On June 4, two Cincinnati-born bands were featured on two different late-night network television shows. Rock foursome Buffalo Killers, promoting their excellent new album, Heavy Reverie, appeared on NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly in a pre-recorded interview package sprinkled with some cool performance footage. It was the band’s network television debut.
Earlier that same night, one of Cincinnati’s most renowned musical exports, The Afghan Whigs, played on The Late Show with David Letterman. The band — which is coming home to headline this year’s MidPoint Music Festival — played a great version of their tune “Matamoros” from the recent Do to the Beast album, their first new LP in 16 years.
After 96 consecutive hours of baking in the Tennessee heat and humidity, walking from stage to stage to take in as much music as possible and drinking and dancing sometimes from noon until dawn, even your third and fourth shower after returning home from Bonnaroo can be like a religious experience. Though the festival itself gets under your skin in a way that one does not necessarily wish to ever wash away. Indeed, coming down after the festival, returning to the mundane realities of everyday life, can be a difficult proposition for hardcore Bonnaroovians struggling to simply settle back into their daily routine on planet earth.
The fourth and final day of Bonnaroo 2014 found (photographer) Chuck (Madden) and I sun-dazed but smiling, still eager to soak up and savor every bit of music we could. Among the few campers stirring that murky morning, I woke early and wandered the eerily empty festival grounds well before noon. I’ve attended the festival six times since 2006, but Sunday morning was the first time I rode the Bonnaroo ferris wheel. After an hour or so of tapping away on my trusty laptop in an empty press tent, the ferris wheel ride gave me an opportunity to chill and be still for a few minutes, surveying the scene from a bird’s eye view. A crowded cornucopia of bright lights and loud music after dark, it was both surreal and serene to view the Bonnaroo festival grounds silent in the morning.
The silence wouldn’t last. Even before I disembarked from the ferris wheel I could hear Lucero doing their soundcheck on a stage that I could barely see in the distance.
Chuck’s day began with a pair of bands he would be raving about for the rest of the afternoon: Kansas Bible Company on the tiny On Tap Lounge stage and much-talked-about new arrivals Lake Street Dive in That Tent, where a surprisingly large crowd had already gathered for the band’s 1 p.m. start.
Cloudy skies and occasional drizzle kept temperatures tolerable for the first three days of the festival. But Sunday was all clear skies and blazing sun, sending temperatures into the 90s for most of the day. Always an endurance test, Sunday at Bonnaroo 2014 was a brutal trial for the thousands on site who were forced to either hydrate, hunker in the shade, or both, until the sun relented in the early evening. But shade is not easy to come by at Bonnaroo, and sitting in a hot tent is no kind of relief whatsoever. Sunscreen, long sleeves and floppy hats ruled the day. Experienced Bonnaroovians are well-familiar with the physical demands of the festival. It just so happens that after three days of relative ease and comfort, Sunday’s weather conditions upped the ante on a panting throng already sunburned and exhausted.
Arguably some of the finest acts on the Bonnaroo lineup were featured on the festival’s final day, as Bonnaroo attendees were treated to phenomenal sets by Broken Bells, The Avett Brothers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Arctic Monkeys, Shovels & Rope, Washed Out, Wiz Khalifa, The Lone Bellow, Okkervil River and an afternoon performance by Yonder Mountain String Band on the main stage that featured Bluegrass legend Sam Bush on violin.
This writer tumbled into the Other Tent just in time to catch a rousing set by Those Darlins. Like Nashville’s Wild Feathers before them on the weekend itinerary, this was sort of a hometown gig for Those Darlins, a band whose founding members met at a Rock & Roll camp in Murfreesboro, Tenn. A sparse but dedicated crowd happily held lead singer Jesse Zazu aloft as she tumbled over the barricade and into the audience. Laying back on a sea of fans’ hands, her guitar squall raged unabated at full steam as her eyes rolled back in her head. (Those Darlins play a free show in Cincinnati this Friday, headlining Fountain Square’s MidPoint Indie Summer concert.)
After a ridiculous amount of pre-gig hype, the controversial Kanye West’s Friday night performance delivered nothing but disappointment to a Bonnaroo audience that should have known better to have expected anything more. Saturday headliner Jack White and Sunday’s top dog Elton John showed that good material and passionate, substantive performances will always trump shallow arrogance, hype and bullshit. To Mr. West, who once claimed himself to be “Shakespeare in the flesh,” I submit this famous quote from Macbeth:
“Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,
Of far greater significance than this writer expected was a stellar Sunday night performance by Elton John, who reeled off one classic after another to close out Bonnaroo 2014. I knew Elton’s set would be great, but I was not prepared for just how truly amazing it was. With a band featuring guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson, who have been with him for 45 years (you read that right), Bonnaroo 2014 was Sir Elton’s first-ever appearance at a U.S. festival. Opening the show with Side One of his classic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album from 1973, Elton proceeded with a version of “Levon” that concluded with a virtual clinic on Rock & Roll piano playing in the extended outro. Though I was dubious at first about Elton closing out the festival, this two-hour performance instead turned out to be such a stunner that I know I will forever count it among my all-time favorite Bonnaroo memories.
Thanks again to CityBeat for this amazing opportunity and to Chuck Madden whose concert photography is simply the best and whose friendship and company are a big part of what makes the Bonnaroo experience so meaningful to me.
Cincinnati Pop Rock quartet Mixtapes formed about four years ago and immediately hit the road with a relentless dedication. The band’s hard work paid off and it has experienced great success, building a dedicated fan base across the country with great live shows and hook-drenched, nationally-released albums and singles.
As anyone who has seen Mixtapes live knows, the band’s shows are adrenalized, sweaty fun and their music, while growing more mature and diverse with each release, is sheer fist-pumping, singalong joyfulness.
Frontman Ryan Rockwell was living the dream. But somewhere along the way, his life became more like a nightmare. The fact that Mixtapes’ launch coincided with the death of his father certainly played a part in Rockwell’s difficulties. Though details are vague, according to a press release, Rockwell “started to watch himself deteriorate and become the type of person he hated the most. He tried things he never thought he would and got dangerously close to not making it out.”
"I had never felt more alone," Rockwell says in the release. "Friends that I have had for years literally just stopped talking to me, stopped responding, a large number of them. I turned to the only thing I knew, and I started writing about it. I don't know who was wrong or who was right, but I know how much it hurt and people that I have helped and would do anything for left me when I needed help the most. Other people stepped up and saved me. I don't place blame though … I became a different person for awhile.
Rockwell was trying to understand what was going on in himself to make him so unhappy, but found it difficult to express. So he did what he does best and channeled his emotions into writing and recording songs. Working with friends Kamal Hiresh and Zach George and using the name Youth Culture, Rockwell hit the basement and created what would become the 10-track album, I Hate How Normal I’ve Become, an accomplished and eclectic collection of songs that, while still instantly catchy, possess much more darkness than Mixtapes’ jubilant Punk Pop.
Rockwell released the Youth Culture album late last month as a “pay-what-you-want” (yes, even if you want to pay nothing) download.
“This is an album for people going through things they don't like to talk about or know how to express,” Rockwell says. “We did it all ourselves and paid for it all ourselves. First and foremost, we want you to hear it — which is why it's free. If you like it enough, we'd very much appreciate a donation to recoup costs and eventually put it out on vinyl. But as always with everything I've done, I just want it to get out there, so thank you so much for taking the time to listen; there's a lot of bands out there, thanks for giving this a spin."
Listen to I Hate How Normal I’ve Become below, then click the player to grab your very own copy.
Fans worried that Youth Culture might signal the end of Mixtapes, fear not. The band is currently crisscrossing the United States on the massive Vans Warped Tour, which it'll be a part of until August. (The band is slated to appear at the Warped Tour’s Cincinnati stop on July 16 at Riverbend Music Center.)
Heavy Hinges is a new-ish band featuring some faces likely familiar to dedicated local music fans. Guitarist Jeremy Singer and drummer Brian Williamson have played in numerous groups over the past two decades, while singer/guitarist Dylan Speeg and bassist Andrew Laudeman were members of long-running, super-diverse Cincinnati crew Buckra. Maya Banatwala is the relative newcomer in the band, but her soul-drenched co-lead vocals in the Hinges serve as the group’s secret weapon.
Heavy Hinges debut album, Mean Old City, shows signs of some of Buckra’s trademark sonic diversity, but it’s channeled in a more focused manner. Ultimately, Heavy Hinges is a great Rock & Roll band, but its sound is touched by influences from Blues, Pop, Funk and Soul to various other forms of American Roots music. Like Alabama Shakes, Heavy Hinges manages to sound remarkably vital and “of the now” — despite the obvious vintage inspirations — thanks to the sincerity and vigor poured into each note. Mean Old City bristles with a timelessness that has less to do with the classic genres flirted with throughout and more to do with the from-the-heart songwriting and playing.
Here’s a music video for Mean Old City track “Booze May Be Your Lover, Not Your Friend”:
Speeg and Banatwala make for great co-frontpeople, crisscrossing their melodies and harmonies sometimes like X’s Exene Cervenka and John Doe and other times like June and Johnny Cash, with each singer possessing a voice quite distinct from each other, yet still sounding like they were made for each other when they come together. Meanwhile, the rest of the band are flawless and perform with a similar soulfulness; Williamson and Laudeman are a jaw-droppingly great rhythm section, while Singer’s guitar leads and solos are as attention-grabbing as the singers’ powerful vocal one-two punch.
Heavy Hinges host a free release party for the new album Saturday at 10 p.m. at Northside Tavern with DAAP Girls. Read CityBeat's profile of Heavy Hinges from early this year when the band was nominated in the "Best New Artist" category at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.
Riff-tastic Cincinnati Hard Rock foursome Lift the Medium has only been a band for a year, but you wouldn’t know it listening to its accomplished debut full-length, Mastermind. The band celebrates the release of its rock-solid album with a show Saturday at MVP Bar & Grill in Silverton. The 9 p.m. show also features performances by Livid and Life After This. Admission is $10; the first 50 fans through the door score a free copy of Mastermind.
Though a relatively new band, Lift the Medium’s members have extensive experience; singer/guitarist Joey Vasselet spent time in Rootbound, a melodic band that craftily incorporated influences from several different eras of Hard Rock, while bassist Justin Kennedy, singer/drummer Jake Bartone and singer/guitarist Joe Bartone were a part of Atlantis Becoming, a group known for its exploratory, progressive approach.
The band members’ backgrounds give a good sense of Lift the Medium’s style. The songs on Mastermind are craftily structured — the winding riffs and rhythms are constantly in motion, subtly recalling the more exploratory sounds of Atlantis Becoming. But there’s no meandering — every movement is in service to the song, resulting in a more passionate and pointed melodic impact. There is also a lot of diversity throughout Mastermind, but it’s molded into a cohesive and contemporary sound the group can call its own.
Lift the Medium can at times remind you of Grunge-era superstars like Alice in Chains or Soundgarden, but flashes of the classic ’70s/’80s Hard Rock/Metal perfected by the likes Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne or Iron Maiden also bubble to the surface. The delicately ingrained Prog touches lightly recall groups like Tool, but Mastermind also sounds like it would be perfectly at home on Rock radio next to contemporary acts like Shinedown and Seether. The production on Mastermind is remarkably crisp and muscular, making it even more radio-ready.
It’s no easy feat to incorporate such a variety of styles without sounding like Rock tourists/time travelers, but Lift the Medium’s sharp songwriting skills and impeccable chops help bring everything together without sacrificing its own distinct personality, allowing the variance to keep things sonically interesting from start to finish, but never allowing it to overshadow the strength of the songwriting. Cincinnati’s Rock radio stations (and likeminded ones across the country) should be all over Mastermind. It’s a crowd-pleaser that works on numerous levels.
Find more info about Lift the Medium (and hear some more song samples) here.
It smells like drying piss and old beer on the back deck of Northside’s The Comet. The air is filled with the dull thud of a concert beating up against the walls.
There are shows at The Comet every night and people piss and drink there every night, and John Hoffman and Dylan McCartney are there just about every night. Tonight they’re just here to get drunk, but usually they’re the center of attention.
Hoffman and McCartney are in emerging Cincinnati Punk band Sleeves. Hoffman calls the band’s sound American Apparel Punk. Their debut EP Sex is Stupid can be downloaded for free here. They’re a three-piece made up of Hoffman on lead guitar, McCartney on drums and Alex Collins on bass. Hoffman and McCartney both sing, and they both end up on the ground and sometimes injured by the end of their shows.
Cincinnati has an active Do-It-Yourself music scene and Hoffman and McCartney are major players in it. They organize and play shows and Hoffman even records, masters and puts together records for other bands.
Sleeves has played at The Comet, but most of the band’s shows aren’t held in traditional music venues but houses.
Residents all over the city are opening their basements, living rooms, decks and kitchens to musicians that want to do what they love wherever they can do it.
“I still remember the super visceral feeling I got from walking into my first house show,” Hoffman says. “It was just like ‘Where the hell am I? I’ve never seen anything cooler than this.’ I finally felt comfortable in a public space.”
From the outside, a house show looks uncomfortable. There are usually four or five terrifyingly big and tattooed guys stoically staring and bobbing their head to the music. Mosh pits break out constantly, and beer gets all over everyone no matter what, but it’s the closest thing to a bohemian utopia in Cincinnati — anything can happen.
“At one show, there was a point where everyone was crowd surfing just so they could tag the ceiling with spray paint,” Hoffman says. “It became a group effort where everyone was holding people up so they could tag the ceiling. That house was a wreck.”
“Suffice to say they probably didn’t get their deposit back,” McCartney added.
There’s no malice in these ways of destruction and these different looking people. They worked together to tag the ceiling — vandalism — but with teamwork, so it’s OK. The terrifying gentlemen are the first to help anyone up who gets knocked over. For every beer that’s dumped, 10 more are handed out. All the dirt, grunge and basement gunk are exactly what Cincinnati’s DIY bands need. The bands are good enough for big venues, but something is lost when people have to pay to get in, pay to drink and pay to eat and they can’t go outside for a cigarette and walk back in without getting hassled.
“My other band [Mardou] played at Bogart’s once and it was the worst show of my whole life,” McCartney says. “I’ve had shows which were one-twentieth the amount of people, at a house or something, and it was so much more fun to me. You connect to people at a show like that and they connect to you.”
House shows are intimate. There’s usually only an inch between you and the mic stand, but the intimacy comes from more than just close proximity. Certain houses become “venues” all on their own by regularly hosting shows — like The Outhouse in Clifton Heights and The Last House on the Left on Kirby Avenue in Northside. Communities form around these bands and houses, and people that feel like they didn’t fit in anywhere can find a home in someone else’s house. It’s an Island of Misfit Toys that serves Skyline chili.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s just an arts community — or a weirdos community,” Hoffman says.
Sleeves’ next show is Tuesday, June 24, in the basement of Lucy Blue Main Street location in Over-the-Rhine. Find details here.
Much has changed for the legendary Cincinnati live music venue the Blue Wisp Jazz Club over its 40-plus-year existence. Though it has consistently been the club for Jazz in Cincinnati over most of that period, the Blue Wisp has moved four different times over four decades. In its most recent locale at the corner of Race and Seventh streets downtown, the club owners also tried to attract more business by serving food and varying the types of music performed. But it wasn’t enough and the Blue Wisp has once again closed its doors (though various reports suggest it could find yet another new location in the future).
One thing that hadn’t changed at the Blue Wisp, at least since it began in 1980, is the Blue Wisp Big Band. The group of all-star local musicians has maintained one of the longest residency in the region, performing its skilled take on vintage Big Band Jazz like clockwork every Wednesday. The band is a Cincinnati institution.
When the Wisp shut down, the members of the Big Band were determined to not let their remarkable run end with a whimper. Instead, the Blue Wisp Big Band sought to continue its every-Wednesday residency at another venue. (In case you’re wondering, the group owns its moniker, so they can legally continue to use the “Blue Wisp” name.)
Veteran local Jazz pianist and Blue Wisp Big Band founding member Steve Schmidt says they’ve landed their new spot, Japp’s Annex on Main St. in Over-the-Rhine, and will pick up its Wednesday night shows beginning this week. Schmidt says the group will perform every Wednesday at Japp’s, at least through the end of July, when they’ll reassess the situation just to make sure it’s a good fit. The Big Band will again be playing two hour-long sets each Wednesday, the first starting at 8:30 p.m. The cover charge will be less than it was at the Wisp — just $5. (Parking is available in the lot on the corner of Main and Central Parkway, as well as in the garage behind the club on Sycamore.)
“We are excited about trying out this (Over-the-Rhine) spot and happy that the ownership and staff at Japp's is excited, too,” Schmidt says. “We are all thinking of ways to make it better for the customer and the band as we go along. The band wanted to start quickly, not to be dormant for too long.”
Several of the principal members of the Blue Wisp Big Band did a walkthrough several days ago to get a feel for the new space and were happy with what they saw (and felt).
“I got a very good feeling about the room,” Schmidt says, “both in terms of space — spacious yet intimate — and acoustics. I think the other guys felt the same way. (Founding BWBB anchor/drummer) John Von Ohlen rightly pointed out that there is a lot of wood — the floors and the large bar. As John said, in the fullest and most complimentary sense of the word, ‘It's a joint!’ It's what he had in mind when he formed the band and put it in the original Blue Wisp in O'Bryonville. He said he wanted a world-class big band in a beer tavern.”
“In a word,” Schmidt adds, “(the new space) has soul.”
This morning’s activities were as hectic as a hurricane as I jumped from one interview to the next in the Bonnaroo press compound.
Things started off nice and easy when I rendezvoused with a friend of a friend who is Lionel Richie’s stage manager. An industry veteran of many years, Sal Marinello has worked for Barbra Streisand, Metallica, Neil Diamond, Britney Spears and many more. Large festival stages like Bonnaroo are equipped with lights and sound, so Marinello’s workload and schedule today are not as demanding as a typical day on the road. Marinello and his crew arrived in the wee hours this morning with one truck instead of the usual seven. Main stage headliner Jack White’s line check completed and his gear rolled to the side of the stage by 8 a.m., Sal and his staff had Lionel’s gear in place onstage for their line check less than an hour later. (The rest of the day’s main stage performers will set up and perform in front of Lionel’s gear.)
The noon hour brought a flurry of activity that had my head spinning pretty much for the rest of the day. Nashville’s Wild Feathers returned on the red eye from St. Louis to do a three-song acoustic performance in the press tent that found the band looking ragged but sounding great as ever. Their material is strong, their performance was spirited, and their three-part whiskey tenor harmonies were crystal clear as ever. But they sure did look tired. Scheduled to play at noon, they were running late and had to jump right on the stage and burst into song immediately upon their 12:30 p.m. arrival.
Chatting with Ben Kaufman, Adam Aijala and Dave Johnston from Yonder Mountain String Band, I found the trio cautiously optimistic about moving forward after the recent departure of mandolin player and founding member Jeff Austin. Not that I expected them to be in a full-blown panic, but it was impressive to hear the calm in their voices as they discussed their future options with no apparent concern about securing a permanent replacement for Austin. Bluegrass legend Sam Bush joined Yonder for their 2:30 p.m. set on the main stage today. For their summer tour they’ll be joined by Jake Joliff on mandolin and Ally Kral on violin. (Yonder Mountain String Band plays Moonlight Gardens at Coney Island on the Fourth of July.)
The Flaming Lips brought a whole new freak rock spectacle to Bonnaroo this year and frontman Wayne Coyne was bouncing around the press tent talking to reporters for a couple hours yesterday. Spirits high and eyes aglow, Wayne happily made the rounds. The man loves to talk and this writer spent a dizzying 10 minutes with Coyne, discussing their brilliant new record The Terror. The band’s 12:30 a.m. set on the Which Stage was an explosive spectacle of lights, confetti, balloons, and dancers in costume, with the fiendish ring leader Wayne in the middle of it all looking like an evil super villain dressed in red tights with a shiny silver codpiece. (The band is one of the headliners of Cincinnati's Bunbury Music Festival this year.)
It’s not the first time I’ve seen Coyne dominate a press conference here; yesterday he spoke excitedly about The Flaming Lips’ desire to always bring something special to the Bonnaroo stage.
“If you’ve been here for three days and you’ve already seen 50 bands,” he said, “you wanna see something different. So that’s why (in 2007) we decided to land a spaceship here.”
Cool as a cucumber in spite of the summer heat penetrating the crowded tent during an early afternoon press conference, Derek Trucks fielded a question about the size of the Tedeschi-Trucks band. “An 11-piece band is a lot like herding cats.” Then he quietly mumbled the unintentionally Zen aside: “But it’s better than 30.”
Still buzzing from my conversation with Wayne, I scampered out into the crowd to catch Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke on the Which Stage. This was one of my personal Top 3 must-see bands of the weekend. It was gratifying to see the young Bonnaroo audience embrace a band that has more in common with their grandparents’ record collection than what many probably have on their current iPod playlist. I stopped to say hello to Blackberry Smoke singer and guitarist Charlie Starr after a 4 p.m. press conference and we discussed some of our favorite early Blues singers. I feel confident that he and I were probably among the very few here at Bonnaroo chatting about Ishman Bracey.
From there the day just got crazier, as the Saturday schedule was packed with stellar artists, including Valerie June, Drive-By Truckers, Phosphorescent, Lauryn Hill and Seasick Steve who boasted none other than Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on bass. Walking through the crowd I heard Cake play a spot-on cover of Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” with the guitar solo section cleverly transcribed for the horn section.
After a late afternoon breather back at the campsite, I wandered through Bonnaroo’s famous archway entrance to catch some of Lionel Richie’s set. My timing was perfect. As soon as I walked through the gate he launched into the Commodores’ “Brick House,” a Bonnaroo performance I’d been looking forward to for months. Again I found it gratifying to see the young audience dialed into Richie’s performance as he pulled out one classic song after another. You can imagine how his ’80s gem “All Night Long” had the dancers moving. This was a moment of such heartwarming cross-generational bonding that it gave me goosebumps in the humid Tennessee night.
Last night’s main stage headliner Jack White nearly tore the stage in half, bringing an explosive thunder and fury that’s largely missing from Rock & Roll these days. One of the most highly-anticipated sets of the weekend, Jack and his crack band did not disappoint. A frantic and fiery performer onstage, he was straightfaced and serious, as if in character, throughout a bombastic set that stretched well over two hours. White has called Nashville home for several years now and he brought noise to these Tennessee hills last night like no one ever has before. An all-out stunner from the first song all the way through to the last note of several encores, this was unquestionably one of the most memorable performances in Bonnaroo’s 13-year history.
And believe it or not there is still more to come. Today is the fourth and final day of Bonnaroo 2014. Photographer Chuck Madden and I must bear in mind that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, as we endeavor to take in performances today by Lucero, Lake Street Dive, Okkervil River, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Arctic Monkeys, Broken Bells, Washed Out, Yonder Mountain String Band, The Avett Brothers and more. The legendary Elton John will close out the fest tonight.
Thanks to CityBeat for making this all possible! Chuck and I would like to extend a special thank you to CityBeat photographer Jesse Fox who was a big help to us this weekend.
Only 361 days ‘til Bonnaroo 2015!
The blazing two-guitar Indie Prog of White Denim’s midnight set on Bonnaroo’s That Tent stage absolutely floored Chuck and me last night. Those familiar with White Denim’s fabulous 2013 release Corsicana Lemonade might find it hard to believe that the band sounded even better on stage than on record. Drummer Joshua Block repeatedly whipped the crowd into a howling frenzy throughout a 60-minute performance that found the band shooting a virtual shower of sparks that led Chuck to conclude, “We won’t hear anything else that good all weekend.”
Rarely have I seen a band who had the crowd eating out of their hand like White Denim did last night. This performance was an all-timer for me, one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had watching a band on stage. (You can catch them for free Sunday at Southgate House Revival; read CityBeat’s interview with the group here.)
Blessed relief fell upon us in the form of an unexpectedly quiet first night in the Bonnaroo campground. My Friday began with an illuminating 30-minute chat with Jake, Joel and Chris from Umphrey’s McGee. I told them I was from CityBeat and before I could even turn on my recorder they began to rave about Cincy’s late, great Ray’s Music Exchange, citing them as one of their biggest influences in Umphrey’s early days.
“Those guys were so bad ass and adventurous,” said guitarist Jake Cinninger, “It made us braver and made us feel like ‘Hey, maybe we can do this, too!’”
Sometimes described as Phish’s evil twin, or rabid little brother, Umphrey’s is much more than this. Performing a different setlist every night, indulging in wild flights of improvisation, often not repeating songs for many days, Umphrey’s musicianship and sense of adventure onstage is peerless and unparalleled. Bonnaroo veterans since the festival’s first year, 2014 marks Umphrey’s first appearance on the main stage. This week the band launched their own Nothing Too Fancy record label with the release of their new Similar Skin album. Touring through the summer and on into the fall, Umphrey’s makes a stop at Kettering, Ohio’s Fraze Pavilion on June 28.
Backstage press conferences today featured comedians Hannibal Buress and Taran Killam. Both held court in the press area for over an hour, good-naturedly conducting spontaneous interviews and posing for photos. I caught a glimpse of rapper Danny Brown, dressed head to toe in black leather and sporting a Guns ’N Roses T-shirt and dark sunglasses, chatting with a female reporter in the press tent. Just a few yards away, the members of J. Roddy Walston and the Business were laughing and carrying on with members of the assembled press like it was a family picnic. Just a few hours later Walston and Co. restored my faith in Rock & Roll with a blistering set on the Sonic Stage that found Walston himself repeatedly jumping up from his seat at the piano and into the arms of the adoring crowd. At one point he leapt onto the shoulders of an unsuspecting photographer in the photo pit before climbing once again over the barricade to crowd surf.
This writer spotted Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips walking through the crowd on Friday afternoon — but it was Toby from Dr. Dog, who I shamelessly ran after to get his autograph for my girlfriend back home. The first serious mob scene of the weekend gathered in front of Which Stage for Dr. Dog’s 2:30 p.m. performance. Unquestionably one of the most talented and promising bands of the past decade, their set was heavy on tracks from their stellar 2013 release, B-Room.
Our Friday was another typically schizophrenic zig zag around the festival grounds as Chuck and I took in sets by Neutral Milk Hotel, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Andrew Bird and the Prog Metal thunder of Animals As Leaders. There seemed to be a lot of excitement and anticipation in the air for Kanye West’s headlining set on the main stage. But, at the same time, the most frequently spotted T-shirt at Bonnaroo yesterday said, “FUCK YOU KANYE”. I heard someone in the crowd say, “If Kanye’s such a genius, he should sell those shirts himself.”
Seven hundred acres of Manchester farmland is transformed into Tennessee’s sixth-largest city every June when 80,000 people invade the area for the annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. With live music from over a hundred bands on twelve stages from noon ‘til dawn for four days, Bonnaroo presents attendees with an experience that is almost overwhelming.
Unquestionably the most diverse music festival of its kind, this year’s top dog headliners include Elton John, Jack White, Kanye West, Vampire Weekend, Lionel Richie, The Flaming Lips, Wiz Khalifa, Arctic Monkeys, The Avett Brothers and dozens more.
Often described as “James Brown singing with Led Zeppelin”, Vintage Trouble is an L.A.-based band that has built a worldwide following after three years of non-stop touring in support of their 2010 debut album, including a much-coveted slot as the opening act for The Who on their 2013 tour. As the summer festival season is ramping up, Vintage Trouble continues their grueling tour schedule with a stop this weekend at Bonnaroo. I recently spoke to the band’s bassist Rick Barrio Dill. Calling from Los Angeles, where he is recovering from recent surgery after a retinal detachment scare, Dill was upbeat and eager to discuss the band’s history, philosophy and enthusiasm for the road ahead. I asked him if the band changes their approach when preparing for a festival stage, as opposed to theaters and arenas.
“Not really,” he said. “We might tweak the edges differently, but overall our approach to a festival gig is the same kind of sweaty, sexy late night vibe as the clubs of Los Angeles where we kind of honed our thing. We’d only been a band about nine months before we got the gig opening for Brian May that immediately put us in front of the theater crowds that were sitting down. Then we got the Bon Jovi tour where we were playing in stadiums to 40, 50, sometimes 70,000 people.
“It taught us that we like setting up really tight, really close together, so we can literally touch each other no matter what kind of stage we’re on. And everything is contained in that sort of mentality. So, no matter if it’s a giant stadium or a 150, 200-seat room, we want it to get sweaty and we want it to be as intimate feeling as we can make it on the stage and within ourselves and what we can throw out and I think everybody connects. So even when we’re opening up for The Who, it still sort of feels that same 200-seater room.”
Dill said that translates to the way Vintage Trouble records, as well.
“We recorded our whole record in two and a half days, all in one room, doing all full takes,” he said. “We sort of fell into this method and later saw similarities in the footage of The Beatles at Shea Stadium, where they’re set up real tight in the middle of this giant stadium. We don’t wanna spread out. We set up in a tight circle where we can touch each other and then everything’s gonna come out from there.”
I mentioned to Dill how refreshing and somewhat ironic it is in this modern age of technological advances in the way music is generated and delivered to the listener that the old method of just coming out onstage and kicking people in the ass still works.
Chuckling a bit, he replied, “Well, it works for us! You know, we’ve played in front of hardcore Death Metal audiences, Hip Hop audiences, Country audiences and we always seem to land on our feet. I think it’s kind of a testament to how somewhere in our DNA it always traces back to old Soul, Rhythm & Blues, old, early Jazz, and early Rock & Roll.
“One of the things we try to do is we try to pull everybody into it. And it’s funny because even if you aren’t familiar with music from 50 or 60 years ago or they way they performed back then, people seem to understand. People can sort of hear some trace of that sort of thumbprint in their DNA even if they don’t necessarily have those records or haven’t been privy to what those performances were like. People get it. And that’s what’s so great about music, especially the kind of music that we do. It just seems to kind of transcend a lot of genre-making that has gone on over the last 30-40 years.”