Soapdish: A September of festivals to remember

In recent years, September in Cincinnati’s urban basin has emerged as a pretty much never-ending weekend of full-on blowout festival celebrations.

While Cincinnati is no stranger to the multitudes of festivals scattered hither and yon among our 52 neighborhoods, September has morphed into an exhilarating (and sometimes exhausting) festival calendar in downtown and Over-the-Rhine. With predictably perfect September weather — for the most part — the past three weekends in the basin bore witness to three very different festivals at varying stages in their evolution: the nascent yet quickly growing Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic, the pubescent and always fine-tuning MidPoint Music Festival and the sprawling, middle-aged Oktoberfest Zinzinnati.

Both the Food + Wine Classic and MidPoint are ticketed events geared toward a target audience that could generally be characterized, respectively, as gastronauts and indie music lovers — although they’re really just a convenient excuse to have an insane amount of fun. Oktoberfest, which some local wags refer to as “Taste of Cincinnati: Fall Version” (or is Taste “Oktoberfest: Spring Version”?) is by contrast a more egalitarian free event celebrating the city’s rich German heritage. As anyone will tell you — repeatedly, ad nauseum — it’s the largest Oktoberfest celebration outside of Munich.

Regardless, each festival attracts a somewhat diverse crowd into the urban core, be it on a congested Fifth Street downtown (Oktoberfest), Washington Park (CFWC) or a variety of bars and outdoor music venues located primarily in Over-the-Rhine (MidPoint). Each has varying degrees of impact on the surrounding environs.

As the proverbial 500-lb. lederhosen-clad gorilla on the scene, Oktoberfest Zinzinnati draws upwards of 650,000 people per year to a congested street bisecting the heart of downtown. These attendees, in turn, will consume a variety of food and drink that includes, by way of example, 87,542 metts, 64,000 sauerkraut balls and 20,000 cream puffs.

Why this event hasn’t been moved to our beautiful and expansive new riverfront parks and/or The Banks is beyond me. There’s nothing particularly endearing about walking in the concrete canyons of a downtown street, and there’s no historical significance to Fifth Street other than that’s where it was last year and the year before and the year before.

Oktoberfest and its patrons would be well-served to move down to the riverfront, which is perfect for this sort of event, including its massive underground parking system. This is a no-brainer, and it’s not like logistics dictate that the event simply has to be on Fifth Street or that it boosts the cash register receipts at surrounding businesses. In many cases the opposite is true.

Greg Hardman at Christian Moerlein is already sponsoring his own Oktoberfest tent, the “Uberdrome,” on the Smale events lawn during Oktoberfest. Maybe the rest of the fest will follow his lead.

While Oktoberfest has been spinning its dirndls for almost 40 years, the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic has been on the scene for just two. It was founded in 2014 by Donna Covrett and Courtney Tsitouris, who quit their full-time jobs to make CFWC a reality.

This year’s culinary celebration saw double the number of attendees and sponsors from its inaugural run, with expanded programming in a gigantic tent dubbed “the Flavordome” — more domes! — centered on the Washington Park lawn (or what used to be a lawn and has since been reduced to a dusty expanse of dead grass in the wake of kickball leagues, Lumenocity and all of the other summer-long programming).

CFWC added another day of programming this year as well as increasing activity in the big tent during the weekend days. Whether you were going for the cooking demonstrations, competitions, seminars and related programming during the day or just seeking to indulge your inner glutton during the evening events, there was seemingly something for everyone. I for one was relieved to find coffee on Saturday morning, something that was overlooked last year.

While CFWC is — not to mince words — a pretty pricey event, there can be no quarrel that the value of what you receive exceeds the ticket price. With top chefs from Cincinnati and throughout the Midwest displaying their skills, it’s somewhat impossible to depart the event with a lingering semblance of an appetite for anything, save perhaps sleep.

In addition, although they aren’t what you’d consider the apex of culinary achievement, Chipotle, which hosted an outside stand this year, donated $10,000 to the Findlay Market farm. And their barbacoa chili was actually really tasty on a drizzly and slightly chilly Friday night. Additional CFWC contributions to the Freestore FoodBank provided 14,000 meals for the neighborhood, so if you’re scoring the events in terms of neighborhood impact this one comes out looking pretty good.

Moreover, CFWC is a great way to show off the Cincinnati scene to the rest of the world. Jon Gorham, a five-time James Beard nominee and executive chef and owner of Toro Bravo in Portland, Ore., ate at 15 different restaurants during his stay here, from Alabama Fish Bar to Collective Espresso. Summing up his experience, he raved that the city was “warm, welcoming and hip and offered plenty of great food and restaurants to choose from.”

Esquire Magazine Drinks Correspondent David Wondrich echoed that sentiment, observing, “It was wonderful to see Cincinnati leveraging its rich history and all its culinary talent, as well as that of the whole Ohio valley, to such excellent effect. Great food, excellent drinks, friendly people and much to discover.” As Gorham enthused, “CFWC blew us away. The hospitality towards the chefs was the best I've ever experienced. The food scene in Cincinnati reminds me of the scene here in Portland right before it exploded. Such amazing talented chefs and craft brewers. I can't wait to come back.”

Positioning CFWC as a way to show off our food scene to the rest of the world benefits the OTR neighborhood, the city and the region as a whole. In discussing the impact of the event, Covrett relayed a quote from Mike Thelin, the founder of “Feast,” a similar event that began in Portland in 2012: “The moment you lose the flavor of the city, you’ve lost the festival.” It’s a sentiment CFWC organizers took to heart, ensuring that 70 percent of the talent on display is local.

In that sense a similar parallel can be drawn with the MidPoint Music Festival, which just concluded its 14th year this past Sunday night (actually wee hours of Monday morning). See Scott Beseler’s amazing photos from the festival here.

While MidPoint has continually expanded to feature national and international headliners, there’s always been a focus on the local scene. This year, 42 of the 120 bands that played were local. The non-ticketed Indie Craft Village in Washington Park, which kicked off with a free performance by Jr. Jr., featured local breweries (in contrast to the Bunbury music fest on the riverfront this past year) and a variety of what organizers deemed local “craft makers.”

“Supporting local businesses — whether it’s a brewer, a club owner, a band or a jewelry maker — is something we really believe in,” Public Relations Manager Alex Breyer noted. “And we think MidPoint fans support this sort of community approach as well.”

From my perspective, though, what really spotlights the “local” at MidPoint is the neighborhood. Just walking from bar to outdoor venue back to a different bar, you really experience the variety of Over-the-Rhine and downtown.

I saw bands at every venue other than the slightly-orphaned Taft Theater, and it was mesmerizing to witness the ebb and flow between different venues and stages and the incessant migration to the next act catalyzing the streets and sidewalks with a spontaneous energy and vibe, nomadic tribes of music lovers parting from the earlier crowds to join up with others.

There were fewer venues to choose from this year, and it was almost entirely concentrated in OTR. I particularly enjoyed several packed sets by various bands in the tiny, DIY-like confines of Maudie’s, up above Cincy by the Slice, with views of the stage partially obstructed by the staircase. Closing off 14th Street between Main and Sycamore for the Lightborne Lot also spun more of that streetfest vibe, and live band performances outside of Black Plastic Records on the sidewalks of Main Street only contributed to the buzz.

MidPoint should release statistics like Oktoberfest does, only instead of the number of brats consumed they should tally the amount of pizza slices consumed in the “Pizza Triangle” of Goodfella’s, Lucy Blues and Cincy by the Slice around 12th and Main. Based on my observations over the three nights, I have no doubt the slices would rival the number of sauerkraut balls consumed.

Similar to CFWC, Midpoint also shows off Cincinnati in its absolute best light to bands and artists who may have little exposure to the scene. I heard the front man from Philly band Beach Slang describing the Paul Westerberg book he purchased at Shake It Records — not surprising, since his band’s frenetic and electric set was literally the second coming of Westerberg’s Replacements). In a similar vein, a member of Brooklyn’s EZTV was complimenting the city during their set, inquiring, “How much are rents here?”

As Breyer noted, “I’ve been told from more than one person that they moved to Cincinnati to work for P&G or G.E. or some other firm and had reservations about if they’d like living here, but once they attended MidPoint, took the opportunity to really spend time downtown and in Over-the-Rhine seeing the various venues and being out with people … it helped them fall in love with the area. I think MidPoint can serve as an ambassador for all sorts of things in the central city, even beyond who is on stage.”

Three different festivals on three consecutive weekends with widely divergent programming but all sharing a common thread as ambassadors for the city. Cincinnati should take a bow, as should all of the festivals’ tireless organizers and volunteers. You’ve earned it.

Now let’s get some rest.
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.