Last weekend I went to all 3 days/nights of the “new and improved” Midpoint Music Festival (MPMF). While I prefer the “old and unimproved” format, with bands playing various clubs around downtown Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine (just north of downtown), this year’s lineup was right in my musical wheelhouse.
The good news is the performers that I was excited to see did not disappoint (Tokyo Police Club, Bob Mould, Frightened Rabbit, Nada Surf, Band of Horses, Josh Ritter, The Mountain Goats, Car Seat Headrest, Houndmouth, Frank Turner, Langhorne Slim, Lucero… see, I told you the lineup was in my wheelhouse), and I saw some unfamiliar bands that I really liked as well (Ona, Julia Jacklin, Lucy Dacus, Amber Arcades).
Better yet, local public radio station WNKU had a “Members only” tent set up near the two main stages, and you could get free food, a couple of free beers, and enjoy photo ops with a few of the bands. Needless to say, I took full advantage of that perk, as these pix will attest:
So music-wise, it was an A+. But the venue was downright depressing. The new owners of MPMF also run the giant outdoor summer music shed in town, and a downtown theater. While they upped the ante on the quality of artists, the festival stages were set up on derelict asphalt parking lots. No trees in sight. Very little shade. Zero charm. No vibe. And the stages were so close together that there was a lot of sound bleeding over from one to the other, which has to be disconcerting to the artists. Several commented on it.
This article by Casey Coston on Soapbox media is spot-on in its description. The article covers 3 festivals, but the text about MPMF is below:
The 15th annual Midpoint Music Festival, under the careful auspices of new ownership by the CSO’s Music & Event Management Inc., re-launched in the form of several surface parking lot venues in Pendleton and a block of Sycamore Street.
You may remember these parking lots from my Soapdish column a few months back, in which I observed “Every day I walk or ride, multiple times, on 12th Street east of Sycamore through the desolate Straits of Pendleton — a dystopian, concentration-camp-like hellscape of undulating asphalt, crumbling pavement, weeds, razor wire and rusted, blown-out cyclone fencing.” Also known as this year’s new home of MPMF, this unrelenting heat sink of parking lots and storm water runoff squats smack-dab in the middle of a thriving historic district, development exploding around it.
Based on the above quote, you might think I would be inclined to dismiss this year’s new format out of hand, and you might be right. My initial reaction to the new parking lot music festival, as opposed to the traditional format, held in bars and venues all over OTR, was decidedly skeptical. Descriptors like “Jammin’ on Sycamore” and “Bunbury North” immediately sprang to mind.
But I was determined to give the new format and its impressive lineup of talent a fair shake. That is, until I stood in the middle of the WNKU stage parking lot in the middle of the afternoon in 87-degree heat while the festival’s opening band HOOPS kicked things off and commented, somewhat sarcastically, “This is a nice parking lot.” I looked around, nodding along at what a sad statement that was.
The bars and individual venues of the past have been exchanged for a better musical lineup and sweltering, mid-afternoon sets in blinding sun. What was struck has essentially been a Faustian bargain for the “bigger and better lineup” of talent, while capturing the all-important alcohol sales necessary to fund it.
But Midpoint was never really a “pure” music festival. It never was really “just about the music.” As observed in last year’s column: “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.”
That zeitgeist was pretty much obliterated by the new format. This was not about the neighborhood. This could have been anywhere. The spillover buzz into Over-the-Rhine was effectively minimized by what was essentially an indie music internment camp. The two main stages, situated awkwardly next to one another, offered up terrible sightlines to the spectators who were downhill (but decent views for the freeloaders in the garage across the street). Meanwhile, the dueling stages on both sides of 12th Street resulted in a cacophony of blurred sounds bouncing off the sides of the surrounding buildings.
In short, this was a less than impressive debut by MEMI in the inaugural year of their stewardship. The parking lot stages could not hold a candle to the main outdoor stages of year’s past — from Washington Park to the Moerlein brewery to Grammer’s. And while, sure, a lot of this is when-I-was-there-style, misty-eyed, knee-jerk nostalgia for those glory days of yore, it’s sad that what was once an organic and vibrant neighborhood showcase has been commoditized into a music festival that could pretty much exist in Anywhere, USA.
In response to some Twitter criticism, MPMF dug in their heels a bit and noted that they were “committed to the new format.” Meanwhile, multiple requests to MEMI for comment have not yielded a response. Hopefully the organizers will take the feedback they receive to heart, and possibly explore some creative alternatives to the Pendleton Parking Gulag.