Sunday, November 13, 2011

Chapter Eighteen: "Mash of Everything Covered in Gravy - Cropped Out 2011: Saturday Edition."

It came and went, and feel like I've been crumpled over by a bulldozer. But its a happy pain I'm grateful for. The Second Annual Cropped Out Festival here in Louisville occurred the weekend of November 11-13, 2011, and featured more bands than it was possible for me to keep track of, making for a guilty-pleasure weekend of guitars, basses, drums, homemade pickup oscillators, electric dobros and violins, noisemakers, campfires, beer, arguments about Kentucky cuisine, old friends, new friends, ping pong, seven-inches, and above all, the exposure of some great new, independent, sullied, often loud, but always varied, musics.

My aim is here is show some visual documentation, as well as provide some basic info about the event and the artists that performed at Cropped Out. I was only at the second day of the fest; day one was Friday 11.11.11, which I could not attend due to my day job and the desire to see my friends The Frequent Sea, Madame Machine and the Kentucky Prophet perform for charity. Hopefully someone else will document those bands/that show, because there was definitely some good music happening on the first day/night. I could not attend the ending festivities, featuring the reunited legendary Scratch Acid performing with Young Widows and Coliseum. However, I managed to watch about fourteen hours of music on day two; thus, here's my report. It'll be lengthy despite the fact that I still managed to miss several of the bands due to just plain exhaustion and the need to drink cold beer by campfires for some conversation here and there.

This will also be the first in a couple/few entries to get some of the local music I've seen the last few weeks out of my system.

Cropped Out began in 2010 in Louisville as an attempt to provide a showcase for independent and underground music from this city and beyond in an all-ages setting. I attended one day of the 2010 fest, as well, and was impressed with the scope the organizers were aiming for. This year the fest was relocated from a venue by the Ohio River into downtown Louisville at a new warehouse/art space dubbed the Crummy Den. The den seemed to fit the fest much better, and I definitely like what's been done with the space.

Adhering to the music festival mentality, there were three stages within the den: a main stage, and two floor spaces, to accommodate the amount of bands performing and to squeeze as much music as possible into the scheduled twelve hours. As soon as one band ended, another would usually begin within minutes.

Delays and complications can be expected with any such set-up, because this is a perverse amount of music equipment, which can be unruly and uncooperative, sometimes. Based on my libations and lively Friday night, I woke later than I expected and had to contend with a migraine headache before setting out on foot for the festival, the new location not being too far from my apartment. I was cussing myself halfway there for being late, figuring I was missing some bands I had planned on seeing all week. When I arrived, I realized I had only missed two acts: Circuit des Yeux and Video Daughters, which sucks, but I was relieved I had not missed a lot more than that.

Apparently, there had been two issues that had changed some of the physical aspects of the show: a power problem (which was never really explained to me, or at least, I never understood when it was explained to me) that caused the schedule to be pushed back; and secondly, the first half of the days shows were now being performed outside due to noise complaints from the business that was located directly in front of the Crummy Den. The bands were now playing in an adjoining field/garden, which was nice, although how it made things quieter I'm not sure, as I heard drums and bass bouncing off the buildings around the area like we were in a canyon that a stampeding herd was plunging through as I approached from two blocks away.

But the outside idea turned out to be pretty amazing. Saturday was a grey Fall day with temperatures that stayed near 60, then started falling with dusk. Several bonfires were lit as we watched the sun hide and fall behind clouds and we huddled around the beer truck, the Cuban food truck, and rock bands from Louisville, Lexington, and Nashville.

So, the music. Because of the amount of bands I'm attempting to cover here, I'll try and keep my comments brief. Otherwise this entry will get too massive, methinks.

The band that sounded like thunder off the bricks as I approached was one I was badgering myself for fear of missing: Arcane Rifles, from Lexington. This group has become one of my favorite bands in the last year. A great way to start the day. Ben's guitar, James' drums, Phil's bass just all seem pretty perfect to me. Like I've said before on this blog, their seven-inch "Green Eye Will Save You" gets my vote for EP of the year.

Arcane Rifles

Arcane Rifles was the beginning of a set of Lexington and Louisville bands that all seem to blend and belt together perfectly. I hate trying to brand scenes with signature sounds, because I often think that's bullshit, but there is something in the water between these two Kentucky cities that brings out some bass-heavy creative percussive guitar rock. Post-punk, angular, instrumental, proggy, kraut, elements of psychedelic rock; I can't stand describing music, but the next few bands all have found something that has its own thing going on.

Jovantaes was next, another Lexington trio that have taken the idea of drums, guitar and bass rock and well, just fucked it up into something else. At one point I had to ask Ben and James of Arcane Rifles and Mike of Cross how they were even making the sounds they were coming up with on their instruments. The guitar and bass were apparently both outfitted with functioning oscillators in the pickups, allowing them to be making several different sounds at once. "It's all sickly homemade, too," Mike pointed out. I've been waiting to see this band for a while; glad I finally did. Jovantaes basically rose out the ashes of another of favorite bands from Lexington, Tight Leather. Their latest EP is "Things Are Different Here."


Louisville band Tropical Trash was next. I've already written my love for this band here. They didn't fail to rock the flower garden with some stuff I had not heard, yet. Go to that their blog page to download their latest CD-R EP "Acts of Reversal." According to guitarist/vocalists Jim and Kirk, the band have a new cassette coming out soon.

Tropical Trash
Lexington band Cross were next. This was my second time seeing this group and I think my favorite performance of the two times. Mike Turner's one of my favorite guitarists, and the band managed to play just as the clouded sun went away, which added a little to ambiance of their music to me. Dark stuff. New favorite song: "Forever into the Cross." The band is going on an East Coast tour starting in November 22 in Lexington.


Natural Child were the first band to play that I witnessed that were not from Kentucky. Hailing from Nashville, this trio dropped some really amazing grooves into some kind of ditch that's related to 70s Southern rock, but creeped out with some bizarre garagey-punk structure. They represented the last outdoor band of the day/evening, before the acts would move indoors, and they had fun with it as it turned just plain dark outside. I appreciated their sense of humor on most of their tunes, introducing songs that were "made to meet our quota of shaking a specific number of asses." They were the perfect band to listen to with bonfires springing up around them and beer cans being thrown around while they played songs like "Hard Workin' Man" and "Nobody Wants to Party with Me." According to their blog, they're on tour with Georgia Satellites. I can't tell what's real or not anymore. I felt like it was 1977 and we were all gonna get arrested.

Natural Child
At this point the festival moved indoors, while the outside field became the main area for breaks from the bands where you could purchase beer and Cuban food and warm yourself by several campfires surrounded by band members and fest attendants.

The first act to start the indoor half of the evening was singer-songwriter-guitarist Angel Olsen, whose stripped down performance marked a change in the style of music we had been hearing up to that point. Olsen hails from St. Louis and has been gathering a lot of attention lately with her well-written songs. My first exposure to her was through some live recordings I'd heard on Youtube she had done with Bonnie "Prince" Billy.  To me her music references older country, which fits her voice perfectly. A few times her voice reminded me of Patsy Cline, and heck call me stupid but at other times, Mary Lou Lord.

Angel Olsen
It was at this point I traveled into the massive Crummy Den green room with Arcane Rifles' James Marinelli for some recuperation, cheese puffs and "interviews" while James, Ben, and Clint (of Cross) played a very competitive game of ping pong.

action shot!
Anyways, I returned to the music quickly to be immersed in the set of Guardian Alien, a NYC quartet. Immersed, that is, in pitch black darkness and the band's intense space-noise-rock that featured drummer Greg Fox's frantic style permeated by vocalist Alexandra Drewchin's hymn-like cried vocals running in and out of time and effects. The sometime comparisons to Hawkwind I don't consider to be too far off. Their self-titled debut album has been released on Swill Children.

Guardian Alien
Following were the intricate Chicago noise-punk band Mayor Daley, featuring a dirty sludgy bass guitar by Emily Elhaj trunking through Kelly Marie Carr's vox and guitar. Most of their songs seemed to clock in at ten minutes but did not fail to inspire, especially the hoody dude who kept yelling, "are you really done? are you really done?"

Mayor Daley

The Dreebs wacked everything out again with a noisy-jazz-rock set that seemed influenced by Sun Ra, gravel and cocaine. They tore through differing dynamics with electric violins and the guitarist playing two guitars at once. He and I talked about the challenges of wearing dresses and wigs. They are on tour with fellow New Yorkers Guardian Alien.

The Dreebs

It was here I fell from grace and escaped the confines of the Den to sit by a campfire and talk to some visiting Chicagoans about accents, camping, gentrification, the pointlessness of college degrees, and roadkill, eventually ending in my vociferous defense of Southern cooking being more than "a mash of everything covered in gravy," only leading me to explain the virtues of the Hot Brown (which is a mash of everything, covered in gravy). During this time, I unfortunately missed the likes of The Men, Fat History Month and Angels in America. But my own brain was basically mashed potatoes mixed with yarn, and campfire smoke always draws me in.

Then I returned to the innards to witness the fast punk of The Pygmy Shrews from NYC, who are touring with The Men. They woke me back up. Their latest recording is "You People Can All Go Straight to Hell" on Jack Shack.

The Pygmy Shrews

 Bill Orcutt was a highlight at the fest for many of the people there. The legendary guitarist, formerly of the noise-rock band Harry Pussy, performed his solo acoustic compositions seated in a chair onstage. He had several pieces of vinyl for sale. His latest is the limited edition seven-inch "A King or Something, Crossroads, The Man in the Mirror b/w Sad Michael, Solitary Habits, Die Then Come Back To Life."

Bill Orcutt
Time got weird. We were all in and out. I helped Mikey find his own green room. I was sitting with the Chicagoans in smokey campfire. I was trying to see in the darkened porta-potty. While festivals are wonderful ways to see as many acts as possible, sometimes the amount of music and bands can get slippery. Somewhere I missed John Wesley Coleman, and went from the experience of Orcutt, to the young Chapel Hill pop-punk band Last Year's Men:

Last Year's Men
...And then into the straight pummel of Louisville hardcore Black God, a band I was not aware of, but found to be one of my favorites of the festival. Black God is basically a supergroup of punk rockers from the River City. They played on the floor and created some of the best moments. It was the closest I saw the crowd nearly turn into a mosh pit. They have a seven-inch out filled with some great minute-and-a-half rock.

Black God
That eventually led to the end act of the evening, another Louisville group, Sapat. Sapat has become pretty much an anchor in Louisville's music scene. Having been around for nearly a decade, the band has morphed and changed repeatedly. I've been attending their shows since circa 2006, and have grown to love each performance better than the previous. Their current lineup is like a goddamn experimental orchestra, headed by Kris Abplanalp's vocals and aggressively odd guitar style. Talking with him, I've heard the influences he's mentioned. Krautrock is always tapped when people discuss Sapat; so is some form of psychedelic improvisation. I hear a million things. Once I told him I thought there was a train going by the building, but it was the actually monster chug the band had created with Warren's bass blended with Kris and his brother Wes' guitars and the huge sound of Jeff's drums. Other times I've just gotten chilled from vocalist/keyboardist Dane's high notes. And then there is the horn section, featuring Jim and Kirk of the aforementioned Tropical Trash.

While I think it was meant as sign of respect, Sapat was booked as the last band of the fest. The problem with long all-day fests is, well, people wear out. As the night clicked further into the night, the crowd was definitely not as big as it needed to be to hear them play. Sapat should have been somewhere in the middle of the bill to grab the biggest audience. Regardless, it was an intense set to end Cropped Out's Saturday edition, and those of us there to see it were pretty grateful.

We all stumbled out of the Cropped Out Crummy Den nigh 3 AM-ish. I rambled to another Chicagoan by the fire as we doused it. Louisville wasn't loud anymore. Kris and Sarah gave me a ride home. We drank a couple of beers while Hasil Adkins and then the soundtrack to "2001" played on my turntable. It was late, and these things can be exhausting, but very worth it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Chapter Seventeen: "'Music from 'The Elder'' - The Death of Ear X-tacy."

On Tuesday, November 1, 2011, while at my day time job, my morning was brought down by a headline that Ear X-tacy, Louisville’s most recognized independent music store, had closed its doors. Forever.

Ear X-tacy has represented a lot of things to a lot of people over the years, here in Louisville and beyond. Opened in 1985 by John Timmons, the store grew as a backbone of the local music scene here, and a place to find, as with all independent music stores across the USA, the records and, eventually, the CDs, you could not get anywhere else. Ear X-tacy grew over the years, moving to five different locations in the River City (four of them in the Highlands area on Bardstown Rd), always promoting and supporting local and independent music.

 Timmons began the store as a mail order label from his apartment, then decided to expand it into a retail store, eventually taking root on Bardstown Rd, where it remained, at differing locations until November 1. Like many independent music stores, it inspired, aided and maintained several generations of fans and bands, as well as introduced diversity in the market with the types of music it stocked, or was willing to order. Some people don’t realize that before the Internet, it was difficult to obtain music that was harder to find; a store like Ear X-tacy was one of the only ways. And they provided that service well.

I had my own personal connection with the store. Somewhere around 1986, I began to get rides with my parents on Saturdays to the Highlands to purchase music and comics. Ear X-tacy, at that time, was located next to another Louisville landmark, The Great Escape. It was a much smaller incarnation, and wonderful. For me, at 13, the two were as far as I needed to really travel. I spent hours browsing both stores, looking at comics and music, eavesdropping on older, cooler, Louisvillians, discussing books, records, comics, movies and ideas I had never heard of or read. Both of those stores definitely had a high shape on my personality and life as teenager, and led me to discover things I never would have known if I had just based my opinions and artistic intake on television or mainstream magazines.

It became a weekly event. I would often get dropped off in the early afternoon, spend my time running between those two shops and the earlier incarnation of Electric Ladyland. Being too shy to engage too often with fellow patrons and/or folks working the counter, I picked up ideas and knowledge about various groups, authors, artists, or hell: ART. By 3pm or so, my parents would have tired of occupying themselves, and we would head back to the desolate lay of the land in Fern Creek, where I would plop belly-down on my bed and read my spoils while blacking out Suburbia with whatever new LPs I had purchased. It was a perfumed life of vinyl and Marvel heroes on a weekend; one I have thought often of as being so inspirational on me. Those stores meant the world to me. I was no good at the baseball I played; but I was good at reading The Incredible Hulk and Alpha Flight and air-guitaring to Def Leppard, the Cars and Ace Frehley.

And I still have most of the records I purchased from them back then.

My significant memory is becoming a fan of KISS at the age of 13 in 1986. I was on a hell-bent decision to become a completist, and collect everything they had ever recorded. The dudes at Ear X-tacy, once they realized this, encouraged me. When I understood there was a record called “Music from ‘The Elder’” that was out-of-print at the time, I knew the only place to talk to someone was Ear X-Tacy. They ordered that, and a copy of “KISS Killers” (at the time difficult to locate), on vinyl, from some unknown holder in Europe. I still have both now, being two LPs I consider treasures of my meek vinyl library. When I picked the vinyl up, whoever was working the counter commented on how awesome it was I had ordered them. “Cool. That’s great you’re into them that much and already checking this weirder stuff out.” That sentence probably ironed my will to continue seeking out my own music instead of just listening to whatever was thrown at me.

I was just there on my bi-weekly visit to purchase the latest Tom Waits CD “Bad for Me,” and randomly found a Willie Nelson album I had been searching for years for called “Phases & Changes.”

When I moved back from Lexington in 2005, Ear X-tacy was located in the center of the Highlands, and had assumed a mega-store size. Ten thousand feet of vinyl, CDs, t-shirts, merchandise…it seemed a place that could not fail. It was considered to be one of the top independent record stores in the country, and rightfully so. The store held weekly live performances from bands, both local and touring, and was open ‘til midnight on the weekends. It was a beautiful thing. And I was proud it was a part of my hometown. Ear X-tacy had grown into an institution of the local music and arts scene.  

Six years and The Digital Age can change a lot.

Timmons publicly acknowledged the store’s financial struggles in both February and November of 2010. The advent of digital downloads have taken out retail stores, both independent and corporate, all over the country, for years now. In attempts to save the business and its contributions to the scene, Timmons relocated Ear X-tacy to a smaller location, further down the road, albeit in a space that had considerably less foot traffic.

The store closed abruptly on Saturday, October 29. The official announcement was made November 1.   

I’d like to follow that introduction up with this statement: The Louisville music scene, nor its “Buy Local” mentality, ain’t fucking dead like a flapping fish on the side of some corporate boat waiting to be fried in an oil vat full of Wal-Mart.

This is an ugly situation that could turn into a beautiful one. 

The amount of “hate” comments that come out of this surprise me. So many trolls that hang onto the list of Courier-Journal articles online really spill some ignorance. And my only guess is they are residents from outside the downtown area, pouring bland bizarreness having never shopped for anything other than Top 40 on Amazon and think that those who do are hippy teenagers. Why would a record/CD/music store matter? Shouldn’t it just accept and adapt and realize that NO ONE WANTS PHYSICAL MUSIC ANYMORE, nor do they want to travel and speak to people to buy it. That becomes the main argument.

The undiluted fact is: THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WANT IT. I’m one. I still have not become a downloadable music fan. I have downloaded one song since iTunes has existed: “Amazing Grace” by the Hee Haw gang. And that was for my grandmother’s funeral because I did not have a good copy of it when she died and my mother really wanted it in case there was not another version available at the time. Other than that, I would rather listen to things on a physical recording; but I know I’m not in the majority.

Knowing that, I also know there are a lot of folks who are interested in having a record, meaning an LP, meaning acetate in their hands that sounds warmer and real and crackles. Music that has a physical presence. Look, I understand that to a lot of people, MP3s sound great, but as someone who has listened to vinyl, eight-tracks, cassettes, mini-cassettes, CDs, MP3s, and basically every format…VINLY WINS. Don’t believe me?: come to my place and we’ll listen to some.

But none of this matters. Accessibility and convenience have won in the 21st century. It’s something that has taken me a while to digest, but the actuality is true. And I can’t deny it, either. I love finding and listening to music quickly, because I want so much of it. When the Tom Waits CD was leaked a day early on Youtube, and people were posting the songs, I forced myself NOT to listen to them. I CRAVED the tunes, but decided to wait until I purchased the album. But I’m not 100% true on this front. That being said, once I did find something I craved, a record store is where I’d go to get it.

But the idea of never having a store to walk or drive to and purchase the music scares me. And that’s where we are today. And that’s what the closing of Ear X-tacy represents. A future of mindless downloading. From digital clouds. Ick.

However, there are too many people who are willing to cast this turn of events into The End.

Yes, a mainstay of our community is gone. One that has been here for 26 years. According to many, this means the end of the Louisville music scene and the idea that Louisville no longer really focuses on the mentality that buying local is important. Bullshit.

Ear X-tacy died because of the music industry that exists now. Where once you had to go to a brick and mortar store to learn about the newest thing, or to get an idea of what was happening underground, there now exists information pouring all over the place online about bands. In no way am I saying this is better, but just the reality.   

Pick up any copy of Billboard magazine. It sucks, trust me. I’ve had to read it as part of my job. But there is nothing but reports of the ups and downs of every type of industry sales. CD, vinyl…all of it. Every marketing ploy being used by chains and independents across the world to make sense of the amoeba (no pun intended) that is the record and music retail industry is discussed. If you read that mag weekly (like I had to), it becomes pretty clear how daunting the task of keeping some of these businesses open really is. And I can just sum it up like this: The numbers suck. All sales are down. Everywhere, everything.  

Some of these issues and numbers were addressed on my pal and fellow local musician Kirk Kiefer’s blog.  The fall of Ear X-tacy sucks, but is understandable in the midst of the industry crumbling and reshaping. We’re dealing with insane shifting business models that owners of similar stores everywhere are scratching their heads at.

There are still several independent record stores left in Louisville: UndergroundSounds, Better Days, Please and Thank You, Book and Music Exchange, hell Great Escape and Electric Ladyland. We are not a collapsed community as far as buying music here is concerned.  

For me, it hits hard. This place has been a backbone to my record buying experience since my childhood, and I lament it harshly. Brick and mortar stores can represent the spine to a community, a town, a city. And is sucks it could not stay afloat. I work for Wild and Woolly, a video rental store that specializes in cult, underground, vintage and independent video, as well as the newest releases. For me, it’s one of the most precious institutions of Louisville and something I NEVER want to see die. EVER. When I first moved back here, I asked my brother immediately where it was and what I needed to do to sign up. But the digital downloads and things like bullshit Redboxes definitely cut into independent physical businesses. It’s a struggle that is happening across America.

There are naysayers that are convinced that this represents the death of local and independent businesses in Louisville, and other cities, to come. That was said a year ago with the closing of Skull Alley here, and in the 1990s when Cut Corner and the Wrocklage closed in Lexington.

But there is also an amazing groundswell of support that exists here and other places that I believe Louisville does well in its support of local music, local art, local business and local everything. There are the buggy-whip comparisons: that many of these places are done for because of a new age, new market, and that they represent a niche that is no longer needed. I definitely do not feel that way. Many people still want these things, and yeah, they need to get off their asses and show that support, but I believe in this town and others that they will still continue to exist.  The amount of local businesses that still continue to thrive with their clothing, food, film, etc., is pretty astounding. The monopolization of America, which goes back to some definite policies passed in the 1980s and 1990s, has taken a big bite out of independent business.

Finding a way to make these places stay is the challenge, but there are challenges connected to every independent business idea. And with the changes that have happened in the 21st century, new ideas will come about. I myself am not ready to just accept that to watch a good movie at home or buy a record I HAVE to download it or order it from Amazon.

Taking a negative approach and proclaiming that Louisville has failed is completely wrong, and I’ll debate that immediately. Yes, some people refuse to shop locally and only purchase online from major suppliers, ignoring the services and knowledge near them. That sucks. Others purchase independent music directly from the artists, and that’s awesome. Others make the effort to go to a store and see and talk to people, get recommendations, and are inspired by the environment contained within. Which is the magical component of these places. It makes our region, city, town, something unique. And keeps choice and diversity alive.

It still comes to the cliché: buy local. But it’s a cliché that is important. Don’t forget the other local businesses that provide you with books, food, movies, music and just plain inspiration.  Support them. You’ll miss them if they close up.

And thanks to Ear X-tacy.