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Hell Is Ohio or Heaven on Earth: Part 1

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

You likely already heard, but Hell Is Ohio Fest was a resounding success. However, I am not going to lie to you. The week leading into the festival was anxiety-inducing—to say the least— and things were looking pretty bleak at one point. The inaugural festival was plagued with lineup changes from the beginning. Luckily, the headliners stayed locked in as smaller up-and-coming bands dropped or were added in the weeks leading up to the festival. Costs were rising as the price of gasoline climbed precipitously, and unexpected expenses continued to spring up daily. Then the sworn nemesis of live music reared its ugly head: Covid-19.

Brandon and I attended a show at Summit Music Hall the week before the show. The next day, the lead singers of two of the three bands who performed that night would fall ill and test positive for Covid. One of these bands, The Plan B’s, which my husband plays in, was slated to play Hell Is Ohio. The Plan B’s had to be removed from the festival lineup, it was a heartbreaking decision for everyone involved, yet it was the right thing to do.

A few days later, a second member of the Plan B’s would test positive, and another band would have to drop due to Covid-19. I can tell you plenty of things about Brandon Lewis. Punkerton Records and Bands in the Bus have a very close, mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, and at times, we even act as unofficial business partners. Lewis has an unwavering code of ethics, and I can honestly say that you don’t truly know someone until they are faced with the possibility of losing everything overnight. Brandon was ready to pull the plug on Hell Is Ohio, which would negate everything he had built over the better part of a year—if it meant protecting the scene from a super-spreader event.

Luckily the scene is an environment where nearly everyone looks out for one another. With the help of a few friends and through contact tracing, Brandon was able to inform anyone involved with the festival to get tested, especially those of us who were potentially exposed at Columbus shows. Over the next few days, Brandon’s innermost circle exchanged multiple photographs of negative Covid tests via text message as we tested and retested to verify that we were all Covid-free.

It takes balls to plan a two-day independent music festival. With initially abysmal ticket sales, potential Covid exposures, and rolling blackouts affecting nearly half the bands playing your festival, it’s hard to be optimistic about your odds of success. Yet Brandon along with several other members of the scene, including myself, promoted the festival relentlessly.

Most business endeavors lose money in the first year, and most music festivals don’t live to see a second year. When Brandon Lewis started planning this festival in 2021, he did not know that the price of gasoline would double in just six months or how inflation would affect ticket sales. As the cost of making ends meet rises, it becomes harder and harder to convince the average punk to risk their hard-earned dollars on your overly ambitious endeavor. This music festival also coincided with Pride in Columbus and Father’s Day weekend, contributing to the lackluster ticket sales before the event.

The first annual Hell Is Ohio didn’t have the largest crowd, but it attracted the best crowd, which grew gradually throughout each day. Friday kicked off with Coxey’s Army, a band I have followed since their debut at Ruby Tuesday’s Live in April. Coxey’s Army is the brainchild of frontman and bassist Nate Rising and is a super-group of sorts. Through years of trial and error, this motley crew of four masterful musicians has learned what works and what doesn’t as they put in their 10,000 hours over decades. This is something that I can testify to as I was the only (future) music journalist present at what was quite possibly guitarist AJ Hutchinson’s debut performance in 1998 at the Warder Park Elementary talent show.

I used to write reviews after every show, but that format was becoming stale fast. I am working on a Coxey’s Army story now, but I am also taking the lessons I have learned from Lustkill, in particular, Joey Yates, to heart. Sometimes you have to let the story develop organically and find your voice in someone else’s music. However, I was growing concerned that this strategy could blow up in my face, at least with Coxey’s Army, until the weekend of Hell Is Ohio.

Since their debut, I knew Coxey’s Army would develop into one of the hottest bands in Columbus. With that much musical expertise, interpersonal chemistry, and songwriting talent in one band, it is only a matter of time. But how could such a perfectly polished punk band improve? Would Coxey’s Army hit a glass ceiling? I got my answer during their opening set at Hell Is Ohio.

That Friday night, Coxey’s Army played in front of a sparse crowd consisting primarily of fellow musicians from other bands and Brandon Lewis’ innermost circle. It was here that I began to see the band members’ personalities sparkle within their well-rehearsed musical compositions. Coxey’s Army is formulaic by design. Its members have spent years figuring out the juggling act of being performers, parents, partners, and well-rounded people in an increasingly complex political climate. They simply know what works and what doesn’t. This band is efficient, effective, and while entertaining, I initially feared that band suffered from some unintended sterilization. However, now that the band recognizes their remarkable cohesiveness as a unit, they’re getting comfortable enough to break out of their own formula and become fully immersed in their collective creative flow state.

Coxey’s Army took some calculated risks at Hell Is Ohio that paid off big time. Unfortunately, as the opening band during the inaugural year of a brand-new independent music festival, not enough people got to witness this more organic evolution of their signature sound. The first chapter in the rise of Coxey’s Army was meticulously drafted before the band even set foot onstage, but it came to its natural close at Hell Is Ohio. It is both bewildering and beautiful to see a band that was great since its conception become even better, and I am eager to help document their second chapter as they write its story in real-time.

The Viceroy Kings took the stage second, and this band has so much untapped potential from a marketing standpoint. If you distilled the entirety of the Ohio music scene into a singular music act, I can’t help but think that band would sound eerily similar to the Viceroy Kings. Honky-tonk enough to rock car shows in the more rural regions of the heartland, yet edgy and subversive enough to appeal to more metropolitan punks, this band is built to entertain crowds from all walks of life. Their midwestern, working-class musical stylings were complemented perfectly by their incredibly engaging showmanship and stage presence.

Friday was unseasonably warm, even for June, and when Viceroy Kings took the stage, the brutal heat of the summer sun was pounding in directly at their back. Luckily, the band came sober and/or hydrated enough to recognize what they were up against. They seemed to be incredibly conscientious of their own limits and gradually pushed the envelope as they entertained the small but growing crowd with their outstanding but calculated showmanship. If you are hosting a community event or festival of just about any variety, I highly recommend booking this particular band. They have landed on my radar, and I will be looking for them in local lineups as I hope to cover them again.

Now, I have been looking forward to seeing Some Kind of Nightmare again since March when I saw them open for Public Serpents and Escape from the Zoo. As most of you know, being a writer by trade, lyrics often bewitch me. Sadly, lyrical construction is often overlooked in hardcore music; even when hardcore bands excel at this, their lyrics tend to be overshadowed by ferocious, in-your-face music. However, because the guitarist and bassist of Some Kind of Nightmare trade off vocal duties, I think it is easier for my brain to wrap itself around the words. Some Kind of Nightmare is easily my favorite hardcore band. They may follow the traditional hardcore formula of growling vocals featuring their hallmark guttural screams, but their lyrics deliver powerful messages.

I think Some Kind of Nightmare is a band you must see multiple times before critiquing or reviewing them. There is a misconception that hardcore music lacks depth, which Some Kind of Nightmare disproves on multiple levels. Despite the brutal riffs and breakdowns played with neck-breaking speed and face-melting intensity, Some Kind of Nightmare’s music is incredibly uplifting if you give yourself the time and space to process it. The words to “Last Round” and “Germinated” take on even more meaning when one remembers their context and examines them through the lens of Chy and Molly Mess being a married couple who have endured such trials and triumphs while living their dreams as full-time touring musicians.

While their heavy chord progressions and driving bass lines hit harder than any hammer, the lyrics in many of Some Kind of Nightmare’s songs deliver hope messages. The lyrics to “Last Round” pertain to Molly’s battle with cancer, which I empathize with as a survivor. I love that such an angry hardcore band encourages us to focus on our emotional and/or spiritual growth. Some Kind of Nightmare reminds us that growing together will help us survive the turmoil of our current societal collapse and even lead to the germination of better, more equitable ideals.

Toward the end of Some Kind of Nightmare’s set, a small handful of gentlemen wearing Blue Lives Matter gear entered the venue while the band played an anti-police song. Although the timing was purely an unintended coincidence, the cultural clash created an interesting dichotomy that made some crowd members slightly uncomfortable, especially with the rise of domestic terrorism perpetrated primarily by white nationalists.

However, once these gentlemen grabbed a beer and began to acclimate themselves to the crowd, I found this particular moment and everything that followed afterwards to be what made Hell Is Ohio so endearing. These men were clearly there to see 500 Miles to Memphis and were going out of their comfort zone to do so. They had to have known that they were in an ideological minority. Yet they were respectful and even open to rocking out to a band expressing ideals that directly opposed their own while waiting for the band they wanted to see. No one gave them any attitude, and they watched Some Kind of Monster close the set with the rest of us without any issue.

And that is important. Punk rock has to be about standing in opposition to injustice, even when that requires the movement of the Overton Window. We need to be able to engage with others whose perceptions differ drastically from our own. Sometimes the best place to do this is at a punk rock show. We must trust that even when the music isn’t powerful enough to change their hearts and minds, it’s enough to start the conversation. Ultimately, this is what I loved most about Hell Is Ohio. The audience at the festival was incredibly diverse yet amazingly chill despite apparent ideological differences. As a member of the Hell Is Ohio 2 planning committee, I can tell you that inclusivity will only be expanded and emphasized further.

The crowd began to fill out significantly as 500 Miles to Memphis prepared to take the stage, nearly doubling in size in a matter of minutes, making it clear that this was very much a hometown crowd for the Cincinnati-based band. These weren’t your typical punk fans, and I doubt they would feel welcomed at a more typical punk venue like The Stoop. Perhaps a few were Reverend Horton Heat or Social Distortion fans in their youth. Still, I could tell you by the bumper stickers on their cars that many of these people are fans of what many of us scene sometimes condescendingly call “All-American Butt Rock.” This, of course, is more a critique of the commodification of art and the commercialization of the music industry during late-stage capitalism than we care to admit, but I digress. The point is the 500MtM pulls a mainstream middle American audience, and if there is any hope for the state of our union, these are the people we must “evangelize.” Otherwise, we will remain divided.

500 Miles to Memphis had an outstanding showing on the Hell Is Ohio stage, and their performance was damn near flawless. As I predicted in a prior review but can now confirm, this band sounds breathtaking in an open-air festival environment where you can hear all the unique layers in their artfully crafted musical arrangements. From the fiddle and the three uniquely tuned guitars to the mandolin and the banjo, their depth of sound was immaculately rich and varied. The band’s gift for charismatic showmanship is derived from the group’s interpersonal chemistry, and it makes their performance all the more spectacular. This band provides the entire audience with a treat for their eyes and ears without using over-the-top shenanigans.

500MTM was the perfect band to headline the festival’s opening night, and as they finished their set with a standing ovation, The Reedy Weeps prepared to take to indoor “stage” for their best performance to date. The young bucks enraptured every audience member, and I am confident that nearly everyone in the crowd stayed until the final note of their set had finished ringing out. The drinks were flowing profusely as musicians and music lovers alike ordered a final round. Some members of the crowd even started buying The Reedy Weeps drinks, unaware that only Elijah is old enough to drink. Soon the leader of the Blue Lives Matter crew was so enthralled with their performance that he was fetching the band members cups of water and actively working to prevent any liquids from spilling on the band’s equipment.

The fearsome foursome effortlessly won the hearts of all those lucky enough to witness the magic they brought to the stage that night. Like Coxey’s Army, The Reedy Weeps began their next chapter at Hell Is Ohio, where they proved that they could close a show just as well, if not better, than bands twice their age. Had this particular performance occurred in Columbus, The Reedy Weeps would have handily captured the title of #hottestbandinthebus. However, there is little doubt that they will claim the title before the year is out, especially if they continue to grow at such an exponential rate.

Thank you for checking out part one of my Hell Is Ohio review. Stay tuned for part two which will be up in the coming weeks.

Check out live performance videos from Hell Is Ohio on our YouTube channel.

Until next time, stay safe in the pit.

P.S. You can help keep Bands in the Bus free for everyone and prevent the use of pay walls by donating when, how, and what you can to our cause. Your local music scene thanks you for your support.

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