Last week on KKFI's Wednesday Midday Medley, I heard host Mark Manning ask his guest if he thought he fit into the "Kansas City sound." Both Manning and the guest were ultimately unable to define this "sound," which I thought at one point (like, seven years ago) was a kind of sludgy mix of post-hardcore and rough rockabilly but really, what do I know? Times, they definitely have changed.
On the same radio show, Manning did an interview with 23-year-old singer-songwriter Mat Shoare in which he sounded like a hopeful, thoughtful young chap with a sensible head on his shoulders, humble in the ways of navigating the life of a local musician. It was with that in mind that I listened to his set that opened the evening at Californos. It was earnest; with his floppy hair and 12-string guitar, Shoare sat on a stool and belted out love songs, many of which ended abruptly. He performed two ambitious covers - "Exit Music (for a Film)" by Radiohead and Three Dog Night's "One Is the Loneliest Number" - both a testament to his ample crooning abilities. Part of the Golden Sound Records tribe, Shoare is also a member of the Empty Spaces, a pop band that seems to have woven itself into this "Kansas City sound." His solo catalog, however, full of high notes (a la Andrew Bird or a young Jeff Buckley) is probably best heard on a stage more intimate than the one outside Californos.
I can't remember the last time I listened to a jazz band as hard as I listened to Shades of Jade, a four-piece that classifies itself as "neo-soul." Without any vocals, the members of SOJ went at it, producing a sound that was both urgent and slightly cacophonous. Their online bio says they're "blending the energy and feel of R&B music of the 90's with the traditional Kansas City roots of Jazz from the 40's to the late 60's." But I had a difficult time navigating that description. I tried not looking at the band to see if I could feel the sound better. I drank another Michelob Ultra. I talked to a friend. Finally, I deduced that the sound of SOJ best equated to really diggin' into a fat piece of jazz pie, juices running down your face, but instead of reaching for a paper towel, you keep eating more. Dirty, dirty music but dirty in the instrumental way, not necessarily R. Kelly or Bobby Brown. Trumpet player Josh Williams and keyboardist Desmond Mason worked the audience, hoping for what Williams referred to as "accolades," so that they could get their work on "wax." I suspect any record producer would happily accept the challenge.
There was a lull in the energy of the Californos patio due to the absence of St. Dallas & the Sinners, but all was forgotten as Brandon Draper and his drums took the stage. Draper is an extremely dynamic musician. He goes back and forth between high-level drum-and-bass and looped, solid trancy grooves that sound like they belong on the dance floor of a sexy Vegas nightclub. The 11 p.m. hour had approached, the clouds had lifted, and Draper had no problem drawing in eager listeners. Everything he performed (alongside his bass player) was improvised, making the experience even more impressive. He beat on those drums for a solid hour, sweat flying while people stood agape. Before ending, he switched to a Brazilian beat. "I think you're going to like it," he told the audience. My jaw doesn't drop very often, but Brandon Draper really stuck it to me Friday night. That man is a precious gem in the KC jewelry box.
Singer-songwriter Ben Moats closed out the evening. He played an acoustic guitar with a looping pedal and was able to retain some of the Brandon Draper thunder. He got a couple of girls dancing with mellowed-out ballads and a voice that I thought sounded like a deeper shade of David Gray. Also, Ben Moats is kind of hot in a rustic, bearded sort of way. I suppose that will help his commerical appeal if his music is ever picked up for a Verizon Wireless or U.S. Postal Service advertisement. I looked at his website while I was listening to his smooth tunes and learned he's from Weeping Water, a very small eastern Nebraska town with a large limestone quarry and a legend about warring Native Americans whose squaws shed so many tears that they formed a stream which ran into the valley. If that's really true, then apparently Ben Moats was really destined to become a heartfelt musician. Homeboy has soul.
And so does KC.