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Midpoint Day Two in Review: Ride, Sylvan Esso, Zola Jesus, and more

Midpoint Day Two in Review: Ride, Sylvan Esso, Zola Jesus, and more

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Things were already in full swing at the Craft Village in Washington Park when I arrived in the early afternoon. A couple dozen artisans were selling their wares, Moriah Haven had just wrapped up her set, and young artists from the Music Resource Center were performing their own compositions. It’s hard for me not to compare it to the Midway of years past, and I wish the art installations and plethora of food trucks still had a home, but this is a fun alternative that makes use of a great space. Local boys The Harlequins got things started off on the Main Stage at 3:00 with their surf-infused postpunk. They’re a perfect example of the festival’s support for local artists, as this was their eighth appearance.

Montreal’s The Besnard Lakes started off maybe the strongest triptych I’ve ever seen at Midpoint, and certainly the loudest, a guitar pedal arms race which culminated in the evening’s headliner. The band makes lushly produced indie rock epics that are distilled down for their powerful live show. This set was a bit of a career overview, with the Byrdsian chime of “People of the Sticks” from their most recent LP, and several tracks from 2010’s brilliant The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night. The group is fronted by husband and wife duo Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas, and their gorgeous harmonies were at the forefront. They also gave us a bit of a preview of their upcoming fifth record, which will be released on Jagjaguwar in January, before closing with the oddly upbeat menace of “And You Lied To Me.”

Boston post-rock titans Caspian seemed out of place in the daylight, all dressed in black, but as soon as the droning intro to “Darkfield” started, they had the crowd in the palm of their hand. Caspian makes loud, majestic instrumental rock, dramatic, ambitious, and seemingly limitless. Through repetition they build colossal crescendoes, with the intricate interplay of a three-guitar attack. There is darkness lurking in the corners, but the climaxes shout the “HOPE” that Philip Jamieson has stenciled on the side of his sampler. They are almost telepathically tight, and throw their whole bodies exuberantly into the music. Material from their newest record, this week’s Dust and Disquiet, was powerful and welcome, but older works like “Gone in Bloom and Bough” were the highlights. As the banshee roar of closer “Sycamore” decayed out on the delay pedals, all five members picked up drumsticks and pounded out a polyrhythm on the drumset. This one will stick with me for awhile.

English shoegaze kingpins Ride has reunited after twenty years, and they’re in the midst of a victory-lap tour around the U.S. after a handful of festival dates this spring. They’re the lost link between the dissonant haze of My Bloody Valentine and the britpop anthems of Oasis and Blur. So what if it’s a bit of a nostalgia trip? They sound tremendous. Mark Gardener and Andy Bell are locked in, effortlessly casting rich walls of sound under their smart melodies and tight harmonies. They played most of their 1990 debut masterpiece Nowhere, nailing the rushed scamper of “Seagull” early on as Gardener confidently shuffled around the stage. “Dreams Burn Down” was suitably enormous, and the gorgeous blue-sky chords of “Vapour Trail” felt like they could end the drizzle that had settled over Washington Park. The band was immensely gracious and grateful for the turnout, promising a return, and it was clear seeing Ride was a long-time dream realized for many in the crowd. As they hurtled through the closing “Chelsea Girl,” I couldn’t help but think that this seemed like a reunion that may fruitfully continue. 

On our way to Christian Moerlein stage, we stumbled across local artist Vampire Weekend at Bernie’s performing his hysterically pornographic material in various states of undress on the sidewalk in front of Black Plastic on Main St., which infused our night with a delightful bit of chaos. Proggy local trio Us, Today was just underway by the time we arrived, hammering out complex and interesting compositions that incorporated vibraphone and theremin and gave off a distinct air of Zappa.

I’ve been preaching the gospel of Aero Flynn for months now, and thankfully they seem to be catching on a bit. The Eau Claire group comes from the same scene as Bon Iver, whose Michael Noyce does double duty in both bands, and comes after a long hiatus from the music scene for leader Josh Scott. Their music is atmospheric, a Midwestern read on Kid A-era Radiohead, right down to Scott’s Yorke-like falsetto. Onstage, he’s full of nervous energy onstage which builds but never breaks, but rather deflates gently as reach their wintry conclusion. Their wonderful debut has flown under the radar so far, but expect big things from these guys in the future.

North Carolina duo Sylvan Esso certainly had the densest crowd we’ve seen so far this weekend, and perhaps the largest as well. They’re still touring off of last year’s self-titled debut smash, and it was performed in its entirety. They’re arranged similarly to last night’s headliner Purity Ring, singer and producer, but approach their performance differently. Where the former’s Megan James glides gently around the stage (not a criticism, it’s very effective), Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath is nothing but movement, backlit by the strobes of their lighting rig. Nick Sanborn is equally magnetic, his curly hair bouncing to the beat, and the two spent chunks of the show eye-to-eye. The audience knew every word, and Meath was chatty and engaging, acknowledging this as their first appearance in Cincinnati. The quieter songs had added vigor boosted by the power of a full-size sound system, more bass-heavy and aggressive. They played two new songs from their upcoming sophomore record which show a more pronounced dance influence, and could be just what launches them into the stratosphere.

The Taft Theatre Ballroom was moodily lit waiting for west-coast artsy singer Zola Jesus, and was sparsely populated at first as the far satellite on the Midpoint map, but filled in considerably as she took the stage. The young Washington-via-Wisconsin artist took a very intentional pop turn on her most recent album, last fall’s Taiga, which was the main focus of her Midpoint show. Even the songs from her grittier early albums were transformed in varying degrees into arena-aiming bangers. When the pulsing beat of “Dangerous Days” dropped, the lighting remained dimmed, perhaps an artistic choice, but an odd one if so. Pop music doesn’t have to be paired with flashy lighting cues, but it doesn’t hurt, and it seemed like a missed opportunity, especially given her talented but static backing musicians. Thankfully, Zola Jesus pinballed all over the low-ceilinged stage, climbing a speaker stack in the dark and belting songs from the very edge of the stage. Even through some digital processing, her voice is a powerhouse, and she kicked off “Nail” acapella and unamplified. Her talent and potential seem limitless, and she’s working with a pretty great batch of songs, but as I climbed up into the autumn air following her set, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something missing, something that didn’t quite elevate the tracks to their lofty ambition.

Setlists: 

Ride
Leave Them All Behind
Twisterella
Polar Bear
Seagull
Unfamiliar
OX4
In a Different Place
Time of Her Time
Dreams Burn Down
Taste
Vapour Trail
Mouse Trap
Chelsea Girl 

Sylvan Esso
Could I Be
Dreamy Bruises
Dress
Coffee
Wolf
Uncatena
Dance (new song)
Radio (new song)
Hey Mami
H.S.K.T.
Play it Right 

Encore:
Come Down 

Zola Jesus
Taiga
Dangerous Days
Dust
In Your Nature
Hunger
Go (Blank Sea)
Sea Talk
Lawless
Nail
Hollow
Night 

Encore:
Skin
Vessel