Last night was a glorious night for music and glorious music was made. Combinations don't get much better than that. Things didn't start so well, though; a quick e-mail on Wednesday revealed that, for a variety of reasons, my friend Matthew Fenton wouldn't be making his annual pilgrimage from Chicago to our fair festival. And then the drive down I-75 was infuriatingly stop-and-go for no apparent reason, which had me grinding my teeth all the way downtown.
Every molecule of that dour energy was dissipated with the first show of the night as Cody ChesnuTT hit the Washington Park stage like a hydrogen bomb of positive vibration.
ChesnuTT's MidPoint appearance was also his Cincinnati debut and the sizable crowd that showed up to witness it was completely enthralled with his potent blend of Neo Soul, Reggae, Jazz and Pop.
ChesnuTT doesn't dress the part of Soul crooner; graphic T-shirt covered in cassettes, red cardigan, black sweats and an army helmet. The helmet is an odd sartorial choice, but ChesnuTT has explained that he's "fighting to keep the soul alive." Not the musical genre, but the spiritual essence at the center of all human beings. That's a pretty big mission for a singer/songwriter to assign himself, but last night's performance proved that ChesnuTT is more than up to the task.
Drawing strictly from last year's gorgeous Landing on a Hundred (he no longer does any songs from 2002's The Headphone Masterpiece, feeling that he's moved beyond the events in his life that inspired that album), ChesnuTT blew any trace of negativity into the stratosphere and replaced it with a rock-solid groove (courtesy of his absolutely stellar band) and a message of pure love. Not Barry White let's-ease-them-panties-down love, but love of self, love of mankind, love of life, which should ultimately lead to unconditional love for one other person.
Not that ChesnuTT doesn't recognize the world's dysfunction. In his brilliant "Everybody's Brother," he sings, "I used to smoke crack back in the day/I used to gamble rent money and lose/I used to dog nice ladies, used to swindle friends/But now I'm teaching kids in Sunday school and I'm not turning back." On the album, the song thumps along on a hearty Funk beat, but on stage, ChesnuTT delivers that opening verse with a sermon-like intonation, and the band swells around him with Gospel fervor and Soul intensity.
No matter what vibe ChesnuTT is channeling at any particular point in the show, he is a master showman, imploring the audience to join him, engaging them to become an integral part of the proceedings. And when he sings, when he digs deep into his creative core and unleashes his soul though his vocal cords, sweet mother of all that's holy, he sounds like the reincarnation of Marvin Gaye, the little brother that Stevie Wonder didn't know he had and the lost Marley sibling all rolled into one otherworldly package. Anyone who was not smiling at the end of Cody ChesnuTT's performance last night is damaged beyond the help of therapy and psychoactive drugs. Please come back to see us again soon, Cody. If Foxygen's slot is still open, Saturday night would be just fine. (Editor’s note: Cincy’s fantastic Wussy has claimed Foxygen’s Washington Park slot tomorrow.)
After Cody ChesnuTT's splendorous opening, it was Blues/Rock legend Shuggie Otis' turn to lead the Washington Park congregation, which he did in scorching style. Otis was barely in his teens when he started playing guitar with his father, R&B icon Johnny Otis, ultimately leading to session work with Al Kooper and Frank Zappa when he was just 16, and his 1970 debut solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, at 17. And while Shuggie has laid low for long stretches in his nearly 50-year career, his current resurgence is sweet vindication for those periods when an indifferent music industry ignored his virtuosic brilliance, forcing Shuggie to turn away from the industry.
Shuggie's set started a little hesitantly as he acclimated to the stage set-up; at one point, he jokingly asked, "Can somebody show me how to work this shit?" Somebody did and he was off, peeling off incendiary riffs and razor sharp runs with a casual intensity. The set's sole slow spot was a new song called "Special," that sounded like Shuggie copying the numerous Pop artists who have copied him, but he followed it with a blazing version of "Me and My Woman" that erupted from the stage like a volcano and oozed through the assembled multitude with the heat and inevitability of the resultant lava flow. Once he and his stellar band got going, Shuggie Otis provided a transcendent moment in MidPoint history, the redemptive return of an astonishing talent that should never have gone away in the first place.
Only one thing could have dragged me away from the hair-raising, slack-jawed wonder of Shuggie Otis, and that's the triumphant return of Cincinnati’s Mad Anthony. Since the July van accident that could have been the band's literal epitaph, drummer Marc Sherlock was restrained by a neck brace and an order against all relatively physical activity. Outside of a little rhythmic tapping to keep his chops up, Sherlock was virtually drumless for three months, while guitarists Ringo Jones and Adam Flaig hit the road for some acoustic dates to keep the rent money coming, then set off for its first cross-country tour, which culminated with last night’s homecoming.
And so Mad Anthony took the triangular stage at The Drinkery, their first show with their full current lineup since the accident that nearly cost them everything. Jones and Flaig brought plenty of their patented frenzy to their acoustic gigs, but they've clearly missed their hypertalented timekeeper, which was evident from the visceral fury that permeated every note of last night's show. Sherlock couldn't have looked any happier; with every roll, every cymbal crash, every massive kick, his smile was a permanent fixture, and Jones and Flaig responded with a tumultuous joy that was a palpable presence in the room.
At a normal Mad Anthony show, the trio storms into an audience's frontal lobe with incomprehensible power. If The Stooges ate Black Sabbath and shit out three perfectly formed babies the next day that grew up and absorbed Punk, Pop and Rock influences like a bar towel, then wrung out those influences into shot glasses and downed them one liquor/beer/sweat/adrenaline slug, that would be Mad Anthony. Last night's return to The Drinkery was all that amplified to the third power. Naturally, they finished with "We Love This Fucking City." Naturally, this fucking city loves Mad Anthony. It's worked out so far.
After the major nut-kick of Mad Anthony, I tooled down to Arnold's to catch some Beatlesque sweetness courtesy of Canada’s The Shilohs. They were really quite good, and I definitely wanted to hear more of them, but they seemed intent on a mid-tempo set in the key of "If I Fell," and I wasn't quite in the mood for that. So I headed back to The Drinkery to catch locals Frontier Folk Nebraska's set.
After Mad Anthony's blistering presentation, I chatted up Kelly Thomas for a few minutes outside The Drinkery, and she had noted that Frontier Folk Nebraska was veering in a decidedly more electric direction, rather a shift from their traditional acoustic roots. When The Shilos didn't pan out for me, I decided to witness FFN's electric evolution for myself. Good decision.
The new FFN is plugged in and ready to whip any ass in the house. Imagine a world where The Ass Ponys channel Crazy Horse and the Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo and you'll be close to the barely restrained muscle emanating from the new Frontier Folk Nebraska. All of this was evident on the band's eponymous 2011 album, but it's magnified to an incredible scale in the live setting. FFN recently lost founding bassist Steve Oder to a graduate program, which could have seriously altered the band's chemistry, but new bassist Matthew McCormick seems to have settled in nicely, alternating between a pulsing beat and runs that emulate lead solos, forming a slinky rhythm section with drummer Nathan Wagner. Meanwhile, frontman Michael Hensley and Travis Talbert create a tandem guitar attack that perfectly balances nuance and power. I liked where FFN was and I love where they are.
After FFN, I found my car and took a drive down to the Mainstay to catch London's blazing Rock power trio Leogun. Vocalist/guitarist Tommy Smith is a revelation, a genetic hybrid of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in one electrified body, wringing sounds from his guitar that invoke all the greatest '70s translators of the Blues while maintaining a firm stance in the 21st century. Anchored by the thunderous rhythm section of bassist Matt Johnson and drummer Mike Lloyd, as slippery and as solid as Entwistle and Moon, Leogun swaggers and swings with retro inspiration and contemporary energy. They peeled through a set filled with tracks from their phenomenal debut, By the Reins, but one of the highlights was their completely unexpected and timber-rattling take on Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie." Not sure when they'll be back, but I'll be there when they return.
• Music editor Mike Breen informed me that publisher Dan Bockrath was going to be making with the beers this year, but I had no idea he would begin his hop blitzkrieg so quickly and voluminously. Dan found me in the crowd at the start of Cody ChesnuTT's set and put a beer in my hand immediately. And just as I finished that first one, Dan reappeared at my side with yet another, claiming, "I feel so good I had to double down." After this MidPoint, I may be able to build a new wing onto the Beer Buying Hall of Fame with Dan's empties alone. You are a god that walks among men, Dan Bockrath, and I hope to see you every night this weekend.
• During Cody's lovely and moving "Love is More Than a Wedding Day," he announced that it might be a good time to dance with the one you love. I looked at Dan, Dan looked at me, but we dismissed the idea. It is a testament to Cody's soulful presentation that I actually considered it, though.
• Years ago, my good buddy Troy paid me the ultimate compliment when he spotted me at a show. He clapped me on the shoulder and said, "I know I'm at the right show when you're at it." The very same could be said for the ubiquitous King Slice. His appearance at a show is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Follow him and see where he goes next. That's where the party will likely be the best.
• Also ran into Magnolia Mountain's Mark Utley, who's in the teeth of planning the next Music for the Mountains benefit show. The second MFTM disc is chock full of traditional goodness and the album and the concert will raise funds to help eliminate the mining practice of mountaintop removal. As Mark noted, "Nature gives women the ability to forget about the pain of childbirth so they'll ready to do it again. That's how it was for me with this concert." The pain is always worth it, man (says the guy who's not feeling the pain) … good luck and God speed.
• And on my way out of Shuggie Otis, I chanced upon Jim Blase, co-owner of Shake It Records and quite simply one of the finest human beings I've had the pleasure to and good fortune to know.
• Lots of folks turned out for Mad Anthony's return, including Kelly Thomas, who was an architect of two benefit shows to help the boys get back on their feet (and who is actually collaborating with the band on some new songs, which should be awesome). Also in attendance was former MA bassist Dave Markey, and his ebullient mom, who may have been the biggest fan in the room; I'm pretty sure she knew the words to every song. It was a beautiful thing.
• Jim Blase was also hanging out at the Frontier Folk Nebraska show, obviously showing support for Travis, who still puts in some time behind the Shake It counter. I was about to head over to say hello again but ran into old friend Danny Rupe, who I never get to see anymore except at random and all to infrequent MidPoint shows. He put my digits and e-mail add into his Jetsons phone, so maybe I'll hear from him with a little more timeliness now.
• Slice, The Black Owls' Brandon Losacker, Dave Markey and Ringo Jones were all hanging at the Leogun extravaganza. I was looking for my Class X compatriot Eddy Mullet, who had designs on the show, but I didn't see him so his plans must have changed. God, I hope it wasn't a kidney stone; that's what derailed his Bunbury experience. After the show, I had a quick chat with Tommy and Matt from the band as they were packing up to go, and then Ringo and I closed the Mainstay, as he regaled me with tales of Mad Anthony, and promises that their new material is the best they've ever done. I know they'll prove it when the time comes.
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.