Music: The Highs and Lows at MidPoint

Industry hopefuls, biz veterans, midgets, panhandlers, Rock stars and -- oh yeah -- lots of music

For this year's MidPoint Music Festival — which took place in the Main Street area of Over-the-Rhine and Downtown Sept. 23-25 — CityBeat deployed a battalion of writers (OK, just three) to report back on what they saw, heard and felt. Call it our "unreal-time" blog. Here's what we came up with:

· Out of the many memories I have of the 2004 MidPoint Music Festival, I think the one of the sunglasses-wearing midget sporting a Styrofoam boater hat carrying a stuffed koala while bopping up and down 12th Street will stick with me the longest. Oh, I'll remember the exuberant seizure that was Coltrane Motion's set at the MidPoint compilation CD release at Jefferson Hall; I'll remember the sight of Jacob Heinz of Buckra gunning out a guitar intro while standing in the back of a flatbed truck as it rolled toward Fountain Square; I'll recall the sinuous, entrancing Kara Trott of FLUTTR commanding the stage at 1120; and I'll desperately try to forget whatever it was Jenna Drey was doing at 1120 on Saturday (see below), but I don't think that's going to happen, unfortunately.

But, even though I'll remember all those things and more, the image of the jaunty midget is burned deeply into my brain. I first saw him at the worst/best possible time. Friday night, after a sensual, mind-altering, transcendent set by Boston's powerful Gypsy Metal outfit FLUTTR (more on them in a moment), I stumbled, happily dazed, out onto Jackson Street and saw the midget ... or did I? He looked as described above — sunglasses, hat, koala — not something you, or at least I, see every day. I seriously considered I might be hallucinating: FLUTTR has just rocked my world, I couldn't even think straight, anything was possible.

I asked my friend and fellow photographer, Jason Bechtel, if he had seen the midget, too.

He had. So I felt a little better. But Jason had also just witnessed FLUTTR's set, so it wasn't entirely out of the realm of possibility that he was in some sort of fugue state as well.

When faced with something so completely out of the ordinary literally in the middle of downtown on a Friday night, you can take several courses of action: Pretend you didn't see it; refuse to go downtown ever again; convince yourself somehow that you have all the Styrofoam hat-wearing, stuffed koala-carrying midgets that you'll ever need along with a few spares in whatever part of town you live in so there's no need to seek them out elsewhere; or roll with it, embrace it and hope to see the midget again sometime, hopefully very soon.

In its own way, the MidPoint Music Festival is that midget. It's an anomaly — a fun, cool (no matter which shade of "cool" you happen to color yourself), pleasantly surreal experience to be had smack in the middle of Cincinnati. It's an event that celebrates the sheer joy of doing what you love and being who you are. It's an event that took disparate elements/genres and brought them all together in high, individual style.

I'm sure there are midgets elsewhere, like in Austin and Memphis, and I'm sure they're wonderful midgets indeed. But they aren't our midgets. (DJ)

· Art Alexakis of the mega-selling Rock band Everclear delivered a funny, loose speech for his keynote address Friday afternoon at MidPoint HQ, the Crowne Plaza Hotel. He was encouraging to artists who, in this new era, are less bothered with major label aspirations and more concerned with alternative ways to get their music heard. Pronouncing the death of the music industry as we know/knew it, Alexakis compared the corporate major label system to throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it's ready. "That's your band," he said. Alexakis also played several songs acoustically on guitar between nuggets of wisdom, including "Father of Mine" and "This Land Is Your Land," which was requested by someone in the audience who'd seen him do it during the Democratic National Convention (Alexakis was an elected delegate from Oregon at the DNC). He also seems to have moved on from his "I used to be a junkie" talk, though he touched on it, and instead kept bringing up his propensity for divorce (he's had three, which he blames partly on his profession). Alexakis was ubiquitous during the festival's nighttime festivities, checking out bands and chatting up fans on the street, causing whispers of "There's that dude from Everclear" to be heard at almost every turn. (MB)

· Major label A&R man Pete Ganbarg's profane, funny and highly informative keynote talk on how to make a career out of being a band was a highpoint. His common sense approach, mixed with anecdotes about his career — spanning from when he was a 13-year-old sitting at home on New Year's Eve listening to the radio to the present day — was a must-hear, not just for his advice but also for his stories. Like the one about when he took Vanilla Ice, an artist he was developing at one point, to dinner. After looking over the menu, Ice asked Ganbarg, "What kind of restaurant is this? What are they trying to serve me here?" Ganbarg looked over the menu, found nothing terribly out of the ordinary on it, and asked Ice what he meant. "Like this shit, 'veal.' What the hell is 'veal'? ," Ice asked. (DJ)

· Imagine a boy who's been raised by wolves and has just eaten his way out of a pile of ketamine running around with a microphone, flopping on the floor and randomly assaulting people. Meet Matt Ayers, front man for Death in Graceland. Their Thursday performance hit the basement at 1120 like a bunker buster and left all in attendance holding their guts in their hands. Easily the most out-of-control set of the festival. Hearing that they recently split with guitarist Greg Beale and have abandoned all of their old material, I was prepared for the worst. But with the help of guitar prodigy/fill-in Rusty Morris and new songs that are the bastard child of Mathcore and Screamo, DiG has taken their music to new heights. (EW)

· One of the more amusing recurrences was passing Charlie's on Main Street and hearing the most godawful karaoke wafting out onto the street. "Next up is Tanya, she's gonna sing 'Man! I Feel Like a Woman!' for us, let's give her a hand!" Maybe next year, the MPMF crew can commandeer this venue and convince them to do a Quentin Tarantino-themed karaoke night? (EW)

· Another good Charlie's story. With its key passing-point locale, fest goers would often have to dodge revelers stumbling out of the dive. A red-faced man did just that at one point, only to notice a group of four people all sporting the MPMF laminated badges/necklaces. "What's the backstage passes for?," he yelled. "The MidPoint Music Festival," one of the foursome muttered. "What kind of music is it?," he snapped back. "Every kind of music," the quartet shouted back. "Where is it at?," he screamed. "Everywhere!," they answered in perfect unison. (MB)

· Due to the vast number of artists performing this year, it was inevitable that some great bands were going to play to near-empty rooms. Although I witnessed a few of these, in every case the bands were playing their hearts out, rocking as if the rooms were packed. This is a testament to the professionalism of the artists selected by MPMF this and every year — that or they were getting complimentary hallucinogens. Lemon of Wreckage of the Modern City summed it up: "We'd rather play to five people that really get it than a room full of people who don't give a shit." (EW)

· Wreckage was one of the Critic's Picks featured in last week's CityBeat MPMF preview package, though the pick didn't help them. Still, passing one clump of people in front of the Courthouse we heard someone say, "Yeah, I followed that paper's picks last night (Thursday) and it turned out good. Let's do it again tonight." (MB)

· While the overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the unabridged CityBeat blurbs on every band playing the fest was heartening, we did hear a few unsatisfied customers airing their grievances. For example: "I was so disappointed, My Left Arm didn't sound anything like Better Than Ezra or Sigur Ros." Uh, sorry about that. A full refund for that issue is in the mail. (EW)

· Boston's FLUTTR performed to a packed house at 1120 Friday night. From time to time you hear about or read about the amazing shows of someone who's now famous right before they were famous — e.g. The Beatles at The Cavern, Nirvana at some tiny little club in Washington state, etc. You know, the shows everyone claims to have attended. Well, I was at FLUTTR's show and have photos to prove it, and I think that years from now people who have never even been to Cincinnati will claim to have been to that show. "Oh yeah man, FLUTTR at the 1120 club in Cincinnati during this MidPoint festival thing — I was there. They were awesome." And they were awesome. With fluid, hypnotizing, almost snake-like movements, lead singer Kara Trott had the audience in the palm of her ever-moving hand. The driving rhythms of drummer Jason Marchionna were shot through with bolts of pure electric energy in the form of guitarist Troy Kidwell. The feeling that you were at a gypsy symphony was provided by cellist Valerie Thompson. MIDI marimba player Vessela Stoyanova gave the music both a playful quality and urgent edge. And Trott simply made you forget where you were, with her aching, smooth, sinuous vocals and stage presence. Said artist keynote speaker Art Alexakis, who was standing next to me at the show: "She's a star." (DJ)

· Just a little perspective on musical taste. While some grumbled about the low quality of acts that appeared at the festival, keep in mind that, like your ugly sister, there's someone for everyone. While Dale clearly loved FLUTTR (see the book-size "blurb" above) and many others raved about them, I also heard some disparaging remarks about the show from people who abhorred them. It takes different strokes to rule the world, yes it does. (MB)

· Abiyah's dynamic showcase at RBC Friday drew a large crowd of both fellow musicians and fans. The singer/spoken word artist played an expressive, funky and sensual set, with her words and vocals greatly abetted by the full-band backing of rockers Paperback (who were downright intuitive in their groovy approach), co-singer Amy Constantine, Animal Crackers/Glue turntable whiz djdq (unfortunately mixed too low) and electronics twiddler Michael Bond. Speaking of misguided preview blurbs in CityBeat ... "Black Flag," Dale? I must've missed that song. (MB)

· I'm sure they all had great excuses, but I couldn't believe how many bands were either no-shows or horribly late. Michigan's Gryphon Shepherd walked into The Cavern with their guitars and amps in-hand five minutes after their scheduled 11 p.m. slot was to have begun. Stage manager Josh Hagen, who had considered them a no-show and let the other bands play longer sets, was faced with a tough decision. Fortunately, he decided to let them squeeze in a short show, which was a phenomenal mix of passionate AltRock with Eastern influences in the vein of Blind Melon or Screaming Trees. Despite their tardiness, they turned out to be one of my favorite acts. (EW)

· Other bands didn't even bother to make the trek, forcing organizers to scramble for last minute replacements. Perhaps they were scared of the Barrelhouse. The promising Whiles from Columbus backed out of a Friday night slot at the 'House, replaced by locals Philosopher's Stone, who pulled double duty during the fest again (they performed twice last year as well, on a similar last-minute fill-in). And co-founder Sean Rhiney took matters into his own hands when Dallas band Sorta said they couldn't make it. Rhiney's band Clabbergirl (who hadn't played an "official" show since MPMF 2003) filled the Saturday Barrelhouse slot with an energetic and emotional (given Rhiney's sleeplessness and sheer glee over the fest's success) set that included guest appearances from singer/poetess Embyra and pals Dave Purcell (Pike 27) and Mark Messerly (Messerly & Ewing), plus amazing new guitarist Mark Brasington. Clabbergirl played having only practiced once before the show, but they sounded like they'd been building up to it all their life. (MB)

· For some reason, the crowds that came out for MPMF this weekend appeared to be much more receptive to the city's panhandlers that the usual Main Street crowd. Maybe the demographic is more generous or perhaps the MPMFers don't come downtown frequently enough to have become perpetually annoyed by the beggars' intrusion and therefore immediately dismissive. Maybe fans of independent music just all have hearts of gold. Yeah, that's the one. (EW)

· Panhandlers had a field day Thursday night but were in slightly less supply during the Friday and Saturday night festivities (probably due to the lack of police presence on Thursday). Gotta give it up for creativity though — one man, admittedly "just out of jail," was offering spiritual poetry for 50 cents. No word on the truth of the rumor that Peter Ganbarg immediately signed him to a six-record deal. (MB)

· Then there were the local performers who usually don't play downtown but were trying to draw a crowd. Venus Mission leader Andrea Rosenthal told a story between songs of how she'd talked up MPMF to her friends and family, telling them how much they'd like Main Street and the clubs, only to have her car broken into and wallet stolen in front of Arnold's as she and her bandmates were loading in. (MB)

· It took discipline to leave a great show for another venue, especially not knowing if the bands there would be right on schedule. But if you could do it, it was not hard to catch two bands every hour. To warm up Saturday night, I made the sprint from Crush to Moose, the two most distant clubs, catching three songs from the excellent bands in the 9 p.m. slots at each venue. A fond thanks to the organizers for keeping the venues somewhat consolidated like last year. (EW)

· The gap between an artist's recorded material and their live set can be vast, and you never know if it's going to be better or worse. This year's talent was no exception, but there were some stand-outs that really set the hook with their shows. LUZER's theatrical Power Pop performance was even more incisive than their outstanding recordings demonstrated. Wigglepussy, IN is the new favorite band of more than a few Mike Patton aficionados after a particularly intense set. And Captain of Industry's engaging show sent many folks home with a taste for the saccharine marches of Franz Ferdinand given the Guided By Voices treatment. All of these bands went above and beyond for the crowds. (EW)

· There was bittersweetness in the air for some local acts during MidPoint. Messerly & Ewing announced an impending indefinite hiatus before their rocking "final show" Saturday. Swissfarlo looks to be done after MidPoint with the departure of the band's drummer for storm-infested Florida, according to guitarist Tim Heyl. And Promenade's drummer Jason DeBruer played his last show with the band at a packed Jefferson Hall. On the venue side, The Cavern — which re-opened just for the fest — hosted its last Rock shows at MidPoint ... at least until this weekend, when the club reopens under the name Alchemize. (MB)

· There was more than a little bitching about 1120's limited beer selection. Come on, people. Christian Moerlein is steeped in Cincy heritage, and the Select Lager and Light were both more than palatable (can you tell I'm angling for my own endorsement?). Seriously, how are we so passionate about independent music but become indignant when the usual swill isn't available? The thought of this apparent contradiction would have kept me awake had the ale not done its job so well. (EW)

· While we understand the sound problems that come with putting, say, a Rock band in a club set up for acoustic music, for the love of God can we get some better mood lighting next year?! Clubs are supposed to be dark enough to lose yourself in, not lit up so well you can do your taxes! (MB)

· Chancer (NYC) has a local music connection of which I wasn't aware. Their singer/guitarist, John Ashbridge, is from Youngstown, Ohio and went to Ohio University with local fave Jason Ludwig (of Noctaluca), where they formed a band together. Armed with that knowledge, it's easy to recognize their influence on one another and draw comparisons between their current projects. So Noctaluca fans who missed Chancer's moving set Friday, be sure to check out chancermusic.com. (EW)

· The lowpoint: Jenna Drey. I'd like to formally apologize to you, reader of CityBeat, if you read my description of Jenna Drey in last week's MidPoint preview guide and based your decision to see her Saturday at 1120 based on what I wrote. Sometimes, when researching a performer you know nothing about and are on a deadline, you look at the performer's Web site and read their bio and look at their press clips and go from there, which was exactly what I did. I also listened to her MP3s (Note: one of Drey's songs is on the MidPoint compilation CD). What I heard was well-sung, well-arranged Dance Pop — not exactly my thing, but people do enjoy it and, if you do, more power to you. I think that's great. However, I saw about exactly one minute of Drey before I rushed out of the room in a baffled, slightly repulsed daze only to literally run screaming into the night shortly thereafter (Drey's showcase was my official "Show I Ran Away From Screaming Into the Night") and that was 50 seconds too long. Picture, if you will, an overtly madeup, marginally talented person singing really bad karaoke. Not tough, right? Now picture this same person erratically throwing themselves about a stage in either a misguided attempt to dance or because they were in the throes of some kind of stilted, palsied fit. Now, imagine all of that and put it at a well-attended major music showcase and you have the equivalent of driving past a multiple clown car pileup on the freeway; it's horrifying and somehow amusing and you just can't take your eyes off of it. I knew I was in for it when Drey introduced her cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This" as being "by the band Roxy." The horror, the horror. The next time you see me and you can prove you were there (I will quiz you on how many male backing dancers Drey had performing with her), I'll buy you a beer or a soda or give you a dollar or something. (DJ)

· Moose On Main hosted several cream-of-the-crop Pop/Rock bands over the fest's three days. The Mike Ruetschle Band from Dayton played a set of warm, incredibly well-crafted Pop songs that took on a bigger life without the lo-fi trappings of their recordings. The Breakers left a good taste in the mouth of the crammed-to-the-edge-of-the-stage audience at Moose's Friday, showcasing their majestic, creative brand of passionate Pop. And on Saturday, The Swarthy Band provided a MidPoint highlight with their ardent display of expert Bash 'n Pop. Singer Swarthy wins the best frontman of the entire fest award, rolling off the stage and into the audience repeatedly to dance with fans as they sang the words to seemingly every song. (MB)

· Besides a good range of musical styles, the spectrum of energy was also found within the MPMF showcase programming. For Pittsburgh's This Band Is the You, Red Bull must've been on the rider, because the singer/guitarist thrashed about wildly during the band's searing set of high-energy Indie Pop at Jefferson Hall. Over at Crush, Chicago's gaberdine played a haunting brand of quiet "Chamber Pop" that should've left the crowd hushed. But, alas, it seems most people don't understand Slowcore etiquette. I heard more about Suzy So-and-So's sister's wedding than I did the band itself. Still, gaberdine took it all in stride and we give high praise to any band that can make kazoos sound mysterious and textural. (MB)

· The four reddest eyes at MPMF: those belonging to Bill Donabedian and Sean Rhiney Saturday afternoon at the panels and trade show. The co-founders were very tired, very happy and still running around trying to put out fires. (MB)

· MPMF newcomer Harry's was a popular stop for MPMFers. And not just for the pizza (although that did seem to be a big hit too). Great sets by the Walker Project and Elliott Ruther drew capacity crowds, which wasn't hard to do given the small dimensions of the venue's upstairs performance space. On Saturday, the room resembled a scene out of D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" video, with a multi-cultural crowd assembled to shake their rumps to the deft Soul and Funk displays of Marvin and the Experience and Derrick Sanderson's Soul Expression, as well as powerhouse Hip Hop crew d_Cyphernauts. (MB)

· The concentration of local media afforded me the opportunity to meet some of the nice folks from Cin Weekly. I asked Cin designer Mike Royer if having a color shot of his mug in the paper every week led to a lot of "Hey, aren't you..." type inquiries. "Just two," he shared. Hmmm, I'll bet the ladies get it more often. (EW)

· It's kinda becoming a tradition — cari clara and MOTH each provided what could easily be their best shows ever (and certainly some of the best of the fest) at The Cavern this year, just as they've done in MPMFs past. On Saturday, MOTH's spiky Pop Rock whipped the audience into a frenzy and helped them sell out of all of the CDs they'd brought to sell. Friday night on the same stage, cari clara evolved the melancholic, moody recorded work of singer/guitarist Eric Diedrichs into an engulfing wave of powerful, dynamic Rock & Roll that had the audience entranced and feeling drunker than they probably actually were. (MB)

· The dulcet tones of Tracy Walker's stunning vocals wafting through the back alleys of downtown like a siren call was my fitting close to MPMF in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Walking up to her set at Arnold's, with her voice resonating between the buildings, I couldn't help but think that it would be great to have a scene like this every weekend. The city never sounded so good. Hopefully, MidPoint has put a good taste in the mouths of people who normally don't venture downtown, and hopefully club owners will understand more than ever that there is an audience for original music in Cincinnati. As they say in AA, keep coming back, 'cause it really does work. (MB)

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