Shawn Braley
The Clifton Heights Music Festival is a celebration of Cincinnati’s local music. Started by Rome Ntukogu , of Far-I-Rome Productions, and only in its second year, the festival had thousands of people crowding the streets of Clifton. With acts ranging from hip-hop to indie to metal to jazz, the festival had no intention of allowing a niche to take over, unless, you could argue, that niche is talented artists.

One of the most hyped bands of the festival was No No Knots. They are an amalgamation of various indie stylings all thrown together, and while I found myself in the midst of waves of people, unable to move for the entirety of their set, I was a little less than impressed. This isn’t to say they weren’t incredibly tight, well timed, and intensely talented. In fact, as they played, I wondered where the focus was. They reminded me of The Fiery Furnaces or Be Your Own Pet, with their passionate delivery and delicate precision, whilst seeming to not know how to bring the mixture together. Like a wonderful chef, who, with so many ingredients, is unaware he has made a dish that with each bite has a different delectable flavor, but doesn’t come together as a whole. Needless to say, though I found myself wishing for a little more structure, they were one of the bands who excited the crowds and packed the bar the most.

Seeing a band like No No Knots, and then seeing a band like Mallory is an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, you find yourself rooting for the youthful energy No No Knots exude, but you can’t help but feel an intense depth of maturity and wealth in the music of Mallory. Playing to a less than crowded Murphy’s Pub, Mallory has crafted a sound that at once sounds familiar and yet nothing like what you’d expect.

The streets of Clifton, like the music of Cincinnati, were filled with wandering souls, searching for the next stop, be it to rest, or to enjoy themselves. Moving from one bar to the next reminded me of the ways in which artists wander their own city. They play and sing and scream their hearts out for everyone, in every corner of the city. This is their passion. The determination felt by a band that has yet to conquer its own city cannot be matched by any human being attempting to achieve a goal. Seeing so many local bands in one place offers more hope for art, music and a city that isn’t regarded as being a place to withhold such a feeling.

If there was an MVP of the entire festival, it would be, for me, The Happy Maladies. Rich with texture, the band sounds like old time music while being wholly inventive and rejuvenating everyone within ear shot. Classically trained but contemporarily inspired, The Happy Maladies make beautiful music that can be enjoyed by anyone. It is artful and fun. It brings out the best feelings in the listener.

As the each night came to a close, the crowd’s anticipation grew. Every venue had they’re own energy. Roh’s Street Café is laid back, with a diverse mixture of music and culture. Uncle Woody’s is small, but intimate, and creates a current of attraction to whichever band inhabited the stage (which also happens to be the floor). Christie’s is outdoors and has the open, breezy feeling of being, well, outdoors. One can’t help but feel relaxed. Mac’s Pizza Pub is the least likely place you’d expect for this sort of thing, but it fits in with the eccentricities, as the best pizza in town accompanied by some of Cincinnati’s best music always makes for a wonderful evening. Murphy’s Pub is a maze of rooms, and each room is filled with a different purpose. The room with the stage has people scattered throughout hoping for transcendence. With steps leading up to the stage, as if to an altar, the crowd anticipates the religious yet esoteric experience as the feeling of rhythm, chord progressions and a melody wash over them. But, to be baptized, one must find oneself in Baba Budan’s, where the best music of the festival is saved.

With intensity and passion, The Frankl Project, who gave themselves more room by putting their mics on the floor in front of the stage, playing in the midst of the crowd. Screaming, shouting; The Frankl Project projects enough energy off of themselves and into the crowd to get people excited to be alive. With lyrics of social justice, The Frankl Project’s mix of punk, ska and reggae would fit right along with The Clash. One of the best bands of the festival, without a doubt, people were praising Rome Ntukogu outside of Baba Budan’s following the band’s set. Thanking him, as if he was the answer to any problems they might be facing.

As more bands followed, I couldn’t help but be floored by Peter Adams. A solo artist, but surrounded by a very talented and deft backing band, Adams crafts poetry and melody with precision. The listener cannot pretend to fathom another way of weaving such compositions together. And as Adams took the stage and left the stage, the crowd stood, staring straight ahead, as if to say to each other; “I just experienced what you just experienced. Let me dwell on it for a few more minutes.”

Immediately following Peter Adams was Iolite. A band that mixes jazz, funk, blues and pop into a pot and sets on sizzle. As cheesy as that line was, the band won me over. With the intention of staying to see a bit of the Hip Hop set afterwards, I watched Iolite and was blown away by the way they captivated the crowd. Each note secured a place in the mind of the listener, and wouldn’t let go.

The festival provided a great mixture of genre. A few times each night, a hip hop set would feature an amalgamation of Cincy’s most talented rappers. Solid turns from some Over The Rhine visitors to Elementz Hip Hop Center, a place for young folks (now I sound old) to go to escape what’s happening on the streets and provide a creative outlet. And these dudes could rap. They got the crowd going with hand clapping and “Ohs” and “ahs”. Following them was Blade Triple, a poet, or some may call a prophet. He did spoken word about the media and its relation to our actions. He spoke of love and compassion for our neighbors. His words rang out like shots in the dark, and were met with a hopeful penetration into the listeners mind and heart.

Moneytrees River rocked out Uncle Woody’s. The place could barely fit the band, but they smiled and rocked their southern riffs anyways. With the grease and grime falling of their faces and into the chords they played, Moneytrees felt like a revival of sorts, but with the youthful effervesence and cheerfulness of a kid playing his first show. The band dared the crowd not to dance with each power chord.

Ending the festival with melodic glee were two wonderful bands, which feature songwriters who were meant to be heard by the masses. Wade Johnston and The Navigators features three sprightly young chaps playing beach-style pop music. Wade has surfer boy good looks, and writes catchy melodies about love and, well, mainly love. With the addition of three part harmonies and a Scissor Sister’s cover, Wade and his Navigators were a hard act to follow.

Closing the evening at Baba Budan’s was the Elton John-esque, meant for stardom, Dan Orlando. Dan and his band of wonderfully talented musicians got the crowd to trip the light fantastic. Orlando is a fantastic piano player and singer and each melody is just begging you to sing along, even though you may not know the words. You just want to shout and make a noise and hope it comes close to the divine sound that is making love to your ear drums. Dan Orlando will be a working musician for a long time. He has surrounded himself with the perfect group of artists and has a craft to his songwriting that was destined to be heard by millions upon millions of people. And while that may seem like a bad thing to some people, it’s certainly not in this case. To take the fact that his talent is overflowing in such a way that it needs to be reciprocated by having so many fans they out number the hairs on his head as his songs are devoid of depth and creativity would be a severe understatement of the sheer genius Orlando and band have proven to have. And as that overly long sentence shows, I have no truly creative way to describe Mr. Dan Orlando.

Though, this same weekend was the observance of Easter, one cannot recant the feelings felt while attending the festival. The Clifton Heights Music Festival was certainly an experience of celebration not often had in affiliation with religion. In fact, many a religious person should take note; creativity, beauty and honesty are of the highest importance and when showcased in such a way that it makes you proud to be from a city few people seem to notice nationally, you can’t ignore that celebration isn’t an option, but the only real way to express such a feeling.
Photos by Natasha Braley