Interstate 71 is a mere jaunt compared to its coast-to-coast sisters, I-80 and I-90. Hell, the winding slab of concrete is only 346 miles long. That said, I-71 remains the spine of the Buckeye State. Beginning south of the Mason-Dixon Line, in Louisville, Kentucky, it snakes its way northeast, across the Ohio River and through four of Ohio's five largest cities: Cincinnati, Columbus, Akron (actually, the outer 'burbs), and Cleveland, where it ends — somewhere in the vicinity of Riverside Cemetery and that gaggle of slumbering smokestacks overhead.
To contemplate all the totally righteous rock bands that have grown up alongside this highway would explode the brain into a million chunks of flaming gristle. We'd love to say Michael Pultz chewed on all this sonic/regional history before concocting the first annual Festival 71, an 11-band celebration of underground Ohio that takes over both the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern this weekend. But actually, like most great ideas, it came out of equal doses of accident and circumstance.
"I wanted to book a show for Columbus' Black Swans in time for the November release of their record Change!, but the date kept getting pushed back," says Pultz, who hosts Radio Dystopia every Thursday on Case Western Reserve's 91.1-FM WRUW. "The idea was to have them play with Cleveland's Brian Straw and maybe a couple other people from Columbus. But then I got thinking: There's enough good stuff in Columbus, and I feel the same way about Cleveland and Akron, so fuck it — why not have some huge show? And it just sort of grew exponentially from that."
The reason a concert of this size can emerge from pure happenstance has lots to do with the recent revival of freak-rock and straight-up underground weirdness that's sprung up in the northern half of the I-71 corridor. "In the six years I've been in Cleveland, the bands here have reached an unprecedented level in terms of ability, talent, and style," says Pultz.
He's right: C-Town and Columbus haven't boasted this many colorful bands since the lo-fi days of V-3, Prisonshake, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Pufftube, and other groups that were active in the early to mid-'90s.
Headlining the festival is Times New Viking, whose Matador Records debut just came out this week. In an age of big-budget indie boredom, TNV returns the music to its slacker roots of boom-box static, fractured grooves, and insanely infectious hooks worthy of the Fall and Vaselines. Fellow Columbus weirdos the Black Swans don't share TNV's demented zest for aggressive feedback, but their fusion of baroque pop and Americana-on-quaaludes is no less intense. At the same time, an authentic troubadour tenderness courses through the mumble and whimper of singer-songwriter Jerry DeCicca.
Degraw, the Deathers, and Lakewood's Sun God represent Cleveland. But our city's highest-profile offering is the Homostupids, who make all the Columbus bands — besides the Unholy Two, who are also playing Festival 71 — look downright normal and well adjusted. The band rages onstage like brain-damaged epileptics who've hit one whip-it too many. Just look at their song titles: "Dicksting," "Apeshit," "Flies Die." Twenty years ago, they actually called this stuff "retard rock."
Then again, there's something very Cleveland — very Rust Belt — about the Homostupids' savage art-core, raw humanity, and no-bullshit badassness. "It's the I-don't-give-a-fuck-yet-I-went-to-art-school thing," laughs Pultz. "No doubt, I don't think they could ever come from Columbus."
This brings up an intriguing question: How do the two cities' brands of underground rock differ? Pultz agrees with the adage that Cleveland is basically working-class, while Columbus is a college town. "But I don't think that really affects the music," he adds. "In fact, I think they're very close. They influence each other a great deal, because we are geographically close. These bands bump into each other on a fairly consistent basis. If you're going to play a show in-state, you're going to play in one of these two cities."
Indeed, Pultz is all about nurturing everyone's inner Buckeye in an attempt to spark dialogue among the state's various underground rock scenes. In fact, he would like future installments of Festival 71 to span even farther south. "The name itself leaves open the possibility of eventually including bands from Cincinnati," he says.
Finding common ground with Columbus is one thing, but Cincy? Most Clevelanders regard the city as existing somewhere between the eighth and ninth levels of hell. Even worse, some call it (gulp) "the South." But then again, we are a forgiving city, as the Deathers' "Save the Ugly" — which is all about Cleveland — makes very clear.