Since its formation in Feb. 2013, Siegelord has been biding its time and waiting for the right moment to strike. After several sound, image and name shifts, the Cincinnati-based Metal band finally found its footing and began building a legion of fans. The quartet (vocalist Ulfr, guitarist Therod, drummer Sieven and bassist Warg) may have taken its sweet time releasing its first full-length, Ascent of the Fallen, but spinning the 12-track debut is enough to get any listener prepped to strap on some armor and go to war, even if it is just in the mosh pit.
Fans of Ulfr, Sieven and Warg’s previous band, local Folk Metal crew Winterhymn, can definitely hear some stylistic similarities. But where Winterhymn focuses its efforts on the Folk aspects of its formula, Siegelord leans more heavily upon Black and Death Metal to craft its battle anthems. Both bands weave orchestration into their songs, but Siegelord trade in the violins and keys for powerful blasts of horn and sprawling synths to give their tracks a more tribal and feral edge. These are not odes to honorable warriors but to conquerors and bloodthirsty warlords. and the musicianship reinforces that distinction.
Each members’ individual inspirations permeate every track. Ulfr’s love of Behemoth and Gwar fills every growled and shrieked line, Sieven’s Hardcore background can be heard in his bombastic cymbal crashes and heavy-handed pounding. Therod’s thrashy riffs, reminiscent of Amon Amarth and similar acts, along with Warg’s classically constructed bass rumbles fill the rest of the bloody picture. Throughout, the synth and horns add a flourish to each song and enhance each track’s intended mood. The driving, violent call to arms of “Gatebreaker” just wouldn’t be the same without a bellow from the horn, calling the fighters to one singular purpose — in this case, a massive, track-ending breakdown.
While the music itself is suitably brutal, Ulfr’s lyrics are what sets Ascent apart. The album is autobiographical in many ways, as Ulfr weaves a tale of the four characters banished from their realm and exiled to an inhospitable desert, ultimately finding a way to make their new homeland truly theirs. Sprinkled throughout are several interludes where Ulfr expands on the story he weaves. These tracks avoid feeling like filler due to Ulfr’s savage, spoken delivery, which elicits a shiver or two from the listener. Furthermore, “Siegelord” and “Warchief of Fallen Spirits” take time to develop Ulfr, Sieven, Warg and Therod’s individual backstories.
Buried within the fantastical saga that Ulfr shares are some true-to-life revelations regarding deception, lies, love lost and overcoming exceptional odds at all costs. In many ways, Ascent of the Fallen is a literal title and the band’s material benefits from not relying simply on classical fantasy tropes or focusing too heavily on creating a concept album to construct its tale.
Siegelord’s inception was a tumultuous one, coming out of very real, personal schisms. While most of these divisions have healed with time, their memory helped fuel the creation of an album that ties together many familiar influences and mechanics, but ultimately is able to rise above them. The intelligent use of Ulfr’s commanding vocals, riffs that cut like a broadsword, drumming and bass that crashes across your chest and driving orchestration has led to an album that may have taken several years to finally complete, but was worth the wait. Local Metal fans need only to listen to the album before exclaiming, “Praise the fuckin’ Lord.”
Siegelord's new album can be purchased (digitally or on CD) here.
Last night at the Madison Theater in Covington, CityBeat hosted the 19th annual Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, honoring Greater Cincinnati’s rich music scene. Check out this week’s CityBeat for a full wrap-up. In the meantime, here’s who won what:
World Music/Reggae: The Cliftones
Jazz: Cincinnati Contemporary Jazz Orchestra
Singer/Songwriter: Kate Wakefield
Country: Taylor Shannon
Punk/Post Punk: Tweens
Indie/Alternative: Us, Today
Electronic: Black Signal
Blues: The Whiskey Shambles
Bluegrass: Rumpke Mountain Boys
Folk/Americana: Buffalo Wabs & the Price Hill Hustle
Hard Rock/Metal: Casino Warrior
R&B/Funk/Soul: Krystal Peterson & the Queen City Band
Hip Hop: Buggs Tha Rocka
Best Music Video: Molly Sullivan – “Before”
New Artist of the Year: Dawg Yawp
Best Live Act: The Cliftones
Album of the Year: Honeyspiders – Honeyspiders
Artist of the Year: Jess Lamb
I first encountered the phenomenon that is Josh Eagle on a warm August evening four and a half years ago. We were meeting for an interview to discuss his then new album with his band, Harvest City, A Good One is Hard to Find.
When I located him at Northside Tavern, he was seated in a corner of the patio, engrossed in a book, something lofty and cool as I recall. Before we'd said a word to each other, my initial impression of him was that he seemed like a homegrown Jack Johnson, a hippie surfer boy that had somehow been incongruously dropped, like David Bowie's man who fell to earth, in the landlocked limbo of Ohio. But as he wove his tale of creating his own unique brand of Americana/Roots/Folk and, by proxy, his life, it struck me — he was no stranger in a strange land. He recounted a boozy evening that spontaneously led to a stint on an organic raspberry farm in Hawaii, and how that experience blossomed into the epiphany that he had merely traded one paradise for another. It was clear his home had given him the inspiration, the brushes and colors with which to work, and his songs became the canvas onto which he could interpret and transfer his feelings about his real life experiences and the ephemeral melancholy and joy that resulted from them.
I went into the inteview as a big fan of the music, and left an even bigger fan of the man who made it.
Josh and I have subsequently crossed paths innumerable times, at MidPoint, Bunbury, the CEAs, local shows (his own and other bands) and at Class X Radio, where he guested one evening in 2013 to promote his self-titled third album before heading north to play a gig. Every time he and I have found ourselves in the same vicinity, the outcome was always the same — "Great to see you" pleasantries and personal updates, followed by a conversation that typically factored in triumphs, misfortunes, advances and reversals, all discussed with Josh's sublime sense of humor and the irrefutable logic that the bad times would pass and the good times should be savored while they lasted.
At his most downcast, Josh has always been optimistic, hopeful and upbeat. Those are the qualities that I will personally miss the most when Josh and his girlfriend Jacqueline Hull leave Cincinnati to begin a new leg on life's grand tour in one of the most adventurous locales on the planet, New York City. Jacqueline's marketing job has made her an offer that makes the relocation incredibly attractive, and Josh will do what he does best, which is make music and find work to fill the gap.
Before Josh and Jac's departure on Feb. 5, the pair will be hosts and stars of their own farewell tribute at Newport’s Southgate House Revival this Sunday at 2 p.m.tmp_1453480629691 It promises to be a raucous and emotional event.
"It's actually going to be in the afternoon, because I wanted kids to be able to come, like a family day," Josh says over lunch at Melt in Northside. "I want people to feel so warm and fuzzy that they're losing their minds, and what better way than to have the kids."
The possibility of a New York move came up last year when Josh did a bit of world traveling and he and Jac spent a few days in the environs of New York.
"I've always wanted to live in a place like that," Josh says. "I went to Paris, Barcelona and Madrid this past year, and you can't just pop into CVG and go straight there, you've got to go to a big hub. So when we got out at JFK, we decided to stop there for five days. We were like, 'Ha ha, we could do this,' joking around a little bit, not really considering it an option. But we knew our time had passed in Cincinnati. We felt like we had made great friendships and done great things here, but what else is out there for us?"
The gauzy NYC fantasy became an attainable reality when Jac discussed the idea of a transfer with her employer, and an actual offer turned the joke into a plan.
"Then it was like, 'What's Josh going to do?,’ ” he says. "I'm going to continue to do what I've always done — write songs, release albums, write stories and try to make it work. And usually I have. It's been great, it's been fun for me. But today I applied for a job at the Brooklyn Brewery, because I've got to have something else besides the arts that pays way too much to the landlord. But we're beyond excited."
Josh and Jac recently made an exploratory trip to New York to check out the housing situation and, against all odds, wound up finding an apartment in Brooklyn. With that part of the equation solved, the pair returned to Cincinnati with a rather strange sensation.
"We feel like that's our home already," Josh says. "We came back and we were a little melancholy. It was like, 'We just left our home. We just paid the guy a couple grand and we came back here. This feels weird.' But we're pumped, we're excited for the opportunities. To me, it's one of the greatest and definitely most diverse cities in the whole world."
Josh has several New York music contacts and plans to get settled and then continue to cultivate those relationships in order to re-launch his career. It's an odd construct for the singer/songwriter, essentially going back to square one with his music.
"First I've got to make sure that every place I play has a backline, which a lot of them do. I researched this," Josh says with a laugh. "I'm not going to be bringing my PA and my amp everywhere I go. I'll be pretty much guitar and harmonica in hand and I should be good to go. I'm really just reaching out in that way, and then seeing what other people want to play. I feel like I'm really starting from scratch again, but in the way I did when I was 15, 16 and I was figuring all this out. I've got a good amount figured out, and how to do it, it's just making the right contacts, and finding people that I like and that like me. Both sides. And Jacqueline and I have been singing together for the past year so if she'd be into continuing to do that, we'll continue to write songs together."
In the nearly three-year gap since his eponymous 2013 album, Josh has compiled somewhere between 20 and 40 new songs, which are in various stages of completion; somehow in the next couple of weeks, he's planning on doing some recording with the Harvest City's Tommy Cappel and The Ready Stance's Wes Pence. Last year, he and Jac assembled a video crew, cooked everyone dinner and the the crew shot the two of them singing their songs at their kitchen table, which they logically titled The Kitchen Sessions. The results are available to view on YouTube.
Josh has also devoted time to writing short stories, and has some unique ideas on how to distribute them into the wider world.
"My original idea was, instead of just doing a record, 10 songs and there it is, to do two songs a month, with a short story," Josh says. "Sadly, with the whole Spotify crap, it seems like people are doing bits of songs. Not that I want to give up on the idea of a full album, but this is just an experiment to see how receptive people would be to do that for six months. Twelve songs, and six stories. Is that the right math? I'm not a calculus professor."
To begin, Josh is planning to present the songs and stories independently and gauge the interest level. If it's sufficient, he'll look at the possibility of a publisher.
"I'll see how I feel about it and how other people feel about it first, before going into vast landscapes," Josh says. "But I'm having fun trying out the short story thing. Might as well do something with them. I'm sick and tired of reading them, that's for damn sure."
Josh and Jac's send-off show at the Southgate is shaping up to be a star-studded affair, with former members of the Harvest City and a slate of special guests lined up to bid the couple a fond if somewhat tearful adieu.
"My pals are coming, and it happens that they're really good," Josh notes. "Mark Becknell, who plays with Queen City Silver Stars and Frontier Folk Nebraska and does his own solo stuff, which is fantastic. Jeremy Smart, original guitar player for Harvest City, will be there and Matt McCormick, who used to play with Shoot Out the Lights and he's with Frontier full-time. That'll be the core. Then Joe Mitchell from the Mitchells will be coming in, David Faul from the David Faul Band, Travis (Talbert) and Michael (Hensley) from Frontier Folk. 2 p.m. is when (openers) The Mitchells will start, they'll do a set, Jacqueline and I will probably do some solo Kitchen Sessions stuff, and some fun covers. It's going to be a bittersweet day, for sure. A lot of 'Hey, haven't seen you in awhile, great to see you, goodbye.’ ”
Two weeks later, the pair will head east.
"I'll put the dog in the front of the cab and the cat on my lap and load our stuff in the U-Haul and bounce," Josh says. "We've been here a long time, but we've got that itch."
And with that, Josh will begin writing a new chapter in his big book of What Next. His time in Cincinnati has been fruitful, to be sure; he's recorded three well-received albums, two with Harvest City, his songs have been placed on Stalker, House and American Pickers, he took home the Singer/Songwriter Cincinnati Entertainment Award in 2012, and he's sitting on a pile of songs that could be the album that breaks him big, in New York and beyond. Not that he's fishing on that side of the boat, mind you. As he has always done, Josh Eagle will take things exactly as they come, he'll ride the crest of any wave the universe challenges him with and he'll ultimately coast safely into shore. Maybe he's a hippie surfer boy after all.
On Jan. 31, 2016, the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards winners will be announced at the 19th-annual ceremony/show/party at Covington’s Madison Theater. Today we are happy to announce the nominees for the CEAs, which are presented by CityBeat and honor Greater Cincinnati’s rich and eclectic music scene.
Again this year, the public was invited to submit nominee suggestions via an online ballot; a list of the top vote-getters in each category was given to members of the CEA nominating committee for consideration. The committee, which features local music writers, club owners, radio DJs and others, helped decide the final slate of nominees in the genre categories, as well as categories for Best Live Act, Singer/Songwriter and Best Music Vide (which are open to all genres). Public vote decides the winner of a majority of the categories; the nominating committee determines the winner of the Critical Achievement categories (Album of the Year, New Artist of the Year and Artist of the Year).
This year’s nominees include several artists who have previously been nominated (or won) CEAs, as well as numerous first-time nominees. Walk the Moon have scored two Artist of the Year CEAs in past years and return to the category after exploding internationally with its ubiquitous, Platinum-selling hit “Shut Up and Dance” and Talking is Hard album (both released towards the end of 2014). Singer/songwriter Jess Lamb, who kicked off 2015 by appearing as a contestant on American Idol (and is a previous CEA performer and nominee), earned five nominations, including her first Artist of the Year nod. Artist of the Year nominee Wonky Tonk (the Indie/Country guise of Jasmine Poole) also earned nominations in the Singer/Songwriter, Best Music Video and Country categories, following a 2015 that saw her Stuff We Leave Behind album earn widespread national acclaim. Perennial Hip Hop nominee Buggs tha Rocka, who has been working with indie Hip Hop legend Talib Kweli’s Javotti Media label and played the 2015 A3C Hip Hop fest in Atlanta and Cincinnati’s own Ubahn fest, earned his first Artist of the Year nomination.
First-time CEA nominees this year include Country artist Taylor Shannon, Jazz player/composer Brad Myers, Metal newcomers Casino Warrior and jazzy Soul/Pop ensemble Krystal Peterson & the Queen City Band.
The New Artist of the Year category (as well as other promising new performers) will again be spotlighted at CityBeat’s Best New Bands showcase at Bogart’s on Jan. 16. This year’s New Artist of the Year nominees are Dawg Yawp, Coconut Milk, The Skulx, Go Go Buffalo, JSPH and Mutlimagic. New Artist nominees from the 18th-annual awards program returning to the CEA ballot this year in a big way include Leggy, Honeyspiders and Noah Smith.
Public voting opens at noon on Monday, Dec. 21 here.
Ma Crow and the Lady Slippers
The Missy Werner Band
Rumpke Mountain Boys
Comet Bluegrass All-Stars
My Brother’s Keeper
Arlo Mckinley & The Lonesome Sound
Willow Tree Carolers
Buffalo Wabs and the Price Hill Hustle
Honey & Houston
Elementree Livity Project
Queen City Silver Stars
Alone at 3AM
Zebras in Public
Lift The Medium
Wonky Tonk (Jasmine Poole)
Royal Holland (Matt Mooney)
Daniel Van Vechten
Daniel in Stereo
The Slippery Lips
Noah Wotherspoon Band
Silver Pockets Trio
Johnny Fink and The Intrusion
The Whiskey Shambles
The Almighty Get Down
Krystal Peterson and the Queen City Band
The Perfect Children
The Cincy Brass
Freekbass & the Bump Assembly
Dan Karlsberg and the ’Nati Six
The Faux Frenchmen
Cincinnati Contemporary Jazz Orchestra
Blue Wisp Big Band
The Hot Magnolias
Buggs Tha Rocka
Best Live Act
The Whiskey Shambles
The Slippery Lips
Buffalo Wabs and the Price Hill Hustle
Best Music Video
Molly Sullivan - "Before”
Jess Lamb - "Memories"
Automagik – “Pop Kiss”
Playfully Yours – “Colorvision”
Puck – “Ruined”
Electric Citizen – “Light Years Beyond”
Wonky Tonk – “Denmark”
Zebras in Public – “John Doe”
Critical Achievement Awards
Album Of The Year
Honeyspiders – Honeyspiders
Us, Today - T E N E N E M I E S
Dawg Yawp - Two Hearted
Honey & Houston – Barcelona
Jess Lamb - Circles
Noah Wotherspoon Band – Mystic Mud
Dan Karlsberg - The ’Nati 6
The Sundresses – This Machine Kills
New Artist Of the Year
Go Go Buffalo
Artist Of The Year
Walk the Moon
Buggs tha Rocka
David Rhodes Brown's Warsaw Falcons and Nick Dellaposta's To No End could not possibly be any further from each other on the musical continuum.
The Falcons, recently reborn with the classic lineup of Brown on guitar/vocals, the thunderous John Schmidt on bass and the irrepressible Doug Waggoner on drums, are Rockabilly personified, heavy on the Rock and hypercaffeinated to the point of heart palpitations.
At the other end of the spectrum, Dellaposta's To No End is a Prog-tinted Blues unit with a propensity for lilting atmospherics and visceral Pop/Hard Rock anthemics.
Oddly enough, both bands are touting new releases, and each one is, in different ways, associated with a legendary entertainment figure. The Warsaw Falcons' new EP, Warsaw Falcons Live with Bobby Keys, features the work of the saxophonist sharing the title, one of Rock's most travelled and compelling sidemen who boasted near-membership with The Rolling Stones and sessions with Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, Carly Simon and three of the four Beatles, among many others.
To No End's new video for the track "Twisted Knives" from its third album, Remora, features the on-screen talents of Michael Parks, one of Hollywood's most versatile and durable actors whose television credits include Then Came Bronson in the late '60s and Twin Peaks in the '90s, and who has since become part of Quentin Tarentino's ensemble of reliable players.
The Warsaw Falcons' latest archive release is a five-song excerpt from a live recording done at Top Cat's in Clifton in the very early '90s. Keys, already a fixture in the industry (his iconic blowing was all over the Stones' Sticky Fingers, one of Rock's acknowledged masterworks), had played with Brown in Nashville and had become a semi-official member of the Falcons, eventually guesting on their 2003 album Right It on the Rock Wall.
At the time of the Top Cat's gig, Brown had just returned to Cincinnati to care for aging mother, and had reassembled the Falcons for occasional in-town performances. Bassist John Schmidt reclaimed his spot with the band, while guitarist George Cunningham and drummer Maxwell Schauf rounded out the quartet.
For the Top Cat's recording, the Falcons blew through a jumped-up set of band faves with Keys, visiting from Nashville to lend his towering sax fills. Although there was a good deal more material delivered at the Top Cat's set, the five tracks on the EP represent the songs where Keys was most directly and completely spotlighted. And Live with Bobby Keys might well stand as the most incendiary and pulse pounding 22-and-a-half minutes released this year.
The release starts with the rafter-rattling thrash of "Jello Sal," a five-minute Rockabilly workout featuring Brown's distinctive vocal rasp and his and Cunningham's slinky yet muscular guitar gyrations, grounded by Schmidt's bedrock solid bass and Schauf's technicolor timekeeping. On the EP’s second track, "Sometimes," Keys intros the song by thanking the Falcons for inviting him to the gig and pledging his admiration for Cincinnati and its desire to Rock and Roll.
"That's what we do," Keys declares in his authentic Texas accent. "Rock and roll!"
What follows is the Falcons' version of a ballad, a slow-cooking slab of meaty, bluesy Rock that gives way to its primal impulses and howls with blood-boiling intensity, even as the band maintains an almost laconic pace. Brown and the Falcons mix a jaunty Blues stroll with an effervescent Chuck Berry bounce on "You Can't Do That to Me," switching to spy-theme noir for the insistently smoky and sultry "Two Cigarettes in the Dark" and finishing with a pulsating version of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels' classic cover of the Righteous Brothers' "Little Latin Lupe Lu," with Brown doing his best hip-twitching, lip-hitching impression of Elvis while the band kicks up its heels and swings with deliberate abandon.
Through it all, Keys — who passed away last year at age 70 — does what he always did best; find the emotional heart of the songs and then play the living hell out of them. Keys had the intuitive gift to know when to serve as a brilliant supporting accompanist or elevate his position to an equal partnership in the arrangement, as evidenced by his call and response lick-trading on "Jello Sal." Brown says there may be more recordings of Keys in the Falcons' extensive and as-yet largely unplumbed archive. Based on the results of Live with Bobby Keys, which was officially be released at a Thanksgiving Eve extravaganza at the Southgate House Revival, we can only hope there's a lot more.
Meanwhile, To No End's new release, Remora, the band's third album since forming in 2012, is not only musically dichotomous from the Falcons' EP, it's quantitatively different as well, with an additional 11 tracks over two discs. But, as noted, the one area where the two bands intersect is in their use of a celebrity guest to enhance their presentation.
With TNE, it's the presence of famed actor Michael Parks in the band's video for "Twisted Knives." TNE frontman Nick Dellaposta secured Parks' services for the video through Dellaposta's lifelong friend Josh Roush, whose journey is the subject of "Twisted Knives," perhaps the most personal and deliberately direct song he's ever written.
A decade ago, Roush departed Ohio for Los Angeles, where he has worked in the film industry in various capacities, which led to a position last year on the set of director Kevin Smith's horror film Tusk. During production, Roush met and became friends with Parks, who had a role in Tusk. When Dellaposta invited Roush to partner up to produce the "Twisted Knives" video (the two had worked together on TNE's first video, "Somethin' Wrong with You"), the pair decided to ask Parks if he would be interested in appearing the video, which is largely made up of eerie atmospheric footage that Roush has shot himself over the years.
As for the rest of Remora, Dellaposta takes To No End further down the similar path he and the band explored on last year's excellent Peril & Paracosm, which blended the Kenny Wayne Shepherd-meets-Warren Haynes
Blues direction of the band’s debut with a blistering ’70s Hard Rock energy. In addition, Dellaposta has divided Remora into a pair of 30-plus-minute sides that are stylistically distinct. The harder Side A is subtitled “The Underworld,” while the gentler and more contemplative Side B is themed “The Great Unknown.”
“The Underworld” songs clearly follow Peril & Paracosm's general blueprint, with Dellaposta and guitarist Grant Evans soaring and scorching with the intensity and focus of '70s guitar heroes like UFO's Michael Schenker and Budgie's Tony Bourge, polished to a contemporary but never overproduced shimmer. The opener and ostensible title track, "The Afterlife II (The Underworld)," is a perfect example of Dellaposta's modern Blues/Hard Rock translation, a riff-laden celebration of the forms painted with a new brush. The guitars careen and howl while the rhythm section of bassist Eli Booth and drummer David Nester provide a sturdy but flexible foundation for the song's shifty mood swing between jaunty minor key melodicism and darkly menacing wordplay.
Elsewhere, "Shatter" starts out with the reflective quiet of an O.A.R./Red Wanting Blue ballad but becomes more forceful and expansive as the song unfolds. "Everybody Talks" offers an indiosyncratic New Wave clockwork guitar motif that displays an interesting new songwriting wrinkle for TNE, while "Like Hell" and "Play That Card" show that Dellaposta's heart will never stray too far away from his KWS/Gov't Mule roots — even if they come out in fascinatingly different ways.
Remora's second "side," “The Great Unknown,” dials down the volume but not the songwriting intensity. Two songs from “The Underworld,” "Twisted Knives" and "Trash Day," are reprised on the second disc, with "Twisted Knives II" presented in an almost Folk/Americana light. "Trash Day" is similarly counterpointed between the pummeling Zeppelinesque boogie of “The Underworld” version and the lilting yet still powerful take of "Trash Day II.” And for sheer beauty, look no further than the acoustic heart-tug of "Hinterland Empire," a gorgeous evocation of The Beatles' classic "Blackbird."
While Remora's 16 songs would have fit comfortably onto a single CD, Dellaposta was clearly more interested in thematic continuity than production costs. Rather than interspersing Remora's more sedate songs with its amped-up fist-pumping anthems, Dellaposta and To No End show two different sides of themselves to suit your listening moods, further proof of his thoughtful creativity and amazing talent.
Warsaw Falcons’ Warsaw Falcons Live with Bobby Keys is currently only available at live shows (look for copies in brick-and-mortar, local-friendly record shops soon). Click here and here for show updates and more.
That old trope about doers doing and non-doers teaching holds no currency with saxophonist Dave McDonnell. The Chicago native relocated to Cincinnati six years ago to complete his doctorate Jazz studies at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, which ultimately led to positions at UC and the University of Dayton, teaching both music and music technology.
At the same time, McDonnell never abandoned his love for performance, composition and recording. Early in his Jazz career, McDonnell divided his time between waiting tables, teaching private music lessons and playing in an impossible number of bands; he even worked with Elephant 6 icons Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control (studio sessions with the former, touring with the latter).
Family life and academic rigors forced McDonnell to dial down his band participation — he currently works with Michael Columbia, Diving Bell and Herculaneum — but his reduced roles also provided him the impetus to resume exploring his own work, leading him to assemble a coterie of friends and bandmates from his Chicago experience (guitarist Chris Welcome, bassist Joshua Abrams, drummer Frank Rosaly, vibraphonist Jason Adaiewicz and cellist Tomeka Reid) and form the Dave McDonnell Group.
Utilizing a blend of crafted and precise composition and free-form improvisation, McDonnell created a masterful and acclaimed debut album, last year's the dragon and the griffin. The album was by turns contemplative and explosive, but always guided by the spirit of Ornette Coleman's similarly constructed pieces, where the tunes' purposefully written passages set the tone and established a foundation and framework for the band's circuitously invigorating spontaneity.
Just a little over a year and a half later, McDonnell and his Group (a version of which features Cincinnati players for area live shows) have returned, once again eschewing upper-case titling and stodgy tradition on the appropriately christened the time inside a year, his debut for esteemed Chicago Jazz label Delmark. While McDonnell adheres to his winning compositional-vs.-improvisational strategy on the time inside a year, he also adds a new wrinkle with a slightly older piece from his canon, namely his three-movement suite "AEpse," which grew out of his doctorate studies at CCM and which he debuted in Chicago two years ago.
"AEpse" stands in contrast to the grooves, shifting rhythms and dazzlingly intricate harmonics of the rest of the time inside a year. "AEpse," as a three-part, 11-minute piece of music, explores a chilly soundscape of electronic expanse, appointed by Reid's mesmerizing cello incantations, which drift through McDonnell's constructed atmosphere like smoke in a virtual opium den. But rather than present this sonorously beautiful piece as a whole, McDonnell chose to intersperse the three "AEpse" movements within his gyrational Bop tracklist, allowing them to serve as way stations along the album's journey.
And what an impressive journey it proves to be. Opening with the quietly propulsive "Bullitt," moving into the slinkily engaging and sensual "Vox Orion" and on to the jaunty "The Contract with Bees," McDonnell displays his considerable skills as both a powerful frontman and a generous bandleader, jumping to the fore with appropriately frenetic flurries of notes or delicately woven passages, or yielding the floor to Adasiewicz's fluid and enchanting vibraphone runs or Welcome's always brilliant guitar contributions, all of it made possible by the gymnastics of Abrams and Rosaly's limber and diverse rhythm section.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the swinging, shattering "Baker's Man," which begins and ends with the band in unison on the song's loping theme and fills its center with a dissonant Sun Ra/Zappa/Beefheart explosion of sounds and ideas. As atypical as it is sonically to the rest of the time inside a year, it perfectly points up McDonnell's incredible compositional skills and DMG's extraordinary ability to go completely off the map and then return to the radar in a fraction of a heartbeat.
Cincinnati has enjoyed a long and storied Jazz tradition, spawning some of the most profoundly talented and inventive players in the country, but even its most revered alumni must be sitting up and taking notice of the jaw-dropping accomplishments of Dave McDonnell and his innovative and musically curious Jazz collective. Clearly McDonnell's depth and breadth of experience informs every second of the Dave McDonnell Group's incredible output, but it is the application of that experience to his own work that is so consistently impressive. Two years and two albums in, and the anticipation of where DMG might head next is palpable and exciting.
THE DAVE MCDONNELL GROUP, with guitarist Brad Myers, bassist Peter Gemus and drummer Dan Dorff, plays Urban Artifact on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Greater Cincinnati is now home to several major music events. Summer festivals like Bunbury and Midpoint capture a lot of the public interest and fill downtown for days at a time. But for fans like me who prefer their music with a bit more bite, there’s really only one fest in the area that matters — Ironfest. The two-day event, now in its sixth year, is held at Newport’s Southgate House Revival to honor the late “Iron” Mike Davidson, a local musician whose passing inspired the festival’s creation. I may have gone to a Midpoint show or two this year (Jameson makes memories hazy), Ironfest is the one event that I truly look forward.
The founder of Ironfest, John Gerhardt, created the show to raise money for Davidson’s family and he is steadfast in his goal. Tickets for the event are $5 online or $10 at the door for each night, and I suspect that price will stay the same for years to come. With over 50 bands on the bill, the price-to-band ratio obviously can’t be beat, and that’s just how Gerhardt likes it. The low-price mantra even carries over to the merch. An Ironfest shirt will set you back $5 and items like hoodies and hats are also reasonably priced. Even the pizza that’s brought in to help soak up the booze is free, with only a donation requested.
While the fundraising tradition that built Ironfest continues, the festival itself has grown immensely over the last few years. Gerhardt works all year to bring together local and regional talent to fill the house’s three stages, and this year’s lineup was the most eclectic and vast group of bands fans have seen yet. Groups came from Cleveland, Dayton, Chicago and Boston to be a part of this year’s Ironfest, and the genre mix was as wild as ever.
The majority of the bands fell into the heavier genres of Rock & Roll, Punk or Metal, but this year saw Industrial music (Chicago’s Hide), an experimental string music (Kate Wakefield) and Electronica (Black Signal) represented, amongst many other styles. To say that a fest has a little bit of everything is an advertising trope nowadays, but having this kind of diversity in one house over a two-day period is pretty damn impressive. Especially when walking from one room to the other provided massive swings in sound each time you transitioned. The lineup was spread out in such a way that if you truly wanted to see every band (a daunting task to be sure), you could give each group at least some of your time.
As music journalist, Ironfest makes my job easy. With so many great bands onstage at once, there’s bound to be some that I haven’t heard or a young band who’s just starting out. Buying several CDs in one night may hurt my wallet, but my ears couldn’t be happier. Thanks Hide, Good English, Tiger Sex and The Skulx for all making one hell of a first impression on a grizzled veteran (which is a fancy way of saying the drunk guy whose neck is sore from head-banging this weekend).
That isn’t to say that returning bands were slouches this weekend either. There were a ton of amazing performances, but a few are worth a special mention. Valley of the Sun played its first show in months in Southgate House’s Lounge and promptly blew eardrums with a six-song set that featured three new tracks from the band’s upcoming release. The Honeyspiders released its highly-anticipated debut album in conjunction with their Ironfest appearance and offered something special for fans of the Harrison brothers’ previous band when they were joined onstage by former Banderas guitarist Jesse Ramsey (in town playing with his new band, Punching Moses) to perform an old Banderas track to round out the set.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the dirty elephant in the room. With Mainstay Rock Bar’s closing late last year, Cincinnati filth mongers Dandelion Death no longer had a place to hold its yearly show. So when the group were added to this year’s Ironfest lineup, there’s was much rejoicing. When the band took the stage to close out Saturday night in the Sanctuary, the room was full of people who had no idea what they were in for. But those of us who did got to see a Dandelion Death at its most ridiculous, with a stage large enough for the band and its female companions to actually fit on. While Mainstay’s center stage pole was sorely missed, it didn’t hinder any of the ridiculous Metal that only Dandelion Death can get away with.
While Ironfest may be built on a very Metal foundation, for many, it is about more than the music — it’s about community. For anyone plugged into Cincinnati’s Rock scene, Ironfest is akin to a high-school reunion, except everyone’s drunk and people are actually having fun. The sheer number of musicians in the house leads to tons of Rock & Roll run-ins with longtime friends. At times, it’s hard to go outside for a smoke or grab a drink at the bar because walking the 20 feet to either location involves stopping, saying hi to an old friend and catching up. By now, my friends know to just abandon me if I stop on the way to a destination; I’ll catch up eventually.
Ironfest started as a way for one friend to honor the life and memory of a fallen buddy and, at its core, that is what Ironfest still is. But in the past six years, Ironfest has grown into a massive beast that many music fans eagerly look forward to year after year. Those that knew “Iron” Mike speak of the man with nothing but the upmost respect and fondness. His passing truly rocked those who knew him and Ironfest’s origination becomes obvious if you hear just one of his friends speak about his legacy. While I never knew the man, every year I thank him, because his memory spawns an amazing event full of amazing bands and people, and personally brings me so much joy. So cheers to you, Mike; I may not have known you, but I really wish that I did.
The wholly unexpected announcement of a pair of reunion shows by one of Cincinnati’s greatest bands, Ass Ponys, inspired a sense of excitement within me that was matched only by the birth of my two children, the legal end of my first marriage and meeting the woman who convinced me to sign up for a 33-year-and-counting second hitch.
You might think that's overstating a case, and I might think so as well, but the fact remains that I was beside myself at the thought of seeing Ass Ponys in action after a decade-long hiatus. And the reason was quite simple — I had never seen the Ass Ponys during their 17-year run.
As Ass Ponys frontman Chuck Cleaver has said many times since the reunion was trumpeted, the band was never nearly as popular here in Cincinnati as they were out in the wider, smarter world. That fact had nothing to do with the reality that I had never seen them play. I loved them before they'd recorded a single note of music.
My first exposure to Ass Ponys was their one-song appearance on WVXU's tribute to The Who in the summer of 1989, simulcast live from the station’s studios and appropriately dubbed “Who Cares.” Ass Ponys were among a stellar local lineup that included The Afghan Whigs, The Speed Hickeys, The Thangs, Human Zoo, Bucking Strap, SS0-20, Warsaw Falcons and many others. Each contributed a single song to the proceedings. Ass Ponys, accompanied by local guitar legend Bill Weber, roared through a Who rarity, "Glow Girl," an outtake that appeared on the 1974 collection, Odds & Sods. Having heard about them but never actually having heard them, the band’s R.E.M.-esque take on "Glow Girl" sold me in half a heartbeat. I taped all of the musical performances from “Who Cares” on that July evening (oddly enough the 20th anniversary of the moon landing — insert inadvertent Keith Moon reference here) and I cherish that cassette. Ass Ponys' rendition of the Who's archive gem remains a personal highlight.
Four months later, I took a job with a design/marketing firm and almost immediately began clocking serious overtime. Just over a year after that, I revived my freelance writing career as an adjunct to my full-time position, and hours that might have been used to see local shows dissipated like cigarette smoke in a cyclone. As much as I wanted to see Ass Ponys, the planet alignment of my ability to slink out into a night coinciding with one of their local appearances never occurred.
But I avidly followed the band’s recording endeavors. I bought Mr. Superlove and Grim upon release in the early ’90s, and my freelance writing activity earned me a contact at A&M Records, which resulted in Electric Rock Music and The Known Universe showing up in my post office box. I raged at the cosmos when Ass Ponys was dropped from the label's roster and exulted when they chimed with typical Cleaver "fuck it" bravado and re-blazed their independent trail with Lohio and Some Stupid with a Flare Gun.
Ass Ponys' catalog took on the gravitas of scripture for me, stone musical tablets engraved by the flaming finger of God and sent forth into the world to instruct the unwashed and convert the unconverted. They sang about loss and death and dysfunction and insanity with a cheerily twisted conviction that was infectious and transcendent, and I drank their bitter Kool-Aid with a smile on my face and their songs in my heart.
Obviously, just as the Ass Ponys blipped off area radar screens in 2005, Cleaver’s musical collaboration with Lisa Walker was blossoming, laying the foundation for a decade of Wussy brilliance (which continues next March with the release of Forever Sounds). Yet even as Wussy's star ascended, and the band's permanence was asserted, questions lingered about Ass Ponys' status. They had never regretted to inform their fans of their demise, never bid the faithful a teary farewell at the finale of a blaze-of-glory last show. Ass Ponys simply ceased to be, its members scattering to new situations and directions.
Maybe that's why the announcement of Ass Ponys' reunion shows at Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater Nov. 6 and 7 was met with such an exuberant reception. As inauspiciously as the band retreated into the shadows, Ass Ponys planned their return with an equal lack of fanfare. But the loyal had little interest in allowing the band to shuffle quietly back into the spotlight. It was quickly apparent by way of social media posts that fans from around the country were already planning their Cincinnati pilgrimages to crowd the front of an Ass Ponys stage one more time.
With the Friday night show, after weeks of fairly intense rehearsals, the waiting came to an end and Ass Ponys steeled themselves to the task of presenting material that was, in some cases, close to a quarter-century old. Cleaver reported just prior to the show that he was likely the least nervous member of the band, revealing that bassist Randy Cheek had been up all the previous night thinking about their first show in over 10 years; presumably, guitarist John Erhardt (who plays with Cleaver in Wussy) and drummer Dave Morrison expressed similar signs of anxiety. But Cleaver also noted that the Woodward shows would be populated by the friendliest audiences Ass Ponys had ever attracted.
Friday's show began with a terrific set from Swim Team, which rocked a vibe that was part '60s-Pop melodicism, part Blondie-tinted New Wave edge and part Slits avant Art Rock eclecticism. Frontwoman Lillian Currens veered from a sweet Pop croon to a visceral Rock wail while the rest of the band provided an appropriately dynamic soundscape for her gymnastic vocals to pinwheel around in, creating a Riot Grrrl/Lana Del Ray mixtape. The quartet's brash and jittery opening set was the perfect introduction to what would prove to be an incredible moment in Cincinnati's musical history.
Given that I was an Ass Ponys stage virgin until Friday's glorious deflowering, I can offer no comparisons, no yardstick of performances past by which to measure the band's transfiguration into a contemporary unit. What I do know is that the four members of Ass Ponys have spent the last 10 years playing in some of the best and brawniest and most creative bands in recent memory, and that expansive breadth of experience couldn't help but elevate Ass Ponys' performance to an incredible new level in the modern context. Cleaver had noted during an interview on Class X Radio with Eddy Mullet and I the Monday before the shows that the band had discussed how to approach their material, with everyone agreeing it was best to relearn and rearrange the songs with their current expertise, rather than to recreate them note for note for the sake of some manufactured nostalgia.
The wisdom of that decision was proven with indelible and muscular versions of some of the best selections from Ass Ponys' powerful songbook. They went effortlessly from strength to strength, spitting and kicking and tearing through early classics ("I Love Bob," "Azalea"), A&M-era standouts ("Earth to Grandma," "Shoe Money," "Under Cedars and Stars") and late period wonders ("Butterfly," "Pretty as You Please," "Astronaut"), all with a renewed vigor and the hyper-electric jolt of pissing on an electric fence.
As usual, Cleaver was an engaging ringmaster. Three songs in, he noted in classic style, "Some things never change. I still sweat like a whore in church." He then recounted an observation made by a woman he overheard at an Ass Ponys show years ago: "I've never seen a man sweat that much without passing out." Throughout the night, people would call out unrehearsed requests which Cleaver fielded with a definitive "Nope." Cleaver explained the origins of songs ("This one's about a monkey …”) and kept up his standard patter-on-wry, but mostly he thanked the multitude for its dedication and passion, noting how humbling it was to see how many people drove and flew in from all over the country (rumor had it someone was coming from England) with the sole objective of witnessing the Ass Ponys' fresh splendor.
At the end, Cleaver announced — sarcastically and yet somehow lovingly — "This is the one that bought us our luxurious lifestyle," and the group launched into its MTV/college radio hit, "Little Bastard," the last in a long string of sing-along moments. If the show had gone on for another two hours, it would have seemed too short, but with the fading strains of "Little Bastard" ringing in my ears, I felt that my first and likely last live exposure to Ass Ponys was an overwhelming success and quite possibly an ecstatic religious experience.
As Wussy bassist Mark Messerly noted before the show started, the atmosphere at the Woodward was like a high school reunion "where you like everyone and you want to be there." 500 Miles to Memphis frontman Ryan Malott recounted how he had grown up down the street from Cleaver and had graduated with his daughter, ultimately crediting the Ass Ponys with sparking his interest in picking up a guitar and making his own music.
A lot of Friday's attendees had a direct connection to Ass Ponys' past and present. Vacation/Tweens drummer Jerri Queen (who would be opening Saturday's show with Vacation) helped produce and engineer the new Wussy album (as did Swim Team guitarist John Hoffman). The Ready Stance guitarist/vocalist Wes Pence, now bandmates with Cheek, was a contemporary of Ass Ponys with his ’90s outfit Middlemarch. Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley produced or engineered the first four Ass Ponys releases. Tigerlilies guitarist/vocalist Pat Hennessey was fronting The Thangs back in ’80s and ’90s, and was in a Fairmount Girls lineup with Cheek. Jim and Darren Blase helped maintain the Ass Ponys' flame by releasing the 2005 two-disc retrospective, The Okra Years, on their Shake It Records imprint.
Blase, freshly relocated back to Cincinnati after several years in Cambridge, Mass. (stop into Shake It’s shop and welcome him home), rightly noted that while Ass Ponys' influence is far-reaching and pervasive, no one, from the time of their first rehearsal in 1989 to the Woodward show we were anxiously awaiting, sounds quite like they do, a sound Blase likened to "an Americana Pere Ubu." No truer words.
The two Woodward appearances could well be the last we ever see these members on stage together. There are still plans afoot to reissue the band's long out-of-print catalog, and several people noted that both shows were being recorded, suggesting a live record could be in the works. And since Cleaver never says never, he answered the point blank question from a fan after the show — “Will you guys ever record again?” — with a nebulous yet hopeful, "Who knows?"
Whatever happens, however it shakes out, my first Ass Ponys show was a blast. If more crop up going forward, I'll be there, as well. But you never forget your first.
After a tumultuous period that included personnel change, a career lull, an identity shift and finally an unexpected and unfortunate dissolution, the members of Pomegranates clearly thought their time had come and gone. But now, in a story twist that is equally unexpected and exultantly hailed by even the most casual fan, the Cincinnati band is taking two final bows on stage at Newport’s Southgate House Revival this Saturday, and one final stab at studio redemption with the release of its fifth album, Healing Power.
Two years ago, Pomegranates played what they intended to be their last show. The quartet had toured relentlessly behind its fourth album, 2012's Heaven, and when the band finally dropped anchor, the members began work on what should have been their fifth album.
"We thought we were going to make a noisier Rock record and instead, overall, it seems pretty low key and way more chilled out," drummer Jacob Merritt says. "And it's pretty long, also, with more songs — I don't know if ‘sprawling’ is the right word."
When Pomegranates started shopping their new tunes around, they were more than a little dismayed at the lukewarm reception they received. The departure of multi-instrumentalist Curt Kiser and the arrival of the similarly-talented Pierce Geary infused the band with a fresh perspective, but the indifference to Healing Power flooded them with self-doubt. And with members Isaac Karns and Joey Cook thinking about solo projects, the quartet began to reconsider everything.
"We were a nominally successful, mid-level band and we had been for a few years," Merritt says. "We gave (Healing Power) to a bunch of labels and managers and no one seemed to care. There was this weird stigma, where people were like, 'You guys have been around so long (the band formed way back in the mid-’00s), and you get on all these great tours. Why aren't you more successful?' And no one wanted to take the jump to help us become more successful. Nothing seemed to happen, and the guys were getting tired of the slow, steady growth and the grind of being away for weeks at a time, so we were very disappointed. The lineup had changed with Pierce, and it didn't make sense to release the album as it was, and we were second-guessing ourselves because no new people in the industry seemed to be interested and we were like, ‘Maybe this isn't good.’ ”
Thinking that perhaps they needed to shake things up, with a personnel change representing a good time to implement just such a jostle, Pomegranates dropped their name and adopted the title of the new album as their new moniker.
"We wanted to call the album Healing Power but at that point, we were like, 'Let's turn a new leaf and just be Healing Power,’ ” Merritt says. "It seemed to confuse a lot of people, because we weren't doing anything differently. We were still Pomegranates, playing the same set, but there were people who were like, 'I don't know about Healing Power, I like Pomegranates.’ That was perhaps a mistake, if you want to call it that.”
Healing Power lasted for close to a year before the quartet decided to pack it in. The band's official last show came almost exactly a year ago at the request of one of its biggest fans in Virginia, who messaged the group through Facebook and asked if it would consider getting back together to play a wedding. They thought it was a nice way to go out.
"Our last show was a wedding in a bike shop," Merritt says. "We were like, 'Why not?' We just felt like it."
The reclamation of the Healing Power album began with Merritt's friend Ben Wittkugel, who had become interested in the music industry while a student at Indiana University. Knowing Pomegranates were sitting on an unreleased album, Wittkugel proposed an interesting idea.
"He wanted to start a cassette tape label to go hand-in-hand with a concert promotion company he was trying to get started," Merritt says. “He wanted to put this thing out and we were like, 'Sure. Whatever.’ ”
Wittkugel will release somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 first-edition cassette copies of Healing Power through his Winspear label, and the band has pressed up about 100 CDs — there's also a four-song vinyl EP of re-recorded tracks and one song that was dropped from the album ("I don't know why we were so adamant about not having it on the album because it may be one of the better songs …") — which will all be available at the Southgate House shows. The album and EP will then be available digitally when the limited pressings are sold out.
"Unless something that happens to people in the movies happens to us," Merritt clarifies with a laugh.
Merritt's description of Healing Power as sprawling is appropriate; the album has several propulsive moments, including the staggering, stuttering majesty of the seven minute "Hand of Death" and the tribal electric blast of "House of My Mortal Father." There is also a fairly diverse dynamic across Healing Power's 13 cuts, which careen from those spurts of high energy to atmospheric and moody Pop confections, like the gentle and aptly titled "Taking It Easy" and the melancholic reverie of "Morning Light," with the strolling bounce of the title track finding the middle ground between those stylistic ends of the spectrum. Logically, Healing Power stands as a natural progression from Heaven, which the band also thought would be louder and less constrained, and it also reveals Pomegranates' impending solo directions, as the majority of the album consists of songs that Karns and Cook brought to the band in more or less completed form.
"In the past, it was 80% Pomegranates, 20% their songs, and this time it's probably 40% Pomegranates and 60% their songs," Merritt says. “It's hard to know, because you perceive it differently than other people perceive it, because you're so close to it. In my mind, (Healing Power) seems less reverb-y and more introspective. Not that there's not a few moments that are a little more up-tempo."
Although Pomegranates splintered at the end, there's no hard feelings among the band members; they continue to work and hang together ("We've been in each other's weddings …"). Cook and Geary are working on Cook's solo project, Merritt runs the Sabbath Recording — where Karns also works, including on a recent project with Aaron Collins — and he keeps a busy schedule recording local bands like Dark Colour and The Yugos, as well as bands outside of the area.
Pomegranates' live return has generated a huge buzz, with the Southgate show selling out so quickly that the band added a second, earlier show to the slate (both of which will be opened by Keeps). That response begs the question of any possible consideration for maintaining Pomegranates as a side project going forward.
"I would say, ‘We'll see,’ ” Merritt says, diplomatically. "Obviously, we aren't opposed to things happening if and when the time arises to play a show here or there. Beyond that, I'm not really sure."
The band's two shows will be structured the same, with older catalog material comprising the first half of the set and songs from Healing Power populating the second half, which will also be distinguished by an appearance from Kiser, who will join the lineup to play the new songs.
Given the fact that these two shows could represent the last time Pomegranates play together for the foreseeable future, though they also seem to be keeping their options open, there is both very little and potentially quite a lot at stake with the release of Healing Power. Still, the band members are happy to just live in the moment and cherish the memory of the impact they've had to this point.
"I know how difficult it is for a band to find their audience and to play music for people," Merritt says, philosophically. "To know that our music has meant enough to people that, if even 30 people showed up for one show, it's like, 'Cool, you guys still care.' But when you hear stories about people who were suicidal and they heard your music and it changed their lives and they credit you as a piece of why they're still alive — those sorts of things are really awesome. There's people coming from Chicago and Virginia and Michigan and North Carolina (for the Southgate shows). It's cool. We found people that our music really resonated with."