I love the last day of MidPoint and I hate the last day of MidPoint.
I love the energy and anticipation of what has always been the best night of the festival and I hate the thought of going home at the end to the reality of another 362 day wait until we can do it all over again. Other than a couple of hiccups, both personal and universal, this may have ultimately been the most perfect MidPoint ever.
First up for Day 3 was a stroll to Washington Park for Freelance Whales, the Brooklyn, N.Y., Chamber Pop group that filled the void when a skateboard fractured Sleigh Bells touring schedule. This was my first experience in the park since it’s renovation and it really is spectacular from every conceivable vantage point. The design, the playground, the fountain, the attention to detail; Washington Park is destined to become a downtown jewel and everyone who threw in to execute this vision is to be commended, and perhaps knighted, if we do that.
I did want to see Freelance Whales, but I had a side agenda for coming to the show; I figured there might be a chance of spotting my friend (and former CityBeat contributor) Matthew Fenton since this is the kind of show he likes. As I scanned the growing crowd, I spotted and was spotted by none other than former CityBeat editor John Fox, now installed as a big cheese at 3CDC, largely charged with publicizing and programming Washington Park. We talked about the park and the triumphs and travails of attempting to make it as universally inclusionary as possible to all of Cincinnati’s residents. I hadn’t talked to John in a very long time, and it was great to catch up, but it was greater to see him so incredibly excited about the park and its potential. He has always been an incredible friend and booster of the city and he’s in the perfect position to channel that passion.
In the spirit of his being “the host” at the park (and my ever deepening poverty), I let him buy me a beer. In all seriousness, I owe John an unpayable debt. He recruited me as a CityBeat freelancer when he was building the paper back in 1994, and his one requirement for a place on the masthead was that I get back to writing features, something I hadn’t done in well over six years at that point. John’s conditional offer of freelance work launched me on a path that continues to this day, and absolutely set the stage for my transition into full time writing when I lost my full-time design gig in the idiot epidemic of 2001. So many great experiences and interviews and interactions and friendships resulted from a lunch meeting 18 years ago when John looked me straight in the eye and said, “You are too good of a writer to be doing nothing but reviews. You need to be writing features and that’s all I want you to do for me.” Without that firm encouragement and faith, the last couple of decades could have been very different indeed. I owe you an ocean of beer, Sir John Fox, and although it may be awhile before I can start making payments, please know that I acknowledge the debt.
OK, dry your eyes, pussies … on with the shows.
Freelance Whales were an excellent stand-in for the silenced Bells. Their gorgeous Chamber Pop swells and subtlety were made even more majestic and expansive with Music Hall as the backdrop behind the MidPoint stage. As the sun went down and Music Hall lit up in anticipation of the evening’s CSO performance, Freelance Whales’ gorgeous melodicism and quietly powerful presentation was exponentially amplified. Any fan of the Decemberists or Arcade Fire should make room for Freelance Whales in their playlists.
From there, it was a brisk walk through the teeming Midway (what a fantastic idea, please let’s do this forever) to Japp’s Annex to witness the loopy edge of the New World Ancients. The Chicago quartet exudes a definite Pop/New Wave vibe, a quirky clockwork rhythm that suggests Go 2-era XTC and early 10CC with hints of the frenetic artiness of what was known initially as the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. That 21st century New Wave concept was reinforced on “Shape Shifter,” which careened like vintage XTC and Danny Elfman, while “Hole in the Sky” sounded like a Space Rock anthem collaboration between Andy Partridge and Godley & Creme; they even hauled out the brilliantly weird “We Are the Future,” an old song from Athens, the band that spawned NWA. All four NWA members had all-seeing third eyes painted on their foreheads, which offered just the right amount of creepy fun to the proceedings.
Ric Hickey ducked into Japp’s for a tour of the porcelain village, on his way to rendevous with Greg Gaston and Jeff Wilson to check out The Walkmen, and since I was headed that way myself, I followed him out. The four of us drifted down to Neon’s for a beer or two, bullshitted for a spell about music and life (like there’s a difference), watched the Reds tie the game in the eighth (glad we didn’t stick around for the extra innings … cest la vie — still division fucking champs, babe) then headed up to Grammer’s for The Walkmen (Ric rethought his schedule and hung around for the late lineup at Japp’s).
Although we were half an hour late for The Walkmen’s start time, it turned out they hadn’t been particularly timely. As we waited at the front gate (based on the asshole-to-elbow crowd that packed Grammer’s tent, I was convinced the line was designed to grease up latecomers so they could slide into the throng more easily), I was overwhelmed by the exquisite aroma drifting over from the food truck next to the entrance. Greg saw my sidelong glance and gave the taco truck and the young lady taking the orders a ringing endorsement.
The Walkmen were as fabulous as I suspected they would be. Spiffed out like a GQ Rock fashion layout, The Walkmen displayed a similarly stylish edge in the live presentation of their energetic yet restrained studio work. Still going strong a dozen years after forming from the ashes of Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys, The Walkmen have evolved from atmospherically sparse Pop to more visceral and then Folk-tinged Indie Rock. The Walkmen’s new album, Heaven, is a more lush sonic affair, with songs that deal with the pressures of adulthood and the strength of love. The album’s sonic breadth is hinted at in concert but The Walkmen are more than capable of allowing the songs to do the heavy lifting, presenting them with power rather than mere volume.
In an age of disposability, The Walkmen have persevered for 12 years without a lineup change, going their own way in their own time, and seamlessly tempering their youthful enthusiasm with their hard-won maturity. It’s a wirewalk that few bands can pull off but The Walkmen manage to do it with an easy grace and humility; they were clearly affected by the huge turnout for their MidPoint debut.
I reluctantly bailed after about 30 minutes due to the start of the 10:00 pm shows I wanted to catch, and my creeping hunger, the launch codes for which had been entered coming into the show. I headed straight for the Taco Azul truck and quickly discovered Greg was right on all counts. The tacos were otherworldly good. All apologies to Mr. Hanton’s for straying from my steady diet of handwiches, but it was inevitable; when I was at Washington Park, I noticed that Island Noodles, which had been a huge hit at Bunbury and my favorite food of the festival, had a booth near the MidPoint stage and I briefly considered working in a walk back to the park to score a noodle bowl. Saturday was destined to be hot dog free.
I was just finishing my tacos when I ran into Black Owls' Brandon Losacker and three of the Sohio musketeers, who were all headed to Below Zero for The Ready Stance show, which was my destination as well, so off we went to see the wizards. Brandon graciously handed me a delicious Kentucky Bourbon Ale, the perfect cigarette after my taco interlude.
The Ready Stance was already in full swing and what a swing it was. The bar was absolutely sardine packed with fans loaded with love for the Stance and they didn’t disappoint. After a scorching spin through what I’m guessing was a new song (I didn’t recognize it as anything from their debut, the uniformly excellent Damndest), Ric Hickey stood wide-eyed and slackjawed and proclaimed the song’s classic brilliance. He wasn’t wrong. Damndest was a great opening volley, but their next shot could well be the one heard around the world, and this gig was an all too brief example of their talent and passion. A great set from a great band.
Near the close of the Stance’s set, I ran out to the Midway to catch the last three songs from Imperial Teen, because they’re one of my favorite Indie Rock bands with a quirk factor that is discernible but not obvious or trendy. I’d been looking forward to their 11:30 pm slot, but Imperial Teen’s set moved from the Hanke to 10:00 pm to accommodate the outdoor music curfew. It was clearly a great finish to what seemed to have beeen a rollicking set; Sean Rhiney declared it to be his favorite band of this year’s MidPoint. And the band was certainly appreciative of the large crowd that turned out for them; frontman Roddy Bottum noted that this was their only Midwest show and that they were glad that it was happening in Cincinnati. Their new album, Feel the Sound, is fantastic, as is the bulk of their catalog, and I hope they find their way back here very soon.
After that, it was a quick hustle over to The Drinkery to witness the Hard Rock fireworks provided by Thunder Bay, Ontario’s Bella Clava. I had written up the CityBeat preview for the band so I was already inclined to check them out, but the Mad Anthony guys had done some gigs with them and were highly recommending the show, so Bella Clava went from “possible” to “definite” in short order. The adrenalized quartet was hotter than fresh lava and proceeded to melt every face in the jammed Drinkery space with the ferocity of a bull on crystal meth. Frontwoman Caitlin Dacey was a mind meld of Ann and Nancy Wilson, switching between guitar and keyboard, guitarist Steve Suttie channeled the likes of Jimmy Page and Richie Blackmore with sweat-drenched conviction and fury, and the rhythm section of bassist Scott Hannigan and drummer Zack Mykula created a thunderous bottom that could have been registering as a seismic event.
The band was clearly moved by the MidPoint love they were receiving; at the end of their set, Caitlin noted, “I need to get a picture of you guys; my mom won’t believe it.” Ringo Jones hopped on stage and got a shot of the band with the Drinkery’s Rock drunk crowd behind them. It was a thing of beauty.
Then it was back to Below Zero to yet another near capacity audience for yet another Canadian import. Zeus came highly recommended by Losacker and several others, so I decided to check them out. The quartet were as good as advertised, sort of a Hard Rock spin on the Beatles and the Kinks. In the studio, there is a more than noticeable Sgt. Pepper vibe to Zeus’ sound, but in the live context, some of that psychedelic subtlety gets shaved off in favor of a leaner, more visceral Rock experience. It was clear that a fairly large percentage of the audience knew what they were coming to see, because there was a good deal of song recognition and wild response in the crowd.
I ducked out after about 30 minutes of Zeus’s sonic lightning bolts to catch the end of the road for local Rock heroes The Dukes Are Dead. Here’s proof that sometimes bad luck can result in good things; London’s Leogun was forced to cancel their MidPoint appearance and so the Dukes’ final show was pushed to the closing slot, allowing them the leeway to play considerably longer than their original 9:45 time would have accommodated. In some ways, it’s been a bad year for straight-up Rock in Cincinnati, with the recent demise of Banderas (MPMF regulars) and now the dissolution of the Dukes. As befitting a band that was playing its last show in the last slot on the last night of MidPoint, the Dukes left nothing in the bag. The band’s frenzied set was a thrashfest of howling vocals and grimy, guttaral riffage that was so explosive it was tempting to think that Luke Frazier and Luke Darling were playing six string grenade launchers, while bassist Randy Proctor worked his bass like a lead guitar and drummer David Reid hammered his kit like he was forging broadswords for Middle Earth giants on an anvil made of asteroids and pain. Formed just three years ago, it looks like the Dukes are going their separate ways to pursue new musical projects, which we can only hope results in a massive stock split as four hugely talented Hard Rock provocateurs subdivide into a handful of new and similarly bent projects.
We will certainly welcome the Dukes Are Dead in their new individual configurations, but anyone was there will never forget the way they went out collectively. It could have been a bittersweet moment, and to a certain extent, it was, but it was also the joyous beginning of the rebirthing process, and in that context, the final show of The Dukes Are Dead was an absolute perfect way to draw the curtain on MidPoint 2012.
MidPoint 2012 Saturday Night Notes:
• Even by my standards, I swilled a lot of beerage at this year’s MidPoint. Mike Breen threatened me with an intervention and a film crew from the so-titled A&E show, but he also offered to buy the beers, so it was all good. Still in all, if you ran into me and expect to see our exchange in these musings and it’s not here, don’t feel left out. There are events that, even just hours old, are vague and unstable memories to me now. It’s a lot to expect for an aging and beer-sodden brain, so bear with me.
• Day 3, no Matthew Fenton. It cannot be that we didn’t cross paths even once over the course of the three days here, so I have to believe that he skipped this year’s soiree. He and Kelly were here for Bunbury in July so maybe that was the reason he bailed this year. A MidPoint without Matthew is like a MidPoint without sunshine, and while I get that the vast majority of it happens at night, you know what I mean (or refer to the preceding paragraph for clarification).
• Ran into MPMF stalwart/stage manager/former Buckra guitarist Jacob Heintz, his niece and pal Brome (the spelling of which I’m guessing at). It was the first time I’d spotted Jacob all weekend … I was beginning to think maybe I should take a shower, the way I was being avoided. Then I decided that was a rash decision. Or maybe just a rash. Either way, it was great to see Jacob.
• Crossed paths with Paul Roberts and his sister at Japp’s during the New World Ancients. It was the first of many crossings with Paul and his merry band of Rock rangers, including Faint Signal guitarist Randy Campbell, big Jim and the little guy whose name always eludes me (see the opening paragraph for clarification).
• I love that local singer/songwriter Ric Hickey is back in town after a stint on the west coast. And more importantly, Ric Hickey loves that Ric Hickey is back in town. Time to strap up and Rock on, my brother. Welcome home.
• The Ready Stance gig was a stacked deck of musical luminaria; The Purrs’ Jim Antonio, drummer to the stars Dana Hamblen, Black Owls’ Brian Kitzmiller and Brandon Losacker (who repeatedly supplied me with Kentucky Bourbon Ales, which I may have developed a dependence on), the above noted Ric Hickey and CityBeat head man Dan Bockrath, who repeatedly bought the beer at every possible opportunity. I’m thinking of starting a Kickstarter campaign to fund the construction and upkeep of the Brian Baker Beer Buying Hall of Fame. I smell a plaque with Dan’s name inscribed on it. Or maybe I just missed the urinal. Again.
• A couple of Sean Rhiney (musician and co-founder/operator of MidPoint before CityBeat took over) sightings, first at Washington Park as I was departing Freelance Whales, and again at the Imperial Teen show. Sean is a prince among men, and even has a princely look. If royalty ever comes back to America, Sean should be in line for some kind of dukedom or earlship or lordiness. Really.
• I happened upon former Host vocalist Chris Charlton, who was handing out free copies of the debut issue of his new comic book, Sleepless. His written all the stories and worked with a variety of artists to bring them to life in Sleepless, which is being published by Assailant Comics; there will definitely be a #2. Chris says he may get back to music at some point, but right now he’s concentrating on the comic. The first story is a zombie love story, but my fave was “Artificial Unintelligence”; pick one up and enjoy at your leisure.
• Randy Cheek (member of The Ready Stance and Fairmount Girls and former bassist for Ass Ponys) needs to write a book. After the Stance gig, his stories in the alley next to the dumpsters beside Below Zero were all incredible, ranging from stepping in human waste after a gig (the phrase “slightly melted poopsicle” was used) to seeing a bedbug on an amputee’s stump in his daytime role as an exterminator, all of which was punctuated by a guy pissing on the other side of the dumpster. Randy really needs to write a book. Really.
• The old saxophone player who was blowing on 12th Street just down from the Midway segued from the theme song for Sanford and Son to George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” which, in my state at that moment, was a sure sign that a portal to another dimension had been accessed, or that alien beings had just been contacted, like with that weird note sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’m still not sure it didn’t.
• I stumbled into Mark Messerly, Eric Appleby and his lovely wife Trish on the way to Bella Clava. I should have asked Eric about Matthew. There were exchanges, a bad vaudevillian punch line (mine, naturally) and gales of laughter (a drunk is never not funny), as well an introduction to some lovely people whose names were obliterated by the first stormtrooping guitar chord that hit me at The Drinkery. I pulled out my pad to write them down on my big notepad titled "Don’t Forget, Dumbass," and they were gone. Regardless, it was nice to meet you. The second introduction usually sticks.
• There were so many people at the Bella Clava and The Dukes Are Dead shows that my memories are kind of bubbly around the edges, like a burnt photograph. The Mad Anthony guys were all there, Jeremy Constantinople from Banderas, Paul Roberts and the gang (which sounds like they’re the Cosby Kids or something, but they’re not, I’d bet), and Beth, who I met at the Black Owls show, and a guy named Chad who has a band in Newport and wanted to hire Randy after the last Dukes show (he told me the name of his band, but the opening paragraph should be referenced for clarification) and Dan Bockrath who bought me a Red Stripe because it was the only beer the Drinkery had left, and you were there, and you and you. And it was a beautiful, beautiful night filled with amazing people and fabulous music and love. Or at least really intense like. And it stoned me. Or the opening paragraph did. Either way, blissed out at MidPoint again and again and again.
• As always, thanks to the great (and nearly jailed) Dan McCabe for his grace under fire and his dedication to making MidPoint one of the best things that happens in Cincinnati. He is a king in the new royalty, a king I tell you. Thanks also to the tireless volunteers who make this run like a well-oiled machine (I use beer to oil my machine, and it’s a good thing the volunteers don’t take that approach or nothing would get done), the fans who spend their hard earned money on wristbands and venue tickets and food and gallons of goof juice and souvenirs, and of course the bands who come from
around the corner, across the state, around the country and the globe to entertain us and bring a little musical sunshine into our spongey consciousnesses. Or is it consciousnessi? I don’t have time to look it up. MidPoint 2012 is a lovely memory, and I’m drooling like Pavlov’s dogs for next year’s lineup, whatever it may be. Matthew Fenton, your place is saved. Next year, for sure.
Now in it tenth year, one of Cincinnati’s most celebrated bands, Wussy (led by former Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver and his equally skilled songwriting partner/co-frontperson Lisa Walker), has amassed an amazing discography so far. Beginning with 2005’s Funeral Dress, the group quickly developed a reputation for the “ragged glory” of its performances, both live and on record. That sense of recklessness worked impossibly well with the band’s fractured, soul-burrowing love songs and the unbridled tense, passionate energy between its co-leaders. Early on, Wussy often sounded on the verge of falling apart, but there was always something magical about the group that assured you that, even if by Scotch tape and rubber bands, the band would hold it together.
But with each successive release, Wussy’s edge-of-cliff nature gradually dissipated. By the time of the rockers’ third album, an eponymous affair in 2009, Wussy had become a more confident, cohesive unit. But not in the way, say, Paul Westerberg went from alcoholic Punk poet to “mature” singer/songwriter. As the band’s fourth full-length, Strawberry, shows, Wussy isn’t getting boring. They’re just getting better. Which, considering how powerful albums like 2007’s Left for Dead were, is almost scary.
The air seems sweeter here in the front of the website, the sun a little brighter and the deadlines a little more immediate, but as Uncle Ben once reminded Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. So here we are in relatively short order with a batch of new reviews and a few more older titles in my continuing quest to revisit the deserving releases from the not-so-waning months of 2011. We’re getting there, slowly but surely. Read them while they’re hot; there’s more where they came from.
Good ol’ Art Damage Lodge opened up its doors last Friday to its regular crowd of chin-scratching art buffs, alcoholic hipsters and crusty noise mongrels, who filed into a hot, sticky room and plopped down on hot, sticky couches to get their fix of some hot, sticky, live experimental muse-sick.
Fifteen years ago, if you heard about a young, new Ska/Reggae band releasing an album, you’d be forgiven for thinking the crew played some variation on so-called Third Wave Ska, the Punk-driven, Ska-tinged sound popularized by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and others. But if you subscribe to the belief that music lovers and makers often turn to more pure forms of music in times of societal uncertainty (as some say is the case with the Indie Folk movement), The Newport Secret Six’s dedication to the earliest forms of Reggae and the authentic sound they come up with should be no surprise. There are no distorted guitar or gang-vocal shouts on Licking River Rocksteady. It’s simply a fantastic modern Reggae album bustling with energy, soul, personality and tradition.
I drifted off Thursday night and had my wonderfully fitful sleep punctuated by the strangest dream. Like most dreams, it was disjointed and surreal, but it made an odd sort of sense. It’s never easy to describe these nocturnal apparitions but it was so vivid, I shall give it a try.
Friday, July 13
I was walking downtown. I knew exactly where I needed to go but I didn’t know exactly how to get there. A ridiculously convoluted route got me to the desired entrance, I received my press credentials and a map of a fascinating kingdom which I entered through the back gate, popping up in the midst of a Craft Beer Village, a place I would revisit many times.
Because of family obligations, I had arrived late, and the celebration, which had been dubbed Bunbury, was already in full swing. I headed for what I perceived to be the main concentration of activity and there ran into Brent and his wife Kat, who I frequently cross paths with at these sorts of soirees and who are always a welcome sight and great companions. Almost immediately, I encountered my nephew Jim, who proceeded to buy me a multitude of beers, a welcome refreshment on a steamy afternoon.
We made our way to the Globilli stage to see The Crash Kings, a keyboard/bass/drum trio that made sounds like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath with a twist of Styx (when they were a decent Rock band) refracted through an Indie Rock prism. Keyboardist Tony Beliveau was improbably wearing a long sleeve flannel shirt in 90-degree heat, but he said they were from L.A., so he may have legitimately been cold. They played songs from their eponymous debut and a few from their as-yet unreleased new album, there was an epic bass solo at one point, and Beliveau made other worldly sounds with the use of a whammy bar on his rig, which I had never seen before. The Crash Kings were incredible, and they would have kicked 1975 square in the balls.
At the Landor Stage, Ponderosa were cranking out some sweet Indie Rock/Soul from their first album, Moonlight Revival and their new album Pool Party, which ultimately led to a cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U.” Kalen Nash, clad in a much cooler serape and stalking the stage in Hobbit-like bare feet, bemoaned the loss of the Southgate House and said to the crowd, “Let’s bring that back.” We couldn’t have agreed more.
Back at Globilli, O.A.R. were giving a sizable audience a fair dose of heartland Indie Rock and getting an enthusiastic response in turn. The band started in Maryland but rose to prominence as students at Ohio State, and became something of a regional phenomenon. Much like the Dave Matthews Band, O.A.R.’s reputation grew by grassroots methodology and hard work. Marc Roberge acknowledged their local ties and thanked fans for their loyalty with a rousing set. Jim’s pals Andre and Kevin arrived at some point, more beers were acquired and all was well.
I took my leave of Jim and his friends to check out Ra Ra Riot at the Bud Light Stage. I love their studio brand of visceral Chamber Pop/Indie Rock and they most certainly do not disappoint in the live arena as they tore shit up good and proper. Ra Ra Riot make compelling feel-good music but I always feel a touch of melancholy when I listen to them, remembering their courage and loyalty when they remained together as a band in the aftermath of losing their original drummer John Pike, a drowning victim five years ago. Their biggest successes have come in the wake of that tragedy, but they remain in contact with Pike’s family who have in turn remained fully in Ra Ra Riot’s corner. That is truly inspirational, and that depth of feeling is translated into every note that RRR puts out into the universe. The real headline from RRR’s set was Wes Miles’ announcement that Bunbury was “the best run festival we’ve ever played,” high praise from a band that’s attended SXSW, CMJ, Seaport Music Festival and a good many others.
Somewhere between O.A.R. and Ra Ra Riot, I ran into Sean Rhiney (Messerly & Ewing) and Brian Kitzmiller (Black Owls), and was introduced to a flock of people (between them, Sean and Brian know every human in the Tri-State area) whose names are lost in a haze of previous beers but who were constant friendly faces in a sea of humanity over the next three days. I raise a perpetual glass to your continued well being and camaraderie.
It was back to the Globilli stage for The Airborne Toxic Event (named for a phrase in Don DeLillo’s 1985 chemical spill thriller, White Noise), which I’ve found to be one of the better muscular Indie Rock outfits. On the surface, they might seem like one of many innocuous radio-friendly ciphers but they’ve got a fascinating back-story, a fairly intricate sound and impressive songwriting talent. Frontman Mikel Jollett and his TATE cohorts played with a calculated frenzy to a rapturous response, and Jollett even injected a few serious moments into the festival’s spirited atmosphere to plug the Wounded Warrior Project and to offer some bi-partisan criticism (“Don‘t tell us you’re with us if you’re for cutting veterans’ benefits, don’t tell us you’re with us if you’re for raising taxes on returning veterans...”). A show with a message and a blazing soundtrack … not too shabby.
Then it was back to Landor for the most anticipated show of the night, and quite possibly the best show of the festival; the triumphant return of Cincy's Foxy Shazam. Eric Nally was in rare form, in both gymnastic stage behavior, microphone stand ballet and crowd interaction. A sampling of his repartee: (facing GABP) “Hey Votto, if you can hear me, hit the motherfucker out of the park..."; “I did an interview and when I read the story, the writer said we were unique, and I said, ‘Yeah, we‘re unique, just like everybody else..."; “Spill a little wine over here, spill a little wine over there, eventually everything’s red, spill a little blood over here, spill a little blood over there, eventually everything’s dead.”
During “Unstoppable,” someone winged a bottle of Gatorade at Nally, who flung it straight back and took issue by singing “Whoever threw that Gatorade is going to pay” at the close of the song. He then chastised the offender, saying, “Don’t make me explain to my kids why I have a bottle of Gatorade stuck up my ass,” and noting that he would let security allow the thrower backstage if he wanted to fight. Classic Nally.
Later, Schuyler White danced on his keyboard then tossed it onto the front row of the audience and dove into the crowd, playing while the audience held him in place. Classic Foxy. The crowd went batshit crazy when Foxy launched into “I Like It” from their latest and best album, The Church of Rock and Roll. At the breathless conclusion of Foxy’s set, the bar was officially set for the next two days.
With a fairly elaborate stage set complete with women on trapezes and giant video monitors displaying some sort of acid freak-out movie from the ’60s, Jane’s Addiction clearly trumped Foxy in terms of spectacle but fell short in terms of raw energy. Dave Navarro peeled off plenty of scorching riffery, his patented classic combination of ’80s Hard Rock and ’90s AltRock with his guitar set to stun, Stephen Perkins bashed his kit like a man possessed and new bassist Chris Chaney supplied a thunderous heartbeat, while Perry Farrell stalked the Globilli Stage like an earthbound raptor, howling his way through a set comprised of songs from their latest album, last year’s The Great Escape Artist, and heavy on the classics from their other three discs.
The show couldn’t be characterized as lackluster or phoned in, as it was a feast for the senses; plenty of engaging trappings and a propulsive soundtrack that tapped into memories of a visceral and compelling band on the edge of the alternative frontier two and a half decades ago. It was all incredibly entertaining, but it was a far cry from the scalp-tingling urgency of JA’s hungrier days, which is why this tour was designed with so much visual overload; few if any bands are able to recreate their earliest chemistry 25 years after the fact. My favorite JA memory will always be their opening set for Iggy Pop in 1988; seeing Jane’s at Bogart‘s that night was the aural equivalent of licking an electric outlet. I was certainly not disappointed with what transpired during JA’s Bunbury set, but neither was I spellbound by it. And Farrell’s humorously profane diatribe (“Let the pussies hear you!”) linking Pete Rose’s absence in the Baseball Hall of Fame to Jane’s Addiction’s lack of nominations two years after their eligibility was a bit awkward; he seemed to think steroids were somehow involved in Rose’s case, and as far as JA is concerned, well, four albums over a quarter century span, regardless of the influence of the first two, does not a Hall of Fame career comprise. I was glad to have experienced Jane‘s Addiction in the 21st century and I like the bombast they’ve created to present their old and new material but, as Blue Oyster Cult once noted, this ain’t the summer of love.
At some point during the JA set, I spied my most excellent zen editor Mike Breen, so I sidled over for some quick face time (being freelance I don‘t get into the office as much as I probably should), and he seemed to be digging the show greatly. I look forward to his thoughts on it because I greatly respect his musical opinions in a completely non-ass nuzzling way. (Editor's Note: You're hired! Fireworks rock! And "Free Pete Rose"!)
And Jim’s wife, my niece Robin, came late to the festival but somehow spotted me in the twilight and gave me a nudge in the back. Even though she is only five years my junior, I have been married to her aunt for almost three decades, and so I am and will forever be Uncle Brian, which is both touching and charming. A good number of the nieces and nephews I inherited when I started dating my wife have kids of their own now. Time and the generations march on.
I left Mike to his JA reverie when I spotted revered music connoisseur and branding legend Matthew Fenton (once an occasional CityBeat music contributor), who came down from his lair in Chicago to experience Bunbury’s inaugural year. I had e-mailed him to ask if he and his most excellent girlfriend Kelly would be in attendance, but never heard back. Turns out he’d quit his job after last year’s MidPoint and has taken up the study of improv comedy at Second City, a program from which he will graduate next month. I am both astonished and completely unsurprised because Matthew is a genius that makes geniuses insecure. Matthew assured me that Kelly would be around for Saturday’s festivities and introduced me to his older brother John, an equally princely guy by all indications.
Now we have a festival.
Saturday, July 14
I made my way back to the media entrance, this time being tended by old friend Jacob Heintz (Buckra) and the lovely and talented Sara Beiting (a former CityBeat all-star). The cloud cover was heavier, and it had already rained relatively hard north of the city but it didn’t seem to have impacted the downtown area too badly. I grabbed a beer and made my way through the throng … or did I make my way through the throng and grab a beer? The skies were not the only things that were partly cloudy.
At the Globilli stage, I was just in time for the start of Alberta Cross, a British duo now getting their mail in Brooklyn and fleshing out their live sound with a full fledged band. They sported an expansive vibe that had an appealing Verve quality, or Oasis without the contentious brothers problem screwing everything up.
By Saturday, you better have developed enough Bonnaroo survival tactics to make it through the day. The key is to keep pounding water and let the music fuel your body.
Saturday’s schedule was like NOS octane pumped into my bloodstream. The day was kicked off at 11:30 a.m. on Which Stage with Rebelution, a Reggae/Rock group from Santa Barbara. The 100-something degree weather didn’t keep a crowd from showing up and grooving out to Rebelution’s soaring, heavily reverberated jams that echo with uplifting, worry free vibes — exactly what we needed as the hottest part of the day was upon us.
I love the last night of MidPoint. And I hate the last night of MidPoint. I love it because it’s typically the most attended of the festival’s three nights, the energy is beyond amped, the venues are packed, the very air seems charged, like Duke abandoned electric cables and is beaming power through the aether straight into your skull.
I hate it because this is the end, my only friend the end, and even as the evening begins with a promise of greatness, it comes with a melancholic touch and before the light has started to diffuse, I’m already missing this year’s festivities and anticipating next year’s first night.
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