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MPMF In Review Day One: Purity Ring, Heartless Bastards & More

By the time I arrived in Washington Park, a sizable crowd had gathered to catch the joint Midpoint kickoff party and album release show with JR JR (formerly Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.). The pillar-ringed bandstand didn’t make for ideal viewing, but the band made the best of it, with co-leader Daniel Zott repeatedly finding his way down the stairs and into the crowd. The set was a healthy mix of older material (Motor City’s unofficial anthem, “We Almost Lost Detroit”) and material from their just-released self-titled record. “When you’re on a major label, sometimes they don’t want you to make an album until you have an obvious single. I’m glad we wrote this one,” they mused before launching into the whistling intro of the infectious “Gone.” They finished out the set with a relative oldie, “Nothing But Our Love” from 2011’s It’s a Corporate World, and its swelling, glitchy outro left the crowd asking (unsuccessfully) for an encore. They’ve lost the silliest part of their moniker as well as the NASCAR uniforms in which they used to perform, so the songs stand alone without gimmick. Judging from this late-afternoon dance party, they fare pretty well.

I cut up to the Christian Moerlein stage to catch Ancient Warfare, the Lexington, KY quartet who just dropped their debut album, The Pale Horse, last month to positive national reviews. As has always been my experience (they frequently find themselves on bills at MOTR Pub), they come across much heavier in concert, and paired with the inevitable start-of-festival sound tweaking, it made for a bit of a rough start (through no fault of theirs). But by the time Echo Wilcox was singing the snowy gloom of “Wintertimes,” things had mostly been worked out. “Gunsmoke” and “Darlin’” also found their way into the set, but so did three new songs, including the thrilling set closer “Seed of the Seed.“ Ancient Warfare’s ability to oscillate between moody folk rock and heavier offerings is remarkable, and their inclination to successfully pull off both at the same time is even more so.

I zipped down to Mr. Pitiful’s and caught the first couple songs from locals Dawg Yawp, made up of sitarist Tyler Randall and guitarist Rob Keenan. The pair had a loyal following present, and they were (literally) howling in the leadup to the start of the fun set (sample song title: “Dawg”). The new stage at the Lightborne Lot only adds to the feeling that Midpoint is a unified, neighborhood-wide event, as the strains of HOWARD reached my ears while I jogged up Main St. Back up at Moerlein, San Diego garage-soul outfit The Donkeys worked out some sound kinks before blasting into an absolute delight of a set. “It’s Friday night! A donkey’s favorite night!” Musically, they’re a very tight crew, and songs would frequently veer off into space-rock bugout grooves. On my way to Washington Park, I caught the very beginning of local upstarts Kid Condor’s pop-up set at Rock Paper Scissors. Tack on an in-store by Kate Wakefield at Black Plastic, and the night was just brimming with music at every turn. 

I will admit to being a bit skeptical about Purity Ring as top-billed headliner, but they certainly proved me wrong. Their hour-long set was masterful, visually and aurally compelling. Strands of LED lights hung down either side of the stage, and provided matrices of color reminiscent of Radiohead’s legendary In Rainbows tour setup. In the center was producer Colin Roddick’s station, with eight jagged sculptures which lit up when touched and triggered sampled sounds. Singer Megan James doesn’t prance around the stage; the music simply doesn’t call for it. Instead, she parks herself for a while atop low platforms at the edge of the audience, contorting her body and throwing all of her energy into the songs. New record Another Eternity was performed in its entirety over the course of the evening, along with nearly half of their 2012 breakthrough Shrines. In concert, the songs stray little from the recorded version, but the sheer volume adds to their grandeur and mystique. The sound quality in Washington Park was crystalline, and every detail of Roddick’s production could be heard perfectly. “Flood on the Floor” was downright seismic, and on “Stillness in Woe,” James played a custom sampler that shined bright white light when each trigger was touched, beams refracting off mirrored chips on her glove like the decay of her expertly processed vocals. The crowd went ballistic at the first strains of “Fineshrine,” and James warned the crowd that “Begin Again” would stand in lieu of an encore. This was a brilliant display of both popcraft and stage presentation, one of my favorite Midpoint headline performances ever in spite of my initial cynicism.

Purity Ring Setlist:
Stranger Than Earth
Push Pull
Sea Castle
Dust Hymn
Flood on the Floor
Stillness in Woe
Begin Again

Purity Ring finished up a couple minutes early, which left plenty of time to get back to Moerlein to catch local-crew-done-good Heartless Bastards. True, it’s been several years since they decamped for Austin, but they’ll always be special to Cincinnati and vice versa. Another group coming on the heels of a recent release, the bulk of the setlist drew from June’s Restless Ones. This is such a well-rehearsed and professional band that they could slay an audience in their sleep, and from the first chords of “The Mountain” (much to my delight, it’s my favorite Bastards song), it was clear we were in for a powerhouse. The strength of Erika Wennerstrom’s vocals is baffling enough on record, but to hear them flawlessly recreated live is another thing entirely. She’s a national treasure. They fully hit their stride in the set’s final act, with the bouncing “The Fool” and cutting guitar lines on “Into the Light” leading into the marathon centerpiece “Down in the Valley.” This is as close as the group delves to metal, charging and riff-heavy, but tempered by Wennerstrom’s miraculous voice. She waved off her guitar tech’s next offering at the end of “Arrow” standout “Parted Ways,” and decided instead to close the set with the gorgeous, near-acapella “Tristessa” which also closes Restless Ones. A light drizzle had started to fall, but it wasn’t enough to turn the sizable crowd away; most stuck around until the very last note.

Heartless Bastards Setlist:
The Mountain
Gates of Dawn
Wind Up Bird
Got To Have Rock and Roll
Black Cloud
Pocket Full of Thirst
The Fool
Into the Light
Down in the Canyon
Only for You
Parted Ways

Sticking hot-ticket Nashville punks Bully at MOTR Pub has been the most baffling scheduling choice of this year’s festival, and by the time they took the stage, the venue was at capacity and the line of people hopeful space might open had stretched up a full block. Inside, Bully turned in a ferocious, short set, searing through 10 songs in barely a half hour. Frontwoman Alicia Bognanno has a one-in-a-million voice of her own, but hers tends to shatter in a dozen different directions, shrieking choruses and howling lyrics. Musically, they walked right out of 1993, indebted to early Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, and Nirvana, but it never comes off as pastiche; this is a really talented bunch. Each song took off at breakneck pace, and, if anything, arrived at its finish even faster. Bognanno is extremely aware of her surroundings, and on more than one occasion stopped the set to make sure women in the packed-to-the-gills venue weren’t getting crushed by aggressive moshing (which they were. Note to fellow men: please be aware of your surroundings). They wrapped things up with “Milkman” and a cover of Butthole Surfers’ “Who Was In My Room Last Night” before leaving the stage, having only played half of their allotted set time but also having put in at least twice the required effort. This will wind up being one of those “I was there” Midpoint sets, a lightning-in-a-bottle rager that enraptured the entire room and everyone who could hear out on Main St. 

Bully’s early exit left me time to catch some of All Them Witches across the street at The Woodward. I saw them last year at The Drinkery, a space frankly too small for their deafening stage volume, so The Woodward was a better fit, and they had a fairly sizable crowd on hand. All Them Witches traffic in the heavier end of psychedelic rock, indebted to Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Black Sabbath, but (as they slyly admit with a sticker on a keyboard case) there’s plenty of the darker edge of Grateful Dead mixed in there, too. The riffs are big and dirty, the solos blazing, the tempos never all that fast. Much of the material was drawn from next month’s At the Garage, and if this preview is any indication, it’s going to be a doozy.

Photos coming soon!