500 Miles to Memphis’ two most recent album releases are local classics that reside in two vastly different musical landscapes. Their 2007 album, Sunshine in a Shot Glass, offers 12 tracks of undiluted Country Punk. The album starts off with the band’s hit “All My Friends are Crazy” and doesn’t let up. The band’s followup, 2011’s We’ve Built Up to Nothing, took the Country Punk roots and drastically expanded on the concept. Influenced by The Beatles, the Cincinnati-based quintet added layer upon layer of instrumentation to craft an epic that radically expanded the groundwork laid in 2007.
Now, in 2014 the band is set to unleash Stand There and Bleed. With its latest release, 500 Miles to Memphis has pulled back and opted for a simpler, more straightforward group of songs. In doing so, the band has written its best album to date.
The band will host a listening party for the new album tonight (Thursday) at The Drinkery in Over-the-Rhine. The album will be played in its entirety at 9 p.m., then the group will play an acoustic set at 10 p.m. The event is free. (The official release date for Stand There and Bleed has yet to be announced.)
At its core, 500 Miles to Memphis has always been about vocalist/guitarist Ryan Malott telling the stories of his life. And with three years in between releases, Malott has plenty to talk about. Stand There and Bleed is Malott’s most personal output so far. We see a glimpse of tour life in “Medication,” the joys of marriage in “Takes Some Time” and the trials of addiction in “Easy Way Out.” Malott may have traded the bottle for coffee and a Playstation controller, but the struggle is ongoing. In fact, the best tracks on the album are the ones that document Malott’s missteps, but only because the album has so much hope, as well. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and Malott is steadily working his way towards it.
Joining Malott is bassist/vocalist Noah Sugarman, drummer Kevin Hogle, guitarist/vocalist Aaron Whalen and lap steel guitarist David Rhodes Brown. This all-star lineup compliments Malott’s lyrics expertly. Gone are We Built Up to Nothing’s more eccentric instrument choices; 500 stripped away the excess to more fully focus on what it had in house. The result is an album that’s more consistent and true to 500’s vision as a whole. Malott is influenced by Country and Punk Rock in equal measure and these influences come across stronger than ever on Bleed, with each member adding their own touch on the theme. Hogle’s drumming is still some of the best in town; his musical ear enables him to mold his style to each and heighten the mood of all. Brown’s steel playing on Stand There and Bleed keeps the more Punk-based tracks grounded in 500’s roots and elevates the Country tracks to another level with effortlessly delivered solos. Finally, Whalen and Sugarman’s guitar and bass inject energy throughout the record that reinforces Stand There and Bleed’s straightforward, powerful delivery.
Malott’s vocal delivery has been honed and refined on Stand There and Bleed, as well. Malott is an unabashed fan of Green Day and comparisons to Billie Joe Armstrong in songs like “Bethel, OH” and “Abilene” are undeniable. Malott has also continued to inject large amounts of emotion into his vocals. He’s always been an expressive singer but the earnestness and pain in “You’ll Get Around” and “Alone” show a departure from We’ve Built Up to Nothing’s more polished vocals. Part of the recording process was breaking Malott of those good habits and getting him used to putting the feeling back into each take. What results is an album that’s a little rougher around the edges and much more emotionally captivating for the listener.
500 Miles to Memphis has been pushing its music forward for years, constantly hitting the road to share its take on Country Punk. The band has been virtuous to the genre and also bent it to an almost unrecognizable state. With Stand There and Bleed, the quintet has met somewhere in the middle. The band has trimmed the fat, focused on what each (incredibly talented) member brings to the table and built a record that is its most focused and honest to date.
The band has traveled way more than 500 miles to reach where they are now, but with albums like Stand There and Bleed carrying them, they have plenty more ahead of them.
One could argue that New Orleans is one of the most fun places on the planet. You cannot beat the food, laidback attitudes and genuine hospitality. Combine all of that with some of the most talented musicians in the world and you have the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The New Orleans Jazz Fest kicked off in full swing last Friday, April 26, with thousands flocking to the New Orleans Fairgrounds to hear their favorite musical acts, see one-of-a-kind pieces from local artists and taste the flavors of New Orleans.
Local musical acts kicked off each morning on the 11 different stages around the fairgrounds, leading up to the first weekend's main acts, which included include John Mayer, Billy Joel and Dave Matthews Band, which closed out each night on the Acura Stage.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Jazz Fest for me each year is seeing “the bands before the main stage bands.” I always walk away with new music to listen to from legends and discover exciting new stage acts. This year I fell in love in the Blues tents with guitar legends like Sonny Landreth, Guitar Slim Jr., Lil Buck Senegal, Deacon John and Little Freddie King.
Dr. John, who is always a Jazz Fest highlight performed on Friday and had an Ohio native backing him. Dr. John recently restructured his band before Jazz Fest and kept only one former member, trombonist Sarah Morrow who grew up near Pickerington, Ohio, just outside of Ohio.
The New Orleans Fairgrounds filled to the brim Saturday with attendees showing up early to get the best seats to hear Bill Joel belt out his hits. Joel closed out his set by playing with New Orleans' own Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Sunday morning brought cloudy skies that soon turned into torrential downpours. But that didn't stop Jazz Fest goers from staking out spots for Dave Mathews Band. The skies cleared enough to dry off before the second wave of rain, soaking DMB as they played through the rain for thousands of diehard Jazz Fest fans. The dancing in the mud surely created lifelong memories for some attendees.
If seeing the Dave Matthews Band play an epic set in the rain was not good enough, you could make your way over the Blues tent and see the King play the Blues like it is the end of the world. BB King electrified as he took the stage in the Blues Tent to close out the first weekend of the festival. The legendary Allen Toussaint joined King on stage and, as BB began his set, belted out an a cappella Blues tribute to the King himself. King ended the set with a toast to the audience: "If I can't be with you next week, think about me some time."
Widespread Panic closed out my last day at NOLA Jazz Fest with a rainy two and a half hour set for their loyal legion of fans, all of whom seemed perfectly happy to dance in the mud at the Acura Stage.
Yesterday kicked off the second weekend of the famous festival and will feature performances by New Orleans native Mia Borders and Patti Smith.
I will miss New Orleans' music and food dearly when I go and will start the countdown to Essence Festival in July, when I return to the Big Easy for more music and fun times.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Because it's so good, we've decided to spread around the music reviews from our Brian Baker's regular I Shall Be Released column, so keep a look out for regular reviews of recent releases throughout the week. Brian's reviews of older titles released in the past several months that readers may have missed will be its own separate blog feature now, BackBlog. Welcome to the first installment.)
Last year, Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon and longtime cohort/GA guitar tech Ian Perkins translated their old school habit of enlightening each other to new and different music into a new and different side project which they dubbed The Horrible Crowes. Looking to explore completely unique aspects of their sonic identity, Fallon and Perkins dug into fairly esoteric sections of their record collections to find the inspirations and influences that sparked their creative cores on Elsie, their debut Horrible Crowes release.
Although Fallon is the first to admit his devotion to Bruce Springsteen and his desire to translate the Boss’ epic populist Rock into a punkier context with Gaslight Anthem, one of his avowed second line influences isTthe Afghan Whigs. It is that twisted soul mutation that informs the dark, mysterious core of the Horrible Crowes, from the quiet dread of “Last Rites” to the seductive Greg Dulli croon of “Sugar” to the soft Whigsian explosion of “Go Tell Everybody.” There are other melancholy textures on Elsie, as well; shades of Nick Cave and Tom Waits tint the backgrounds (“Go Tell Everybody,” “Mary Ann,” “Cherry Blossoms”) and the hushed tumult of the National and Paul Westerberg bubbles up through the mix (“Cherry Blossoms,” “Ladykiller,” “Blood Loss”), while Fallon’s lyrics paint a somber scene. There are even slight returns to Fallon’s Springsteen altar (“Behold the Hurricane,” “Crush”) but even when he and Perkins lean toward Gaslight Anthem territory, they work to maintain a clear distance between GA and the Crowes.
Like Dulli, Fallon can go from a tortured whisper to a visceral shriek in a matter of seconds, and his and Perkins’ guitar work and arrangements mirror that ability on the music side. In some ways, the Horrible Crowes’ Elsie is like Fallon’s take on Nebraska, a stripped back testament that’s too dark to take out with any frequency but is just right for an occasional cathartic howl.
Amber Nash and Jordan Neff met at an Oktoberfest party four years ago and within weeks were personally involved and professionally linked in a ukelele-centric Folk/Bluegrass duo that they dubbed Shiny and the Spoon (which one is Shiny and which is the Spoon has long been a matter of debate, and one gets the impression it’s a shifting definition between the two). For a spell, both Nash and Neff were roll-called as members of Magnolia Mountain, but they broke ranks last year to concentrate on SATS and the most immediate result of that increase in time and energy is Ferris Wheel, the duo’s debut full-length.
At first blush, Nash and Neff seem like a standard issue Folk duo, but SATS is far from typical. “Snowflake,” the lead-off track on Ferris Wheel, is a good example of what sets them apart. Although a strummed acoustic guitar intro and lightly touched upright bass suggest a familiar structure, Nash’s tremulous upper register vocal is more reminiscent of ’60s AM radio Pop chicks and contemporary Indie Folk/Rock chanteuses. But the pair quickly slides into a swirling atmospheric soundscape and “Snowflake” begins to breathe with a compelling and melancholy sigh that transcends their chosen genre.
Of course, not every song on Ferris Wheel follows this template, but it stakes a sonic claim that exponentially expands Shiny and the Spoon’s parameters. It happens again at Ferris Wheel’s midpoint when Nash and Neff offer their spectacular Indie Folk version of a-ha’s Synth Pop hit “Take On Me,” and continues on “Run,” which mixes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and a mariachi interlude. On “Killin’ the Flower,” Nash croons with the traditional modernism of k.d. lang while the pair constructs a Country soundtrack that swings its legs from Charlie Rich’s piano bench, while the title track glitters subtly as panned gold with an electric undercurrent to accompany the moody Folk/Pop that floats just above the counterpoint.
Ferris Wheel is a magnificent benchmark for Shiny and the Spoon, establishing the duo as acolytes of the dusty past and visionaries of a bright future.
Lana Del Rey’s often somnambulist performance on Saturday Night Live recently was her introduction to most of the country and if the bloggers and commentators are to be believed, it was a poor first impression to say the least. Del Rey has become a lightning rod for criticism and Born to Die, her quasi-debut album (she released an album in 2010 under her given name, Lizzy Grant) has been unflatteringly painted with an equally broad brush as a result.
Del Rey has been denigrated as a passionless huckster in a lot of reviews that cite her less than dynamic SNL performance and that’s a shame because Born to Die is a slinky Indie Electro Lounge exercise in sonic seduction.
Musically, Del Rey offers jazzy melodies that pulse with an Indie Rock edge and girl group snap, underscored by sampled orchestrations, beatbox rhythms and Tom Waitsian tool-shed atmospherics, while her vocal presence is a suggestive approximation of Kate Bush’s kooky swoop, Julee Cruise’s sultry whisper, Cyndi Lauper’s babydoll chirp and Marianne Faithfull’s youthful rasp.
She has referred to herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” which seems like a fair assessment. Sonically, there is a hypnotic continuity of tempo on Born to Die, a turn-off to some but an interesting counterpoint to the diversity of Del Rey’s song subjects, from the disturbing sexual dysfunction of “Off to the Races” and the hymnal Pop of “Video Games” to the Britney Spears thump and bump of “National Anthem” and the gauzy Angelo Badalamenti/Lee Hazelwood/Neptunes lost love moan of “Blue Jeans.”
Del Rey might not have been ready for SNL’s prime time performance but Born to Die is clear evidence that she is most assuredly a musical force to be reckoned with going forward, regardless of the haters’ poisonous opinions to the contrary.
Click on for reviews of releases by Hank III, Lindsey Buckingham and Mike Doughty.
Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s frontman Richard Edwards may be the most tenacious man in rock. In 2009, the band’s Indianapolis home base was heavily damaged by fire, they were dropped by Epic after the controversy over Animal/Not Animal and the majority of the band quit.
That would have been the end of Margot for most guys, but Edwards resurrected his outfit with bassist Tyler Watkins and multi-instrumentalist Erik Kang and, with an impressive guest list, assembled and self-released 2010’s spectacular Buzzard, a clattering bit of Indie Rock brilliance that diverged from Margot’s early Chamber Pop explorations.
Last year, Edwards and a completely reconstituted MATNSAS generated their recording budget through the Pledge Music website and began tracking their fourth album, the noisily majestic Rot Gut, Domestic.
Much like Buzzard, Rot Gut seems more shambolic and scattered than it really is; like a pointilist painting, it pays to stand back in order to appreciate the work. On Rot Gut, Edwards and MATNSAS have crafted an amazing amalgam of Wilco’s artful squall (“Disease and Tobacco Free,” “Fisher of Men”) and Ryan Adams’ buzzy indie evocation of ’70s Rock (“Books About Trains,” “Arvydas Sabonis,” “Ludlow Junk Hustle”) while simultaneously managing to reference the atmospheric Pop that marked their first two albums. After 10 tracks of that, MATNSAS finish up with an amazing one-two punch; the dissonant and fuzzed out “The Devil” is followed, logically enough, by the exquisite balladry of “Christ,” a Randy Newman-meets-Paul Westerberg piano-and-ethereal-frippery hymn (“Jesus breaks your heart every night when He doesn’t come”).
The scariest thing about Rot Gut, Domestic is that Richard Edwards and Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s might have an even better album than this minor masterpiece in them.
Saturday at Mayday in Northside, the great Cincinnati Indie Rock band Koala Fires will be performing for the last time. But the band is also saying goodbye with a gem of an album, Doom of the Norns, the band's second full-length, which will be officially released tomorrow in conjunction with the show. The Fires will be joined by Chicago's Brighton, MA and Cincy's Jody Stapleton and the Generals. Performers from Cin City Burlesque will also entertain between sets. Doors open at 8 p.m. and admission is $7. (Koala Fires will donate half of their merchandise sales Saturday night to help relocate the women of the Anna-Louise Inn.)
Doom of the Norns is a compelling piece of art, an Indie Pop/Rock record with a hefty emotional weight. Singer/songwriter Matt Mooney's vocals have never sounded better, his honey-dipped instrument crooning the album's up-and-down tales of finding love and losing it. It's not a unique concept, but in Mooney's hands, it feels real, raw, somber and often explosive. (Mooney wrote the record to help him get through the demise of his 10-year marriage.)
Mooney and guitarist Ben Evans play beautifully off of each other, their intertwining fretwork creating a wash of dynamic sound. Drummer Matt Retherford and bassist Matt Zink fuel the songs with precision and a distinctive flair; Retherford's fiery yet intuitive playing, in particular, is a crucial part of the albums success.
But the heart of the album is the passionate songwriting. These are Pop/Rock songs, but Mooney's melodies wind in unexpected directions and the songs themselves are dynamically structured. "Grim is the Doom of the Norns" sets the tone, building with twinkling guitars and Mooney's voice showcasing that early-love "head in the clouds" state of mind, before ripping into a big, exuberant chorus. "Nuckalavee" bops along on a jaunty rhythm, undercut by cutting lyrics like, "Do you want control of me? That might be nice/But after years and years he'll escape one night/He will terrorize, drink tears from your eyes and then scare your pain away."
Mooney may just be one of the best Rock lyricists in town. The powerful "Valley of the Kings" begins with the lines, "There used to be a thousand ways to tear this down and start again/But, now it seems there's just one way and it involves a match and some kerosene." The album gets progressively dark, but the words aren't defeatist — they sound like the kind of lyrics someone would write to come to terms with the ending a long relationship. It's artistic therapy. By the last couple of tracks, there is hope and resolve.
There is emotion to spare on Doom of the Norns, but this ain't no wallowing Emo spew. Mooney delves into his despair and writes about it smartly and poetically, making it the kind of album that would fit in your record collection perfectly alongside LPs by The Afghan Whigs, later Superchunk and Cari Clara.
When you fall in love with Koala Fires after hearing this album (if you aren't already in love with them), don't be too sad. Mooney has a new-direction project in the works, Retherford and Evans play together in the Cincy band House of Feeble Minds and Zink is a member of up-and-comers The Future Strikes. The Fires will burn on. (Click here to purchase the album digitally.)
When people are confronted with my ridiculously voluminous music collection, they are most often struck with its distinct lack of commonality. Growing up within 70 miles of Detroit in the ’60s will do that; anything you can imagine between and beyond Motown and The Stooges will generally light my sparkler.
In reference to music specifically and to life in general, I have often remarked, “Specialization is for insects,” but if Mark Utley would like to borrow the phrase when he’s talking about his band, Cincinnati's Magnolia Mountain, he’s more than welcome.
From the band’s beginnings six years ago, Utley has endeavored to reconcile his Rock past with his fresh love of all things Americana by investing his Magnolia Mountain output with a reverence for the Bluegrass, Folk, Country and Rock forms while investing them with fresh angles, lines and perspectives. Like a sculptor who has immense respect for the permanence of the stone but also implicitly trusts his chisel and creative vision, Utley shapes the raw material of Americana’s various stylistic permutations into songs that are comfortably familiar yet blazingly original. That ethic was a hallmark of Magnolia Mountain’s last double album, 2010’s Redbird Green, and it comes into even sharper focus on the band’s third and latest release, the aptly titled Town and Country.
Part of Magnolia Mountain’s variance from album to album is at least partially due to the shifts in personnel that have affected the band from the start. At the same time, Magnolia Mountain has always been something of a rotating collective with guests becoming permanent members and members becoming guests. Town and Country follows that template, as Jordan Neff and Amber Nash (who left to devote full attention to their side project, Shiny and the Spoon) and David Rhodes Brown (who has defected from his numerous band affiliations to concentrate on solo/side work) appear sporadically on the album’s 18 tracks. And once again, guests abound on Town and Country, including piano master Ricky Nye, Tillers banjo ninja Mike Oberst and Americana chanteuse Lydia Loveless, among others.
Utley’s grounding in and love of vinyl forces him to think of his dozen and a half songs in the context of four separate sides (which he also did on Redbird Green; both albums are available in double vinyl format), and the first side is indicative of the broad range of Town and Country. “Black Mollie” kicks things off like a traditional Folk ode, “One Waking Moment” is a classic Appalachian Bluegrass break-up jaunt and “Baby Let’s Pretend” is a bopping Country thumper that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Rodney Crowell or T Bone Burnett set.
But just when you think you’ve got Magnolia Mountain pinned down, Utley and company (Jeff Vanover, Melissa English, Renee Frye, Bob Lese, Kathy Woods, Bob Donisi and Todd Drake) blister the paint with the wicked Blues menace of “Set on Fire,” with sweet “sugar, sugar” backing vocals, searing slide guitar and thundering rhythm section. That quartet is a mere hint at the broad spectrum of styles and approaches that Magnolia Mountain achieves on Town and Country, from the funky twang soul Blues of “Rainmaker” to the supercharged Roots Rock swing of “Shotgun Divorce” (Utley’s duet with Loveless) to the atmospheric swamp boogie of “The Devil We Know,” as well as superb covers of Will Johnson’s “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” and Wussy’s “Don’t Leave Just Now.”
As usual, the brilliance of Utley’s songwriting is that he and Magnolia Mountain craft each track as a separate jewel that fits perfectly into the gorgeous crown that is Town and Country.
Ahhhh, MidPoint! I look forward to it every year. September, for this lady, holds promise, romance, intrigue and MPMF. I started my MPMF.13 off right: grabbed a baller parking spot right after work in front of Coffee Emporium, grabbed a baller iced Americano and grabbed my (you thought I was going to say baller? How presumptuous) press pass. I think I did say out loud to myself: Let's GOOOO.
The first band I wanted to see was my pal Molly Sullivan at 8:15 p.m. at Japp's Annex. I had some time to kill, so I hung out on the Midway. Sidewalk Chalk was still grooving; they've got a rocking brass section, shimmery drums and soulful singers. I previously saw them on Fountain Square last year as part of the Indie Summer Series, and really enjoyed everything they had to offer. Great fun way to kick off MPMF.
I wandered around the Midway for a bit, checking out the numerous box trucks that comprise the Box Truck Carnival presented by ArtWorks. The Midway itself is pretty awesome, easily accessible and kind of reminds me of a corral for progressively more intoxicated adults. I don't mean that in a derogatory way; I, too, enjoy consuming beer freely in the open on 12th Street. The Box Trucks this year held a lot of potential — I wrote about the Midway for the MPMF Guide in CityBeat a few weeks back, so I was well-briefed on what to expect. Well, kind of.
The first truck I checked out was the Glam Rock Box Truck. Anyone who knows me is aware of the siren call the word "karaoke" holds, so of course I went in.The premise was great (for karaoke nerds like me), but box trucks just don't do karaoke justice, honestly. There are a number of songs to pick from, but not as many karaoke staples as one might expect. And for being called the Glam Rock truck, I didn't really see any Glam Rock hits on the list. The ladies running the truck seemed to be having a good time, though, so I did my best version of "Semi-Charmed Life" and went off to continue leading mine.
I wandered around the Midway some more, stopping in the Short Order Poetry Box Truck, which was 19 kinds of adorable. You step inside the truck, get paired with a stranger who asks you random questions (hi Adam!) and then they'll create a poem, on a typewriter no less, just for you, ready in just about 10 minutes. Mine had a lot of death and blood and dream imagery, just how I like 'em.
I listened to a few minutes of stand-up in the comedy Box Truck before heading to Lucy Blue's. I notoriously put off eating until I'm ravenous, so I decided to carb-up on pizza in preparation for the long night ahead. I met up with friends at Japp's and we ordered drinks and chatted before wandering to the Annex to hear Molly Sullivan.
Every time I see Molly perform, I'm more and more impressed. She's really fleshed her sound out (the addition of friends on the drums and bass is the perfect complement to her singer/guitarist combo), and lots of people are noticing — she recently won the Last Soloist Standing contest at FBs, grand prize being a large cash sum. Molly's a charming vocalist; her voice is flexible and searching, and she's always been good at melancholy intonation. I heard a fresh version of "So It Goes" from the No No Knots days, and some of her newer material had an almost Jewel-when-she-still-had-a-snaggle-tooth quality to it. I really, really dug it. So did a number of other people — quite a dedicated following was there. I'd say Molly Sullivan's first solo show at MPMF was a great success.
I had been planning all week to see Kurt Vile at Grammer's, but there was about half an hour before he was supposed to go on and I ran into my pal Caitlin, who told me the mythical history of Shuggie Otis. I was intrigued, so I walked with her to Washington Park. I still don't know how I feel about the fact that they've moved the stage to the permanent pavilion instead of in front of Music Hall; there's such a grandiosity to playing in front of that gorgeous building that just isn't matched by the pavilion — and I know there are lots of sad Instagram accounts crying right now — but I understand the convenience. We'll see how I feel about it tonight.
Anyway. Shuggie Otis. Skyrocketed to fame by age 21 and receded into the abyss of obscurity? And then he joins David Byrne's label and comes back? Tell me more. Shuggie had a groovy Soul/Funk sound brought to life by a huge backing band, complete with a stellar saxophonist. Glad I caught a few minutes, but I was on a Kurt Vile MISSION, so I started the trek to Liberty Street and Grammer's.
Well, by way of my car. I grabbed a jacket and was headed north, but as I walked by Below Zero Lounge, I heard a voice too great not to stop. If Ryan Adams and Adam Levine and the bearded lead singer from Maps & Atlases had an Asian baby, it would be St. Lenox. He was just plain awesome. I wanted to hang out with him, I wanted him to sing an album of lullabies, I wanted to stay for his whole set, but I'll be damned if I wasn't going to see Kurt Vile.
I didn't see Kurt Vile. Whoever guessed that two paragraphs ago knows that my ominous overtone was poorly done. I got stopped again walking by MOTR, this time by Fort Shame from Columbus, Ohio. I feel like so many times when a woman is a lead singer of a rock outfit, the instinct is to compare her to another female vocalist, but it has to be one who's personality is somehow perceived as similar, or stylistically akin (and I do mean clothes, not just shredding), so I'm not going to compare Fort Shame's Sue Harshe to anyone, because I don't think that's fair and, honestly, it's a little reductive. I'm just going to say that she does credit to anyone singing Rock. And the band had a star saxophonist, which was super fun.
I did hear via Twitter that Kurt Vile sang the word "yeah" for like fifteen minutes at the beginning of his set, so I said it a bunch to myself as I walked back to the Midway to hear Ha Ha Tonka and didn't feel too bad about it.
The first time I saw Ha Ha Tonka was two (or three? who knows) Midpoints ago at The Drinkery. These guys have all gotten hair cuts since then, but they sound even better. They sound like what folky Rock cut with a raucous night of varying emotions that ends with hanging out with friends and beer staring at the river would sound like. You know the kind of night I'm talking about. They're just the tops. Tight and talented musicality and great stage presence is only topped by their impeccable four-part harmony. Just magnetic. Second or third time's the charm, gentlemen.
I finished my night seeing Bleached at the Know Theatre, which last year held all the buzz bands I wished I'd been able to get inside and see (something about being "at capacity"), and I wasn't disappointed. Punk Rock girls with a guy drummer. Ramones cover. Misfits cover. I thoroughly enjoyed my attempt at head-banging AND the fact that these girls didn't try too hard. I feel like a lot of Punk-esque bands nowadays are all like "I AM PUNK! LOOK, SEE, I AM!" but Bleached was more like, "Fuck Punk. We're just Bleached." Own it, dudes.
And then I walked back to my car and went home and passed right the heck out. I'll see ya at MPMF for round two tonight.
A perfect day, hot enough but not so hot as to suggest the idea that the ghosts of dead ants broiled by sadistic children with magnifying glasses were somehow exacting their revenge from beyond the veil of ant Valhalla. Why, yes, the '70s were good to me. Why do you ask?
At any rate, the potential for another spectacular launch to Bunbury's first day was palpable as ID was proffered, the laminate was provided and the wristband was snapped into position. The game is afoot (or as my wife's podiatrist might counter, the foot is a game … but I digress. Why, yes the ’70s were good to me. Why do you ask?) and another spectacular Bunbury awaits.
The beginning of the day was essentially a sampler platter of roaming about and checking out a few songs from a variety of sources. I started off down at the Amphitheater Stage to check out The Upset Victory, who had drawn a pretty sizable crowd for their muscular U2-tinged brand of melodically gritty Roots/Punk. Then it was down to the Warsteiner Stage for a more lengthy taste of Snowmine, who return to the '80s/'90s with a 21st century vengeance, mining a thick vein of Depeche Mode, along with a '90s aggressive Ambient quality and a quietly powerful modern edge. Then it was down to the Main Stage for a quick shot of X Ambassadors, who blend big tribal drumming with a Punk-fueled Pop core, a little like Imagine Dragons with a few hundred thousand volts pumped directly into their hearts. Finally it was back to the Amphitheater for a few songs from the soon-to-be-large Let It Happen, who were delivering their Green Day-esque anthemics in the blistering mid-afternoon glare of the unfiltered sun.
Then it was time to hit the Lawn Stage for the triumphant return of 500 Miles to Memphis. Frontman Ryan Malott has streamlined the band down to a potent quintet (guitarist Aaron Whalen, bassist Noah Sugarman, drummer-of-the-gods Kevin Hogle and the lap-steel-and-all-round-magnificence of David Rhodes Brown) and turned up the juice to emphasize the Roots/Rock thunder and downplay the Country lightning. There's still plenty of twang in their thang, but the sizzle and the sound is turned up to 11 in the slimmer, trimmer 500MTM. The band was clearly itching to tear shit up; they've been hard at work for the last couple of years or more assembling their new album, the imminent Stand There and Bleed (the title is a Tombstone reference; if you know the movie, you know the exact scene, and if you don't, shame on you for missing the greatest Western depiction of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday ever, so go fix that before another hour goes by).
Malott and the 500 blew through a set that was stacked with great new material (particularly "Bethel," a tribute to Malott's hometown), but they didn't forget to give the master his due, pulling DRB up from his lap steel duties to haul out yet another chilling spin on Trent Reznor's "Hurt"; if the hair doesn't stand up on your neck when the Colonel's baritone rumbles out, "You can have it all, my empire of dirt," you've got one of those weird, hairless necks. 500 Miles to Memphis has been well out of the public eye for the last year as they concentrated on life pursuits and sporadic turns in the studio to finesse Stand There and Bleed, so there was an urgency to get their fresh live set across as a clarion call to let everyone know they're back. Are they ever.
After a quick stop to water my horse (namely, me), it was a fast walk over to the Acoustic Stage for an hour of blissful Roots/Folk brilliance from Aaron Lee Tasjan, whose sideman work with Todd Snider, the New York Dolls, Drivin' N' Cryin' and Tim Easton has earned him a reputation as one of Americana's most reliably astonishing guitarists. But it's his solo persona that is becoming even more fully realized, as his sterling EP releases — 2011's August Moon, 2012's The Thinking Man's Filth and the just released Crooked River Burning — have shown Tasjan to be a songwriter of depth and beauty will beyond his calendar age. Listen to any given ALT song and you'll hear hints of Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Will Kimbrough, Rodney Crowell and Ryan Adams in his delivery.
In Tasjan's Folk world, there is no bellybutton introspection set to a strummed acoustic guitar; he'll peel off a solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix after telling a story about seeing Ted Nugent shoot flaming arrows into cardboard effigies of his enemies list worthy of Arlo Guthrie. There aren't many singer/songwriters (read that: any) who are writing tributes to the late, great Judee Sill, and fewer still who make incisive observations like "You can't play Beatles music with bullshit hair." Deals don't get any realer than Aaron Lee Tasjan, and you all need to make him a star at your earliest convenience. Go. I'll wait.
After ALT's hour of power, it was back to the Amphitheater for the transcendent magnificence of Lydia Loveless. She may have grown up in the hillbilly hinterlands of Coshocton, Ohio, but she is a city girl with enough Rock sass to satisfy any Indie hipster and enough twang to hold the interest of any Americana aficionado. In a set laced with electric greatness, primarily drawn from her latest album, Somewhere Else, Loveless and her brilliant band finished with an absolutely scorching take on "Boy Crazy," the title track from her 2013 EP. The song reached a fever pitch when guitarist Todd May, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth with noir-detective-meets-Bun-E.-Carlos nonchalance, sat on his feet in front of his amp at the back of the stage, coaxing an exquisite din of feedback from his guitar, while bassist/husband Ben Lamb concocted similarly haunted sounds by running his bass down Nick German's drum kit and Loveless herself fell onto her back on the stage and cranked out sheets of heart-stopping guitar madness. It was an extraordinary end to a truly amazing and all too brief set.
Exactly what is it about the Black Owls that resonates so completely with me? First, they effortlessly tap into that primal part of my brain that was developing during my teenage years when I was soaking up insane amounts of T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and the Stooges. Next, they punch forcefully into the neighboring brain cells, the ones that house the memories of discovering Television, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Talking Heads, New York Dolls and Be Bop Deluxe. And it's not that they sound like any of those bands (although occasionally they do), it's that they remind me of that beautiful, mysterious time in my life when there was still music to be revealed, and the visceral thrill that accompanied every new discovery. That is what it is about the Black Owls. They once again made that abundantly clear at the Lawn Stage when they tore through old favorites ("Wild Children," "Julias Morningstar," "Sometimes I Wish You Were a Ghost"), brand new classics in waiting ("Gasoline" and "Rook") and an absolutely hair-raising spin through Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire."
It was the standard Black Owls greatness, which is to say the quintet, as usual, presented their most familiar elements in new and unexpected ways so that even a grizzled old veteran Owls watcher such as myself was knocked back a pace and surprised by it all. Black Owls make me long for the days when bands put out two albums a year for not other reason than they could. Bassist Kip Roe continues to weave himself into the fabric of the Owls' sound and, as frontman David Butler pointed out, guitarist Brandon Losacker is proving to be a perfect songwriting foil for Butler and co-founding guitarist Ed Shuttleworth. The Black Owls seem to be entering a period of gritty reassessment, where dirty Glam riffs and anthemic chord structures are dominating the proceedings. Yes, please, and quite a bit more, if it's quite all right. And even if it's not.
Before I review the psychodots' Bunbury debut, perhaps a history lesson is in order. A good many years ago, music mogul and purported industry genius Clive Davis sauntered into Cincinnati with the stated goal of checking out The Raisins and perhaps offering them a lucrative and much-deserved contract. When Davis departed from our fair city without signing The Raisins, he explained the lack of a deal thusly: "They're an embarrassment of riches."
Please allow me to read between the lines and translate that five word headscratcher into layman's terms. What Mr. Davis was so obtusely attempting to convey was this: "The Raisins are a stellar band and I don't have the slightest idea how to market them without making them as smooth and textureless as Gerber's babyshit and as lame as a beggar in the Bible, essentially stripping them of the elements that make them unique, and if you think I'm going to dismantle and destroy this band or permanently stain my sparklingly legendary resume with the ugly reality that I was unable to sell the music of a gifted band to a quality-starved public simply because I didn't understand the complexities of either one, you've got several unpleasantly aromatic things coming in a flaming bag on your front porch."
Of course, The Raisins famously broke up, reassembling as the Bears with guitarist Adrian Belew and refashioning as psychodots without Belew. So in a very tangible sense, we owe the existence of psychodots to Clive Davis' short-sighted inability to recognize their root band's brilliance. I was devastated that The Raisins didn't make it and, after the 'dots' loosely tight/tightly loose set at Bunbury, I am relieved beyond measure The Raisins didn't make it. Success would have come at a great and terrible cost, and we would not have enjoyed 20+ sporadically splendid years of psychodots Power Pop bliss.
There may have only been 100 or so bodies at the Amphitheater Stage to witness psychodots' fabulousness (Fitz and the Tantrums were sucking up bodies like a UFO set to "harvest," and rightly so) but the 'dots never give less than 89%, and they were in full charge mode on Friday afternoon. There was Rob Fetters' squiggly guitar magnificence (I'd put him up against any guitarist in the history of Rock, and he'd be only mildly uncomfortable at being up against any of them), Bob Nyswonger's bass conjuring, using his instrument to evoke lead guitar and keyboard mayhem (and by instrument, I'm still talking about his bass) and Chris Arduser's master class in How to Drum with Power and Grace and Still Maintain a Smartass Attitude.
It was a delightfully eclectic set, with a number of old favorites ("Master of Disaster," "Living in a Lincoln," complete with Fetters' mom-inspired balloon-on-the-strings gimmick), a few quasi-oddities ("Candy," the rarely performed "The Problem Song") and a handful of non-'dots nuggets ("She Might Try" from Arduser's exquisite The Celebrity Motorcade, The Bears' "Veneer" from their last album Eureka, "Play Your Guitar" from Fetters' patently perfect new solo album, Saint Ain't, The Raisins' fist-pumping "Fear is Never Boring") and the band's always entertaining banter (Fetters apropos of everything: "Is anyone tripping?"; Bob Nyswonger after Arduser's observation that the evening was balmy: "Balmy," stretched langorously into two words). It was, in a number of words, a standard psychodots show, which means one of the best shows you'll ever see, local or otherwise. Long may they reign.
After the breathless 'dots set, I was torn between the Heartless Bastards' triumphant return to the area or the unlikely but much welcomed reunion of Veruca Salt's original lineup. With more than a couple of Bastards sets under my belt and the prospect of many more to come, I opted for Veruca Salt because, even if the reunion sticks, the possibility of the band's return to Cincinnati seems remote. The foursome did not disappoint, hauling out blistering favorites from their slim catalog in this iteration and reinforcing why we've loved their Glam/Pop brilliance for so very long. Whatever caused the rift between co-fronts Louise Post (who has kept Veruca Salt going in some form or other for the past 21 years) and Nina Gordon (who departed for a solo career in 1998), there was no evidence of any residual friction as the quartet blew like a hurricane through "Volcano Girls," "Straight" and their signature brain-boiler "Seether." The band even teased a couple of songs – including "It's Holy" from this year's Record Store Day single — from what was described as "their upcoming thing;" that thing cannot come soon enough. As final proof of Veruca Salt's newly minted reunion, Post and Gordon kissed at center stage amid a beautiful howl of squalling feedback. As the lights came up, the '90s called, they want their awesome back; they can blow it out their ass, because Veruca Salt is hanging onto it with all eight arms.
For the evening's closer, Empire of the Sun, the Main Stage was nearly as packed with bodies and gear as the field in front of it. The band's epic stage show, which has been described as Cirque Du Soleiel without the airshow, requires a lot of moving parts, and the Bunbury crowd arrived in significant numbers to witness the Rock/Synth Pop/Electronic spectacle. Empire of the Sun's primary sparkplugs, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore, and a veritable army of players and dancers offered up a wall of Prince-like Glam/Pop guitar and a danceable solution of Depeche Mode Synth Pop menace, all updated to a millennial frenzy of Muse/Daft Punk proportions. But rather than non-descript and identity shielding space/BMX helmets, EOTS prefers elaborate tribal headdresses that look like giant pre-immolation phoenixes atop the principals' heads. At one point, the dancers were all playing fake neon guitars in a 21st century version of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video. All of this plays out in front of a constantly shifting projection of disparate and arty images and screen saver light squiggles combined with a choreographed and dazzling light show that is both compelling and distracting. That dichotomy within the Empire of the Sun presentation matches the broad spectrum of reactions to the band's Cincinnati debut (and one of only a handful of American dates); the majority of the crowd was fully engaged in the band's expansive Vistavision sprawl, while a few canvased friends offered up opinions that ranged from "That was as exciting as watching glitter paint dry," to "Meh, it's okay," to "I totally love this." Editorial critique aside, Empire of the Sun was every bit as epic as advertised, and everyone who looks for spectacle in their Dancetronic music mix got more than their money's worth with Friday night's Bunbury closer.
• I started the day with a deliciously smokey pulled pork sandwich from the geniuses at Eli's, a bun so overstuffed with barbeque goodness that it's actually a pulled pork sandwich with a side of pulled pork. It's as close to a religious experience as I've ever had outside of a church (where I have oddly never had a religious experience … go figure) or a music venue (where I've had plenty; I'm looking at you, Iggy Pop). Washed down with a Fathead beer, it was the perfect start to the third charmed Bunbury.
• At the Snowmine show, I ran into "Hey-look-everybody-it's" Stu, from Paul Roberts' Three-Amigos crew. Stu reported that Paul and maybe Big Jim would be along shortly. And, in fact, they were.
• On the way from X Ambassadors to the Amphitheater/Lawn Stage area, I ran into Eddy Mullet and his daughter Jess. Eddy is the volunteer host of the Friday night 6:00-8:00 pm shift at Class X Radio, where I have surreptitiously installed myself as his quasi-co-host; I do the weekly CityBeat Report, a rundown of weekend music events, and a segment I concocted called the Gang of Four Set, four songs that are connected by a theme of my own twisted design. Eddy is also the longstanding host of Kindred Sanction, the area’s longest-running local music program that was founded by Cynthia Dye Wimmer a fair number of years ago at WAIF. Cynthia brought the show to Class X six years ago, Eddy sat in occasionally as co-host and Cynthia backed out of the show to attend to her life. Eddy's passion for and knowledge of the local music scene is legendary, and anyone who has ever dealt with him knows him as a straight up guy and maybe one of the best boosters that local music has ever seen. Class X management has seen fit to cut the show's hours and alter the format, all of which is wrong-headed and counterproductive, but all that really matters to Eddy is spreading the gospel of greater Cincinnati's music scene. And Jess is turning into a Rock chick of the first order (not like that, you gutter-minded dimbulbs). Under Eddy's tutelage, she's becoming a pretty fair aficionado of local music herself; smart, funny and fearless, she will be a force to be reckoned with in some near future. At any rate, if you see Eddy wandering around, shake his hand and thank him for his long-suffering and often unappreciated work on behalf of local music.
• Eddy and Jess and I hit a run of shows together, including the ever amazing 500 Miles to Memphis, the astonishing Aaron Lee Tasjan (who Eddy hipped me to through his love of Drivin' n' Cryin'), the gear-stripping Lydia Loveless and the transcendent Black Owls. Eddy and I could talk music for days on end, which we do at every given opportunity. Eddy also introduced me to Aaron, who he'd met after a Drivin' n' Cryin' show; that kid is going places, if Eddy and I have anything to say about it.
• Finally ran into Paul and Big Jim at the Aaron Lee Tasjan set, with "Hey-everybody-it's" Stu in tow. These three are also a great bunch of music lovers and supporters, local and otherwise, with weird, esoteric tastes. In other words, my people. I love running into them, and swapping stories and having Paul buy me beers, which he most generously did during the psychodots' set.
• Also briefly caught up with the ever-stellar Kip Roe, freshly installed bassist for the Black Owls and a prince among men. His boys, Kip Jr. and Ben, were there to witness the Owls' casual brilliance (anchored by their dad's bedrock solid basslines), but post-show were anxious to head down to the Main Stage to witness the Soul/Pop frenzy of Fitz and the Tantrums. Kip and the boys won't be spending Saturday doing any Bunbury adventuring, as they're headed to a Modest Mouse show in Columbus (a bucket list event, as Kip described it), but they will be back for the Flaming Lips on Sunday. Kip's boys are huge Flaming Lips fans. God, I love Rock & Roll families.
• And speaking of such, my other favorite component of Black Owls shows is the chance to catch up with the Owl wives, Amy Butler, Carrie Losacker and Sarah Kitzmiller (and let's not forget Ed's girlfriend, whose name, like so many other things, slips my addled brain. Why, yes, I did enjoy the '70s. Why do you ask?). We were trying to come up with a name for their defacto support group; I propose the Owlettes, and given Friday's heat and humidity, the Moist Owlettes probably was more apt. At any rate, they are wonderful people to interact with, and I look forward to their company every bit as much as the Owls' soul-stirring, flashback-triggering presentations.
• And on that subject, Ed, his girlfriend and her daughter (again, names … I remember knowing them in some distant past; maybe if they had hats with their names on them. That's how Stu solved his dilemma …) caught up with me while I scarfing down a couple of cheese coneys before leaving Friday night and offered a heartfelt Rock & Roll tale. Ed's girlfriend's daughter (note to self: this would be better with names) is a huge fan of Walk the Moon and as fate would have it, frontman Nick Petricca happened to be in town and was catching the Empire of the Sun show. Ed's girlfriend's daughter spotted Nick, professed her undying love for Walk the Moon, they chatted for a bit and she got her picture taken with him. Nick is clearly one of the good guys and his very open and engaging response to a fan's sincere outpouring of love and support is one of the reasons for the band's incredible success. And, as I noted to Ed's girlfriend's daughter, "It's always nice when you meet your heroes and they're not dicks." Thus should it ever be.
• The only thing that could have made the night complete after that uplifting moment would be a quick run-in with Jacob Heintz, former Buckra guitarist and Rock volunteer of the gods, as his constant presence at MidPoint and now Bunbury will attest. Another one of the truly great people that define the Cincinnati music scene as one of best in the known universe. I am physically fading and spiritually soaring. It's a good feeling for the end of the first day of another fantastic Bunbury.