The Esoteric struggles to use its music to triumph over tragedy.

From the Ashes 

The Esoteric struggles to use its music to triumph over tragedy.

The Esoteric is defeated.

At least that's the way things look two hours before the Lawrence metal band takes the stage at the Setlist in Warrensburg on March 1. The bar is mostly empty. The streets are quiet. But the Esoteric is here, literally if not figuratively.

It's been a hell of a week. Eight days earlier, the Esoteric's home, studio and practice space burned to the ground, leaving three members homeless. Faulty electrical wiring was reportedly to blame. But the band is shouldering the burden.

The bar at the Setlist is the only thing keeping guitarist Cory White, drummer Marshall Kilpatrick and bassist Anthony Diale from crumpling to the floor. All three are slumped in their stools, heads buried in folded arms. They look up only to take swigs from cans of PBR before reintroducing their foreheads to the bar. They look like shit.

"It's still pretty devastating," singer Steve Cruz told me the day before. "We're just trying to keep our shit together."

And they have. Remarkably well considering they lost nearly everything in the early-morning blaze -- including their equipment and the computer hard drives that held virtually all of the music files the Esoteric and its assorted side projects have ever created.

Cruz was the only band member awake at 820 Ohio when the fire started, around 3 a.m. on February 22. He was watching Donnie Darko with a friend when he noticed a peculiar smell. Kilpatrick was asleep. Guitarist Eric Graves was at a friend's house. Cruz got up to investigate the smell and found that the door leading downstairs from the kitchen was scalding. He grabbed a towel and turned the knob.

"My first thought was, Oh, shit, the gear's down there," Cruz says. "Actually, I wasn't thinking. When I opened the door, smoke just came pouring out. Fire was going up the walls."

There was just enough time to get everyone out.

"We could still hear the movie playing as we stood outside in our underwear watching it all go up in flames," Cruz says.

What wasn't scorched by fire was destroyed by water. Graves, Cruz and Kilpatrick found themselves without a home. Without clothes. Without the means for their livelihood. Since then, band members have subsisted on the compassion of family, friends, fans and strangers.

A tall jar labeled "Esoteric Donations" sits on the bar at the Setlist between votive candles paying homage to San Martin Caballero, the patron saint of those who hope that strangers will aid them.

"I think what we feel right now is grateful and fortunate to be part of such a great community," Cruz says. "I'm overwhelmed by how compassionate people have been. I'm really taken aback. We had no idea how much help we'd receive."

The Red Cross helped with food and hotel vouchers. The folks at the Black Lodge recording studio let band members stay in the studio's apartment. Friends donated some equipment, and the band borrowed some more. Because the show had to go on.

"I'll just warn y'all -- we haven't practiced in a while," Cruz tells the crowd at the Setlist. "All the support all around has been so overwhelming and so fucking cool. Thank you, guys."

With that, the quintet launches viciously into its hour of reprieve using gear from opening act Eyes of the Betrayer. The crowd -- even one presumably accustomed to hardcore acts going from 0 to 60 in 3.2 screams -- seems caught off guard by the burst of energy.

Young men who seemed broken by fate moments earlier are suddenly very much alive. Kilpatrick is a flurry of dreads and drumsticks. Graves, Diale and White pinball off one another, their guitars sparring and jousting and whirling. Cruz kneels at the edge of the stage, shrieking what sounds like We're not dead! We're not dead! We're not dead!

Far from it, though the band's musical precision is clearly wounded by little sleep and no practice. Despite the group's frenetic energy, each member seems a half-step behind one another, out of sync. Between songs, they adjust their instruments and discuss keys and chords.

"Do you guys mind if we play some Misfits songs instead of Eso songs?" Cruz asks the crowd midway through the set. "I think we know them a little better right now."

That's probably because three days after the fire, the band was back onstage at the Bottleneck playing with borrowed equipment under its Misfits-cover-band alter ego Last Caress. The following day, the five drove to Wichita to play another Last Caress show. No home. No equipment. No problem.

"It felt great," Cruz says later. "It was the best thing for us."

It's a credit to the Esoteric for even stepping onstage. Not that canceling the band's national tour was ever an option.

"There was never any doubt about going on with it," Cruz says. "It's pretty hard to go on tour without any equipment ... but what else can we do? Going out and playing every night and focusing on the music will be really therapeutic. That's probably a healthier spot to be in than to sit around here and mope."

"It's rough," Diale admits. "It was a direct hit. We don't really have anything, in terms of our equipment and a place to practice. But it makes me feel better to play. Which is easy for me to say -- I didn't live there. But I think everybody wants to put it behind them ... and this -- playing shows -- is probably the best way to do that."

The Esoteric has a new album to support -- With the Sureness of Sleepwalking is due out on Prosthetic Records on April 19 -- and after the band plays Thursday at El Torreon, it's on to places such as Denver, Boise, Reno and Sacramento before returning to Lawrence on March 30 for a fire-recovery benefit show. But even though the members are reminded of what they lost every time they plug in someone else's equipment, they also are reminded of what remains.

"We still have a band," Cruz says. "We still have our music. And now what we're doing just seems that much more vital."

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