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Midpoint Superlatives: The Weekend in Review

By: Nat Tracey-Miller & Zach Moning

Best in Show: Bob Mould
Bob Mould is about to turn 56, but his scorching 40-minute 15-song set blew everyone half that old off the stage. Fronting a power trio rounded out by Jason Narducy (Superchunk/$plit $ingle) and Jon Wurster (Superchunk/The Mountain Goats), Mould blazed through songs from his trilogy of return-to-form albums he’s released in the last three years (Silver AgeBeauty & Ruin, and Patch the Sky), but it was the selections from his classic Hüsker Dü and Sugar catalogs that threw the late-afternoon crowd into a frenzy. And how can you argue with a set that contains “Hoover Dam” and “Makes No Sense At All”? (Nat Tracey-Miller)

Honorable Mention: The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats took the stage with a stocky rendition of “Game Shows Touch Our Lives” and kept the amps cranking throughout most of their set. John Darnielle himself seemed to relish the setting, making a point to declare his love for Cincinnati at least twice – a common enough gesture from any performer, but Darnielle’s notoriety also extends to frank honesty with his audience, which makes such platitudes feel just a bit more.

The indie darlings were in peak form throughout. Every step brought the set closer and closer to a climax. “Supergenesis” felt like a warmup stretch, while “Damn These Vampires” and “Psalms 40:2,” complete with Darnielle’s characteristic manic, frenzied stage motions, were a sprint. After a low-key interlude, the band fired off an intense, transporting performance of “Lion’s Teeth.” The home stretch touched perennial favorites like stepping stones, from “Up the Wolves” and “No Children” to the always breathtaking “This Year” before flitting gently down onto “Spent Gladiator 2.” The Mountain Goats were a high point in an evening full of high points. (Zach Moning)

Most Likely to Play the White House: Lucy Dacus
Lucy Dacus recently received a shoutout from Vice Presidential candidate (and fellow Virginian) Tim Kaine, and the second her honey-rich voice came through the speakers, it was clear why. “Map on a Wall” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” display a rare talent for balancing humor and vulnerability, and the impressive live arrangements carried the songs even a step farther than her stunning Matador debut No Burden. (NTM)

Best Sax Appeal: Kamasi Washington
Los Angelis saxophonist Kamasi Washington launched himself into the jazz stratosphere with last year’s epochal The Epic, and near-earth orbit is where he stayed on Saturday for one of the best sets of the weekend. He and his world-class six-piece only had time for three songs during their 45-minute set, but they made the most of it, stretching out on “Re Run,” “The Magnificent 7,” and “The Rhythm Changes.” Washington is a bit of an anomaly at rock festivals, but his virtuosic playing was warmly embraced, and he could be seen wandering the festival for the rest of the evening. A true legend in the making. (NTM) 

Best Lo-Fi Locals: Leggy
Raucous local garage rockers Leggy delivered a lo-fi broadside on the Eli’s BBQ stage. They hit all the right notes to stay true to their punk roots – piercing guitar, strong-armed drums, and a constant buzz of distortion – but the set was intimate, even charming. The narrow street confined the stage, which was certainly part of it. But frontwoman Veronique Allaer put the cherry on top with her down-to-earth stage presence, harping on the concept of best friends before launching into “Grrls Like Us” and later pointing out her dad’s air guitar to the audience. (ZM) 

Best Comeback: Wolf Parade
Wolf Parade disbanded in 2011 after touring the previous year’s Expo ‘86, but returned earlier this spring with club dates and a new EP. Dan Boeckner is a terror onstage, casting jagged chords over the rhythm sections demented post-disco beats. The setlist was heavy on their 2005 debut Apologies to the Queen Mary, although two of the whip-smart new songs made an appearance late in the show before the massive closing “Kissing the Beehive”. The Canadian quartet remains one of the best live acts in the world; it’s like they were never even gone (NTM) 

Best Animal Magnetism: Cereus Bright 
Magnetic right out of the gate, Knoxville folk rock group Cereus Bright gave perhaps the most polished set of Friday evening. Their crisp, clear harmonies on drew stragglers in, but it was halfway through the set that “River Run” from this year’s Excuses that breathed new life into the crowd. Singing the sun to sleep, they compelled heads to bob and bodies to move. A cyclone of birds next to the stage couldn’t have fit better if they’d been planned. They followed up with high-energy “Chattanooga” from their 2013 EP, Happier than Me. The Knoxville natives explained their civic duty to harbor disdain for the eponymous city, perhaps missing an opportunity to commiserate with our own recently agitated rivalry with Pittsburgh. Too soon, maybe? (ZM) 

Best Living Room Show: Into It. Over It.
Into It. Over It. closed down the first night of the Eli’s stage with a solo acoustic set that felt bizarrely intimate given the setting in the middle of Sycamore St. Evan Thomas Weiss was frequently self-deprecating, concerned over the quality of some older songs he hadn’t played in awhile, but the man plays guitar like Leo Kottke and writes a song like John Darnielle; on Friday evening, he could do no wrong. On “Open Casket,” he sang of friends “hungover and divorced,” who “torched their twenties like it’s kerosene,” and it felt like an earthquake. (NTM) 

Feel Good Hit Of The Fall: Tokyo Police Club
Tokyo Police Club took a cheeky liberty in naming their 2-part 2016 EP Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness, but the name just about fits. TPC boasts an indie rock purity that has fallen somewhat out of favor as increasingly specialized genres carve out new niches. It’s like how vanilla has become a synonym for plain just because it’s common. But vanilla is common because it’s delicious, and Tokyo Police Club’s straightforward sound is just so. 

Simmering in with “Not My Girl,” the Ontario natives hit a boiling stride immediately after with “Hot Tonight” and didn’t let up. Vocalist David Monk, after winning some good will by praising Cincinnati’s chili, shared a story of meeting “Taxi Zach” last time he was in town. This tangent was longer than most, but concluded with a conviction that everyone in Cincinnati must be friends – which struck a chord after at least three personal small-world experiences I had that day. TPC flared out with the energetic “Your English is Good,” which laid the perfect groundwork for Future Island’s upcoming headline set. (ZM) 

Best Afrobeat Funk Throwdown: (Tie) Antibalas and Budos Band
Antibalas and Budos Band are both out of New York, both play inspired variations on Afrobeat, and were two of the most inspired bookings of the festival. Antibalas follows closely in the footsteps of kingpin Fela Kuti, playing long, tight grooves punctuated by verses from singer and percussionist Duke Amayo. Budos Band, on the other hand, projects their music through the stoner metal lens of Black Sabbath, wrapping horn blasts around venomous fuzz bass riffs. This kind of stuff is festival gold, and I hope to see more of it in the future. (NTM) 

Best Brass Pick-Me-Up: Lucky Chops
6-piece NYC outfit Lucky Chops aims to inject brass blasting back into the music scene. Their sheer noise and clarity might have been enough to do that – you certainly can’t fault their instrumental skill. Their stage presence is a hell of a bonus. They veritably burst onto the stage with “Problem” and played hard throughout, ending in a one-two punch cover of Lipps Inc.’s “Funky Town” and James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” Ultimately, Lucky Chops is something of a novelty, but said novelty didn’t even come close to wearing off in the group’s too-short set. (ZM)

Best Dance Moves: Future Islands
Baltimore quartet Future Islands had no trouble proving their headliner status, performing unreleased songs from the studio sessions which have kept them off the road for most of 2016. “We’re Future Islands, and this is what the fuck we do,” singer Sam Herring gleefully asserted early in the set. What the fuck they do, indeed. Future Islands feeds on the dichotomy between the group’s glassy synth rock and Herring’s volatile voice and kinetic stage presence. His wild dances could be taken as schtick if they weren’t so clearly his way of channeling the thundering beats and heavy themes of his songs. To be sure, it’s a performance, but once he hits his groove, it’s hypnotic and thrilling. The crowd exploded for the late-set appearance of 2014 hit “Seasons (Waiting On You)” (which was named the best song of that year by Pitchfork), and the band only took it up a notch for the volcanic “Tin Man.” (NTM) 

Most Likely To Succeed: Car Seat Headrest
Rising stars Car Seat Headrest found enthusiastic and near universal acclaim for their first studio album, Teens of Denial, released earlier this year. Their appearance at Midpoint comes at an exciting time in their collective career. The audience was treated to a showcase of versatility, not just between songs but within them. Beneath front man Will Toledo’s almost nebbish appearance lurks an inventive songwriter and fierce musician.Right off the bat, the band came through with the piercing “Fill in the Blank,” taking every opportunity from that starting point to build tension anew and let it burst. Most of their set was taken from Teens of Denial, but they took a step back to their lo-fi Bandcamp days with “Cute Thing” before closing with the frantic “Vincent.” (ZM) 

Most Umbrella: The Harlequins
The Harlequins are one of the best bands Cincinnati has going right now, and they felt right at home at the big stage in the early afternoon sun. Their psychedelic garage-rock could be playing straight out of the black plastic of a Nuggets compilation, and they tore through their aggressive delight of a set heavy on this summer’s One With You, drummer Rob Stamler peered out all the while from under a large, colorful patio umbrella. (NTM) 

Most Folks Given: Young Heirlooms
Local and impeccably Americana folk group Young Heirlooms delivered a tight, intimate set on the WNKU stage on Sunday. Their pure folk timbre was a welcome precursor on a day that would feature high energy – and high noise – later on. Nowhere were their story-song roots clearer than in “Helena and Halburton,” a tune about (and dedicated to) grandparents. (ZM)

Most Grins Per MinuteJosh Ritter
Brooklyn-via-Oberlin-via-Idaho songwriter Josh Ritter is a familiar face on Cincinnati stages, most recently just seven months back at the Taft, but he brought a different band and some new songs while he stared down the Sunday sun. Ritter wasn’t his usual chatty self as he fought to fit as many songs as he could into the short set, but his trademark grin was in place as he drew heavily on stone-cold classic The Animal Years (celebrating its 10th anniversary) and last years Sermon on the Rocks. WNKU’s new format clearly had considerable influence on the makeup of this festival, and the radio play they gave the newest record yielded a crowd full of willing singalong participants. (NTM) 

Most Songs About Abandoned Axe Factories: Parsonsfield 
Hailing from New England, Parsonsfield made their Cincinnati Debut at Midpoint on Sunday. Their set was among the most versatile of the weekend. Indeed, they swapped the lead vocalist so frequently that none of them could comfortably lay claim to the title. The band overall defies genre. Parsonsfield used their set as an opportunity to demonstrate the proper way to bend genres. They opened with “Stronger,” which might fit comfortably into folk-rock, but they followed it immediately with “Weeds or Wildflowers,” introducing something of a Celtic punk element. The cheerful “Everyone Dies” took a step toward bluegrass. Each song was a pivot that kept the audience riveted, if for no other reason than to find a way to nail them down. (ZM)

Most In Need Of More People: Potty Mouth
Potty Mouth has been one of the best bands in all the land for a couple of years now, evidenced by their explosive performance at MOTR two years ago, but they still don’t have anywhere near the following they deserve, nationally or at this festival. That didn’t stop the Massachusetts quartet from blasting through a half hour of barbed pop punk as if they were playing the Lollapalooza mainstage, culminating in alternate universe classic “The Spins.” (NTM) 

Most “Popular”: Nada Surf
“I'm at the Nada Surf show,” I said on a Sunday in 2016. Nada Surf has built a career that spans every possible definition of the word “defiance.” It began with “Popular,” their sarcastic teen angst anthem smart money told us would be the one hit for these ‘90s wonders. In case there was any doubt: yes, of course they played that song – but not without caveat. “I wrote that song when I was 28,” front man Matthew Caws explained, adding that he was “never actually that snotty.” 

Which brings us to the band's next defiance: contrary to popular prediction, they grew up. They kept plugging away, releasing a discography as long as your arm and demonstrating consistent competence. Their set on Sunday was drawn from a wealth of solid indie pop, including this year's well-received You Know Who You Are. I went in expecting a depressing, stuck-in-the-past performance, and while there were certainly elements of nostalgia (when’s the last time you saw a band’s name on a canvas banner behind the stage?), Nada Surf has outgrown their origins. 

To round off their defiance of expectations, these former sultans of angst have embraced a cohesive and optimistic tone in their music. Newer music on display included body-positive anthem “Rushing” and 2008's “See These Bones,” a thoughtful reflection on a memento moriinscription in the crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” 

It would be tempting to rib Nada Surf for their amateur philosophizing, but their performance gave the distinct impression of a band that has been around and wants to impart what wisdom they can while they can without taking themselves too seriously. Case in point: they closed their set by following “Always Love” – a meditation on the curative power of love and self-destructive nature of hate – with “Blankest Year,” which begins and ends with, “Oh, fuck it. I'm gonna have a party.” (ZM) 

Most Scottish: Frightened Rabbit
Scottish quintet Frightened Rabbit took the Midpoint stage like they owned it with Painting of a Panic Attack opener “Get Out” and never let up. They’re a far more aggressive live band than one might expect from their records, but that’s not a complaint; it really drewin the uninitiated as well as their fans. The National (whose Aaron Dessner produced the newest album) comes through loud and clear in the arrangements, but The Shins also peek out in songs like “The Modern Leper.” It’s truly baffling to me that this band hasn’t burst to the next level like some of their friends and contemporaries--they certainly have the discography to do it--but if they keep playing shows like this, it’s probably right around the corner. (NTM) 

Most Likely to Be Hugged by Strangers: Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls
Frank Turner put his simultaneously contemplative and boisterous punk energy toward a sublime performance – the type of set you walk away from feeling a little bit better about what life can be. It began with the comparatively low-key (insofar as Frank Turner is capable of low-key) “I Knew Prufrock before He Got Famous.” A major highlight during the subsequent buildup was “Tattoos,” prior to which Turner revealed that he sports a tattoo of the state of Ohio on his arm. Know your audience. 

But it was midway through the set that the performance began to approach transcendence. Turner called for – and was quickly granted – the creation of a circle pit. A rush of bodies pushed into the circle and became a single, kinetic body winding to the frantic pace of “Out of Breath.”  Shortly after, lamenting the fact that he wakes up every day to find that he’s not a member of Slayer, Frank Turner again called for a mosh pit staple: a wall of death. The crowd was cloven in twain and a gap was left in the center. After an impassioned speech about how terrifying times are in both the U.S. and his native Britain – and what music can and cannot do to effect change – Frank Turner asked the audience to make this wall of death into a wall of hugs. 

I know. There’s really no way to put that into words that aren’t banal and ridiculous. But, as is so often the case with these things, the sheer energy of the event, the music and the crowd made it work – really work – and you just had to be there. As Turner belted “Photosynthesis,” the two halves of the crowd charged together and every participant threw their arms around a stranger, then another and another. I’ve long adhered to the idea that hugging a rando once in a while is good for your mental health, so it’s fair to say this sort of thing is my jam. There were some outstanding acts this weekend by talented musicians and incredible performers to boot, but a transfiguration of punk aggression into pure affection is damned hard to beat. (ZM)

Best Way to Close a Festival: Band of Horses
Band of Horses trotted out of the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, but their new home of Charleston, SC sounds geographically closer to the expansive horizon of the earthy rock that closed out Midpoint 2016. As with their 2015 Riverbend show opening for Neil Young (whose “Powderfinger” they covered late in this set), they drew heavily on their back-to-back mid-aughts masterpieces Everything All Of The Time and Cease to Begin. And when you can stack “Is There A Ghost,” “The Funeral,” and “The General Specific” right in a row, why wouldn’t you? The new material from this summer’s Why Are You OK nestled in right alongside the classics, and though their songwriting might not have quite the spark it once did, let there be no question about their ability to hold down this kind of slot. Long live Band of Horses. (NTM)

View photos from Friday, Saturday, and Sunday


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Frank Turner, a Musically Insatiable Englishman 

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