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”.
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?