(Editor’s Note: CityBeat contributor Nick Grever leaves today for Europe, where he’ll be on tour with Cincinnati Rock group Valley of the Sun as the band’s “merch guy.” Nick has graciously agreed to blog about his journey for citybeat.com over the next three weeks. Below is his first installment, an introduction written last night when he was [possibly over] packing for the trip.)
Hello, my name is Nick and since I’ve been a teenager, I’ve dreamt about living the Rock & Roll lifestyle. There’s just one problem – I can’t play music worth a damn.
As a freelancer for this fine publication, I have been able to get a taste of my dream but one element has always eluded me: touring. So imagine my excitement when local rockers Valley of the Sun invited me to work merch for them on their second European tour. I just never expected to be touring the world in a hotdog costume.
Maybe a little background is in order. I’ve known the Valley guys (guitarist/vocalist Ryan Ferrier, drummer Aaron Boyer and bassist Ryan McAllister) for several years, culminating in a profile piece in the pages of CityBeat for their first full-length release, Electric Talons of the Thunderhawk. With that release (and my expertly devised words of praise, no doubt), the band has risen to new heights.
Valley of the Sun signed with Fuzzorama Records and has already toured Europe once, in support of Desert Rock titans Truckfighters. Now it’s time for them to return for another three week tour for shows ranging from massive fests to small dives. We’ll be traveling throughout Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and other countries, joined by Valley’s sound guy across the pond, Arnaud Merckling. In their infinite wisdom, the band invited me along to run their merch; Mangrenade’s Nick Thieme is also on the trip, playing bass in McAllister’s absence.
I’m writing this the night before we leave and I’m still not entirely sure what to expect. But here’s what I do know: I’ll be writing constantly, I probably over packed and Ryan, Nick and Aaron are really excited to see me run around in a venue in my new skeleton onesie (far warmer and more comfortable than it has any right to be) and hotdog ensemble.
These blog entries will ultimately be a record of our trip but it’s going to be more than just a recap of the shenanigans we’re sure to get into and the excellent food we’re sure to eat — although expect a few Instragram worthy images of foreign cuisine, too. (I love me some sausage.) It’s going to examine all the parts of tour life that arise over the course of our trip. What is it like to sit in a small van with four other guys for eight hours when none of us have showered for three days? Is German beer really as good as people say? What happens at 4 a.m. when Ryan starts spouting off about the multiverse as we sit around a bar in Switzerland? Seriously, did I pack enough underwear?
These hard hitting questions, along with my observations and insights, will fill these digital pages. Hopefully they’ll be interesting enough for you to come back and read some more. Expect updates at least every few days — it all depends on how reliable the wifi is in Europe. Hey, that’s another blog entry topic!
Early this year, Cincinnati Indie Dance Rock crew Founding Fathers released a tease of their forthcoming debut full-length release with a music video for their funky track, “Stop Drop and Roll.” Last week, the band unveiled another cool video clip to accompany its fantastic new song, “Welcome Home.”
The clip, directed and edited by Peter House, starts off with a young man finding out he’s lost his job after he wakes up presumably hungover and his car won’t start. From there, the video follows his efforts to find a new gig, applying at local haunts like Mac’s Pizza Pub, Union Terminal and The Esquire movie theater to no avail. Frustrated, he returns home and loses himself in a wild party that happens to be going down. It’s a cool clip for an even cooler song, loaded with infectious hooks and grooves (think a tight mix of LCD Soundsystem and Walk the Moon), which should have fans and non-fans alike excited to hear more from Founding Fathers.
You can listen to earlier Founding Fathers material here, while "Stop Drop and Roll" and "Welcome Home" can be downloaded for free here. Keep tabs on the band through their Facebook page here for upcoming shows and updates.
The Cincinnati Dronescape recording project stemmed from an idea forged by local resident Isaac Hand over the summer. Hand and a friend went around town recording sounds that they felt were “quintessentially Cincinnati.” The found sounds, Hand says, included “the sound of the Western Hills Viaduct, the train yards, the hum of the (University of Cincinnati Medical Center), the Moerlein Brewery” and other location-specific noises.
They then distributed the sounds to various musicians, who mixed them into their own unique compositions.
The results are featured on the mesmerizing and creative Cincinnati Dronescape album, which, along with Cincinnati Drones (an album featuring the original source-material soundscapes), is available to stream and download via cincinnatidronescape.bandcamp.com (see below; hard copies can also be found in local-music friendly record retailers in the area). The sonic adventurers featured on the album include ADM, umin, Molly Sullivan, Jarrod Welling-Cann, Zijnzijn Zijnzijn and several others.
This Saturday at 7 p.m., the project participants will gather in the West End at the intersection of Gest and Summer streets (near Union Terminal) and play Cincinnati Dronescape from several cars simultaneously. Copies of the CD will also be available for purchase at the listening party event. For more information on the project and listening party, click here.
Yesterday (Oct. 5) marked the 21st anniversary of the release of Gentlemen, the major label debut from Cincinnati-spawned rockers The Afghan Whigs, which helped catapult the band into the international spotlight. To celebrate the album reaching drinking age, Rhino Records is releasing a deluxe edition later this month under the name Gentlemen at 21. For the album’s birthday last night, the band (which recently performed a hometown show at the MidPoint Music Festival and is in the midst of a tour behind its new album, Do to the Beast) played an expansive set at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg. With tickets priced at $21, last night's show reunited the Whigs with special guest Usher, doing a version of the superstar’s “Climax” (the entities first teamed up at last year’s South by Southwest fest in Texas).
Due Oct. 28, the Gentlemen at 21 set will be available digitally and as a two-CD collection. A vinyl version of the original remastered album will also be released Oct. 28, followed by a three-platter deluxe vinyl edition with all of the bonus material, which is being issued for Record Store Day's Black Friday event on Nov. 28.
Gentlemen at 21’s bonus material will include all of the original demos for the album, which were recorded in Cincinnati at bassist John Curley’s Ultrasuede studio. The set will also feature rarities, including radio sessions and B-sides. The Whigs’ version of fellow Cincy greats The Ass Ponys’ track “Mr. Superlove” (originally issued on a vinyl single from local label Mono Cat 7, with the Ponys covering the Whigs’ “You My Flower” on the flip side) is also slated for the Rhino release.
Here is Gentlemen at 21’s full track listing:
1. “If I Were Going”
3. “Be Sweet”
5. “When We Two Parted”
6. “Fountain And Fairfax”
7. “What Jail Is Like”
8. “My Curse”
9. “Now You Know”
10. “I Keep Coming Back”
11. “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer”
1. “If I Were Going”
3. “Be Sweet”
5. “When We Two Parted”
6. “Fountain And Fairfax”
7. “What Jail Is Like”
8. “My Curse”
9. “Now You Know”
10. “Brother Woodrow”
11. “Little Girl Blue”
13. “Mr. Superlove”
14. “Dark End Of The Street”
15. “What Jail Is Like” (Live)
16. “Now You Know” (Live)
17. “My World Is Empty Without You/I Hear A Symphony” (Live)
Tracks 1-8 Demos Recorded At Ultrasuede
Tracks 9-10 Instrumental Rough Mixes, Ardent Studios
Tracks 15-17 Recorded Live For KTCL At The Mercury Café, Denver, CO, May 10th, 1994
Also this past weekend, the Whigs’ YouTube channel debuted Ladies & Gentlemen, The Afghan Whigs, an hour and a half-long road documentary chronicling the band’s touring of Europe in the early ’90s. The film, produced by the Whigs’ longtime sound engineer Steve Girton, was screened at Newport’s Southgate House in 2005 during the Lite Brite Indie Pop and Film Test, but has otherwise only been circulated as a much-coveted bootleg. Check it out below:
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Mainstay Rock Bar will be celebrating its final weekend before closing its doors after five and a half years in operation. As I prepared to write about the closure of my favorite local bar, I struggled to figure out just how to voice my sadness. I’m still not entirely sure how but I did think of a ton of stories that exemplify why Mainstay was so special to me.
I started going to Mainstay back in college before it was even Mainstay. It was called The Poison Room and my friends and I used to go to their weekly ’80s dance night. My memories of those nights are fond (if a bit hazy), but I was too new to the scene for the closure to upset me too much. When the location reopened with a new moniker and a makeover, I was happy to have another place that catered to my musical tastes. But it took some time for my love of Mainstay to truly grow.
Looking back, the closures of the original Southgate House and Mad Hatter in Northern Kentucky are what sparked my connection to Mainstay. With two of my normal haunts gone in the space of months, I needed another place to go and Mainstay was at the top of a fairly short list. I started only going for shows, but the bar soon lived up to its name. It transitioned from just a music venue to a reliable fallback to my first choice. Need a good burger? Mainstay. Want to sing some karaoke? Mainstay. Interested in hearing some Rock & Roll? Mainstay. Do you prefer bartenders that actually know what they’re talking about? Mainstay.
Of course, a major part of Mainstay Rock Bar’s appeal to me was that middle word — the “Rock.” Mainstay has been host to some of the best local and regional bands the area has to offer. In recent years, the selection of bands and performances has also become more and more eclectic. There are few bars that can host a Hip Hop show one night, a burlesque performance the next and a Surf Rock show to round out the weekend. Mainstay has proven time and time again that its dedication to the local music scene is genuine by taking the time to champion bands on the rise and hosting all sorts of community events like the ubiquitous Midpoint Music Festival. And they’ve done it all without charging a cover on any shows save the biggest of the big. If you wanted to take a chance on a new band or genre, Mainstay was the place to go. At least you had a fantastic beer selection to console you if you didn’t like what you heard.
For all of my wild and crazy memories, the ones I have of my time with the staff are the fondest. Memories like an interview being derailed when the entire band and I took a minute to stare at the hot new bartender (sorry Becky, hopefully Mangrenade and I tipped you well that night). Or pulling the curtain for Dandelion Death with Scary. Or riding Chris’s knee scooter to the bathroom, weaving in between a busy Friday night crowd. Or the little things, like Lena taking the time to listen to my post-breakup moaning and buying me a “girl’s suck” shot when it was all said and done. The staff (past and present) of Mainstay consists of an insane bunch of people who love the music, love the atmosphere and know how to have a good time. And that attitude coursed through the entire venue night after night. To be a part of it at any point in time was intoxicating. To be welcomed in as a friend and included in the shenanigans was humbling.
As I became more of a fixture of the establishment, the more I grew to know the staff and feel accepted. I’ve frequently called Mainstay my Heavy Metal Cheers; it’s the only bar in Cincinnati where I can walk in and be greeted with a handshake or high five and see my favorite beer and shot sitting on the bar.
As I reach the end of this article, I still don’t know how to say just what Mainstay means to me. It’s where I sang dozens of Danzig songs, watched hundreds of bands take the stage, spent several birthdays and drowned far too many brain cells. There isn’t a place in Cincinnati quite like Mainstay and its closing will leave a pretty big hole in my heart. But I wanted to say thank you for the five and a half years of memories and raise a glass – full of Jameson, of course – to the people that made that place so special.
For your final weekend, I’ll be sitting at the bar, enjoying a shot and a brew at Mainstay — where everybody knows your name… or at least your favorite drink.
Earlier this year, Cincinnati’s Buffalo Killers released their finest album yet, Heavy Reverie, a stellar representation of the band’s increasingly melodic Rock & Roll sound. The album earned the group some of the best reviews of its career and landed them their network television debut — a full interview segment on Last Call with Carson Daly.
Fans won’t have to wait too long for new Buffalo Killers material. On Nov. 24, the six-track EP Fireball of Sulk will be issued through Sun Pedal Recordings. The EP is available to pre-order now (here); doing so comes with an instant download of the EP’s “Marshmallow Mouth.”
Today, Relix.com premiered a music video for the track “Weird One,” a song about “those lost, pre-drug days when all you wanted to do was get away from your parents, dye your hair and drive around with your friends,” BK’s Zach Gabbard tells the site.
Buffalo Killers’ next scheduled live date in Cincinnati is Nov. 26 at Northside Tavern with The Soledad Brothers.
The last day of MidPoint is like a lot of endings in life; the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the year, the end of a piece of cherry pie, the end of the line. This is the end, my only friend, the end.
And it had the chance to be the perfect end of perhaps the most perfect MidPoint in the festival's history, from the lineup to the weather to the experiences. And you know what, Aunt Em? I think it was. You were there, and you were there, and so were you. And so was I. I'm fairly sure of it.
I had a lot of possibilities circled on my MidPoint program for Saturday night, allowing for the chance to leave something I wasn't crazy about or merely the opportunity to see a couple of great things in the space of an hour. All of that happened and so much more. Saturday night was more sampler platter than focused attempt to see a set number of bands and it turned out pretty well. And for the first time since I began doing this daily wrap-up thing God knows how many years ago, I didn't take a single note all night as an inadvertent experiment in appreciation recall. Success or not? You be the judge.
As I was finding a parking space, I was listening to Little Steven's Underground Garage. The former Silvio Dante had been playing snippets of Groucho Marx bits from the Marx Brothers' movies, and finished with a hilarious Groucho interview about how the moustache came into existence. Moments later, as I was walking across Central Parkway on my way to the first show of the evening, I heard a horn honk and saw a massive arm wave from a Kia Sol. Of course, it was the semi-ubiquitous Jacob Heintz, the pope of MidPoint, giving me his blessing from his diminutive popemobile. Saturdays at MidPoint don't begin much better than that.
First up on my last day's dance card was Cincy’s The Ready Stance, who were slotted as the first show of the evening on the Midway stage. When the band began, I was still near the food court, and as the music cranked up, I would have sworn that the production staff was pumping some Marshall Crenshaw through the sound system for a level check. Within seconds, I realized this was no lost Crenshaw track but the Stance in full Pop jacket mode. The Stance churns out classic Pop/Rock informed by the '90s college Rock histories of guitarist/vocalist Wes Pence, bassist Randy Cheek and drummer Eric Moreton and the contemporary classicism of guitarist/vocalist Chase Johnston. As the foursome ran through a set that was evenly divided between tracks from their 2012 debut Damndest and new songs that may wind up on the band's in-the-works sophomore album, the Stance's numerous gifts were evident.
Pence and Johnston play with a two guitar/one mind synergy that crackles with intensity, Cheek lays down a massive groove that could be tracked from space and Moreton has the malleable sensitivity to control tempo and volume with a flick, a roll or an outburst. These guys are working stiffs on the old day job/night Rock treadmill, and the gears turn slowly in that world, so the new album may be on the far horizon. But as good as they were Saturday evening — Goose's Jason Arbenz pronounced them "Cincinnati's Jayhawks" and I wouldn't dispute it, although I'd toss in occasional nods to Mitch Easter and Ray Davies — the anticipation can only grow.
I bailed on the tail end of The Ready Stance's set to see OK Go down at beautiful Washington Park, and that may have been a mistake. I could have easily seen the entire Stance set and still made it in time for OK Go, as the band started close to 20 minutes late (It's a festival, boys … check the clock on your Jetson phones). When they finally hit the stage, the confetti cannons went off, they did two songs and then launched into … a question and answer session with the audience.
I did get to see "Writing on the Wall," a pretty good tune which is accompanied by one of the band's most inventive videos, and a track called "Obsession," also from their impending new album. But it was already time to hit the next thing on my slate, and as I walked out of Washington Park and heard frontman Damian Kulash taking an inordinate amount of time to teach the audience how to sing along with whatever was coming up next, I knew I'd bailed in the nick of time. I like OK Go, a lot, but this was a massive disappointment.
If I was feeling somewhat burned by OK No (cheap shot? Perhaps …), that feeling was almost immediately dissipated by Chicago trio Bailiff, who were just taking the Midway stage as I approached up 12th Street. The band had been recommended by my friend Paul Roberts, who had seen them at their last local appearance at MOTR, and he was lathered up by the prospect of seeing them again, so I added them to my list of possibles. Boy, was that the right thing to do.
Bailiff is not easy to pin down to a specific genre, but they play the living hell out of everything they do and they do just about everything. At one point, they were grinding out a Prog/Pop vibe that suggested the sound of King Crimson with Adrian Belew at the helm and Robert Fripp in a support capacity, a pretty neat trick considering Josh Siegel is the only guitarist in the band. Or they'll take a left turn into a tribal Jamaican/African reverie, or Art Rock bluster with the classicism of Talking Heads and the future shock of Radiohead. I kept wondering if there was a keyboardist behind the amp and out of my line of sight, but no such accompaniment was present, just the Siegel's sinewy guitar acrobatics, bassist Ren Matthew's Entwistle-meets-Pastorius lead runs and drummer Owen O'Malley's baby Bonham antics. The trio was drifting between their 2011 debut, Red Balloon, and their just released Remise, and it was all over much too soon for anyone's taste.
For reasons that will be revealed in the notes, I hung around the Midway for Alexander Giannascoli, aka Alex G, an impossibly young guitarist from Philadelphia with a pretty happening band around him. G's got a pretty good backstory, writing and recording at 12, posting songs online at 16, then lathering/rinsing/repeating into his current early 20s. He's got a wispy vocal delivery that rivals the late Elliott Smith for ephemeral atmospherics, and a Beck-meets-Robert-Pollard sense of Avant Pop, qualities that stand in clear and extremely appealing relief on his studio work, particularly his just released DSU. Unfortunately, a lot of those recorded subtleties and quirks are lost in the clatter and bash of their live presentation, and with the dynamic and emotional range smoothed and leavened, Alex G's largely mid-tempo odes don't offer much else to latch onto in the course of a set. This is most certainly not a case of good songs performed poorly, more like edgy songs with just a little too much of the edge sanded off. Alex G is obviously a considerable talent, and if I were to offer a bit of unsolicited advice to young G, it would be to either find a band that can recreate your basement lab concoctions or write for the live band you have, because they're talented players.
There was a considerable spike in the Midway energy level when Low Cut Connie took the stage. Typically just a duo featuring piano basher Adam Weiner and drummer/erstwhile guitarist Dan Finnemore, LCC tours with a full band complement and makes a mighty racket in the process. Weiner plays with the ferocity and brash confidence of early Jerry Lee Lewis at his most petulant — he even has a vestige of The Killer's untamed forelock of hair — and he sings with the raw animal magnetism of Iggy Pop. Weiner hops up on his bench, plays with his elbows and occasionally his ass and stands atop his piano threatening to do a strip tease as the band vamps on. And when Finnemore steps to the front of the stage with his guitar, the U.K. native truly embodies his Punk/Garage Rock roots and influences. Low Cut Connie's songs are dripping with snarky humor but they stop well short of being mere novelties by virtue of being great bloody songs. The band's Facebook posting on Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m. stated, "On our way to mess up Cincinnati real good … tonight at #mpmf … gonna rip it." Damned if they didn't.
Once again, I had to tear myself away from Low Cut Connie's compelling Midway spectacle in order to take in a little of Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel down at MOTR. When working on their blurb for the CityBeat preview issue, I was absolutely captivated by the Brain Hotel's hypnotic Psych/Pop soundtrack and dark Carnival of Souls demeanor, and it translates well into the band's live performance. There are hints of the '80s Paisley Underground in the Brain Hotel's sonic profile, particularly the helium-tinged vocals of the Three O'Clock's Michael Quercio, but it's the band's visceral impact that is most satisfying. It reminds me of the first time I saw The Doors on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967 and was completely mesmerized, not by royal lizard/frontshaman Jim Morrison but by hunched-over keyboard alchemist Ray Manzarek. Any band that can consistently access that hallowed memory from the dusty archive of my brain's pre-hard drive file cabinet has my undying devotion.
I had initially earmarked the 11 p.m. spot for the Bonesetters at Arnold's, but my bum leg was starting to throb a bit and the prospect of walking to Arnold's and then back to MOTR for Kid Congo at midnight suddenly seemed painful and ill-advised. For the sake of saving my leg for possible use on Sunday (and sort of forever), I opted to keep my spot on the MOTR dance floor and hang around to check out Corners. Deirdre Kaye's preview noted that the L.A. trio had been working a Surf/Psych angle but that they'd recently shifted to a Post Punk direction. That became evident with their first song, a blazing two-guitar/bass/synth percussion screamer that brought my last two years of college back to life like an acid flashback with a Synth Punk soundtrack.
Corners bears all the marks of late '70s Electro Punk, somewhere in the vicinity of Joy Division and their post-Ian Curtis iteration New Order, with flecks of the Units, San Francisco's dour Synth Pop avatars, a splash of Gang of Four, a dash of Bauhaus and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and maybe a trace of the Sisters of Mercy and Killing Joke. All of this will most assuredly be reflected on Corners imminent new album, Maxed Out on Distractions, which provided the bulk of the songs for the band's MidPoint set, which was dark, vibrant and enjoyable. (Ironic fun fact: the entire lineup at MOTR on Saturday night will appear at Corners' L.A. record release party in early October.)
At last, it was time for Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds, the last band of the last night of MidPoint, and brothers and sisters, the Kid and his compatriots were more than up to the task. The former Gun Club/Cramps/Bad Seeds guitarist has been staging some form of the Pink Monkey Birds for over a decade and this iteration (guitarist/keyboardist Jesse Roberts, bassist Kiki Solis and drummer Ron Miller) might be the best batch yet. Peeling any loose paint from MOTR's walls was absolutely no trouble for the Kid as he scorched away on selections from his latest album with the PMB, Haunted Head, as well as a couple of songs from their upcoming single and a bunch of old favorites, including The Cramps' "Goo Goo Muck," The Gun Club's "She's Like Heroin to Me" and his own brilliant "Black Santa" and "Killer Diller."
The MOTR's dance floor was a boiling mass of rhythmically moving bodies, propelled by the Kid's blazing guitar runs and the Pink Monkey Birds' perpetual motion soundtrack. And since it was the band's last night of their current tour, they were not about to leave anything on the table, so after their standard club-clearing encore of "LSDC," the Kid and his Birds returned for one last brilliantly incendiary romp through The Gun Club's "For the Love of Ivy;" I fully expected lightning to shoot out of the Kid's fingers and eyes as he overloaded every internal and external circuit in the joint. I don't think he could have given us any more and I'm not entirely sure we could have taken it even if he had any more in him. As the Kid and the Birds bid us adieu, I had to believe that this might have been one of the most spectacular last nights of my personal MidPoint attendance history. It will be hard to top going forward, you can bet your sweet ass on that.
• Before the Ready Stance set, I ran into Ready Stance. The Midway seemed like a good place for that to happen. Wes Pence was first, busy with logistics on the phone, then in short order Randy Cheek and Chase Johnston. The Good Rockkeeping Seal of Approval King Slice was on hand for the madness, as were Paulie, Big Jim and Stufest (that's Stu to you and me). Also down in front for the Stance was Randy Campbell, formerly with Screaming Mimes and now with Faint Signal, who promised a new FS album coming shortly. I will keep you appraised of the situation. And once again, Eddy Mullet, my Class X comrade in Rock, sought to gain my attention by standing impossibly close to me as the Stance pulsed and pounded. Note to Eddy: For the record, 20 years ago, on a trip to Michigan, my best friend's wife, completely circuit fried on Xanax and Grey Goose, was dancing around their living room, grabbed my foot, shoved it between her legs and started hopping around in front of me like my shin was a stick pony from the '50s. With my foot in her cooch. Believe me, I'm not suggesting that you need to escalate to that DefCon level of weird, but it's safe to say that my threshold of the unusual is well above a bar you'd be willing to attempt to clear. And we're back. Accompanying Eddy was his most excellent daughter Jess, the smartest, most music savvy high school senior I know. Big things coming for that girl, I just know it.
• Down at Washington Park just before OK Go played, I crossed paths with Latha Mannava, former CityBeat worker bee and now more gainfully employed by F&W. Latha graciously introduced me to her friends by saying, "Whatever Brian recommends, that's what I go see." Ironically, I had written up the OK Go preview as a glowing endorsement, and Latha noted about two songs in, "These guys are doing nothing for me." Just to keep things in perspective, folks, the best hitters in baseball are only successful a third of the time, and that's a better percentage than some highly salaried and over-radared weathermen. I'm pretty sure my reputation is still pretty good with Latha.
• I spent a good deal of the evening on the Midway with Ready Stance drummer Eric Moreton and his wife Kristiana. Eric couldn't really go anywhere because someone in the band had lost his wristband (I don't want to assess blame but his initials are Wes Pence), so I just kind of hung around and had a lovely conversation with the two of them. I'm fairly certain I scared the living shit out of them with tales of my dysfunctional life and times and the epic tale of why I was on a self-imposed one beer limit throughout MidPoint (which I'm surprised wasn't tweeted about at some point during the weekend, with the suggestion, "Please shut up already, please"). In any event, it was nice, thanks for the company, and if either of you requires therapy after our compressed time together, I think my insurance will cover part of the cost before tying a cinder block to my waist and throwing me off the Big Mac Bridge.
• As I was headed into MOTR for the Brain Hotel experience, the wisdom of checking out this show was magnified a hundredfold with the appearance of the much-too-absent Matthew Fenton and his friends Kyle and Nicki (I'm guessing at her spelling, as I did with last year's Bunbury report). Matthew had also decided to stake out an early spot for Kid Congo, and a look at Corners' crazy Gary Panteresque T-shirt designs at the merch booth salted his decision. I love seeing shows with Matthew; they typically involve exchanges like this:
Matthew: Who is this again?
Brian: Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel.
M: Very Paisley Underground.
B: Remember the Three O'Clock?
B: They need a go-go cage.
M: With you in it?
B: I don't dance.
M: You've gotta do something.
B: (Frankestein-then-master voice) "Arrrrhh!" "No, Caezar!" "Fire, bad!"
M: Well, not that. You can't just sit there sucking your fingers.
B: May I go to the bathroom?
B: Thank you.
Pretty much endlessly. I love our time together. It's so pointless and perfect. And it usually has a pretty cool soundtrack.
• As Corners left the stage, Matthew's friend Ashley showed up with her friend Tone (again, guessing … it could be some Scandanavian derivation with no vowels and the symbol for magnesium as an accent, or it could be short for Tony), who was a super nice guy and a good hang for the Kid Congo show. Ashley mentioned that they were only there because of a bug in the MidPoint app that kept defaulting to Thursday; they thought they were coming to see Nikki Lane. But they both thoroughly enjoyed Kid Congo, so no harm no foul … but have I.T. check that app for next year, kids.
• Also taking in the raucous Garage/Punkabilly jailbreak that was Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds: Paulie, Big Jim and Sir Dan of MidPointville, who I'm beginning to believe was assigned my case and has been keeping pretty close tabs on me. For the record, I'm fine, and you can count the silverware. It's all there. I spotted Wes Pence at the very end of the show but when I did a quick walk through MOTR, he was gone. Cest la vie — see you again soon, my friend.
• On my way back to the car, I ran into the always fabulous Mike Sarason, dressed to kill after a friend's wedding, along with his stunning date Margaret. Mike mentioned that he had moved to New York, and that the hiatused Pinstripes were likely done, news that I had gotten from Pinstripes drummer John Bertke Thursday night at MOTR. It was great to see Mike, he's a world class guy and I certainly hope he continues to pursue a musical path because he's amazing, but the reality of the end of one of my absolute favorite bands and a perpetual highlight at this very festival made for a rather bittersweet end to the last day of MidPoint.
• And so one of the most nearly perfect MidPoints in the event's history is in the book. As usual, there is much credit to be spread around for the success of an undertaking with this much complexity and requiring this much planning. First and foremost to Dan McCabe, who somehow manages, year after year, to play the most intricate game of chess with artists, agents, publicists, labels and venues and then come up with a strategy where it seems everyone wins.
• Obviously, MidPoint couldn't happen without the sturdy volunteer army that clockworks this potential mess every fall with very few glitches. This absolutely could not be done without your skill, patience and stamina.
• Of course, there's everyone at CityBeat who helps facilitate and promote MidPoint and who are its main boosters well before and well after the event, from Dan Bockrath. Danny Cross and (now it can be told, cyborg) Mike Breen, right on down through the entire staff. Sting told me, every little thing you do is magic.
• And obviously to all the bands who came from down the block, across the country and, in some cases, around the world to be here for the express purpose of entertaining us with their creative gifts. But most especially, thanks to everyone who attends MidPoint year in and year out, for showing up to experience the region's absolute best music crawl. This year’s may well have been the best populated Thursday night in the festival's history, and that couldn't happen without patrons who believe in the event and the promise of great music to be heard and that couldn't be done without all of the above. Funny how symbiosis works, isn't it? Thanks again to you all for a brilliant MidPoint 2014. Set your watches for late September 2015 … you'll know me, I'll be the thirsty one with a limp
The middle of the MidPoint weekend is like the middle of a lot of things; the middle of a movie, the middle of a book, the middle of life with an equal measure of glorious accomplishments and missed opportunities behind and the potential for great things still ahead, the middle of an exquisite jelly donut where the filling drips down your chin as you lick the pastry where you just bit with a sensual need for completion.
What was I saying? Right, middle of MidPoint. So here we are in Day 2, quite possibly one of the most anticipated second days of the festival in its long and storied history.
I arrived at Washington Park just as Joseph Arthur was beginning his set. A lot of folks had been hoping that Van Hunt might be accompanying the evening's headliner, our own Afghan Whigs, since he had been touring with The Whigs recently, but Arthur is opening this next leg of the Whigs' triumphant return and so the honor fell to him. And yet the pleasure was all ours, as Arthur put on a brilliant one-man presentation with the help of loops and stomp pedals and a catalog filled with amazing songs, like the powerful "In the Sun" ("because all the best Rock & Roll happens in the middle of the day"). Clearly the most incredible moment of Arthur's set came at its conclusion, when he set up his loops and launched into "I Miss the Zoo," and began drawing an outline with a black paint marker, which almost immediately began to run, on a piece of what looked to be foamcore on an easel set up on stage. While Arthur sang verse after verse, he squirted different colors of paint on various spots around the board, and then picked up a brush and pushed the colors around and into the bleeding black. When he finished the song, he had finished the painting. It was quite astonishing, to say the least. I've been a fan of Arthur's for some time — I interviewed him many years ago — and although I knew he was renowned for his paintings, I had no idea he mixed his media in quite this fashion. It was thrilling to witness.
Next up on the bill was Wussy, quite honestly one of the most redemptive and satisfying second acts in Cincinnati music history. After the nonchalant major label dismissal of Chuck Cleaver's Ass Ponys in the '90s, he returned with a shambling vengeance with Wussy in the new millennium, partnering with Lisa Walker then adding Mark Messerly and Dawn Burman to the fold and making their studio debut with the patently amazing Funeral Dress in 2005. Wussy quickly became a critic's band, famously scoring a huge fan in renowned writer Robert Christgau, who cited both Funeral Dress and 2007's Left For Dead in his Top 10 best albums of the new millennial decade. The arrival of drummer Joe Klug in 2008 gave Wussy the powerful engine they required to hit the subsequent heights they have attained, first with 2011's magnificent Strawberry and now with this year's brilliant Attica!
This latest string of Wussy shows is proving just how powerful and confident the newly minted quintet (with the arrival of former Ass Pony/pedal steeler John Ehrhardt) has become. Klug's presence as a muscular and reliable hammer is certainly one element, Messerly's evolution as an absolutely vital, melodic bassist is another, but in many ways this also boils down to the strengthening chemistry between Cleaver and Walker. The duo's already incredible synergy has morphed into a ferocious and purposeful partnership that yields more dividends with each set and session, and Friday's performance at Washington Park was evidence of Wussy's upward/onward trajectory.
After blazing through a killer romp on "Pulverized," Walker poked the crowd with a gentle threat: "I hope you like 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,' because we're doing all 13 verses … Gord's Gold 2, that's what we've been listening to, exclusively."
Thankfully, no such root canal took place. Instead, Wussy ran through a selection of Attica! and catalog tracks that cemented the band's position as a formidable live entity. "Rainbows and Butterflies" was massive, dense and beautiful while "To the Lightning" howled with an anthemic power surge that accentuated its R.E.M. jangle and Yo La Tengo dissonance, and "Teenage Wasteland" was a showcase of Walker's incalculable gifts and her indispensible role in Wussy. And "Beautiful," like its studio predecessor, started out as a gentle meditation with a menacing undercurrent, but quickly built to a Crazy Horse squall that set off Cleaver and Walker's mantra-like intonation of "I'm not the monster that I once was." If all that wasn't enough, and it surely was, the fivesome finished their round with an unexpected and thoroughly engaging version of Joy Division/New Order's "Ceremony." This set was the best evidence yet that Cleaver may finally be ready to forget about the wounds inflicted by his first go-round with the industry and take his rightful place in the Rock pantheon along with his equally deserving Wussy mates.
At last it was time for the main event, the much-anticipated return of The Afghan Whigs. Each iteration of the Whigs' reclamation has been documented with a local show, but this tour in support of the Whigs' first studio album in a decade and a half, the jaw-dropping Do to the Beast, has been billed — even by some of the band's harshest critics — as the best live performances of their career. Local fans were justifiably amped up about the prospect of experiencing that rush for themselves. To say they weren't disappointed might well be an understatement on a par with "The Beatles kind of changed things."
Naturally, the majority of the set was devoted to Do to the Beast, as the band vaulted into the night air with "Parked Outside" and "Matamoros," guaranteeing that the album and live set opened with the same visceral one-two punch. But where frontman Greg Dulli sounded intense and focused in the studio, he was a coiled truck spring on stage, a spiral of wound up energy that unspooled with a nearly unhinged control.
Surprise was the watchword of the evening. Dulli had hinted to CityBeat that an unexpected guest would be making an appearance and that apparently turned out to be Greenhornes/Raconteurs drummer Patrick Keeler, who proved to be more than up to the task of beating the Whigs' tribal drums and being the percussive foil for John Curley's perpetual bass clinic. And while much of the set list was anchored by Do to the Beast and Gentlemen, about to be reissued in a 21st anniversary two-disc package, there were a number of interesting twists and fan-centric fist pumpers.
The Whigs have always loved mashing up two or more songs, and last night there were a few corkers; Gentlemen's "When We Two Parted" drifting into Drake's "Over My Dead Body,” Do to the Beast's "I Am Fire," paired with a tubthumping take on Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" and the new album's "Lost in the Woods" bleeding into a melancholic shuffle through The Beatles' "It's
Getting Better." Elsewhere, the band partly covered Jeff Buckley's "Morning Theft" to great effect, and opener Joseph Arthur provided backing vocals on the stage front mic for "Can Rova" from Beast while Dulli took his place at the piano.
The band has been running through stellar versions of "Debonair," Black Love's "My Enemy," and 1965's "John the Baptist" and did again, but the end of the Whigs' hometown set provided the greatest fireworks, starting with the almost never performed "Son of the South" from their Sub Pop debut and sophomore album Up In It, and eventually finished with an abbreviated encore, a blazing march through 1965's "Somethin' Hot" and Black Love's "Going to Town." With the 10 p.m. curfew bearing down, Dulli introduced the band and departed with a resounding, "We are the motherfucking Afghan Whigs! We'll see you next time."
The Afghan Whigs have clearly grown to accommodate some of the massive stages they've inhabited as of late. Longtime Whigs fans may lament the loss of the band's less seasoned version, where every club show seemed to be played with the ferocity of rats fighting their way out of a corner. The Afghan Whigs of now feature the cumulative growth that Dulli and Curley have experienced over the past 15 years since the band's demise and that experience is considerable and fairly amazing. Songs that were once acid-etched screeds are now heart-pounding anthems, and that evolution seems neither contrived nor insincere in any way. Dulli still sings them with visceral conviction, but now he possesses a new understanding of himself and his long established mythology and Curley still underpins every song with eye of the storm calm and outer band intensity but now he invests every note with the unrestrained glee of the best second chance ever. It all makes sense to me.
One last observation; the red gels on the stage lights gave the curtain behind the band the blood red appearance of the velvet backdrop on the cover of Congregation. If you carry that metaphor to its logical conclusion, the Whigs were a beautiful naked ebony mother and we were her beautiful naked pale baby and we were all together on a beautiful night under a beautiful sky having a beautiful time. The Whigs' official return to us could not have been more appropriate or better appointed. And then there was Dulli's hopeful parting, “We'll see you next time.” God, I do hope so.
With the adrenalized rush of the Whigs still ringing in my ears, I headed over to The Drinkery to catch the last two songs from Across Tundras. The Denver-to-Nashville trio works a Doom/Stoner/Psych/Metal angle with a Southern twist that has appeal and volume in equal measures. I realized that I had some wiggle room built into my schedule so I decided to stick around and check out some of All Them Witches, also from Nashville and also working a similar corner as Across Tundras. Although at face value, the two bands seem identical, I'd give the slight advantage to ATW, simply by virtue of their incredible sense of melodicism through the crystal clear volume. There were moments of black hole heaviness that referenced contemporary purveyors like Dead Meadow and Mastodon, but in a Stoner Metal heartbeat they'd crank out a run steeped in the pot/incense smokehouse of early Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep. Amazingly, as loud as it was in The Drinkery's long, narrow space — and I'm quite certain ATW was burying the needles on sound equipment down the street, registering the volume like a Richter monitor — it was never distorted or sludgy or painful, just sheets of pure, beautiful volume and emotion.
I ducked out of the end of All Them Witches to hit the Know Theatre for Rubblebucket. I had picked them to preview based on a couple of spins through their recently released fourth album Survival Sounds and its live presentation did not disappoint. This was clearly a much-anticipated show in the area; the Know staff was counting wristbands by the time I arrived to ensure they didn't go over room capacity on the second floor, and it filled up quickly. Rubblebucket's dancetronic Art Pop/Ska/Soul comes across well in recordings with plenty of nuance and subtlety, but on stage the band is unadulterated fun, downplaying some of the studio filigree while amplifying their core sound. Former boss/friend-for-life John Fox noted the band's resemblance to our own Walk the Moon, and they certainly offer that same brand of infectious Dance Pop, but there is a complexity in Rubblebucket's sonic recipe that pushes them into a singular and perfectly erratic orbit, a place where Bjork and The B-52s and Fishbone and Talking Heads form an orchestra and fashion Play Doh instruments, Bjork whips out some Icelandic volcano magic and transforms them into playable utensils and they translate signals from Voyager into universal Dance Pop.
Rubblebucket's complexity and oddballitry may never find favor in the mainstream, but it hardly matters. They have found the answer to any number of unasked questions and created a sound that everyone should hear at least once and that too many never will. The packed house at the Know on Friday night can revel in the secret knowledge that we have heard Rubblebucket, we get it and, like so many things in life, that will have to do.
I once again beat a reluctant retreat, leaving Rubblebucket before set's end to make my way down to Arnold's for the Jam/Roots splendor of Holy Ghost Tent Revival. When I turned the corner on 8th Street, I spied a small crowd bunched up at Arnold's front door and heard the most feared word in the MidPoint vocabulary: Capacity. In a rare moment of "fuck it," I strolled into Arnold's anyway (OK, it's not all that rare; I am my father's son, after all, and I suspect that I learned those two words first), and found that "capacity" was a malleable term. As I was chatting with the ubiquitous and ever welcome Wes Pence of The Ready Stance in Arnold's middle room, The Sundresses' Jeremy Springer, doing a typically bang up job in his role as server in the bar, inquired if my presence in the middle room and absence from the patio was a result of the capacity announcement. "Follow me," he said without hesitation, and planted me at the rear of the room as the band kicked off the last slot of the evening.
It was obvious that a good many people remembered the Revival's rambunctious appearance at MidPoint two years ago, or heard about it and wanted to experience it for themselves (I was in the latter camp). I get The Band/Flying Burrito Brothers references to HGTR's tangy, twangy sound, but there's so much more to it than simple Country revivalism. The horn driven sextet swings with the bristling energy of Squirrel Nut Zippers without the desire for that level of authenticity, while ratcheting up the Rock quotient to Phish-like levels of volume and instrumental proficiency. With those twin engines in place, Holy Ghost Tent Revival is aptly named; the band is passionately inspired and their songs are energetically executed with the soaring joy of the event in their name without any problematic or messy religious connotations. Allow the Revival into your consciousness for just a couple of songs and you'll be converted to their immaculate perception of Roots Rock, Stax Soul, horn-peppered Pop and adrenalized Indie Rock. The band, squeezed onto the narrow confines of Arnold's porch-like stage, blew through selections from their estimable catalog, concentrating on 2012's Sweat Like the Old Days and the just released and consistently excellent Right State of Mind, with both a sense of and a disregard for precision, making sure the feeling came across more than the chart. Come back to us soon, Holy Ghost Tent Revival, MidPoint or not; we are in need of slightly more regular baptisms.
• Washington Park was absolutely jammed with humanity for Wussy and the Afghan Whigs. Pike 27's Sean Rhiney and Dave Purcell, along with Dave's wife Amy, were there early for the Joseph Arthur experience, the Black Owls' Kip Roe was wandering the grounds with son Kip Jr. at about the same time and scene vet Jay Metz was working the Whigs' merch booth with typical entrepreneurial flair. Wes Pence was in attendance with his son Wyatt, who got an invitation from one of John Curley's daughters to sit on the stage and witness the Whigs' splendor up close. To be 11 and cute again. Well, to be 11 again … I just looked at my sixth grade picture.
• Local singer/songwriter Josh Eagle strolled in to witness the Wussy set; Josh is just one more reason why Cincinnati's music scene is unmatched for its talent and its sense of community. Also ran into my old CityBeat boss and mentor John Fox, to whom I literally owe, at least in part, my career and current life. It is an unpayable debt and I try to acknowledge it every time I see him so he understands his importance in my history. He was hanging for the night with his buddy Don; we had a nice chat on the lawn and he was kind enough to buy me the one early beer that I had allotted for myself each night of the festival. That story may unfold in this forum at some point; I've related it 50 times already this weekend to friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. Keep an ear out, you'll probably hear it secondhand before I tell it again.
• CityBeat’s Mike Breen beamed in from the upper atmosphere for the Whigs extravaganza, so I'm two for two in the Breen spotting sweepstakes. I'm going for the hat trick on Saturday. The Owls' Brian Kitzmiller and Sohio's Mark Houk were also among the Whigsian throng, as were Paul, Big Jim and Stu: I learned from the shirt he was wearing that his given name is Stufest. Must be a passed-down-in-the-family thing. Great to see CityBeat theater critic Rick Pender, as well as CityBeat alum and local actor Rodger Pille and especially former Enquirer contributor and current MTV News hound Gil Kaufman. And I was introduced to a veritable platoon of additional people by some of the above, all of whom seemed like people I would like to have a picnic with anytime at all. I'm free next weekend, Brad and Amy.
• On the verge of heading back to the Main Street core, I turned just in time to see the unmistakable frame of stage manager guru Jacob Heintz strolling across the Washington Park grounds in the post-Whigs glow. Of course, Jacob's working every second of the festival, but he mentioned that things had gone so smoothly for the first two days that he was afraid to say it out loud for fear of screwing up whatever good MidPoint mojo was lingering in the atmosphere. It just ain't MidPoint until I've gotten some face time with Jacob.
• Once installed at The Drinkery, I was joined by CityBeat master blaster Dan Bockrath, who had arrived in order to soak up the sonic boom-and-doom of All Them Witches. Like everyone in the audience as near as I could tell, Dan was captivated by the concussive volume yet melodic heart of ATW, and when he returned from a trip to the bar, he handed me an unbidden yet desperately desired tonic water and lime. Although the Hall of Foam is sadly off line this MidPoint, Dan continues to be a much appreciated buyer of liquid refreshment, and that, at the end of the day, is all that truly matters. Thanks again and always, Sir Dan of MidPointdom.
• At Rubblebucket, I crossed paths once again with John Fox, his pal Don and the ever inscrutable Mike Breen. I have searched my aging brain device and not come up with a single memory of seeing Mike twice in one night, so that could stand as the record. If I don't see him Saturday night, I may consider the hat trick achieved (with an asterisk). My buddy Brad Gibson, frontman for the Saturn Batteries, was on his way down as I was coming up, so not sure if he decided to stay. Not long after the band fired up, Sir Dan strode in with purpose and took his place alongside us. And there it was, the entire history of the CityBeat braintrust. And me, of course.
• Other than Wes Pence, the unofficial mayor of MidPoint, I didn't spot anyone in the Holy Ghost Tent Revival crowd that I knew until Sir Dan came in not long after the band got cooking. If it was anyone else, I'd consider a restraining order, but I know Dan is just looking out for me, and we share similar taste in music. And when HGTR frontman Stephen Murray asked the assembled multitude how they knew about the show, Dan responded with a lusty and pride-filled "CityBeat, motherfucker!" When I suggested that might make a nice tagline for the masthead, he seemed to consider the idea, leading me to believe that maybe Dan was done for the night. As I was headed out the door, Wes was talking to a friend at that very nexus, so I hung for a second until they'd said good night, then prepared to do the same. We started to chat when a face appeared at Arnold's front door and gestured toward Wes. Apparently it was his ride home, so he handed me his double bourbon and said, "Do what you want with it, I just want it to go to a good home." And so, valiant soldier that I am, I sipped for five minutes, then drained it. It mellowed my shit out like right now. Thanks, Dr. Pence.
The first night of MidPoint is like a lot of firsts; first date, first kiss, first sex, first beer, first rectal exam by a hot proctologist. Hey, you have your firsts, I have mine. Anyway, MidPoint Thursday is always a magical time of reconnecting with old friends, making a few new ones along the way and experiencing an almost breathtaking amount of incredible music of every conceivable variety. 2014's version of that particular passion play lived up to and exceeded every expectation.
First up was a trip to the MidPoint Midway to witness the return of the mighty Pike 27. The band's late '90s/early '00s run included at least one EP and a great full-length in Falling Down Hard, but frontman Dave Purcell's shift into academia on the teaching side signaled the band's demise. Although Purcell's professorship at Kent State precluded him from actual band activities, he never stopped writing songs, and when he fortuitously returned to Cincinnati last year, he had an ass-pocket full of new material that suggested new horizons and possibilities. Purcell and original bassist Sean Rhiney (veteran and current member of any number of high profile bands and the co-founder of our MidPoint feast) resurrected Pike 27 with guitarist/local hero Mike Fair and drummer-and-more Dave Killen.
This new iteration of Pike 27 is a powerhouse of scorching guitar, earthmoving bass and jackhammer drumming, and while there are vestiges of the band's Roots Rock history, everyone's balls are definitely within the vicinity of some wall or other and medal is being pedalled with controlled abandon. Start to stop, Pike 27 careened from song to song with the visceral intensity of The Old 97s and dashes of Alejandro Escovedo and Grant Lee Buffalo at their delicately nuanced and head-kicked obvious best. This seems to be a fertile period for long dormant bands to renew themselves and that can always be a problematic situation, but Pike 27 is clear evidence that having the right motivation to return can evolve into a stunning and most welcomed result.
On the heels of Pike 27's energetic and fabulous opening set at the Midway came the return of our beloved Black Owls, a well-documented force of nature in their own right. Pre-show, frontman David Butler promised that the Owls' set would be populated with nothing but new material with very few exceptions, and he was good to his word. Other than their recently installed cover of Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire" and set closer "Glorious in Black," from their 2010 sophomore album June '71, the oldest songs in the Owls' incendiary set were "Rook" and "Gasoline," the two songs from their most recent single. Everything else that followed an invocation from the inimitable King Slice was brand new and largely untested Owls material, perhaps all of which will be taken into Ultrasuede at the end of November in anticipation of a new album. It made for a set that crackled with energy and a certain ramshackle giddiness as the band roared through material that hasn't quite solidified. Butler is quick to credit the rise of guitarist Brandon Losacker's songwriting profile as the reason for the Black Owls' straightforward Rock shift and sudden prolific streak, but I'd be just as quick to point out the gelling of new (and perpetually fabulous) bassist Kip Roe, the malleable thunder of drummer Brian Kitzmiller and the continually developing chemical bond between Butler and longtime musical cohort Ed Shuttleworth as equal parts of the Owls' new equation. The band is clearly having an absolute blast with the new songs, and their joy is translating to performances that are pegging the needle past the insane levels the Owls had already established. Cincinnati's Black Owls, as Butler likes to refer to the band, is in the midst of a fertile and potentially explosive period of evolution.
After the Owls' incendiary set, it was a quick stroll over to the Know Theatre to catch the last half of the set from Cincinnati’s Darlene. The trio was firing on all badass cylinders to be sure, blasting out sheets of guitar squall with plenty of melodic counterpoint. A tweet from someone at the show asked the musical question, "Is Darlene the new Sonic Youth?" The answer provided by perpetual smartest-guy-I-know Matthew Fenton was a logical and correct "No." Darlene is a blistering Rock band, and guitarist Janey O'Laney is always teetering on the brink of a shred-fueled fit, with bassist Cuddly D (the infinitely busy Dana Hamblen) and drummer Robby D providing the slinky yet sturdy undercarriage. But the fact is that the trio, at its heart, is a melodic Pop unit. They probably hew closer to Yo La Tengo in their ability to go from pretty to visceral in a half a heartbeat, but Darlene isn't the new anything; they are Darlene, and that's an astonishing accomplishment. Besides, as Matthew rightly pointed out, Darlene may be the best-dressed band on any given night anywhere. Sonic Youth were never known for their sartorial splendor. So there.
After Darlene, it was time to cruise on down to Mr. Pitiful's to check out Steelism, an instrumental quartet from Nashville. If guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel and no vocals sounds like a crashing bore, you'd be half right. There was plenty of crashing; cymbals, sounds and gates, as a human stampede of MidPoint patrons made their way into Mr. Pitiful's to sample Steelism's wares. I know from experience that if a relative unknown doesn't grab a festival crowd in the first couple of songs, the crowd in question will leave fast enough to create a head-exploding vacuum in the area. If anyone left during Steelism's mind-melting set, they were more than offset by the several dozen who drifted in after the start.
Steelism is comprised of British pedal steeler Spencer Cullum Jr., Ohio guitarist Jeremy Fetzer, and a bassist and drummer whose introductions were lost in a crowd frenzy and a muffled mic (well, they weren't mixing for vocals, now were they?), who threw down a mighty and wordless racket, unless you count Cullum's talkbox vocals on the band's spin through The Beatles' "Something." You could call Steelism Surfabilly/Soulicana/Spaghetti Southern or you could just call it bloody good music; after running through a handful of originals from their new full length, 615 to Fame, and their cracking good 7-inch, The Intoxicating Sounds of Pedal Steel and Guitar, and covers of classics by The Ventures and Booker T. and the MGs, Steelism had the packed house at Mr. Pitiful's in the palm of their sweaty hands. At one point, Cullum indicated that the band was going to slow things down, and then offered the crowd a choice between a gentler vibe or "plowing on through." The overwhelming vote was for the latter, with Cullum noting, "No sensitive people here tonight." He certainly got a taste of what plowing through will get you in Cincinnati. Steelism finished up with a roaring take on the James Bond theme, which nearly pushed the frenzied multitude into religious conversion. I don't know what that church would be called, but they wouldn't have a choir; no words necessary when Steelism kicks open the doors of the sanctuary.
Then it was a quick jaunt down to The Drinkery to witness the Motor City madness of Flint Eastwood, a quartet of musical insaniacs from my home state to the north. In the studio, Flint Eastwood exhibits a certain heavy fisted subtlety that is charming and dancable in a visceral way. All of the relative nuance that is present on the band's EP, Late Nights in Bolo Ties, is tossed onto a bed of nails and jumped on until it experiences head-to-toe acupuncture in its live presentation. On stage, Flint Eastwood buries every needle in the red, thrashes about like lunatics after a napalm shower and entertains their audience at metaphorical knife point. Frontwoman Jax Anderson cajoled the crowd at The Drinkery to get involved in the show and when she got what she felt was a half-hearted response, she shrieked, "Nobody's too cool to have fun!" and put us through our paces like a Marine drill instructor on meth. She had us shouting then whispering "na na na"s, got us kneeling on The Drinkery's dance floor and then lifted us up like a demented preacher speaking in Rock & Roll tongues. All the while, the band was grinding out a gritty groove that sounded (and resembled) a full arena assault by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was draining and glorious and probably just another full-throttle 20-mile Rock & Roll hike for Flint Eastwood; it's pretty obvious these guys have one gear and it's "hellbent for bent hell." That's the Detroit method, bitches. Get used to it, get over it, get on it.
I reluctantly ducked out of Flint Eastwood's last two songs to hotfoot it down to MOTR for the remainder of Nikki Lane's set. Lane is a Country shitkicker with a decidedly different take on the genre, opting for a certain songwriting traditionalism while soundtracking it with a band that sparks and smokes with Roots Rock intensity and abandon and adopting a persona that suggests Wanda Jackson's pot-smoking, foul-mouthed twat of a granddaughter. Lane and the Thunder (she admitted the jury was still out on the name) roared through their MOTR set with equal parts ferocity and humor, as Lane used the space between songs to candidly muse about the intention of each one. "This is a love song," she noted appropriately prior to "Want My Heart Back," extending the title to, "I want my fucking heart back," and later opened "Sleep with a Stranger" with "This is a song about tonight, when you'll sleep with someone you don't know." Later, she dropped this indelicate observation: "This one's about my best friend. Sometimes she's a cunt, and I don't like that word, but she is. And when you're a cunt and your best friend is a songwriter, well, you get the short end of the stick."
Taylor Swift has written a lot of songs about the people in her life and I'm guessing she hasn't gotten around to any of her cunt friends yet.
Towards the end of her blistering and profanely hilarious set, Lane said, "We've got a couple more, then we'll pretend to go away, and come back for a couple more." She loves her covers as well; she hauled out a great take on The Byrds' "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a loping yet intense version of Waylon Jennings' "Waymore Blues," and finished her encore with a blazing spin through a Tom Petty cover, not an old catalog chestnut but "Saving Grace" from the new album, a song that blends Petty's classicism with his well-earned experience. Lane clearly identifies with that stance, as she channels all of her Country influences through a blazing Rock filter, creating a sound that identifies with the past but erupts with white hot emotion in the here and now.
• To begin, a clarification for anyone who may attempt to buy me a brewski during MidPoint: For largely legal reasons, the Beer Buying Hall of Foam has been forced into a strike shortened year in 2014. I salute all who have so generously provided the nectar of the gods to a poverty stricken scribe on an annual basis and I promise that the commissioner will reinstate all practices and records next year, but for now, the Hall is strangely dark and quiet.
• In stark contrast to the Midway, which was lit up like a Kansas City whorehouse. Not that there were whores, but lots of lights. Boy, writing was easier with the Hall of Foam open. At any rate, within moments of arrival, I crossed paths with singer/songwriter par excellence Mark Utley and pianist to the stars Ricky Nye, who is in the throes of planning the upcoming Blues & Boogie Piano Summit, coming to the Southgate House Revival on November 7 and 8. After a quick chat, I headed to Mr. Hanton's for a heartstopping dog (not for health reasons but because it's so good … man, 2015 can't get here fast enough), choosing the Smokin' Hot Chick; my bill was cheerfully picked up by the always incredible Wes Pence of The Ready Stance, who joined me with a Smokehouse of his own. Can a Hot Dog Buying Hall of Fame be far behind?
• From there, the Midway was a blur of humanity. CityBeat photographer and local music denizen Jesse Fox took a shot of me and Class X Radio host/local music aficionado/empresario Eddy Mullet, which apparently didn't damage her equipment in any significant way. In sort order, I was greeted by King Slice, his pal Justin, the always ebullient and sometimes menacing Venomous Valdez, the entire Broadway cast of the Black Owls, Paul Roberts, Big Jim and Stu (sans his I'm Stu hat, apparently confident in my recognition skills at this juncture), and Jet Lab guitarist Nick Barrows and his wife Robin. At some point in the Midway proceedings, I spotted the elusive and long-absent Matthew Fenton, along with Eric Appleby and Tricia Suit, motoring out of the Midway zone. They were gone before I could track them down (they must have see me coming, damn them), but when I mentioned the sighting to Nick, he said they were headed to the Chromeo set and would be back for the Black Owls.
• In the meantime, Owls guitarist Brandon Losacker took a mob of us (Owls frontman David Butler, Venomous, Slice, Justin and myself) to see his new conversion van, a behemoth from a bygone era. Cooler in the console, heated/cooled cupholders, TV, retractable bed, wood grain dash panel and a hundred other crazy features that makes it essentially a Swiss Army van. Incredible doesn't begin to describe it.
• Back at the Midway — a brilliant set up that, as the astute and ever fabulous Venomous Valdez noted, will have to undergo some changes next year with the advent of the rapidly progressing streetcar system — Sean Rhiney, Dave Purcell and Dave's wife Amy were hanging around to watch the Black Owls tear shit up. My Class X compatriot Eddy was back to witness the Owls' splendor, and at some point in the proceedings, my boss Mike Breen appeared like a magician's assistant. Breen sightings at MidPoint are like spotting nearly extinct species in the wild, so it's always great to know that he's an actual warm human being and not some weird holographic editorbot. (Editor’s note: I am both.)
• Over at the Darlene show, I caught up with the always effusive and entertaining Mr. Fenton, along with Eric and Tricia. They were planning a trip down to the Taft to catch the Ghost Wolves and Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, both of which I dearly wanted to see but my recently bum left leg, the long walk and the chance that the St. Paul and the Broken Bones show would sell out the venue kept me from tagging along. On the way to Steelism, three guys on the sidewalk ahead of me confirmed that the show had gone clean and there was little chance of entry. The gimp makes a good decision every now and again.
• Also at the Darlene show was Leyla Shokoohe, former CityBeat intern, current CityBeat freelancer and now Marketing Manager for the Cincinnati Symphony & Pops Orchestra. You couldn't script a lovelier or more personable human being than Leyla, and yet she is savvy beyond her lack of calendars. She's a marvel and the CSO should count themselves lucky to be the recipient of her passion and skill.
• Over at Steelism, I ran into fellow scribes Steve Rosen and Chris Varias. I've known Steve for quite awhile through CityBeat and we've talked music at many a holiday party/CityBeat event, and I've read Chris' excellent work in The Enquirer for many years but had never had the pleasure of meeting him until Steve's introduction at Mr. Pitiful's. I had interviewed Matthew and Eleanor Freidberger for a Fiery Furnaces story several years back and when they found out I was in Cincinnati, they asked if I knew Chris, which I did simply by reputation. It turned out that they had grown up together in a Chicago suburb. An unpaintable small world, indeed.
• Paul Roberts was digging the confrontational magnificence and sonic head blast of Flint Eastwood; he stuck around for the end, while I headed to the Nikki Lane gig, where Big Jim and Stu were ensconced at the bar. Paul was right behind as soon as Flint Eastwood dismissed him for the evening. Head CityBeat honcho and perpetual suds buyer Dan Bockrath had bought me an invisible beer at Steelism, which I downed with dry gusto, but he showed up at Nikki Lane and put a real tonic water and lime in my hand, which was much appreciated. I could pretend there was gin in there, and that somehow made everything okay.
• As we left MOTR, Sir Bockrath and squire Dan McCabe, the architect of our annual MidPoint joy, were out front and the boss upbraided me with a casual, "You'll have your blog copy in by 7 a.m., right?" Yeah, let's say that, I answered, muttering to Paul and Stu, it'll be 7 a.m. somewhere. The lateness of this posting will tell you that deadline came and went and came and went again. I have a theory that I'm better at writing when I'm slightly hungover because I just want to get it done so I can take an aspirin and lay down. Not happening this year. I guess I could still take the aspirin, for old times sake.
If Axl Rose announced he was planning the next Guns 'N Roses album as a tribute to Tony Orlando and Dawn, that would be only slightly more surprising than Matt Baumann's left turn from his Ambient Jazz saxophone tone poetry to the sparsely appointed Americana released under his reimagined guise as WolfCryer.
Oddly enough, when Baumann defected from saxophone to banjo, the quality that linked his two disparate musical directions was a spartan sense of atmospherics and an expansively moody palette; while the outcomes couldn't have been more different, there was a fascinatingly similar philosophical link between his two sonic identities.
As WolfCryer, Baumann has been slightly more in tune with the singer/songwriters to which he swore fandom back in his tone/drone Jazz days (Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and Jason Molina were particular favorites), and over the past three years of his newly established Folk/Roots persona, he has managed to amass a catalog of songs that more than amply proves the wisdom of his career shift. His 2012 self-titled WolfCryer debut turned a lot of heads in the local Folk community, and Baumann spent the subsequent year working on his chops and making a new name for himself in a crowded scene that always seems to make room for quality purveyors.
Earlier this year, Baumann released the fruits of his most recent labor, the four song EP Wild Spaces, which came on the heels of a pair of EPs in late 2013, The Long Ride Home and Hell's Coming Down. The three brief but potent releases showed Baumann expanding his sonic possibilities as he incorporated more acoustic guitar and harmonica into his songs and left the banjo as an infrequent but still welcome guest. Baumann's proposed full-length debut, originally slated for this past summer, hasn't yet materialized but in the meantime, he's whetted our appetites with a new eight-song WolfCryer EP, The Prospect of Wind.
Like many of his avowed heroes, Baumann turns his songwriting talents toward society's downtrodden on The Prospect of Wind, with a particular interest in the personally felt ravages of war. It is an age old topic of literature and song, because no matter how sophisticated mankind becomes at the destruction of life, the simple desolation of the survivors never seems to change to any great degree. To that end, Baumann channels his inner Dylan in the lyrics and the cadence of the EP's title track ("There's an ember in the kindling, from a cracked and careless hand/Just waiting for the moment to rise and scorch the land"), nimbly displays both his love for and his study of Warren Zevon on "The War" and "When I Go," and waves his Springsteen flag with pride and admiration on "Box of Bones" and "Both Hands on the Plow."
As has been the case from the start of his relatively short but extremely potent tenure as WolfCryer, Baumann has no trouble notching his songs with some of the characteristics of his favorite singer/songwriters, but he does it in the constant pursuit of his own musical identity. You may detect a glimmer of some of his monolithic predecessors in the songs that comprise The Prospect of Wind, but you'll come away knowing that you've experienced another great WolfCryer album.
WolfCryer's CD release show for The Prospect of Wind is Friday night at the Southgate House Revival in the Revival Room. Admission is $10 and the show starts at 9 p.m.