Music: My 'Demona

The Desdemona Festival offered great music and showed what a little ambition and vision can bring to Cincinnati

Jun 28, 2006 at 2:06 pm
James McKenna

The Stills Play to a packed crowd at Desdemona

Desdemona Photo Gallery - Click Here

On a purely selfish, personal level, the Desdemona music festival at Sawyer Point last weekend was perfect. I love music fests and regularly travel to other cities to see them. I also thoroughly enjoy local music fests, from MidPoint down to the one-venue, one-night, multi-act events. They allow me to kill several birds with one ticket, offering a chance to see bands I've never seen (or haven't seen in a while) without going to 20 different venues.

While there wasn't one specific act at the three-day, Indie-centric DesFest that I was dying to see, there were many that I'd been curious to check out. Another festival bonus is their offering of a chance to find something new and exciting. The thrill of finding something unexpectedly has been ingrained in me since I was a little kid.

Desdemona was also one of the better fest experiences I've had thanks to the overall vibe of the event. Focusing on Indie, Hip Hop, Electronica, Post Punk, Dance Rock and several other musical formats, DesFest didn't attract a lunk-head crowd in the slightest.

At the dawn of the Alternative music revolution, many artists who had been around for a while bemoaned the fact that, as "Alternative" became more mainstream, it was now the dorks who beat them up in high school who were at the shows.

But the new breed of Indie music doesn't yet attract the boob-flashing, mosh-pit-as-violence, drink-until-you're-numb-'n-dumb set. People were respectful and that vibe rubbed off on everyone, from the bands and fans to the volunteers and police detail. On the downside, the energy of the crowd was a little low (it's so not cool to act excited, I guess). Still, it was the perfect, hassle-free environment needed to make the most of the three days of music.

DesFest was short on bells and whistles, focusing solely on the music (i.e., no "Giant Ball of Velcro"- or "Imagitarium Garden"-type side-show distractions). And by staggering start times for the bands (the side stages began at the same time, but no one else played while the main stage acts performed), the audience didn't have to get too frantic about the possibility of missing something.

So, in honor of that aura, I won't talk much about the brouhaha surrounding organizer Nick Spencer and his battles with city council over festival support. (Go here for some of that: Instead, let's talk music.

Local band (in)camera had the "honor" of opening the festival. Those quotation marks are because opening the festival meant playing at 4 p.m. on a Friday, an hour before most people even got off work. While the turnout was small, it was bigger than one might expect and the crowd was vocal and supportive.

The band, who mix burning Post Punk rhythms with swirly, vintage-sounding synths and keys (not to mention the irresistible melodies and harmonies of singers Susan Smith and Shelagh Larkin), sounded great on the big stage. After seeing them play smaller venues like The Comet, it was refreshing to hear all of the band members' parts mixed together and loud. Robert Paquette's noisy, textural guitar work — sometimes a little too buried in the mix ­ shined through especially bright. Their groovy, celestial Electro/Indie sound did its best to foil the weather gods, but the threat of rain all day finally manifested itself during their set.

"So water and electronics — that's OK, right?" Smith asked out loud.

With "Indie" music's rep for being full of dour, cynical, "hipper-than-thou" musicians, New York City's Northern State brought a high dose of fun and exuberance to the fest, something that, for the most part, translated to many of the other acts in attendance. Northern State's old-school Hip Hop reconstructions were undyingly playful; they really are like a female Beastie Boys. Backed by a tight three-piece band, the ladies' charisma and enthusiasm was refreshing. The trio goofed on Cincinnati a little (despite exclamations like, "I love the 'Nati, y'all!"), saying they had sampled the local cuisine — at the Waffle House.

The Apples in Stereo were a highlight of the entire fest. The group — a legend of modern Indie Pop — played with jovial verve, performing a few songs from their forthcoming new album that sounded as good as anything from their rich discography. The Apples aren't skinny, pouty pretty boys, but they understand Pop music and songwriting better than anyone. And their live show — which found the band often cracking jokes between one another — was as buoyant and memorable as their songs. The back-to-back punch of "Ruby" and "Strawberryfire," two of the band's greatest tunes, made me giddy.

The High & Low reaped the benefits of fellow local band The Sundresses' last-minute cancellation, having their set moved back until 7 p.m. (instead of 5 p.m.). The band has a perfectly descriptive name, mixing spacious, high-wire melodies with primal, down-and-dirty Rock & Roll. Singer/guitarist Holly Kadish has one of the more captivating voices on the local music scene. They were followed by the Turnbull ACs, whose urgent, soulful Pop/Rock was well received by one of the bigger crowds assembled at Stage 3 all weekend.

I was curious to see how the DJ set by a couple of guys from Kentucky Dance Rock greats VHS or Beta was going. I expected to see 20 or 30 people mulling around as the fellas spun weird, esoteric platters, but instead witnessed around 200 people rocking along to Electro and House music. It was weird to see so many people checking out record-spinners amidst all of the live performers, but the VHS guys rocked the party enthusiastically and the crowd responded in kind. Still, though many boogied, there were a good number of people just standing around, simply doing the stationary, jaded Indie Rock "dance" (arms crossed, head bobbing ever so slightly).

The 10 p.m. set by Hip Hop favorite Ghostface Killah seemed to draw the largest single crowd of the entire event, with people stacked tightly all the way to soundboard. The police security seemed to get a little uptight when Ghost hit the stage (what with the profanity and shout outs to all the "weed smokers"), but eventually relaxed. Ghost's set was loaded with cuts from his impressive new album Fishscale and he even worked a few Wu-Tang Clan hits into the mix. Like most Hip Hop shows, it was short on dynamics but heavy on "good-times" vibes. Backed by a DJ (with an Adam Dunn jersey!) and flanked by a couple of auxiliary rappers, Ghost was surprisingly good-humored, given the darkness of his rhymes. The crowd reacted enthusiastically; even audience members who seemed more amused by the presentation than anything were unable to tear themselves away from the party. At one point, Ghost asked everyone to put their cell phones and lighters into the air, then sat back to admire the spectacle. "That shit's lookin' like a birthday cake," he yelled.

Nashville trio Apollo Up! tore up the stage under the Purple People bridge early Saturday, offering a set of energized, progressive Pop and Post Punk that was so charged, it gave more heat to what turned out to be the hottest, most humid day of the fest. Guitarist Jay Leo Phillips was an engaging, wild-eyed frontman who would later change his shirt and emerge with the hypnotic, equally volatile Forget Cassettes, for which he plays bass.

Local Indie Pop faves The Spectacular Fantastic offered classically-structured, ringing melodicism on Stage 3. That stage tended to sound like it was in a shoebox, emitting a lower volume due to the somewhat enclosed "theater in the round" setting. The band had the crowd bopping along from note one and they seemed to be one of the local acts to benefit most from playing the fest. Several people around me asked who they were and said they really liked them. Singer/songwriter Mike Detmer was low-key but amiable, fretting at one point about the detuning effects of all of his sweat drizzling onto his strings.

Technicolor Pop duo Mates of State drew a large crowd for their 6 p.m. main stage set. The twosome seemed to melt before our eyes in the peak-heat sun, but they never missed a note or beat. The band's rainbow melodies arched around the sweaty crowd like a loving hug. With just a bank of keys (which handled bass lines and guitar-ish riffs, alongside traditional duties) and drums, it was stunning to behold their big, luminous sound. And they made it all seem almost effortless.

New York's Cousin were one of the weekend's bands that seemed to draw mixed reactions. Their set on Stage 3 might have been a little too steeped in Soul and Funk for your average young Indie lover. But those who stuck around were treated to some eclectic sounds, as the band mixed in some teethy Rock & Roll with groove-heavy Soul as its foundation.

Stellastarr* did the big, spacey, New Wave-ish thing well and it sounded great on the big stage, its guitars echoing with mesmerizing urgency. Singer Shawn Christensen's voice sounded less derivative than it does on record and the ethereal background vocals of his bandmates added an ethereal texture to the their expansive layering. They've always struck me as a little pretentious, but they sweated out a solid, workmanlike set.

The trio Enon were probably the band I was most excited to see, but sound problems all but crushed their funky, eccentric set. The group has driven their sound deeper into the Stereolab-plays-Japanese-Disco motif of their most recent albums. I miss their more diverse approach on earlier records, when practically every song sounded different. Guitarist/singer John Schmersal (formerly a Dayton resident) praised the festival and told the audience to "petition your mayor" to bring it back, the only on-stage reference to the troubles the fest had getting city support.

Norwegian ElectroPop sensation Annie drew a large gathering for her Saturday night closing set on the main stage. It was a lot more artistic than I expected — no back-up dancers in sight — and the mixing of live drums and guitar with the backing tracks, synths and other programming was intriguing. Annie is a little too Björk-ish to be considered Bubble Gum Pop, and a little to Kylie to be considered anything but Dance Pop. Curious fest attendees seemed, for the most part, drawn in nonetheless.

On Sunday — entering the gates around the 4 p.m. start time — I encountered my first line to get in. It was a good sign that Sunday's line-up — the strongest overall — was attracting an early, even bigger audience. The rain clouds from Friday returned, but instead of drenching the crowds, it turned out to be a welcome respite from Saturday's bright sun and high humidity.

The early birds might also have been there on time to see the opening set from Cincinnati's latest musical success story, Heartless Bastards. They were rewarded by an impossibly tight and soulful set from the trio, who relied heavily on material from their new album, All This Time (their second for esteemed indie imprint, Fat Possum, due in stores this August). There's a saying, explaining the dreaded "sophomore slump," that bands spend their entire life working on their debut album and just a few months on the follow-up. With the diary-like intimacy of the band's Stairs and Elevators, on which singer/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom seems to tell the story of her own emotional life up until that point, the Bastards seemed especially at risk.

But the new material is equally riveting and powerful. I received All This Time in the mail Monday and could practically hum along to every song that the band had played the day before, always a good sign. The band seemed to be one of the more talked about acts at the fest, with people marveling at Wennerstrom's big, robust vocal prowess. Their set lived up to the praise and then some.

Columbus/Cincy foursome Paper Airplane offered more inescapably melodic Indie Pop on Stage 3, playing opposite the lithe, cozy Indie Folk of Rogue Wave on Stage 2. The Wave was joined by the keyboardist from The Stills (the bands are touring together) and played a mesmerizing set that was once again crippled by sound issues (microphones cutting out and some sort of hellish buzz in the stage-right speakers).

Brooklyn's We Are Scientists were the surprise hit of the fest. The band's Virgin Records debut is a mixed bag of dancey, poppy Post Punk, marred by overly glossy production. And their first single, "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt," features the cringe-worthy refrain, "My body is your body/I won't tell anybody/If you want to use my body/Go for it." But the band exploded live, offering some of the funniest between-song banter of the fest, musing on $9 milkshakes from Johnny Rocket's across the river in Newport and imploring fans to climb the Purple People Bridge with them after their set. Their slanted, guitar-effect-drenched songs had the crowd moving and their quips sealed the deal; by the end of the set, the trio and audience had developed such an amiable camaraderie, they probably could have had 200 people joining them on their Purple People adventure. Bassist Chris Cain's mustache gets the "Best Facial Hair at DesFest" award; Cain was proudly still sporting the Kurt Rambis/'70s porn star look that practically every reviewer who has seen them has commented on.

The Stills continued the ping-ponging, delayed-out Guitar Pop on Stage 1, drawing mixed reactions from the audience. But the band members put on a solid show, especially considering they were just coming off of performing at Chicago's Intonation festival. For one song, the band got everyone to clap along throughout the entire tune, saying at the end that Cincinnati handled the task better than Chicago. But, one of the singer/guitarists added, "Cincinnati freaks me out."

Radio 4 delivered the best dance-ready set of a fest loaded with dance-rockers. Somewhat Gang of Four-ish, with a little Clash urgency thrown in, Radio 4 actually inspired a "dance pit" to develop in the middle of the crowd. Again, more Stage 2 sound problems presented themselves, but the band was good-natured about it. Singer/bassist Anthony Roman looked a little like Chris Parnell from Saturday Night Live, but played with rubberneck intensity. It was fascinating watching Roman play such groove-concentrated, intricate bass lines (which touched on Funk and Dub tradition) and sing lead — he was like Sting in the early days of The Police (if The Police explored Disco instead of Reggae). Roman told the audience this was the band's first stop in Cincy, adding that the closest they've gotten up until now was a "drunken night with Greg Dulli."

The Walkmen were the fest closers and, boy, did they seem thrilled. Actually, the group — specifically singer Hamilton Leithauser — looked like they'd rather be anywhere but Sawyer Point. It was a bit of a letdown considering how enthusiastic most of the other performers were. Still, the band played as well as they ever had in the area and it's always fascinating to hear their creative, sheet-scraping soundscapes. Leithauser must have one of those Screamo/Death Metal voice coaches, who teach screaming singers how not to destroy their voice on the first day of the tour, because his high-register howl looks almost painful. His extreme rasp — think a young Rod Stewart pushing the upper echelon of his range for an hour straight — was so taxing, he literally would bounce on his tippy toes to hit the highest, harshest notes.

Despite the muted finale, Desdemona lived up to its hype and proved that Cincinnati has an audience for this kind of music. Hopefully, word will spread and even more acts will put Greater Cincinnati on their touring itinerary. Better still, hopefully Nick Spencer's success will inspire boosters of every genre to think big. It would be great to see huge Hip Hop or Metal fests like this at Sawyer Point someday. There are you-should-doers and complainers and then there are go-getters and actual doers. Nick Spencer is a doer and, with his vision realized, perhaps more people will put their neck on the line to offer Cincinnati music fans something bigger and better than they ever dreamed of.