It seems as if every major metropolitan city in the country has some kind of music festival. Chicago has Lollapalooza, Riot Fest and Pitchfork, Columbus has Rock on the Range, Milwaukee has Summerfest and Louisville has Forecastle.
To rectify the situation here in Cleveland, a group of local investors operating as the Cleveland Concert Company partnered with AEG Presents, Destination Cleveland, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the city to launch the InCuya Music Festival. The inaugural event took place this past weekend on Malls B and C.
The setting was fantastic. Located on Mall B, the larger City Stage had the city skyline as a backdrop and the smaller Lake Stage, located on Mall C, looked out upon Lake Erie. While the threat of rain loomed on Saturday, a few sprinkles weren’t enough to dampen the mood. Some musical highlights from the day included appearances by a couple of locals. The Modern Electric, who delivered quirky pop tunes such as “David Bowie (Save Us All),” a Ben Folds-like number with stuttering vocals and a barroom piano melody, and the anthemic “All We Have is Now,” sounded sharp and showed why they’re one of the best indie rock acts on the local circuit.
Dressed in a sparkling silver jacket, singer Chayla Hope led the local indie folk act Seafair through a high energy set. At one point, she even dropped to her knees as she exuberantly sang one orchestral pop number after another. The set concluded with the rousing “Endeavor.”
Over on the bigger City Stage, K.Flay, who was backed by a capable two-person band delivered genre-defying tunes. She sounded like a cross between Amy Winehouse and Lorde and sometimes even came off as a modern version of Garbage as she and her bandmates added electronics to the mix and drew from hip-hop, rock and pop. The always-exuberant J. Roddy Walston and the Business offered a solid set of Kings of Leon-like rock tunes, and both the Revivalists and Awolnation delivered high-energy, engaging performances. The latter closed its set with its big hit, “Sail.”
Performing in Cleveland for the first time in decades, New Order didn’t disappoint. Its headlining set featured a stunning light show and found the band revisiting classic dance tracks such as the shimmering “Your Silent Face” and “The Perfect Kiss,” a tune that came off as more aggressive than its studio counterpart thanks to some particularly noisy guitar work. Strobes flickered during the static-y intro to “True Faith” and the band cranked up the drum machines for the pummeling “Blue Monday.” The killer sound system capably captured the intricacies of the band’s music.
The weather was much muggier yesterday, yet a slightly bigger crowd showed up to see acts such as Booker T. Jones, Daniel Caesar, Cake, SZA and the Avett Brothers. During his set, Jones, a Rock Hall Inductee who looked quite stately in his black top hat and matching suit, remarked that it’s “hard to do something the first time” but added that festival organizers did “everything right.” His set included the classic track “Green Onions,” a dirge that enabled him to show off his mesmerizing keyboard skills.
The dreadlocked Caesar delivered a particularly soulful set, and SZA, who wore sweat pants, a neon green wig and a one-piece bathing suit, quickly endeared herself to the audience by introducing songs with stories about their origins and then proceeding to sing her ass off on songs such as “Supermodel” and “Broken Clocks.” Both acts benefited from playing with live bands.
Cake played most of its hits during a well-received set that included songs such as “The Distance” and “Sheep Go To Heaven,” songs perfect for the festival environment.
Headliners the Avett Brothers sounded particularly sharp as the group mixed bluegrass with rock and pop. Brothers Seth and Scott Avert harmonized particularly well on tunes such as “Vanity.”
Yesterday’s City Stage highlights included raucous alt-country rockers the Jack Fords, who cranked up the guitars for their hard-driving set, and local heroes Tropidelic, who played songs that alternated between rap-rock and Sublime-inspired reggae. Tank and the Bangas, a rowdy band out of New Orleans, could’ve easily played on a bigger stage. Wearing a bright green shirt and colorful camo pants, exuberant singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball held the crowd’s attention with her grinding dance moves, and the large ensemble mixed together funk, rock and jazz. The group closed with a jazzy rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Though we heard secondhand reports that the festival didn’t meet expectations in terms of ticket sales, from a music fan’s perspective, it had plenty to offer. The sound on both stages was terrific, and it was easy to migrate from one mall to the other. That’s not to say there weren’t a few issues. The City Stage definitely needed to be higher. From certain points on the mall, all you could see was the tops of people’s heads. And the concession prices were rather steep. A 16 oz. PBR should never, ever cost $10. A burrito bowl or grilled cheese sandwich would’ve set you back about $15.
But these are minor quibbles with an otherwise successful launch of what could become Cleveland’s signature music festival.