The Best Concerts of the Year: Alex Cameron at SoupFest

Music Features Alex Cameron
The Best Concerts of the Year: Alex Cameron at SoupFest

On my last day living in Columbus, Ohio, my feet are soaked in puddles of Pabst Blue Ribbon and my body is engulfed in the fumes of award-winning Creamy Tomato Tortellini. There are no windows in sight, only dudes wearing bandanas and coffee mugs cuffed to carabiners dangling from belt loops. Someone examines the small pond of PBR beside me and gently places a stack of paper towels over it. They plop their foot down on the towels, do one or two side-to-sides, and call it a day. I wear a Big Dog sweatshirt yet couldn’t foresee the sheer amount of heat that would teem at the center of the dancefloor, a slab of hardwood stained and splintered like a mid-century gym basketball court straight out of Hoosiers.

To set the scene, one must first understand that I’m not at a regular concert or festival. No, this is SoupFest: A menagerie of delicatessen broths and impenetrable vibes, not Coachella or Pitchfork Festival. Those institutions could never mimic the raucous bellows of central Ohioans, nor should they ever attempt to do so. Names from lineup cards of SoupFest past include Christian Lee Huston, Runnner, Skullcrusher, Bartees Strange, and Spencer Radcliffe. It’s an immaculate assembly of kooky people and indie darlings, a match made in unimaginable heaven. SoupFest is the pinnacle of Midwestern flamboyancy: A few hundred people chanting “Soup! Soup! Soup!” over and over again under a disco ball and six chandeliers. If you believe in a higher power, perhaps you will also believe that it took a touch of God to make Valley Dale Ballroom the only place on Earth that mattered on April 30th, 2022.

When the Valley Dale Ballroom was built along the winding tar of Sunbury Road in Northeast Columbus in 1925, it became a national hub for Big Bands and jazz perennials in the Great Depression’s death rattle. Ragtime dignitaries like Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey graced the stage once upon a time, long before you and much longer before me. In 1966, five months prior to releasing their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico played a set there. In 1985, the city of Columbus deemed the ballroom to be of historical importance. What a beautiful thing: a concert hall done up like a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere, at least in the suburban, metropolitan sense, meeting the gazes of the city’s finest music spots, like the Newport or the Athenaeum.

The pipeline from Exploding Plastic Inevitable alumni to off-kilter amalgamations of broth, veggies, and finely-sliced meats is barely a car length. Warhol himself is infamous for making a lot of money from printing Campbell’s cans on canvases in 1962 because he loved soup. Thus, it only makes sense that one of his most beloved creation, the greatest American rock band ever, first touched and blessed the Valley Dale Ballroom stage 56 years before SoupFest would line the balconies with crock pots and banquet warmers.

SoupFest started at an ambitious 1 PM, but many attendees arrived much earlier than that. I’ve only just now made my appearance at 7:45 PM, as my Uber pulls up to a parking lot full of soup disciples having a smoke or a vape near the Ayy! Karamba food truck. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where my body has most certainly been keeping the score, and I often don’t ever have enough spoons to sit through a two-hour show, let alone a full day’s worth of tunes. I maxed out my credit card paying for tickets to the gig, my last, only somewhat-stupid purchase in the Arch City.

The headliner of SoupFest is Alex Cameron—the enigmatic Aussie storyteller who first forged his name in contemporary rock ’n’ roll by taking on the role of a gonzo journalist or method actor—and his business partner, the saxophonist Roy Molloy. Cameron’s sophomore album, Forced Witness, is particularly colorful, given that he assumes the personas of hideous men in the cesspits of the world. The songs are plush, glitzy synth tunes conjuring Breakfast Club-level fist pumps. It’s one of the best pop releases of the last 10 years, and one of my favorite records ever.

His spot at SoupFest coincides with a tour he’s currently on for his newest project, Oxy Music, a wide commentary on drug addiction, particularly in New York City. In 2019 he stepped out of the shoes of others and placed himself under the microscope on Miami Memory, with a batch of tunes about being in a relationship with actress Jemima Kirke, whose kids he now thinks of his own, and holding himself, his friends, and his past accountable. Thus, Cameron’s turn on Oxy Music registers a profound, enigmatic story. When I interviewed Cameron last winter about the record, it was clear he hoped he could milk the blurred lines of fact and fiction for as long as possible, and it’s a part of his artistry I’ve long admired. It’s clear that addiction has impacted Cameron in many ways, which has allowed his songwriting to have a certain kind of untapped nuance, but that relationship wasn’t explicitly understood and didn’t translate to high review scores.

Perhaps Oxy Music was met with little critical fanfare because pairing Cameron’s wry humor with tales from a national epidemic can make for a jarring listening experience. Oxy Music is a folk record lyrically, as it transcribes the straits of the highly politicized war on fentanyl. An image like “codeine ragu” is not the Frank O’Hara type of romantic language that someone might require in order to listen to a song about addiction. He’s in his Roxy Music era, hence the album’s title, and he wants to make grim songs with catchy choruses. If you didn’t buy into the work he put in on Forced Witness, it’s fair to assume the same went for you and Oxy Music, too. Cameron’s not an acquired taste. You either like his gritty, grimy oral history of the world, or you don’t.

Since 2017, Cameron has been paring his synth tricks down to computerized loops by narrowing his immediate focus to harmonies. It’s all come to a head on Oxy Music. Take “Sara Jo” or “Cancel Culture,” for example. Both tracks are minimally arranged but can widen any room with how precise and malleable Cameron’s vocals are. Oxy Music sounds like the product of a musical duo who, at any point, might be tasked with playing on stage without a backing band, which is an ongoing reality in a world where we are still fighting against COVID-19 and touring musicians are fighting tooth and nail for gigs and support. For SoupFest, Cameron and Molloy flew out from Los Angeles by themselves. No merch, no sound guys, just a laptop and a saxophone. It’s akin to the shows they performed when they were relatively unknown and opening for The Killers in big venues across the United States six years ago.

My buddy Evan Harris, a God-like figure in the world of soup, who has the charisma of a titan, is emceeing the festivities. He’s noticeably tired from running around all day helping out with anything he can, but, as he’s about to introduce Cameron and Molloy, a bit of awe gets caught in his eyes. For the first time the entire day, he gets to cool down and enjoy some music from the pit. Like everyone else, from the first beat loop that poured out a MacBook sitting atop a table, he was mystified. “Alex’s eye contact and movement seemed to send a clear message to everyone that, despite six hours of day drinking, it was time to shut the fuck up and watch the show,” Harris says. “It was mesmerizing.” It’s hard to not keep your eyes hooked on Cameron, a lanky white man seductively, and goofily, shimmying across the stage.

As Cameron emerged from backstage, he did so in a pair of black slacks, a teal button down, stately loafers, and a white tank top that’s already sweaty. Molloy sports some tour-weathered business attire. He begins singing to a sea of drunk, hopeful Ohioans with bellies full of soup. And, in the most Alex Cameron way, he begins his set with “Happy Ending,” an ode to handjobs backed by a soundscape apt enough for a scene from TRON.

When Cameron released Jumping the Shark in 2016, he presented himself as a washed-up lounge singer. From the get-go, he sang from the end of his rope. Six years later, he’s not washed-up, only weathered. His performances have always been a meticulous art piece. When we spoke to each other about Oxy Music, Cameron was already thinking about how to move his body in rhythm with the music and how much, or how little, skin to show over the course of a show. SoupFest didn’t get the above-and-beyond theatrics that other cities did in 2022, but that’s what makes the set all the more special. The idea that a couple of guys made a quick trip to Ohio, delivered a scaled back, electric performance to a hundred-ish people, and then bailed is mythical.

“Eating your ass like an oyster / The way you came like a tsunami,” Cameron croons in unison with a laughing crowd during “Miami Memory.” After enjoying the first few songs right by the stage, my partner and I take to the balcony to get away from the heat and sweat. I get distracted, thinking about my dog at the kennel or the last remnants of my possessions sitting in the dark living room of a duplex I no longer have to pay to live in. The disco ball spiraling above brings me back into focus, as it drops blots of light onto the people below us. Remnants of soup still linger, as some folks left a few stray bowls and warmers behind. We grab some extra mugs and stickers while, in the way back of the crowd, a young couple slowdances to “K Hole.” Molloy is given a SoupFest bandana from someone in the crowd and he wears it around his head for the entire gig.

Cameron takes long pauses in between songs. There is as much banter as there is music. You can tell he’s jet lagged and maybe even a bit taken aback by the audience he’s performing for. He nurses a beer before taking a break in the set to let Molloy have a moment in the spotlight. Instead of offering gratitude or gushing over the festival, Molloy instead goes into a full-blown critique of the stool provided to him for the performance. It’s round and blue, speckled with white. You can see the cushion’s well-loved wear from afar. He gives the stool a 5/5, a rarity in the Molloy grading scale.

For “Stranger’s Kiss,” Cameron’s duet partner Angel Olsen is nowhere to be found, so he decides to pull a woman out of the crowd to join him. It’s the best moment of the show, because the audience member is a beautiful singer who is so clearly in love with Cameron’s work that it doesn’t matter if she flubs a line or a beat. At SoupFest, nothing is perfect. She feels the lyrics in her soul and thus, the alchemy she shares with Cameron on stage is immense and everlasting.

There is no setlist printed out and taped to the stage. No real linear timeline or thesis to the songs Cameron chooses to sing. At one point, he asks the crowd what they want to hear. When he ends the show, it almost feels like he’s made it to a point where he doesn’t feel like playing anymore. It wasn’t a show dedicated to promoting Oxy Music. He played all the hits from a six-year catalog. By the show’s end, there was this exhausted energy mulling around in the air, that everyone was tired. I think Cameron picked up on that feeling, that SoupFest had taken all it needed from him and it was time to do the next thing.

But in truth, I don’t remember nearly enough of Cameron’s set as I do other shows I’ve been to in my life. I think that’s what makes it so great, how it’s become folklore even in my own mind. 332,278,000 people didn’t see Alex Cameron play at SoupFest. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t one of them! I remember a discourse about the soups, and how Cameron brought one of the category winners on stage, hugged her and led a “Soup!” chant in her honor. “I can safely say this is one of the strangest shows I’ve ever played,” he said after a “Soup!” chant unfurled after he played “K Hole.” I know the roars of Molloy’s saxophone comprised the grand finale that took us all home.

SoupFest came about when, in 2017, Nick “Miklos” Battaglia and Jake Sekas approached Harris about throwing him a soup festival. “It stemmed from a really dumb bit where I was checking into restaurants in Columbus on Facebook and repeatedly taking pictures of myself eating their soups,” Harris tells me. “The initial intent was to throw a fun-ass party during the dreary, cold lull between the holidays and spring and donate profits to local soup kitchens.” But when Battaglia passed away from an accidental overdose in 2019, right before the first ever “ticketed” SoupFest event, Harris and Sekas’ vision began to shift. According to Harris, the initial mission still holds true, but now the organization has changed the direction of their donations. While much of the financial revenue is still going to places that aid those impacted by food scarcity and houselessness, SoupFest has since started working with the Alcohol Drugs and Mental Health board of Franklin County, with the help of the Battaglia family.

The 2022 incarnation of SoupFest, in particular, was an important one for Harris and Sekas, and booking Cameron as their headliner goes farther back than most people know. After Battaglia passed away, some of Harris’ friends got him out of the house and to the A&R Music Bar in downtown Columbus. The main event? Alex Cameron performing songs from Miami Memory. “We cried, danced, and sang along that night, and it brought a shimmer of light into life for a bit,” Harris says. “It was pretty cool seeing it all come full circle.” There was a table just off to the side of the pit reserved for Battaglia in perpetuity. Folks were mindful not to bump into it while they dance and sing. They knew the importance and sought to preserve it. I never knew Battaglia, but, for a few hours, SoupFest made me believe we’d crossed paths, if only just once some time ago, or in another life.

Outside, Molloy shares a smoke with a group of fans. The stars are out and you can hear the aftershocks of a booming downtown, as many Ohio State students are occupying the bars in the Short North once last time before heading home for the summer. Everyone in this parking lot isn’t in much of a rush to leave, either. I’ve tapped SoupFest dry, so I call an Uber; it takes me and my partner back to my empty apartment. Only a couch and some boxes remain there. I decide to pack my car up in the morning and, instead, retreat to my partner’s place on the other side of Columbus for the night. Cameron heads to Oldfields, a college bar on 4th Street, to sing “Gloria” at karaoke with the SoupFest organizers, and stays until close. Tomorrow, after two years holed up alone in two different apartments, I will be gone from this city forever with a bank account resting at $0. No one will ever know I lived in Columbus, Ohio. If you tell anyone about what you saw at SoupFest, it’s likely they won’t believe you were ever there, either.

Matt Mitchell is a poet, essayist, and culture critic from Northeast Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in MTV, Pitchfork, Paste, Catapult, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.

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