The Queen City Gets Its Groove Back: How Cincinnati Musicians Found Triumphs Throughout 2022

“The Cincinnati music scene is our country’s best-kept secret."

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click to enlarge Jess Lamb at a show at ADC Fine Art, with Warren Harrison on keys and Chase Watkins on bass. - Photo: Chris Birkmeyer
Photo: Chris Birkmeyer
Jess Lamb at a show at ADC Fine Art, with Warren Harrison on keys and Chase Watkins on bass.

It doesn’t seem right to say that the COVID-19 pandemic was good for the music scene — or anything, for that matter. But it has its silver linings. The devastations and disappointments that the pandemic brought proved just how important live music and art are for Cincinnati’s sense of community and general happiness. In 2022, the scene in Cincinnati returned not to its pre-pandemic self, but to a thriving entity beyond where 2020’s shutdowns left it.

“Shows are way better now”

Back in 2019, the local music scene was chugging along as always. You could find a live show somewhere almost any night of the week. Venues like MOTR Pub and Northside Tavern were regularly bringing in smaller touring acts, which meant upcoming local bands had opportunities to network and plan their own shows beyond the Queen City.

It was good, but 2022 taught us that it could be better.

“It felt like maybe there was a few years of kind of a lull in the scene in general,” recalls Mol Sullivan, a local musician who has been playing on and off around Cincinnati for over a decade. “But right now…,” she trails off dreamily. “I feel really inspired by the music that’s happening in Cincinnati right now.”

Audio engineer, producer and musician John Hoffman agrees. 

“Shows are way better now,” Hoffman tells CityBeat. “People seem to have a renewed interest. [...] Shows are packed with new faces and styles have diversified.”

Hoffman says that at the beginning of the pandemic, he had five artists cancel their recording sessions for safety reasons. But it didn’t take long before his recording schedule was even busier than before the pandemic. Hoffman says that for many, this was due to musicians receiving federal stimulus checks that helped pay for studio time, while time off work gave them energy to focus on music.

“Every musician finally had enough money to live on and didn't have to waste their time working at jobs, making rich people their money,” Hoffman says. “They had time to write more than normal and they could all afford to go into the studio fairly liberally.”

Sullivan also suspects that free time during the shutdown helped the scene blossom into what it is today.

“[Maybe] it’s just one of the residual gifts of people having time and space throughout the pandemic to sharpen their axes and spend time with their instruments,” Sullivan says.

Performers aren’t the only ones responsible for the resurgence in the music scene. In order for musicians to thrive, they need places to play and people to invest in them. That’s where event curators like WARMTH Culture and Red Light Jazz Room are making a huge difference. 

Local activist and hip-hop artist Siri Imani began curating shows through Imani Productions in late 2020. This year alone, Imani Productions booked over 300 artists for paying gigs around the city. 

“This year, I kind of took a little step back from performing and definitely [from] releasing music to get back to curating,” Imani says.

Imani says she noticed several artists pivoting from creating to curating in 2022 because there was such a need for programming.

“Once COVID happened, there [were] no opportunities, really. Venues didn’t have a plan for any programming,” Imani says. “That's when the curator side had to come back out for a lot of us. We started curating our own opportunities and also extending them as well.”

“Our country’s best-kept secret”

click to enlarge Mol Sullivan performing at Sleeping Village in Chicago in April 2022 - Photo: Hannah Sellers
Photo: Hannah Sellers
Mol Sullivan performing at Sleeping Village in Chicago in April 2022

There are two things that make Cincinnati an arguably excellent scene for upcoming musicians: its size and location. The city is small enough to foster community and collaborations but big enough to offer space for new artists and a diverse scene. And with cities like Chicago and Detroit just a drive away, there’s opportunity for networking across the midwest.

“I love being able to call this town my home,” musician Jess Lamb tells CityBeat. “It’s so rich for collaborating. I feel like almost everyone you meet is up for collaboration.” 

Lamb has been performing in Cincinnati since 2012 and started heavily collaborating in 2018. Her band, Jess Lamb and The Factory, has managed to hold residency spots on and off since before the pandemic started. As of press time, they have a Thursday night residency at Queen City Radio, which features a rotation of local guest artists such as Imani, harpist Victoria Lekson and Luke Glaser of Sylmar.

“I really dig that way of booking these days,” Lamb says. “Especially when we have so many different artists popping through and we can keep it fresh, you know?”

Cincinnati’s collaborative opportunities are not lost on newer projects such as Spoils, a spirited alt-rock band that played their first show at a friend’s house in 2021.

“The Cincinnati music scene is our country’s best kept secret,” they told CityBeat via email. “Love the sense of camaraderie and the way artists and musicians collaborate and support one another here.”

Since releasing their debut EP Find Later in March this year, Spoils has gone on a small midwestern tour and played well-attended shows around Cincinnati.

“We got to play music we love to people we love and watch them dance and have fun,” they said. “What could be better than that?” 

For Sullivan, the city’s central location has been a big help in her most recent moves as a musician. She has used New York City as a songwriting retreat destination and recorded her upcoming album in Chicago with audio engineer and musician Sima Cunningham. A multi-metropolis network like the one found here isn’t as accessible for musicians located in more isolated cities like Denver or Austin.

Plus for countless musicians, the Queen City has served as an easy jumping off point for a tour. Sullivan and her band did a small run of dates this spring, which she says further motivated her.

“It not only satisfied a huge itch, but it made me want more,” she says. 

Permission to go for it

In 2022, the Cincinnati music world grew into something bigger than just tunes. It became a space where artists could collaborate and inspire across different mediums.

“It's operating as a ‘scene’ again,” Hoffman says. “Artists are throwing art shows within the context of the music scene (Drew Dubs’ ‘Propitiation,’ Contemporary Art Center’s Subterranean). Photographers (Alexzandra Roy, Sydney Sebastian) are active within the music scene and are working with tangible mediums like film and zines. Performance artists (JSSJ, Fruit LoOops) are bridging the gap with concerts.”

Imani reports an equally diverse turnout at her Tuesday night open-mic series at Somerset, one of many events produced by Imani Productions. 

“It was more than just an open mic,” she says. “It was like an explosion of art. We had our regular poets. We had live music performers. We had fire dancers, violinists, painters.”

The more the local scene grows out of its comfort zone, the more local artists are inspiring one another to keep pushing the boundaries. When naming their favorite artists and musicians of 2022, all five of CityBeat’s interview subjects shared a long, long list. 

Within their lists, they unknowingly told a tale of mutual admiration within the city’s scene. For example, Imani shouts out WARMTH events, while Sullivan recalls seeing Imani perform a WARMTH event at The Mockbee. Lamb sings praises for Sullivan’s 2022 single “Deep End Dive” and mentions her admiration for Bailey Miller, Sylmar and Lauren Eylise. Hoffman praises Nick Maurer, Corker and Spoils, who mentions Fairmount Girls, Willie & The Cigs and The Earthly Delights. 

In 2022, Cincinnati’s music scene expanded while remaining connected and supportive. It kept roots in tried-and-true venues like The Southgate House Revival and The Comet while creating buzz in new ones such as Somerset and DSGN CLLCTV. 

It all gave this city’s musical creatives permission to go for it.

“If there’s any illusion or perception of trying, I think it can be really scary,” Sullivan says. “Because the people at our shows are like our friends and neighbors and stuff; it’s not just, like, fans. And so it can be hard, I think, for performers historically to feel comfortable or safe like really trying. [...]I think that a lot of us are just kind of throwing down on being good and having that be ok.” 

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