Friday, September 30, 2016

Review: Midpoint Music Fest (Cincinnati)

Midpoint Music Festival
photo: Spooky Fitzgerald

In a tale of two fests, Cincinnati's Midpoint Music Festival, September 23-25, was at once one of the best of fests and one of the worst of fests simultaneously. At the apex of this schizophrenic fest is a controversy that has the city split on two opposing sides over an argument only a Cincinnatian could  understand (and even then, probably only slightly).
    The Festival takes place in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood (also referred to as OTR). A recent study by Alice Skirtz, in  Econocide: Elimination of the Urban Poor, shows that this neighborhood has been the focal point of gentrification over the last 15 years, (which has been controversial due to the displacement of African Americans and low income residents) and that a comparison of the 2010 and 2000 federal censuses shows that over 1000 African Americans left this area during the decade. As of 2016, this is a primarily white, wealthy and exclusive neighborhood.
Over-The-Rhine Neighborhood. Photo: Spooky Fitzgerald
          The festival was started in 2001 by a local bar owner,  Dan McCabe of MOTR Bar, wanting to bring attention to the new bars and restaurants springing up in the recently gentrified neighborhood. The idea was the fest would take place over a weekend in these bars and restaurants, having festival goers walk from place to place, and in the process get acquainted with the newly reappropriated OTR. The fest was a success, and  over the last 15 years the Neighborhood and the fest grew quickly (Festival attendance has grown from 13,500 in 2008 to around 30,000 this year). As the fest grew in size it became too big to hold in the original locations so McCabe turned it over to another company, EMEI, last year. 2016 was the first time Midpoint was hosted by EMEI (managed by Rick McCarty) but McCabe and other bar owners in the Neighborhood were upset over the fest moving away from a format of several local bars showcasing bands into a street fest, although it seems they recognized it could no longer be held in local bars and handed it off to an event production company. The fest was still held in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, bring in almost 30,000 patrons to visit the local bars, shops, restaurants, food trucks, and local vendors. Even still McCabe and other OTR business owners staged a successful boycott of the festival it once owned. A visit to MOTR Bar and other bars in the area such as Woodward Bar were packed with neighborhood inhabitants showing their support for the boycott. Of the festival moving to a street fest format, one MOTR patron told me "It's not an experience, not a community". Although I never heard anyone mention the community that was originally in OTR, that were displaced when these bars first moved in.
      MOTR Bar and Woodward staged their own showcases with bands Wussy, The Yugos, and others  in their original format, even though the new Midpoint street fest seemed to do the same for the neighborhood as the original format, sending festival goers to local restaurants, bars, and AirBNBs. One employee at MOTR even remarked that they pulled in more sales during this year's Midpoint than they ever did when the festival was in their own building.
Pinball selection at the MOTR music venue & barcade. 

      Even still the shop owners in this neighborhood had grievance enough to stage a boycott on the grounds that the 'street fest' format was stealing sales from them, the very same local shops that a decade ago organized to gentrify the neighborhood and pushing out the original-original inhabitants. Even the staff at Midpoint vocalized their disdain for the new format and sided with the trendy bars and restaurants. They, the staff, were also dealing with an extremely unorganized street event.
Midpoint this year consisted of two streets in Over-the-Rhine cordoned off, with a main stage and a public radio stage (obligatory these days for city music fests) nestled in parking lots accessible only with purchased wrist bands, and a small stage in the middle of one street that was open to the public.  The staff were not properly informed on the fest rules and layout; staff and patrons alike couldn't seem to figure out how to get tickets, check in, where bands played or had merch tables (merch booths were usually a block away from where bands played) and other simple tasks. Also, there seemed to be an oversight in guest safety logistics; there were only alcohol booths, no water stations and with the hot sun beating down on the asphalt streets the fest was nearly unbearable during daylight hours.
Natalie Felker of the Fervor. photo: John King

Ben Felker of The Fervor. photo: John King

   Louisville/Lexington band The Fervor, having the unlucky slot of the first band on the WNKU (public radio) Stage (1pm Sunday afternoon) had only 3 audience members to start due to the oppressive heat, but grew to a modest, but appreciative 50 guests baking in the hot sun bouncing off the blacktop (which was twice the crowd that the headliner, Honduras, had at the same time on the main stage). Many lined up along the fence on the side of the parking lot to take advantage of the 9 inches or so of shade. Even in the disastrous heat and asphalt mix  Keyboard/guitarist/singer and primary songwriter Natalie Felker was right at home offering choice selections across the Fervor catalogue including songs from the new single, "Nightfall in the Kali Yuga", before diving into tracks from 2011's solid effort, 'Arise Great Warrior'.

Langhorne Slim's Soul & gospel review. Photo: Spooky Fitzgerald

Midpoint began with modest crowds on Friday September 23rd starting with Lau, the Scottish trio playing for more than a decade, with fiddle player, hollow body guitarist and multi-instrumentalist (accordion, keyboard) that is something like a AAA version of The Dirty Three without the bite.
   Things turned around at 9pm with Langhorne Slim on the littler WNKU stage with way more people watching Slim than those watching the headliner on the main stage. Slim started off with the title track from the  2015 album The Spirit Moves, a crowd favorite, before playing 'A Song For Syd", about his grandfather. Langhorne Slim knows how to entertain a large audience while still maintaining an intimate feel, with little footnotes to the crowd such as  "All I ever wanted to be was a musician and  to be older.. And I am achieving both of those things." before diving into the gospel charged songs that was well represented on Spirit Moves.  Slim ended the show with the rocking and soulful Past Lives (complete with crowd call-and-response "everybody say YEAH"!) to a grateful yet subdued Cincinnati crowd.

Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands. Photo: Spooky Fitzgerald

      Hitting the ground running on the main stage at 9:30 was Future Islands to the biggest crowd of the night, and the best performance of the entire fest. Crowd favorites included "walking through the Door" and "long flight" from their 2010 album In Evening Air. Singer Samuel T. Herring, addressing crowd after an amazing rendition of Long Flight (faster with more of his baritone style vocals than on the album version) by saying 'We are future islands, and this is the fuck we do' to a mesmerized crowd, eating out of his hand (the hand that is almost always reaching out to them). Herring putting his patented (and often unfairly criticized) stage presence of jerking and jumping and falling to the stage floor beating his chest,  on full display to full crowd delight; sprinkling brand new unreleased songs into the set.   "I feel like a scarecrow's in my throat" growls Hearing, excusing his gruffer than normal voice, but for any Future Islands fan, the more gruff the better. Hearing seemed to be right in his element, regaling stories to the crowd (such as a story about the first time they played Cincinnati in March 2007, playing 2 1/2 songs and then breaking up onstage.. But soon they reconciled and are 'happy to come back and do it right.') and then dedicating an ultra powered version of 'Tin Man' to the crowd across the street watching for free from the 6 story parking garage.
crowd watching Future Islands from the free comfort
of the parking garage across the street. Photo: Spooky Fitzgerald

In a festival rarity Future Islands returned to the stage for an encore of fan favorite 'inch of dust' from In Evening Air as well as 'Little Dreamer' ('to send you off into the night' said Herring) from their first release 'Wave Like Home' (2008) to an exhausted and grateful midwestern crowd.
Future Islands. Photo: Spooky Fitzgerald

       Saturday September 23rd saw larger crowds than Friday and mostly played to the 45+ year old crowd flocking to Bob Mould and The Mountain Goats but the standout performances included newer groups Car Seat Headrest,  Helms Alee, and Chicago instrumental force of nature Russian Circles.
Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest. photo: John King

       At 6:45pm Car Seat Headrest started with a bang playing first song from Teens Of Denial "Fill In The Blank" followed by 'unforgiving girl'. A very young band, led by Will Toledo, was seemingly not intimidated by the large crowd, or playing after seasoned musician Bob Mould. All band members yelped and hollered during the set, encouraging each other on (the drummer would point at different members of the band during solos to prompt the crowd to cheer them on.. which isn't an easy task for this modest Midwestern city) and enthusiastically backed up Toledo's Jonathan Richman style vocals on songs like '1937 State Park'. All but one song (Cute Thing from the album Twin Fantasy), was off of 2016s Teens of Denial.
The sun setting on Car Seat Headrest. photo: John King 

     The breakout track from the 2016 release Teens of Denial, "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales", was enough to coax the quiet crowd into an ovation before launching into a uptempo version of 'Vincent'. The entire band was warm and welcoming to the crowd; and even invited the entire audience to hang out after the show while pointed to the near by WKNU tent (which most took them up on). In a move that mirrored their doomed but brilliant track from the new album 'not just what I needed' that moved into the Cars 'just what I needed' for a brief moment (that Cars frontman Ric Ocasek demanded be taken off Car Seat Headrest's new album causing delays and untold expenses while the label destroyed physical copies and reprinted new ones with the 45 seconds in question removed) they ended their set with Cosmic Hero that morphed into a lovely rendition of the Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane (which Lou Reed would have been proud of) for a powerful end to a near perfect set.

Ben Verellen of  Helms Alee on guitar,
Lovebirds in crowd. 
photo: John King
The stand out performance on Saturday was Seattle's Helms Alee on the free stage. Sludge rock at its finest featuring  battle cry vocals by Singer /guitarist Ben Verellen (who builds the group's equipment through his company Verellen Amps) and blood curdling backing vocals by warrior drummer  Hozoji Margullis.
     The idea of having half the fest free to the public is a great one. Most of the sponsors and vendors were located in the free section, essentially doubling their exposure to patrons. From what I could tell all of the food trucks and vendors were local, and the free section allowed for guests to wonder in and out of the local shops of the Over-The-Rhine area. The music selection in the free section was also excellent, as was the curation of the entire fest. For half the price of other regional fests such as Forecastle and Bonnaroo it had twice the bands that are worth seeing (at the very least). Midpoint's mission statement of being a fest to "meet your new favorite band." certainly rings true, with booking unique talent instead of just big time names. the management behind Midpoint seems to want to book emerging and critically acclaimed artists regardless of their album sales or billboard charts, which paid off big time, but spent less time needed working on logistics and community relations.
          I would say this ranks up there with the best Festivals the midwest has to offer in means of talent, but the senseless fight between original OTR gentrifiers and new OTR gentrifiers makes for a confusing and uncomfortable atmosphere for those of us who just showed up for music.

Russian Circles on the FREE stage

Russian Circles photo: John King

37FLOOD represent 

Cincinnati silk screener with Houndmouth poster photo: John King

Over-The-Rhine gentrification pangs/store providing 'Yoga Poetry'. photo: John King

Local food vendor in the free section. 

No comments: