I haven't done LSD in at least a decade, but Thursday's MidPoint Music Festival sure felt like a psychedelic flashback. My long-ish, strange-ish trip began at 9 a.m., as I drove into downtown and found Central Parkway colorfully dressed up as if an army of elderly women had sneaked in overnight and turned the strip into a Dr. Seussian wonderland. The colorful crocheting that hugged the trees, lampposts and practically everything else sticking out of the ground was actually the work of The BombShells' Yarn, who've dropped similar "yard bombs" on statues downtown (like the William Henry Harrison one in Garfield Park).
Regardless of whence it came, it set the trippy tone for my first day at MPMF.11. And things only got trippier. I'm a big fan of the surreal and bizarre, so it wasn't a bad trip, by any means. And the soundtrack was pretty kick-ass. —-
The only act I caught all night that didn't totally blow me away was the U.K.'s Joy Formidable (headlining the Grammer's tent at around 9:30 p.m.), though that's more a testament to the strength of the festival's opening night than a knock against the tight, rockin' trio. All in all, it was a pretty amazing start. And, given Thursday's tradition of being the "slow night," that's a good omen for the rest of MPMF.
Here were some of my highlights from MidPoint Thursday.
Best Worlds Within a World
The Box Truck Carnival along the new MidPoint Midway (overall, a big hit) was a great supplement to the musical adventures in the clubs and venues. Several "box trucks" (moving trucks, like the ones you'd get from U-Haul) were transformed by local artists and organizations into their own little worlds. Fest goers could visit an art gallery (and check out the concert-poster work of various design companies and artists), watch some films, see a play presented by Know Theater, play Putt Putt (two holes, one with a hilarious tiny sand-trap and water hazard) or play carnival games. The mini-skatepark was especially popular, as skaters lined up to scale the ramps on the side of one of the trucks (which was loaded with custom boards inside).
Best Rock & Roll Swagger
After being a little underwhelmed by The Joy Formidable, a caught my favorite show of the night (the only one I watched from start to finish), Hunter Valentine. The Toronto trio has been on the extensive Lady Killer tour with Sick of Sarah and Dayton's Vanity Theft (who both played later at Main Event) and fireball singer/guitarist Kiyomi McCloskey announced that it was the second-last stop on the jaunt. She said it as a way to excuse the trio's slap-happy demeanor, but there was no need to apologize. HV put one of the best Rock & Roll performances I've seen in a while, hammering home their intense, Punk-influenced swagger with playful charm and "don't fuck with me" intensity. The band had a little Buzzcockian melodic potency and punch and Riot Grrrl passion, but I was also reminded of Pink (the singer, not the color) a few times — chalk it up to McCloskey's fantastic, soulful voice and her passing resemblance to a brunet version of the Pop star.
Best Reason to Not Allow Non-Credentialed Photographers Into MPMF Shows
I was standing behind an older man (maybe mid-60s) when Hunter Valentine ramped up their set at Main Event and watched as he moved around the club — not inconspicuously, by any stretch — taking photos of the three women in the band as they rocked out. I'd catch him out of the corner of my eye every now and then, raising his point-and-shoot above the groovin' crowd or jostling for position near the stage. I didn't think much of it — maybe he was a big fan of the Canadian trio? — until I popped in to watch the last couple of songs by Nashville rockers The Worsties. The group was killin' it with their powerful Rock & Roll strut — like a slightly more accessible Sleater-Kinney with all dudes, save energetic frontwoman Anna Worstell — when I noticed Mr. Creepy-Old-Dude-With-a-Camera again. Worstell was sporting a dangerously short dress and, given her Punk Jagger-eque stage moves, panty flashes were inevitable. As I watched the other fellas in the small but attentive crowd peering intently at Worstell's hemline like they were waiting for Old Faithful to burst (I, of course, was merely paying attention to the band's musical proficiency), there was Mr. Creepy, snapping away. Sex offender registery check for MPMF ticket-buyers next year?
Best Proof of an Inappropriate Band Name
When I experienced A Lull at MidPoint, it was far from a down period in my MPMF explorations. The Chicago band performed a highlight-worthy set at Below Zero Lounge early Thursday that combined a percussive barrage (part primal pounding, part cicada-like clicking) with honey-golden melodies and sliced-and-diced guitar and synth noise. The huge rhythms (A Lull had two drummers and the other members would also chime in with percussion occasionally) reminded me of the obscure Australian band Big Pig, but the music was like U.K. band Doves playing along to an experimental DJ whose collection includes a ton of My Bloody Valentine. The unique band crafts a truly mesmerizing, trance-inducing sound that seems almost otherworldly (and added to my already trippy state of mind).
Best Early-Show Local Band Triumphs
The Seedy Seeds played an early, all-ages set in SCPA's large, state-of-the-art Corbett Theater, but the group's fans packed the lower bowl of the venue and made for the most enthusiastic crowd I saw all night. It could just as well have been a closing-night headlining show. It doesn't seem to matter when the Seedys play — they are always a highlight of anything they're involved with. Meanwhile, about the same time, just across the street from the school at Media Bridges, fellow local band Belle Histoire proved why they're one of the most exciting new bands in Cincinnati. The group had the smallish venue completely packed with fans crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, so entranced by the band's lush, ethereal Indie Pop, it was quiet enough to hear a guitar pick drop.
Best Listening Room
Though there was an almost sleepy, high-school recital vibe to Kaki King's show at SCPA's Mayerson Theater, fans were able to hear every note played and sung crystal clear. The Mayerson is smaller than the Corbett Theater, but the sound is just as good, if not better. The charming singer/songwriter/guitarist wasn't flashy, but her performance was completely dazzling and bewitching. The great acoustics only enhanced that.
Best Honky Tonkin'
Lydia Loveless and her band had Know Theater's small, lower-level bar area full as she played her first local show since signing to Bloodshot Records. Loveless' soulful, well-crafted Roots/Country tunes sounded great, though the set-up made for a tough room — fans headed to Know's main, upstairs stage had to walk through the second stage area and it seemed to be a popular "meet-up" spot, so Loveless unfortunately had to compete with chatty passers-by. Still, she offered a great set of her vintage-tinged Roots Rock — don't miss her when she comes through to support her Bloodshot debut, Indestructible Machine.
Best Local Musician Cameo
Like every year, when I was compiling the MPMF guide for CityBeat (and writing or editing previews of all 180-plus artists) earlier this month, one of the main reasons it ended up taking so long to complete was that I was again pleasantly distracted by several exceptionally good bands I hadn't heard before. It happened more than ever this year and one of those bands — Athens' animated, orchestral Indie/Americana crew The Ridges — worked their way up my "must-see" list as MPMF approached and I continued to listen to their endearing, ear-grabbing tunes (think a rootsier, catchier Arcade Fire). I was not disappointed by the group's enchanting performance at the Cincinnati Club Thursday night, where the eight-piece crew (with accordion, a string section and a crazy, seemingly hand-crafted stand-up bass) had an enthusiastic batch of about 50 or so MPMFers bopping along to their jubilant sound and grinning ear-to-ear. Local singer Molly Sullivan (formerly of Cincy's No No Knots and currently re-igniting her solo career) demurely added her spine-tingly vocal harmonies to the group's captivating finale.
Speaking of spine-tingly vocals — Kim Taylor. The consistently spellbinding singer/songwriter gave MPMF another highlight set this year at SCPA, just prior to Kaki King's. You know how that Inside the Actor's Studio guy always asks his guests what they'd like to hear God say to them as they enter the pearly gates? I would ask God if she wouldn't mind keeping her trap shut for a few minutes and put on a Kim Taylor song instead.
Best Potential for Literal Venue Destruction
Banderas is always a slam-dunk MPMF highlight, but I didn't get to see the Cincinnati rockers presumably blistering set at the tiny Courtyard Cafe last night, basically because I couldn't squeeze my fat ass through the door, so full was the restaurant/bar. Well, maybe I could have, but given the small stage and tight-quartered cafe/bar set-up, I feared Courtyard Cafe would crumble to the ground. (As of press time, there have been no reports of any building collapses downtown, so no need to change your itinerary if it includes Courtyard shows tonight or tomorrow.) Banderas always seems to be crammed into a too-small venue for MidPoint, yet they always manage to play like they're onstage at Madison Square Garden. I have no reason to believe last night was any different.
Best Bootsy Moment
I bumped into CityBeat co-founder John Fox towards the end of the night and he relayed a great scene at the MPMF pre-party presented by the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation in their headquarters on Race St. (in CityBeat's building). According to Mr. Fox (as he insists we call him), as soon as the Foundation's most famous board members — Bootsy Collins and his lovely wife, Patti — walked through the doors, the inconspicuous office space transformed into a sweaty, 1970s Disco. When the DJ put on some Bootsy and Parliament/Funakadelic grooves, the place went nuts and a swarm of dancers surrounded the groovin' Collinses. When a couple of young, sweaty dancers took a break and sat down next to Mr. Fox, he said to them, "MidPoint hasn't even started yet and here you are, drenched in sweat and dancing with Bootsy Collins to Bootsy Collins' music." Another good omen.
Best Giant Inflatable Cat Heads
Having assured myself that MPMF.11 was just kinda psychedelic this year and that I wasn't, in fact, having acid flashbacks, I made my way down to the much-buzzed-about Joy Formidable set under the big-top at Grammer's. Just to make clear — Joy Formidable put on a great set, I just wasn't quite as "wowed" as I was with pretty much every other set I saw Thursday. And I only caught the band's last three songs, so maybe I didn't experience enough to be "wowed." During the last song, the trio — who reminded me a little of a noisier Foo Fighters (with a female Brit on the mic) — went into the standard "noise-out" Rock & Roll closing and something happened that made me wonder if I hadn't been dosed. Inexplicably, two gigantic, inflatable black-cat heads began sprouting at the back of the stage. I left the tent a little dazed and had to verify that it really happened. It did. But I'm still going to watch my drink a bit more closely tonight, lest some merry prankster decides I need a little mind-expansion. For MPMF.11's opening night, it turns out I didn't need any chemical assistance. It was strange enough sober. Now — did anyone else see all those people dressed up like old-time cigarette gals ’n guys walking around with trays of free donuts, or was it just me?
Check out more photos from MPMF.11's opening night here.