The thought of a winter music festival is thrilling, at first. Summer has had a monopoly on the experience for too long. And wouldn't the cold eliminate the stuff that makes festivals worse? Heat-stroke, socks with sandals, Phish fans, the sweaty smells - none of these things were possible in the sub-arctic conditions of Cleveland's Brite Winter Festival on February 16.
It's such a low-key festival that 48 bands will be playing on 6 different stages for free. The five-hour drive illustrates the difference between Indianapolis's winter and Cleveland's well by introducing progressively larger snow flurries as you drive further Northeast.
I arrived to find the temperature nearing zero, with a wind chill threatening to go below. Still, I'm staying at The Cleveland Hostel which is in the middle of the festivities, also serving as one of the many scattered venues in the Ohio City Market District. As I got into my room on the second floor the art-folk tunes of ShiSho began at the hostel. The two sisters perform self-aware weirdo-pop with a cute and quirky presentation.
I wanted to get out and soak up as much as I could so I went out to the Loren Naji Gallery where two stages were operating back to back, the crowd shifting from one to the other in the periods of intermissions. Xela was singing raw jazz and blues songs over his guitar in one room, eventually joined by a trumpet which complemented his voice perfectly.
At the end of that set Seafair had set up and begun in the other room. They play a mix of folk, pop and rock that includes violin, keyboard, cello, guitar, bass and drums. It's catchy, danceable and a Cleveland favorite. They plan to release two EPs in 2013, so keep your eyes peeled.
The Bears of Blue River play in the other gallery like a breeze, gradually accumulating the crowd from the gallery next door and the streets outside with songs from a new EP that focuses and refines their bop-folk sound. With an additional touring member on saxophone, they were excited to be a part of the winter celebration. "Taking a risk and providing an experience like that at a time of year known for nothingness seems quit rock 'n' roll to me," singer and guitarist Gavin Ellis Wilkinson told me later.
Muncie, Indiana's The Bonesetters played in the other gallery immediately after The Bears' set, so I stuck around. They get described as folk-rock a lot, because they have a violinist, but I think they're closer to the rock 'n' roll end of that spectrum, if not post-rock. It's raucous and genuine, with an original voice and progressive song structures, representing Indiana well. They plan to release a 7'' in the spring, work on a follow-up to their debut, Savages, in the summer and a split with Hotfox in the fall.
On my way out I ran into Jeff Mather of West Lafayette's Jurassic Pop Records at the stage behind the hostel, who was enjoying the set of post-emo-rock champions Annabel. Bright vocals shone over tender post-hardcore guitar licks to a freezing outside crowd. The alleyway was crammed full as I made my way onward.
Two Hand Fools played at an independent bike shop down the street to a building that was wall-to-wall packed with people. This weirdo pop-punk outfit was the highlight of the festival for me, and for the other Clevelanders who made this set a priority. They played an impassioned and energetic set to their hometown audience, which was amazing to see.
Afterward I stopped for food and a break at the hostel and forgot to leave. Alt-folk rockers Meridian performed in a shared space lounge room off of the hostel's kitchen, lulling me into drinking and mingling with others after the set. Cleveland has set the bar high for winter music festivals because despite the cold I had a unforgettable experience. Forget the West Coast and East Coast, the Midwest Coast is where it's at!