In Praise of Ironfest

Annual music fest in honor of late musician Mike Davidson has become much more than just a memorial event

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Oxboard Drain at Ironfest V
Oxboard Drain at Ironfest V

Cincinnati is host to a great number of music festivals and it feels like every season adds another one. Midpoint is becoming nationally recognized for its ability to draw in heavy hitters, Bunbury has exploded in popularity in just a few years and Buckle Up had a great inaugural year this past summer, just to name a few obvious examples. It’s a great time to be a music lover and music journalist in this city.

But for this music journalist, there’s only one festival that gets my money, year in and year out: Ironfest.

Whereas most of Cincinnati’s festivals focus on the city’s vast assortment of Folk and Pop influenced artists, Ironfest is awash in the loud, angry and just plain aggressive side of local music. John “Black Arm” Gerhardt, the organizer of Ironfest, puts in a massive amount of time and effort to assemble a legion of acts that are all a little left of center, but still eclectic enough to bring in all types of fans. There’s only one place in town that you can see the darkened Electronic soundscapes of Black Signal alongside 500 Miles to Memphis’ Country Punk and Moonbow’s raucous brand of Heavy Metal, all under one roof, and that’s at Ironfest.

Nov. 14 and 15 marked Ironfest’s fifth year. It was founded as a celebration of the life of “Iron” Mike Davidson, a mainstay in Cincinnati’s music scene before his untimely passing. While this is still the case, Ironfest has grown beyond a simple memorial. In fact, many of the attendees nowadays didn’t even know “Iron” Mike — myself included. But if Davidson had so many talented friends in so many awesome bands, I’m sad that I didn’t.

Gerhardt has a knack for getting a great mix of bands together to take over Southgate House Revival’s three stages and this year’s iteration was no different. At any time, you could check out the bands listed above, along with the likes of Valley of the Sun, Smoke Signals, Martin Luther and the Kings, The Dopamines, Honeyspiders or out-of-towners like OC45 and Punching Moses (featuring ex-Banderas guitarist Jesse Ramsey), among many more.

While each year’s lineup is undeniably star-studded, Gerhardt also always seems to have one band on the bill that stands out above the rest and this year’s edition was no different. Closing out Saturday night was the reunion of Oxboard Drain, Iron Mike’s old band, with Valley of the Sun’s Ryan Ferrier filling in for the late bassist. I had never heard Oxboard Drain before that night but I got the distinct feeling that I missed something special. When a band still draws fans out that sing along to every word years after their dissolution, you know they made an impact during their tenure. Seeing Ferrier, Gerhardt and the rest of the band honor their friend by ripping through a powerhouse set was something to behold.

While the music at Ironfest is amazing and honoring Iron Mike’s memory is important, neither is the real reason I have attended the past three years. I go for the community that Ironfest celebrates and all of the people it brings together. My roommate attended this year’s festival for the first time this year; at the end of the show he commented that I seemed to know half of the attendees that night. While estimate may have been a bit of an exaggeration, the point is valid. For fans of the scene such as myself, Ironfest is almost like a high school reunion that you’d actually want to attend. New bands mingle with established acts, old bandmates and friends reconnect with each other, and the past and present of Cincinnati’s alternative music scene is celebrated over a weekend.

That’s what makes Ironfest so special. All of the other festivals that Cincinnati hosts every year celebrate the music and musicians contained within them. Ironfest celebrates the community itself that spawns around the music and musicians. It’s a two-day period where we can fondly recall the good memories of days gone by while still creating new memories for the next time we all converge at that old church.

It’s only been just over a week since Ironfest V wrapped up and I already feel like I’m in withdrawal. That much music, that many friends, that much fun in the photo booth (and, yes, that much booze) all adds up to a weekend that’s talked about until the next one rolls around. For many, “Iron” Mike’s passing was a horrible loss but his passing spawned an event that has kept people coming back for five years straight. And for that, I have to say, “Thanks ‘Iron’ Mike, and I’ll see you all next year.”

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