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Why MusicNOW is special

Filed in Cincinnati and MusicNOW 13 comments

The National Live @ Music Hall (MusicNOW 2011)
As MusicNOW 2011 rides off into the sunset, I once again have to provide my overall thoughts on the festival. If you follow this blog or know me personally, you know I am attached to this little festival, which took some big steps forward this year. But just like anything else, I have some criticisms, not really of the festival itself, but rather how it is embraced, so I’ll get into that a bit as well. Here we go…..

MusicNOW added important layers to the festival this year that will help it in future years.

This year, not only could you experience MusicNOW in its traditional format with three nights of unique music, but you also had an opportunity to go to a great poster show, a intimate songwriter performance and an early screening of The National documentary. I know there were some technical issues with the doc screening, but folks who showed up early at Music Hall on Sunday night still go to see it. As for the poster show and songwriter set, well, they were both incredible, but not nearly enough people experienced them both. So while I felt fortunate to be in attendance for both, I wish more could have taken it in. How does this help for future years? Well, in my opinion, this sets an example of how the nights of music begin to turn into a full weekend experience. I think that in future years, this could bring more people from out of town to Cincinnati for the festival rather than picking and choosing one night over another. I’m hoping they build on these pre-show options moving forward.

Why MusicNOW is special.

MusicNOW is a special event. It’s the best weekend of music you can experience in the Cincinnati area all year, with apologies to other amazing options like MidPoint. Each night, it’s not just another touring set from a band halfway through a 15 city trek. It’s not a musician playing the same setlist they have dragged across the country for six months. No, MusicNOW is a unique experience. As one of my friends posted on Facebook during the festival and I quote “MusicNOW. “Amazing, unique, only here, only now”. That right there could be a tagline for the festival moving forward. And how true it is, as evidenced by the opening night of the festival on Friday. The night began with yMusic performing a piece written by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, who returned after a couple of other festival appearances in previous years.

Shara Worden was up next, and along with yMusic showed off a list of great new songs which she said were being heard for the first time in the Midwest. Shara is one of those singers that is truly incredible on record, but for some reason, takes it to another level in person. Her ability to command the room with her voice, in combination with yMusic’s meticulous instrumentation raised the temperature in an already muggy and hot Memorial Hall. One thing is certain, the next release from My Brightest Diamond should be nothing short of excellent.

As great as the night began, the final performance of Friday somehow managed to make me temporarily forget about what had happened only minutes before, and in some ways, what had taken place in previous years of MusicNOW. Yes, I’m going out on the limb and saying that Friday night of MusicNOW, and more specifically the Sounds of the South set was the best night of music in the festival’s history. Flanked by friends like Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten and more, Megafaun and Fight The Big Bull conjured up a brilliant interpretation of Alan Lomax’s original group of recordings. From old spirtuals to call and response sing-alongs, the collective force behind the set was as special as any I have been in attendance for. As many as 13 performers were on the stage at times, each taking turns guesting and being featured throughout the two hours, and each time a song finished, I could not help but feel like what we all just witnessed would be difficult to duplicate. Sounds of the South was originally a commissioned piece from Duke University, where almost the exact same group of friends performed it for three consecutive nights.

But I would go out on another limb and say that the fourth night was the most special all around. Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon even tried to put it into words the next morning on his blog.

Last night was a most insanely humbling evening of music. There are no words for the opportunity given to us all that played last night; to share those musics. To share it with the other musicians who are so respected and admired.

The absolute ‘wow’ factor that summed up Friday night was more that I have personally experienced, especially for a set of songs that I had previously probably never heard before, and certainly not from any of the participants.

Despite that huge Friday mountaintop I feel like we reached, Saturday did its part to keep the momentum strong. Tim Hecker was first up, and was also the first electronic musician to perform in the six year history of the festival. Those that were prepared for the long, continuous chill-wave ride Hecker took us through were rewarded, but I’m sure others unfamiliar with him previously may not have been as receptive. That said, Hecker is an artist whos sounds serve as a beautiful backdrop for lots of environments (including writing, as I’m listening as I type this.)

Hecker’s set gave way for Little Scream next, which is the mostly solo work of Laurel Sprengelmeyer, who’s beautiful debut album was released earlier this year on the Jagjaguwar label. And while the minimalist nature of the record makes for a beauty all its own, Laurel invited an incredibly talented group of performers on stage with her, which is a MusicNOW tradition, to help flesh out her songs. Among the guest were Richard Reed Parry, both Bryce and Aaron Dessner, Owen Pallett and Shara Worden. The added artillery took the songs to a new level live, and created a set that was a great example of the collaborative element that makes MusicNOW so special.

Owen Pallett closed out the night with yet another great set, bringing his unique brand of dense chamber pop into full focus for the crowd. Pallett commented that he had recently had his bow returned to him from the shop and you could tell how he fell in sync with it again almost instantly. Song from Heartland like “Midnight Directives” and “Lewis Takes Action” really sounded great in the hallowed halls of the historic venue, and even when the set wound down, I think most of us were prepared to hear more.

Sunday night was the icing on the already memorable cake with The National, the hometown heroes, returning to Cincinnati for the first time since 2008. It didn’t feel like MusicNOW, even though we were just next door, but the crowd at Music Hall was primed for the band to end the weekend on the right note. Of course, many people who did not attend the previous two nights made it out for night three, and I’d venture to guess some had no clue about MusicNOW at all. I even chuckled a bit when Matt Berninger commented that Bryce was “the inventor of MusicNOW, after all”.

Although there were loads of rumors about a special unannounced guest for the final night, that didn’t happen. But I doubt anyone was disappointed. Sharon Van Etten, who Aaron Dessner described to the crowd as a ‘modern day Patti Smith’ started things off with a dark, emotional set. Sharon’s contributions to the entire weekend were a welcome addition, and I hope she returns in future years for more. The headliners hit the stage next, ready for their first MusicNOW appearance ever. I’ve seen a couple other reviews refer to the set as a triumphant return or a conquering of the city, but for me, it was simply a classy capper to the weekend. New material made its way into the set, with tunes like “Think You Can Wait” from the film Win, Win as well as a song for the video game Portal 2.

Of course, the tunes that everyone wanted were present and as fresh as the first time I’ve heard them as well. Songs like Abel, and Mr. November brought the raw emotion out of Matt, as usual, and more mid-tempo items like “Slow Show”, and “England” (with Owen Pallett) shone just as bright. Of course, what National show would be complete without Matt taking a ridiculously long microphone chord into the audience? He did so on “Terrible Love”, to the thrill of the crowd (myself included). The encore was perfect, including tunes like “Exile Vilify” and the unplugged closing song, with all the MusicNOW musicians still in town, of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”.

Final thoughts

If you cannot already tell after my 1500 word explanation of this weekend, I am pretty passionate about MusicNOW. So it’s only natural that I’m bothered that all three nights were not as successful at the box office as they were on the stages. It boggles my mind that this city is not willing to support a festival like MusicNOW, six years into its existence, in a historic part of our city on an otherwise non-eventful weekend. I know, there are always things that get in the way, and I don’t expect everyone that reads this to be as passionate or committed as I am, but for some reason, it is really really difficult to get Cincinnati to show up at a concert with performers they aren’t already incredibly familiar with. Returning to the statement about the festival being totally unique, it is one of the few events you could show up to with little to no previous knowledge about the musicians performing and be awed by the results.

But that is not easy to explain. So for those of us that care about MusicNOW and want to see it live a long and fruitful life here in Cincinnati, support it and let the people that run it know you want it to continue. If you were present this year at MusicNOW, what are your thoughts about the weekend and the future of the festival? And if you did not attend, what kept you away?

~Joe @eachnotesecure

Posted by Joe Long   @   18 May 2011 13 comments


May 18, 2011
3:52 pm
#1 dave :

I was able to make it to Sunday night, having flown in from Miami, Florida the day before. I have to say, I was more than happy to support what has become the best annual musical event in Cincinnati. My wife and I enjoyed a lovely performance from The National, and I found myself marveling at the majesty of seeing the little band that could finally play Music Hall.

I agree, Joe, that Cincinnati needs to support this more. If I can make my way there from 20 hours away, surely others can drive 20 minutes.

Author May 18, 2011
4:15 pm

Well said Dave, I’m glad you were able to be there.

May 18, 2011
4:32 pm
#3 Roth :

Regarding your closing thoughts, I agree totally. MusicNOW is almost something you need to go into with the faith that Bryce Dessner knows what he’s talking about. He always gets in groups of very talented musicians who collaborate to make unique musical experiences with combinations of musicians sitting in that creates a one-off performance that most likely will never be recreated.

My criticism would probably be the promotion of the event. Joe, you’re firmly entrenched in the local music scene, but for others it is not necessarily so easy to know what is going on from day to day. I even surmised that there were probably fans of The National here in Cincinnati that had no idea they were playing. If they missed the CityBeat cover, they probably would have had no idea. I mean, I’m as big of a fan of grassroots efforts as anyone, but you have to be a little more proactive, this isn’t “Field of Dreams”. You have to do a little more than show up and play, especially when in Cincinnati.

May 18, 2011
4:42 pm
#4 Aaron Watkins :

I’m in New York, but I want to go next year! I’m usually out of town for Midpoint on co-op, why no summer festivals?

May 18, 2011
5:21 pm
#5 Another Dave :

I wish I’d been able to make all three nights, but commitments forced me to miss the first two. That said, Sunday was phenomenal. The National and Sharon Van Etten were terrific, and having the concert at Music Hall was awesome. Definitely a great experience for my first MusicNOW, and I look forward to next year.

(also, not to nit-pick, but fairly certain Matt went out into the crowd on Terrible Love, not Fake Empire. Otherwise, great recap!) :)

May 18, 2011
5:46 pm
#6 Nate :

I love the idea behind it, I love every band that has performed over the years but I have trouble supporting it fully because I’ve never been able to attend either because tickets are too hard to come by because it’s sells out too quickly or they’re just too damn expensive.

May 18, 2011
6:28 pm
#7 chenault :

Thank you for that article. I was there all 3 nights & that perfectly summed up the experience.
There was some promotion besides CityBeat..I saw a nice article in The Enquirer & WNKU promos but I did not see any posters, postcards, etc. as I have in past years.
Seemed very under advertised/promoted.

last weekend was not “an otherwise non-eventful weekend” There was a TON of stuff going on last weekend… Italian festival, Bella Vite wine/food event, Reds in town, Fashion week events (including the Exhibitionism Gala saturday), Bike week events/bike in movies, Paavo Jarvi’s last symphony here,weddings & parties galore.

if this even had been held in March (as it had been in previous years) i believe would have been better attended(if not sold out).

Was sad to see empty seats though…
Feel very fortunate the 3 nights were my top priority. What a weekend.
Thanks again for your piece

Author May 18, 2011
7:35 pm

Nate. I understand it can get expensive, but shelling out for one night was only $20, less than a half tank of gas these days.

chenault: Thank you for the kind words, I know there were other things happening in the city, but I guess most of them were not music related, so I thought the music folks would show up more.

May 18, 2011
8:32 pm
#9 Deime :

Thanks for the great review. I really look forward to this festival each year and I second Chenault on the selection of this weekend. It needs to be in March or April as in previous years. I couldn’t make it Friday night or Sunday night due to previous commitments. Plus the Nelsonville Music festival had a great lineup too.

May 18, 2011
9:48 pm
#10 bschwegman :

i was very fornate to attend all three nights… and sunday was larger and more epic in scale… having attended past years of musicNOW as well.. i kind of relate to how you didnt feel like it was musicNOW from the lack of intimacy that memorial hall affords.. but i thought it was triumph of a evening and for the festival as a whole none the less.. and i was happy to see a mass of people finally attending this brilliant fest, even if just one leg of it.. .. so yes, i too have to agree it was kind of sad such brilliance and beauty took place on the memorial hall stage nights prior that was not shared by the larger community.. but hopefully donors and sponsors out weighed the box office?… and perhaps its just a beautiful moment for those in the know to experience.. and maybe opening exposure wider than cincinnati can usher in greater interest and ticket sales? and i think mostly, not having festival passes this year, made people pick and choose events rather buying into the idea of a complete weekend of events….

but i have to say, it was an amazing weekend, not just for music, but for anyone that got share within the moment together as an intimate crew, and for the city of cincinnati itself. i know myself, i feel a pride and love towards this city for being allowing to participate in such a unique event and can only hope that it continues to plant seeds and grow within the fabric of the community and the music universe itself.

May 18, 2011
11:53 pm

I went to all three nights last year and was so blown away that I went to all three nights this year as well. I think this is by far the most interesting and rewarding concert of the year here, and possibly anywhere else. I love that I get to see people I don’t know and wouldn’t otherwise see, and I love that everyone is amazing. I was underwhelmed by Sounds of the South, but they were still great, and everyone else, especially Shara Worden, were amazing.

One of my favorite things about the festival, most apparent at Memorial Hall, is how all of the musicians involved are really nice people who love what they do. You see them sitting in the audience for other people’s sets, and they seem infinitely approachable and not at all too famous and important to talk to you. They also seem to be really enjoying themselves, which is amazing.

I agree that they need to do more publicity, though. And perhaps move it back to March. Also, I enjoyed that last year you could buy 3 day passes, though I realize this year with the venue change and assigned seats for Sunday that passes would have caused a problem. Still, this is an amazing event and I hope to be able to attend for years to come.

May 19, 2011
4:38 pm
#12 euro60 :

Joe, great review, thanks. I have become a passionate fan of MusicNOW, this was my third year attending. Couple of random thoughts:

1. I had tickets for all 3 nights but did not attend Saturday evening. I simply could not bear the idea that I would be missing the very last Cincinnati symphony performance under the direction of Paavo Jarvi. (As an aside, unlike the next evening for the National, Music Hall was truly filled to the rafters, including every single seat on the third floor Gallery, for this emotional moment.)

2. Even though Friday night was not sold out, it was filled rather well I thought. Can’t speak to Saturday night. Not sure what the deal was with the National’s set at Music Hall, perhaps they chose not to sell tickets for the Gallery (3rd floor)?

3. Still on the National’s evening: you didn’t post any comments on that documentary that was shown at 6:30, directed by Matt’s brother. That was the worst piece of a so-called “movie” that I have witnessed in a long, long time. It was nothing short of embarrassingly bad and unwatchable, frankly. No wonder that he announced that the band hadn’t seen it either because I can’t imagine that they’d have allowed something like that to be shown in public. The best (in an upside-down wierd kinda way) moment came when he was interviewing Matt, and Matt says/exasperates “Have you watched the classics I told you to watch? Don’t Look Back? Gimme Shelter? You gotta have an idea, a story arc. You don’t have any.” Right on target, Matt. Sorry to be railing about this documentary, but I was really more than annoyed about this.

4. I love MusicNOW and I will buy tickets to next year, regardless of who is or isn’t on the bill. (And I would think that it’ll go back to an earlier time in the year, it was the extensive touring by the National that kept Bryce from pulling it all together sooner.)

Author May 19, 2011
11:34 pm

Paul, thanks for your thoughts. First off, I will say that all seats were available for each night of the fest, and none of the three sold out. Several factors attributed to this, but they always do.

I understand you not being able to make it Saturday, I hope you gave your tix to someone else who enjoyed the show.

The doc was not good, but I don’t think it was embarrassing either. It just felt like home movies to me honestly.

Thanks for supporting the fest and Cincinnati Paul!

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