Maybe the faces were fresher than the music, but the 2003 Cleveland Music Fest boasted a welcome energy that's been lacking in past years, with larger crowds and several all-star performances that offset an overall dearth of polished performers.
And while A&R types prowling the scene surely kept their contracts in their pockets, this year's fest, held last weekend at 14 venues around town, wasn't so much about being discovered as being introduced: For the overwhelming majority of the almost 300 artists that played, the fest certainly represented their debut live performance.
With each band responsible for selling its own tickets (and with ticket sales determining who played where), every venue reported brisk crowds, even at out-of-the-way places like Pat's in the Flats. It also meant that attendance figures were padded with family and friends of the artists. This was especially evident at the Grog Shop on Sunday, where one of the fest's best discoveries, Resist the Flow, performed before a crowd that teetered perilously close to breaking curfew. An instrumental four-piece with a perpetually grinning keyboardist, Resist the Flow drifted from organic electronica to jam-band noodling to Trans Am-inspired space rock, dropping 10-minute jams that matched length with expertise. They were followed by Mama Doa (featuring Resist the Flow's exceptional bassist), which played a danceable blend of sax-tinged funk, jazz, and free-form rock.
On opening night on the West Side, punks and their parents packed the Phantasy, Symposium, and Hi-Fi Club for showcases rife with attitudinal adolescents and their predictably shaky legs: At the Hi-Fi, the members of Silas had a hard time disguising their nervousness (having to follow the grizzled, great old-school punks of Brazen Rogues didn't help). Buoyed by a dynamite drummer, taking his cues from such accomplished punk pounders as Pennywise's Byron McMackin and Blink-182's Travis Barker, Silas overcame its early jitters to turn in a solid show of abrasive pop punk.
Across the street at the Symposium, the Uppertanks offered one of the evening's first highlights, cranking out tongue-in-cheek gutter punk with songs like "Fucked Up Every Day" and "Kill All the Waiters." Aided by the antics of a sombrero-sporting mosher and a husky guy who robot-danced onstage, the Uppertanks turned in a fun, off-the-cuff set boasting a sound that veered from the sneer of NOFX to the crusty bark of ruffians like G.B.H. Extra points for the singing drummer, who was quick with both the punch lines and the drum rolls.
One of Friday's most well-received acts, One Short of a Dozen starred on the Phantasy's main stage. Sporting scruffy hairdos and crooked ballcaps, the band was cute enough to make girls sigh and fast enough to make boys slam to its aggressively sweet/hard emo sound.
Saturday night's show at Metropolis, where an impressive lineup of DJs spun in three rooms, scored with an older crowd of regular clubgoers. On the main stage, Navigator pumped out banging, streetwise techno, as three screens projected lava lamp-like fluorescent graphics. Meanwhile, Johnny V tore up the modest crowd in a side room with a furious set of jungle and drum 'n' bass.
Later that night, Strongsville's Switched earned its marquee billing with an Agora show that was the fest's biggest draw. One of a handful of bands recruited by promoters to play the fest (along with other local stars like the Sign-Offs, the Vacancies, and Cyde), Switched was paid to play -- and it showed. The band was a blur of energy, with frontman Ben Schigel in a full sweat from the outset and guitarist Brad Kochmit headbanging hard enough to jar vertebrae loose. The band's crunchy, melodic hard rock, showcased on its debut, Subject to Change, gained intensity live, with favorites like the show-opener "Inside" and the brutal "Exterminate" coming off more ribald and less radio-friendly. With Schigel's harmonies crashing into loud, seismic riffs, the band's show was a defiant last gasp for the fading nü metal scene.
Yeah, the gap between Switched and most of the fest's other bands was considerable, but maybe that was the point: In an event more about potential than payoff, burgeoning stars like Switched showed the rest of the field the light at the end of the tunnel.