Sunday, December 29, 2002

Look Back at 2002 in Popular Music

Rock rules, teen pop cools, King Records reigns

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rock came back hard, teen pop died, American Idol reigned, King Records ruled; the 40-year run of the stadium soul fest ended and festival seating returned to Cincinnati after a 23-year ban. It was quite a year.

Here are some of the best, some of the worst, some of the most memorable moments of 2002.

1. Bruce Springsteen brings back festival seating. The Stones and Sir Paul were back in the arenas in 2002, but it was the Boss who made the biggest news. His Nov. 12 U.S. Bank Arena concert brought general admission concert seating back to the arena for the first time since 11 Who fans were killed in a pre-concert crush outside the building on Dec. 3, 1979. "The Rising Tour" had limited festival seating at every venue, and he won a one-time variance from the Cincinnati fire and police departments to have it here. Despite some objections, arena officials, Springsteen fans and police worked together to ensure the concert ran safely and smoothly.

2. The on-again, off-again entertainment boycott. The Cincinnati entertainment boycott got its start in 2001, when the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, spearheaded by activist Amanda Mayes, was able to get Midnight Star and the Isley Brothers to cancel appearances at Taste of Cincinnati. But it wasn't until 2002, when Bill Cosby canceled two March 15 Aronoff Center shows, that the boycott picked up steam. Hundreds of shows went on as scheduled this year, including such major R&B acts as Alicia Keys and Usher, hip-hop greats Public Enemy and gospel star Fred Hammond & Commissioned. But the boycott's sporadic victories - cancellations by Whoopi Goldberg, Wynton Marsalis and Smokey Robinson among them - kept the movement alive.

3. End of "Jazzfest." Set for July 26-27, the city's annual stadium soul festival, an event that had gone on in various forms since the early '60s, was canceled for the first time in 2002, a victim of the 2001 riots, the declining economy and boycott threats. Other promoters produced a smaller, alternative event at U.S. Bank Arena, but the future of the show as a stadium concert remains in question.

4. MidPoint Music Festival. Rock showcases had been attempted here before, modeled on Austin's South X Southwest, the daddy of them all. But on Sept. 26-28, MidPoint, arriving at the peak of concern over the declining downtown and the entertainment boycott, was in the right place at the right time. For the first time, Mayor Luken, Cincinnati City Council and corporate Cincinnati took official notice of the Tristate's alternative-rock scene.

If MidPoint organizers Sean Rhiney and Bill Donabedian can build on that for 2003, it could speed the comeback of downtown nightlife and, according to Richard Florida, professor of regional economic development at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, attract the hip, young "creative class" that has powered such dynamic cities as Seattle and Austin.

5. The new Blue Wisp. For much of the year, the future of downtown Cincinnati's foremost jazz joint was in jeopardy. Forced to vacate its Garfield Place address after 13 years, would it move to the Aronoff district, across the river to Newport, or would owner Marjean Wisby just close up shop?

In mid-September, the new Wisp opened at 318 E. Eighth and the place has never been busier, the crowds bigger and younger. Jam sessions for weekday happy hours, national acts on weekends and a new-talent showcase on Thursdays. It's not just good news for jazz fans, it's good news for anyone who cares about city life.

6. Teen pop goes bust, Local heartthrobs 98 went on "hiatus" as the boy-band biz went the way of Enron. 'NSync's Justin Timberlake and Backstreet Boy Nick Carter went the solo route as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera tried to distance themselves from their Mouseketeer roots with revealing outfits. Meanwhile, their former pre-teen fans had already moved on to the pop-punk scene and bands like Sum 41 and Blink 182.

7. Diva meltdown. It was the year reality TV shows desperately imitated show business (American Idol), so it was fitting that show biz imitated reality shows, as noted divas confessed to various dysfunctions.

Mostly, though, they were queens of denial, from Whitney Houston confessing to a little drug use to Mariah Carey taking every talk-show opportunity to admit to "exhaustion." But of course, they were just trying to sell their mediocre new "product."

The King of Diva Meltdown was Michael Jackson. We thought we'd seen it all, but he managed to get even weirder. He seemed to be everywhere: accusing Sony music head Tommy Mottola of racism when his unlistenable Invincible failed to become a big seller. Then it was off to Europe to dangle one of his display children over the heads of fans.

8. Down From the Mountain, up the charts. There was plenty of great music in 2002. Newcomer Norah Jones, Wilco's brilliant experiment in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the Roots' Phrenology all showed that even today, sometimes the music really does matter.

But for sheer emotional power and total lack of star attitude, the event of the year was July 9's "Down From the Mountain Tour" at U.S. Bank Arena. The Grammy album of the year, the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack came alive in performances by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Chris Thomas King, Norman Blake and Ralph Stanley, who combined with like-minded artists Patty Loveless, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury for an unforgettable evening of down-home country, bluegrass and blues. The music-among-friends mood could be seen as soon as one entered the building to find Mr. Stanley manning the souvenir booth, signing programs.

That bluegrass revival spread far beyond O Brother, as an unlikely coalition of young hippies, country folks and alt-roots fans brought bluegrass and old-time country to their biggest-ever popularity.

9. Rock revival. It was a pretty good year for local rock bands. July For Kings released its MCA debut, while Pay the Girl recorded for TVT and then risked its rock credibility by touring with Shakira.

But as rock returned, the big winner was the Greenhornes, who rode to national recognition on the punky, garage-rock movement led by the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines and the White Stripes. It's the same British invasion-styled, grungy psychedelia the Greenhornes have been dishing out in local clubs for the last five years, but timing is everything. Little Steven is a fan and spins them on his syndicated radio show; their music is on a Jack Daniel's commercial and their third album, Dual Mono, ended the year at the No. 9 spot on Entertainment Weekly's "Best of 2002" list.

10. Long live the King of Cincinnati. Nothing symbolized Cincinnati's apathy toward its popular music as much as its ignoring King Records, the city's single biggest contribution to the popular music of the world.

The first important independent label after World War II, King, owned by maverick businessman Syd Nathan, ruled the early R&B charts, paved the way for rock 'n' roll, pioneered the country music house-band system that became known as "the Nashville Sound" and released some of the most memorable songs of the mid-20th century. The label also was an integration pioneer, as black and white musicians worked together in the studio, often under African-American producers such as the late Henry Glover.

But until this year, there was little official recognition of that status. It began in March, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame joined with the Enquirer Pop Music Awards (the Cammys) to honor some of the musicians who played a role in the label's success, from funk stars such as Bootsy Collins to session drummer Philip Paul.

Then the Inclusion Network released its King Records tribute, Hidden Treasures, a CD that found Mr. Collins and Mr. Paul joining with such notable King fans as Peter Frampton, Over The Rhine and Blessid Union of Souls to pay tribute to the label and such great King songs as "Fever," "Hide Away," "The Twist" and "Train Kept A Rollin'."

In 2003, Ohio's Bicentennial year, plans are afoot to finally erect that long-overdue historical marker on the old King building in Evanston.


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Film: A sequel and a superhero fly high
Theater: A tough, eventful act to follow on stages
Popular Music: Rock rules, teen pop cools, King Records reigns
Classical Music: Great performances thrilled large and small crowds
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