I’m not going to pretend I knew what synesthesia meant before listening to former Cincinnati/current Columbus-based Hip Hop artist Ill Poetic’s latest release, Synesthesia: The Yellow Movement. But after diving into the seven-song EP (and looking up the title on dictionary.com), I discovered that synesthesia is something like a music-induced hallucination where the afflicted see music as colors, which is the perfect description the album has on its listeners.
In the short amount of time it takes to get through this EP (just under 24 minutes), Ill Po takes the listener on a funky, soulful trip through his creative process. On the first track, “Be Cool,” Po is kind of like Samuel L. Jackson in the diner scene of Pulp Fiction (without the Jheri curl), urging everyone from politicians to status rappers to just chill the fuck out and re-birth the cool like Miles Davis.
“Be Cool” then melts into a laid-back Soul cut, the highlight track “On My Way,” which features crooner CJ the Cynic. It’s probably just the producer in him, but Ill Poetic lets CJ take the reins of “On My Way” for almost the first two minutes before he brings his spoken-word lyrical styling to the production, which is reminiscent of early Kanye or Eryka Badu with, dare I say, an added dose of creativity.
The wait for Po's words is well worth it, however, when he spits that “Ghostface is my real estate agent." Again, I really don’t know what this means, but the sheer image of calling Sibcy Cline or Century 21 and getting Ghostface Killah on the other end of the receiver is pure imagery gold.
On the sixth track and first single off the EP, “Gone,” the song cleverly describes Po’s struggle to leave Cincinnati and pursue his dreams (his every body part attempting to convince his brain to dip-out), while the Jazz-style production makes the listener want to roll-up and take a road trip with this song on repeat.
The best part about this album, though, is when Ill says “You don’t have to be cool to listen to this; you don’t have to listen to this to be cool.” So for all the nerds, dorks, dweebs and losers out there looking for new music, have no fear. You don’t have to be cool to listen to this and listening to Ill Poetic won’t make you cool. But it surely couldn’t hurt.
Click below to preview and purchase Synesthesia: The Yellow Movement. For more on Ill Poetic, visit his official site here.
Some musicians get jaded and cynical when they become mostly known for only a handful of songs that aren’t even necessarily the best examples of their work. When this happens, bands sometimes fall entirely on their most popular songs and use them as a crutch. Or they shy away from playing them at all.
Alison Krauss and Union Station may have earned their biggest media coverage and added the most fans when they were featured on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, but they’ve released far more music than just that handful of songs.
After being in the music business for over 20 years, the gang know how best to handle appealing to their most faithful fans as well as their soundtrack buddies. At the Taft Theatre March 31, the ensemble played the best songs from its newest album, Paper Airplane, and quite a few older favorites. Because so many members of Union Station have careers outside the band, the night also featured a few solo performances. Alison sang “Let Me Touch You for Awhile” and Dan Tyminski played the “singing voice of George Clooney” when he revived “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Dobro legend Jerry Douglas even played a little bit of Paul Simon – a sneak peek at his forthcoming album, perhaps?
The group also had to appease concert goers who may only know Alison and the boys from the O Brother songs or her duet with Brad Paisley. They did this with an encore full of those well-known hits. Included in that mix were two verses of “Down to the River to Pray” and the last verse of “Whiskey Lullaby” (with just Krauss backed up by her bassist). All of those songs, by the way, were played with instruments unplugged as the members leaned in around one vintage microphone.
The night was enjoyable for fans on any part of the dedication spectrum. The band members teased each other and had fun together on the stage and their smiles were, as cliché as it sounds, contagious. The music Saturday night couldn’t have sounded any better if you were listening to the group's albums through a sweet-assed Bose system. They performed flawlessly.
Last night was a glorious night for music and glorious music was made. Combinations don't get much better than that. Things didn't start so well, though; a quick e-mail on Wednesday revealed that, for a variety of reasons, my friend Matthew Fenton wouldn't be making his annual pilgrimage from Chicago to our fair festival. And then the drive down I-75 was infuriatingly stop-and-go for no apparent reason, which had me grinding my teeth all the way downtown.
Every molecule of that dour energy was dissipated with the first show of the night as Cody ChesnuTT hit the Washington Park stage like a hydrogen bomb of positive vibration.
ChesnuTT's MidPoint appearance was also his Cincinnati debut and the sizable crowd that showed up to witness it was completely enthralled with his potent blend of Neo Soul, Reggae, Jazz and Pop.
ChesnuTT doesn't dress the part of Soul crooner; graphic T-shirt covered in cassettes, red cardigan, black sweats and an army helmet. The helmet is an odd sartorial choice, but ChesnuTT has explained that he's "fighting to keep the soul alive." Not the musical genre, but the spiritual essence at the center of all human beings. That's a pretty big mission for a singer/songwriter to assign himself, but last night's performance proved that ChesnuTT is more than up to the task.
Drawing strictly from last year's gorgeous Landing on a Hundred (he no longer does any songs from 2002's The Headphone Masterpiece, feeling that he's moved beyond the events in his life that inspired that album), ChesnuTT blew any trace of negativity into the stratosphere and replaced it with a rock-solid groove (courtesy of his absolutely stellar band) and a message of pure love. Not Barry White let's-ease-them-panties-down love, but love of self, love of mankind, love of life, which should ultimately lead to unconditional love for one other person.
Not that ChesnuTT doesn't recognize the world's dysfunction. In his brilliant "Everybody's Brother," he sings, "I used to smoke crack back in the day/I used to gamble rent money and lose/I used to dog nice ladies, used to swindle friends/But now I'm teaching kids in Sunday school and I'm not turning back." On the album, the song thumps along on a hearty Funk beat, but on stage, ChesnuTT delivers that opening verse with a sermon-like intonation, and the band swells around him with Gospel fervor and Soul intensity.
No matter what vibe ChesnuTT is channeling at any particular point in the show, he is a master showman, imploring the audience to join him, engaging them to become an integral part of the proceedings. And when he sings, when he digs deep into his creative core and unleashes his soul though his vocal cords, sweet mother of all that's holy, he sounds like the reincarnation of Marvin Gaye, the little brother that Stevie Wonder didn't know he had and the lost Marley sibling all rolled into one otherworldly package. Anyone who was not smiling at the end of Cody ChesnuTT's performance last night is damaged beyond the help of therapy and psychoactive drugs. Please come back to see us again soon, Cody. If Foxygen's slot is still open, Saturday night would be just fine. (Editor’s note: Cincy’s fantastic Wussy has claimed Foxygen’s Washington Park slot tomorrow.)
After Cody ChesnuTT's splendorous opening, it was Blues/Rock legend Shuggie Otis' turn to lead the Washington Park congregation, which he did in scorching style. Otis was barely in his teens when he started playing guitar with his father, R&B icon Johnny Otis, ultimately leading to session work with Al Kooper and Frank Zappa when he was just 16, and his 1970 debut solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, at 17. And while Shuggie has laid low for long stretches in his nearly 50-year career, his current resurgence is sweet vindication for those periods when an indifferent music industry ignored his virtuosic brilliance, forcing Shuggie to turn away from the industry.
Shuggie's set started a little hesitantly as he acclimated to the stage set-up; at one point, he jokingly asked, "Can somebody show me how to work this shit?" Somebody did and he was off, peeling off incendiary riffs and razor sharp runs with a casual intensity. The set's sole slow spot was a new song called "Special," that sounded like Shuggie copying the numerous Pop artists who have copied him, but he followed it with a blazing version of "Me and My Woman" that erupted from the stage like a volcano and oozed through the assembled multitude with the heat and inevitability of the resultant lava flow. Once he and his stellar band got going, Shuggie Otis provided a transcendent moment in MidPoint history, the redemptive return of an astonishing talent that should never have gone away in the first place.
Only one thing could have dragged me away from the hair-raising, slack-jawed wonder of Shuggie Otis, and that's the triumphant return of Cincinnati’s Mad Anthony. Since the July van accident that could have been the band's literal epitaph, drummer Marc Sherlock was restrained by a neck brace and an order against all relatively physical activity. Outside of a little rhythmic tapping to keep his chops up, Sherlock was virtually drumless for three months, while guitarists Ringo Jones and Adam Flaig hit the road for some acoustic dates to keep the rent money coming, then set off for its first cross-country tour, which culminated with last night’s homecoming.
And so Mad Anthony took the triangular stage at The Drinkery, their first show with their full current lineup since the accident that nearly cost them everything. Jones and Flaig brought plenty of their patented frenzy to their acoustic gigs, but they've clearly missed their hypertalented timekeeper, which was evident from the visceral fury that permeated every note of last night's show. Sherlock couldn't have looked any happier; with every roll, every cymbal crash, every massive kick, his smile was a permanent fixture, and Jones and Flaig responded with a tumultuous joy that was a palpable presence in the room.
At a normal Mad Anthony show, the trio storms into an audience's frontal lobe with incomprehensible power. If The Stooges ate Black Sabbath and shit out three perfectly formed babies the next day that grew up and absorbed Punk, Pop and Rock influences like a bar towel, then wrung out those influences into shot glasses and downed them one liquor/beer/sweat/adrenaline slug, that would be Mad Anthony. Last night's return to The Drinkery was all that amplified to the third power. Naturally, they finished with "We Love This Fucking City." Naturally, this fucking city loves Mad Anthony. It's worked out so far.
After the major nut-kick of Mad Anthony, I tooled down to Arnold's to catch some Beatlesque sweetness courtesy of Canada’s The Shilohs. They were really quite good, and I definitely wanted to hear more of them, but they seemed intent on a mid-tempo set in the key of "If I Fell," and I wasn't quite in the mood for that. So I headed back to The Drinkery to catch locals Frontier Folk Nebraska's set.
After Mad Anthony's blistering presentation, I chatted up Kelly Thomas for a few minutes outside The Drinkery, and she had noted that Frontier Folk Nebraska was veering in a decidedly more electric direction, rather a shift from their traditional acoustic roots. When The Shilos didn't pan out for me, I decided to witness FFN's electric evolution for myself. Good decision.
The new FFN is plugged in and ready to whip any ass in the house. Imagine a world where The Ass Ponys channel Crazy Horse and the Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo and you'll be close to the barely restrained muscle emanating from the new Frontier Folk Nebraska. All of this was evident on the band's eponymous 2011 album, but it's magnified to an incredible scale in the live setting. FFN recently lost founding bassist Steve Oder to a graduate program, which could have seriously altered the band's chemistry, but new bassist Matthew McCormick seems to have settled in nicely, alternating between a pulsing beat and runs that emulate lead solos, forming a slinky rhythm section with drummer Nathan Wagner. Meanwhile, frontman Michael Hensley and Travis Talbert create a tandem guitar attack that perfectly balances nuance and power. I liked where FFN was and I love where they are.
After FFN, I found my car and took a drive down to the Mainstay to catch London's blazing Rock power trio Leogun. Vocalist/guitarist Tommy Smith is a revelation, a genetic hybrid of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in one electrified body, wringing sounds from his guitar that invoke all the greatest '70s translators of the Blues while maintaining a firm stance in the 21st century. Anchored by the thunderous rhythm section of bassist Matt Johnson and drummer Mike Lloyd, as slippery and as solid as Entwistle and Moon, Leogun swaggers and swings with retro inspiration and contemporary energy. They peeled through a set filled with tracks from their phenomenal debut, By the Reins, but one of the highlights was their completely unexpected and timber-rattling take on Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie." Not sure when they'll be back, but I'll be there when they return.
• Music editor Mike Breen informed me that publisher Dan Bockrath was going to be making with the beers this year, but I had no idea he would begin his hop blitzkrieg so quickly and voluminously. Dan found me in the crowd at the start of Cody ChesnuTT's set and put a beer in my hand immediately. And just as I finished that first one, Dan reappeared at my side with yet another, claiming, "I feel so good I had to double down." After this MidPoint, I may be able to build a new wing onto the Beer Buying Hall of Fame with Dan's empties alone. You are a god that walks among men, Dan Bockrath, and I hope to see you every night this weekend.
• During Cody's lovely and moving "Love is More Than a Wedding Day," he announced that it might be a good time to dance with the one you love. I looked at Dan, Dan looked at me, but we dismissed the idea. It is a testament to Cody's soulful presentation that I actually considered it, though.
• Years ago, my good buddy Troy paid me the ultimate compliment when he spotted me at a show. He clapped me on the shoulder and said, "I know I'm at the right show when you're at it." The very same could be said for the ubiquitous King Slice. His appearance at a show is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Follow him and see where he goes next. That's where the party will likely be the best.
• Also ran into Magnolia Mountain's Mark Utley, who's in the teeth of planning the next Music for the Mountains benefit show. The second MFTM disc is chock full of traditional goodness and the album and the concert will raise funds to help eliminate the mining practice of mountaintop removal. As Mark noted, "Nature gives women the ability to forget about the pain of childbirth so they'll ready to do it again. That's how it was for me with this concert." The pain is always worth it, man (says the guy who's not feeling the pain) … good luck and God speed.
• And on my way out of Shuggie Otis, I chanced upon Jim Blase, co-owner of Shake It Records and quite simply one of the finest human beings I've had the pleasure to and good fortune to know.
• Lots of folks turned out for Mad Anthony's return, including Kelly Thomas, who was an architect of two benefit shows to help the boys get back on their feet (and who is actually collaborating with the band on some new songs, which should be awesome). Also in attendance was former MA bassist Dave Markey, and his ebullient mom, who may have been the biggest fan in the room; I'm pretty sure she knew the words to every song. It was a beautiful thing.
• Jim Blase was also hanging out at the Frontier Folk Nebraska show, obviously showing support for Travis, who still puts in some time behind the Shake It counter. I was about to head over to say hello again but ran into old friend Danny Rupe, who I never get to see anymore except at random and all to infrequent MidPoint shows. He put my digits and e-mail add into his Jetsons phone, so maybe I'll hear from him with a little more timeliness now.
• Slice, The Black Owls' Brandon Losacker, Dave Markey and Ringo Jones were all hanging at the Leogun extravaganza. I was looking for my Class X compatriot Eddy Mullet, who had designs on the show, but I didn't see him so his plans must have changed. God, I hope it wasn't a kidney stone; that's what derailed his Bunbury experience. After the show, I had a quick chat with Tommy and Matt from the band as they were packing up to go, and then Ringo and I closed the Mainstay, as he regaled me with tales of Mad Anthony, and promises that their new material is the best they've ever done. I know they'll prove it when the time comes.
Oh, Cincinnatians! Wednesday night, when you filed into the Ballroom at the Taft (Theatre), loudly and drunkenly declaring your love for Dawes, I knew I’d never been more proud of you in all my life. (Except you, Guy Who Tried to Vomit Back into His Beer Can like a sorority girl MacGyver. Know your limits, dude.) You filled the basement with your singing and your cheers and, whether you saw it or not, left four California boys looking pretty giddy in your presence. While I still think some of you have some fairly bad taste in music, I now officially consider everyone in the room on Wednesday to be the new loves of my life.
That includes Dawes and Sara (and Sean) Watkins, too. They deserved every ounce of love that you gave them. This was not a massive and disconnected arena show; this was just some gig in Will Taft’s basement. But Dawes rocked out in a very big way. For every beer-induced bellow you made, a little more of the musicians' hearts seemed to shine through. There was no phoning it in, no signs of fatigue after a long year of touring (for Dawes) and no amateur hour when Sara Watkins started off the night.
The only downfall was knowing that it would end and that, as good as Dawes’ albums are, they would forever pale in comparison to their live show. It was that good. It was the kind of concert where you walk out knowing you will never miss another one of their concerts. The kind of night that leads to going home and staring at their tour schedule and your bank account, trying to decide if you can make it to another show on this round of touring. They’re the kind of band that flings out so much energy in their set that, come 4 a.m., you’re still lying in bed, wide awake and humming “Fire Away.”
In other words: Holy Shit. Dawes is amazing.
Which is surprising, honestly, since at first glimpse, no one in Dawes looks like a Rock star. Lead singer and guitar player, Taylor Goldsmith, with messy brown hair and just slightly too short pants, looks more like a philosophy professor straight out of the ‘70s. You know — the one who gets all the girls and invites the best students back to his apartment to get high. His brother, Griffin, has a massive mane of blonde curls and a face like every other one of your little brother’s friends. But he attacks the drums, has an awesome voice and great facial expressions.
Behind the crazy organ/piano set up is Tay Strathairn, working like a mad scientist and bouncing from one machine to the other. Meanwhile, Dawes' bassist, Wylie Gelber, comes complete with that trademark bass player “chill”-ness. He’s cool.
Basically, they’re just your average guys. They’d fit in just as easily in Cincinnati as they do in Los Angeles.
On stage, though, they are far from average. They are amazing. They can turn a basement into a ballroom and a gig into a "show."
Vintage Rock hasn’t sounded so good since it was just Rock.
In total, the guys played over a dozen songs. Included on the set-list were their more popular hits, like “When My Times Comes” and “Time Spent in Los Angeles.” They also played a few new (and oh-so-awesome) songs that may or may not make it onto their new album.
I could gush for another 600 words, but instead I’ll end with this: Go see Dawes. Get in your car right now and drive to whatever city they’re playing next. Squeeze in close and wait to be awed. Wait for that moment, a couple songs in, when your cheeks hurt because you can’t stop smiling. Wait until Taylor Goldsmith dedicates “When My Time Comes” to the “first-timers” and then scream along.
Go see Dawes and fall in love with good music.
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.
When veteran Cincinnati musician Zach Mechlem launched his latest project, Mack West, a few years ago, he didn’t just form a new band — he created a new genre. Calling the band’s sound “AltWestern” to describe the dusty, often cinematic quality of its modern American Roots music, Mack West released its self-titled debut two years ago to much acclaim and, given the evocative, visceral nature of the songs, attention from the world of music licensing. Tracks from the album were used on various promo spots and TV shows, including History Channel’s American Pickers.
Going into recording the follow-up, Mechlem and original members Will Campbell (bass) and Greg Slone (drums) bolstered their membership, adding guitarist (and album co-producer) Steve Wethington on guitar and violinist Annette Christianson. While the mood and spirit of the debut is still intact on the resulting album, The Goodnight Trail, Mack West’s sophomore effort doesn’t exactly expand on the trademark elements
It’s been eight and a half years, four albums and an almost entirely new set of members since Heartless Bastards began performing as a new band in Cincinnati's small clubs. This time around, the Bastards came back to their breeding ground as an Austin, Tex., band and played to a packed house at Madison Theater in Covington.
For all intents and purposes, Saturday’s Heartless gig was very much a “homecoming” gig. As such, there are certain things one expects (and usually gets when the Bastards come home) — lots of heart, extra banter with the audience and, most importantly, one hell of a show. Going in with those expectations was probably a terrible idea. The concert was, at its worst, disappointing and, at its best, just OK.
Anyone who noticed the night’s schedule started off disappointed when they realized Heartless Bastards wouldn’t be on until two hours after the listed showtime. Openers Hacienda were actually amazing, just as they were when they opened for City and Colour at Bogart's a few months back. But after Hacienda rocked out, the road crew took 20 minutes to set up the stage, followed by more than 10 minutes of absolutely nothing.
Once the crowd was finally graced with the presence of the band, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom spent another five minutes testing her vocal mic. Shouldn’t that have been done in sound check? Or, at the very least, during the 10 minutes of nothingness? Even drummer Dave Colvin sat leaning forward on his drum kit, staring at Wennerstrom with what appeared to be very little amusement.
When they finally kicked into gear, the show wasn’t bad. The Bastards sounded close enough to their albums to show they are a decent band. A good portion of the crowd was made up of dancing fans who seemed unfazed by the initial delay.
The night was heavy on songs off of Arrow, the Bastards' lean, stirring new album just released Valentine's Day. Wennerstrom recently told Billboard, “I feel like this is the strongest record I’ve ever done.” And she’s right.
The live experience, however, was lacking on Friday night. Seemingly devoid of love and respect for the audience, the show was hopefully just a rare off-night from a band that usually kills it in front of their old hometown's still-very-much-dedicated fans.
From the moment Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala left At the Drive-In to form The Mars Volta over a decade ago, the duo and their co-conspirators have made a conscious effort to challenge even their staunchest fans and completely confound their easily befuddled critics.
Finding their general direction somewhere in the floating nexus of Neo Prog, Metal, Math Rock, Fusion, Psychedelia, Electronica, Space Rock and Latin American music, The Mars Volta has applied their dizzyingly complex genre formula to straightforward album structures, song cycles and full blown concept albums with a constant eye towards disrupting music’s status quo, whatever that happens to be at any given moment.
The Mars Volta’s sixth full length, Noctourniquet, comes after a somewhat fractious period in the band’s history. Rodriguez-Lopez reportedly finished the music three years ago and argued with Bixler-Zavala about the time he was taking on lyrics and vocals; Rodriguez-Lopez eventually concentrated on his solo work as an alternative.
Noctourniquet finds The Mars Volta pursuing a sound they’ve characterized as Future Punk, a simplified (for them, anyway) version of their standard musical calculus. “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound” is nearly a gorgeous Pop ballad with Pearl Jam’s heart and Metallica’s verve, while the album’s first single, “The Malkin Jewel” (listen below), has the reeling barroom swagger of Nick Cave covering Kurt Weill. Like 2009’s Octahedron, Noctourniquet offers moments of relative reflection (“Lapochka,” “Trinkets Pale of Moon”), serious intent (“In Absentia”), head spinning polyrhythms (“Molochwalker”) and blistering intensity (“Zed and Two Naughts”).
If Nocturniquet represents any kind of compromise for the Mars Volta, it has clearly been accomplished on their own singular terms.
Saturday, Apr 28: Jubal's Kin Festival Grounds
Saturday at MerleFest broke hard and cold. Our camping neighbors had an impromptu jam session at 3 a.m., which is to be expected when camping at a music festival geared towards people who not only love to watch and listen, but also play. It would have been one thing to hear the soft strains of a string jam or the gentle harmony of "Wildwood Flower," but some dude shouting the lyrics to "Whipping Post" over badly tuned guitars played really hard … not the thing mountain dreams are made from.
So I sat, at sun up, reading and drinking coffee, plotting revenge and the instead of taking my revenge, made the accused coffee, read some more and generally moved real slow. Crustymarhsmellowman. I did get to play a couple tunes with Pete McWhirter as he moved past to grab some coffee on his way to open his booth.
Then I moved real slow some more.
Really real slow.
After lunch, I decided to make an attempt to see some music.
I had already missed Jim Lauderdale at the Creekside Stage. To bad, I like some Jim Lauderdale and it would have been a nice wake up, but there you are. I saw on the schedule Jubal's Kin at the Dance Tent, looked at the clock and … damn missed that, too. But what ho! There they are on the schedule at the Americana Tent immediately following their Dance Tent set. It's a MerleFest miracle! I grabbed my camera and another cup of coffee and headed out.
Jubal's Kin, all nerves and bad house sound on Day 1, was all smooth and in good voice on Day 3. They filed the promise I thought I saw at the Cabin Stage on what always seems like an eternity ago and delivered a set full of vigor, with pristine sound delivered by the sound person. Their originals are fresh with sparse instrumentation and the kind of tight harmonies that only siblings can deliver. Never lyrically embarrassing with overplayed earnestness or too casual observation, they meld in with beautifully arranged and originally considered traditional tunes. There's "The Cuckoo," that ancient English broadside, rendered as if Billie Holiday had spent some time in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. "Buffalo Gal" was reconsidered as a pop tune with a well delivered encouragement to jump in on the chorus and sing along. Gaelanne's fiddle playing is absolutely gorgeous in a John Hartford/Matt Comb's kind of way, though leaning a bit heavier on the front of the beat as opposed to sitting in the pocket. And her banjo playing is just delicious. They added one more member for this set — "Uncle Joe" on pedal steel and fiddle. With "Baby Brother" on bass, Jubal's Kin appears to be a family band.
Satisfied my instincts were intact, I left the Americana Stage to catch some other music. I wondered into the Traditional Tent to catch some of mountain legend Red June. He was explaining to the audience what a jam session was. Have I mentioned the Traditional Tent smells like a barn? I don't think it's intentional, but the wet grass combined with an enclosed space has rendered an unfavorable impression. After the lesson on what a "jam" is, Red invited a local banjo player up to do a fiddle tune with the fiddle player who didn't bring a fiddle, but did bring a mandolin. Not to fear! You can play fiddle tunes on mandolin (or piano for that matter), so he requested the newest banjo player and the fiddle player with the mandolin decide on a tune they both knew and then play it. Five minutes of discussion and tuning followed. As I headed out of the tent I thought "Just like a jam session," and went down to the Creekside Cabin to catch the rest of the Snyder Family Band and the following act, Sierra Hull and Highway 111.
The Snyder Family Band is a family Bluegrass band (no irony at MerleFest!). Like all Bluegrass bands they have a banjo, sing harmonies and play Bluegrass. Of course they play it really well. People love them. Standing ovation.
I waited around for Sierra Hull and Highway 111 to take the stage. Sierra Hull, 5-foot-nothing and former wiz kid master of the mandolin is now a promising songwriter and ingenue. I'm familiar with this script and am bored not two minutes into the first song. Sigh. I stop in the field in front of the Watson Stage to hear some of "Assembly of Dust." Young Nashville Country script. Know it. Boring. Moving on.
It's coming up on 3 p.m. and time to give my sister a break in her booth in the Heritage Tent. Nancy Roberson is a weaver based out of Knoxville, Tenn. She's been showing, selling and demonstrating at MerleFest for about as long as there has been a MerleFest. She heads out for her afternoon nap (apparently a hardwired Roberson DNA trait) and I pleasantly meet the mass of retail customers streaming by and wondering into her booth.
Nancy makes shawls. Well kind of. Not only does she design each warp for the loom, but on these particular pieces of clothing, she has design the shawl itself. It's twisted, sewn up the back, and pulled over your head like a loose fitting sweater. The front gathers in soft bunches and hangs across the chest. The ladies love them. Woven of soft cotton and rayon with the occasional silk woven in for effect, the main color of each shawl is broken up with a rhythm of competing and sometimes complimentary colors. People can't help but be drawn in by the colors and when the reach out and touch them, you always get an "Oooooo, these feel so nice and are so beautiful." If you don't, it's a replicant — ready your phasers.
When Nancy returned, I checked the schedule and cheese whiz on a cracker if Jubal's Kin wasn't playing in the barn-like Traditional Tent. Finally a chance to catch this band in more intimate surroundings, smell be damned. I headed over, got there early and claimed a seat near the front. In short order the band was on stage, laughing and calling out songs. They moved though a load of traditional tunes, all rendered in a sweet, imaginative way, like "Dinah Blow Your Horn," with added lyrics and a new verse melody. The Carter Family's "No Depression" was delivered in soul rendering pain. About midway through the set, a guitar string broke enabling some spontaneous double fiddle and dancing. While the guitar player stepped off stage, "Uncle Joe" and Gaelanne tuned their fiddles and discussed which tune to play. In a matter of thirty seconds (this is no a jam session) launched into a Skillet Lickers number my dad probably danced to when he was their age. A friend jumped up on stage and launched into some spirited clogging. Not to be undone, "Baby Brother" put his bass down, peeled off his shoes and joined the Appalachian chorus line at the end of the stage with some well executed Buck Dancing.
Yes sir, these kids from Florida are the real shit. I've spent decades in front of poseurs, wannabees, shitty players and hopefuls. Using a foundation of traditional music obviously passed along from a family that loves this stuff at an early age, Jubal's Kin are making something very real, unique and personal that compels you to be a part.
This is why I come to MerleFest. Thanks, guys, for inviting me in.
Exhausted from a night of no sleep and a day of wandering and finding Jubal's Kin, I headed back to my book and coffee and called it a day.
A small, diverse crowd ranging from thirtysomething fans and overweight mosh-marchers to lanky, high school kids and excessively tattooed crust-punks packed into Covington’s humid, poorly ventilated (yet ever-endearing) Mad Hatter on Tuesday night for an evening of average-to-fantastic Speed Punk and Hardcore.