Somewhere between the band's final note and its first piece of equipment removed from the stage, a friend or relative of the musicians inevitably poses that question. "OK, so you hated it?" is the petulant follow-up to anything but a "Yes, yes, oh God, yes!" response to the initial inquiry. For observers who have already invested personal passion in the performance or the performers, those are the only possible assessments. Every opinion must be expressed as either a vow of awestruck devotion or an accusation of soul-deadening suckitude.
In reality, out of about 250 shows a year, I could honestly answer yes to either query only about five times -- any more would be straining for superlatives. More than any other art form, music operates on a mediocrity continuum. Of the more than 2,000 records released annually, only a handful are categorically excellent or unspeakably awful. Glossy magazines that use star-system ratings know this, which is why they grant generous space to remastered classics (five stars for Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan!) and albums obviously outside their coverage range (Blender says one star for Amy Grant!).
In music, star ratings are inherently misleading because, counterintuitive as it might be, barely below-average bands are actually less essential than the infuriatingly lame. By any criteria, Starship and Spin Doctors are two of the most atrocious acts ever unleashed on the American public, but their bombastic, tuneful songs were ingratiating enough that people who do not undergo some sort of mind-cleansing therapy will remember them. By contrast, competent yet nondescript songs sink instantly into oblivion.
Tellingly, the most hated local bands -- the Get Up Kids, Moaning Lisa and Anything But Joey -- craft memorable hooks and perform energetically. Jealousy issues and pop-phobia aside, people seem to resent these groups because their songs refuse to be ignored. It might be annoying to hear "Girl Roommate" on an infinite loop inside your mind, let alone on the Buzz, but to make a quality judgment based on that inconvenience would be folly.
If anything, Kansas City could use more bands with the kind of spark these acts display. Forget the sound and just think of the live shows -- scissor-kicks, windmill guitars, lots of audience participation. Many of the same groups that consider themselves above catchy choruses also consider these interactive elements beneath them. No one wants to see groups going through these motions in a calculated attempt to connect with crowds, but it's difficult for spectators to develop feelings for a group that doesn't seem especially interested in its own songs. To get average people out of the house, ordinary bands must do something extraordinary.
Pulling a name out of a hat, let's take Day Shift Strippers, a group that plays alterna-metal in the Faith No More vein. The amiable singer introduces almost every song, saving an especially long preface for "Eyes of Dolls," a number about a young boy gouging his toys' ocular sockets. (Sadly, it's not sung to the tune of "Guys and Dolls.") The band's still-developing songwriting skills make its output less than the sum of its members' instrumental talents. More damningly, its sets contain little incentive for the uninterested. It's easy to imagine the excuses. Kinda like Faith No More? I'll wait for one of Mike Patton's projects to come to town, thanks. Long song explanations? I'll stay at home and watch Storytellers.
During FNM's "Epic" era, Patton was utterly unhinged on stage, bouncing into his bandmates and twirling his hair precariously close to rotating fan blades. The Strippers could use more of that kind of release, and they could also use some show, not tell, during the "Eyes of Dolls" story. If they had a filmstrip, or even some dolls with X-ed-out eyes to serve as a visual aid, people would start talking after the show. Understandably, many musicians are too protective of their integrity to resort to all-out, Slipknot-style gimmickry, but even small doses of spectacle serve as goodwill gestures and word-of-mouth fodder. Without a "you won't believe what I saw" element of intrigue, fan bases grow at a painfully glacial pace.
The local bands of the past that people actually loved weren't afraid to be different, either in terms of compositional originality or unprecedented presentation. Big Jeter, To Conquer, Shiner, Giant's Chair -- all were able to develop go-to-every-show disciples. Plenty of people hated each of these acts, but others adored them, and that situation is preferable to a pretty-good/didn't-care split. Bands that take risks earn fans; the rest merely have support systems.