MusicNOW Festival just the latest in alternative events turning up the volume in Cincinnati

Pinch yourself Cincinnati. You may be getting hip.

For many who have come of age in this area, the joke has often been--if it’s fun, it must be illegal. But that perception is steadily changing, thanks to an increasing number of innovative curators and promoters producing events and festivals that celebrate the avant-garde and the slightly out of the mainstream pop arts. Taken together, they cut to a cultural core that defines what one might call "life in the big city."

This week’s case in point: the third annual MusicNOW Festival featuring a unique sampling of cross-genre, experimental artists more associated with the lofts and grottos of New York City.

MusicNOW, opening Wednesday (April 2) for four nights in venerable Memorial Hall, boasts over a dozen musicians who take risks, difficult to categorize. The festival is the brainchild of Indian Hill native Bryce Dessner, who left town 14 years ago, now a New York City musician, who moves easily from the worlds of indie rock to esoteric chamber folk.

"My original idea was to do kind of a snapshot of contemporary music culture, musicians that are working now and writing music now." Dessner said about the festival he launched here two years ago. "It is a dynamic, changing vision that leaves me some room to be creative each year with the booking. It is not necessarily popular music, although some of it is. All of it is adventuresome."

Why do it in Cincinnati? Dessner says he saw it as a way to give something back to his hometown and, he acknowledges, it gave him a good reason to return home each year to see family and friends.

It may take a transplanted Cincinnatian, now living in Brooklyn, to look back at his hometown and realize it is not only ready to support an eclectic, cross- genre festival, but had the perfect venue--the 600-seat, acoustically pristine Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine. The 88-year-old, Beaux Arts structure has arguably been underutilized as a facility for contemporary music.

"Memorial Hall has been a real find," says Dessner who moved the festival to the theater last year after its debut year at the Contemporary Arts Center. "The acoustics are superior. It is rare to play in such a theater that is kind of grand, but also intimate. And it’s an area of town I feel people need to keep trying to do things in."

The fact that it is hard to describe some of the acts at the festival, is part of its point. Dessner’s vision is to show contemporary music is cross-pollinated from a diversity of sources, rarely fitting into the neat genres the music press and radio formats attempt to place it. Artists on the MusicNOW bill mix contemporary rock with centuries-old classical influences. One will find textures of jazz, orchestral pop, world beats, folk-tronica and chamber folk-- in short, a collision of musical worlds.

Dessner’s own split musical personality symbolizes what he is trying to do with the festival’s genre-melding. The Country Day grad received a Master’s degree from Yale in classical guitar, then founded a rock band in New York, the National, comprised completely of former Cincinnatians. The National has received critical praise over four CDs with its intricate and melodic pop rock sound. The National will get plenty of exposure this May as the opening act for a month on the R.E.M. tour, one of the spring’s most anticipated rock reunions.

Along the way Dessner also established the Clogs, a classical-inspired chamber folk instrumental quartet that has performed at the two previous MusicNOW festivals.

This MusicNOW may be Dessner’s strongest lineup, yet. It features Bang on a Can, a legendary experimental music collaborative. Its performance will feature Dessner and guest drummer Glenn Kotche of Wilco. There is jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell and hot, indie pop multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird (his Saturday show is sold out).

It will feature installation art designed specifically for the Memorial Hall event by New York sculptor Karl Jensen. Dessner kicks it off performing a live soundtrack to a collage of vintage experimental films.

While many of these artists may individually draw a few thousand in New York City, Dessner believes such a collaborative, experimental music festival is unique in the country. "I know you won’t find it New York," he says. "You can find many of these groups performing, but you wouldn’t see them together. New York is a center of international music, but I like to think this festival has its own individual identity."

MusicNOW, along with other artistically edgy events, has helped Cincinnati overcome something of a reputation as a cultural backwater. We probably don’t need to rehash that history-- from Marge Shott utterances to the first U.S. prosecution of a contemporary arts center. Now, a new generation of those outside Cincinnati, and locals, has come to know the city as host to a number of hip, alternative pop art events:

  • The Cincy Fringe Festival celebrates its fifth year with performances kicking off May 28.
  • The Cincinnati 48 Hour Film Project is June 13-15 as teams compete to see who can make the best short film in 48 hours. It was just announced that last year’s winner, "Held in Sway," from a Dayton-area team, has been selected to screen at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
  • Scribble Jam, the world’s largest hip hop festival and DJ competition will be Aug. 7-10.
  • The fifth year for the Lite Brite Indie Pop and Film Test, July 24-27, features an appearance by indie film hero John Waters.
  • Midpoint Music Festival, the Midwest’s largest unsigned indie rock showcase with over 250 bands, is scheduled for its seventh year Sept. 25-27.

Significantly, all of these events have become immensely popular, showing the area is more than willing to support cultural happenings that go beyond the traditional arts. That comes as no surprise to promoter Dan McCabe who started testing the city’s alt-rock tolerance in the early ‘90s successfully booking edgy indie rockers at Sudsy Malone’s in Corryville.

"This city is leaning forward. The town is malleable. Creative people can and are reaching out and affecting the city," says McCabe, who promotes Lite Brite and will now coordinate Midpoint for its new owner, CityBeat. "If you see something missing, it is a great town for people who want to flex their creative muscle. The festivals and gatherings that pop-up are a good example of the access."

MusicNOW Line Up and Schedule:

The MusicNOW Festival runs Wednesday (April 2) through Saturday (April 5). Tickets, $15, each night; $40, Wed-Friday. Saturday’s show is sold out.

Wednesday: Festival curator Bryce Dessner presents a multi-media evening of music and film featuring vintage experimental film clips, some as far back as the ‘30s, many from the Warhol school of the ‘60s. Dessner will be joined by guitarist Bill Frisell and "surprise guests" providing a live score to the film snippets.

Thursday: It’s guitar night with classical composer Benjamin Verdery, chair of the Yale guitar department, and Bill Frisell. While rooted in jazz, Frisell constantly crosses musical styles from bluegrass to performing with Elvis Costello. Frisell performs with his 858 Quartet.

Friday: Things get a little rockier and quirkier with the whimsical Dirty Projectors, the project of indie singer-songwriter David Longstreth, followed by Bang on a Can, which tends to be a concept more than a band. With evolving members since its founding in 1988, the collaborative has become sort of the superstar group of experimental contemporary music, over the years debuting compositions from the likes of John Cage to Ornette Coleman

Saturday (sold out): Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird brings his intricate, melodic pop, with openers Grizzly Bear, who broke as darlings of the New York underground scene with their brooding, experimental indie rock.

Rick Bird has covered the Cincinnati music and media scenes for over 25 years, first as a reporter for WEBN-FM, most recently as a staff writer at the CIncinnati Post. He has written extensively about the city’s indie rock resurgence and the music media delivery revolution.

Karl Jensen's Kitchen Installation
Memorial Hall
Andrew Bird
Bang on a Can
Grizzly Bear

Photographs provided by MusicNOW Festival
Grizzly Bear Photo by Scott Beseler