By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati's annual weekend of beer, funnel cakes and rock 'n' roll is over, but 10 years after it started, Pepsi Jammin' On Main remains a baby festival.
No one asks who's playing New Orleans' JazzFest or Memphis' Beale Street Music Festival anymore - the fests themselves are the stars. But Jammin' still sinks or swims on the strength of its headliners. This year, it sank, drawing barely 20,000 people over two nights, way down from 2002's 50,000.
Last year had John Mayer, the Roots and O.A.R. This year's biggest names were Joan Jett, Dennis DeYoung and moe.
But even if Jammin' couldn't field that one headliner who could bring people downtown, there was plenty of great music scattered around Main and Central Parkway.
Saturday is traditionally the big day for Jammin' but the early massive storms, tornado watches and hailstorm warnings made a trip to the video store seem a better option.
By the time the music started at 4 with the high school band battle, the day was beautiful, but by then, it was too late.
Those brave souls who came heard some fine new talent, from the all-woman rock band Antigone Rising to R&B diva-in-the-making Vivian Green. They both played on Hamilton County Courthouse stage, the smallest of Jammin's three stages.
That stage consistently had the day's best music, including young singer/songwriter Jason Mraz, who seems to be following the same path as Mayer, but without the heavy Dave Matthews influence.
Saturday's closing set by moe. was state-of-the-art jam-rock - rhythmic and danceable, but filled with a rich, mature musicality that sets the four-man group (which includes Cincinnatian Chuck Garvey) apart from the jam pack.
The psychodots were the best of Saturday night, showcasing the megastar singing, playing, songwriting and manic energy that has made Rob Fetters, Bob Nyswonger and Chris Arduser local heroes under various band names for more than 20 years. It was a quintessential Cincinnati experience, hearing 'dots faves like "Moaner" and "Mattress," as spotlights bathed the skyline.
Things then went from sublime to smarmy, as ex-Styx crooner Dennis DeYoung closed Saturday's main stage with a Vegas-style show that made Neil Diamond sound like Kurt Cobain. His tenor is as strong as in the late '70s, but his delivery has gotten even oilier. Things quickly turned into DeYoung and the restless, as much of his audience abandoned ship long before his "Come Sail Away" encore.
Friday's closer, Joan Jett, was a far better fit to the fest. Bleached and black leathered, she rocked the crowd hard with her '80s hits. Brit-rockers Gomez were Friday's other highlight, in a strong, diverse set at once modern and retro.
But not every Jammin' act was fest-ready. Many performers, including John Prine (in excellent voice after chronic throat problems), a solo Ben Folds and Edwin McCain, would have sounded better in an intimate, indoor venue.
The local scene did well on Jammin', from the fine high school bands that kicked off Saturday (though the best that could be said of Ozzfest wannabe Train of Thought is that they scared away the pigeons), to veteran banjo picker Taylor Farley. The latter led his Blue Rock band through a hard-driving, hard-rocking set that included bluegrass standards and covers of the surf instrumental "Wipeout" and Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."
There was fine original rock from Anonymous Bosch, Dayton's bluekarma and Premium, the last of whom got their start at the 2002 Bogart's High School Band Challenge. The Light Wires, led by singer/songwriter Jeremy Pinnell, did their superbly moody roots rock.
But there's more to the Cincinnati sound than rock. Jake Speed & the Freddies did Woody Guthrie-style folk, while Salsa Caliente turned things tropical and the Sidecars gave classic western swing a new spin.
Reggie Calloway was another local Friday highlight. His hit-filled R&B revue touched on the songs he did with his multiplatinum band Midnight Star or wrote and produced for others, including Levert's "Casanova."
The 2003 Jammin' had its local bases covered, but it really needed that "oh wow" national act to seal the deal. After downtown's boycott problems (none of which were in evidence this year) and other woes, it's become too easy for people to bypass the heart of Cincinnati. The 2004 Jammin' needs to offer folks in the 'burbs a headliner they can't refuse.
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