ate on Thursday’s opening night of this year’s MidPoint Music Festival (which is owned and operated by CityBeat), I was walking up Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, where I lived more than a decade ago. Throngs of music fans were squeezing into packed MidPoint venues, situated among an array of newer storefronts — from clothing shops to art supply stores and beyond — that seem to crop up in the area monthly. When I lived on Main, it was a fairly bustling entertainment district, a place where people would visit for a night. But now Main Street and much of Over-the-Rhine feel more like a thriving community than just a place to pop in for a beer.
The past few MidPoints have been a great way to showcase the growth of OTR; each year there is more development in the area. As I continued my journey to Liberty Street, I could hear loud, strange sounds pulsating through the air. I followed the experimental, psychedelic Pop music across Liberty to an open lot behind a gas station. I’ve never been one prone to the fearmongering of many Cincinnatians that deem certain areas off-limits, lest you want to be robbed or killed. But even when living in the area, going to that Shell station just to get gas was nerve-racking; exploring the shadowy area behind it was unfathomable.
Yet there was Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, alone on stage with a small bank of electronics and fittingly hallucinogenic soft-core alien porn projected on a large video screen behind him as 500 or so fans stood in the lot outside of the Moerlein brewery and watched, spellbound by his otherworldly sounds.
MidPoint has become not only a showcase of adventurous music makers from around the world, it is also a showcase of the immense progress Cincinnati’s downtown and Over-the-Rhine have made in a relatively short period of time. The progress is something that some younger MidPoint attendees might not even notice (at this point, many MidPointers were in grade school when the festival began), but for those who remember when downtown was a ghost town after dark and much of Over-the-Rhine was best avoided, day or night, every year MidPoint is a revelation.
The range of music programmed for this year’s MPMF seemed broader than ever — you could watch local Indie Folk ensemble Young Heirlooms at Memorial Hall (where the band received some of the loudest ovations of the fest, and deservedly so; their sublime, beautiful sounds were mesmerizing), then take a short walk to The Drinkery to hear the punishing, progressive assault of underground Metal cult heroes Liturgy. On Thursday, I had my brain stimulated by local singer/songwriter Molly Sullivan’s hypnotic new experimental band on the Moerlein brewery’s indoor stage, then made the one-mile trek to the Taft Theatre’s Ballroom and had my soul caressed by the powerful retro-R&B stylings of the much-buzzed-about St. Paul and The Broken Bones.
Washington Park was once again an excellent MPMF venue, hosting stellar performances by Canadian Electro Funk duo Chromeo (whose dizzying light show and Disco party grooves had the crowd moving so much the earth felt like it was shaking), hometown heroes The Afghan Whigs (who announced that their ferocious MPMF gig was their first outdoor show here since playing a birthday party in the ’80s) and Chicago Power Pop foursome OK Go, which showed it was not just a band that makes cool music videos, but also an incredibly engaging live act, showering concertgoers with (biodegradable) confetti and even moving into the middle of the audience to sing a tune.
Though I’m sure there had to be a lull at some point, every single smaller venue I showed up to was filled to the brim with fans. The excellent, instrumental Surf/Spaghetti Western group Steelism had dozens of people craning their necks around the door to the main performance space at Mr. Pitiful’s to get a look, since the room itself was shoulder-to-shoulder packed. Meanwhile, Know Theatre had to stop letting people into the show by the eclectic Dance Pop crew Rubblebucket because it had reached capacity (dozens still waited, hoping to be let in if someone left early).
The MidPoint Midway on 12th Street was lively all weekend, with MPMFers taking a breather and checking out some of the vendors, grabbing a bite to eat, creating their own poetry or jamming to the bands playing the Midway stage. The quality of talent on the Midway stage was at an all-time high, as artists from Real Estate and Colony House to locals The Yugos, Black Owls and Pike 27 all put on spectacular shows.
Many local music lovers seem to have completely embraced the festival and its glowing reputation is spreading, something that has made MidPoint, as artistic director Dan McCabe says, “a much more confident festival.” Though next year will see a few obstacles (the Midway will have to be moved due to streetcar construction and Memorial Hall will be undergoing remodeling), part of the beauty of having the festival in such a thriving area is that there are always new opportunities presenting themselves. McCabe knows this firsthand. As we talked on the Monday after the fest, he was hammering nails at the Woodward Theater, a mid-size venue across the street from his MOTR Pub in OTR that will “absolutely” be a key part of MPMF next year, he says. Capacity-wise, the Woodward is the equivalent of Memorial Hall.
McCabe says he’s hoping the word continues to spread nationally about how unique and fulfilling a festival experience MidPoint has become. He says he noticed a considerable increase in attendance by people in the music industry, managers and agents roaming the fest grounds not just to see their own clients, but also to check out some of the other artists they’d heard about. Coupled with the great experiences had by touring artists playing the fest, MPMF’s reputation in industry circles is something McCabe says he’s eager to build on.
Though exact numbers weren’t available by press time, CityBeat publisher Dan Bockrath says early indications are that fest attendance was up by at least 10 percent from last year. MPMF 2015 is already a go, though Bockrath says organizers are currently discussing whether or not to move the festival from Thursday-Saturday to Friday-Sunday, something he thinks might encourage even more out-of-town visitors.
No matter which days are decided on, block out the last weekend of September 2015 for what is sure to be the biggest and best MidPoint Music Festival yet. Which, after this year, is saying a lot.