I've had nearly a dozen different people ask me the same question over the last week or so: “What have you been listening to?”
Luckily, it's been a fruitful season for (relatively) new music. Here's my answer:
PJ Harvey —Let England Shake: Harvey's latest gets better and digs deeper with every spin via its textured arrangements and curious, Folk-tinged genre U-turns. I'm still not sure I like her more overtly topical lyrical bent, but her voice is as affecting as ever.
Our third and final day on-site at Bonnaroo was no less crazy than the previous two. I took occasional breaks during the day, sometimes in the air-conditioned press tent, and other times back at the campsite where I’d snack, get off my feet for a few minutes and pour water over my head.
The day began with an 11:30 a.m. press-tent panel discussion on changes in the concert industry since Bonnaroo’s inception 10 years ago. The panel included Bonnaroo founder Ashley Capps who reminisced about the festival’s early days. Capps and crew intentionally booked bands for the inaugural festival who already had direct contact with their fan base via the internet. By tapping into this pre-existing network, they were able to sell out the first Bonnaroo in just 18 days.
Singer/songwriter Eric Falstrom has been performing locally for several years, including with the rockin’ Mystery Wagon in the early ’90s. Since then, Falstrom has been working the solo route, releasing records on his own off and on since the end of the Wagon.
But Falstrom’s latest disc, Love Will Come Through, feels much like a reintroduction, featuring some of the best writing and performing of his career so far. The album is rich and focused, bringing Falstrom’s strengths (poetic lyrics, a heartfelt singing voice and beautiful arrangements) to the forefront.
Since her 1994 indie debut, The Honesty Room, Dar Williams has attracted a diverse and pathologically loyal fan base with her quirkily hybridized Folk/Pop ministrations. Like an elegant gene splice of Shawn Colvin and Loudon Wainwright III, Williams can easily triangulate the emotional distance between breezy humor, somber reflection and crystalline heartbreak, on subjects as intimate as family and love and as broad as culture and politics, by finding the commonalities between them and translating them through her muse. Equally relevant is the fact that Williams hasn’t shied away from experimenting with her base formula over the past two decades; her desire to extend her reach is a testament to her restless creative spirit and her success in doing just that is a testament to her steadfast audience.
In the Time of Gods is Williams’ ninth studio album and, like the majority of her catalog, it is a work that somehow manages to be both spectacular and subtle. In keeping with her need to experiment, Williams conceived In the Time of Gods as a concept album with each song representing a particular Greek mythological archetype, while also weaving contemporary emotional, social and cultural concerns into the narrative. It’s an unlikely formula, and one that requires an almost impossible songwriting balance, but Williams was clearly up to the task, because In the Time of Gods stands with the best of her albums to date.
Part of its brilliance is that Williams uses the Greek pantheon as a launch point to create her own dieties and address her unique issues, proving that mythology must be both consistent to be permanent and malleable to be relevent. The element that drives all of this home is Williams’ impeccable songwriting skill as she finds the connective tissue between gods and goddesses like Hera (“I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything”), Hermes (“You Will Ride with Me Tonight”), Dionysus (“I Will Free Myself”) and Poseidon (“The Light and the Sea”) and places their gifted and flawed archetypes in real life situations with real life outcomes.
As always, Williams’ musical accompaniment in this endeavor is engaging and beautiful and exactly right, providing the consistency that runs through her estimable canon. With a surgeon’s skill, Dar Williams has grafted the wisdom, wonder and humanity of Greece’s ancient pantheon onto In the Time of Gods’ modern cautionary tales, further evidence of the contention that Williams is among the finest Folk/Pop songwriters of the last half century.
I haven't done LSD in at least a decade, but Thursday's MidPoint Music Festival sure felt like a psychedelic flashback. My long-ish, strange-ish trip began at 9 a.m., as I drove into downtown and found Central Parkway colorfully dressed up as if an army of elderly women had sneaked in overnight and turned the strip into a Dr. Seussian wonderland. The colorful crocheting that hugged the trees, lampposts and practically everything else sticking out of the ground was actually the work of The BombShells' Yarn, who've dropped similar "yard bombs" on statues downtown (like the William Henry Harrison one in Garfield Park).
Regardless of whence it came, it set the trippy tone for my first day at MPMF.11. And things only got trippier. I'm a big fan of the surreal and bizarre, so it wasn't a bad trip, by any means. And the soundtrack was pretty kick-ass.
Putting a tour together that includes three opening acts is a daunting challenge, but one All Time Low has risen to. When the popular Pop Punk band brought its tour to Cincinnati's Bogart's on April 30, all four bands on the bill definitely had their supporters, but the fans seemed to enjoy each of the other acts, as well. Of course everyone was amped to see All Time Low. The group's much anticipated major label debut Dirty Work was pushed back until June, which meant "The Dirty Work Tour" was a rallying call for ATL fans to get pumped for the forthcoming release so they'll save up their allowance money for the big launch date.
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.