Heroes of the Zeroes

Fifty reasons why real music fans were lucky to live in Cincinnati in the ’00s

Dec 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

As we approach the beginning of a new decade, I decided to try to think of 100 reasons why I've enjoyed covering Cincinnati music over the past 3,650 days. At first I was worried I might not be able to come up with enough. A couple of hours into an “off the top of my head” list, I considered changing it to 1,000 reasons.

After some hard editing choices (apparently adding 300 pages to this week's issue of CityBeat was an unreasonable request), 100 reasons were settled upon. And it still all didn’t fit. So here are 50.

For the remaining reasons (there are probably at least 10,000), stop reading lists and get out to the clubs. Don’t listen to me, don’t listen to haters — listen to the music makers.

• Ass Ponys fans saddened by that band’s unceremonious disappearance found a more-than-apt substitute with Wussy, Chuck Cleaver’s subsequent group that featured co-singing/writing/fronting partner Lisa Walker. The band’s three albums in the ’00s received national acclaim from big-time media outlets and were among the best releases of the decade, local or otherwise.

• If you ask most guitar players who the best guitarist in Cincinnati is, most will say themselves, but many will be truthful and say Scotty Anderson. Anderson’s deft, creative blend of Jazz finesse and Roots music naturalness is untouchable. Anderson should be internationally recognized as a true guitar hero.

• After the demise of Radio Down, Northern Kentucky got an even better Alt/Punk/Indie/Metal/Hip Hop playhouse with the birth of The Mad Hatter. The club — and shows at other venues by Mad Hatter Productions — has brought to town a lot of artists who might otherwise have left Greater Cincinnati off the itinerary.

• After an amazing debut release, Hip Hop collective da muttss went through some inner turmoil and sadly fell apart. Still, Conversations Over Blacks, Blunts, Sodas & Brews remains one of the best locally-produced Hip Hop albums ever.

• Long before the current economic crisis, some area venues gave local music lovers one of the greatest gifts of all — free shows on a regular basis (without cheaping out on paying the bands). Thank you Northside Tavern, The Comet, Juney’s Lounge at the Southgate House and every other venue that understands that no cover means more bar sales.

• Legendary area Alternative radio station WOXY seemed to be on the move and in flux more than Osama Bin Laden in the ’00s. The station left Oxford and the airwaves for the ’Net, almost left the ’Net for the graveyard (but were saved by investors) and then left Cincinnati completely for Austin, Texas, in 2009. Sad as it was to see them leave, fans of Indie/Alt music should just be happy they still exist and probably will for a long time to come.

• By the end of the decade, Scribble Jam was gone, but the huge Hip Hop festival’s legacy — promoting Hip Hop’s music, dancing and artwork — will never be forgotten.

• Banjo and accordion. Dance beats and electronic ornamentation. Melodies more sublime than the sun. The effervescent Indie Pop group The Seedy Seeds (pictured) emerged in the late ’00s and became one of Cincy’s most beloved bands. The stars are aligned to make the band’s 2010s even bigger.

• The MidPoint Music Festival was the local music event of the decade. Launched by musicians Sean Rhiney and Bill Donabedian in 2002, the event was designed for independent musicians and the music lovers that loved them, bringing to town hundreds of unsigned acts for three days of exploration and discovery. CityBeat took the reins in 2008 and is guiding MPMF into the ’10s with a full head of steam.

• Experimental music, naturally, isn’t the broadest appealing kind of music. You need a core group of dedicated boosters to keep the scene alive. That’s just what the folks behind Art Damage have done. From its original, influential radio show on WAIF to the more recent opening of a live music venue (Northside’s Art Damage Lodge), the AD crew is doing the Lord’s work (assuming the Lord is a fan of Hair Police and other boundless, esoteric audio artists).

• Napoleon Maddox, mastermind of Hip Hop/Jazz mashers IsWhat?!, took his band from popular local attraction to internationallyacclaimed without compromise. If stardom in Hip Hop was based on creativity and talent, IsWhat?! would be bigger than Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and P Diddy combined. There’s still time …

• Near the end of the last millennium, CityBeat came up with the idea for a Grammys-styled awards show that would honor musicians based in the Cincinnati area. But in the long run, the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (13 years and running) became less about trophies and more about community and celebrating what we are so lucky to have in our city.

• In 2000, if you had told us that one of the best and biggest bands of the coming decade would feature a singer/guitarist and drummer performing to a pre-recorded reel-to-reel tape and singing through megaphones and telephone boxes, we’d have thought you were high. Then Bad Veins came along …

• Every six months or so, a new newspaper, ’zine or Web site comes along to declare that they will now be the preeminent voice of local music coverage and that CityBeat is shit. None of those outlets exist anymore.

• Some people are good at everything they do. Renaissance man Ill Poetic is one of those people. Besides being an MC, writer, producer and columnist, Ill Po’s mash-up projects (blending two disparate albums, like ones by Joe Budden and Portishead) have put him in the upper echelon of great mashers, something rightfully noted by the national press.

• Erika Wennerstrom may have moved her band, The Heartless Bastards, to Austin, Texas, but we’ll always claim them as Cincinnati’s own. The most successful local band of the past 10 years, the group has carried the Cincy music torch with three amazing albums, major press coverage, huge festival appearances (Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits), top-shelf touring partners (Lucinda Williams, Wolfmother) and TV appearances (Letterman and a coveted Austin City Limits session, airing in late January).

The Fairmount Girls have rotated membership more than Menudo, but their penetrating Indie Pop melodies and harmonies have made them a consistent and enduring force in the local music scene.

• It’s the classic story — short bald fella discovers Guided By Voices, starts writing like-minded songs, plays out acoustic, develops more mature, amazingly melodic songwriting style, forms band, rules the Cincinnati Power Pop universe. Swarthy made the Cincinnati music scene a much happier place to be in the ’00s.

• In the ’90s, Short Vine was the epicenter of the Indie Rock universe, with clubs like Sudsy Malone’s, Top Cat’s, Bogart’s and others. Then, the strip fell apart. Northside quickly transitioned from the Short Vine of today to the Short Vine of yesteryear and picked up the torch. People bitch that CityBeat writes about Northside too much, which is kind of like saying hunting magazines write about guns too much.

• More Pop than Jesus, long-running foursome The Tigerlilies have remained one of Cincinnati’s greatest Rock bands. In the ’00s, a career retrospective, great live shows (including fun “cover” shows) and, first and foremost, amazing new songs, once again have proven it.

Jake Speed is a folkin’ genius and the 2000s were very active for the young troubadour. He and his band, the Freddies, were the “go-to” group not just for “Folk” events, but seemingly any local event that needed some good music. Add to that his Rivertown Breakdown benefit concerts, an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion, some impressive CD releases and a weekly current-events editorial in song for CityBeat and the 2000s were to Jake what the ’30s were to Woody Guthrie. Meaning Jake’s got even bigger things ahead of him in the coming decade.

• The members of Cincinnati-spawned Hip Hop foursome Five Deez ultimately dispersed to wide-ranging locales across the planet. But when they all locked in together, they were one of the best Cincinnati Hip Hop groups ever. Proof? Pick up Kinkynasti (2003) or Kommunicator (2006). They remain “obscure” and the Yin Yang Twins are superstars? God has a sick sense of humor.

• The live show, the costumes, that grooveFreekbass proved to be more than just a good-time party band with some impressive studio albums (like 2008’s Junkyard Waltz), which showed Chris Sherman and Co. to be mad Funk scientists, mixing the past and present of Funk into the sound of its future.

• Outlaw Country master Dallas Moore and his band (“The Snatch Wranglers” for the bar scene; “The Dallas Moore Band” for those under 21) gave Cincinnati its gritty Country heart in the ’00s. No original Country band was more enduring or endearing.

• Local music has baby appeal! Even little kids could experience some quality local music in the ’00s, thanks to singer/songwriters like Zak Morgan (who even notched a Grammy nomination for his work in children’s music) and “Miss Joanie” Whittaker, plus the excellent compilation disc, Isn’t It a Wonder, featuring a solid cast of local “grown up” artists doing it for the kids.

• The Blue Wisp Jazz Club had a bumpy decade — with moves and threats of moves, not to mention the death of longtime owner Marjean Wisby — but, by the end of the ’00s, the venerable club has remained, healthy as ever, as Cincinnati’s premier Jazz destination.

• Finding local music played on the public airwaves is about as common as finding Incan treasures buried in a park in Bond Hill, but the Kindred Sanction radio program has been a glorious exception. The long-running show, hosted by Cynthia Dye, left WAIF for Class X Radio and continues to offer local musicians one of their scarce few outlets on the radio dial.

• The Cincy Punk Fest emerged as one of the area’s most enduring music festivals, thanks to organizer Adam Rosing’s smart booking (not just limited to “Punk”) and noble philanthropy, giving proceeds each year to various charities. The shows themselves were epic, legendary throwdowns.

The Wolverton Brothers can officially be on the “50 Reasons Cincy Music Rules list” for three decade wrap-ups. And, for the ’00s, they still remain at the top of any list of the most interesting and creative Rock bands calling Cincinnati home.

• Electronic music had its most mainstream-successful decade yet in the ’00s, and Cincinnati had plenty of quality “Electronica” to offer, from Hungry Lucy and Diet Audio to entheos, The Sleep and You, You’re Awesome.

• For a group of people who have to beg and plead for minimal compensation, Cincinnati-area musicians sure are a giving bunch. Besides the joy they give us with their music, local musicians’ greatest asset might just be their willingness to give back, as the innumerable charity shows put on each year prove, from the One More Girl on a Stage (breast cancer research) events to the ’80s tribute/Stop AIDS benefit ’80s Pop Rocks and many, many others.

• DJ/producer Mr. Dibbs’ legacy (which includes founding/cofounding local institutions like Scribble Jam and the collective 1200 Hobos) continued strong in the 2000s, working extensively with fellow underground Hip Hop icons like Atmosphere, El-P and doseone.

• Cincinnati lost a lot of great musicians to the big gig in the sky in the ’00s (Katie Reider, Ken Glidewell, H-Bomb Ferguson, Big Joe Duskin and sadly way too many others to list). And you’d be hard pressed to find one artist whose death wasn’t used for something positive, from newly founded charities to scholarship/memorial funds. Turning tragedy into triumph, indeed.

• The World Music Fest expanded in 2009 to several venues in Northern Kentucky. The Fest was a shining example of Cincinnati’s musical eclecticism, showcasing everything from Celtic, African, Native American and Latin music to Reggae, Cajun and Gypsy Jazz.

• There was a time when Fountain Square, the city’s centralized “commons” area, was little more than a place to have lunch, do the chicken dance and stare at the “Genius of Water.” By the end of the decade, the Square has become a legit hangout spot, not just for kids and families, but for music lovers of all sorts, thanks to regular concerts by local and national musicians.

• If you are a local Blues fan, you should bow down before the board of the Cincy Blues Society. Or at least join up and pay your dues. The CBS’s annual Cincy Blues Fest remains one of Cincinnati’s crown-jewel live music events. And their work with the Blues in the Schools program is helping to ensure that one of America’s greatest artforms won’t be forgotten by future generations.

• You have to be pretty good to put out a debut release that knocks everyone’s socks off, drop off of the face of the earth for a few years, then return with a new release and retain the same popularity. Indie Rock trio mallory did just that in the ’00s. How? I’m guessing witchcraft. Here’s hoping for a more regular presence from the band in the ’10s.

• People were sad when Garage rockers Thee Shams called it quits. Then some of the members formed the even more kick-ass Buffalo Killers, toured with The Black Crowes and Black Keys and released a pair of stunners on Alive Records. And people weren’t so sad anymore.

• Cincinnati is lucky to have some strong independent labels — Tiberius, Phratry, Blue Jordan, Shake It — that help push the good word of Cincinnati music beyond city limits.

• Newport’s Southgate House is, quite simply, the best music venue in Greater Cincinnati. The ambiance, multiple performance rooms, the history, the staff, the eclectic bookings — what’s better? (If you answered that question with anything other than “nothing,” you are just wrong.) The ’00s saw some managerial changes, but the venue remains untouchable.

• Against all odds, Shake It Records has not only stayed in business amidst the “death of any format besides digital downloads” panic, it has thrived. The Northside shop has drawn national attention for its retailing magic and the label side of Shake It has put out acclaimed releases by everyone from Wussy and The Greenhornes to releases chronicling Cincinnati’s Soul and early Punk history.

• For almost 50 years, Leo Coffeehouse (presented by the Queen City Balladeers) has been a little slice of acoustic Folk/Roots heaven for those wanting to stay out of the smoky bar scene. Leo moved from Old St. George to a church in Norwood in the 2006, but it remains a favorite of performers and listeners alike.

• Members of Tanya Morgan (from Brooklyn and Cincinnati, a.k.a. Brooklynati) started the group by exchanging sound files through IM in the early ’00s. Today, they are one of the most buzzed-about up-and-comers in Indie Hip Hop.

• It’s not like hardcore music fans didn’t know Bootsy Collins was from Cincinnati. But in the 2000s, everyone was made hip to that fact as the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer upped his local profile immensely, showing his civic pride at numerous events, working with local musicians, opening a restaurant with Jeff Ruby and showing support in song for our local sports teams (when they were good).

• You can’t talk about Cincinnati Hip Hop in the 2000s without talking about Hi-Tek. The DJ/producer curated three solo albums (all with the name Hi-Teknology), which featured guests like Snoop Dogg, Nas, Common and The Game, while his production magic is so far-reaching that if you listened to Hip Hop at all in the ’00s chances are you’ve heard Tek work.

• The Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation’s mission is clear — let it be known that Cincinnati is one of the most important American cities to the history of popular music. The group helped spread the word about things Cincinnatians should be super-proud of — King Records, Hank Williams’ time at Herzog studios and the recording of Bluegrass gem “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” just to name a few.

• Roots Rock/Pop band 500 Miles to Memphis was born in the ’00s. By the end of them, the group has become one of Cincinnati’s greatest exports. If the band’s Sunshine in a Shotglass (released by Deep Elm Records) isn’t the best Cincy-spawned release of the ’00s, it’s certainly deserved of a spot high in the Top 5.

• “Experimental music superstar” is a bit of an oxymoron, but if anyone deserves the tag it’s C. Spencer Yeh, the violinist/noise sculptor whose work has drawn him international attention and shows, Thurston Moore collaborations and a New York Times feature story.

• In the ’90s, promoter/musician Dan McCabe brought Beck, Jeff Buckley and about a gazillion other Alt/Indie music heroes to town at Sudsy Malone’s. He remained an icon of local music in the ’00s by putting on more great shows at the Southgate House and organizing the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards and MidPoint Music Festival (as CityBeat’s events dude). You can thank him with a bourbon next time you see him.

The Greenhornes still stand as one of the best Rock bands in Cincinnati music history, even though their output has been curtailed severely by the rhythm section’s work with Jack White and The Raconteurs. But don’t be bitter — just grab copies of the band’s releases from the past 10 years (including 2002’s Dual Mono, the 2005 EP East Grand Blues for V2 Records and the compilation Sewed Soles, also on V2) and revel in the vintage Garage Soul sound.

• Pianist Ricky Nye spent the ’00s making Newport, Ky., ground zero in America for fans of Boogie Woogie Blues piano. Nye’s annual “Blues & Boogie Piano Summit” attracted the top names in Boogie Woogie from around the world. And those “top names” definitely include Nye, who also performs each year.