Music: Point of Good Returns

The inaugural MidPoint Music Festival was a brilliant first step

Mike Breen

Spindle packs the Cavern at the MidPoint Music Festival.

"This is the best thing to ever happen to local music." Those were the words spoken from the stage by Saving Ray frontman Kevin Nolan during his group's triumphant performance on Sept. 27 at Main Street club The Overflow. The band was one of more than 100 acts playing the inaugural MidPoint Music Festival, a three-day artist showcase and industry conference. Fest founders Sean Rhiney and Bill Donabedian — who got innumerable "shout outs" throughout the extended weekend — said it wasn't mandatory for the event to be an unqualified success in order to continue it next year.

But their expectations were, if not exceeded, dutifully met. MidPoint's first year defined "unqualified success." From attendance (for the most part), to the usefulness for the musicians attending, to the establishment of the event as a "place to be" for emerging artists, the MPMF earned high marks from practically everyone involved.

The negatives were minimal. With so much going on and a rain-soaked opening Thursday night (which closed the lovely open air stage at Newport on the Levee, with the artists rescheduled at The Cavern's second floor), crowds were thin at certain times. And the inevitable panel speaker and band cancellations threw small wrenches into the machine.

Fortunately, with the immaculate organization of everything surrounding event, that machine was unstoppable.

CityBeat dispersed writers Nathan S. Linville, Doug Trapp, Jason Gargano and Mike Breen to cover the event from every angle. Here's what they saw and heard:

· What's it like being an all-original band in Cincinnati? Maybe Chris Mueller of the band Stonewater said it best when asked about low attendance and the general lack of the club's promotion. "It's all a part of being a local band," he said as his band performed on the Main Street strip on the opening night for the MPMF Jefferson Hall set aside one night of their usual monotonous craze of cover bands for the event. Such bands would take the stage on Friday and Saturday night, with Element I, Paging Raymond, Fizzgig, Sugar Pill and Stonewater continuing the long-standing struggle to find some speck of support in their local music scene on a rainy Thursday night (the club, along with RBC, only participated in the MPMF on Thursday). When Fizzgig went on at 11 p.m., playing to a fairly large crowd, there seemed to be some hope. After their 45-minute set, the band Sugar Pill prepared to take the stage to a much more dense audience. The once-packed stage area cleared out as if a sudden outbreak of mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus was unleashed on the crowd. Maybe the distinct sounds of Michael Jackson playing in between sets had something to do with the apparent lack of audience interest. Or maybe the fact that there was one little poster advertising the event in the far bottom corner of Jefferson Hall's entryway window that only a stray dog could've noticed. It was quite apparent that Jefferson Hall had no real interest in the festival and that all promotion was left up to festival volunteers or the bands themselves. By 1 a.m., Stonewater was winding down the night's show, and the crowd picked up slightly. However, it was still quite apparent that no matter what these bands put into their music, or how truly gifted or talented they may be, there is still too much interest in hearing 1,001 local cover bands regurgitate their own tired version of James' "Laid" every weekend. (Nathan S. Linville)

· Woe are the bands who open up the first night of a new music festival. Especially if it's a dreary, rainy Thursday evening.

The musicians in this unenviable position at the Midpoint Music Festival acknowledged as much, but they still put on their best faces and plowed ahead anyway. What else could they do?

The Sign-Offs, a Cleveland punk outfit, shrugged their jean jacket-clad shoulders before delivering a loud and fast set of sneering songs at the Overflow on Main Street.

At least they weren't across the street at Jefferson Hall, where melodic rockers Element i were playing to about five people — including the bartender.

Down Main Street at Kaldi's it was difficult to tell who showed up for a latte and who came to hear an evening of mostly solo acoustic guitarists, beginning with local guy Chris Dunnett. The audience took to Dunnett anyway, thanks to his energetic, precise style.

At the Barrelhouse Brewing Company 1/2 Mad Poet, a female trio from Chicago, offered a set of lyric-driven Power Pop to the dozen or so people who seemed more interested in them than pizza and beer. At least the crowd seemed to appreciate their hard-edged cover of "Bad Moon Rising."

If all this wasn't bad enough, the day-long drizzle pushed four bands scheduled to perform outdoors at Newport on the Levee to the second floor of the Cavern on Walnut Street, which was hosting — guess what? — a fairly sparse crowd for Columbus, Ohio's The Stepford Five. The straight-out rockers ended with a larger crowd than they began with, but they've played to much larger crowds at smaller venues such as The Comet.

Later that evening the ever-changing Fairmount Girls had, not one, but two new Fairmount guys at their Southgate House ballroom show. The group's new guitarist flubbed a couple of the openings, but otherwise the Fairmounts, as always, marched through their set of catchy Pop songs almost without taking a breath. The Fairmounts might have drawn a couple of dozen regulars, which wasn't bad compared to other bands that night.

All Thursday evening it was difficult to spot anyone wearing a Midpoint badge. But 24 hours and a drier evening seemed to make all the difference.

Kaldi's was crowded Friday night in a "Can I stand here and not get in the way?" manner. That could have been because it was Final Friday, the evening the Pendleton Arts Center and Main Street galleries open their doors to host openings and receptions. Or people might have come to hear Me Or The Moon, a local duo with Victor Strunk's (Ruby Vileos) stand-up bass and M. Shelton's vocals and thumb organ, or "kalimba," concealed inside a large gourd, which sounds like a xylophone crossed with a music box. Their elemental music and Shelton's phrasings have echoes of the obtuse playfulness of M. Doughty during his Soul Coughing days.

Back at the Overflow a sizeable crowd was enjoying the "the-song-is-what-counts" songs of clayhenry, a no-gimmicks outfit bred in Texas but based in Los Angeles. They rock, but with enough restraint to allow their melodies and lyrics to remain at the center of their music. Singer/guitarist Jason Cockburn's expressive delivery was fun to watch.

Technical difficulties forced The Ass Ponys to take the Madison Theater stage in Covington about 10 minutes late. But that didn't stop them from delivering their usual fine set and topping all others in the unofficial stage banter contest.

Lead singer/guitarist Chuck Cleaver, ever self-depreciating, made a point to thank Sean Rhiney and Bill Donabedian, the duo behind MidPoint, for their organization of the festival, then candidly admitting he would be "too damn lazy" to do all that. Cleaver also noted that three of the band's four members were "color-coordinated" — all had some black on. Then he drew loud laughs from the crowd by saying that their outfit-matching "makes me feel like I need to get my stomach pumped to get all the semen out of it." (Doug Trapp)

· If there's one thing for local bands to learn from the first MPMF, it's that you should attend the daytime panels. The conference portion of the event — which took place Friday and Saturday at MidPoint HQ, the Millennium Hotel in the heart of downtown — featured legit, big-name producers, managers, label reps and other industry big-wigs. All espoused a wealth of knowledge about the industry that anyone serious about the biz should have a grasp on. But most importantly, it was an easy way to get people out to your showcases over the weekend. Many of the people at the festival were from out of town and desperate for something, anything, to do. Smart bands helped them fill out their weekend agenda.

The panels — which were, for the most part, well attended by local bands — were a great mix of insight, humor and total bullshit (hey, it is the music industry). One awkward moment at an A&R panel titled "Myths & Realities — What It Can/Can't Do For You in 2002" involved a musician asking the assembled industry reps from Maverick Records, DreamWorks and ASCAP how often a band gets signed off of sent-in unsolicited materials. It took the group a few minutes to come up with Simply Red, who, you may remember, were huge ... in the mid-'80s. You could hear a collective sigh from the hopefuls in the crowd, as if the mountain they were climbing just grew another couple of thousand feet.

But for the most part, the panels were fairly affirming. Many of the panelists made of point of telling the artists in the audience to keep doing what they were doing — writing, performing and promoting locally to the best of their abilities. If you're good, the message seemed to be, you will be found (though "networking" was also highly recommended).

During the A&R roundtable, Maverick's A&R vice president Berko (even industry folks can have just one name apparently) showed just why MidPoint could push the Cincinnati music scene to another level. "The reason I came to Ohio is because I've never been there," he said. "It's a big hole, and I thought I should probably know what's going on here."

Grizzly music vet Pat Dinizio of the hit-making group The Smithereens provided an entertaining keynote address at the end of Friday's afternoon panels. Founder Sean Rhiney later said they will probably move the keynote speaker to an earlier slot next year, since attendance had dwindled.

Dinizio told some horror stories about the industry, plugged XM Satellite Radio, which broadcasts unsigned artists exclusively, and told a funny tale of meeting Ozzy Osbourne as a teen-age Rock Star wannabe, only to be rudely rebuffed. "I vowed never to act like Ozzy Osbourne if I got to that level, and I never have," he said. Dinizio's main message was that the attendees were on the right path following their dreams and not letting the bastards (i.e., the music industry) grind them down.

"You mean I flew all the way from New Jersey for this," Dinizio joked after his speech, when no one was quick to offer up questions. But his dedication to the event (he also played a set on Saturday night at the Southgate House, appeared on a songwriting panel, and did promotions for the festival) was beyond admirable. On Saturday, Dinizio comfortably strolled out of the lobby elevator strumming his guitar. It was a great moment, one that seemed to say, "I'm at home with you people." He seemed happy he had flown all the way from New Jersey, just for this. (Mike Breen)

· The fun of music industry conferences for the regular, non-musician music fan isn't found on panels or at the other schmoozing events. It's in the clubs. The opportunity to walk (or if you were headed to the Northern Kentucky venues, take a shuttle or drive) to several different venues to see a multitude of musical acts from all over the continent is something to be cherished. On the Friday of the MidPoint fest, the Main Street Entertainment District was full of badge-wearing MidPointers eager to explore. It was great to see a crowd milling around outside a club featuring original music alongside the usual meat-marketing masses that regularly crowd the sidewalks of Main Street.

Friday's attendance for MidPoint overall seemed to be greater than Saturday night's (for reasons no one can really explain). The cover band joints and dance clubs still had their sheep, looking for a quick hook-up, but venues like The Overflow, Kaldi's, Plush, The Cavern and The BarrelHouse boasted, if not packed crowds, at the very least respectable ones.

Abiyah mixed spoken word, soulful singing, creative beats, interpretive dance and a violin player to kick things off at Plush. The local poet's display of "floetry" was one of the more creative sets of the festival, drawing a diverse crowd, which was moved to dance, heartily by the end of the set.

Over at the BarrelHouse, Toronto's Boyce's Road announced that it was their first ever visit to the United States. The band played an affable brand of witty Pop that mixed influences of their homeland heroes like Sloan and the Barenaked Ladies. Though they've never played outside of Canada, the nattily-attired group managed to draw a core of about 20 young women who danced in front of the stage and seemed to know the words to all of their songs.

I tried to catch Marianne Hyatt, who flew in a day earlier from London, at Kaldi's, but the club was at capacity. Standing in the back of the venue, it was a little tough to hear. The club is set up for acoustic acts, meaning they have a small P.A., which made it a little hard to tune in over the chatter. But a packed house is a packed house. Hyatt had to be pleased.

Local group Spindle were one of the more "buzzed" about acts of the event. During a panel discussion, John Babbitt of L.A.'s Second Vision/Tsunami Entertainment in L.A. said they were one of the main reasons he attended the festival. Producer Ken Lewis and Jade McQueen of DreamWorks were also spotted in the crowd. The band's promotional skills were on display as much as their tight, Metal-ish Pop/Rock, as The Cavern literally overflowed with an estimated 300-plus fans. If there's a band to get signed out of the first MidPoint festival, it's going to be these guys. Their sound is a perfect fit for WEBN-styled radio stations, and they certainly have the stage presence thing down.

Speaking of The Cavern, it was one of the stars of the festivals as well. The new club is beautifully designed, with a great stage set-up and sound gear. Local bands should definitely check this club out for future shows and try to encourage them to keep supporting local, original music.

The Overflow also drew good numbers on Friday. It seemed like a lot of fest-goers ended up here by night's end, nursing a good buzz. Besides a closing, fantastic set by soaring, searing local rockers Saving Ray, Indianapolis' Loretta turned out to be one of the great "finds" of the festival. The group's creative, well-crafted approach (from the school of Radiohead and Jeff Buckley) had the crowd abuzz.

The skepticism and indifference from some factions of the local music scene was a bit annoying leading up to the festival. But anyone who club-hopped Main Street on Friday night would have to be a hell of a crusty curmudgeon to not be excited by what they saw. (MB)

· Now that The Cult frontman Ian Astbury has been added to the original lineup of The Doors for a new record and tour, what else could possibly matter in the world of Rock music? Well, despite the aforementioned seismic development, a few people did go see local sonic sculptors Readymaid play at the Madison Theater Saturday night. Unfortunately, for a band that has become one of the best live acts in town, it wasn't one of their best efforts.

But it was mostly out of their hands.

Starting 15 minutes late due to a problem with the video projection that was to accompany their performance, the band played only five songs, four of which were unrecognizable to my ears — and by their reaction, the rest of the surprisingly sparse audience's as well. The first three — featuring frontman Jason Snell on his latest instrument du jour, banjo — were meandering soundscapes akin to the more exploratory aspects of similar artists like Grandaddy or Sparklehorse. Only when Snell swapped his banjo for a guitar midway through the third song did things begin to pick up.

But by then it was almost too late.

All in all, not a total disappointment, but for a band that thrives on spontaneous combustion, the time constraints were indeed constraining, both artistically and literally.

"Well, we have time for one more," said Snell, clearly caught off guard.

After a minute or two of tinkering with one of their myriad of instruments in preparation for the finale, someone came up to the stage to confer with the band, which resulted in this response from Readymaid's main man:

"Uh, I guess we're done. Good night." (Jason Gargano)

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