Even as it annoys me sometimes, Comfest is still a supernova in my summer and this year’s lineup looks stronger than the last couple. I’m posting this a week early so there’s plenty of time to check out my suggestions and leave your own in the comments. I included media when there was something easily embedded like bandcamp or soundcloud.
You may not see me at all these sets – in fact, you might not see me at all on Saturday because I love Comfest more when I don’t deal with Saturday crowds – but there’s nothing here I don’t stand behind or that hasn’t been on my list to check out for a while. Let’s get to it!
12:00, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Screeching Owl.
Zakk Jones is one of the fastest-rising guitarists in town and he’s grown by leaps and bounds in the couple years he’s been on my radar. His main project, Screeching Owl, put out a fantastic album earlier this year with bouncy melodies and harmonies – especially among the horns and vibes – that just glisten. Great review of this record by Andrew Patton, personal friend, friend of the blog, and the best writer about jazz in town here: http://www.jazzcolumbus.com/zakk-jones-screeching-owl-dreams-of-yesterday-ep/
Expect this to be the perfect way to ease into your Comfest with your first still-cold beer and tikka masala wrap in the bright June sun.
12:45, Offramp Stage: Corbezzolo.
Corbezzolo were one of my favorite discoveries last year when I saw them open for Jason Ajemian at Double Happiness. The duo of Marie Corbo singing and switching off between guitar and bass and Noah Demland drumming cut through the noise in the crowd and the noise in my head until I couldn’t not pay attention. A beguiling mix of fragile and powerful, introverted and intense, songs that grab you by the collar.
2:40, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Tom Davis.
Tom Davis might be my favorite jazz/classical guitarist in town right now, certainly my favorite guitarist on the rise – so no slight to Brett Burleson or Larry Marotta. He’s got a mastery of tone that most people would envy, you can tell it’s Davis on stage within three notes even if you’re between two loud barflies trying to order a drink and on the far other side of the bar.
Davis has assimilated the history of jazz guitar and come out sounding perfectly like himself – playing in situations as diverse as Vaughn Wiester’s big band, free-improv freakouts, or Pete Mills’ straight-head bebop and killing them all. Beyond that, he puts together great, great bands – his tribute to the Jim Hall/Paul Desmond Quartet about a month ago at Dick’s was so beautiful I almost cried – so while there’s no word on who he’s bringing this time, I guarantee it’ll be worth seeing..
4:50, Live Arts Stage: Najla and Muziki.
Queen Najla is one of the finest local proponents of African dance, percussion and storytelling. One of our most jaw-dropping artists. Every time I’ve seen her on stage I’ve had chills all over my body, the craft is undeniable and her spirit is infectious and true. I’m not sure who/what’s accompanying her as muziki (the Swahili word for music) at this performance but I guarantee you won’t be disappointed whoever it is.
5:45, Offramp Stage: Betty Machete and the Angry Cougars.
In the last few years, Betty Machete and the Angry Cougars have cut their jokier songs and refined their lineup in a way that resembles – as a friend said about another band’s guitar player change a few years ago – adding extra fingers to a fist. While I miss Matt Reber’s more melodic bass playing and Fes Minck’s gnarled, wild lead guitar, the current lineup of Heather Lazor – maybe my favorite drummer in town – in lockstep with Matt Campbell (Gasohol) on bass laying down the rhythm behind Pat Dull and Chris Casella’s guitars and Linda Dull’s roar feels like a more unified, sharpened thing. Some of the most fist-pumping fun in this town right now.
5:55, Gazebo Stage: Slick Andrews and the 3-C Grifters.
Slick Andrews is Columbus’ finest honky-tonk singer and his 3-C Grifters lineup is a 30 years strong rootsy supergroup. His voice will melt steel, break glass and stab you right in the heart. And his band, anchored by guitar hero Matt Newman, will blow your hair back. Bring whatever dancing shoes you think will survive the mud.
6:55, Bozo Stage: The Dewdroppers.
The Dewdroppers are one of the most gleefully fun bands in this town – if your dancing shoes don’t need re-cobbled after Slick Andrews at the Gazebo, they damn sure won’t survive an hour of this. A tight band comprised of some of the brightest lights in Columbus music: Counterfeit Madison, Adam Nedrow, Benny Brennerman, Jake Huffstetler, Joe Gilliand, Trent Sampson. They have great taste in material touching on Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, ’50s doo-wop and ’60s pop-soul, and a fistful of originals, played tightly but with their eye mostly on fun. This show comes on the heels of their record release so expect them to explode on that big stage.
7:15, Offramp Stage: Salvage.
Brian Simakis is best known in town as one of our finest soundmen but his band Salvage is remembered very fondly by some of us, not least of all me. A hard rock band touching on all styles under that umbrella but beholden to none, with a tight rhythm section – Chris “Spanky” Hughes on bass and Chrys Cornetet on drums – and catchy, funny songs (“Soundman” is still maybe the best “tribute” to that beleaguered profession). Honestly, I didn’t realize they were still a going concern until I saw them on the Comfest schedule so I’m very excited to see this return in the flesh.
7:55, Bozo Stage: Comrade Question.
Comrade Question is one of the freshest-sounding rock bands with some of the best songs to appear in town in a while and it’s a pleasant surprise to seem them on deck for the big stage. A mix of the Velvet Underground’s minimal drumming and drone bass with psych and surf tendencies in their three guitars and killing harmonies between Lee Mason and Katie Baillie.
8:00, Offramp Stage: Sin Nombre.
The best current band of Arturo DeLeon (saying something given his prolific nature). Sin Nombre is everything good about raw ’80s metal – Overkill, early Anthrax, even a little southern groove like Eyehategod or Pantera – with none of the fat or the annoying tendencies. With Artie on guitar and vocals, Scott Corney on second guitar, and the killer rhythm section of Jeff Plavcan on bass and Scott Sprague on drums, this might be the hardest the Offramp rocks all weekend.
8:50, I Wish You Jazz Stage: James Gaiters’ Soul Revival.
I texted some close friends who would be amenable to this – I hope – that this is my new favorite band in town, regardless of genre, and it may well be. James Gaiters is my favorite drummer in town and one of my favorite composers, and this stripped down and sideways take after his sextet Muv-Ment merges soul jazz and classic King/Fortune style R&B into a raucous, thoughtful, swinging party. This is helped by the fact that he’s got the best players in town. Eddie Bayard, who sets everything he touches on fire, on tenor saxophone; Jon Eshelman on organ; and Craig McMullen who played second guitar on Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack. Do not miss this.
8:55, Bozo Stage: The Girls!.
The Girls! are a story in how to keep going after loss everyone should learn from but no one should have to, with the way they came up swinging after their original guitar player Joey Blackheart passed away last year. Joe Rosenblum stepped up admirably and before long they were back with the best powerpop songs in town anyone’s written in years and one of the best live shows. At previous Comfests they’ve filled the Offramp tent until it was almost bursting and I can’t wait to see what they do with the big stage when the sun goes down.
10:15, Offramp Stage: Whiteouts.
The Whiteouts are a rare – and grand – choice to close the Offramp this year. Frenetic songs played to within an inch of their lives by a handful of the best players (and friends) in town with a healthy dose of the anarchy and the wildness that’s been sorely missing from Comfest the last couple years. Grab the flashes of chaos while you can and hold on.
11:00, Bozo Stage: Bloodthirsty Virgins.
Nikki Wonder’s one of my favorite singers and entertainers to ever walk across a Columbus stage. For a few years in the early ’00s, her band Jack Neat with their blend of torchy vocals, noir twang guitar and a swinging rhythm section, were my favorite band in town. Her new project, Bloodthirsty Virgins, features a stellar cast of musicians backing her including Scott Gorsuch on guitars, Keith Hanlon on drums and percussion, and James Wooster on bass. I finally caught them a few months ago and it delivered on all that promise and history in spades. Start your Saturday – and scour off your hangover – with something that really has teeth.
12:00, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Insane Jazz Posse.
This combo, led by bassist Ben Johnson, took a while to win me over with the jokey name and the arrangements of contemporary pop songs, But win me over they have, with an uncanny empathy between Johnson and Ryan Jewell on drums and Alex Burgoyne on reeds and Alex Schrock on guitar. There’s great, gritty writing there and real, surprising beauty.
1:45, Offramp Stage: Trachete.
Trachete, a supergroup including members of much missed bands like Rosehips and Di Di Mao, led by Aimee Bell-Wanzo’s ripping howl, might be the best meat and potatoes garage rock in town. Thick grooves, grimy guitar and soaring harmonies. As close to a sure thing as Comfest Saturday has.
3:30, Gazebo Stage: Barry Chern and Company.
Barry Chern plays almost anything with strings and has played with a wide cross-section of people in town. My first exposure to his current bag was Comfest a year or two ago and it was the first time I’ve ever thought of comparisons to Pentangle or Incredible String Band at the Gazebo stage. If you know me, you know what high praise that is. Go see this and see the way the sunshine dances over those strings and the crowd in this set.
4:10, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Columbus Liberation Music Orchestra.
Michael Van Der Does is one of the unsung heroes of Columbus, in his various capacities as poet, leader of the Jazz Poetry Ensemble, booker of astonishing fire music acts, and instigator of improvised happenings. This year for MLK Day he organized the first outing of the Columbus Liberation Music Orchestra – including such astonishing players as Brett Burleson, Roger Hines, and Randy Mather – tipping the hat to Carla Bley and Charlie Haden’s own liberation music – in a program called Blues for Ferguson. I missed that performance but heard wall to wall raves from people who did go and this is not to be missed.
4:15, Solar Stage: John Schnabel.
I saw John Schnabel recently on a bill with his son Micah (co-leader of Two Cow Garage) and it was some of the finest smart, wry heartland storytelling I’ve heard in song in a long time. Comparisons to John Prine are not wrong nor do they overstate it.
5:10, Live Arts Stage: Doctah X.
One of the finest practitioners of dub reggae and avant-garde electronic music in Columbus. Doctah X should be seen as a national treasure but until he is, we’re lucky enough to have him at Comfest every year.
7:00, Bozo Stage: Mojoflo.
MojoFlo have been killing it of late, heavy touring and Columbus gigging have made their stage show a can’t miss and their material gets tighter and tighter. Amber Knicole’s one of our finest singers and entertainers, as riveting on a ballad as on a call and response chant. George Barrie’s guitar is perfect, never overplaying and while he understands stretching for the dancers, he never over-complicates the lines, there’s a sense of space and purity in his playing. The horn section, too, cares more about space than making sure you know how much they can technically play on every line. That goes double for the rhythm section anchored by Doni Jai on drums and a rotating selection of bassists. Great songs, a great show, something I never regret seeing in town.
7:10, Offramp Stage: Dominique Larue.
Dominique Larue’s a damn star. One of our best, most engaging rappers with a fiery live show. Expect the Offramp tent to shake and be full to the bursting for this.
7:55, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Tony Monaco.
I miss Tony Monaco being the very last act at Comfest on Sunday as he was for many years, but closing out a Saturday night isn’t a bad consolation. Keeping the Jimmy Smith soul jazz flame alive with consistently great players including Derek Dicenzo or Josh Hill on guitar and Jim Rupp or Reggie Jackson on drums, you should be able to see the steam rising off this stage for miles, even in the dark.
12:00, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Vaughn Wiester Big Band.
One of my favorite Comfest traditions. The best big band leader and arranger keeping that flame alive in town, trombonist Vaughn Wiester, leading a group to kick off the final day of Comfest and blow the dust off bedraggled, sozzled ears, and bloodshot eyes. While the last couple years have seen him moved to the jazz stage and other things starting at 11:00, this is still the beginning of my Comfest Saturday.
12:00, Gazebo Stage: George Barrie Band.
Barrie, co-leader of Mojoflo described above, channels his non-funk impulses into his eponymous band. A tasteful, razor-sharp guitar player and a fine singer, this has been on my list to check out for a while.
12:25, Offramp Stage: Time Lords.
Beth Hunter has led some of my favorite bands in town including Thee Pistol Whips, Stits, and Dirty Biscuits. With her Time Lords project, she channels and pays tribute to her forebears in raunchy, grimy blues rock with a rotating cast of players.
1:55, Offramp Stage: Haynes Boys.
I raved about this early Tim Easton project above in the run down of Friday’s afterparties but it all holds true. The first time I ever saw them, I think, was an outdoor festival and there’s a nice symmetry in seeing their return in that mode.
1:55, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Daddy Romance.
The near-east side of Columbus legendarily had a thriving organ driven soul-jazz scene from the ’60s through the ’80s which was sadly under-recorded and aside from big names like Hank Marr and Gene Walker is rarely spoken of these days. One of those legendary names was Alvin Valentine who went by “Daddy Romance” – I’m 95% sure this is not the same Alvin Valentine who made vocal records for Brunswick, but please correct me if I’m wrong – and Jim Maneri’s quartet to pay tribute to Valentine is the best kind of raging party music. Along with Maneri’s keys,the band features Joe Crump on sax, Jimmy Castoe on drums and vocals, and Roger Hines on bass. It’s highly recommended you soundtrack your third or fourth fish boat of the weekend with this.
2:40, Offramp Stage: Drift Mouth.
Drift Mouth have some of the most interesting songs in town and have carefully carved a sound-world for these songs to live. They remind me most of a darker Souled American. Slowed down, narcotic murder ballads through the gravel-snarl of singer Lou Poster (Grafton, The Ferals) in a wash of guitar with Craig Davidson’s (Righteous Buck) almost-psychedelic lap steel and Mark Spurgeon’s (Greenhorn, Big Back 40) razor-sharp leads backed by one of the best rhythm sections in town with Josh Draher on upright bass and Brad Swiniarski on drums and backing vocals.
2:45, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Gene Walker Tribute.
Much of the jazz stage this year has a tribute theme and no tribute is more deserving or more likely to bring out the creme de la creme of Columbus than this. Walker was one of the great tenor players who played with Sam Cooke, The Beatles, King Curtis, Jimmy Reed, but also Jimmy McGriff, Elvin Jones, Hank Marr and Dave “Baby” Cortez. Here in Columbus he’s almost as well known for his work with students, including teaching at OSU for 20 years and continuing to lead a weekly jam session until not long before his death. He cast a long shadow and was loved by any musician who mattered that I can think of, so the intersection of a tribute to him and the gathering of the tribes at Comfest (where Walker’s childhood friend Rahsaan Roland Kirk headlined the first year) should be something to see.
3:00, Gazebo Stage: John Turck Trio.
Over the years, John Turck, Danny Cashin, and AJ Barnes have built up a language as a trio that’s something special. Turck’s songs can still go a little soft for me but he’s got a keen, glowing gift for a melody and the last few times I saw them there were moments that left me breathless. If you like softer, Laurel Canyon-infused rock dappled with sunshine, I think they’re worth checking out.
3:40, I Wish You Jazz Stage: From the Five Jazztet.
This space has talked quite a bit about Mark Flugge who Columbus tragically lost last year. One of the greatest tributes to his legacy has been the continuation of one of his most flexible and beloved quintets, the From the Five Jazztet, featuring all musicians he played with regularly. This version includes Dave DeWitt on piano, Derek DiCenzo on bass, Aaron Scott on drums, Randy Mather on sax, and Kim Pensyl or Rob Parton on trumpet and it’s some of the best, most invigorating bebop you’re going to hear in town.
4:55, Offramp Stage: The Kyle Sowashes.
Kyle Sowash is one of the handful of people who almost single-handedly carries Columbus on his back and has since he moved here. His eponymous band has refined themselves and his songs into a lean, well-oiled machine and he’s been on a streak of unassailable records for the last three or so, the newest of which, this year’s Everybody, might be the best one yet. In keeping with the earlier talk about the elegiac or tribute nature of the jazz stage, the new album also serves as a tribute to Brett Helling, long term bass player and great friend to so many people in this scene, who died too soon this year.
5:05, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Nicole Sherburne.
Sherburne’s another artist who I feel like has really come into her own in the last few years. She got my attention working with local funk party band The Fabulous Johnson Brothers but her work has gotten darker and knottier and thicker in texture. I haven’t checked out this quartet yet but her tone with Adam Smith on drums, Phil Maneri on bass, and Jason Branscum on trombone should be something to see.
6:00, I Wish You Jazz Stage: Turtle Boat.
One of the most interest repertory bands in town. Guitarist Aditya Jayanthi on his return to Columbus assembled Turtle Boat to primarily grapple with Paul Motian’s oeuvre. Paul Motian passed away in 2011 and is widely recognized as one of the greatest drummers of the 20th century – I know I deeply treasure the three times I saw him play – but he’s still underrated as a composer. Turtle Boat’s taken up that mantle, intriguingly putting special focus on Motian’s Electric Bebop Band. And Jayanthi found the perfect cast of players for this journey – including Max Button, Brett Burleson, and Alex Burgoyne. One of the sets I’m most looking forward to.
6:20, Live Arts State: Is Said and the Advanced Party
Is Said has long been an inspiration in Columbus as a poet, as a playwright, as a teacher, and as an example of living an actuallized life. I remember the first time I saw him perform and later the first time I saw one of his plays like it was yesterday. This Last Poets-inspired format is my favorite way to see Is Said, and in the sunshine of Comfest he serves as a link to its activist past and a reminder of how good it can be.
7:00, Gazebo Stage: Erica Blinn and the Handsome Machine.
Erica Blinn is one of the hardest working people in town. While I wasn’t in love with her first full length, Lovers in the Dust, it had a handful of terrific songs. More importantly, she followed it up by touring relentlessly and opening for the best Americana acts working today, honing her five-piece band The Handsome Machine into a well-oiled classic rock machine. She’s been hard at work on her followup record so expect a few new songs. But definitely look for an explosive, swinging good time at this set to end your Comfest and send you out smiling.