MidPoint Music Festival: Soggy Friday
For all the hardships MidPoint has had to endure since its inception five years ago, Mother Nature has been surprisingly kind to the fest. Well, someone pissed that wench off, because this weekend is shaping up to be soggier than Tammy Faye Bakker’s mascara. Torrential downpours consistently drenched the Main Street area, starting as if on cue right at 9 p.m., when the musical showcases kicked off. The music is mostly indoors, of course, but trekking a couple of blocks to try and catch multiple acts became like Olympic swim team trials, as club-hoppers not lucky enough (or, in my case, smart enough) to bring an umbrella got soaked from head to toe.
I was afraid my notebook would have to be wrung out when I got home and all of my scribblings would be blurry, but I was prepared to transcribe them regardless, posting a blog like Steve Martin reading his soaked and smeared “Dear John” letter in the bathtub in The Jerk. Luckily, my notes were unscathed, so you’ll be spared, “Saturday nougrht sterted oot painting bert er to thing climbed oof oh fay.”
The attendance didn’t appear to suffer all that much (most clubs were either packed or modestly full, like in years past), but the fest’s biggest casualty was Neon’s Courtyard stage and the outside stage in the back of Red Cheetah. Though the stages were covered for performers (not listeners), the sound people made the judgment call to pull the plug on both, meaning all of the performers slated to appear didn’t get a chance to play MidPoint.
At least not yet — co-founder Sean Rhiney said that all of the bands whose showcases were canned were added to the top of the “on call” list, meaning they will be slotted in Saturday night if there are any cancellations (which there will be; Rhiney was especially disappointed to get a last-second call from Washington, D.C.’s Exit Clov saying they couldn’t make it for their Friday performance due to “inspection” problems with their van).
While sad for the local acts (especially Bulletproof Charm, who were playing their last show at MidPoint, due to the imminent relocation to Austin, Texas, of the band’s leader, Andrew Geonetta), the cancellations really sucked if you traveled any great distance to attend MidPoint. At Red Cheetah, several overseas bands were slated to play. That’ll be an even longer plane ride home now. (Though I did see several members of Holland’s Progressive Metal band MENNEN whooping it up at The Exchange later that night, hooting and hollering and enjoying their Budweisers to the fullest. So all’s not lost, especially when gallons of beer are within arm’s reach.)
I started my MidPoint day off before the sun went down, at the Contemporary Arts Center, participating in a panel discussion about how to get tour press from the local alternative newsweeklies around the country. It seemed to go really well, as the assembled musicians asked great, practical questions about what catches a music editor’s eye and what steps they can take to give them the best chance for coverage (of course, drugs and money always work best, but I kept those tips to myself). My colleagues from other altweeklies in the region offered up some helpful tips. And I reiterated my biggest pet peeve: touring bands that don’t have a hi-res photo for press use on their Web sites. I talked to a few audience members afterwards and, I must say, musicians are some of the coolest, down-to-earth people in the world. Until they get famous. Then they’re all mostly dicks.
Our panel was followed by the artist keynote, Bootsy Collins. So now I can say “I opened for Bootsy Collins.” Collins was awesome. First, he gave a press conference in the CAC’s lobby, touting the grand opening celebration at Fountain Square that will feature a plethora of big-name, world-class talents (we were the first media outlet to break the news of the festivities, Wednesday here at Porkopolis). Then Bootsy headed down to the lower-level theater and was interviewed by former Enquirer music critic, Larry Nager.
Bootsy is beloved in this area (and worldwide), but his outlandish, cartoonish appearance (Friday he was decked out in Bengals orange and black, including a Carson Palmer jersey, two-foot high hat and, of course, spangly sunglasses) seems to precede his reputation as a groundbreaking, revolutionary musician. So it was great to hear him recall his history — joining James Brown’s band at 16 (his first time on an airplane was when he was flown on a private Lear jet to hook up with James Brown for an arena concert), meeting George Clinton for the first time and riding around in Amberley Village in his orange and pink hooptie, full of pot smoke and groupies. (He hilariously recalled getting pulled over and busted for speeding and more, only to be let off after telling the cops he played with James Brown, whipping out his bass for a few riffs of “Cold Sweat” as evidence.) I — and I’m sure most everyone else in attendance would concur – could have listened to him talk for three more hours. It was like a Behind the Music, live and on stage.
At first it seemed odd that a legend like Bootsy would speak in front of independent musicians, since he hasn’t had to hustle on their level in some time. But his stories alone taught a valuable lesson: work hard, be the best and try to stand out from the rest of your peers and you will have a much better shot at breaking through.
After the CityBeat party at J-Hall with Erika Wennerstrom, I swam down to Cooper’s to catch Steve Earle’s band Earle Grey. Earle is the original (and, in my opinion, definitive) drummer from The Afghan Whigs, but now he’s front and center, playing guitar and singing his own songs backed by a powerful, driving back-up band. The band was loud, teethy and swaggering and Earle’s vocals were surprisingly strong, delivering cool, direct Pop melodies. Great set, good turnout.
One of the sparechangers on Main had a good angle: umbrella escort. So, as I headed down to Jekyll and Hyde’s, he saddled up next to me and offered his services (for a small fee, of course). I declined and suffered for it, looking like a wet dog by the time I got there. I caught several songs by Chicago trio helicopters. After seeing so many acts structured in the traditional format (bass, guitar, drums), it was refreshing to see someone trying something a little different. The ’copters used computerized backing beats (sans drummer) and layered guitar and synth over top of it, sounding like a more rocking version of the Postal Service. Except for a piano ballad that sounded like a Journey song (“Open Arms,” perhaps?), the threesome was a refreshing change of pace.
Over at the Know Theater, I saw a few songs from Brooklyn’s The Stages, a forceful Post-Punk/Pop outfit with spiky, Pixies-ish guitar and jerky, brute-force rhythms. Then I went upstairs to see local singer/songwriter Kim Taylor’s 10:15 p.m. set. Wow. Taylor’s voice is beyond captivating, a menthol-cool instrument that’s just plain mesmerizing. And she writes great songs too. Backed by a primal, spare drummer who provided a steady heartbeat, Taylor switched between acoustic and electric guitars and delivered one of the fest’s ultimate highlights. Why she’s not famous (or at least way more widely known) yet is one of life’s great mysteries. Someone told me Taylor could be a Triple A (read; Adult Alternative/Contemporary) darling, but I think she has a unique enough sound and approach that the Indie kids would dig her a whole lot too.
I sheepishly told a friend that I have a “voice crush” on Taylor’s vocal prowess and, much to my surprise, he knew exactly what I was talking about. A “voice crush” is when you fall in love with someone solely based on the tone of his or her vocals. Before ever seeing what the singer looked like, I’ve developed these crushes on Neko Case, Carla Bozulich from The Geraldine Fibbers, Amy Millan from Stars and a few others. But Kim’s my gal now. I’d put a poster of her voice on my wall … if that were even remotely possible.
After seeing a giant, long-beaked bird mascot running around Main Street last night (think Big Bird, but greyer and more annoying), I had to go see Sleepybird, a Dayton, Ohio sextet. Actually, the bird – who the band’s singer said just started following them around one day – wasn’t the main reason I went. The group’s electro-tinged, acoustic-based sound came off really intriguing when I checked them out online to write a brief preview for CityBeat’s MidPoint guide. It clicked live as well. The band created a big sound in the tiny Crush space, peppered with cool electronic quirks (sadly somewhat lost in the mix), sinewy violin (provided by Elizabeth Landis, who looks remarkably like a taller Natalie Portman) and some dazzling stand-up bass work (of the bowed and plucked variety). Singer Nick Tertel strummed acoustic and sang melodies that sounded like pirate lullabies. I would definitely see these guys (and gal) again. Oh, and mustache fans take note – bassist/co-electronics operator Jason Dryden has the best handlebar in all of Ohio (yes, I’ve seen them all).
After seeing a couple of really unique, standout acts, it was a little anti-climatic to see Oklahoma’s Winter Circle play at Guido’s Corner Tap. But it wasn’t the band’s fault – they played tight, energized Power Pop in the Fall Out Boy/Sugarcult realm. There was a fairly small audience to see them and the band seemed a little groggy in the stage-presence department (especially given the sparks that fly within their music). Not my bag, but I could imagine hearing the band’s songs in heavy rotation on “Alternative” commercial radio.
Over at Neon’s (inside, of course), Ohio’s On a Sun also had a minimal turnout, but they played a fun, infectious set regardless. The trio hails from Youngstown, “the land of Stiv Bators and Mo Clarett and not much else,” the singer told us. Straight-up, adrenalized, no-bullshit Rock & Roll was the band’s musical game, and their between song banter was charmingly hilarious (refreshing, given the disappointing attendance). They announced that their song, “She Loves Me,” was No. 1 on college radio in Canada (perhaps taking a swipe at the career-focus of some of the MidPointers). But then they clarified: “As long as there aren’t any Canadians here to refute that claim.” Describing their music, the singer said, “It was Punk 10 years ago, but I’m getting slow and old, so now it’s more like sloppy Rock & Roll.” Great sloppy Rock & Roll at that.
Chicago’s Tenki is one of the bands I’ve seen at past MidPoints that I really, really enjoyed, so I decided to stop in to see their 12:15 a.m. set at J-Hall. I ended up staying almost the entire set. They are amazing and approximately five times better than the last time I saw them and they blew me away. The six-piece is dynamic and wildly eclectic, sorta Modest Mouse-y in their bigness, but musically unique on to their own. Trumpets, keys, chiming guitars, some dance-y rhythmic pulsations. If you’re a fan of Indie music but hate the cookie-cutter approach, definitely check these guys out if they come through again or buy an album pronto.
Up for some more weirdness, I headed down to Chandler’s to see the Bill Mike Band. Fronted by William Michel (a Cincy native), the Minneapolis trio pumped out skewed, leftfield Indie Pop full of endearing quirkiness. But it was Michel’s guitar playing that was most magnetic. After scribbling down that his wild, toy-and-effects-laden playing style was a mesmerizing mix of Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp and Frank Zappa’s six-string zaniness, Michel – who looks like he’s reeling in a 30-foot shark as he’s manhandling his instrument — announced that, growing up, Belew and Raisins/psychodots guitarist Rob Fetters were huge, formative influences on his playing style. Chamber’s, a first time MidPoint venue, had a somewhat stale feel, kind of like a hotel lounge, with its “institutional orange” walls and office-building entryway.
I headed back up to Main Street to catch a few songs at Club Dream from da mutts, one of the (if not the) best Hip Hop groups in Cincinnati. While they seemed a little low energy, their set was solid, made all the better by a lively backing band (live drums, DJ and musician/producer J Reynolds, who played sax, laptop and synth) and great, ear-grabbing flows from the group’s three distinct MCs.
Finally, I ended the night at The Exchange. On my Thursday wrap-up, I complained about the “velvet rope” policy that made it time consuming (and annoying) to get in. So I’ll take full credit for the more friendly door policy Friday night – the ropes were gone! And the door guy was friendly! The Vinyltones played an excellent fest-capping set. Performing in the last slot appears to be the ideal placement for a band. People are well lubricated by that time and ready to party and get unhinged (unfortunately, at da muttss show earlier, that meant really drunk white people dancing clumsily to Hip Hop, but even that was fun to watch, when I wasn’t too busy being embarrassed for my race).
The Vinyltones’ hyper-melodic, classically-steeped Pop Rock was perfect for the inebriated fist-pumpers and stumblers … and I enjoyed it immensely too. The powerful, crafty, catchy local band has an incredibly pro sound, impeccable musicianship and songs that ring with a rare timelessness. My only gripe: if you’re going to play The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” it has to be the last song of your set (the tones’ played three more tunes after their sizzling version).
Heading back to my car, I bumped into Sean Rhiney again. As we chatted for a few seconds (Rhiney – like his co-conspirator Bill Donabedian – sporting a Backstreet Boys-like headset device to keep in immediate contact with all of the volunteers), a man wobbled up to ask if we could “help him out with some change.” Without missing a beat, Rhiney – full smile glowing – said, “I’m carrying no cash and this festival has bankrupted me.”
The man took a step back and asked, “What festival?” Rhiney explained MidPoint in four seconds and then joked, “I’m trying to save your city.”
The man smiled back and said, “Oh, are you the financer?”
Rhiney shot back, “No, I’m the fool,” before shaking the man’s hand and heading back to work.
Check back tomorrow for Saturday night highlights/lowlights. And please leave some comments about what you saw (or maybe why you didn’t go to MidPoint. Or whatever).
And don’t forget to check our cool multimedia wrap-up, featuring photos and sound clips from the festival.
— Mike Breen