Around dawn on March 9 last year, a truck and its raised trailer smashed into a pedestrian bridge overpass on I-90 just outside Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood. The freeway was shut down for days. Much of the area lost power as a result of the destruction.
Justin and Allie Markert, waking up at their AsiaTown loft that morning, panicked.
"You couldn't get to the Beachland unless you were really, really intent on getting there," Allie says. Turns out, lots of people were.
Eager music fans arrived, traversing tortuous backroads and navigating North Collinwood potholes to get their fix. This was, after all, the inaugural Cellar Door Rendezvous. The Markerts, principals of local music promoter Cellar Door Cleveland, handled damage control for the second day of the festival and eventually settled their nerves after seeing the crowds. The bands kicked ass. The Beachland welcomed weary travelers with open arms and fresh suds at the bar. And Justin and Allie Markert notched a blissful success in what was to be a very important year.
Fast-forward to March 2014. The couple is hanging out in the back corner of Gillespie's Map Room on West Ninth Street, armed with excitement about the next incarnation of the Rendezvous. The whole shebang is back. A quick glance across the handbill shows that Cellar Door is reaching further this time, centripetally reeling in the cream of the Cleveland crop.
"As a testament to the strength of the Cleveland music community, we decided not to book any bands from last year's event with the exception of the artists on our label, to prove just how much is happening here," Justin says.
With the exception of the four bands that fall under their own label — Seafair, the Commonwealth, Ohio Sky, and So Long, Albatross — this year's Rendezvous presents a totally different roster than the 2013 outing.
Friday boasts the Lighthouse and the Whaler, Captain Kidd, the Commonwealth, Tom Evanchuck, Likenesses, Ottawa, Midnight Passenger, Rob Duskey and James Douglas. Then, on Saturday, you've got Seafair, Ohio Sky, Thaddeus Anna Greene, Suede Brothers, So Long Albatross, These Knees, NOMADs, Morgan Mecaskey and Extra Medium Pony. This festival is a real whopper of a sequel.
Last year's Cellar Door efforts primed the pump for such heights. By the time we all tossed away our 2013 calendars, things had become bigger and better on every plane for the fledgling team.
"The focus was on our online magazine and establishing ourselves," Allie says, as Justin follows up with the phrase "brand awareness." They convened a masthead of contributing writers (Eddie Fleisher, Rachel Hunt, Jacqueline Bon, Brandon Lichtinger, Liz Fox, Angela Bilancini) and spotlit the longform work of features writer Nikki Delamotte. Co-founder Rick Fike, working from Massachusetts, is still with the team in somewhat of a soundboard role. Justin and Allie continue to run everything else — the planning, promoting, editing, and record label operating. As the whole team eyes 2014, there's only more good work to be done on the horizon.
"Now we have more of a focus on specifically these four bands we've signed and creating more of a presence nationally for them," Allie says. Ohio Sky is a terrific example. They'll be recording their next album in Chicago shortly with producer Steve Albini.
"That's going to be exciting," Justin says. "They're kind of a larger-than-life band. They have the abilities and potential to do bigger things. I'm not saying leave Cleveland, but get bigger than Cleveland. It's going to be a fun challenge to kind of flex our muscles in that department."
Beyond the inner circle of Cellar Door Cleveland, Justin and Allie are using this year's festival as a means to highlight bands that are new even to them. Midnight Passenger, for example, has been quietly making waves across the city. Their 2012 EP Long Time Waiting is a high-energy sampling of Midwest indie rock. "Really nice guys and really great musicians," Allie says. They're ones to look out for.
Likewise, Likenesses have been cropping up at various intervals for nearly a year now. Congregating as past members of other bands, the musicians in Likenesses are garnering praise from many, even after just a handful of gigs at places like Happy Dog and Pat's in the Flats.
Whether via the annual Rendezvous or the host of other local music spotlight events in town — Brite Winter, Weapons of Mass Creation, Ingenuity, Waterloo Arts — Clevelanders are being exposed to fresh sounds at unprecedented rates. This city, in some versions of the tale, was built on rock 'n' roll. That legacy is still going strong. Consider the fine folks at Cellar Door your tour guides on this aural adventure.
"We were talking the other day about how everybody's so into 'local,'" Allie says. "You know, shopping local, local coffee roasters, local brewers, and everything. I feel like local music is slowly but surely getting there."
This weekend's get-together at the Beachland will display as much. There's something really special about a sold-out, packed-house crowd tuning in avidly as those awesome musicians from rightdownthestreet throw down a show with unparalleled energy. You might just find your new favorite band.