At the heart of even the darkest of music, it’s love that made it possible. Love of singing or escapism. Love of an instrument or a sound. A flourishing love or a dissipating love. That love is especially present in absolutely everything Abigail Washburn does. It’s a love for the banjo, a love for China and a love of people, especially her husband, Bela Fleck, and (most recently) their adorable new son, Juno.
Washburn is currently on tour (playing Miami University Middletown Saturday; click here for tickets and more info) and she’s bringing all the things she loves with her, including her husband and baby Juno. Though Washburn and her banjo rarely tour alone, it’s a little different now that she’s touring with Juno.
“Touring is different with the little buddy. Different in a good way,” Washburn says. “In general I'd say life is richer with him in it. When we arrive at a venue, the first thing I do is grab our blanket and go looking for a big tree to lay under and stare up at the leaves and when we walk around the venue for the first time he has such strong and wondrous reactions to the smallest things. Juno helps me stop and appreciate every little detail of the way the world works. He makes it all seem new and magical.”
As adorable as the mother and son relationship seems, when Washburn references her time with Fleck, even more of that love seeps through. They have a relationship with each other and with their music that seems downright precious and magical in comparison to so many other relationships in the music business.
“We met when he was playing at a square dance and I was dancing,” Washburn says. “But I think it's our sense of place in the world and our passion to contribute to music and humanity that really sealed our deal. We love talking and supporting one another and encouraging one another to reach further and further. This is the cornerstone of our connection and the fact that we push each other to explore is what keeps us together.”
There’s still one more kind of love that fuels Washburn, though. Washburn is also whole-heartedly in love with China, too. It’s a passion that roars to life when she performs, especially.
For fans of Bela Fleck or the banjo who have somehow missed the beautiful stylings of Abigail Washburn, that love of China may seem a little odd. The banjo came from Africa and from there became mostly associated with the musical sounds of Appalachia. So … China?
It started when Washburn left the states after college, heading to China and intent on a law degree. Along the way, she picked up Mandarin and found a cool new way to play her banjo. While her future husband was tracing the banjo’s roots in Africa for Throw Down Your Heart, Washburn was bringing the East to Appalachia … or maybe she was bringing Appalachia to the East.
The connection of romanticism and adventure associated with a foreign land never faded for Washburn, even after numerous trips back to China. That passion has only grown with each new adventure in her other motherland. She’s even documented that love in a play she wrote and performed in New York called Post-American Girl.
“I think it is fair to say that it's like a love triangle between 'us' three … The US and China corners of the triangle are symbolically represented by my U.S. and Chinese mothers in the play,” she says. “A strong theme of going far away to find one's self and discover one's path in life is a big part of the struggle and the ultimate bond connecting all sides.”
Post-American Girl had a limited run in New York. However, with the help of the New York Public Theater, Washburn is hoping to develop the performance further. The hope is that eventually, it might actually tour the U.S.
Washburn still loves China and especially loves watching as others experience the country for the first time. In 2011, she set out on the Silk Road Tour with a few musician friends. Together they played music and experienced even more of China together. (You can see recaps of the tour here.)
While you can experience plenty of Washburn’s Chinese influence when listening to her music and seeing her in person, this current tour is powered almost exclusively on the love of her family and the music they can create together.
“I think both Bela and I are really enjoying playing music together,” she says about their family tour. “There's so much potential and uncovered territory in focusing on the soundscapes that can be made with the claw hammer and three-finger banjo styles. The two timbres and rolls together can sound like rippling flowing water or a swinging old ragtime bounce or driving mountain sounds and so on and on. The musical exploration together is exciting for both of us. And then on a personal level it's downright mystical to get to be together all the time and navigate the road and performing as a family.”
For even more awesome music, check out the music Washburn says “floats little Juno’s boat” like Dervish, Phil Cunningham, Paul Brady, Afel Bolcum, Oumou Sangare and Sam Amidon. She says he also likes a little bit of Bon Iver and Bonnie Raitt, too.
But, Washburn says, “So far I think banjo is his favorite!”
Front man Honus Honus (Ryan Kattner) dazzled as he frantically played the keys — often times with his foot, even — and sang with his customary raspy fervor. He was a shape-shifter extraordinaire, transforming from normal dude to circus ringmaster of sorts to alien. His manic wardrobe changes were anticipated, as it is basically a Honus trademark. The rest of the band — Pow Pow, T. Moth, Brown Sugar, Shono Murphy, as well as talented opening artist Xenia Rubinos — likewise entertained with lots of dancing and instrumental finesse. All of this is pretty formulaic for Man Man.
However, it’s not every day that the audience at a concert gets to share the stage with the band itself. The show took place in the “black box” space of the Wex’s vast Mershon auditorium that seats nearly 2,500 people. Guests stood on the stage, which was blocked off from the rest of the auditorium, to watch the show in an intimate, tight-knit setting — ideal for moshing and the like.
Unfortunately, the concession at show was lacking. There were $1 waters and pops available but no booze, which perhaps explained why there was little to no moshing. Although highly energetic crowds and moshing are routine at Man Man concerts, the Columbus show was just as fun without the raucousness. It had more of a respectful “in awe” type crowd, which fit nicely with the band’s attempt at adopting a more mature and refined sound with their new album.
Man Man kicked off their set list with “Oni Swan” and “Pink Wonton,” the first and second tracks off of their recently released album, On Oni Pond. “Oni Swan” is a brief instrumental opener for the catchy and vibrant “Pink Wonton,” which critics claim most closely embodies Man Man’s previous musical style.
On Oni Pond was the focal point of the show and this was made evident by the backdrop that showcased the album art courtesy of artist Andrea Wan. The band affectionately played tracks such as the sultry “Paul’s Grotesque,” the boisterous “Loot My Body,” their more relaxed and heartfelt single “Head On,” “King Shiv” and “Born Tight.” It was apparent that Man Man embraces its newer, mellower sound, which has a focus on bona fide lyricism rather than sheer eccentricity.
The band also made sure to satisfy diehard fans of their previous albums Life Fantastic, Rabbit Habits, Six Demon Bag and The Man In A Blue Turban With A Face by playing hits such as “Zebra,” Piranhas Club,” “Mister Jung Stuffed,” “Hurly / Burly,” “Doo Right,” “Push the Eagle’s Stomach” and others.
Despite the new direction of On Oni Pond, the overall eccentricity of Man Man was not lost during the concert. In fact, the band upped the ante in this aspect. Honus came out in a sparkly hooded cloak during “Haute Tropique,” a song about a serial killer, and proceeded to fling confetti onto the audience. He did this as he sang, “Oh here's a story of a lovely lady / Who had three daughters who drove her fucking crazy / She hacked ‘em up with an old machete / And threw a party with dead daughter confetti.” Grotesque has never been so fun and glittery.
I have to admit that the best part of the show was the extended encore, during which Honus came out in an Anderson Cooper shirt that my sister just so happened to airbrush for him. “I love it. Maybe I’ll actually give it to Anderson,” he said to her before the show, when she presented it to him. (Yes, my sister and Honus are acquainted and yes, I am totes jealous.) Honus had a cameo on Anderson Cooper 360° in September in regard to Man Man’s Wolf Blitzer-themed song, “End Boss.” He appeared on the segment in a bad ass tunic with Wolf’s face plastered all over it and, hey, it got Anderson’s attention. What more could one want?
So Honus came out for the encore in the Anderson shirt and proceeded to perform four very popular fan favorites from older albums — “Steak Knives,” “Van Helsing Boom Box,” “Engrish Bwudd” and “Young Einstein on the Beach.” The first two songs were melancholic and heartfelt, playing on the emotions of the audience. The latter two were crowd-pumping, face-melting tracks that completely changed the atmosphere from somber to vivacious, ending the show on a high note.
Even without the booze, Man Man was one hell of a party and a band that is worth every dollar to see live.
• Originating in Michigan and now based in the Pacific Northwest, Punk Rock trio The Spits pattern "their own new-millennial take on Punk after heroes like NOFX and The Ramones, but also tapping into the ‘70s Synth Wave dissonance that distinguished bands like Wire and Spizzenergi and presenting a theatrical component as engaging as Devo in their prime," according to CityBeat's Brian Baker. Read Brian's preview here then head to Mayday in Northside tonight for the 9 p.m. show. Admission is $10 and Useless Eaters and Subsets open.
Here's the band rocking San Francisco this spring.
• The annual Bosom Ball presented by local Pop radio station Q102 returns to Covington's Madison Theater tonight. The event, a benefit for the American Cancer Society and the Susan G. Komen Foundation, this year features ZZ Ward, Labrinth, American Authors, Serena Ryder and Walk Off the Earth. Doors open at 6 p.m. (there is also an all-ages "Sound Check Party" with American Authors that runs 4-5 p.m.; the Bosom Ball is open to ages 21 and up only). Admission is $30. Click here for more info and check out a few of the performers below.
• The Jubilee Peace Fest celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, returning to the Grailville Retreat and Organic Farm in Loveland, Ohio, starting today and going through Sunday. The fest — which runs 6 a.m.-10 p.m. each day — features “yoga workshops, meditation practices, cooking classes, health and fitness seminars, spiritual activism … kirtan and more, with national (and) internationally known teachers, musicians, authors, artists and chefs unfolding the path to world peace,” according to the official event page on Facebook. The festival is organized in conjunction with the non-profit World Peace Earth, whose mission is “educating, encouraging, researching and promoting a loving lifestyle to create a virtuous, kind, gentle, respectful and spiritual relationship between all beings and the earth, contributing to world peace.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking the musical lineup is all soft New Age music but, while that is represented, the Peace Fest boasts a surprisingly eclectic collection of performers, playing everything from Hip Hop and Rock to Experimental and World music. Sticman of one of best contemporary Hip Hop groups around, Dead Prez, is one of the big names performing, joining acts like Canadian “Neo-Folk World Rock ‘Country & Eastern’ Fusion” troupe HuDost, Rock band ThePeace, popular Hip Hop collaborator (and organic gardening proponent) DJ Cavem and Cincinnati native Amy Ferguson. Visit jubileepeacefest.com for a full rundown of the fest’s offerings and here for ticketing info.
DJ Cavem's Healthy Hop:
• The international Red Bull Thre3Style DJ competition returns to the area this week with a slight twist. Tonight at downtown nightclub Play, five DJs from area colleges will compete as part of the Thre3Style U competition, which is open to only full-time college student DJs. The competing turntablists are University of Cincinnati’s DJ HD and DJ EFEX, Northern Kentucky University’s DJ Underground, University of Dayton’s DJ Web and Miami University’s DJ Gabe C. Former Red Bull Thre3Style victor Apryl Reign and Kiss 107 FM’s DJ Sab are among the judges. The event is free and kicks off at 10 p.m. (Note: Play has some pretty strict dress restrictions.)
• Bogart's in Corryville presents a night of Electronic Dance music, headed up by Boulder, Colorado's Big Gigantic, the duo of Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken, who've built a huge following with their unique "Livetronica" stylings. New Zealand native (now based in Australia) and funky DJ up-and-comer Opiuo opens the show at 9 p.m.
The local music scene lost one of its veteran players this past weekend. Larry Malott — also a veteran of the Vietnam War — suffered a brain aneurysm last Wednesday from which he never recovered.
A gifted bassist, Malott (who was 65) was the low-end anchor of hard-working, popular local Blues band Them Bones. Along with regular gigs with the group around town (and beyond — the band has toured in Europe and represented Cincinnati at 2010's International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn., placing an impressive third overall), Malott and Them Bones were also the anchor of the long-running Sunday night Blues jams at Newport club, Mansion Hill Tavern, hosting the weekly event since 2001. Many local musicians gathered this past Sunday at the open jam to pay their respects to Malott. Judging by the outpouring of grief and appreciation on social media the past few days, Malott was not only a great bass player and dedicated Blues supporter, he was also something of a mentor to other local musicians and incredibly supportive of his fellow artists.
Visit Malott's Facebook page to leave a message for his family and for info on upcoming funeral services (a public tribute appears to also be in the works). His family is asking that, in lieu of flowers, supporters make a donation to their favorite charity and/or one of the following ones — Sophie's Angel Run, Cincinnati Shriners Burns Hospital, Down Syndrome Association and/or Blues in the Schools.
Great Cincinnati-based experimental Jazz/Hip Hop group IsWhat?! is gearing up for another one of its frequent European touring jaunts, but before the group leaves, the members will be presenting a night of film, art, poetry and, of course, music, this Friday at The Greenwich in Walnut Hills, all curated by and/or affiliated with IsWhat?! in some way.
The animated short film Billie’s Blues, created by French artist Louis Jean Gorry and scored by IsWhat?! frontman Napoleon Maddox, will get its U.S. premiere at the event. Here's the trailer:
Here's IsWhat!?'s music video for "Hands Up Quick" (featuring a guest verse from Boogie Bang) off of the group's most recent release, Things That Go Bump in the Dark.
Justin Hayward-Young stole my soul.
When The Vaccines stormed onstage at the LC Pavilion on Oct. 3 to open for Phoenix, they rained a holy hell of guitar and vocals down upon their fans. And the people drowned in their own admiration for the band. Why? I firmly believe that The Vaccines are what Rock should be but hasn’t been for a long time. They don’t look like professors, duck their heads nervously at cheers or aim to take over a singing contest. They’re grungy — even sloppy at times — and they know how to be (or at least try to be) Rock Stars.
Hayward-Young has an overwhelming stage presence. Every move he makes seems to beg for attention and yet it all seems so visceral and unplanned. There’s nothing staged about his guttural cries or his playful cuddling of a frantic sound-tech. As hot as any guy is with a guitar hanging around his body, he is best when he’s instrument-free and unrestrained. Untethered from an amp, he’s loose and limber with flailing legs and arms and a floppy, flying head of hair. His actions are reminiscent of Rock Gods, his looks are the epitome of Grunge, his music oozes Punk spirit. And his voice? Dear God.
The Vaccines touched me. I felt it. Not in the blurred lines of Robin Thicke kind of way or in the Holy Ghost-spiritually-moved me way. I felt Hayward-Young’s baritone in my ears, my chest, my gut. I felt the band’s silly "Oo"-ing in my lips when I puckered up and cooed along. I felt the thrust of guitar in my hips and my feet when I realized I was dancing against (and perhaps inadvertently humping) the barricade.
I am still breathless. I am still sweaty. I may have bounced in my seat all the way home from Columbus.
That said, please do not write-off this enthusiasm as fan-girling and something to ignore. The Vaccines have been on my radar for a few years now and I’ve liked them well enough. Without a doubt, though, they are the kind of band that warrants seeing live. They bring an atmosphere with them that one must take part in to truly appreciate The Vaccines’ style. No one can say Nirvana or The Clash were better on an album than at a gig. Rock music isn’t meant for stereos or car rides. Sure, CDs (shut up, audiophiles) can help or create a mood. However, the live atmosphere greatly improves Rock … especially the grungy, Punk-infused Rock made by The Vaccines.
It’s all so good, so enchanting, so consuming and overpowering when you hear it live. When it came crashing to an end, I swear I could feel the vacant spot where my heart had once been. They’ve carried it off to wherever they’re going next.
Luckily, I didn’t need my heart to have a good time with Phoenix.
You know how there are “break-up songs” but then there are also completely normal songs that you can no longer emotionally stand to listen to anymore? I think the same happens with bands. Sometimes a break-up or bad era in your life can ruin a band in the future.
The guy who introduced me to Phoenix blackened my heart. By that I mean he ended things in such an awful way I ended up too mad to be broken-hearted. He ruined a couple bands for me.
But Phoenix is much too good for that. They’re better than any relationship, almost as good as sex. I already knew this. Their concert, though, solidified everything. Phoenix kicks exes in the groin, fills voids with bright, colorful lights and pounding beats and sends jilted lovers dancing in circles with middle fingers in the air. Lead singer Thomas Mars says you must “dansez” and dance you will.
LC Pavilion is far from a big venue and Phoenix could have easily gotten away with the bare minimum of flash. Apparently, the Parisians believe in the “go big or go home motto,” though, because they went all out. From the stories-high video screen behind them to the perfect (PERFECT) lighting sequences and color tones, they turned their music into an entire show, set a different atmosphere for every song and seemed just as into the mood they’d created as the thousands of fans screaming their heads off and dancing away their worries.
They put out energy and received it right back from their fans. It was utterly refreshing to watch as the six guys of Phoenix eat up the attention and love with shit-eating grins on their faces, dance around like twitching maniacs and seem genuinely happy that America has finally caught onto them. They might have the set design of a band like Muse or Coldplay, but they lack the ego. They know just how cool and remarkable it is for such average guys to make a whole room of people go wild with their far-from-average music.
They get even better, too. Despite all the bright lights and flash, they still found ways to connect with the crowd. Namely by throwing Mars into the thick of it. First, he stood at the barricade, singing his soul out while fans petted his every inch and tousled his hair. Later, during what had to have been the longest and best encore ever, he sat down on the barricade and sang a slower song. The next thing the audience knew, he was pushing his way to the back of the room, up onto the LC Pavilion’s slightly elevated mezzanine area and then working his way across to the other side. For a while, all I could see was the reddish-orange mic cord rolling ever closer to me. Then I touched Thomas Mars when he passed beside me. (However, I said, “Thanks” instead of “Merci.” Je le regrette.)
The night ended with Mars and Co. pulling a few dozen fans onto stage to dance and shake through the last few lines of the song. And then they were gone.
And I was gone. The Vaccines stole my heart and Phoenix turned my body into a damp nothingness. I was ready to drive to Nashville and do it all over again the next day. Sadly, it was sold out. Good, though. They deserve it.
The CincyPunk Fest got its start in 2003, organized as an offshoot of Adam Rosing’s CincyPunk website. Since then, Rosing and the festival have raised tens of thousands of dollars for area charities and presented an increasingly eclectic lineup for its increasingly large audience.
The festival returns tonight and tomorrow, utilizing the three stages at the Southgate House Revival in Newport, Ky., and featuring 35 performers, many from the Greater Cincinnati area, but also some top-notch national acts, like Diarrhea Planet and Pissed Jeans.
After a decade, it probably doesn’t need to be repeated, but just to reiterate – Cincy Punk Fest is not a Punk Rock festival. The lineup includes everything from Indie Rock to Americana/Folk to Soul to straight-up Rock & Roll, with a handful of acts you could legitimately label as Punk. It reminds me of the CBGB's "Punk" movement of the ’70s, when bands like Television, The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie were all lumped together under the genre tag, though they really couldn't have been more different, sonically. Like fest performers Frontier Folk Nebraska (who are neither Folk nor from Nebraska), CincyPunk Festival (which also isn’t in Cincy) has established itself and doesn't appear to be in any hurry to change its name to reflect the increasingly diverse lineups. Which is kinda Punk, so it all works out.
Tickets to CincyPunk Fest XII are $15 per night; advanced tickets are available here and here. The proceeds this year are being donated to the Save Our Shelter Dogs Rescue in Northern Kentucky. Music starts at 8 p.m. both nights. The event is open to fans 18 and up.
Below are Friday and Saturday's lineups:
And here are a few clips that give a good sense of the variety that can be found at the festival.
Even though MidPoint it over, I still feel like you might be able to play this on a normal OTR/Downtown night out ... with booze. Or just keep it until MPMF 2014. Or just laugh at it because this shit is entertaining.
Download a PDF of the card from her tumblr page.
As is always the case, I am both mildly devastated and slightly relieved on the last night of MidPoint. I love the energy of this weekend every year, but my personal energy gets used up fairly quickly as the festival progresses. And the recharging stations that dot the landscape typically involve really delicious food that comes out of a truck window and is eaten while walking, and bars whose life-sustaining water is typically served with gin or hoppy and carbonated from the brewing process (which is, in fact, as it should be).
The beginning of the MidPoint's last night is always exciting; the end is always bittersweet.
First on the docket were the early shows at Washington Park, an almost too-good-to-be true Saturday lineup; new local (and soon global) sensation Tweens, venerable crowd teasers/pleasers Wussy (filling the slot for Foxygen, who cancelled due to either Sam France's broken leg after a stage fall in Minneapolis or a feud with bandmate Jonathan Rado or both) and The Breeders, touring on the 20th anniversary of the release of Last Splash and playing the album in its entirety and in sequence.
Tweens proved to be better than the hype surrounding them, blowing through a fast-paced set that perfectly presented their hyper-caffeinated hybrid of '60s girl-group Doo Wop Pop and blazing Punk. Vocalist/guitarist Bridget Battle attacked her instrument with an unbridled fury while finding the melodic core of every song, particularly in evidence on the band's cover of "I'm Gonna Steal Your Boyfriend" from Cincinnati girl group The Teardrops. Meanwhile, Peyton Copes was charging through his bass runs like John Entwistle on meth and Jerri Queen was doing his best Tommy Ramone impression, his drum kit seemingly jumping off the stage.
Since I interviewed the band in April, Tweens has signed with Frenchkiss Records and Bridget mentioned after their set that they're headed to New York to record their label debut with Girls Against Boys bassist and renowned producer Eli Janney. The album likely won't be out until early next year, and with more shows like their Saturday MidPoint slot, they'll have a legion of slobbering fans clamoring for it.
Next up was Wussy, coming in to save the day for (or perhaps from) the Foxygen situation. There were the requisite number of Wussy moments; after soundcheck, where Chuck Cleaver instructed veteran soundman Steve Girton to go heavy on the vocal reverb ("Make us sound like we're in a cave …"), the set's launch was delayed while Mark Messerly left for what seemed like an epic Tom Hanks League-of-Their-Own piss and Lisa Walker entertained the waiting crowd with an Afternoon Special story about Skinny and Fatty on rope day in gym class. With Messerly sufficiently drained, Wussy offered an amped-up set of favorites — Walker introduced a slinky version of "Airborne" as "an old Curtis Mayfield song," and a stretched out "Yellow Cotton Dress" as their "new Bossa Nova song … you can also do the Pony."
There were a couple of new songs sprinkled in the mix, presumably from the album the band is currently working on, and all of it was accompanied by former Ass Ponys guitarist John Erhardt on pedal steel. What wasn't typical was the absolute brilliant noise emanating from the stage; Wussy has played shows both monumental and desultory that have either been short-circuited or made worse by shitty sound. On Saturday, Wussy sounded like the world-class Rock band we all know them to be.
Finally, it was time for Washington Park's main event for the evening, The Breeders' 20th anniversary presentation of Last Splash. After a soundcheck that included a blistering version of Guided By Voices' "Scalding Creek," which Kelley Deal and the Buffalo Killers had done for the Sing For Your Meat tribute album, The Breeders took a breath before ripping into "New Year," the opening volley on the album that Pitchfork Media cited as the 64th best album of the '90s.
The assembled multitude, and there was a multitude of them, roared their ecstatic approval after each song, particularly the album's avowed hits, "Cannonball" and "Divine Hammer." After finishing up "Flipside," Kim Deal noted, "That was the last song on the first side," to which everyone under 30 in the audience must have noted, "The first side of what?," and after a blazing take on the album's longest song, "Mad Lucas," Kim shouted, "Take that, Symphony!," likely a reference to the fact that the band had to be done by exactly 8 p.m. for the start of the CSO at Music Hall to avoid incurring a hefty fine for MidPoint organizers.
The band was sharp and tight, Carrie Bradley was on hand to provide necessary violin and keyboard accompaniment, Josephine Wiggs laid down her massive bass groove and even switched places with master basher Jim MacPherson to reprise her turn as drummer on "Roi." Wiggs may have provided the sweetest moment of the night; after Kim noted that coming to Cincinnati was like coming home for the band — the Deals and MacPherson both had family contingents in the crowd —U.K. native Wiggs told the faithful that the amount of time she’s spent in Ohio was minimal, but the love she felt for and from it made it feel like home for her as well, which resulted in a rousing response from the audience. With the last strains of "Drivin' on 9/Roi (Reprise)" hanging in the air, the call for one more had to go unfulfilled because of the Music Hall start time. But given that this was the second Breeders show here this year, it won't be too long before they'll be back with a complete set and — dare we think it? — maybe some new songs.
After a bit of hanging around, I headed down to Grammer’s for the screaming punkmeisters from the Great White North, ETZ. Sweet holy mother — one minute it's three soft-spoken Canadian boys thanking the crowd for their support, the next they're suddenly thrashing out a triple-digit-decibel explosion that buries the needle so far into the red you'd think the meters were broken. If they weren't, they are now. Guitarist/vocalist Alex Edkins plays like he's wearing jeans made of fire ants and sings like Henry Rollins in a bathtub with a live toaster, bassist Chris Slorach does his best impression of a rhythmic jet approaching the sound barrier and drummer Hayden Menzies attacks his kit with samurai ferocity and precision. METZ is Punk reborn, and it's a kicking and screaming breech birth.
Next up was perhaps the weekend's highlight for me, the appearance of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Every moment of a BRMC show is an exultant tribute to the power of Rock, a pulsing prayer giving thanks to the heavens for electricity, wood, wires, skins and tubs and the ability to turn those raw elements into some of the most bone-rattling music on the planet. Deftly switching from electric to acoustic guitars without losing a decibel of impact, BRMC varied the pace of the show only slightly, replacing quick tempos with slow, surging power. As Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been orchestrated the guitar ballet up front, Leah Shapiro offered up a tribal drum clinic at the rear of the stage, pounding out a throbbing beat so primal and palpable that airport traffic should have been rerouted around it.
The band didn't concentrate too much on their excellent new album, Specter at the Feast; less than a third of their set was devoted to it. Certainly one of the high points of the set was the inclusion of The Call's "Let the Day Begin," done up in classic BRMC style as a tribute to Been's late father Michael, The Call's powerful frontman and a producer/live sound engineer/mentor for BRMC until his tragic fatal heart attack in Belgium at the band's 2010 Pukkelpop Festival appearance. Much of Specter at the Feast is melancholy, but the band's live shows now stand as a loud and triumphant affirmation that BRMC is committed to going forward with a vengeance. That stance was more than cemented when the band followed their soaring take on "Let the Day Begin" with a blistering spin on "Rival" from the new album and a razor sharp run through Howl's "Ain't No Easy Way." Black Rebel Motorcycle Club left it all on Grammer’s stage Saturday night, and we were only too glad to soak it all up.
In retrospect, it might have been a better course of action to stay with BRMC until the end, but I'd really wanted to hit the end of Cincinnati band The Ready Stance’s set and wish Wes Pence a happy birthday, but Randy Cheek's blown bass amp fuse cut their set short by one song. After wishing Wes many happy returns, I drifted up to the MOTR to catch Wild Cub, but the club was absolutely packed and seemed populated with a higher than normally allowable per capita percentage of asshats. I'm clearly getting too old for push-your-way-in-regardless-of-who's-already-there crowds, and I got the fast fuck out of there.
After that, I wandered. I checked out a couple songs by Cincy’s Sun Country, who seemed like they were on the way to an exceptional set, but I suddenly found myself a bit on the light-headed side, so I figured a run over to Mr. Hanton's would do me some good. Proof that I was nearing the tipping point came when Mr. Hanton's dog didn't make me week with joy. It wasn't any different than the Smokehouse I'd had the night before, it was just my body starting to rebel.
I ran over to The Drinkery to catch a bit of Nashville’s Sol Cat, which was joyfully boistrous and plenty loud to chase away any end-of-MidPoint blues. Their sound mixes groovy Psych Rock with amped up Nashville Soul and it's a powerful and smooth cocktail on a hot Saturday night, and the packed audience they drew howled their appreciation.
I bailed as Sol Cat's last song was ringing in The Drinkery's rafters and headed down to the Know Theater to catch Johnathan Rice's set. I thought it would be a chill way to finish up the evening, thinking that he would be doing a solo acoustic thing. But Rice came loaded with a full band and they proceeded to crank out a sound that seemed reminiscent of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and The Jayhawks in spots, very much in keeping with the vibe of his quite excellent new album, Good Graces. He also cranked out a track from his 2012 Jenny and Johnny release, I'm Having Fun Now (a collaboration with his girlfriend, ex-Rilo Kiley spark plug/successful solo artist Jenny Lewis), and touching on his previous solo albums, 2005's Trouble is Good and 2007's Further North. My personal favorite part of the show was when a woman was desperately trying to drag her guy closer to the stage, presumably to dance, which he was having none of, apparently. Rice noticed the situation and said, "Let the man be. He's fine." Well done, Mr. Rice, just like your all too brief set, which happened to be a perfect end to a perfect weekend.
SATURDAY NOTES:• Washington Park was a crazy scene on Saturday. First up was the not-very-ubiquitous Mike Breen (who was suffering from some mutant military flu, so no Iron John hugs for him), who happens to be my immediate superior (and probably my superior in many other ways) and writer Gil Kaufman; we were quickly joined by former CityBeat mahout John Fox. After a bit of a chat, I offered to buy John one of the several dozen beers I owe him, but he deferred until later.
• Then it was Paul Roberts, Big Jim and Paul's sister, whose name continually escapes me. It's Paul's fault; he constantly refers to her as "my sister." It was the same problem with his buddies; "You know the guys." I'm old and I require constant reinforcement and I'm too embarrassed to ask and I'm usually drunk. That's not true; I'm always stupid and I'm occasionally drunk. Anyway, she's a wonderful person and bought me a beer, so she's in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, no questions asked. Except the obvious one.
• Then I happened into one of my absolute favorite guys on the planet, Mr. Kip Roe, bassist extraordinaire and truly one of the best human beings you can hope to encounter (at least as far as musicians hanging around Rock shows are concerned). He was squiring his young sons around Washington Park; not surprisingly, Kip's sons are every bit as smart and personable as their dad. We had a good long talk about a whole lot of life, and I can tell you this without hesitation or doubt — my personal existence and the world as a whole is better because Kip Roe is in it.
• John came around for the Wussy show so I fetched him the first down payment on the buckets of brewski that constitute my longstanding debt to him. Of course, if he'd paid me better, I could have gotten a start on this a lot sooner. I'm just saying.
• At some point during The Breeders' set, a woman came up to me and said, "You look like a music writer." Then she smiled really broadly. And I stood there exactly like the enormous dope that I am. First, she had black rimmed glasses and her hair pinned up and she looked like Lisa Loeb, who I did not see on the schedule this year. Second, I have actually gotten that "You look like a music writer" thing from people in the past (typically when I'm listening to music and writing), so I was processing that response. Third, I had only had one beer, so clearly I was not nearly intoxicated enough. It turned out be Amy Firis, boss Breen's super nice squeeze, who is always incredibly lovely to me but who looked nothing like I remembered her in that moment. Maybe it was the glasses (no, I think she had those last time), the hair (hairstyle changes confuse me; I once had carnal thoughts about a woman walking down Clifton Avenue when I realized it was my girlfriend in her newly tinted and shortened do, which was great because I figured I had a slightly better chance with her than with the hot stranger I thought she was) or the question. At any rate, forgive an old dufus, Amy. You disappeared before I could formally extract my hoof from my piehole.
• After Josephine Wiggs' admission that Ohio felt like home for her, the next most Hallmark-y moment came when Breeders guitar tech and uberbooked local producer Mike Montgomery (who performs as R. Ring with Kelley Deal and was nearly unrecognizable in his newly shaven look) gave Kip Roe's son Ben the band's set list from the stage, which Ben and his older brother Kip took backstage and got signed by the whole band. When Ben caught up with Wiggs and violinist Carrie Bradley, he told Bradley that he wanted to play the violin too and that seeing her play with the band was the best part of the show for him. Bradley looked like she was on the verge of tears. Me too.
• Jay Metz was at the METZ show and was trying to scrounge up the scratch to buy a METZ T-shirt, because who wouldn't do that? If a band is ever desperate enough to name themselves Baker, I'm getting that shirt, bet your ass.
• There were a whole lot of humans at the BRMC set. It was asshole-to-elbow under the tent. Almost immediately, I ran into Mark Houk and his lovely girl Jesi and they immediately set about the business of getting a beer in my hand. How do I love thee? Let me count the beers … I mean ways. You're in the Hall, dude. Brian Kitzmiller showed up about the time I was ready to make my move into the tent, and who should I run into but that gauge of all things cool, King Slice, who was clearly digging BRMC. A few songs in, I noticed a rather tall guy in a rather dapper vest trying to navigate his way into the Grammer's sauna tent who turned out to be tall, dapper local singer/songwriter Josh Eagle. See above description of Kip Roe; copy and paste here.
• I ducked out of BRMC to head down to The Ready Stance gig, since it was the effervescent and superlative-worthy Wes Pence's birthday. We had crossed paths at the end of The Breeders' set, but were headed in different directions so I figured to catch up with Wes (copy, paste again) in his less ephemeral state at The Drinkery. I got there in time to see their next to last song, which turned out to be their last song when Randy Cheek blew a fuse in his bass amp. If you've got to blow a fuse, it should be like that, I suppose. Here's a question; can a band of guys as nice as The Ready Stance make it in the cutthroat music business? God, I hope so.
• Ran into CityBeat/MPMF chief Dan Bockrath and his girlfriend Martha on my way down from the Wild Cub debacle. Dan actually apologized for not being in a position to buy me a beer. Apologized. Yet another princely move from a guy who's already seriously Hall of Famed. You don't have to buy me a beer every single time we meet, Dan. Every other time will do just fine.
• Moments later, it was Kelly Thomas on the sidewalk. Is there anyone in the scene right now who cares about it all as much as Kelly? I think not.
• By the end of Johnathan Rice's excellent set, it was 12:30 a.m. and there were a handful of bands I could have stuck around for, but I was done it at that point. My back and knees were screaming at me like Adrienne Barbeau in Swamp Thing so I knew it was time to go. I ran into Big Jim on the sidewalk, who had taken time out from MidPoint to see Sarah Jarosz in Hamilton, and he was headed to Below Zero to catch a shot with Paul. For a fleeting moment, I considered joining him but my brain sent me a message through the normal channels that if I deviated in any direction away from walking straight to the car, I'd drop like Michael Cera in a bar fight with Floyd Mayweather. I bid him well and headed for the car and home.
• Rewind: I crossed paths any number of times with the always incredible local band/event manager Venomous Valdez, and somehow she managed to skate right across my frontal lobe in the previous two postings. There are a handful of people who do some fairly impressive things for the local music scene and bring an almost single-minded passion and drive to the pursuit of exposing local artists to this community and to the world at large. And they'll have to work a hell of a lot harder just to see Venomous disappearing on the horizon ahead of them. Like McCabe, we are lucky to have her in our midst.
• Rewind again: Ran into Jeremy Springer of Cincinnati’s The Sundresses at Arnold's on Friday night, doing the Lord's work of making sure that food and drink multiplied onto every table in the courtyard. e noted that The Sundresses were headed to Detroit for a recording session and that the resultant album would be imminent shortly thereafter. It can't come soon enough.
• Once again, apologies to anyone who feels slighted if they didn't see our MidPoint interaction detailed here. The constraints of writing this thing in a timely fashion for posting on the CityBeat website necessarily means some things go in, most things are left out. The better part of my life is on the cutting room floor, so don't feel bad. Maybe next year you'll do something even more outrageous and quotable and you'll wind up in the embarrassing position of my providing written evidence that you actually hung out with me for a proscribed period of time. Then you'll be sorry.
• Another fabulous MidPoint in the books, and while we were without the essential presence of my pal Matthew Fenton, there plenty of absolutely brilliant folk to take his estimable place. First and foremost, as always, A huge tip of an oversized cap to Dan McCabe, the spark plug that fires up this engine year after year. We cannot thank you enough for the superhuman dedication you put into booking this amazing event (you would look smashing in a cape). And to whoever posted the tweet about turning MidPoint into a semi-annual deal, March would probably be a good time. Dan will still be hibernating then, so the author of said tweet should probably get started now on putting that together for all of us. Let us know how your breakdown turns out.
• Endless thanks also to the tireless (but probably extremely tired) volunteers who carry this thing on their capable but seriously overtaxed backs for three days every September. You are the true heroes of MidPoint. And of course, thanks to the venues who host the music, to the bands who make a supreme effort to get here (especially the ones who are already here) and to the mostly cool people who come to support them. See you all in some form or fashion in 2014.
Great news, y’all! I made it through another MidPoint without getting raped or mugged. (Getting mugged might not be so bad, though. “No, officer, it was definitely not me who bought Duck Dynasty underwear at Walmart.”) I know you were concerned for my safety.
I did MPMF quite a bit differently than I have in years past and I have to say, I think it contributed to it being the best one yet for me.
First, I forwent going with friends. I like my friends in small doses and on a couch talking about TV and girlfriends/boyfriends. Trying to coordinate concert plans with them, though, has always been an ordeal. Some of us are more hipster than others. Going it alone sometimes feels slightly sketchy, but mostly I think it helped my experience. I wasn’t forced to stand in any hot, cram packed rooms to see bands I was less-than-thrilled to see.
Second, I decided to spend my entire Saturday night in just one venue. I did this for a few reasons: 1) Everyone I wanted to see was in that venue; 2) Cheap parking close-by. Therefore, I spent my Saturday night either pacing around outside the Taft Theatre or swaying back and forth inside the Taft’s Ballroom.
And, ya know what? I had a damn good time.
The Taft is my favorite venue in town. Whether it’s in the seated portion or down in the basement, it just has an amazing vibe. I love those bright white bulb-lights out front around the marquee. It makes the whole place sparkle. It just looks like you could pick it up and sit it in the middle of Gatsby’s New York City. Downtown Cincy has plenty of art deco touches that I dearly love. However, nothing makes me feel more fancy and more ready for a special night than standing outside the Taft. In addition, the basement Ballroom, where all three of Saturday’s bands performed, has this comfortable, almost sexy darkness to it. You could get into a little bit of trouble in some of those shadowed corners. I wouldn’t judge you if you have. I might be disappointed you never invited me, though.
Bear’s Den opened the night and, since I’d seen them recently, I didn’t feel too bad when I spent the better part of their set outside on the phone. It gave me the chance to people watch, which is always a ton of fun at MidPoint. MPMF pulls in a jumbled assortment of people to tramp around downtown with their wristbands. I saw people my parents’ age, dressed rather fancifully, chat with security and then slip down into the basement. I also saw an insane amount of frat guys, plus one very drunk Reds fan and his seriously concerned girlfriend. (I still don’t know why she unleashed her concern to me. But I really hope she finds a new date for next year. Like, maybe someone who won’t put her life in danger?) Oh! And I saw one seriously fabulous drag queen. (I appreciate your use of neon, girlfriend.)
Despite missing London’s Bear’s Den, I know they rocked. Not just because I’ve seen them and I love them, but because they still had a line of fans waiting to meet them when the final act went on at midnight. I think Cincinnati fell in love on Saturday. I’m giddy for Bear’s Den and for Cincinnati. Good choice, my friends.
I caught Cincinnati’s Bad Veins, though. Of course, I’ve seen them before, but I never mind the chance to see them again. Those two boys can make a ton of noise. Even with a few sound/mixing issues, they still managed to keep the room enthralled. That may have had something to do with Ben Davis’ bellowing into the microphone or climbing to the top of the monitors. I have no musical talent whatsoever and my balance is minimal at best, but I was envious as he stood towering above me with his hands on the ceiling and an entire room of people staring up at him in awe. The Veins are a genuinely good band. Not “good for a local band,” but good enough to root for them to keep gaining fans across the country.
Later, I watched Davis stand in the back of the room talking to a couple people for a surprisingly long time. They seemed to devour everything he said. He has dangerous levels of charisma. It was fun to watch.
As much as I love Bad Veins and Bear’s Den, I’d spent all weekend eagerly awaiting Daughter’s performance. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t expect many people to show. I guess because I remember when “Daughter” was just Elena Tonra. I slinked my way pretty close to the stage and gaped at Tonra as she charmed the pants off everyone in the room. When it got stuffy a few songs in, I turned around and was speechless by the sheer amount of people that had suddenly come in behind me.
It makes sense, though. Jesus. Her voice is beautiful. If you were anywhere else in the city on Saturday night, you messed up. She sent heads to the shoulders of girlfriends and, shockingly enough, most cell phones managed to stay in purses and pockets. It’s not that she wasn’t worth capturing. It’s that she was too captivating for anyone to have any other thoughts other than keeping their eyes glued to her face and their ears filled with her voice. Oh. The bow across the electric guitar was a great (albeit not very new) approach, too. It added a nice eerie feel to Tonra’s already haunting voice.
As I left, I had big plans to reflect on the concerts and do a little pre-writing for this review while walking to my car. One of my favorite former co-workers waylaid me, though. So much for avoiding my friends. Cincinnati is too small for that. I didn’t mind too much; I got all the dirt on who had left and who (sadly) was still around.
Eventually, I said goodbye to my ex co-worker, wandered away from Taft Theatre’s bright lights and into the ever darkening street. As I meandered, it occurred to me just how much of a feat MPMF is for us. Cincinnati may be a city, but we’re not a very big one. How do we manage to talk so many stellar bands into visiting us every year? How is it possible we have something as beautiful as the Taft? How do we produce such a bounty of awesome local bands?
My best friend likes to joke that Ohio has bred more astronauts than any other state. He says it’s because Ohio is awful and space was as far away as they could get. However, I think we’ve bred so many astronauts for the same reason we’ve spawned bands like Walk the Moon and Bad Veins and all of the other great acts playing MPMF and for the same reason we put on such an great festival. We’re small but mighty. We put our hearts into the things and the people we love. Even if they don’t deserve it. (I’m lookin’ at you, Bengals.)