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.
Electronic Rock duo Pop Empire has released its debut full-length, The Devil’s Party, available now for free download via The Recording Label Web site. The “all free!” label is the brainchild of Cameron Cochran, formerly of The Sheds and one half of Pop Empire (along with Henry Wilson). PE and labelmates Sacred Spirits (whose Some Stay was The Recording Label’s first offering) co-host a joint release/label launch party this Friday at the Southgate House with guests We Are Hex and The Kickaways.
For once, I’m feelin’ pretty good on a Monday, because I just got my hands on a little disc full of weird and wonderful tunes, and it’s from right here in town.
I’ve sprained my neck.* I’m taking Vicodin and Thursday night is the first night of MidPoint Music Festival. When my editor told me my review should be first-person and to “think, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” I snorted at just how closely it might come given my current intake of prescription drugs.
No longer stoked for the experience but realizing it’s far too late to get out of going, I texted my friend, Rachel, on Wednesday night. Was she going? Could I tag along with her? The buddy system seemed like a good idea this time around. She immediately told me sure and that she had planned to see Andrew Bird, Best Coast & Dirty Projectors on Thursday.
Thursday evening, I stroll toward Washington Park. There aren’t tons of people out at 7:45, but it’s still early in the week and early in the night. There are still enough people that it’s easy to walk mindlessly at the heels of a group of scarf-donning 20-somethings and end up where I need to be to meet my friends.
I glance around, but I don’t try too hard to find Rachel. She’s one of those people you hear before you see. Instead, I find a spot near the sound booth between two relatively attractive and seemingly girlfriend-less guys, pull out my phone and begin to send texts and emails.
By 8:10, I’m bitching, though.She knows I’m jacked up on painkillers. If I wander off with some heavily bearded rapist in skinny jeans, thinking he’s Rach, it’s all her fault. Mostly importantly, I’m absolutely distraught that I shaved my legs yesterday. I’ve always had this strange idea that if I’m about to get raped, I’ll just say, “You don’t want me. It’s a hot mess down there.” I think he’ll be disgusted by my lack of feminine upkeep leave me alone. Now I’ll never know if that line works! Has anyone already tried it? I’ll have to Google it later.
It's 8:20 and I still don’t see Rachel. I do, however, see a tall, lanky shadow near the ATMs and he’s laughing. It’s Dan. I text Rach for confirmation and then head over to find him with a few other people I know. (They have names, too, but they’re really irrelevant for tonight.)
We make a few bad jokes and then Andrew Bird starts with zero fanfare. He just launches into his music, people applaud in surprise, and he carries on It’s a beautiful view. Andrew Bird has these slowly spinning art-installations that look like plumes of smoke and a very cool rotating double-Vitrolla-like thing. Above the roof of the stage glows the pretty, white flora-inspired window of Music Hall. Last time I went to Music Hall for the Opera, I was probably parked just about where my friends and I currently stood.
He’s good. His whistles have me staring at him in expectation. Where are the little animated birds fluttering toward him with ribbons for his hair and water for his face? It’s all just so pretty. I’m mesmerized.
Until my foot lands on something hard and round. Is it a sprinkler head? Yes. I know this without having to look at it. And yet, drop my head and try to find the small black circle as it hides out in the grass and my shadow. I don’t see it. But I feel it, right under my foot. It finally occurs to me that I should lift my foot and I immediately stumbled into Rachel and Dan, who shrug off my apologies. Figuring out how long I’ve known Dan requires higher math than I’m capable of, but he’s used to my stumbling into him.
The stumbling and bumping calls my attention to the fact that Andrew Bird is playing not only an entirely new song but also he’s in an entirely different spot. He’s near an upright bass, hovering over an old microphone and making music I love oh-so-much. Still, when it’s back to the usual stuff, I’m not the only one feeling the weight of his mellow music.
It’s decided that we need caffeine. Fast.
As half our group strides through back alleys and around clusters of people, Rachel tries, to no avail, to tell us that Yelp says Coffee Emporium closes at 8 p.m. She’s like one of Andrew Bird’s birds, she sounds nice in all the chaos, but she’s having a hard time rising above it. In the end, it takes standing in front of Coffee Emporium’s darkened doors for Dan and I to admit defeat.
Ira’s (Iris? I can never remember) is closed, too.
So, we do what any sensible, caffeine depraved people would do: We send Dan to his apartment to make us some while we go stand on Clay and watch Best Coast through a fence.
No one will ever convince me this isn’t the best view for their show. Sure, you can’t see their faces. But, you can still pick up on all their energy and hear things perfectly. Mostly, though, you also get to see the rest of the crowd dancing like crazy fools, singing along and having an awesome time. Standing outside that fence, I think I enjoyed the energy far more than I would if I were amidst those flying elbows and twitching hips.
Dan and, our friend, Erik are back.
They brought camp chairs and no coffee.
We utilize the chairs and this awesome see-saw for a hot minute before Dan gets a text about Bluegrass at Mr. Pitiful’s and then we’re off, again. I’m still not entirely sure what our friends were talking about at this point. They came out giddy over the .5 seconds of music they heard that sounded Bluegrass and Irish. (Despite knowing Dan for at least half my life, I’m still surprised by how absolutely stoked he is about this.) They mentioned a name that I don’t see anywhere on Mr. Pitiful’s Thursday line-up. However, on Friday we’re all meeting up at the Midway at 5p, where they are, apparently, playing again.
Despite multiple pleas of, “Are you sure we shouldn’t support our friend?” and “We could at least peak in and say ‘Hi,’” we don’t make it into Mr. Pitiful’s to say reassuring things to Young Heirloom’s Chris Rob.** For a brief second I contemplate making a stand. I’ll stand like Superman and demand we give this musician-man our dues!
Except they’re talking about caffeine, again, and if they go too far, I’ll never find them. Even not on my best of days, OTR is like that tricked out maze in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. Except Lord Voldemort is played by a skinny, African American guy who comes up to Dan while we’re still on Main Street.
“Hey man, have you ever been tazed?” he asks my friend.
A bright light flashes and I’m terrified for my one-time best friend. What’s that disarmament spell? But it’s just a watch or a flash light or something and Dan, who I think I’ve only ever seen mad once (at me, of course), just shakes his head and tell the guy it’s not cool, he doesn’t even know him.
And then we’re just not there anymore. We’re in 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab.
But, I don’t actually like either of those things. All I’ve wanted all this time was a pop or a chai. They have chai, though. And they’ll ice it! And, you know what else? It doesn’t taste like my coveted goodness from Fido, in Nashville, but I think it’s better than Starbucks. Holy Shit. This place needs a drive-thru.
I’m talked out of seconds by Rachel, who is bound and determined we make it to The Emery for Dirty Projector. I’m ready to give up the ghost. I just want another chai…or 10. There’s a cheese plate that looks good, too. Mm, Cheese. But, I remind myself that I’m supposed to be writing about the music. Also, I have no idea which direction I’d go to get back to my car once I’ve been properly filled with dairy products.
So, off we go, to the Emery.
It’s packed. Thank goodness Cincinnati is filled with some seriously sweet people. A bit of rearranging and the seven of us are in one long row in the balcony. We’re only forced to sit and hide yawns for a few minutes before the music starts.
I like Dirty Projectors and their quirky, disjointed Pop Rock. It makes me want to dance. Except no one in the balcony dances. I can see hints of movement and excitement below. But the people around me, the ones near the rafters, are zombie-like. No one moves, except to yawn or to leave. It’s hot, too, and I swear on anything that it smells like Skyline up there.
They should have played at Washington Park. Out in the cool air and in the open field, where there aren’t seats to lull the tired, drunken masses to sleep. That would have been better for everyone.
When I find myself trying to calculate the likelihood of my death if the balcony collapses, I know it’s time to go. It’s been a short night, but I’m done. If I stay much longer, I’ll fall asleep. Or I’ll throw up. I pop a Tums for the trip back to my car and duck out.
Once outside, I’m far less concerned than I should be about the fact that I have only a vague idea how to get to my car.
There is one thing I know for certain, though: I’m stopping for Skyline on the way home and I want extra cheese.
*Who knew that was even possible? Not me.
**That’s his name with us, whether he likes it or not.
The National’s set was evidently well thought-out, opening with the powerful "Mistaken for Strangers," with the vocals and drums seemingly soaring through the theater. If you haven’t had a chance to catch a show at Emery Theatre (my first experience was last week), you should certainly make that a priority. The theater, coupled with a band like the National, truly makes for an unforgettable experience. The venue alone creates a sense of intimacy between audience and act, something that is usually sacrificed to see your favorite bands.
From the very start of
the set, the audience was completely engaged with the boys on stage, bursting
into cheers and applause at the every songs beginning and end (and even during
songs at times). The only drawback for me was the fact that Matt Berninger would
simply not let me forget that the show was political. It seemed as if in
between every song some sort of Democratic rhetoric (not that the other side’s
rhetorical strategies are any better) was interjected. Something about the importance of voting, or how
privileged we are, which is somewhat obnoxious at that point. It’s highly
doubtful that anybody was suddenly converted by The National, and even more so
that anyone in attendance last night was slightest bit unsure about their vote.
I suppose that’s mostly my fault, though — I should expect such from a campaign concert.
All that aside, the audience was left in a state of bliss by
the concert's end, as The National closed out their set with an unplugged
version "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks." Earlier in the night, I had spoken to a
friend who had said the venue was acoustically pure, meaning that even without
any sort of amplification, the sound would still resonate throughout the entire
theater — and he couldn’t be more right.
The sound was not hindered in any way (I was a few rows back) and it
carried through the historic site as if I was the only one there. The closer truly unified the entire show into
a ecstatic experience that I will certainly not forget.
Cincinnati is loaded with Blues talent. Always has been. Yet it is still a rare and noteworthy occasion when a Cincinnati Blues artist releases an album with primarily original music. Brad Hatfield has long been considered one of the area’s premier harmonica slingers. With his new release, Uphill From Anywhere, he also establishes himself as one of Cincy's most distinctive Blues voices — both as a singer and as a songwriter.
Richly produced by Jon Justice, who also shares many of the writing/arranging credits, and featuring Hatfield’s father, keyboardist Bernie Hatfield, Uphill From Anywhere is an album that will please lovers of standard Blues fare, as well as those who like their Blues flavored with a little gospel and groove.
The album begins with “Witness to My Misery,” a straightforward gut-thumping march, and then moves into “Fit to be the Fool,” a shuffle that will certainly please the Blues purists. All signs point to pretty standard Blues fare at this point, albeit it with heartfelt lyrics and sultry amplified harp tone.
But with the Justice-penned “One More Night,” we’re immediately snapped back to attention with percussive stabs, Hammond organ overtones and honeyed slide guitar reminiscent of the best Warren Haynes-era work from the Allman Brothers. Soulful and inventive chord progressions and equally soulful singing elevate this song a notch or two above the first two tracks.
Indeed, the brightest spots on Uphill From Anywhere are the departures from the 1-4-5 12-bar formula that are the bread and butter for so many Blues bands. “Livin’ Out the Lie” has a great Robert-Cray minor-key R&B vibe and “End of Time” has an uplifting Gospel feel, reminding us to not fret too much since “they’ve been talkin’ bout the end since the beginning of time.” The song makes you want to take the nearest woman by the hand, pull her close and dance like there’s gonna be a whole bunch of tomorrows.
Brad Hatfield has paid more dues than many of us have and for a decade he’s been widely respected as one of Cincinnati’s greatest Blues harmonica players. But the revelation of this album is how Uphill From Anywhere firmly establishes Hatfield as one of our city’s most poignant Blues vocalists. In fact, the second to last track, “Too Good to Give Away,” features guest harp work from New Jersey’s Dennis Gruenling. Harmonica players are a notoriously competitive and territorial lot, but Hatfield yields the instrumental spotlight and lets his voice tell the story with his husky, agile and often moving growl.
Appropriately, the album’s final cut is an a capella version of “John the Revelator.” Brad Hatfield’s voice takes you to church, or the field, or to the mountaintop, and you believe every word he’s saying.
Sample the release below:
You can catch the Brad Hatfield Band in June at Saturday, June 9 at the Colerain Park Amphitheatre from 5-8 p.m., and Friday, June 22 at Geez'l Petes in Covington starting at 8:30 p.m. Visit www.bhatfieldbluesband.com for more on the album and future shows.
Saturday at the Southgate House’s Parlour, area Indie band Fake Hands celebrates the release of its first studio project, the EP Here We Are After Dark, which follows a pair of self-recorded and -released efforts.
The five-track release is an excellent introductory calling card for the relatively new band, which features four core members and a handful of others who add horns and other ornamentation to the band’s clever spin on Indie Rock.
Loudon Wainwright III could very easily have slid into the where-are-they-now realm of celebrity obscurity if he had allowed himself to be swallowed up by the one-hit wonderment of “Dead Skunk” in 1972. Although most people at the time only knew him for that ubiquitous single, Wainwright was confident that he had plenty of other weapons in his songwriting arsenal and set about to define the 40-year Folk/Pop career that has brought him certain measures of acclaim, wealth and notoriety as a songwriter, performer, actor and dysfunctional family man, each role woven inextricably into the fabric of the others (remember when he was Captain Spalding, the singing surgeon on M*A*S*H?). Clearly, the two paths that have intersected most often in Wainwright’s life are music and family; his itinerant singer/songwriter’s existence has been both a positive and a negative in his numerous attempts at familial stability and his parents, wives and children have been an endless source of grist for his songwriting mill.
Chief among Wainwright’s influences has been his often larger-than-life father, whose death at 63 left a gaping hole in his 17-year-old son’s life and psyche. A great deal of Wainwright’s unresolved love and anger issues concerning his father have been worked out in his songs over the past few decades, but his latest uniformly excellent album finds him looking back at his long timeline after reaching the milestone birthday of 65, a momentous and bittersweet benchmark that inspired the album’s title; Older Than My Old Man Now.
Like much of his recent work, Wainwright explores the familiar subjects of family, aging, death and lust on Old Man, which he does with typical candor, humor and reflection. Wainwright opens with the jazzy “The Here & the Now,” an annotated but honest account of his 65 years (“I took a wife, we had some kids/I screwed that up and went on the skids”), a history that he continues tracing on the contemplative and mournful “In C.” In the eloquent spoken word intro to the title track, Wainwright calls his father his “principal ghost” and then launches into a Delta-flavored vamp that addresses the psychic conundrum of having more calendars under his belt than his dad (“Sixty four is awful old, you know what can happen next/Hey, I’m older than my old man ever was, and I’m trying to keep it in context”).
Wainwright’s broad range is best typified by the ridiculously funny “I Remember Sex,” a parlor piano duet with Barry Humphries’ female alter ego Dame Edna Everidge, and the sublimely heartbreaking realizations of “The Days That We Die,” where Wainwright expounds, in prose and rhyme, on the reality of getting closer to life’s finish line without having fully reconciled with his children for his real and imagined sins. Listening to Wainwright and son Rufus trade soul-searching verses about life and change and forgiveness will bring a tear to the most cynical eye.
Over the course of the past few albums, Wainwright has honed his songwriting style to a fine point and narrowed his focus to very personal issues which he has translated into impossibly universal songs. Older Than My Old Man Now finds him in peak form in that regard, and reinforces the idea that he’s probably got plenty more to say on every subject as his finite journey heads inexorably toward the infinite horizon.
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.