14 Bands to See at This Year’s Brite Winter

Brite Winter, the annual outdoor winter music and arts festival, began a few years back in the Flats near what is now Merwin’s Wharf. Organizers had to learn a few difficult lessons before they were able to turn the event into the well-oiled machine it has become.

“We literally weathered a blizzard our first year and found out the hard way that yes, you need to cover bands if you want them to play in the snow, and a rear-wheel drive U-Haul van is tough to drive on unsalted brick roads,” says co-founder Emily Hornack in a press release announcing the return of this year’s event, which will take place from 3 p.m. until 1 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18, on the West Bank of the Flats.

Last year’s event, which took place on the West Bank of the Flats, featured record-breaking high temperatures of 66 degrees. The festival subsequently drew record-breaking crowds.

Some of the city's best local bands are scheduled to perform at this year's incarnation, and a slew of other local acts are also on the bill.

"This year we expanded our selection process to include a review committee of over 30 people that work in or around the music community in Cleveland," says music director Justin Markert. "It really helped us diversify the lineup. More than half of the lineup has never played Brite Winter before. It's a perfect cross section of the amazing things happening in all corners of the Cleveland music community."

Dia De Muertos Ohio, Sankofa Fine Arts Plus, Negative Space Gallery, Robin Heinrich, the Fire+Light Performing Arts, Andrew Kaletta, MXLXTXV, RGI Inc. will provide the visual art for this year’s event, which features larger festival grounds and more heated tents. One new feature: the trippy DayGlo Experience at Mulberry's.

Here’s a rundown of some of the bands worth checking out.

Punch Drunk Tagalongs
4:25 p.m. on The Stage Under the Bridge 

We last saw Punch Drunk Tagalongs when they opened for Rubblebucket not too long ago. The pairing was apropos, which might give you a small sense of their sound. Veering from contemplative verses and atmospheric guitar work to head-bobbing, raucous choruses, the Tagalongs certainly command an exciting presence on the stage. Frontwoman Alisha Stahnke has a fantastic voice for this sort of music, and the band that’s assembled around her seems to be really gelling as they play more and more shows around Northeast Ohio. The 2016 debut EP is a four-song romp that we highly recommend; “Alice” is an incredibly cool song that involves a lot of movement in its frenzied five minutes. (Eric Sandy)

Holden Laurence
5:55 p.m. on the Covermymeds Stage on Elm Ave.

Fans of the Modern Electric, one of the best indie rock bands in town, might be taken a bit off guard by the solo debut from guitarist Holden Laurence. While the Modern Electric has a cinematic pop sound, Laurence opts for something far folkier. His album features somber ballads that show off Laurence’s sensitive side. “Friendship & the Fever” could pass as unplugged Modest Mouse, and “Falling Still” sounds like the kind of lullaby you could sing to a child attempting to sleep. With its references to Midwestern winters, the Leo Kottke-like “Humble, I’m Coming Home” will appeal specifically to local listeners. The sparse nature of the recording — the tunes here sound like they simply consist of guitar and vocals — works to its favor and gives the songs a real beauty. (Jeff Niesel)

The Lighthouse and the Whaler
10 p.m. on the Covermymeds Stage on Elm Ave.

As the story goes, after attending college in Florida, where he studied literature and theology at Southeastern University, singer Michael LoPresti returned to Cleveland in the winter of 2008. Inspired by Herman Melville's classic man-vs.-sea novel Moby Dick, he called his new band the Lighthouse and the Whaler and headed into the studio and started recording songs with violinist Aaron Smith. Later that spring, the two got together in a field near Chardon for what they thought was their first photo shoot. They started playing music and people stopped to check them out, making LoPresti think the band was onto something that had potential. For its most recent album, 2015’s Mont Royal, the band headed north of the border to Montreal to record with Marcus Paquin (The National, Arcade Fire). The terrific album garnered national acclaim, and the band toured the states in support of it. (Niesel)

Wesley Bright and the Honeytones
11:10 p.m. on the Cleveland Clothing Co. Stage at Music Box

Singer Brent "Wesley Bright" Wesley and a different backing band played its first gig a few years ago, and he’s been going strong ever since. Because of its terrific live show — sharp-dressed Wesley is a real dynamo on stage — the soul/old-school R&B band is suddenly in high demand. Songs such as "You Don't Care About Me" feature a steady bass beat and soulful, Otis Redding-like vocals. This year, Bright reemerged with a new backing outfit, the Honeytones. “We’re still drawing from the familiar soul tradition,” he told us earlier this year. “The Honeytones are going new places musically, exploring a more diverse, funkier and nuanced sound.” The band will release a series of 45s throughout 2017, the first being "You Don't Want Me/Work it Out: Part 2),” a cheeky soul pop tune that Bright says sounds like Sam Cooke meets Vulfpeck. “It has gotten entire crowds singing its hook while I sing it at live shows,” says Bright. “’Work it Out: Part 2’ shows the band's explosive side, calling upon the feeling of James Brown's classic funk.” The first single comes out this spring, with a “giant release party” at the Beachland to celebrate. (Niesel)

The Whiskey Hollow
5:25 on the Stage Under the Bridge

A local indie rock band fronted by powerhouse singer Madeline Finn, the Whiskey Hollow takes inspiration from a number of sources. The band cites Shakey Graves, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Jeff Buckley, the Black Keys and Alabama Shakes as influences; you can hear those influences distilled on “Hudson Hill,” a twangy song that's the first single from the band's new album. (Niesel)

7:55 p.m. on the Dayglo Experience at Mulberry's Stage

Known for a while as Field Trip (and thus securing two of Cleveland’s best band names in the last decade), Ex-Astronaut blazed across the music scene last fall with its last album, No More Bad Dreams, a sublime and chilled-out seven-song rocker. "With the current lineup, we have shifted away from the fuzzed out Dino Jr. stuff and started playing the shoe-gazer stuff we play now," guitarist Pete Jennings told us earlier this year, describing the past few years’ path that led to this album. "We want the guitars to not sound like guitars." The band's live show is a trippy and head-nodding experience that will remind you of the power of shoe-gaze. Oh, and a quick note: The awesome, local Panza Foundation helped finish off the funding for the album. (Sandy)

The Ohio Weather Band
8 p.m. on the Cleveland Clothing Co. Stage at Music Box Up

An Akron-based folk/rock/blues band, the Ohio Weather Band sounds a bit like something from indie pop greats Weezer as a catchy song such as “Boardwalk Act,” the first single from last year's Crooked Light, features upper-register vocals and a touch of piano before grunge-y guitars kick in. The songs on the disc suggest the band's eclectic sound. "Ohio Weather" comes off as a brittle folk ballad, and "Zeros" packs a garage blues punch thanks to distorted guitars and a funky backbeat." (Niesel)

Signals Midwest
8:20 pm on The Stage Under the Bridge

With more-than-earnest songwriting, mid-song breakdowns, and sing-a-long choruses, Signals Midwest has contributed to the indie-punk/emo revival of the last few years. Over the past couple of years, the band has crafted a more mature sound and introduced more complex pop hooks and punk melodies. The band’s new album, At This Age, has been praised and covered by major media outlets such as Spin, A.V. Club and Punknews. Even though the band still books its own shows, its growing popularity suggests a much bigger following could be on the horizon. (Johnny Cook)

Midnight Passenger
9:35 p.m. on McCarthy's Stage

Recorded over the past year by local hero Jim Stewart at Lava Room, Whiteout Audio and Jim Stewart Studios, MidnightPassenger’s latest album, Calypso, the long-awaited follow-up to its 2011 debut EP, sounds like a throwback to ’90s bands such as Semisonic, Live and Guster. The tunes here tend toward the mellow side of things, but the music becomes more engaging when the group turns up the distortion in songs such as “Radiating,” “Wading” and “NGTMR,” the latter of which features bellowing vocals and an escalating tempo that turns it into a veritable anthem. The same goes for “Wolfs Den,” which sounds like a cross between U2 and My Morning Jacket. Album opener “Bones” is an earnest, mid-tempo rocker and would make a great single. These guys have been playing the indie circuit in town, but the music here has crossover potential, assuming AAA radio stations are adventurous to play something that just doesn't sound like Mumford & Sons. (Niesel)

Shawn and Shelby
9:50 p.m. on the Ports Petroleum Stage at Music Box Down

Last year, Old Boy’s Shawn Brewster and Shelby Lynn Sangdahl started up a band they christened Shawn & Shelby as an outlet for the songs that didn’t quite fit with Brewster's indie rock act Old Boy. The group released an EP and regularly gigged around town. The group returned last year with Stay With Me Lover, a nuanced collection of fragile tunes that sound like they could be from the Once soundtrack. The sparse ballad “Stay With Me Lover” features soft vocals and acoustic guitar and suggests the album's contemplative nature."(Niesel)

Mourning [a] Blkstar
9:55 p.m. on the Dayglo Experience at Mulberry's Stage

For many, the introduction to this band came last year when the first single hit Youtube and Facebook: “Field N***as, My Heroes.” It’s a bold song, unlike anything that’s come out of Cleveland in years. The video conveyed an esoteric arrival; these four musicians are seen walking through a sparsely wooded grove, clad in exotic threads and burning sage among the trees. A manic beat spins through the natural setting, as LaToya Kent’s vocals spell out a message about the past and the future. One minute in, the song shifts dramatically. The beat becomes more immediate, and the video flips over to a catacomb of rusted steel. The piece ends in black and white, with the three singers facing away from the camera for a full minute of airy tones. And that’s sort of the thing here: More than any other band in a good long while (Pere Ubu, maybe? 9 Shocks Terror? This Moment in Black History, more recently?), MAB captures the vibe of Cleveland in a time of cultural growth. (Sandy)

Morgan Mecaskey
10 p.m. on the Cleveland Clothing Co. Stage at Music Box Up

Local singer-songwriter Mogran Mecaskey played in the revered local coffee shop folk act Tinamou from 2007 until about 2011 until she set out to record and play on her own. Mecaskey's first solo album, 2012's Righteous Kind, is a carefully crafted collection of six tunes that features a range of instrumentation, including violin, trombone, saxophone and flute. Her latest EP, 2014's Lover Less Wild, is also meticulously put together. The Melissa Etheridge-like album opener “White Horse” commences with shimmering guitars and passionate vocals as Mecaskey croons, “Sometimes, I don’t feel like who I really am” over and over. It’s a solid anthem that sets the tone for the EP. Woozy horns drive the mellow, R&B-inspired “Fighting Extinction” and the title track is a jazzy number that allows Mecaskey to show off her terrific voice. The Joni Mitchell-like ballad “Crushed” has a genuine tenderness to it and makes for the perfect album closer. Another solid effort from one of the city’s better singer-songwriters. (Niesel)

Brent Kirby and his Luck
Midnight on the Ports Petroleum Stage at Music Box Down

Singer-songwriter Brent Kirby is one of the busiest local musicians in town. In addition to playing with a number of local ensembles, he also nurtures a solo career and has just regrouped with a new backing band (dubbed the Luck) for his latest album, Patience Worth, an eclectic collection of roots rock songs that suggests he’s been unfairly pigeon-holed as an Americana or alt-country artist. It’s a terrific collection of tunes that sound like they were written by a veteran songwriter. (Niesel)

Runaway Brother
Midnight on McCarthy's Stage

Runaway Brother, are a homegrown emo band — for clarification, that's emo in the Sunny Day Real Estate and basement show sense, not the Fall Out Boy and Hot Topic variety — that does things big. They manage to cram a lot into their mostly three-minute songs: punchy hooks, layered vocal harmonies, speedy drum kicks and even the odd synth line. With a wide range of excellent guitar work, courtesy of the band's three guitarists (the band itself is big!), the group delivers huge distorted chords, gentle acoustic strumming and Cap'n Jazz-ian leads. Runaway Brother displays a rare combination of technical ability and taste. And they're no studio charlatans. Live, they hit every hard stop and breakdown in their energetic sets perfectly. As the genre suggests, they've got big feelings too: their lyrics largely revolve around such intangibles as nostalgia, disappointment and never-ending effort to stay positive. (James Helmsworth)

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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