Great news, y’all! I made it through another MidPoint without getting raped or mugged. (Getting mugged might not be so bad, though. “No, officer, it was definitely not me who bought Duck Dynasty underwear at Walmart.”) I know you were concerned for my safety.
I did MPMF quite a bit differently than I have in years past and I have to say, I think it contributed to it being the best one yet for me.
First, I forwent going with friends. I like my friends in small doses and on a couch talking about TV and girlfriends/boyfriends. Trying to coordinate concert plans with them, though, has always been an ordeal. Some of us are more hipster than others. Going it alone sometimes feels slightly sketchy, but mostly I think it helped my experience. I wasn’t forced to stand in any hot, cram packed rooms to see bands I was less-than-thrilled to see.
Second, I decided to spend my entire Saturday night in just one venue. I did this for a few reasons: 1) Everyone I wanted to see was in that venue; 2) Cheap parking close-by. Therefore, I spent my Saturday night either pacing around outside the Taft Theatre or swaying back and forth inside the Taft’s Ballroom.
And, ya know what? I had a damn good time.
The Taft is my favorite venue in town. Whether it’s in the seated portion or down in the basement, it just has an amazing vibe. I love those bright white bulb-lights out front around the marquee. It makes the whole place sparkle. It just looks like you could pick it up and sit it in the middle of Gatsby’s New York City. Downtown Cincy has plenty of art deco touches that I dearly love. However, nothing makes me feel more fancy and more ready for a special night than standing outside the Taft. In addition, the basement Ballroom, where all three of Saturday’s bands performed, has this comfortable, almost sexy darkness to it. You could get into a little bit of trouble in some of those shadowed corners. I wouldn’t judge you if you have. I might be disappointed you never invited me, though.
Bear’s Den opened the night and, since I’d seen them recently, I didn’t feel too bad when I spent the better part of their set outside on the phone. It gave me the chance to people watch, which is always a ton of fun at MidPoint. MPMF pulls in a jumbled assortment of people to tramp around downtown with their wristbands. I saw people my parents’ age, dressed rather fancifully, chat with security and then slip down into the basement. I also saw an insane amount of frat guys, plus one very drunk Reds fan and his seriously concerned girlfriend. (I still don’t know why she unleashed her concern to me. But I really hope she finds a new date for next year. Like, maybe someone who won’t put her life in danger?) Oh! And I saw one seriously fabulous drag queen. (I appreciate your use of neon, girlfriend.)
Despite missing London’s Bear’s Den, I know they rocked. Not just because I’ve seen them and I love them, but because they still had a line of fans waiting to meet them when the final act went on at midnight. I think Cincinnati fell in love on Saturday. I’m giddy for Bear’s Den and for Cincinnati. Good choice, my friends.
I caught Cincinnati’s Bad Veins, though. Of course, I’ve seen them before, but I never mind the chance to see them again. Those two boys can make a ton of noise. Even with a few sound/mixing issues, they still managed to keep the room enthralled. That may have had something to do with Ben Davis’ bellowing into the microphone or climbing to the top of the monitors. I have no musical talent whatsoever and my balance is minimal at best, but I was envious as he stood towering above me with his hands on the ceiling and an entire room of people staring up at him in awe. The Veins are a genuinely good band. Not “good for a local band,” but good enough to root for them to keep gaining fans across the country.
Later, I watched Davis stand in the back of the room talking to a couple people for a surprisingly long time. They seemed to devour everything he said. He has dangerous levels of charisma. It was fun to watch.
As much as I love Bad Veins and Bear’s Den, I’d spent all weekend eagerly awaiting Daughter’s performance. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t expect many people to show. I guess because I remember when “Daughter” was just Elena Tonra. I slinked my way pretty close to the stage and gaped at Tonra as she charmed the pants off everyone in the room. When it got stuffy a few songs in, I turned around and was speechless by the sheer amount of people that had suddenly come in behind me.
It makes sense, though. Jesus. Her voice is beautiful. If you were anywhere else in the city on Saturday night, you messed up. She sent heads to the shoulders of girlfriends and, shockingly enough, most cell phones managed to stay in purses and pockets. It’s not that she wasn’t worth capturing. It’s that she was too captivating for anyone to have any other thoughts other than keeping their eyes glued to her face and their ears filled with her voice. Oh. The bow across the electric guitar was a great (albeit not very new) approach, too. It added a nice eerie feel to Tonra’s already haunting voice.
As I left, I had big plans to reflect on the concerts and do a little pre-writing for this review while walking to my car. One of my favorite former co-workers waylaid me, though. So much for avoiding my friends. Cincinnati is too small for that. I didn’t mind too much; I got all the dirt on who had left and who (sadly) was still around.
Eventually, I said goodbye to my ex co-worker, wandered away from Taft Theatre’s bright lights and into the ever darkening street. As I meandered, it occurred to me just how much of a feat MPMF is for us. Cincinnati may be a city, but we’re not a very big one. How do we manage to talk so many stellar bands into visiting us every year? How is it possible we have something as beautiful as the Taft? How do we produce such a bounty of awesome local bands?
My best friend likes to joke that Ohio has bred more astronauts than any other state. He says it’s because Ohio is awful and space was as far away as they could get. However, I think we’ve bred so many astronauts for the same reason we’ve spawned bands like Walk the Moon and Bad Veins and all of the other great acts playing MPMF and for the same reason we put on such an great festival. We’re small but mighty. We put our hearts into the things and the people we love. Even if they don’t deserve it. (I’m lookin’ at you, Bengals.)
This is the midpoint of MidPoint, the second of the three holy days of September. A day of great adventure and great potential for misadventure that exceeds the anticipation of Day 1 and the inevitable denouement of Day 3. A day to love. But first you've got to get there, and an even longer drive down I-75 this afternoon meant that I was forced to miss Izzy & the Catastrophics (Note: Izzy and Co. rescheduled and play today at 6:15 p.m. on the Midway AND at Japp's at 12:30 a.m.) on the Midway and on the Midway and American Royalty at Washington Park. And my teeth are considerably flatter. Tomorrow I take my chances with the surface roads.
First up on the agenda was the third band on my Friday schedule, my beloved Black Owls at the Grammer's stage. With their brilliantly hallucinatory film projection playing out on the tent ceiling just above their heads, the band clicking with shambling precision and frontman David Butler in the middle of a 10-day cleanse (Five days without beer? Madness, I tell you, madness...), the Owls roared through a set that offered plenty of familiar favorites and a couple of brand new tunes slated for their imminent fourth album, Wild Children, the first to feature input from the full quintet.
As per usual, the chiming guitars of Ed Shuttleworth and Brandon Losacker offered glammy tribute to the gods Hunter and Ronson, while the intuitive headkick of rhythm section Sammy Wulfeck and Brian Kitzmiller ran like clockwork, if the clock in question is Big Ben. And David Butler continues to serve as vocalist/ringmaster, a perpetually compelling stage presence combining witty banter ("We're your Black Owls, supported by your tax dollars..."), kicky athleticism and a vocal presentation that thrillingly suggests Ian Hunter's mournful croon, David Byrne's artful warble and the jittery wonder of Jerry Casale. The only thing better than seeing the Black
Owls is seeing them again. They will be returning to the Northside Tavern in December; give yourself the gift of the Black Owls this holiday season, won't you?
I hung around and talked with the various Owls and their various lovely wives while Secret Colours provided a pulsing Psych/Space Rock-meets-Classic Rock soundtrack. Flecks of The Doors and Velvet Underground filtered through kaleidoscopic blotter tabs of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols turned up to a Spinal Tappish and completely satisfying 11; that's the stock-in-trade of Secret Colours. A lot of the subtlety of their sophomore album Peach gets shaved off in their live presentation (although the melodica was a nice touch), but the band ably replaces it with a muscular and voluminous vibe that reverberates in your chest like a second heart.
From there, it was a brisk walk down to The Drinkery to catch The Kickaways who were using their MidPoint show to officially launch their sophomore album, Show Yr Teeth. It's an appropriate title since that's exactly what the band does on their latest effort, amplifying and refining all the elements that defined their 2011 debut, America! America! Although frontman Charlie Lynn played some guitar on Show Yr Teeth, he made the conscious decision to set it aside in The Kickaways' live configuration. That boils the band down to their charismatic lead vocalist and a tight-as-a-gnat's-ass power trio, a formula that worked pretty well for The Who, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Black Sabbath.
Last night, it was the latter that seemed the most potent reference point, as The Kickaways seemed to be channeling Ozzy and the boys circa Paranoid but with the swaggering ethic of a great Psych-tinged garage band. Up front, Lynn was garage glamor personified, with leather jacket, a plaid shirt tied like a skirt at his waist and several layers of T-shirts, the top one reading "It Girl." No longer pinned down by guitar duty, Lynn was a singing dervish, occasionally banging a tambourine but generally flying around the stage and howling with mad but precise abandon. Guitarist/vocalist Remi Glistovski largely kept his head down and focused on producing riffs of Richter Scale proportions while Jacob Ittle inhabited his role as bassist with the mindset of a rhythm guitarist and drummer Adam Lambchop literally moved the air with his punishing skills, banging his kit with the authority of a skinny John Bonham. The Kickaways are more than ready for their Big Time close-up.
I reluctantly bailed on the end of the Kickaways' set to head up to the MOTR Pub to bask in the Pop/Rock splendor of Cincinnati's Tigerlilies. Pat Hennessy has been working this corner since forming the band in 1989 and while the band has gone through a few guitar partners (renowned and beloved oddball William Weber, former Lazy guitarist Steve Schmoll, guitarist-turned-producer Denny Brown) and several tweaks to his Power Pop concept, the Tigerlilies' core has always remained Hennessy on vocals and guitar up front and the durable rhythm section of brother Steve Hennessy on hammering drums and Brian Driscoll on thundering bass. Hennessy's latest guitar foil may well be the best in a long line of great six-stringers; Brendan Bogosian has an impeccable resume (TheWoos, Cash Flagg, Kry Kids, among others) and his razor-sharp skills and Pop/Rock nuance make him perfectly sympatico for Hennessy's punky take on crunchy Power Pop. Tigerlilies' just-released In the Dark may well stand as the best work in their excellent catalog, and this version of the band is clearly the reason as evidenced by the wall of sound emanating from the MOTR stage last night.
From there, it was a long walk down to Arnold's for the ecstatic blister of Cincinnati's Heavy Hinges. The band may have started out last year channeling the spirit of old Gospel 78s and Alan Lomax field recordings but they have graduated to an electric church service that pumps like an oil derrick with a swing sweeter than Ted Williams. It's Blues with a touch of Jazz with a heart needle full of adrenaline. Guitarists Dylan Speeg and Jeremy Singer can go from textured nuance to hot Jazz/Blues riffmongering in the blink of an eye, frontwoman Maya Banatwala works a lyric with the dramatic/comedic flair of a 21st century flapper (and bangs that ukulele like Betty Van Halen) and the slippery rhythm section of bassist Andrew Laudeman and drummer Brian Williamson establishes the ever shifting heartbeat of the band with intuitive brilliance.
In the Hinges' hands, "Ain't No Grave" sounded like it had been arranged by Carlos Santana, but it's the band's originals that stick in the mind and danced-off-ass the longest; "Mean Old City" offered up the band's patented thump-and-grind and "In My Dreams" showed their flair for electric Flamenco or something just like it. Banatwala noted that she doesn't celebrate Christmas, so MidPoint is her Christmas (Merry MidPoint, Maya!), and Speeg was at his cheeky best between songs ("The women in here tonight look like they were picked by Lenny Kravitz …"). If there's a more accomplished and diverse band in Cincinnati than Heavy Hinges, it's a safe bet that they're not half as entertaining. I could be wrong or drunk or both, but I don't think so.
And then it was midnight and time for my overall MidPoint pick, The Technicolors from beautiful Phoenix, Arizona, an area not necessarily known for its music scene. I had picked them to preview on a whim and listening to the music they I could find online absolutely floored me. In the preview blurb I namechecked Cheap Trick, Big Star, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Oasis, Todd Rundgren, Kula Shaker and Nada Surf. I stand behind any and all of that, but after witnessing their live assault, I can honestly say that it all comes together as The Technicolors, which now seems like a perfectly apt name.
In the studio, The Technicolors are formidable alchemists, transforming their influences into buzzing, crunching gold that becomes more appealing with each successive listen. On stage, the band taps into that primal sense of elation that occurs in the earliest moments of teenage discovery, when music is new and the vistas of what to explore next seem limitless. The Technicolors possess the aforementioned sonic reference points to be sure, but what they evoke as a band funneling all those sounds into their astonishing singularity is a return to that viscerally magic moment in personal history when one loses one's cherry to music.
Last night at the uberfabulous MOTR Pub, The Technicolors were a force of nature, the furies of Rock unbound. The twin guitar attack of frontman Brennan Smiley and Mikey Farizza were like David Copperfield's giant buzzsaws; potentially dangerous but ultimately entertaining. Bassist Mike "Nico" Nicolette looked as though he was having more fun than the audience as he joyfully bottomed the sound with a sinewy and insistent pulse, which was further anchored by drummer Kevin Prociw's purposeful bashathon. And tour keyboardist Troi Lownei (he appears on a couple of songs on the band's exquisite album Listener) added a dash of Radioheadness to the proceedings (if Radiohead had jumper cables attached to their undercarriages).
Their studio version of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" supplants the original's icy cool detachment with a passionate embrace but in the live arena, the band plays up the sense of impending doom inherent in the "I don't want to fall in love" theme. And "Sweet Time" may simply be one of the best live translations of an already powerful song that I've been lucky enough to witness in four bloody decades of standing in front of bands.
Are The Technicolors the future of Rock and Roll? I wouldn't hang that albatross on any band, particularly one I love. The Technicolors will make you feel things about Rock that you haven't felt for a very long time, and that should be more than enough to recommend them.
• As Black Owls frontman David Butler was explaining his cleanse — his wife Amy is supporting by joining him — which features 10 beerless days, he noted that he's never felt better and his voice has never been stronger. Goose frontman Jason Arbenz aptly observed, "He's going to turn himself into some kind of superhero." I think he may already be there, dude.
• It was great catching up with the Owls and the Mrs. Owls (Amy Butler, Carrie Losacker and Sarah Kitzmiller). The ubiquitous King Slice, the barometer of all that is cool, was in attendance as was former CityBeat worker bee Sara Beiting, a pretty decent hipness indicator her own bad self. And Mark Houk from Sohio confessed to chills during the new Black Owls song, "Gasoline." I predict that's going to be going around soon, my friend.
• As I walked into The Drinkery, I was met by the whole of Alone at 3AM. They weren't hanging out in a bunch like The Monkees, they were getting ready for their imminent set after The Kickaways. Chris Mueller put a Yuengling in my empty hand and filled my empty head with joy. Brandon Losacker appeared to be handing me a beer during The Kickaways set but he quickly disabused me of that notion; it was meant as a toast. Note to everyone: if you look like you're handing me a beer, I'm going to look like I'm accepting it. Brandon did drop a shot of Jameson's in front of me, which will earn him a plaque upgrade in the Hophead Hall of Fame.
• On my way down to Mr. Hanton's (who now has a brick and morter store on Calhoun) to get a wonderful and nutritious Handwich (which is a hot dog as big as a Cuban cigar … I recommend the Smokehouse), I vaguely thought I heard someone yell my name, but I've been hearing voices lately and they seem to know me, so I gave it the same attention I reserve for car horns in parking lots which now go off for no other reason than someone locking their door. Luckily the hailing party was not part of my drug-fueled hallucinogenic past but the flesh-and-blood person of Ready Stance guitarist/vocalist Wes Pence. We vowed to meet at the Tigerlilies gig and did. Another way I knew he was real. I'm fairly sure.
• Also taking in the vast Power Pop beauty of Tigerlilies (and while I have the internet's attention, no, you overbearing suggestion Google dicks, I do not mean Tiger Lilies, I mean what I fucking well typed) were damn near all of Culture Queer — Jeremy Lesniak, who produced Tigerlilies' In the Dark, Dana Hamblen and Sam Womelsdorf, Fairmount Girls' Melissa Fairmount, the aforementioned Wes Pence and a couple of guys who remembered me from my Short Vine days in the late '80s — except they thought I was Jimmy Davidson. I told them I worked the counter at Wizard Records, but I don't think they believed me. I could have badly played any guitar in the joint to prove my identity, but it was just nice to be remembered.
• Sara Beiting was also hanging at Tigerlilies, along with perpetual MPMF and raconteur Jay Metz, who brought along Shuggie Otis' brother and drummer, Nick Otis. We had a brief but nice chat, got some pictures together and bid adieu. Shuggie had already left for a gig in Toronto, but Nick and some of the band stuck around to catch some MidPoint sounds before a 5 a.m. flight. Yargh. Hope they made it on time this morning.
• Brian Kitzmiller and his lovely wife Sarah also dropped in on the Tigerlilies. Brian actually bought me a beer but I didn't catch up with him until I was on the sidewalk outside the MOTR and was on my way down to the next thing. Sorry I stuck you with two beers, dude. I'm pretty sure you took care of it. While I was apologizing for making Brian appear to be a two-fisted alcoholic, Sarah pointed out a guy dressed in what seemed to be tin foil Post-It notes, which may have been advertising or just an odd fashion choice. If you'll recall from this space an almost unbelievable five years, Sarah, a first grade teacher, went to Staples to buy Post-It notes and actually had some stuck in her hair. Brian had told me the story, and the next night at Arnold's, I met Sarah for the first time. When Brian introduced us, I excused myself, reached into my pack, pulled out a handful of Post-Its, stuck them in my hair and shook her hand. So Post-Its are kind of our thing. And I was glad she pointed out the tin foil Post-It guy, because I saw him as I walked out the door but I chose to ignore it, just in case it was another alcohol fueled flashback to the acid days of yesteryear. As long as she saw it too, it was all good.
• Right on cue, King Slice strolled into the Heavy Hinges gig and anointed it as the cool place to be at 11 p.m. on MidPoint's second night. And so it came to pass. Also making an appearance right before I was ready to hit the sidewalk was former Buckra guitarist and ever-present MPMF staffer Jacob Heintz, checking out his old bandmates and hanging around waiting for the next emergency, which I hope never came. It never seems like a complete MidPoint experience until I've had a chat with Jacob, so now it is.
• Plenty of folks in attendance at the Technicolors soiree back up at the MOTR, which I hope I had at least a little something to do with. My pal Paul Roberts was there to buy me a fabulous beer from the MOTR's endless taps, with his buds Big Jim and Little Stu in tow. Stu even had a hat made with his name on it so I'd bloody well remember that his name is Stu. If he had said, "My name is Stu, how do you do?" that might have been perfect. The hat was pretty awesome at any rate. If I forget Stu now, it will be evidence of drug backlash or a stroke. Just so you know.
• I spied former CityBeat editor John Fox in the MOTR crowd so I headed over to say hello. As I have explained in the past, I owe John an incredible debt of gratitude for recruiting me for CityBeat nearly 20 years ago and for insisting that I write features for him rather than reviews. It was literally a life-changing conversation, and I can't begin to thank him enough for the opportunity he gave me in the beginning and his faith and guidance in the subsequent years. Once again, he left before I could get that beer into his hand … I'm clearly going to have to drive the truck up to his house. The only thing is I don't know where he lives; his faith in me, it would seem, had limits, which I completely understand. Thanks again for everything, John, you gave me a chance to be a part of something special. My current status as a poverty-wracked, free-beer-swilling hack is all on me.
• I tried to get down to the Mainstay in time to see some of Bella Clava's set because their appearance at The Drinkery last year was one of the festival's highlights for me. Sadly, they had just finished when I pulled up, but I did get a chance to chat with keyboardist Caitlin Dacey and guitarist Steve Suttie as they loaded out. As it turned out, the band is staying with Honeyspiders frontman Jeremy Harrison, whose new outfit also played on the evening's Mainstay bill. Honeyspiders is clearly a band to keep on the radar; the limited recordings they've shared to date are potent evidence that something big is going on there
Last night was a glorious night for music and glorious music was made. Combinations don't get much better than that. Things didn't start so well, though; a quick e-mail on Wednesday revealed that, for a variety of reasons, my friend Matthew Fenton wouldn't be making his annual pilgrimage from Chicago to our fair festival. And then the drive down I-75 was infuriatingly stop-and-go for no apparent reason, which had me grinding my teeth all the way downtown.
Every molecule of that dour energy was dissipated with the first show of the night as Cody ChesnuTT hit the Washington Park stage like a hydrogen bomb of positive vibration.
ChesnuTT's MidPoint appearance was also his Cincinnati debut and the sizable crowd that showed up to witness it was completely enthralled with his potent blend of Neo Soul, Reggae, Jazz and Pop.
ChesnuTT doesn't dress the part of Soul crooner; graphic T-shirt covered in cassettes, red cardigan, black sweats and an army helmet. The helmet is an odd sartorial choice, but ChesnuTT has explained that he's "fighting to keep the soul alive." Not the musical genre, but the spiritual essence at the center of all human beings. That's a pretty big mission for a singer/songwriter to assign himself, but last night's performance proved that ChesnuTT is more than up to the task.
Drawing strictly from last year's gorgeous Landing on a Hundred (he no longer does any songs from 2002's The Headphone Masterpiece, feeling that he's moved beyond the events in his life that inspired that album), ChesnuTT blew any trace of negativity into the stratosphere and replaced it with a rock-solid groove (courtesy of his absolutely stellar band) and a message of pure love. Not Barry White let's-ease-them-panties-down love, but love of self, love of mankind, love of life, which should ultimately lead to unconditional love for one other person.
Not that ChesnuTT doesn't recognize the world's dysfunction. In his brilliant "Everybody's Brother," he sings, "I used to smoke crack back in the day/I used to gamble rent money and lose/I used to dog nice ladies, used to swindle friends/But now I'm teaching kids in Sunday school and I'm not turning back." On the album, the song thumps along on a hearty Funk beat, but on stage, ChesnuTT delivers that opening verse with a sermon-like intonation, and the band swells around him with Gospel fervor and Soul intensity.
No matter what vibe ChesnuTT is channeling at any particular point in the show, he is a master showman, imploring the audience to join him, engaging them to become an integral part of the proceedings. And when he sings, when he digs deep into his creative core and unleashes his soul though his vocal cords, sweet mother of all that's holy, he sounds like the reincarnation of Marvin Gaye, the little brother that Stevie Wonder didn't know he had and the lost Marley sibling all rolled into one otherworldly package. Anyone who was not smiling at the end of Cody ChesnuTT's performance last night is damaged beyond the help of therapy and psychoactive drugs. Please come back to see us again soon, Cody. If Foxygen's slot is still open, Saturday night would be just fine. (Editor’s note: Cincy’s fantastic Wussy has claimed Foxygen’s Washington Park slot tomorrow.)
After Cody ChesnuTT's splendorous opening, it was Blues/Rock legend Shuggie Otis' turn to lead the Washington Park congregation, which he did in scorching style. Otis was barely in his teens when he started playing guitar with his father, R&B icon Johnny Otis, ultimately leading to session work with Al Kooper and Frank Zappa when he was just 16, and his 1970 debut solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, at 17. And while Shuggie has laid low for long stretches in his nearly 50-year career, his current resurgence is sweet vindication for those periods when an indifferent music industry ignored his virtuosic brilliance, forcing Shuggie to turn away from the industry.
Shuggie's set started a little hesitantly as he acclimated to the stage set-up; at one point, he jokingly asked, "Can somebody show me how to work this shit?" Somebody did and he was off, peeling off incendiary riffs and razor sharp runs with a casual intensity. The set's sole slow spot was a new song called "Special," that sounded like Shuggie copying the numerous Pop artists who have copied him, but he followed it with a blazing version of "Me and My Woman" that erupted from the stage like a volcano and oozed through the assembled multitude with the heat and inevitability of the resultant lava flow. Once he and his stellar band got going, Shuggie Otis provided a transcendent moment in MidPoint history, the redemptive return of an astonishing talent that should never have gone away in the first place.
Only one thing could have dragged me away from the hair-raising, slack-jawed wonder of Shuggie Otis, and that's the triumphant return of Cincinnati’s Mad Anthony. Since the July van accident that could have been the band's literal epitaph, drummer Marc Sherlock was restrained by a neck brace and an order against all relatively physical activity. Outside of a little rhythmic tapping to keep his chops up, Sherlock was virtually drumless for three months, while guitarists Ringo Jones and Adam Flaig hit the road for some acoustic dates to keep the rent money coming, then set off for its first cross-country tour, which culminated with last night’s homecoming.
And so Mad Anthony took the triangular stage at The Drinkery, their first show with their full current lineup since the accident that nearly cost them everything. Jones and Flaig brought plenty of their patented frenzy to their acoustic gigs, but they've clearly missed their hypertalented timekeeper, which was evident from the visceral fury that permeated every note of last night's show. Sherlock couldn't have looked any happier; with every roll, every cymbal crash, every massive kick, his smile was a permanent fixture, and Jones and Flaig responded with a tumultuous joy that was a palpable presence in the room.
At a normal Mad Anthony show, the trio storms into an audience's frontal lobe with incomprehensible power. If The Stooges ate Black Sabbath and shit out three perfectly formed babies the next day that grew up and absorbed Punk, Pop and Rock influences like a bar towel, then wrung out those influences into shot glasses and downed them one liquor/beer/sweat/adrenaline slug, that would be Mad Anthony. Last night's return to The Drinkery was all that amplified to the third power. Naturally, they finished with "We Love This Fucking City." Naturally, this fucking city loves Mad Anthony. It's worked out so far.
After the major nut-kick of Mad Anthony, I tooled down to Arnold's to catch some Beatlesque sweetness courtesy of Canada’s The Shilohs. They were really quite good, and I definitely wanted to hear more of them, but they seemed intent on a mid-tempo set in the key of "If I Fell," and I wasn't quite in the mood for that. So I headed back to The Drinkery to catch locals Frontier Folk Nebraska's set.
After Mad Anthony's blistering presentation, I chatted up Kelly Thomas for a few minutes outside The Drinkery, and she had noted that Frontier Folk Nebraska was veering in a decidedly more electric direction, rather a shift from their traditional acoustic roots. When The Shilos didn't pan out for me, I decided to witness FFN's electric evolution for myself. Good decision.
The new FFN is plugged in and ready to whip any ass in the house. Imagine a world where The Ass Ponys channel Crazy Horse and the Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo and you'll be close to the barely restrained muscle emanating from the new Frontier Folk Nebraska. All of this was evident on the band's eponymous 2011 album, but it's magnified to an incredible scale in the live setting. FFN recently lost founding bassist Steve Oder to a graduate program, which could have seriously altered the band's chemistry, but new bassist Matthew McCormick seems to have settled in nicely, alternating between a pulsing beat and runs that emulate lead solos, forming a slinky rhythm section with drummer Nathan Wagner. Meanwhile, frontman Michael Hensley and Travis Talbert create a tandem guitar attack that perfectly balances nuance and power. I liked where FFN was and I love where they are.
After FFN, I found my car and took a drive down to the Mainstay to catch London's blazing Rock power trio Leogun. Vocalist/guitarist Tommy Smith is a revelation, a genetic hybrid of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in one electrified body, wringing sounds from his guitar that invoke all the greatest '70s translators of the Blues while maintaining a firm stance in the 21st century. Anchored by the thunderous rhythm section of bassist Matt Johnson and drummer Mike Lloyd, as slippery and as solid as Entwistle and Moon, Leogun swaggers and swings with retro inspiration and contemporary energy. They peeled through a set filled with tracks from their phenomenal debut, By the Reins, but one of the highlights was their completely unexpected and timber-rattling take on Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie." Not sure when they'll be back, but I'll be there when they return.
• Music editor Mike Breen informed me that publisher Dan Bockrath was going to be making with the beers this year, but I had no idea he would begin his hop blitzkrieg so quickly and voluminously. Dan found me in the crowd at the start of Cody ChesnuTT's set and put a beer in my hand immediately. And just as I finished that first one, Dan reappeared at my side with yet another, claiming, "I feel so good I had to double down." After this MidPoint, I may be able to build a new wing onto the Beer Buying Hall of Fame with Dan's empties alone. You are a god that walks among men, Dan Bockrath, and I hope to see you every night this weekend.
• During Cody's lovely and moving "Love is More Than a Wedding Day," he announced that it might be a good time to dance with the one you love. I looked at Dan, Dan looked at me, but we dismissed the idea. It is a testament to Cody's soulful presentation that I actually considered it, though.
• Years ago, my good buddy Troy paid me the ultimate compliment when he spotted me at a show. He clapped me on the shoulder and said, "I know I'm at the right show when you're at it." The very same could be said for the ubiquitous King Slice. His appearance at a show is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Follow him and see where he goes next. That's where the party will likely be the best.
• Also ran into Magnolia Mountain's Mark Utley, who's in the teeth of planning the next Music for the Mountains benefit show. The second MFTM disc is chock full of traditional goodness and the album and the concert will raise funds to help eliminate the mining practice of mountaintop removal. As Mark noted, "Nature gives women the ability to forget about the pain of childbirth so they'll ready to do it again. That's how it was for me with this concert." The pain is always worth it, man (says the guy who's not feeling the pain) … good luck and God speed.
• And on my way out of Shuggie Otis, I chanced upon Jim Blase, co-owner of Shake It Records and quite simply one of the finest human beings I've had the pleasure to and good fortune to know.
• Lots of folks turned out for Mad Anthony's return, including Kelly Thomas, who was an architect of two benefit shows to help the boys get back on their feet (and who is actually collaborating with the band on some new songs, which should be awesome). Also in attendance was former MA bassist Dave Markey, and his ebullient mom, who may have been the biggest fan in the room; I'm pretty sure she knew the words to every song. It was a beautiful thing.
• Jim Blase was also hanging out at the Frontier Folk Nebraska show, obviously showing support for Travis, who still puts in some time behind the Shake It counter. I was about to head over to say hello again but ran into old friend Danny Rupe, who I never get to see anymore except at random and all to infrequent MidPoint shows. He put my digits and e-mail add into his Jetsons phone, so maybe I'll hear from him with a little more timeliness now.
• Slice, The Black Owls' Brandon Losacker, Dave Markey and Ringo Jones were all hanging at the Leogun extravaganza. I was looking for my Class X compatriot Eddy Mullet, who had designs on the show, but I didn't see him so his plans must have changed. God, I hope it wasn't a kidney stone; that's what derailed his Bunbury experience. After the show, I had a quick chat with Tommy and Matt from the band as they were packing up to go, and then Ringo and I closed the Mainstay, as he regaled me with tales of Mad Anthony, and promises that their new material is the best they've ever done. I know they'll prove it when the time comes.
Ahhhh, MidPoint! I look forward to it every year. September, for this lady, holds promise, romance, intrigue and MPMF. I started my MPMF.13 off right: grabbed a baller parking spot right after work in front of Coffee Emporium, grabbed a baller iced Americano and grabbed my (you thought I was going to say baller? How presumptuous) press pass. I think I did say out loud to myself: Let's GOOOO.
The first band I wanted to see was my pal Molly Sullivan at 8:15 p.m. at Japp's Annex. I had some time to kill, so I hung out on the Midway. Sidewalk Chalk was still grooving; they've got a rocking brass section, shimmery drums and soulful singers. I previously saw them on Fountain Square last year as part of the Indie Summer Series, and really enjoyed everything they had to offer. Great fun way to kick off MPMF.
I wandered around the Midway for a bit, checking out the numerous box trucks that comprise the Box Truck Carnival presented by ArtWorks. The Midway itself is pretty awesome, easily accessible and kind of reminds me of a corral for progressively more intoxicated adults. I don't mean that in a derogatory way; I, too, enjoy consuming beer freely in the open on 12th Street. The Box Trucks this year held a lot of potential — I wrote about the Midway for the MPMF Guide in CityBeat a few weeks back, so I was well-briefed on what to expect. Well, kind of.
The first truck I checked out was the Glam Rock Box Truck. Anyone who knows me is aware of the siren call the word "karaoke" holds, so of course I went in.The premise was great (for karaoke nerds like me), but box trucks just don't do karaoke justice, honestly. There are a number of songs to pick from, but not as many karaoke staples as one might expect. And for being called the Glam Rock truck, I didn't really see any Glam Rock hits on the list. The ladies running the truck seemed to be having a good time, though, so I did my best version of "Semi-Charmed Life" and went off to continue leading mine.
I wandered around the Midway some more, stopping in the Short Order Poetry Box Truck, which was 19 kinds of adorable. You step inside the truck, get paired with a stranger who asks you random questions (hi Adam!) and then they'll create a poem, on a typewriter no less, just for you, ready in just about 10 minutes. Mine had a lot of death and blood and dream imagery, just how I like 'em.
I listened to a few minutes of stand-up in the comedy Box Truck before heading to Lucy Blue's. I notoriously put off eating until I'm ravenous, so I decided to carb-up on pizza in preparation for the long night ahead. I met up with friends at Japp's and we ordered drinks and chatted before wandering to the Annex to hear Molly Sullivan.
Every time I see Molly perform, I'm more and more impressed. She's really fleshed her sound out (the addition of friends on the drums and bass is the perfect complement to her singer/guitarist combo), and lots of people are noticing — she recently won the Last Soloist Standing contest at FBs, grand prize being a large cash sum. Molly's a charming vocalist; her voice is flexible and searching, and she's always been good at melancholy intonation. I heard a fresh version of "So It Goes" from the No No Knots days, and some of her newer material had an almost Jewel-when-she-still-had-a-snaggle-tooth quality to it. I really, really dug it. So did a number of other people — quite a dedicated following was there. I'd say Molly Sullivan's first solo show at MPMF was a great success.
I had been planning all week to see Kurt Vile at Grammer's, but there was about half an hour before he was supposed to go on and I ran into my pal Caitlin, who told me the mythical history of Shuggie Otis. I was intrigued, so I walked with her to Washington Park. I still don't know how I feel about the fact that they've moved the stage to the permanent pavilion instead of in front of Music Hall; there's such a grandiosity to playing in front of that gorgeous building that just isn't matched by the pavilion — and I know there are lots of sad Instagram accounts crying right now — but I understand the convenience. We'll see how I feel about it tonight.
Anyway. Shuggie Otis. Skyrocketed to fame by age 21 and receded into the abyss of obscurity? And then he joins David Byrne's label and comes back? Tell me more. Shuggie had a groovy Soul/Funk sound brought to life by a huge backing band, complete with a stellar saxophonist. Glad I caught a few minutes, but I was on a Kurt Vile MISSION, so I started the trek to Liberty Street and Grammer's.
Well, by way of my car. I grabbed a jacket and was headed north, but as I walked by Below Zero Lounge, I heard a voice too great not to stop. If Ryan Adams and Adam Levine and the bearded lead singer from Maps & Atlases had an Asian baby, it would be St. Lenox. He was just plain awesome. I wanted to hang out with him, I wanted him to sing an album of lullabies, I wanted to stay for his whole set, but I'll be damned if I wasn't going to see Kurt Vile.
I didn't see Kurt Vile. Whoever guessed that two paragraphs ago knows that my ominous overtone was poorly done. I got stopped again walking by MOTR, this time by Fort Shame from Columbus, Ohio. I feel like so many times when a woman is a lead singer of a rock outfit, the instinct is to compare her to another female vocalist, but it has to be one who's personality is somehow perceived as similar, or stylistically akin (and I do mean clothes, not just shredding), so I'm not going to compare Fort Shame's Sue Harshe to anyone, because I don't think that's fair and, honestly, it's a little reductive. I'm just going to say that she does credit to anyone singing Rock. And the band had a star saxophonist, which was super fun.
I did hear via Twitter that Kurt Vile sang the word "yeah" for like fifteen minutes at the beginning of his set, so I said it a bunch to myself as I walked back to the Midway to hear Ha Ha Tonka and didn't feel too bad about it.
The first time I saw Ha Ha Tonka was two (or three? who knows) Midpoints ago at The Drinkery. These guys have all gotten hair cuts since then, but they sound even better. They sound like what folky Rock cut with a raucous night of varying emotions that ends with hanging out with friends and beer staring at the river would sound like. You know the kind of night I'm talking about. They're just the tops. Tight and talented musicality and great stage presence is only topped by their impeccable four-part harmony. Just magnetic. Second or third time's the charm, gentlemen.
I finished my night seeing Bleached at the Know Theatre, which last year held all the buzz bands I wished I'd been able to get inside and see (something about being "at capacity"), and I wasn't disappointed. Punk Rock girls with a guy drummer. Ramones cover. Misfits cover. I thoroughly enjoyed my attempt at head-banging AND the fact that these girls didn't try too hard. I feel like a lot of Punk-esque bands nowadays are all like "I AM PUNK! LOOK, SEE, I AM!" but Bleached was more like, "Fuck Punk. We're just Bleached." Own it, dudes.
And then I walked back to my car and went home and passed right the heck out. I'll see ya at MPMF for round two tonight.
Saturday at Mayday in Northside, the great Cincinnati Indie Rock band Koala Fires will be performing for the last time. But the band is also saying goodbye with a gem of an album, Doom of the Norns, the band's second full-length, which will be officially released tomorrow in conjunction with the show. The Fires will be joined by Chicago's Brighton, MA and Cincy's Jody Stapleton and the Generals. Performers from Cin City Burlesque will also entertain between sets. Doors open at 8 p.m. and admission is $7. (Koala Fires will donate half of their merchandise sales Saturday night to help relocate the women of the Anna-Louise Inn.)
Doom of the Norns is a compelling piece of art, an Indie Pop/Rock record with a hefty emotional weight. Singer/songwriter Matt Mooney's vocals have never sounded better, his honey-dipped instrument crooning the album's up-and-down tales of finding love and losing it. It's not a unique concept, but in Mooney's hands, it feels real, raw, somber and often explosive. (Mooney wrote the record to help him get through the demise of his 10-year marriage.)
Mooney and guitarist Ben Evans play beautifully off of each other, their intertwining fretwork creating a wash of dynamic sound. Drummer Matt Retherford and bassist Matt Zink fuel the songs with precision and a distinctive flair; Retherford's fiery yet intuitive playing, in particular, is a crucial part of the albums success.
But the heart of the album is the passionate songwriting. These are Pop/Rock songs, but Mooney's melodies wind in unexpected directions and the songs themselves are dynamically structured. "Grim is the Doom of the Norns" sets the tone, building with twinkling guitars and Mooney's voice showcasing that early-love "head in the clouds" state of mind, before ripping into a big, exuberant chorus. "Nuckalavee" bops along on a jaunty rhythm, undercut by cutting lyrics like, "Do you want control of me? That might be nice/But after years and years he'll escape one night/He will terrorize, drink tears from your eyes and then scare your pain away."
Mooney may just be one of the best Rock lyricists in town. The powerful "Valley of the Kings" begins with the lines, "There used to be a thousand ways to tear this down and start again/But, now it seems there's just one way and it involves a match and some kerosene." The album gets progressively dark, but the words aren't defeatist — they sound like the kind of lyrics someone would write to come to terms with the ending a long relationship. It's artistic therapy. By the last couple of tracks, there is hope and resolve.
There is emotion to spare on Doom of the Norns, but this ain't no wallowing Emo spew. Mooney delves into his despair and writes about it smartly and poetically, making it the kind of album that would fit in your record collection perfectly alongside LPs by The Afghan Whigs, later Superchunk and Cari Clara.
When you fall in love with Koala Fires after hearing this album (if you aren't already in love with them), don't be too sad. Mooney has a new-direction project in the works, Retherford and Evans play together in the Cincy band House of Feeble Minds and Zink is a member of up-and-comers The Future Strikes. The Fires will burn on. (Click here to purchase the album digitally.)
When I interviewed Cincinnati's Those Guys earlier this year, I saw an endless amount of drive and potential coming from a group of kids who loved making Hip Hop music. What I didn’t see was an identity. Their song “You Ain’t Know” had shown that they had the talent to become something more and the video that accompanied the track garnered the group a lot of internet attention. But the question still remained — could they find the same success without mimicking themselves or blowing up another vehicle in their next video shoot?
For Good Reason answers this question with a resounding "Yes!" In only eight tracks, coming in under a half-hour, Those Guys transformed themselves from just a local group of rappers to a legitimate Hip Hop duo on the brink of something greater.
The track “Madness is the Method” not only exhibits Jova’s ever growing ability as a producer, transitioning from a very minimalistic style beat (reminiscent of a Chuck Inglish production) to a Hip Hop club-banger by the end of the song, but also shows a new side of J-Al. He doesn’t come in until the last minute of the song, but in that short period of time he exhibits a hunger and fire (almost angry, but in a good way) that he has never shown before. It’s almost as if he sees every verse as being his last chance to “make it” and if he keeps that up, that time will come sooner than he thinks.
But don’t think for a second that because Jova has been working extensively on his producer game that he has let his lyrical practice fall by the wayside. On “The Crisis,” he spills his guts for two straight minutes in what is one of the most open and honest songs I’ve heard, not just from the Cincinnati Hip Hop scene, but from any Rap group in general. It’s a painful, truthful, tear-jerking lyrical confession over a beautiful piano that leaves the listener feeling inspired and connected.
The entire album is solid, but the true gem is the first track, “Dear Kanye.” This song is a culmination of all the hard work the group has put in over the last year. The production has a smooth, almost Electronic Hip Hop feel to it and ends with more samples than a trip to IKEA.
The verses provided by both Jova and J-Al are smart yet still captivate the listener. More importantly, neither rapper outshines the other on this track. In every great tag-team there always seemed to be one person that carried the group (i.e. Shawn Michaels to Marty Jannetty, Bret Hart to Jim Neidhart), but Jova and J-Al have seemed to find that Road Warrior mentality, one working off another. (All nerdy wrestling references aside, they really mesh perfectly on this cut.)
The hook is where they’ve taken their work to another level. It's obvious this song is an ode to Kanye West (duh), but they found that perfect medium of being influenced by him while not jacking his style or flow. It’s as if making a song about someone who has influenced and inspired them as artists has helped them find their own identity in the process.
As I stated before, “You Ain’t Know” was a great creative jumping off point for the career of Those Guys. While other artists would have become complacent and tried to recreate that moment over and over, For Good Reason is an artistic step forward into the long career that lies ahead for the group.
It’s no secret that Chicago is a great place for music. Pretty much any touring band of note — and no doubt many a musical outfit that need not be noted — is sure to include a Chicago stop, and the city’s local scene remains rich and diverse, aided by a host of nurturing venues and an eager, uncommonly discerning base of listeners. That it’s only a five-hour drive from Cincinnati makes it an enticing destination for those of us who yearn to catch shows that skip the Queen City.
Chicago’s embarrassment of musical riches has only grown in recent years with the addition of two high-profile three-day summer festivals: Lollapalooza and Pitchfork. The former needs little introduction — Perry Farrell’s unexpectedly fruitful brainchild is, almost undeniably, the inspiration for the explosion of summer fests over the last two decades, a trend that has grown even more robust since the turn of the century. Every weekend each summer now features at least one festival worthy of audiences’ ears. The trend has even reached Cincinnati, where Bunbury just finished its second successful year — and shared a headliner with Pitchfork. (Whether outdoor settings, marked by often difficult weather conditions and bright sunlight, is the best way to experience the type of music offered at such festivals is a different question.)
Lollapalooza is, alongside behemoths Coachella and Boonaroo, one of America’s biggest and best-attended summer fests, boasting more than 130 artists and an audience in excess of 150,000. Pitchfork, meanwhile, has quickly established itself as a singular presence on the summer circuit, a discerningly curated endeavor that’s an extension of the influential, taste-making webzine that runs it. (Chicago-based Pitchfork.com took over the business side of the fest in 2006 after curating 2005’s initial gathering, which was then called the Intonation Festival). Set in Union Park — a modest city-block space just west of downtown Chicago — Pitchfork now features nearly 50 artists, many of which are still unfamiliar to all but the most plugged-in Indie music connoisseurs. (Ironically, as a champion of cutting-edge acts on the way up, Pitchfork also serves as an early snapshot of future Lollapalooza lineups.)
This year’s Pitchfork, which ran July 19-21, offered one of its most curious lineups to date, especially as it pertains to the headliners, which included Bjork, Belle and Sebastian and, somewhat controversially, R. Kelly. Sure, there were several typically lesser-known acts on the bill, but almost all of them graced the Blue Stage, the smallest of the fest’s three stages. Whether this year’s more accessible bill might have been a reaction to last year’s fest, which gave relatively high-profile slots to such interesting but largely faceless artists as AraabMuzik, Purity Ring, The Field, Big K.R.I.T., Hot Chip and Chavez, among others, is anyone’s guess, but a realignment of sorts from Pitchfork’s powers that be seems plausible.
More proof of a possible shift in booking philosophy: There were more veteran acts than ever this year. Beyond the headliners, each of which has been making music for more than two decades, there was Wire, The Breeders, Swans, … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Low and Yo La Tengo. The only comparable 2012 act in terms of longevity — admittedly not the best gauge when it comes to creative vitality, but we’re talking audience-drawers here — was Godspeed You Black Emperor, which headlined along with Feist and Vampire Weekend. All are solid acts, but none of them are likely to perk the senses of those looking for a little “star power.” Enter Kelly, one of the era’s preeminent hit-makers (more on that later).
As usual, many of Pitchfork 2013’s most interesting artists emanated from the Blue Stage, which is the most intimate of the fest’s three stages — the larger Green and Red stages (note the refreshing lack of corporate branding, another sign of Pitchfork’s discerning nature), which are but 50 yards (or so) apart, alternate acts at the north end of Union Park, while Blue’s lineup overlaps with the other two. Tucked into a tree-laden area of the park’s southwest corner, the Blue Stage is something of a festival unto itself, its cozy confines offering a break from the spacious, open-air spots where the Green and Red reside.
Multiple Blue Stage artists delivered strong sets, including Frankie Rose, a former Dum Dum Girl whose latest album, Interstellar, is a Synth Pop gem that wouldn’t sound out place alongside Beach House; Mikal Cronin, a little ragamuffin of a guy whose latest album, MCII, is a Power Pop keeper; Angel Olsen, whose Americana-flavored songs and swoon-worthy voice and visage compelled much of the audience during her late-afternoon slot; Metz, a Canadian trio coming to Cincy for this year's MidPoint Music Festival in late September, whose terse songs roared even more righteously in a live setting (think Nirvana on fast-forward); Minnesota mainstays Low, who seemed oddly out of place but still effective in the early evening light; and Trash Talk, a Hardcore crew from Sacramento, Calif., whose long-haired frontman delivered the funniest line of the fest after noticing a number of “old people” in the relatively sparse Friday-afternoon crowd: “I like old people. Old people make the world go around. They fucking had us and shit.”
Best of all — or at least the biggest surprise — was Brooklyn-based Post Punk quartet Parquet Courts, whose playful, twisty tunes recall everyone from early Pavement to the Minutemen to a far less trashed Guided by Voices. Frontman Andrew Savage’s voice is thin but endearing, and his dynamic guitar interplay with fellow frontguy Austin Brown had more than one rapt audience member shaking their ass in the Saturday-afternoon sun.
One got the sense that the Parquet Courts dudes would have been just as happy performing on the street corner just beyond the fence behind them. The fact that they had a much bigger platform to deliver their slanted gospel is just one example of what has made Pitchfork so vital for those looking to experience something rawer and less polished than the acts that dominate other festivals. (Go get Parquet Court’s recent full-length, Light Up Gold, as soon as possible.)
Even the Blue Stage’s less successful performances were compelling in one way or another: while Julia Holter, Ryan Hemsworth, Andy Stott and Evian Christ — the latter three DJs who essentially stand behind a table — have issues in the area of crowd interaction and sometimes suffered from spotty sound mixes, each was able to convey its mood-altering music in ways that, at the very least, provided sonic respites from the relatively more conventional acts at the bigger stages, whose roar often bled into the Blue’s.
On to the two main stages, which drew large, unusually enthusiastic crowds all weekend. Long a champion of adventurous Hip Hop, Pitchfork again featured some intriguing purveyors of the form, most notably Sunday sets by Killer Mike and El-P. The pair released two of the best albums of 2012, and their stellar recent collaboration, dubbed Run the Jewels, dropped as a free download in June. After a sweaty set in which Mike ran through songs from his R.A.P. Music — including strong versions of the title track and the politically cutting “Reagan” — he joined his buddy El-P for a batch of Run the Jewels cuts that mixed verbal dexterity with a healthy dose of levity. Their record, simply titled Run the Jewels, is something of a break from the duo’s doomsday aesthetic as solo artists — Jewels is an exuberant, sonically diverse fun-ride that makes light of Hip Hop’s silly preoccupation with bling (the two performed with fake gold chains around their necks), among other Pop-culture oddities. (El-P later tweeted, “I’ll just go ahead and say @pitchforkfest is the most chill, fun ass festival around right now.)
Run the Jewels was an interesting transition into a set from the ever-vital Yo La Tengo, which mixed choice cuts from its vast back-catalog (including sweet reworked versions of “Autumn Sweater,” “Tom Courtney” and “The Hour Grows Late”) with several tunes from the New Jersey trio’s latest record, Fade. As usual, they didn’t interact much with the crowd, though frontman Ira Kaplan, who dropped in several impressive guitar freak-outs, did joke that it was “good to be opening for R. Kelly again.”
The fest’s most curious social-media-stirring moment occurred Sunday evening as M.I.A., amid a garishly colorful backdrop of spinning wheels and neon lights, unveiled songs from her forthcoming album, Matangi. A sea of cell phones rose to record her entrance; many stayed aloft throughout. It was a departure in audience etiquette — somewhat unexpectedly, much of the festival was free of such ubiquitous use of technological interference.
Clad in a flashy gold top and orange short-shorts, M.I.A. stalked the stage, often with dancers at her side, as bass-heavy Dance-Rap arrangements thundered through the ample soundsystem with almost netherworldly force. The ceaseless sonic assault pretty much drowned out whatever she might have been trying to convey in her new songs — which, based on the spottiness of her previous record and the delayed release of Matangi, might be a good thing. Only when her set was interrupted by technical glitches did she seem spontaneous or even all that engaged. It was a weird, disjointed set, the kind of whiz-bang spectacle that rarely rears its head at Pitchfork.
In contrast, Savages Saturday afternoon appearance was a model of lacerating intensity. The buzzed-about British quartet — whose recent debut Silence Yourself is a satisfying blast of atmospheric Post Punk — was one of the most anticipated acts of fest. They didn’t disappoint, delivering blistering versions of “I Am Here,” “She Will” and “Fuckers,” a new song about not letting the “fuckers get you down.”
Jehnny Beth is a captivating frontlady, her no-bullshit stare and frequent high-pitched yelps lifting the music’s familiar elements — everyone from Gang of Four and Patti Smith to Siouxsie Sioux and PJ Harvey come immediately to mind — to uncharted heights. More unexpected was the band’s tendency to evoke ’80s-era U2, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even more curious was Beth’s evocation of Ian Curtis, both in terms of her appearance (lean with close-cropped hair) and in some of her mannerisms (as if the music were transporting her somewhere beyond the stage).
Michael Gira, Swans’ longtime ringleader, was impressed,
asking the audience, “How about them lady Savages?” before clapping in
appreciation. Gira’s band immediately followed Savages, and it was an
apt pairing, like opposite sides of the same coin. His crew of gifted
Post Punk vets — which includes a hairy multi-instrumentalist named Thor
and a suave German slide-guitar player who looks as though he’d be
right a home in a David Lynch flick — conjured an unholy racket during a
truncated version of “The Seer” and offered an inspired take on
“Oxygen,” which featured Gira doing a spooky Indian-like dance
throughout. While it was odd to witness Swans’ menacing, ebb-and-flow
soundscapes in broad daylight, the outdoor setting still left those in
attendance vibrating long after the band’s final drone leaked from the
That brings us to the three headliners. The festival’s mission — it attempts to highlight the most adventurous, zeitgeist-channeling acts on the current landscape — makes choosing an anchor to each day’s events a challenging dilemma for Pitchfork organizers. Given the esoteric nature of many such music-makers, there are only so many high-profile acts that fit the typical “headliner” criteria. Past choices have included such Alt-Rock mainstays as Flaming Lips, Spoon and Sonic Youth to more contemporary entries in the canon like TV on the Radio, Animal Collective and LCD Soundsystem.
Pitchfork even had Yoko Ono headline one year, which makes the choice of R. Kelly as Sunday night’s festival-closer even odder one on multiple levels. First, there’s the fact that Kelly — no doubt one of the most important R&B artists of the era, and a Chicago native to boot — is the most mainstream artist the festival has ever booked. Second, and far more troubling for many, is Kelly’s reputation as a serial misogynist who never got the legal reprimand he deserved.
The most vociferous critic has been longtime music writer Jim DeRogatis, who broke the story of Kelly’s indiscretions while working at the Chicago Sun-Times in 2002. DeRogatis called Pitchfork’s decision to book Kelly and the subsequent excitement from “some (not all) paying customers” as being “fueled by irony.”
No doubt there are legitimate questions about how an artist’s personal issues should impact the way in which we experience their music, but, for better or worse, those knotty questions were not going to be answered during Kelly’s Pitchfork set.
In fact, based on the reaction of those in the massive crowd — probably the festival’s largest ever — irony was not as prevalent as DeRogatis wanted to profess. The overwhelming majority of those in attendance, which ranged from fortysomething African-American couples to teenage hipsters, seemed genuinely excited to be taking in Kelly’s sextastic jams. The performance itself, meanwhile, was largely standard-issue R&B stagecraft, as Kelly ran through much of his extensive songbook medley-style (38 songs!). Not even a steady drizzle of rain could dampen the mood, as many swayed and sang along straight through to a set-closing version of “I Believe I Can Fly,” which was accompanied by the release of dove-shaped balloons.
If Kelly’s presentation was fairly straightforward, Bjork’s closing set on Friday was anything but. Or so it seemed — unless one was within 75 yards of the stage, it was hard to see what was going on besides fleeting glimpses of Bjork’s elaborate headgear, which looked like a porcupine lit up from within. Worse, the two video boards that flanked the Green Stage were mounted too low, rendering them almost useless to those they should intend to aid.
No matter: Bjork’s expressive voice was just as fluid and otherworldly as one would expect on slightly reconfigured versions of “Hunter,” “Joga” “Pagan Poetry” and “Army of Me.” When rain and pending lightening and thunder prompted festival organizers to pull the plug after an hour, Bjork responded with this curio: “It’s calm. I don’t know. This wouldn’t be much in Iceland, I can tell you that much.”
It also rained on Belle and Sebastian Saturday night, but not enough to cut short what was the festival’s most overt nod to nostalgia. The Scottish crew ran through a career-spanning set that crested early with rousing versions of “I’m a Cuckoo” and “The Stars of Track and Field,” which had more than one thirtysomething couple embracing amid all the tuneful sweetness.
In the late ’70s, Punk Rock and New Wave were blossoming in New York City. But those genre tags were just a convenient labeling device, a catch-all that didn’t take into consideration all of the varied influences artists were bringing with them under that umbrella of Punk or New Wave. Bands would drag things like Rockabilly or Disco into their audio realm and craft their own new sound out of it, with barely any fans blinking an eye, let alone screaming, “That’s not Punk!”
Cincinnati trio Animal Circles bring that sort of kitchen-sink approach into their compositions, craftily blending together Surf Rock, Punk, Roots/Folk/Country sounds, Rockabilly and other styles into their own distinctive sonic smoothie. With the access people have to every type of music these days, it’s a wonder why every band doesn’t have Animal Circles’ sense of eclectic wonderment.
The band celebrates the release of its debut album, Eva Lee, Saturday at Northside Tavern. The free show also features Bloomington, Ind., rockers Thee Open Sex and local Black Sabbath tribute, Druid Piss.
Animal Circles’ variety and sense of dynamics make Eva Lee a thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. From the full-throttle burner “Brooks and Then Done,” with its speeding-out-of-control-train shuffle and rumbling Surf guitar licks (a consistent on the record) to the anxious, Jack-White-goes-to-the-beach vibe of “Squid Attack” to the vintage Country-flavored rocker “Southern Bell,” the band keeps your interest, not just with its unique ingredients, but also its strong sense of songwriting and melody.
The “Surfin’ Space Cowboy” approach has the potential to get old fast, so it’s to AC’s great credit that Eva Lee is such a consistently compelling listen. This is no novelty act.
Here is the Eva Lee track "Life on the Bonzai Pipeline."
One could argue that New Orleans is one of the most fun places on the planet. You cannot beat the food, laidback attitudes and genuine hospitality. Combine all of that with some of the most talented musicians in the world and you have the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The New Orleans Jazz Fest kicked off in full swing last Friday, April 26, with thousands flocking to the New Orleans Fairgrounds to hear their favorite musical acts, see one-of-a-kind pieces from local artists and taste the flavors of New Orleans.
Local musical acts kicked off each morning on the 11 different stages around the fairgrounds, leading up to the first weekend's main acts, which included include John Mayer, Billy Joel and Dave Matthews Band, which closed out each night on the Acura Stage.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Jazz Fest for me each year is seeing “the bands before the main stage bands.” I always walk away with new music to listen to from legends and discover exciting new stage acts. This year I fell in love in the Blues tents with guitar legends like Sonny Landreth, Guitar Slim Jr., Lil Buck Senegal, Deacon John and Little Freddie King.
Dr. John, who is always a Jazz Fest highlight performed on Friday and had an Ohio native backing him. Dr. John recently restructured his band before Jazz Fest and kept only one former member, trombonist Sarah Morrow who grew up near Pickerington, Ohio, just outside of Ohio.
The New Orleans Fairgrounds filled to the brim Saturday with attendees showing up early to get the best seats to hear Bill Joel belt out his hits. Joel closed out his set by playing with New Orleans' own Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Sunday morning brought cloudy skies that soon turned into torrential downpours. But that didn't stop Jazz Fest goers from staking out spots for Dave Mathews Band. The skies cleared enough to dry off before the second wave of rain, soaking DMB as they played through the rain for thousands of diehard Jazz Fest fans. The dancing in the mud surely created lifelong memories for some attendees.
If seeing the Dave Matthews Band play an epic set in the rain was not good enough, you could make your way over the Blues tent and see the King play the Blues like it is the end of the world. BB King electrified as he took the stage in the Blues Tent to close out the first weekend of the festival. The legendary Allen Toussaint joined King on stage and, as BB began his set, belted out an a cappella Blues tribute to the King himself. King ended the set with a toast to the audience: "If I can't be with you next week, think about me some time."
Widespread Panic closed out my last day at NOLA Jazz Fest with a rainy two and a half hour set for their loyal legion of fans, all of whom seemed perfectly happy to dance in the mud at the Acura Stage.
Yesterday kicked off the second weekend of the famous festival and will feature performances by New Orleans native Mia Borders and Patti Smith.
I will miss New Orleans' music and food dearly when I go and will start the countdown to Essence Festival in July, when I return to the Big Easy for more music and fun times.