo Kiley spark plug/successful solo artist Jenny Lewis), and touching on his previous solo albums, 2005's Trouble is Good and 2007's Further North. My personal favorite part of the show was when a woman was desperately trying to drag her guy closer to the stage, presumably to dance, which he was having none of, apparently. Rice noticed the situation and said, "Let the man be. He's fine." Well done, Mr. Rice, just like your all too brief set, which happened to be a perfect end to a perfect weekend.
SATURDAY NOTES:• Washington Park was a crazy scene on Saturday. First up was the not-very-ubiquitous Mike Breen (who was suffering from some mutant military flu, so no Iron John hugs for him), who happens to be my immediate superior (and probably my superior in many other ways) and writer Gil Kaufman; we were quickly joined by former CityBeat mahout John Fox. After a bit of a chat, I offered to buy John one of the several dozen beers I owe him, but he deferred until later.
• Then it was Paul Roberts, Big Jim and Paul's sister, whose name continually escapes me. It's Paul's fault; he constantly refers to her as "my sister." It was the same problem with his buddies; "You know the guys." I'm old and I require constant reinforcement and I'm too embarrassed to ask and I'm usually drunk. That's not true; I'm always stupid and I'm occasionally drunk. Anyway, she's a wonderful person and bought me a beer, so she's in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, no questions asked. Except the obvious one.
• Then I happened into one of my absolute favorite guys on the planet, Mr. Kip Roe, bassist extraordinaire and truly one of the best human beings you can hope to encounter (at least as far as musicians hanging around Rock shows are concerned). He was squiring his young sons around Washington Park; not surprisingly, Kip's sons are every bit as smart and personable as their dad. We had a good long talk about a whole lot of life, and I can tell you this without hesitation or doubt — my personal existence and the world as a whole is better because Kip Roe is in it.
• John came around for the Wussy show so I fetched him the first down payment on the buckets of brewski that constitute my longstanding debt to him. Of course, if he'd paid me better, I could have gotten a start on this a lot sooner. I'm just saying.
• At some point during The Breeders' set, a woman came up to me and said, "You look like a music writer." Then she smiled really broadly. And I stood there exactly like the enormous dope that I am. First, she had black rimmed glasses and her hair pinned up and she looked like Lisa Loeb, who I did not see on the schedule this year. Second, I have actually gotten that "You look like a music writer" thing from people in the past (typically when I'm listening to music and writing), so I was processing that response. Third, I had only had one beer, so clearly I was not nearly intoxicated enough. It turned out be Amy Firis, boss Breen's super nice squeeze, who is always incredibly lovely to me but who looked nothing like I remembered her in that moment. Maybe it was the glasses (no, I think she had those last time), the hair (hairstyle changes confuse me; I once had carnal thoughts about a woman walking down Clifton Avenue when I realized it was my girlfriend in her newly tinted and shortened do, which was great because I figured I had a slightly better chance with her than with the hot stranger I thought she was) or the question. At any rate, forgive an old dufus, Amy. You disappeared before I could formally extract my hoof from my piehole.
• After Josephine Wiggs' admission that Ohio felt like home for her, the next most Hallmark-y moment came when Breeders guitar tech and uberbooked local producer Mike Montgomery (who performs as R. Ring with Kelley Deal and was nearly unrecognizable in his newly shaven look) gave Kip Roe's son Ben the band's set list from the stage, which Ben and his older brother Kip took backstage and got signed by the whole band. When Ben caught up with Wiggs and violinist Carrie Bradley, he told Bradley that he wanted to play the violin too and that seeing her play with the band was the best part of the show for him. Bradley looked like she was on the verge of tears. Me too.
• Jay Metz was at the METZ show and was trying to scrounge up the scratch to buy a METZ T-shirt, because who wouldn't do that? If a band is ever desperate enough to name themselves Baker, I'm getting that shirt, bet your ass.
• There were a whole lot of humans at the BRMC set. It was asshole-to-elbow under the tent. Almost immediately, I ran into Mark Houk and his lovely girl Jesi and they immediately set about the business of getting a beer in my hand. How do I love thee? Let me count the beers … I mean ways. You're in the Hall, dude. Brian Kitzmiller showed up about the time I was ready to make my move into the tent, and who should I run into but that gauge of all things cool, King Slice, who was clearly digging BRMC. A few songs in, I noticed a rather tall guy in a rather dapper vest trying to navigate his way into the Grammer's sauna tent who turned out to be tall, dapper local singer/songwriter Josh Eagle. See above description of Kip Roe; copy and paste here.
• I ducked out of BRMC to head down to The Ready Stance gig, since it was the effervescent and superlative-worthy Wes Pence's birthday. We had crossed paths at the end of The Breeders' set, but were headed in different directions so I figured to catch up with Wes (copy, paste again) in his less ephemeral state at The Drinkery. I got there in time to see their next to last song, which turned out to be their last song when Randy Cheek blew a fuse in his bass amp. If you've got to blow a fuse, it should be like that, I suppose. Here's a question; can a band of guys as nice as The Ready Stance make it in the cutthroat music business? God, I hope so.
• Ran into CityBeat/MPMF chief Dan Bockrath and his girlfriend Martha on my way down from the Wild Cub debacle. Dan actually apologized for not being in a position to buy me a beer. Apologized. Yet another princely move from a guy who's already seriously Hall of Famed. You don't have to buy me a beer every single time we meet, Dan. Every other time will do just fine.
• Moments later, it was Kelly Thomas on the sidewalk. Is there anyone in the scene right now who cares about it all as much as Kelly? I think not.
• By the end of Johnathan Rice's excellent set, it was 12:30 a.m. and there were a handful of bands I could have stuck around for, but I was done it at that point. My back and knees were screaming at me like Adrienne Barbeau in Swamp Thing so I knew it was time to go. I ran into Big Jim on the sidewalk, who had taken time out from MidPoint to see Sarah Jarosz in Hamilton, and he was headed to Below Zero to catch a shot with Paul. For a fleeting moment, I considered joining him but my brain sent me a message through the normal channels that if I deviated in any direction away from walking straight to the car, I'd drop like Michael Cera in a bar fight with Floyd Mayweather. I bid him well and headed for the car and home.
• Rewind: I crossed paths any number of times with the always incredible local band/event manager Venomous Valdez, and somehow she managed to skate right across my frontal lobe in the previous two postings. There are a handful of people who do some fairly impressive things for the local music scene and bring an almost single-minded passion and drive to the pursuit of exposing local artists to this community and to the world at large. And they'll have to work a hell of a lot harder just to see Venomous disappearing on the horizon ahead of them. Like McCabe, we are lucky to have her in our midst.
• Rewind again: Ran into Jeremy Springer of Cincinnati’s The Sundresses at Arnold's on Friday night, doing the Lord's work of making sure that food and drink multiplied onto every table in the courtyard. e noted that The Sundresses were headed to Detroit for a recording session and that the resultant album would be imminent shortly thereafter. It can't come soon enough.
• Once again, apologies to anyone who feels slighted if they didn't see our MidPoint interaction detailed here. The constraints of writing this thing in a timely fashion for posting on the CityBeat website necessarily means some things go in, most things are left out. The better part of my life is on the cutting room floor, so don't feel bad. Maybe next year you'll do something even more outrageous and quotable and you'll wind up in the embarrassing position of my providing written evidence that you actually hung out with me for a proscribed period of time. Then you'll be sorry.
• Another fabulous MidPoint in the books, and while we were without the essential presence of my pal Matthew Fenton, there plenty of absolutely brilliant folk to take his estimable place. First and foremost, as always, A huge tip of an oversized cap to Dan McCabe, the spark plug that fires up this engine year after year. We cannot thank you enough for the superhuman dedication you put into booking this amazing event (you would look smashing in a cape). And to whoever posted the tweet about turning MidPoint into a semi-annual deal, March would probably be a good time. Dan will still be hibernating then, so the author of said tweet should probably get started now on putting that together for all of us. Let us know how your breakdown turns out.
• Endless thanks also to the tireless (but probably extremely tired) volunteers who carry this thing on their capable but seriously overtaxed backs for three days every September. You are the true heroes of MidPoint. And of course, thanks to the venues who host the music, to the bands who make a supreme effort to get here (especially the ones who are already here) and to the mostly cool people who come to support them. See you all in some form or fashion in 2014.
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.)
This is the midpoint of MidPoint, the second of the three holy days of September. A day of great adventure and great potential for misadventure that exceeds the anticipation of Day 1 and the inevitable denouement of Day 3. A day to love. But first you've got to get there, and an even longer drive down I-75 this afternoon meant that I was forced to miss Izzy & the Catastrophics (Note: Izzy and Co. rescheduled and play today at 6:15 p.m. on the Midway AND at Japp's at 12:30 a.m.) on the Midway and on the Midway and American Royalty at Washington Park. And my teeth are considerably flatter. Tomorrow I take my chances with the surface roads.
First up on the agenda was the third band on my Friday schedule, my beloved Black Owls at the Grammer's stage. With their brilliantly hallucinatory film projection playing out on the tent ceiling just above their heads, the band clicking with shambling precision and frontman David Butler in the middle of a 10-day cleanse (Five days without beer? Madness, I tell you, madness...), the Owls roared through a set that offered plenty of familiar favorites and a couple of brand new tunes slated for their imminent fourth album, Wild Children, the first to feature input from the full quintet.
As per usual, the chiming guitars of Ed Shuttleworth and Brandon Losacker offered glammy tribute to the gods Hunter and Ronson, while the intuitive headkick of rhythm section Sammy Wulfeck and Brian Kitzmiller ran like clockwork, if the clock in question is Big Ben. And David Butler continues to serve as vocalist/ringmaster, a perpetually compelling stage presence combining witty banter ("We're your Black Owls, supported by your tax dollars..."), kicky athleticism and a vocal presentation that thrillingly suggests Ian Hunter's mournful croon, David Byrne's artful warble and the jittery wonder of Jerry Casale. The only thing better than seeing the Black
Owls is seeing them again. They will be returning to the Northside Tavern in December; give yourself the gift of the Black Owls this holiday season, won't you?
I hung around and talked with the various Owls and their various lovely wives while Secret Colours provided a pulsing Psych/Space Rock-meets-Classic Rock soundtrack. Flecks of The Doors and Velvet Underground filtered through kaleidoscopic blotter tabs of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols turned up to a Spinal Tappish and completely satisfying 11; that's the stock-in-trade of Secret Colours. A lot of the subtlety of their sophomore album Peach gets shaved off in their live presentation (although the melodica was a nice touch), but the band ably replaces it with a muscular and voluminous vibe that reverberates in your chest like a second heart.
From there, it was a brisk walk down to The Drinkery to catch The Kickaways who were using their MidPoint show to officially launch their sophomore album, Show Yr Teeth. It's an appropriate title since that's exactly what the band does on their latest effort, amplifying and refining all the elements that defined their 2011 debut, America! America! Although frontman Charlie Lynn played some guitar on Show Yr Teeth, he made the conscious decision to set it aside in The Kickaways' live configuration. That boils the band down to their charismatic lead vocalist and a tight-as-a-gnat's-ass power trio, a formula that worked pretty well for The Who, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Black Sabbath.
Last night, it was the latter that seemed the most potent reference point, as The Kickaways seemed to be channeling Ozzy and the boys circa Paranoid but with the swaggering ethic of a great Psych-tinged garage band. Up front, Lynn was garage glamor personified, with leather jacket, a plaid shirt tied like a skirt at his waist and several layers of T-shirts, the top one reading "It Girl." No longer pinned down by guitar duty, Lynn was a singing dervish, occasionally banging a tambourine but generally flying around the stage and howling with mad but precise abandon. Guitarist/vocalist Remi Glistovski largely kept his head down and focused on producing riffs of Richter Scale proportions while Jacob Ittle inhabited his role as bassist with the mindset of a rhythm guitarist and drummer Adam Lambchop literally moved the air with his punishing skills, banging his kit with the authority of a skinny John Bonham. The Kickaways are more than ready for their Big Time close-up.
I reluctantly bailed on the end of the Kickaways' set to head up to the MOTR Pub to bask in the Pop/Rock splendor of Cincinnati's Tigerlilies. Pat Hennessy has been working this corner since forming the band in 1989 and while the band has gone through a few guitar partners (renowned and beloved oddball William Weber, former Lazy guitarist Steve Schmoll, guitarist-turned-producer Denny Brown) and several tweaks to his Power Pop concept, the Tigerlilies' core has always remained Hennessy on vocals and guitar up front and the durable rhythm section of brother Steve Hennessy on hammering drums and Brian Driscoll on thundering bass. Hennessy's latest guitar foil may well be the best in a long line of great six-stringers; Brendan Bogosian has an impeccable resume (TheWoos, Cash Flagg, Kry Kids, among others) and his razor-sharp skills and Pop/Rock nuance make him perfectly sympatico for Hennessy's punky take on crunchy Power Pop. Tigerlilies' just-released In the Dark may well stand as the best work in their excellent catalog, and this version of the band is clearly the reason as evidenced by the wall of sound emanating from the MOTR stage last night.
From there, it was a long walk down to Arnold's for the ecstatic blister of Cincinnati's Heavy Hinges. The band may have started out last year channeling the spirit of old Gospel 78s and Alan Lomax field recordings but they have graduated to an electric church service that pumps like an oil derrick with a swing sweeter than Ted Williams. It's Blues with a touch of Jazz with a heart needle full of adrenaline. Guitarists Dylan Speeg and Jeremy Singer can go from textured nuance to hot Jazz/Blues riffmongering in the blink of an eye, frontwoman Maya Banatwala works a lyric with the dramatic/comedic flair of a 21st century flapper (and bangs that ukulele like Betty Van Halen) and the slippery rhythm section of bassist Andrew Laudeman and drummer Brian Williamson establishes the ever shifting heartbeat of the band with intuitive brilliance.
In the Hinges' hands, "Ain't No Grave" sounded like it had been arranged by Carlos Santana, but it's the band's originals that stick in the mind and danced-off-ass the longest; "Mean Old City" offered up the band's patented thump-and-grind and "In My Dreams" showed their flair for electric Flamenco or something just like it. Banatwala noted that she doesn't celebrate Christmas, so MidPoint is her Christmas (Merry MidPoint, Maya!), and Speeg was at his cheeky best between songs ("The women in here tonight look like they were picked by Lenny Kravitz …"). If there's a more accomplished and diverse band in Cincinnati than Heavy Hinges, it's a safe bet that they're not half as entertaining. I could be wrong or drunk or both, but I don't think so.
And then it was midnight and time for my overall MidPoint pick, The Technicolors from beautiful Phoenix, Arizona, an area not necessarily known for its music scene. I had picked them to preview on a whim and listening to the music they I could find online absolutely floored me. In the preview blurb I namechecked Cheap Trick, Big Star, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Oasis, Todd Rundgren, Kula Shaker and Nada Surf. I stand behind any and all of that, but after witnessing their live assault, I can honestly say that it all comes together as The Technicolors, which now seems like a perfectly apt name.
In the studio, The Technicolors are formidable alchemists, transforming their influences into buzzing, crunching gold that becomes more appealing with each successive listen. On stage, the band taps into that primal sense of elation that occurs in the earliest moments of teenage discovery, when music is new and the vistas of what to explore next seem limitless. The Technicolors possess the aforementioned sonic reference points to be sure, but what they evoke as a band funneling all those sounds into their astonishing singularity is a return to that viscerally magic moment in personal history when one loses one's cherry to music.
Last night at the uberfabulous MOTR Pub, The Technicolors were a force of nature, the furies of Rock unbound. The twin guitar attack of frontman Brennan Smiley and Mikey Farizza were like David Copperfield's giant buzzsaws; potentially dangerous but ultimately entertaining. Bassist Mike "Nico" Nicolette looked as though he was having more fun than the audience as he joyfully bottomed the sound with a sinewy and insistent pulse, which was further anchored by drummer Kevin Prociw's purposeful bashathon. And tour keyboardist Troi Lownei (he appears on a couple of songs on the band's exquisite album Listener) added a dash of Radioheadness to the proceedings (if Radiohead had jumper cables attached to their undercarriages).
Their studio version of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" supplants the original's icy cool detachment with a passionate embrace but in the live arena, the band plays up the sense of impending doom inherent in the "I don't want to fall in love" theme. And "Sweet Time" may simply be one of the best live translations of an already powerful song that I've been lucky enough to witness in four bloody decades of standing in front of bands.
Are The Technicolors the future of Rock and Roll? I wouldn't hang that albatross on any band, particularly one I love. The Technicolors will make you feel things about Rock that you haven't felt for a very long time, and that should be more than enough to recommend them.
• As Black Owls frontman David Butler was explaining his cleanse — his wife Amy is supporting by joining him — which features 10 beerless days, he noted that he's never felt better and his voice has never been stronger. Goose frontman Jason Arbenz aptly observed, "He's going to turn himself into some kind of superhero." I think he may already be there, dude.
• It was great catching up with the Owls and the Mrs. Owls (Amy Butler, Carrie Losacker and Sarah Kitzmiller). The ubiquitous King Slice, the barometer of all that is cool, was in attendance as was former CityBeat worker bee Sara Beiting, a pretty decent hipness indicator her own bad self. And Mark Houk from Sohio confessed to chills during the new Black Owls song, "Gasoline." I predict that's going to be going around soon, my friend.
• As I walked into The Drinkery, I was met by the whole of Alone at 3AM. They weren't hanging out in a bunch like The Monkees, they were getting ready for their imminent set after The Kickaways. Chris Mueller put a Yuengling in my empty hand and filled my empty head with joy. Brandon Losacker appeared to be handing me a beer during The Kickaways set but he quickly disabused me of that notion; it was meant as a toast. Note to everyone: if you look like you're handing me a beer, I'm going to look like I'm accepting it. Brandon did drop a shot of Jameson's in front of me, which will earn him a plaque upgrade in the Hophead Hall of Fame.
• On my way down to Mr. Hanton's (who now has a brick and morter store on Calhoun) to get a wonderful and nutritious Handwich (which is a hot dog as big as a Cuban cigar … I recommend the Smokehouse), I vaguely thought I heard someone yell my name, but I've been hearing voices lately and they seem to know me, so I gave it the same attention I reserve for car horns in parking lots which now go off for no other reason than someone locking their door. Luckily the hailing party was not part of my drug-fueled hallucinogenic past but the flesh-and-blood person of Ready Stance guitarist/vocalist Wes Pence. We vowed to meet at the Tigerlilies gig and did. Another way I knew he was real. I'm fairly sure.
• Also taking in the vast Power Pop beauty of Tigerlilies (and while I have the internet's attention, no, you overbearing suggestion Google dicks, I do not mean Tiger Lilies, I mean what I fucking well typed) were damn near all of Culture Queer — Jeremy Lesniak, who produced Tigerlilies' In the Dark, Dana Hamblen and Sam Womelsdorf, Fairmount Girls' Melissa Fairmount, the aforementioned Wes Pence and a couple of guys who remembered me from my Short Vine days in the late '80s — except they thought I was Jimmy Davidson. I told them I worked the counter at Wizard Records, but I don't think they believed me. I could have badly played any guitar in the joint to prove my identity, but it was just nice to be remembered.
• Sara Beiting was also hanging at Tigerlilies, along with perpetual MPMF and raconteur Jay Metz, who brought along Shuggie Otis' brother and drummer, Nick Otis. We had a brief but nice chat, got some pictures together and bid adieu. Shuggie had already left for a gig in Toronto, but Nick and some of the band stuck around to catch some MidPoint sounds before a 5 a.m. flight. Yargh. Hope they made it on time this morning.
• Brian Kitzmiller and his lovely wife Sarah also dropped in on the Tigerlilies. Brian actually bought me a beer but I didn't catch up with him until I was on the sidewalk outside the MOTR and was on my way down to the next thing. Sorry I stuck you with two beers, dude. I'm pretty sure you took care of it. While I was apologizing for making Brian appear to be a two-fisted alcoholic, Sarah pointed out a guy dressed in what seemed to be tin foil Post-It notes, which may have been advertising or just an odd fashion choice. If you'll recall from this space an almost unbelievable five years, Sarah, a first grade teacher, went to Staples to buy Post-It notes and actually had some stuck in her hair. Brian had told me the story, and the next night at Arnold's, I met Sarah for the first time. When Brian introduced us, I excused myself, reached into my pack, pulled out a handful of Post-Its, stuck them in my hair and shook her hand. So Post-Its are kind of our thing. And I was glad she pointed out the tin foil Post-It guy, because I saw him as I walked out the door but I chose to ignore it, just in case it was another alcohol fueled flashback to the acid days of yesteryear. As long as she saw it too, it was all good.
• Right on cue, King Slice strolled into the Heavy Hinges gig and anointed it as the cool place to be at 11 p.m. on MidPoint's second night. And so it came to pass. Also making an appearance right before I was ready to hit the sidewalk was former Buckra guitarist and ever-present MPMF staffer Jacob Heintz, checking out his old bandmates and hanging around waiting for the next emergency, which I hope never came. It never seems like a complete MidPoint experience until I've had a chat with Jacob, so now it is.
• Plenty of folks in attendance at the Technicolors soiree back up at the MOTR, which I hope I had at least a little something to do with. My pal Paul Roberts was there to buy me a fabulous beer from the MOTR's endless taps, with his buds Big Jim and Little Stu in tow. Stu even had a hat made with his name on it so I'd bloody well remember that his name is Stu. If he had said, "My name is Stu, how do you do?" that might have been perfect. The hat was pretty awesome at any rate. If I forget Stu now, it will be evidence of drug backlash or a stroke. Just so you know.
• I spied former CityBeat editor John Fox in the MOTR crowd so I headed over to say hello. As I have explained in the past, I owe John an incredible debt of gratitude for recruiting me for CityBeat nearly 20 years ago and for insisting that I write features for him rather than reviews. It was literally a life-changing conversation, and I can't begin to thank him enough for the opportunity he gave me in the beginning and his faith and guidance in the subsequent years. Once again, he left before I could get that beer into his hand … I'm clearly going to have to drive the truck up to his house. The only thing is I don't know where he lives; his faith in me, it would seem, had limits, which I completely understand. Thanks again for everything, John, you gave me a chance to be a part of something special. My current status as a poverty-wracked, free-beer-swilling hack is all on me.
• I tried to get down to the Mainstay in time to see some of Bella Clava's set because their appearance at The Drinkery last year was one of the festival's highlights for me. Sadly, they had just finished when I pulled up, but I did get a chance to chat with keyboardist Caitlin Dacey and guitarist Steve Suttie as they loaded out. As it turned out, the band is staying with Honeyspiders frontman Jeremy Harrison, whose new outfit also played on the evening's Mainstay bill. Honeyspiders is clearly a band to keep on the radar; the limited recordings they've shared to date are potent evidence that something big is going on there
Ahhhh, MidPoint! I look forward to it every year. September, for this lady, holds promise, romance, intrigue and MPMF. I started my MPMF.13 off right: grabbed a baller parking spot right after work in front of Coffee Emporium, grabbed a baller iced Americano and grabbed my (you thought I was going to say baller? How presumptuous) press pass. I think I did say out loud to myself: Let's GOOOO.
The first band I wanted to see was my pal Molly Sullivan at 8:15 p.m. at Japp's Annex. I had some time to kill, so I hung out on the Midway. Sidewalk Chalk was still grooving; they've got a rocking brass section, shimmery drums and soulful singers. I previously saw them on Fountain Square last year as part of the Indie Summer Series, and really enjoyed everything they had to offer. Great fun way to kick off MPMF.
I wandered around the Midway for a bit, checking out the numerous box trucks that comprise the Box Truck Carnival presented by ArtWorks. The Midway itself is pretty awesome, easily accessible and kind of reminds me of a corral for progressively more intoxicated adults. I don't mean that in a derogatory way; I, too, enjoy consuming beer freely in the open on 12th Street. The Box Trucks this year held a lot of potential — I wrote about the Midway for the MPMF Guide in CityBeat a few weeks back, so I was well-briefed on what to expect. Well, kind of.
The first truck I checked out was the Glam Rock Box Truck. Anyone who knows me is aware of the siren call the word "karaoke" holds, so of course I went in.The premise was great (for karaoke nerds like me), but box trucks just don't do karaoke justice, honestly. There are a number of songs to pick from, but not as many karaoke staples as one might expect. And for being called the Glam Rock truck, I didn't really see any Glam Rock hits on the list. The ladies running the truck seemed to be having a good time, though, so I did my best version of "Semi-Charmed Life" and went off to continue leading mine.
I wandered around the Midway some more, stopping in the Short Order Poetry Box Truck, which was 19 kinds of adorable. You step inside the truck, get paired with a stranger who asks you random questions (hi Adam!) and then they'll create a poem, on a typewriter no less, just for you, ready in just about 10 minutes. Mine had a lot of death and blood and dream imagery, just how I like 'em.
I listened to a few minutes of stand-up in the comedy Box Truck before heading to Lucy Blue's. I notoriously put off eating until I'm ravenous, so I decided to carb-up on pizza in preparation for the long night ahead. I met up with friends at Japp's and we ordered drinks and chatted before wandering to the Annex to hear Molly Sullivan.
Every time I see Molly perform, I'm more and more impressed. She's really fleshed her sound out (the addition of friends on the drums and bass is the perfect complement to her singer/guitarist combo), and lots of people are noticing — she recently won the Last Soloist Standing contest at FBs, grand prize being a large cash sum. Molly's a charming vocalist; her voice is flexible and searching, and she's always been good at melancholy intonation. I heard a fresh version of "So It Goes" from the No No Knots days, and some of her newer material had an almost Jewel-when-she-still-had-a-snaggle-tooth quality to it. I really, really dug it. So did a number of other people — quite a dedicated following was there. I'd say Molly Sullivan's first solo show at MPMF was a great success.
I had been planning all week to see Kurt Vile at Grammer's, but there was about half an hour before he was supposed to go on and I ran into my pal Caitlin, who told me the mythical history of Shuggie Otis. I was intrigued, so I walked with her to Washington Park. I still don't know how I feel about the fact that they've moved the stage to the permanent pavilion instead of in front of Music Hall; there's such a grandiosity to playing in front of that gorgeous building that just isn't matched by the pavilion — and I know there are lots of sad Instagram accounts crying right now — but I understand the convenience. We'll see how I feel about it tonight.
Anyway. Shuggie Otis. Skyrocketed to fame by age 21 and receded into the abyss of obscurity? And then he joins David Byrne's label and comes back? Tell me more. Shuggie had a groovy Soul/Funk sound brought to life by a huge backing band, complete with a stellar saxophonist. Glad I caught a few minutes, but I was on a Kurt Vile MISSION, so I started the trek to Liberty Street and Grammer's.
Well, by way of my car. I grabbed a jacket and was headed north, but as I walked by Below Zero Lounge, I heard a voice too great not to stop. If Ryan Adams and Adam Levine and the bearded lead singer from Maps & Atlases had an Asian baby, it would be St. Lenox. He was just plain awesome. I wanted to hang out with him, I wanted him to sing an album of lullabies, I wanted to stay for his whole set, but I'll be damned if I wasn't going to see Kurt Vile.
I didn't see Kurt Vile. Whoever guessed that two paragraphs ago knows that my ominous overtone was poorly done. I got stopped again walking by MOTR, this time by Fort Shame from Columbus, Ohio. I feel like so many times when a woman is a lead singer of a rock outfit, the instinct is to compare her to another female vocalist, but it has to be one who's personality is somehow perceived as similar, or stylistically akin (and I do mean clothes, not just shredding), so I'm not going to compare Fort Shame's Sue Harshe to anyone, because I don't think that's fair and, honestly, it's a little reductive. I'm just going to say that she does credit to anyone singing Rock. And the band had a star saxophonist, which was super fun.
I did hear via Twitter that Kurt Vile sang the word "yeah" for like fifteen minutes at the beginning of his set, so I said it a bunch to myself as I walked back to the Midway to hear Ha Ha Tonka and didn't feel too bad about it.
The first time I saw Ha Ha Tonka was two (or three? who knows) Midpoints ago at The Drinkery. These guys have all gotten hair cuts since then, but they sound even better. They sound like what folky Rock cut with a raucous night of varying emotions that ends with hanging out with friends and beer staring at the river would sound like. You know the kind of night I'm talking about. They're just the tops. Tight and talented musicality and great stage presence is only topped by their impeccable four-part harmony. Just magnetic. Second or third time's the charm, gentlemen.
I finished my night seeing Bleached at the Know Theatre, which last year held all the buzz bands I wished I'd been able to get inside and see (something about being "at capacity"), and I wasn't disappointed. Punk Rock girls with a guy drummer. Ramones cover. Misfits cover. I thoroughly enjoyed my attempt at head-banging AND the fact that these girls didn't try too hard. I feel like a lot of Punk-esque bands nowadays are all like "I AM PUNK! LOOK, SEE, I AM!" but Bleached was more like, "Fuck Punk. We're just Bleached." Own it, dudes.
And then I walked back to my car and went home and passed right the heck out. I'll see ya at MPMF for round two tonight.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd has brought a youthful side to American Blues music ever since the great success of his first album, Ledbetter Heights,
which went platinum and reached No. 1 on the Blues charts. He was just
17 at the time of the album's release and has gone on to put out several
more successful Rock/Blues albums with his Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band,
featuring Cincinnati's Noah Hunt on lead vocals.
Shepherd has developed a new exciting project called The Rides with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg, a veteran musician who formed The Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield in the late ’60s and has written and produced many classics. The Rides are performing at the Ohio River Throwdown, a new Roots music festival, this Saturday at Riverbend Music Center, playing alongside other acts like Tedeschi Trucks Band, JJ Grey and the Mofro, Los Lobos and many other artists. CityBeat chatted with Shepherd recently about his new project.
CityBeat: I saw behind the scenes videos of The Rides recording in the studio together. What was your favorite experience being in the studio with the other two guys?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, the whole thing was a really good experience. Everybody had a really great time doing the record. It’s just very interesting. You look back over the course Stephen's career, and Barry as well, and these guys have made some really tremendous records in their time. They have also been on so many albums and done this for so many years that they have accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge of how to do things in the studio. For me, even though I have had my recording career for 20 years now, I still consider myself to be like a sponge, just trying to soak up as much information as I can. I learned a lot from those guys and it was a really good time.
CB: Where did the name of the band actually originate?
KWS: We were putting our heads together. It went on for two weeks. One of the hardest things to do is to come up with a band name, at least it can be one of the most challenging things to do. A lot of the reasons why it is so hard to do nowadays is because almost every name has been used. Everything we came up with, we would go back home and I would look it up online and do a Google search and someone would have that name and we would start over again.
We spent a lot of the time in the studio between recordings … Stephen and I are both big car guys, I mean we love cars. Stephen and his wife have some of the most incredible cars you could hope to own. I have a pretty cool collection myself. We spent a good bit of time talking about cars and driving and stuff like that. As we were exploring name options for the band, one day we were at Stephen's house and I had driven my 1964 Dodge to his house and we were walking out to the driveway to leave and he just looked at my car and said, “You know we should be called 'The Rides.' ” I was like, “Yeah. That’s cool.” I went home and checked and couldn’t find anybody with that name. So here we are.
CB: What is your favorite car you have?
KWS: I don’t know. I would say right now my 1969 Dodge Charger, and I think it is one of the most beautiful, one of the most visually stunning cars that was ever designed. Probably that one is my favorite.
CB: I have listened to the new album and I really, really love it. What is your favorite song to play on the new album?
KWS: I go through phases when I do a new record like, “Right now this is my favorite song …” and then a few months from now a different one is my favorite one. Currently my favorite is “Can’t Get Enough,” the title track. That song is a great representation of this band and what we are about. It is one of the songs we wrote together. It has great, heavy guitars. It has got really, good lyrics. Even the vocal is nice and raspy and bluesy. There are lots of dynamics to that song and I think it is just really a great representation of who we are as a group.
CB: Typically you are touring with your band by yourself. What was it like splitting singing duties with Stephen?
KWS: I split singing duties, to a degree, in my own band. I have Noah Hunt, who is from Cincinnati, he has been my lead vocalist for 17 years. But over the past few years of my career, I have stepped up here and there to the microphone when I wanted to, and on the last record we recorded, Noah and I sang a lot of songs together. I have kind of started to integrate that idea into my own band even though I tend to let Noah sing most of the songs because he has such an incredible voice and it enables me more to focus more on my guitar playing. There is certainly, in this band, more vocal responsibility for me. I really wanted to do it. It is pretty cool. Like being around Stephen, who is so well known for his singing and vocals, it has been inspiring to me to step up to the microphone and sing more.
CB: I thought I saw Noah at the Peter Frampton show in Cincinnati.
KWS: He was there. He went to the show because we had just been on the road with Peter over the past two months, we had done some shows with him. Noah wanted to go hang out and see everybody when they came through town so he went.
CB: What is the favorite guitar you have ever played?
KWS: The one I am most attached to is my 1961 Stratocaster. It is the first Strat I ever got.
When you are a guitar player you hear this story about how there is this one guitar that is your soulmate. There is one guitar out there that was built for you. You know it the minute you pick it up and start playing it. Some guys go their entire lives trying to find it. I found this guitar when I was just 15 years old. The minute I picked it up, it fit me like a glove. I did everything I could to get it, I couldn’t afford it at the time, then later on, the following year, it was in Los Angeles at the Guitar Center. Then I came back a year later and it was still there. I still didn’t have the money to afford it, but I decided I wasn’t leaving the store without it. I told my Dad, he was like “We gotta go.” I’m like, “I’m not leaving without this guitar.” Between him, the guy at my record company, my A&R guy, my music attorney, they decide they would split the cost up on their credit cards as long as I agreed to pay them back. I did. That guitar has been with me ever since. It has toured the world with me and been on every record I have ever done. It is just my baby.
CB: That is a great story. I have interviewed so many guitar players and nobody has talked to me about their soulmate guitar before.
KWS: Yeah, well, it really is. I don’t know about those guys but there is a bond between me and that instrument. I feel like all guitar players have their go-to instrument and there should be a really solid connection between them and the instrument.
CB: Social media has become invaluable with marketing music and musicians. When you are on the internet, in general, where do you spend most of your time?
KWS: I am a creature of habit and repetition when it comes to browsing the web. I have a couple of sites I look at every day. I go online and get my daily dose of the news. I usually go to AOL, because half of their stories report the news and the other half are like looking at a tabloid magazine. They have some really weird stuff they put up there.
I have a couple car enthusiast websites, like there is a website called Moparts.org which is for all Mopart Car enthusiasts. I love the Dodge/Chrysler/Plymouth brands, so I am a Mopart guy.
I am also obsessed with the new Tesla Electric cars. I have been browsing their forums a lot educating myself on their technology and stuff. I am kind of a geek when it comes to cars and all things mechanical.
CB: Can you tell us what the fans can expect from The Rides' live show in Cincinnati?
KWS: We just rehearsed, we just had four days to rehearse for this tour and none of us had played any of these songs since we recorded the album back in December. So I guess with my schedule with my band and Stephen and his band, we had a very narrow window of opportunity to prepare for this tour.
We are basically going to do the album and throw in a few songs from my catalog and Stephen's catalog and stuff that Barry wrote that other people recorded. The whole goal is to be loose and have a good time and just play music together. They’ll hear a little bit of my stuff, a little bit of Steven’s stuff, a little bit of Barry’s stiff, then they’ll hear the whole (Rides) record.
Lightnin’ Malcolm is an emerging driving force in the genre of underground Blues as a member of the North Mississippi All-Stars and also as a solo artist. Alongside counterpart Carl Gentle White aka "Stud" on drums, the dichotomy of their two styles produces a rough, soulful sound that reminds folks of Blues legends like Lightnin' Hopkins and Howlin' Wolf. Audiences should be prepared to dance, party and delight in Malcolm’s deep Mississippi sounds tonight at the Southgate House Revival. Malcolm is opening for and playing alongside the North Mississippi All-Stars. Showtime is 8 p.m.
CityBeat: I know you have an album coming out on Sept. 10. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Lightnin' Malcolm: Well, it is 14 original songs and they have quite a few different styles on them. It is all based on my style, which is based on the hard driving, raw boogie North Mississippi Hill Country style. It is mostly (the) guitar and drums duo but we add some horns on a few tracks. We have Luther Dickinson playing slide on a few songs. So it is a pretty good mix of stuff.
CB: I was listening to some of it this week. I love “My Life is a Wreck.” Can you tell me the story behind that song?
LM: Well, that is a semi-autobiographical piece. One of my greatest influences was T Model Ford and he recently passed and that song was based on a style he had on the guitar. His grandson Stud is playing drums with me now. That was the first song we did in the studio. That was his first song recording and I thought it was a great way to feature it. My music depends on a great drummer. Drums are so important to the music and he is one of the best. I have known Stud since he was like 1 years old. He grew up watching me play drums with his granddad. He knows the style of drums that I like, the raw, four on the floor, predator style, no messing around. Just raw and making people dance. By us knowing each other so long, he is like my little baby brother. We have this chemistry together that works so well.
CB: I watched some videos of you two playing together. It is super high energy and looks like a lot of fun.
LM: Yeah, that is the key to it all. We don’t have to hit a note exactly right or (do flashy) guitar solos. We just try to create as much … fun for the people as we can. We just want to see people party and have fun.
CB: How old were you when you picked up your first guitar?
LM: I was about 10 or 12. Before that, I really wanted to be a drummer. I used to beat on buckets and pots and pans, put the radio on and play along with them. I didn’t have any actual drums and I finally got a hold of a little piece of guitar. I didn’t know how to tune it or nothing, but I fell in love with the strings in my hand. It took a while to learn how to tune it because I didn’t have anybody around me to show me at that time. Once I learned how to tune it, I started learning pretty fast. It just became everything to me. I look at the guitar like some people look at The Bible. It is like a vehicle for something later. I leave Earth. I can go on a vacation in my backyard with a guitar. I can escape to a whole other world with it.
CB: I know you eventually moved to Mississippi after growing up in Missouri. How did you hook up with some of these great guitar and Blues players in Mississippi?
LM: I just made friends with them. They saw something special in me, I think. I wasn’t trying to blow them off stage. I didn’t ask them many questions, like how to do things. They noticed whatever they played, I could play back. They hadn’t seen too many white guys, or any guys, that could do that. So we just made friends. It was pretty easy. Those were the kind of guys I wanted to be around. They really took me in. They were really nice to me. They never said I wouldn’t be able to do it. There was everybody else saying, “You won’t be able to do it.” They were the guys saying, “You got it. Stick with it.”
CB: Alive or dead, what one person would you want to collaborate with if you could?
LM: That’s a good question. I think, you know what’s funny, there are a lot of people outside of the Blues I’d like to collaborate with nowadays. Of course, like, John Lee Hooker is one of my all time favorites, Howlin' Wolf, there are so many Blues guys. Out of living artists, I’ll tell you a guy I love right now, two guys I love, they are more like R&B. (One is an) artist named Lyfe Jennings, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him, he’s fucking awesome, he’s so sincere. Another guy is Anthony Hamilton who is a Soul singer. To me, even though their style is way different than mine, those are guys I really hear singing where I’m like, "Wow, they really hit the ceiling." You don’t hear it that much anymore. Everybody is using effects. You really don’t hear that wail in that voice. Otis Redding had that, you heard his voice and you just had to see him. You don’t hear anybody like that anymore. I know people wouldn’t expect that from me, but when I am riding down the highway listening to music, those are two guys I really listen to, that I look up to and would be great to collaborate with.
CB: That leads me into another question. There has been so much publicity recently around Pop music with Miley Cyrus and the VMAs. To me it shows how much more important it is to keep really authentic Blues music in front of people. What are your thoughts on that?
LM: I agree with that. I’m out here fighting the good fight doing what I can. It’s not always easy. People have to support what is going on. If people start throwing their money at garbage, you’re going to end up with a lot of garbage. I can’t speak for the next person but I can say this — there isn’t enough hours in the day to listen to great music. There is all the great music you can listen to. There is definitely no time for nonsense. I don’t waste time listening to stuff that sounds like garbage. That’s just me.
My drummer, Stud, he’s young. He was watching the awards the other night and I was laying on the couch trying to sleep. I didn’t miss much. The hours in the day are precious. I would use them wisely. You don’t have to listen to garbage. That’s about the best I can do. If anybody can make some money doing something, good for you, I don’t mean it the wrong way. If you ask me about serious music, there is great music out there being made. It is just underground. Maybe it is too real for people. I am not the expert on this type of thing, I just know what I like, I listen to what I like. Even when I was a kid in school, I was listening to way different music. I was listening to Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker and would tell the other kids, “You have got to hear this. Check it out.” They just said, “Whatever.” I thought maybe when they grew up they would understand.
CB: What can the fans expect from you guys at the Southgate House Revival show?
LM: We are coming to rock y’all. We want y’all to come and have fun and dance and boogie. We want you to get in the groove and forget about everything in the outside world for a couple hours and get in the zone. We want to have a party for y’all. Being on stage can be the funnest thing in the world when it is going right. When it is going wrong, you just want to disappear. It is a funny thing. When it is right, it is right as a motherfucker.