MidPoint Music Festival: Saturday Wrap

The rain on Friday put the MidPoint crew in high action mode in regards to Saturday’s outdoor performances. The afternoon festival in Washington Park featuring several MidPoint bands already had an “in case of rain” venue lined up (Know Theater), but it appeared earlier on Saturday that the outside showcases at Neon’s and Red Cheetah would have to be cancelled. Alas, by the afternoon, organizers had procured the Ink Tank offices on Main (the old Base art gallery space) as an impromptu venue, slotting in a handful of acts (some highly anticipated) from the outdoor stages. (A few, like locals Holy Crap, were sadly left out of the rescheduling.)

But after Friday’s “monsoon” (as the MidPoint Web site called it) and despite local weather reports of a 100-percent chance or rain all day Saturday, wouldn’t you know it: Barely a drop of moisture fell from the sky. Better safe than sorry and all that, but it was a shame the Neon’s and Red Cheetah stages weren’t in play. They were both excellent places to see performances. Especially for non-smokers who may have wanted some relief from the hazy indoor venues.

I wanted to check some venues I missed Thursday and Friday, so I started my Saturday night itinerary off at the Blue Wisp. I love going to the Wisp to hear music (it’s a great, cozy room) and couldn’t resist kicking my evening off there because New York-via-Japan World music trio AUN was playing a 9 p.m. set. They had a pretty full crowd for being the first act on — a good omen for the night’s overall attendance, which seemed the strongest of the weekend.

AUN were a refreshing departure from MidPoint’s “Rock” focus. The trio consisted of veteran Japanese musicians who have traveled around the globe to perform. Led by twin brothers Ryohei and Kohei Inoue (and augmented by a violinist), the group jumped from various traditional instruments, pounding out thunderous jams on Taiko drums or doing duets on Shamisens, mysterious sounding three-stringed Japanese guitars. The sound went from traditional music to soothing New Age soundscapes (the Japanese flute number bordered on Zamfir territory) to eccentric Jazz, with laptop backing that featured prerecorded tracks. The twins were incredibly charming and gracious, talking between their instrumental numbers in broken English to explain who they were and what they were doing and also providing a little clinic on the instruments and genres they were exploring. They really seemed to win the smiling crowd over.

At Jekyll and Hyde’s, I caught the last several songs by entheos, a local Pop/Rock group fronted by co-lead singers Alison and Carl Shepard, a brother/sister duo who were joined by a super-tight drummer. The group’s recorded material mixes electronic beats and flavoring into their gentle, lilting, often acoustic-based Pop mix, so I was a bit surprised to walk in and hear them playing some pretty high-energy stuff, with distorted electric guitar from the skillful Carl. The electro stuff is fairly muted on their record and, in the live setting, even more so. It took me a while to figure out where the bass guitar sound was coming from; I thought at first maybe it was a ghost, then perhaps that I was hallucinating (it’s been a long few days). But the bass was embedded in the sequenced backing tracks, which made it even more impressive because a) you hardly noticed there was a backing track and b) the band played with some pretty dynamic song shifts and structures, but never missed a change or beat.

As one might expect from a bro/sis singing twosome, the harmonies were phenomenal. And I was especially drawn in by Carl’s guitar playing, which touched on U2-like atmospherics at times (fittingly, the soundman played U2’s Joshua Tree at the close of their set). The turnout was so-so, but filled up gradually: Carl at one point said, “Can I get a one, two, three … MidPoint!” Silence. “Anybody? MidPoint? Well, I’m excited.”

Just caught a couple of songs from fokushima, the Athens, Ohio, band fronted by Kevin Shima, former guitarist/singer for Cincy faves Homunculus, who played Jekyll and Hyde’s third floor. Great playing and a tight performance, but the material failed to really take off, lacking any “Wow” moments or anything especially distinctive. Funky, innocuous Pop/Rock, they just seemed like the kind of band you’d see in the back corner of some college pub, making a few people dance but mostly just blending in with the scenery.

Ellee Ven followed entheos on J&H’s second floor at 10:15 p.m. My pal Bill Bullock (CityBeat’s Web guru and official MPMF sound gatherer) recalled the singer being featured in article in Rolling Stone magazine about her involvement in a giant industry scheme, where some faux “management” company scammed a bunch of independent musicians (including Ven) out of thousands of dollars. Ven is an engaging, energetic frontwoman, shimmying and glaring at the audience with a friendly, seductive gaze. Her backing band, clad all in black, was tight (and the guitarist was impressive, jumping between grinding Hard Rock, James Brown-like Funk and Chili Peppers-esque flutters), but the material was fairly generic.

At 10:40 p.m., I head to MidPoint’s newest venue, the aforementioned Ink Tank space, to catch Cincinnati’s Buffalo Killers. Every year, MidPoint has a few “buzz” bands (past participants like Cincy’s Spindle and MOTH as well as Japan’s Gito Gito Hustler fit that bill in previous years). Judging by the amount of people (including several out-of-towners) who told me they were going to see the Buffalo Killers, they certainly seemed to qualify as this year’s must-see performers. The trio (featuring former members of Thee Shams) lived up to the hype, playing songs from their internationally-released debut (available from Alive Records) with a dirging, old-school Rock & Roll sprit. With a sound that sometimes felt like Blue Cheer jamming on trippy Beatles songs, highlighted by monster riffs and grooves and instantly catchy melodies, the band charged-up the elbow-to-elbow crowd.

The Buffalo Killers’ ’70s-inspired set also featured some of the best audience interaction of the fest. Singer/bassist Zach Gabbard asked if “Anybody wanted a shot of whiskey,” handing his bottle over, which was then passed through the crowd like Iggy Pop on a crowd-surfing spree. He also consistently reminded everyone there was free beer in the corner, a nice touch from the organizers for the last-second venue. The Killers’ epitomized how even traditional Rock & Roll sounds can be fresh and penetrating when delivered with the right amount of soul and passion.

Over at Club Dream, Sid Law & Mercy Killer played a groove-happy set of muted, syncopated Funk/Hip Hop/Pop. Law rapped in a melodic style akin to Jason Mraz or G. Love, but the Seattleites didn’t make much of an impression on the audience (myself included). “Not bad for one rehearsal,” Law said at one point. Well, gee, if you put it that way.

Over at Arnold’s, Tennessee’s Giant Bear electrified the packed courtyard performance space with their wild, progressive spin on Americana. The six-piece was the best Roots act I personally saw all week. Supercharged and a ton of fun, the group’s manic energy was addicting. One of the members towards the end of the set asked if anyone was feeling patriotic. Met with silence, he said, “Yeah, me neither,” and the band launched into a song about … Communism!

Over at Guido’s Corner tap, the TVs on the wall elicited cheers from the crowd when Channel 9’s news did a quick piece on MidPoint, with interviews taking place inside the very bar we were hanging out in. Six-member bands appear to be the new quartet; at Guido’s I caught what seemed to be the sixth or seventh sextet I’ve witnessed at the fest (six must be the limit though; I never saw anyone with more members than that). Nathan Asher and The Infantry hail from North Carolina, but Asher’s introduction was delivered in a funny Borat-as-an-Italian accent that had me initially wondering if perhaps he wasn’t actually from overseas, before realizing he was goofing on the “Guido’s” name. “Hello New York Cities!” Asher said starting off the set. “We are da house band. Whadya want to hear? ‘Superstitions’? We’ll play that. The Def Leppards? The Motley Crews?”

The band – augmented by two keyboardists – played engulfing, pointed Indie Rock with progressive structures and fantastic lyrics. Asher was one of the best frontmen I saw all weekend, full of jittery, engaging intensity. They were like Bright Eyes in full rock-out mode and a handful of people danced up front like drunk revelers at a wedding reception.

As with most festivals like MidPoint, I always have a great fear that I am going to miss out on something amazing and it appears that I did just that on Saturday night. Within 10 minutes, two people told me, when I asked who knocked them out so far, that Tennessee’s Ballroom Dancing (at Crush) was an absolute highlight. I had initially hoped to see them, having been impressed by what I heard when I wrote their preview, but somehow forgot about them amidst the swirl of band names swimming in my fuzzy brain. CityBeat music writer Ezra Waller said they were kind of like crazed Cincy rockers Foxy Shazam, where, no matter where you were standing in the club, you felt like you might get hit by something (or by someone) from the stage. My ass hurts from kicking it so much.

Two previously canceled performers garnered new slots at Know Theater (Champaign, Ill.’s Nadafinger and England’s The Dirty Royals), positioned in the vacant 1 a.m. time periods. The Royals were fantastic, playing bouncing BritPop to a small but enthusiastic crowd (the schedule shifts in some cases seemed to hurt turnout for a lot of repositioned performers). The foursome was incredibly charming (British accents and humour have that effect), as singer Simon Williams told the 20 of so people (“Sometimes the smaller crowds are the best,” he said) about their experiences in Cincinnati. Relaying their trip to the Reds game last night, Williams said, “(Reds mascot) Mr. Red waved to me and I had nightmares all night.”

To cap off the night, I decided to treat my exhausted self to one of my favorite new(ish) bands, Apollo Up!, a fiery, progressive Pop/Rock trio from Nashville who have played Cincy numerous times (including a set at this summer’s Desdemona festival) and always dazzle. The band was at The Exchange, which gets my vote for most annoying venue of the fest. My recap from yesterday celebrated the removal of the velvet-blue-rope, front-door policy and asshole-ish door guys, but they were back for Saturday (guess the ropes and assholes were taken inside so they wouldn’t get waterlogged). The club was overflowing, but the majority of people seemed like regulars, just waiting for the pesky live music to end so they could get their dance on and schmooze members of the opposite sex.

Apollo Up! wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen them, but their spiky, highly energized set was still a fest highlight. Singer/guitarist Jay Leo Phillips is mesmerizing to watch, jumping around the stage and knocking out electrifying guitar runs, which put a cool, wiry Post Punk spin on Riff Rock. When they finished, the crowd demanded more, but the stage managers had to squash any potential encore (though Cincy’s The Vinyltones were allowed one in the same time slot and club last night). The cheesy DJ kicked in immediately with “Crazy Bitch” by Buckcherry and some annoying “Let’s get the party started” voice-overs. I know I’m biased because I way prefer live music over the dance-club thing, but The Exchange left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth (and I’m not alone; more than a couple of people echoed my complaints).

But a couple of bad experiences and clunker bands were well worth the hassle. MidPoint was, once again, a hell of a party and helped reconfirm my love of music. Here’s hoping things shape up downtown and the fest can come back stronger than ever next year.

On the MidPoint site this morning, below a “thank you” note, there was a schedule for today’s (Sunday’s) events: “Sleep. Maybe some football later in the day.” I couldn’t agree more. Naptime for old man Breen!

Be sure to check CityBeat Wednesday for a “behind the scenes” article written by MidPoint co-founder Sean Rhiney. And don’t forget to surf over to our Web site for photos and sound from all three days. And if you’re looking for even more post-MPMF coverage, check out some very cool reviews over at locally-based music and culture Web site Randomville.

– Mike Breen

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